I love seventeenth century England. I love by its drama, its complexity and its diversity. Most of all, I’m fascinated by the remarkable men and women who populated it. Soldiers, poets, idealists – and strong, gutsy women. It was a time of massive upheaval and intensely-held convictions; a time when the printed word became widely available, making propaganda the latest weapon. But the rarity with which it is taught in British schools leave it open to a myriad of misconceptions. The most glaring example being that, since the name of Oliver Cromwell is the one most people know, there is a natural assumption that he engineered the entire Civil War single-handed. This is by no means true and is one of the reasons I chose to open The Black Madonna in 1639 – three years before the war began.
These three crucial years – and the three years of war which followed them – are seen through the eyes of the Maxwell family of Thorne Ash … and also those of master-goldsmith and money-lender, Luciano del Santi.
Sitting beside Richard Maxwell in the House of Commons, we watch the quarrel between the King and John Pym boil over into Civil War. Whilst taking up his sword for the Parliament, Richard’s eldest son, Eden, shows us the painful reality of marriage to a girl who despises everything he believes in. And at Thorne Ash, Richard’s wife and eldest daughter, Kate, face the widespread problems posed by the unsettled world around them – not least, the demands of the Royalist garrison in nearby Banbury.
A spirited red-head, Kate is more than equal to the various challenges that come her way and vows to hold their home against both Cavalier and Roundhead. The only thing she finds utterly impossible to handle is her growing attraction to the clever, magnetic and diabolically beautiful young man known to London as The Italian.
Luciano del Santi is not the typical hero for a novel set in this period. He has no particular loyalty to either side and considers the war an expensive inconvenience as he pursues his own hidden agenda. Since this involves travelling around war-torn England, he is inevitably caught up in some of the action; the battle of Powick Bridge, the storm of Bristol and the last, terrible days of Basing House.
At the age of twelve, Luciano’s life was ripped apart, leaving him with only one souvenir of both family and childhood. The Black Madonna; a small statue of carved obsidian. At the age of twenty, this relic of the past becomes the key to his future.
Although intrinsically worthless, the Madonna is of huge sentimental value to both Luciano and his wealthy Genoese uncle – and thus it underwrites the massive loan Luciano needs to found a successful business in England and also finance the vendetta which has taken him back there. Failure to repay his uncle will result in the loss of the Madonna and financial ruin. The vendetta, he soon learns, may cost him the girl he loves – and possibly his life.
The Black Madonna is a long book, the original paperback running to 630 pages. Fortunately, there were many joys in writing it – both originally and now. The loving, almost youthful relationship between Richard and Dorothy, a mature couple with five children, was one of them. Another was the increasingly fascinating rapport between Richard and Luciano. Since I hadn’t originally envisioned it, the respect and affection that developed between these two intelligent, well-informed men became a top note. I also love Luciano’s Turkish bodyguard, Selim – the Casanova from Constantinople, you might say – because he still makes me laugh. And finally – as readers of A Splendid Defiance may appreciate – there was the irresistible opportunity to allow Justin Ambrose a few guest appearances! But the main focus of the story, of course, is on Luciano and Kate – and in this revised edition, they are at the heart of most of the new or extended scenes.
From the power-struggle within Parliament to the battlefields of a warring nation, The Black Madonna is a story of passion, intrigue and love in a time when England was lost in a dark and bloody conflict.
The saga continues in Garland Of Straw, to be published in e-format later in 2013. Although the main story revolves around Gabriel Brandon and Venetia Clifford, we also follow the fortunes of Eden Maxwell and Sam Radford [A Splendid Defiance] whilst treading the path that leads to the execution of King Charles. Oh – and Justin Ambrose pops up again! Should I apologise?
Stella Riley is the author of two historical romances set in the Georgian era:
and a number of works of romantic historical fiction set in Seventeenth Century England, during the time of the Civil War and Restoration.
After a break in her writing career, she is now revising all her books and making them available as ebooks. The Parfit Knight, The Mésalliance, The Marigold Chain, A Splendid Defiance and The Black Madonna are now all available from Amazon and Smashwords. Garland of Straw will follow them in late 2013.