I’m delighted to share a fascinating blog post by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard about her new novel, Sisters of Castle Leod.
THE PLOT THICKENS
Thanks so much for inviting me to talk about the research for my latest historical novel, Sisters of Castle Leod (release date: January 19, 2023).
I always do quite a bit of reading before deciding for certain what I want to write about, though I generally have a theme in mind. In this instance, I was very interested in exploring the subject of spiritualism—communication with the dead—especially as it was practiced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I soon ran across the name Sibell Lilian Mackenzie, 3rd Countess of Cromartie. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Sibell was becoming known as a spiritualist and a writer of mystical romance novels. Her younger sister, Constance, was an unusual young woman who became equally famous as a champion swimmer and for scandalizing British society with her public displays of Isadora Duncan-style barefoot dancing. The sisters were opposites in every way, which suggested to me the possibility of a story full of conflict and drama. In the historical record, I discovered plenty of both.
There was a great deal of information available about the Mackenzie sisters, mostly through archived newspaper articles. At the time, they were among Great Britain’s most talked-about women. The press was fascinated with them. Because I enjoyed these old articles so much, I incorporated portions of a few into the book. They serve to give readers a wonderfully authentic taste of the social mores of the time. For example, here is part of an 1897 newspaper account describing Sibell’s “coming out,” over which Queen Victoria herself presided:
Nowadays you observe that the run of debutantes presented consists of every upstart whose family has rigged up for itself a compound surname. For every two-penny-half-penny nobody who has made a little money in trade to fancy he confers a sort of patent of nobility upon himself and his offspring by inserting a hyphen between his surname and his middle name is simply grotesque. But instead of these nobodies with whom recent drawing-rooms have reeked, there were no end of real swells at this one. The most interesting of all the presentations was that of the youthful Sibell Mackenzie Leveson-Gower, Countess of Cromartie.
I should mention that Sibell was a good deal more modest and down-to-earth than the writer of that article! Throughout my research, almost everything I read about the countess, who was a peeress in her own right and one of the wealthiest landowners in Scotland, portrayed her as a thoughtful, introspective young woman—a dreamer and philosopher. She wrote many short stories, most with a mystical bent, that were published in the popular women’s magazine The Lady’s Realm. By reading these stories, and several of her full-length romantic novels, I came to feel quite comfortable assuming her voice as my novel’s narrator. I also read Constance’s single book, Dancing, Beauty and Games, published in 1913, which gave me important insight into her very original ideologies as well as her motivations for some of the outrageous things she did. Authors of biographical historical fiction who have access to the actual writings of their characters enjoy a tremendous resource. I studied these books and stories with a careful eye to what they could tell me about the Mackenzie sisters—their public image, personal beliefs, and their innermost desires.
The folklore of the Highlands was one of the things that attracted me to the sisters’ story. Here is an authentic newspaper snippet that led my plot in a surprising and rather spooky direction (for this preview, I’ve redacted any “spoilers”):
Lady Constance Mackenzie is sister and heir presumptive to the Countess of Cromartie, who also holds the titles Viscountess Tarbat, Baroness Castlehaven, and Baroness MacLeod. Lady Constance’s succession to all these titles, as well as the large family estates, depends upon the fulfillment of an old family legend whose truth in part has been demonstrated already, in a manner to arouse the awe of the superstitious, by a family tragedy that occurred last December. … [the legend states that] when a certain stream on the estates should be turned from its course, the succession would pass from the direct line. Only a few weeks before the [tragedy occurred], in making alterations on the estates, the course of the stream had been changed.
In the three years it took to research and write Sisters of Castle Leod, I did not confine myself to “armchair research.” Early in the process, my trip to the Scottish Highlands afforded me the opportunity to meet with Sibell’s grandson, 5thEarl of Cromartie and current chief of the Mackenzie clan. He graciously provided me with a private tour of Castle Leod and told me many interesting stories. Among them was that of the castle’s ghost, known as the Night Watchman—a 15th century sentry who, on occasion, emerges from behind the grandfather clock in the castle’s Great Hall. Though I would not call my novel a “ghost story,” the Night Watchman does have a role in the drama.
On that same trip, I made a stop in London and visited the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain where, I had been told, Sibell once served as president. (I could find no proof of this in the Society’s records. However, at that time, there were many such societies, and she may have been involved in a different group with a similar name.) On two occasions, I met with psychics who attempted to contact Sibell on my behalf. Though results were inconclusive, it was nonetheless an interesting foray into the modern-day world of spiritualism.
As you can tell, my novel not only is about the difficult relationship between two very different sisters but also delves deeply into spiritual issues. Have you ever visited a psychic or attended a séance? How did you feel about the experience?
Thank you for sharing your research with my readers. It really sounds as though you went above and beyond to ‘find’ your characters voices. Good luck with the new release.
Here’s the blurb
**Finalist in the 2022 American Writing Awards**
Millions are fans of Diana Gabaldon’s popular Outlander books and television series, but few know that Gabaldon’s fictional Castle Leoch was inspired by a real Scottish castle, Castle Leod. The two sisters who lived there at the turn of the twentieth century were among the most fascinating and talked-about women of their era.
Lady Sibell Mackenzie is a spiritualist, a believer in reincarnation, and a popular author of mystical romances. Petite and proper, she values tradition and duty. Her younger sister Lady Constance, swimming champion and big game hunter, is a statuesque beauty who scandalizes British society with her public displays of Greek-style barefoot dancing. The differences between the sisters escalate into conflict after Sibell inherits their late father’s vast estates and the title 3rd Countess of Cromartie. But it is the birth of Sibell’s daughter that sets in motion a series of bizarre and tragic events, pitting sister against sister and propelling Sibell on a desperate mission to challenge the power of fate.
Sisters of Castle Leod, by award-winning author Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard, is the emotionally charged story of two sisters torn apart by jealousy and superstition, and the impossible leap of faith that could finally bring them together.
This title will be available on #KindleUnlimited.
Meet the Author
A former touring musician/songwriter and public relations professional, Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard is the author of two Amazon bestsellers: THE BEAUTY DOCTOR, “a compelling historical novel steeped in mystery with strong elements of a medical thriller” (Readers’ Favorite, 5 stars), and TEMPTATION RAG: A NOVEL, a “resonant novel … about the birth and demise of ragtime … luxuriously crafted” (Publishers Weekly). Her books have been finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, National Indie Excellence Awards, and Arizona Literary Contest; they have received 5-star ratings from Readers” Favorite, Book Readers Appreciation Group, and historical fiction Discovered Diamonds. Elizabeth and her family live near Phoenix, Arizona.
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