Gabrielle is the author of three historical novels, all published by Little, Brown. She lives and works in West Sussex with her two daughters and a (very) elderly Lakeland Terrier. Gabrielle Kimm is one of two new Royal Literary Fund Fellows at the University of Chichester and also teaches English part-time at a small Performing Arts school.
The Girl with the Painted Face is set in Modena, Italy, 1582. Where a young orphaned seamstress, Sofia, is falsely accused of stealing from a client. She's quite an innocent but thankfully is taken under the wing of a troupe of travelling actors, called the Corraggiosi, and finds herself falling for one of the group's most talented performers, Beppe Bianchi. At the heart of this novel is a charming story of first love and sexual awakening. I found Beppe and Sofia's developing attraction, and friendship, engaging and believable. Unfortunately, Sofia's beauty attracts the unwelcome attentions of an aristocratic bully. His murder is immediately blamed on Sofia, and she is arrested by the local militia. The actors seek to prove Sofia's innocence and we soon discover there are quite a few suspects ...
This is an excellent mix of romance and murder mystery, enhanced by the wonderful setting of Renaissance Italy evoked, as always, with genuine love by Gabrielle. I'm a history fan and really enjoyed learning about the actors and all their traditions. The Commedia dell’Arte is a form of theatre I'd never heard of before but now intrigues me. If I have to air any grumble it would be that I wanted to spend more time with the actors, a delightful mix of characters - so maybe there is material for a sequel here, please Gabrielle ...
Q. I've absolutely loved reading all your novels, Gabrielle, and one reason is the setting of Renaissance Italy. I've read a lot of historical fiction set in Tudor England so it was refreshing to read about a similar period but with an Italian backdrop. Where does your fascination with Renaissance Italy originate from?
First of all, thank you so much for having me on your blog! The reason that I’ve set my books in 16th century Italy is very simple – it’s all down to one person: Victorian poet, Robert Browning. The inspiration for my first book, ‘His Last Duchess’ was Browning’s wonderful dramatic monologue, ‘My Last Duchess’. This extraordinary poem is narrated by a sinister Renaissance aristocrat, who admits (seemingly without remorse) to having had his first wife permanently silenced because she annoyedIt struck me with the force of a well-hurled grenade one day, whilst preparing a set of lessons for a GCSE English Literature class, that the back story to this poem would make a fabulous novel and I spent the next few hours madly scribbling down the bare bones of what quickly became my plot.
At the time, I had no idea the poem was based on historical fact, and only thought I would be interpreting Browning, rather than history. But, as it turned out, early research for the book led me to understand that the duke in Browning’s poem is in fact Alfonso d’Este, the fifth duke of Ferrara, and that Alfonso married Lucrezia de’ Medici in 1559, and that by the end of 1562, the poor girl has vanished from the records and nobody knows how. Some sources reckon she was tubercular and that her demise was natural and inevitable; others suggest something like anorexia, but by far the majority (including Browning) are convinced that the duke had a hand in it. As I couldn’t find a definitive answer, the only solution was – to write one myself!
Given the facts of the case, I clearly had to set this first book in the era and setting in which the historical reality played out. My second book, ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’, features a secondary character from the first book as its central protagonist, so I stayed put in 16th century Italy, and then my publishers asked for another – and I was of course happy to oblige!
Litpig says: we've read both of these - they are cracking reads and highly recommended. Links to where you can obtain all of Gabrielle's books are at the end of the blog ...
Q. In 'The Girl With The Painted Face' we learn about the Corraggiosi, a travelling troupe of actors (performing in the traditions of Commedia dell' Arte) through seamstress Sofia's innocent eyes; like us she knows nothing about their world. I was fascinated by the traditions and rituals of the actors, can you share how much research you undertook to get inside this type of theatre and how you went about it?
It was great fun! When I’m not writing, I teach – English and Drama – so as you’d expect, I’ve done a fair bit of acting and directing along the way. I had thought for some time that it would be fun to write about actors, but had presumed in my ignorance that, as in England in the 16th century, women’s parts in plays would have been played in Italy by boys. Given that I write for a women’s fiction imprint (and they like their novels to have strong female leads) I presumed that my plot possibilities in this area would be limited – until I chanced upon an article about a woman called Isabella Andreini, who was an extraordinary Renaissance actor and writer. I discovered to my surprise that unlike in Puritan Britain, in Europe, women played an equal part in theatrical enterprises alongside men, as writers, actors and directors.
I wondered first if I would have the fascinating Isabella as my central character, but decided against in the end, because I realised that I wanted my heroine to know as little about the traditions of Commedia dell’Arte as my readers probably would – so that they could learn alongside the character, if that makes sense.
Commedia dell’Arte is a very physical form of theatre, and the more I read, the less I felt able to depict it in writing. Knew I’d have to find out ‘how to do it’ by actually doing it myself. So, scouring the internet (as one does) I came across a website for a theatre company called The Rude Mechanical Theatre Company – who are, as their website proudly proclaims – a modern Commedia dell’Arte troupe. I emailed. Could I, I asked, possibly come and sit in on rehearsals, eavesdrop on a workshop, talk to the actors, find out what it’s like to put these traditions into practice?
The director of the troupe emailed back by return, hugely enthusiastic at the idea of sharing his love of the traditions with a writer. He was, he said, in the area the following day – would I like to meet for a drink and a chat? I grabbed at the chance, of course, and began an extraordinary journey of discovery, which ended up involving, as well as copious emails, practical workshops (huge fun but exhausting!), attending rehearsals, helping set up the traditional staging, and generally immersing myself in the life of a travelling theatre company as far as I could.
(The Rude Mechanicals tour across the South of England every summer – their shows are amazing! Check out their website - http://www.therudemechanicaltheatre.co.uk)
Q. One of my favourite characters from your first novel 'His Last Duchess' was the courtesan Francesca. She then returned to take the lead role in your second novel 'The Courtesan's Lover'. Are there any characters you loved writing that you long to return to and write more of their story? (Can I drop in here that I also loved Francesca's castrato servant, from 'The Courtesan's Lover', as a character...)
It was strange, how Francesca ended up as the central character of the second novel. I hadn’t planned it at all – she just wouldn’t leave my head! As I finished writing ‘Duchess’, I was happy to leave my characters to get on with their lives – I’d completed what I wanted to do with them, and I knew they’d manage without me. But Francesca wouldn’t stay in the shadows. I found myself thinking about her, wondering where she was and how she was coping, and a need to tell her story in more detail began to obsess me.
I have to admit that I do love Modesto (the castrato servant) too. He came from nowhere in the writing of that book – I hadn’t planned him – and he’s remained as (I think) my favourite of all my characters. He’s so stalwart and kind and loyal and funny, and so damaged from what happened to him in his childhood – he broke my heart as I wrote that book! I have planned a sequel to ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’, and I will write it at some point and Modesto will definitely figure large in it (along with Gianni, the seventeen year old who shatters Francesca’s complacent confidence), but I’ve been struck with a need to tell a different story just now, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment.
Q. I had a surreal experience recently when the main character of the novel I'm currently writing sat down opposite me on a train journey - he was the spitting image! The poor man must have wondered why the woman opposite kept sneaking glances at him. So when writing your novels how do you picture your characters ... do you have a strong mental image or perhaps use picture/photos or even think of specific people of actors?
I had an experience like yours, while writing ‘His Last Duchess’! I was on about the third draft of the book, so had established the characters in my head, when I went to the cinema with my children. A trailer came on for a film about the Brothers Grimm, and a woman walked onto the screen and it was Francesca! I almost gasped. It turned out to be an actress called Monica Bellucci, of whom I had at that time never heard, and she was SO like my mental picture of Francesca it was quite surreal.
Yes, to answer your question, I do have a very clear mental image of my characters, though I don’t look for photographic references. When they crop up, they can be fun, but the characters exist in their own right in my head, and I don’t feel the need to reinforce that.
Having said that, one very strange thing happened, also in the writing of ‘Duchess’. I had always thought that if anyone ever wanted to film the book (well, one can always dream …), I would want Ralph Fiennes to play my duke (photo left). Just that – a thought. Then, well into the writing of the third or fourth draft, I came across a portrait of Alfonso d’Este (see right) that I hadn’t seen before, and … well, what do you reckon? A likeness, or what? It was almost uncanny!
LitPig: the Indoor Writer adores Ralph Fiennes and he would be a perfect Alfonso! And yes the likeness is uncanny ...
Thank you so much for having me on your blog – it’s been such a pleasure chatting with you.
LitPig: thank you, Gabrielle for being such a wonderful guest. We can't wait for the next book to come out, so please can you now get back to writing it!
Here are some links to where you can obtain Gabrielle Kimm's novels and learn more about her and her writing:
His Last Duchess http://tinyurl.com/3bl3sg3
The Courtesan’s Lover http://tinyurl.com/d3u8abl
The Girl with the Painted Face http://tinyurl.com/p86zxah
Facebook: Gabrielle Kimm