It is with great pleasure that I welcome author Margaret Skea to the blog today, talking about her latest book, Katharina: Fortitude, the history behind it and giving you a little teaser from the book itself.
As crazy ideas go, thinking of writing what could best be described as a fictionalized biography of Katharina von Bora, the escaped nun who married the reformer Martin Luther, ranked highly. It had popped into my head, seemingly from nowhere, but once there, as crazy ideas so often do, it burrowed its way in so far no amount of rational thinking would dislodge it.
There were plenty of good reasons not to write her story.
Reason 1. I knew almost nothing about her, and it seemed that nobody else knew much about her either.
I did find a slim volume, of some 89 pages, written by a native German within the Luther Foundation, Martin Treu, well placed to have found any information there was to find. But the opening words were hardly encouraging.
‘It is impossible to write a biography of Katharina von Bora. The scanty and often enough fragmentary nature of the evidence allows for only a biographical sketch…’ Hmm.
Reason 2. I didn’t speak or read German, so whatever ‘fragmentary evidence’ existed, I couldn’t even read it for myself. Not the best start.
Reason 3. I was in the middle of writing my third Scottish novel, and there was a publisher waiting for it to be delivered, so the timing wasn’t exactly ideal. However, the Luther 500 anniversary was only just over one year away, so I knew if I was going to write about her it had to be immediately.
And there she was, hovering at my shoulder, shadowy and insubstantial, but refusing to go away. So the Scottish book set aside, I began to plan how I could make this crazy idea a reality. I read and re-read the 89 pages of the little book until I knew them almost by heart and scoured every other source I could find (in English) that made any reference to her at all. Treu had also set me a challenge – he wrote:
‘The lacunae in the sources have tempted authors and authoresses to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.’
Well, yes, that is, after all, what historical fiction writers do. But he went on:
‘The result is frequently a picture that says more about the writer and their time than about the person and journey through life of Katharina von Bora.’
Ah, that was different – I didn’t want to write about my time, or me, I wanted to write about her time and about her.
But pessimistic as he was about anyone’s chances, I did find some wee nuggets in his book, and in others, that gave me a starting point, despite that there is dispute over her parentage, her birthplace, the circumstances surrounding her admission to two different convents, and little direct evidence of her character. Retracing her steps in Saxony, which involved driving over 1000 miles, gave me a real sense of her environment, including the terrain she travelled, the architecture, and artefacts, and many aspects of her life and times. There were some surprises, too, particularly in relation to Martin Luther and his almost modern attitude towards her, as well as the discovery of many myths that needed to be dispelled. But perhaps the biggest challenge was finding a ‘voice’ for her and so I began to write snippets in 1st person present tense. And what started as a preliminary experiment continued throughout both books and the story truly became Katharina’s.
I hope I have done her justice and that readers will get as much enjoyment in reading as I found in writing it.
Here is the opening section as a wee taster:
Wittenberg June 1525.
The music stops, the sound of the fiddle dying away, the piper trailing a fraction behind, as he has done all evening. I cannot help but smile as I curtsy to Justus Jonas, his answering twinkle suggesting he shares my amusement.
‘Thank you, Frau Luther,’ and then, his smile wider, so that even before he continues I suspicion it isn’t the piping amuses him, ‘For a renegade nun, you dance well.’
It is on the tip of my tongue to respond with ‘ For a cleric, so do you,’ but I stop myself, aware that should I be overheard it would likely be considered inappropriate for any woman, far less a newly married one, to speak so to an older man, however good a friend he has been. And on this day of all days, I do not wish to invite censure. Instead I say, ‘I have been well taught. Barbara saw to that. She did not wish me to disgrace myself or her, and there is a pair of slippers with the soles worn through to testify to the hours of practice she insisted upon.’
‘She succeeded admirably then.’
All around us there is the buzz of laughter and chatter, an air of goodwill evident in every flushed face. Martin is waiting at the foot of the dais, and as we turn towards him, his smile of thanks to Justus is evidence he too is grateful for the seal of approval, of me and of the marriage, our shared dance a tangible sign to the whole town that Justus Jonas at least has no reservations regarding our union. Over his shoulder I catch Barbara’s eye and she nods also. I nod back, but am unable to suppress altogether the inner voice, tonight there is drink taken, tomorrow some may feel differently.
As if he can read my mind, Justus says, a new seriousness in his tone, ‘You have not made a mistake, either of you.’ He waves his hand at the folk clustered in groups along the length of the room. ‘Look around. When the difficult times come, as no doubt they will, remember tonight and the number of those who came to wish you well.’
* * *
The first challenge is not long in coming. We stroll home in the moonlight, accompanied by those guests who will spend the night in the cloister with us, adding their acceptance to our union. Among them are Martin’s parents, and three councillors from Mansfeld, snatches of their conversation penetrating my thoughts.
Hans Luder’s tone, though gruff, cannot mask his satisfaction. ‘It is a good day’s work, and glad I am to see it, however long the wait.’
Martin’s mother’s voice is sweet and low, but bubbles with amusement, like a sparkling wine as it is poured into a glass. ‘Old you may be, but I trust your end is not yet nigh.’
There is an answering chuckle from one of the councillors, ‘Indeed,’ Frau Luder, ‘So do we all.’
Hearing him, I tuck my arm into Martin’s, the momentary disagreement regarding Cardinal Albert’s gift forgotten, and look up at the myriad stars: pin-pricks of light in an ink-flooded sky, and my heart swells. Frau Luther – the spelling may be different, but the status is the same and a title to be proud of, and though our marriage is already two weeks old, it is the first time I have felt it truly mine. The music still rings in my ears, memory of the dancing, the coin in the chest: all symbols of the regard in which the doctor is held and in which I now share, spreading a warmth through me from the top of my head to the tip of my toes. Jusuts is right. This is not a mistake, or not on my part at least. And, pray God, he is right about Martin also. We part from the company at the door of our chamber, and the light from the oil lamp flickers on the bedspread Barbara Cranach gifted to us. It is the last thing I see before sleep, the first when I wake, a talisman-harbinger of good things to come.
About the author
Margaret Skea is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Short story credits include Neil Gunn, Fish, the Historical Novel Society and Mslexia.
Growing up during the ‘Troubles in Northern Ireland it is perhaps inevitable that her writing often focuses on the pressures of living within conflict. Her debut novel Turn of the Tide, was the Historical Fiction winner in an Harper Collins-sponsored competition. It also gained her the Beryl Bainbridge Award for ‘Best First-Time Novelist 2014’.
Katharina: Deliverance, a fictionalised biography based on the early life of the reformer Martin Luther’s wife, was placed 2nd in the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2018.
The newly released, Katharina: Fortitude, is the powerful conclusion to Katharina’s story, but both books can easily be read as a stand-alone.
In an attempt to embrace the digital age she now has her own website at www.margaretskea.com and you can also follow her on Twitter at @margaretskea1 or on FB https://www.facebook.com/MargaretSkeaAuthor.Novels/
Book link: https://books2read.com/u/4j11BX
I would like to say a HUGE thank you to Margaret for such a fabulous post and wish her every success with Kathariana: Fortitude .
Kathariana: Fortitude came out 2 weeks ago and has been entered into the Kindle Storyteller Award. The competition opened in May, and yet Katharina is already at #65 out of over 5,000 entries. To be in with a chance of winning it needs to get into top 10. The book is currently on sale at 99p, so why not give it a go? I have! Just follow the link: https://books2read.com/u/4j11BX
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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Margaret Skea