With a double major in history and communications, and a master’s degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, it comes as no surprise that Elizabeth Blackwell loves time-worn tales. In her latest book, While Beauty Slept, Blackwell takes a fantasy (the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty) and reweaves it as possibly factual, as if it happened in a long-ago, imagined Europe, sans magical elements. Blackwell makes some unexpected maneuvers that leave readers enchanted by the novel’s end.
Unlike the original, Blackwell’s story focuses on Elise, a servant within the palace—a young woman whose fate becomes intertwined with royalty when she ascends to the position of personal handmaiden to Queen Lenore. Like a Downton Abbey understudy but in a Renaissance-inspired era, Elise must learn to discern motives and deflect scheming elements outside the ruling family. Each character is psychologically complex, from the bitter, jealous Lady Millicent, whose cane warns others out of her way, to Princess Rose, who drapes herself in cloaks to experience anonymity and freedom from an enmeshed, controlled childhood.
This isn’t Blackwell’s first foray into fiction. A former features writer for outlets like Ladies’ Home Journal, Parenting and the Wall Street Journal, Blackwell won a Harlequin-sponsored contest several years ago and penned two romance novels as a result.
“I entered with no expectation of winning,” she says. “It was a great bootcamp in writing concisely and creating characters within space limitations.” Blackwell enjoyed the work but realized that her next book needed to move beyond the limitations of the romance genre: short, snappy, with everything neatly wrapped up by final page. While Beauty Slept ends “happy with a lower-case h,” as Blackwell puts it. It’s considerably darker than the standard bodice-ripper, with the nuance that Blackwell wanted to integrate.
It’s been difficult to pinpoint the book’s position on a map of genres, Blackwell concedes, and a tough sell to publishers. The book spans fantasy, romance and historical fiction genres. A few characters dabble in brews, but any herbs and tinctures are used for medicinal purposes. In Blackwell’s version, pox and contagion cause disease and death, not the dark arts. Downplaying the supernatural was a choice from the beginning, Blackwell says.
“I didn’t write it as a fantasy novel but as something that could have really happened. I had to come up with human explanations for events in this legend,” she says. Readers expecting a fantastical journey might be surprised. “I like to think readers are open-minded enough to be willing to read it and not be so constrained by genre,” she says.
Blackwell loves historical fiction, but didn’t pour years into research for the book. “I didn’t want it to be a real place, but a fairytale land. Yet the world feels very real and brings to mind much of the 16th century,” she says. By keeping it within the realm of fantasy, Blackwell was able to pick and choose elements that fit her fairytale world without worrying too much about authenticity.
In the story, the young servant Elise learns how betrayal and lies can bond and destroy a family—or even a dynasty. Even the book’s surprise ending hinges on a lie that serves a greater purpose for the women involved; secrets both create problems and provide solutions. “Keeping secrets is a product of that time,” Blackwell says. “Our current society is all about oversharing, revealing your every thought on Facebook or Twitter,” she says. “Although I wanted strong female characters, it’s true that there’s much that a servant would never say or observe and never talk about. A queen could not confide in anyone, and a princess could not be honest without undermining her position.”
Women’s historical roles inspired much of the book’s “behind-the-scenes” approach.
In her college courses, most of the focus was on men, Blackwell says, inspiring her to wonder what women were doing, and specifically what endeavors engaged women of various classes. “I’ve been struck in the past at how much work some people did, with no recognition whatsoever. It’s always been a concern and interest of mine, shedding light on people who allowed heroes to be heroes,” she says. In Beauty, scenes of men in battle occur offpage, and remain in the background—readers stay with the queen and castle, the servants and working classes.
Blackwell points to influences such as Susan Howatch, Edward Rutherford, Jean Plaidy, Margaret Atwood and Diana Gabaldon. “For me, the best fiction offers a mental escape from the everyday, whether it's a mystery, romance or historical fiction,” she says.
Lora Shinn is a recovering librarian, currently working as a full-time freelance journalist.