John Milton, Betty Neels, William of Orange

This past Tuesday, my new never-met-you-but-you-might-be-my-soulmate Twitter friend, Patricia C, linked to a tweet by Hannah VanderHart, which linked to a site called Academic Earth. This site offers crazy fantastic brain candy. Didn’t get into Yale? Always wanted to go to MIT? Now’s your chance! For free! The American Novel Since 1945 by Amy Hungerford! Literary Theory with Paul Fry! All yours for the click of a mouse. Apparently you can also take courses for credit, but I haven’t gotten that far. And whom do I need to impress with credentials at this point anyway? Plus, at my rate of intellectual digestion it would take me three years just to get through John Rogers’ Milton course.

After the holiday weekend I had every intention of hitting the ground running (I am on deadline to finish editing my second book and to get it to my agent, so she has enough time to give it a thorough read before it goes to my editor by the appointed due date of April 1). Anyway, after I linked to the Academic Earth site, I knew my morning was shot to hell. (Haha, bad pun alert). Anyway, John Rogers, Professor of English at Yale, was speaking about Books V and VI of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The lecture was 52 minutes. It took me three hours of starting and stopping and transcribing favorite lines, and just trying to listen, to get through it.

I have allowed myself (even pushed myself) to be so happily absorbed in worlds of rapid-fire correspondence (tweeting, texting, emailing) or on-the-go multi-tasking (driving, talking on the phone, and negotiating with a five year old boy to put his seat belt on), that I had almost despaired of my ability to comprehend more profoundly. Even writing books—which is necessarily thoughtful, meditative, even occasionally profound—is really more of me and my thoughts spewing from myself. To shut all that off and listen, really listen, was…debilitating.

It feels so rusty up in there. There’s no 140-character quip about Eve’s “yielding” when Adam’s “gentle hand seized her.” Rogers expounded on that for a minute. Her yielding, while seized, was still her choice…to yield. Of course, since I write primarily about relationships between men and women, which sometimes happen to take place in the bedroom, these ideas of yielding and seizing are easily translated into a language of contemporary male-female politics. That was the first of the fifty two minutes, I think. See what I mean? I finally got through it (I plan to listen again and again), and almost immediately saw different ways to use some of these Big Ideas in my books.

The book that I am in the midst of writing is about a very strong-willed woman with what might be construed as a bit of a self-destructive streak. I have written other blog posts (and entire books) about women’s desires to escape the shackles of conformity, even though that conformity might appear quite delightful and serene to the casual observer. Edenic, even. (That should be said in the Snagglepuss voice, “Heavens to Murgatroyd…even!”) So much more of Milton’s Eve will be woven into my willful, Colombian horse breeder heroine.

And Satan’s motivation for leaving heaven? Same idea. You’ve got it pretty good, dude. Why the big dust-up? Prof. Rogers talks about the moment Satan (and the rest of the archangels) are informed that God now has only one true son and that everyone should, “Under his great vicegerent reign abide…forever happy.” I could so relate to Satan’s who-are-you-to-tell-me-to-be-happy response. The Other Man in the Colombian horsewoman book is just that kind of man. He has everything that should make him happy, but he just isn’t satisfied. So he’s busy and dynamic and exciting to be around and totally wrong for her. So. That’s what I’ll be writing in March.

While all of that esoterica was shuffling about in my head, I was also very slowly, very happily reading Betty Neels’ Caroline’s Waterloo. Neels wrote over one hundred Harlequin romances over the years and she has a bit of a cult following. Her stories are nigh on interchangeable (strong-Dutch-doctor hero meets mousy-ethical-hardworking heroine), but how they get together, why, and after what trials, make each story strangely addictive. I’ve only read four, but I have four more on my desk. My husband is of Dutch ancestry (one of Neels’ heroes even shares his last name), so I am familiar with the type. And, without sounding horribly prejudiced or narrow-minded, some of those stereotypes are actually true. Men with fixed opinions. Big and brawny. An abiding respect for order.

To rationalize away my new addiction to Betty Neels I decided it was research. William of Orange was a similarly prototypical Dutch hero. Commanding. Quiet. Contemplative. A leader. I know he was flawed, and remains despised by many, but he was heroic in lots of ways. I decided last year to write my first historical novel about him. This is going to be massive and difficult so I need to do lots of forward recon. Betty Neels is a start. She is really good at writing incommunicative characters who communicate plenty in other, non-verbal ways.

For my Williamite historical, I’ve already loosely plotted out the love interest (she is French and secretly connected to the court of Louis XIV, sworn enemy of William…but of course William is not free to do anything until after the death of Mary…and even then…well, questions about his sexuality linger). Anyway, I have started reading The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century (which, of course, aforementioned Dutch-extraction husband already owns) in fits and starts, looking for clues into William’s personality. There are religious, political, dynastic, and international factors that will come into play. I feel pretty much overwhelmed at this point. But as long as I feel like little bits of particulate ideas and story-matter are floating around and I can look at them and think how they might relate to William, I feel like the story is gradually solidifying in my mind.

So after a few weeks of feeling disjointed and all-over-the-map, all of a sudden everything seems to relate. I just needed to remind myself that there is connective tissue all around us all the time. I just had to allow myself to dismiss the supposed incongruity and begin to put it all together as I see it. And if one or two other people happen to think about things like Snagglepuss and Milton in the same synapse, then I might even have a reader or two. Or one.

One thought on “John Milton, Betty Neels, William of Orange

  1. Oooh! I see there is a lecture on Dante as well. Less applicable, I would assume, but that was one of the first real literary books that I absolutely fell in love with. We had to read the Inferno and I ended up reading the next two volumes late at night when I should have been sleeping. So worth it.

    I can’t wait to see what you’ll make of Milton.

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