The female Flashman?
Playwright-turned-novelist Kathleen Brennan, Artsci’90, has crafted a lively work of historical fiction that has substance and a flash of a very different sort.
Kathleen (Watters) Brennan, who teaches drama and the art of storytelling at Concordia University, loves nothing more than a good story, one that’s got a rousing plot and interesting characters. That much has been made clear by her award-winning plays. So it’s not surprising that when “Kit” – as she’s known to her family and friends – tried her hand at writing fiction, her debut novel would be a rollicking historical romp. To the delight of her reviewers and students alike, the tale bubbles with high adventure, intrigue, murder, humour, and – of course! – dollops of bodice-ripping whoopee.
Whip Smart: Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards (Astor + Blue Editions LLC, $14.95), is a fictionalized version of the adventures of real-life Victorian-era scoundrel Eliza Gilbert (a.k.a. Lola Montez). Kit Brennan recounts what happens when Eliza flees legal troubles in 1842 London and lands in Spain, where she assumes the persona of a Spanish dancer. The corseted coquette quickly discovers she has leapt from the frying pan into the proverbial fire. Misadventures ensue.
“I discovered Lola when I was a teenager,” Kit explains. “I first encountered her when I read the Flashman novels, which were written by George MacDonald Fraser.”
Sir Harry Flashman is a fictional character Fraser “borrowed” from Thomas Hughes’ classic 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days. When Flashman, the school bully, was expelled, he disappeared from the novel – but not from Fraser’s fertile imagination.
Fraser turned “Flashie” into the archetypal 1970s-era anti-hero, following him through a popular series of a dozen books – pseudo-memoirs that were dubbed “The Flashman papers.” Their “hero” managed to turn up at many of the biggest military campaigns and battles of the 19th century, and along the way he collected honours galore, despite the fact he was a liar, poltroon, womanizer, drunkard, and toady par excellence.
The Flashman books are irreverent, and they’re politically incorrect. However, because Fraser was a master storyteller, they’re also highly readable, historically enlightening, and great fun. Kit Brennan has picked up where Fraser left off when he died in 2008 at age 82. Lola appears as a central character in his 1970 novel Royal Flash, a book Kit read in her teenage years Vancouver-born, she grew up in Kingston, where her father taught English at the Royal Military College. The Watters family eventually moved to Ottawa, but Kit returned to the Limestone City to study at Queen’s, where she earned an honours BA while doing a double-major in English and drama. She still has many fond memories of her campus years, especially the drama courses taught by Fred Euringer, Gary Wagner, Anne Hardcastle, and Maurice Breslow.
After Queen’s, Kit did a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree at the U of Alberta. Then, intent on following in her father’s academic footsteps, in 1993 she took a teaching job at Concordia. Twenty years later, with a stint as resident playwright at Centaur Theatre and eight published plays on her CV, she’s still in Montreal, where she and her actor husband, Andrew Willmer, make their home.
“When I began researching Victorian England while working on my MFA, I again encountered Lola Montez. I also discovered ‘Dr. James Barry,’ an Irish charwoman named Sophia Bishop, who had disguised herself as a man so she could pursue a career as a doctor,” says Kit.
“I was fascinated by both women. I saw them as bookends of a sort. Barry pretended to be a man so she could realize her dreams, while Lola used her guile and feminine beauty to do so.”
Kit’s 1996 play about Barry’s life, Tiger’s Heart, won a national playwriting competition and has been successfully staged at several theatres. Thinking Lola Montez’s story might also be suitable for staging, Kit crafted a drama about her, too; however, for a variety of reasons, Lola Shuffles the Cards just didn’t work on stage.
“But I’d loved the Lola character for so long, I couldn’t let her go, and so I decided to turn the play into a novel. Giving Lola a fictional voice released her to be herself,” says Brennan. “I portray her as a feisty woman rather than a bad dancer who got herself into trouble. The big challenge for me was to make Lola likeable, and I think I’ve succeeded.
“I love writing about her. It’s the most fun I’ve had in years, and so I really hope that readers find Lola as interesting as I do.”
How confident is the author on that score? Like the irrepressible Lola, Kit is inclined to act first, ask later. She’s already written a sequel to Whip Smart – due for publication later this year – and hopes ultimately to craft a four-book series.
It appears that the inimitable Lola has a lot more fancy footwork ahead of her.