Ariana Franklin: Gone, but then again, Here

The Siege of WinterI have been reading Ariana Franklin’s work for twenty some years, starting with her earliest novels, published under Diana Norman (her own name). We had a correspondence for about five years, up until her sudden death in 2011 at age seventy-seven.  In 2008 I posted an interview with her, which I updated in 2011 shortly after her death.

It’s unclear to me how this happened, but I somehow missed the fact that her last (unfinished) novel came out in February, and that this was possible because her daughter Samantha Norman, a journalist, took on the challenge and brought The Siege Winter to publication.  In March  Samantha wrote an essay on Bookish about her mother and what it was like to pick up where she left off. 

I learned everything from my mother, and this isn’t just me eulogizing about her because she’s dead and I’m still grieving for her terribly. It’s simply a fact that I happened to be born to one of the most intelligent women there ever was. From that point of view, I am and was extremely fortunate. Although, that is not to say that it was always an easy ride exactly: Brains and ambition are inextricably linked and just as she strove to be the very best she could be, she was also quite adamant that I, her daughter, should be too. Samantha Norman: Finishing My Mother’s Last Novel.

I admit: I hesitated about reading The Siege Winter. I wanted to like it. I wanted to love it, and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to. But I can now say that I waited so long for no good reason. It is, quite simply,  a wonderful novel.  I don’t believe in an afterlife, but if there were one, I could imagine Diana cheering. 

The Siege Winter takes as its backdrop what historians refer to as “The Anarchy,” a civil war  in the mid 12th century when a succession crisis followed the death of William Adelin (the only legitimate son of Henry I) and then Henry I.  Henry wanted his daughter Empress Matilda to take the crown, but his nephew Stephen of Blois had other ideas. With the resulting war as backdrop the novel takes on the lives of three women: a young girl left for dead after she is raped and mutilated; the chatelaine of Kenniford castle; and the Empress Matilda herself.

The power of Diana Norman’s novels was always her ability to bring the lives of women into sharp focus.  It’s amazing, really, how Samantha Norman picked up an unfinished novel and carried on without a hitch — I, at least, couldn’t tell where one author stopped and the other picked up. The crackling sharp wit that characterizes DN’s work is still there, as are the empathy and multi-layered characterization and deft handling of a complex plot.  I hope SN has caught the historical fiction bug, and will be able to put down journalism to  build on this strong foundation.