Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Circles of Shadows and the Holy Roman Empire

Today’s guest blog is by Imogen Robertson who talks about the background to her latest novel Circle of Shadows.  Imogen Robertson is the author of the Westerman and Crowther series.  Island of Bones the fifth book in the series was shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award in 2011.  She has also been long-listed for the 2012 Dagger in the Library for her body of work.  Circle of Shadows is the sixth book in the series

Every novel comes about through a mix of accident and design.  Circle of Shadows was born out of a very selfish desire to find out more about the Holy Roman Empire in the 18th century, a book on an alchemist who set up his own version of Freemasonry, a silver swan and a carnival mask. 

I read German at university, and while I loved the literature it was not until I picked up a short biography of Goethe recently that I realised how little I knew about the context in which his work was written.  This was also about the time that Simon Winder’s wonderful Germania came out and his colourful accounts of some of the eccentricities of the small Courts of the 18th century sharpened my appetite even more.  When the time came to start thinking of the next Westerman and Crowther mystery I knew where I wanted to set it.  The states of the Empire that make up modern Germany were packed with the sort of colours and contrasts that make research of the period such a pleasure.  I sucked in stories of cabinets of curiosity, the subtleties of social hierarchy, the forward looking rulers who aimed to be philosopher kings and those whose energy and wealth were spent purely in the pursuit of pleasure.  The accounts of British travellers of the period are wonderful - fascinated, bemused impressed and uncomprehending in turn.  What, I thought, would Harriet and Crowther make of this?  

I cannot remember how I came across Iain McCalman’s book The Seven Trials of Cagliostro, but I’m very glad that I did.  This shaman or charlatan, depending on your perspective.  He had a colourful and varied career that took him across Europe, healing the sick, growing diamonds for the Cardinal de Rohan and setting up his own version of Freemasonry on the way.  Through him I found myself tumbling into the history of Freemasonry and its many offshoots which spread across Europe in the 1700s; some mystical, some philanthropic and some political.  He also sent me off looking for the philosopher’s stone.  Most people know that Newton was a dedicated alchemist, but I admit I was surprised to discover to what degree alchemy as a practical and spiritual practice was still being pursued long after his death. 

The silver swan automaton in Bowes has been entertaining visitors to that gorgeous museum for generations.  I remember it vividly from when I was a child, and I filmed it in my previous incarnation as a children’s TV director.  I knew I wanted to have someone in the Court who was an outsider like Harriet and Crowther.  A skilled craftsman, a foreigner who shared some common ground with them would be ideal, and so Adnan and Sami brothers who design and build automata were born. 

Then finally the carnival mask.  My partner and I headed off to Germany and spent a couple of weeks travelling in and around what is now Baden-Württemberg in the South West of the country.  We fell in love with the region.  The history of this part of Germany is complex and runs deep.  We saw the plain crowns of 11th century Kings, Roman bath houses and basilicas and the great baroque palaces built in imitation of Versailles.  We also went walking in the Black Forest and found, in a beautiful town called Gengenbach, the Museum of Fools.  It celebrates the customs of carnival where people dress in the masks of witches and party through the night to prepare for the arrival of Lent.  The masks worn in this and similar festivals across the area fascinated me and I thought of a man, drugged and confused, in the midst of those celebrations believing he was surrounded by monsters, then waking under guard accused of murder and with no memory of his innocence or guilt.  I had my opening scene.  So, accident and design.  It’s like a good stew; you gather up the ingredients and simmer.

For more information about Imogen Robertson and her work see her blog and her website.

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