Sharon Kay Penman: In Memoriam
"As the King of England crossed the inner bailey of Chinon Castle, his brother watched him from an upper-storey window and wished fervently that God would smite him dead. Geoffrey understood perfectly why Cain had slain Abel, his younger brother, the best-beloved..."
These are the opening lines of Time and Chance, a novel of historical fiction, written by Sharon Kay Penman. The first Penman book I have ever read. Eleven years ago it opened the whole new world for me. I was surfing the Internet, looking for some good historical novels and came across it by pure chance. I remember as if it was yesterday. Then other Penman books followed, The Devil's Brood among them, with the poignantly perfect portrait of Henry the Young King, with all his virtues and vices.
And Ms. Penman herself... Kind and generous spirit, whom I was honoured and happy to know. Not personally - after all there always was that pesky ocean between us - but we emailed each other for ten years.
Recently with a heavy heart I have said farewell to her. Sharon Kay Penman passed away on January 22, aged 75. In his famous meditations John Donne said: "... any man's death dimishes me", which may be quite true, but personally I believe there are deaths that diminishes us more than others. And such is the death of Ms. Penman. Godspeed, Sharon!
Thank you for all the lovely books and lovely people whom I met thanks to you. You have brought us all together. From all distant parts of the world. Today, being your beloved Henry II's birthday, we want to express our gratitude and let you know how sorely missed you are and always will be.
Here are our tributes:
Kasia Ścierańska, Poland
I came across the works of Sharon Kay Penman during my university studies. I studied history and reading historical novels has always been one of my biggest passions, especially the novels set in the Middle Ages. I find it very difficult to find a novel that will not only be interesting, beautifully written and wise, but will not distort facts and historical accuracy. After reading a really pile of historical novels (both wonderful and dreadful) published in Poland, my expectations were really high. I decided to find more books – less popular, not translated into Polish. In bestseller rankings, which I usually approach with great reserve, an American historical novelist, unknown to me before, Sharon Kay Penman often ranked first.
Without thinking too long - and not having a particularly extensive knowledge of the history of medieval England at the time - I ordered a copy of 'When Christ and All His Saints Slept'. What happened next? Let’s just say that in the following months, I ordered and read (often in class, during lectures, hiding a book under the desk) all the volumes of the cycle about the Plantagenets and the Welsh Princes trilogy. I do not experience this level of excitement often, while unpacking the books brought by the postman and reading the subsequent volumes. What's more - that was the very moment when my great love for the Plantagenets began, my fascination with the medieval history of Britain, which I developed during my studies. Sharon’s books will always hold a special place in my heart - the heart of a reader as well as a historian.
Joan Battistuzzi, Canada
Sharon Kay Penman.....a rare individual blessed with many special qualities. A trio stands out which, to me, truly defines her.....a brilliant mind, a kind heart, & a generous spirit. A literary alchemist, Sharon possessed an uncanny ability to devour mountains of information, distilling & refining it into knowledge which she then imparted to others. Her passion for history & storytelling drew us in. Brilliant prose, often poetic, held us in thrall & literally transformed us into time-travellers!
Her compassion & kindness towards people & animals, indeed our entire planet, knew no bounds. A bright light in a harsh world, she sought & shared the best in people.
I will always be grateful for the impact Sharon had at an important time in my own life's journey. For that is what a role model does, sparking latent possibilities in others. Heartbroken to hear of her passing, I feel deep sympathy for her family & dear friends, her fellow authors & all those whose lives were touched by her.There's a vast, almost palpable communal mourning taking place at this moment. Yet I cannot help but picture Sharon now, in a great hall, feasting, engaged in lively conversation with all her very favorite historical friends. Bless you Sharon.
Ken John, Wales
Two Historical Fiction authors have managed to touch my soul with their stories of Wales and who truly understood the meaning of ‘Hiraeth’ to the Welsh. The first was Edith Pargetter, the second was Sharon Kay Penman. Sharon’s deep love for Wales and the Welsh shines from her books and we have all shed tears to overflowing reading her stories, not just of the Welsh Princes, but also of the Kings and Queens of Medieval Britain and France.
I have read all the lovely tributes from those close to her and others like me, who never had the joy of meeting her, but I have been at a loss as to what to say about the passing of this loving, kind and generous spirit ... I owe just about everything of my love for those far-off days to Sharon. She encouraged me to write of Othon de Grandson and on my many travels with Lee to the places she wrote about, we have imagined ‘Her’ characters, not those dry figures one finds in the history books, but real, live, breathing, personalities. Who has not walked the cloisters of Fontevraud, side by side with her magnificent Eleanor of Aquitaine? Or walked the battlements of Chinon Castle, listening to Henry lamenting his rebel sons? I could go on, of course.
In the (many)death scenes of her beloved characters, Sharon took us with her, into their final moments and she knew just how to set the scene and tug our heart strings. I like to think that in her own final moments, she recalled some of them and their passing and was at peace.
In a perfect world, I would love for her to be buried at Llanfaes in her beloved Gwynedd, where certainly Joanna and Eleanor would receive her with love and open arms. In this extract, Edith Pargetter described the death of Eleanor, so beautifully, that in my mind, it is easy for me to imagine the same burial for Sharon.
“……We buried Eleanor de Montfort, Princess of Wales, in the Friary of Llanfaes, in the heart of June, when all things were blossoming and ripening for fruit, and the days so fair the heart ached for their beauty, and more for the beauty that was rapt away in its Junetide. We carried her in solemn procession from Aber across the salt marshes, and rowed her from Lavan Sands over the Strait, and laid her beside Joan, lady of Wales aforetime, daughter to King John and wife to Llewelyn Fawr, my Lord’s grandsire. There her mortal part rests until judgement, but surely her soul is gone like the flight of a lark, singing into the world of light. It is for ourselves we grieve ….” That final sentence is how I am feeling at our loss. Go well dear lady, free from all the pain and suffering you have had to endure, but wrapped in the love that we all send with you...
David Parr, Australia
My eldest son, Simon, is, like me an avid reader. Years ago he was staying with me for awhile and then moved to Sydney as he had a new job there. He left one of his books in his bedroom. It was a dog-eared tatty paperback. I couldn’t really read the cover, but I seem to remember that one of the words of the title was ‘Dragon’ however I could read the authors surname. It was Penman. I thought as there was nothing in the house that I hadn’t read, and I couldn’t be bothered going to the library, I’d start reading the book, it would do until I bought/borrowed another.
Well almost as soon as I started reading I was hooked, and have been hooked on Sharon K Penman ever since. I think my favourite books are the Justin de Quincy mysteries. Probably because when someone dies in these books I know it’s fiction, whereas in the others, when someone dies....they really do. And I’m gonna give dying a swerve....don’t fancy that life experience much....so have decided to live forever!
Marsha Lambert, the USA
Thank you for writing such brilliant books, dear Sharon ( I’ll forever think of you whenever I read anything about King Henry II, King Richard the Lionheart and so many more historical people that you brought so vividly to life ), being so nice & engaging with your readers, and for your wonderful Facebook group that introduced me to so many fellow medieval history and book lovers that have now become friends. I will treasure your books and the signed book plates you were gracious & kind enough to send! Rest In Peace, dear Sharon. You’ll be greatly missed!
Sonja Koch, Germany
Even the sky is crying today, mourning for Sharon.
I still can't come to terms with the fact that she is no longer with us... But she left us such a precious legacy - not only her wonderful books but also the gift of decency and friendship. Thanks to Sharon, I made so many friends all over the world, and whenever I read her books, I will also feel deeply grateful and indebted.
Photo of Sharon Kay Penman by William Penman Jr.