Margaret George's tour

The poster for Madison author Margaret George's historical tour in October.

Margaret George

The best thing that could happen to Margaret George in October would be for her to round a corner in Kimbolton Castle and find herself face to face with the ghost of Catherine of Aragon.

Catherine, who died in 1536 and is said to haunt the castle north of London, was once married to Henry VIII, making her a member of a not-very-exclusive club.

More than a quarter-century ago, alone in a room in her Madison home, George wrote a novel, her first, in the voice of Henry VIII. It created a sensation in England and was a best-seller in the United States as well.

Just think what the two women would have to say to one another.

It would also be quite a feather in the cap of George in her newest role as tour guide.

Kimbolton Castle is only one stop on a Tudor tour — “The Lives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I” — that George, the Madison-based historical novelist with a worldwide following, will lead in England Oct. 11-21.

“I’ve never done anything like this,” George said recently.

And while she thinks it’s going to be fun, she’s also a little nervous.

It’s not like George hasn’t plowed new ground before. “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” — first published in 1986 — was in many ways audacious. An unknown Wisconsin writer, and a woman, writing in Henry’s voice? It was unusual enough that George considered publishing it using only her initials. In the end she put her name on it, and “Henry” was such a success it shot life into the entire historical novel genre.

A decade later, when ABC-TV was making a subsequent George novel, “The Memoirs of Cleopatra,” into a mini-series — shooting was in Morocco and London — the author asked if she could hang around the set.

Stephen Harrigan, the screenwriter adapting George’s novel, said, “Why would you want to do that? It’s really boring.”

“Not if you’ve never seen it,” George said.

And now, tour guide.

This latest adventure developed through George’s friendship with Sharon Kay Penman, another celebrated historical novelist. (Penman called George’s latest novel, “Elizabeth I,” published in 2011, “a true masterpiece.”)

Two years ago, a professional tour operator in Washington, D.C., Academic Travel Abroad, contacted Penman and asked if she might lead a tour of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s France. Penman had written four medieval mysteries involving Eleanor.

The tour in June 2011 was successful enough for Academic Travel to ask Penman if she knew any other authors who might be interested.

“She gave them my name,” George said.

The idea is for George to lead a tour of significant places in the lives of historical figures she has brought to life in her fiction. They settled on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The tour will have a maximum of 25 people. (For more details, visit the author’s website — www.margaretgeorge.com.)

The tour operator will handle the logistics of lodging and getting around England. Among the sites to be visited are Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, the Globe Theatre and Stratford-upon-Avon.

“My job is to personalize it,” George said.

She’ll do that with insider stories gleaned from the research for her novels. George has made a point of traveling to the historical locations that matter in her books. She once was caught trying to sneak into the Archbishop of Canterbury’s residence and invited not to return.

That kind of immersion is necessary if you’re going to make the leap of writing in the voice of someone, like Henry VIII, who really did have a voice, no matter how long ago. It can lead to unusual empathy. Many saw Henry as a monster. George found another side, the young Henry, a writer of music, an athlete.

“My mission has always been to let them speak,” George said. “That’s the conceit. I’m kind of a ghostwriter doing public relations on their behalf.”

Her hope is the people who sign up for the tour will be readers with a deep interest in the era. She also knows — and this is where the nervousness comes in — that the success of any tour depends on the chemistry that develops.

George has had good relationships with readers over the years. This could be a fun next step. And who knows? Maybe they will see a ghost.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

 

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