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The Chalice

A Novel
By Nancy Bilyeau

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Gold includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Nancy Bilyeau. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


    Introduction

    In 1538, as England is torn apart by violent power struggles between crown and cross, Joanna Stafford, a young novice whose monastic life has been dismantled, finds herself unwittingly drawn into a dark plot targeting King Henry VIII. With great reluctance, Joanna assumes her role in a prophecy foretold by three different seers, each providing another vital piece of this strange, otherworldly puzzle. Ultimately, she is swept up into an international intrigue against her King and country. Joanna realizes the life of Henry VIII, as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands, hands that must someday hold the chalice that lays at the center of these deadly foretellings.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1) What role does prophecy play in The Chalice? How does this idea of prophecy drive much of the book? What are your beliefs regarding seers and prophecies?

    2) Why do you think Bilyeau uses a young novice like Joanna Stafford to carry out such important historic weight as to save Henry VIII or destroy him?

    3) “Why must this burden fall upon me?” Joanna asks Edmund when they are in Blackfriars, and he answers, “It’s you. You are a woman unlike any other, Sister Joanna. I’ve tried to define this quality that sets you apart. I’ve never quite been able to.” Can you define it? How does Joanna’s character shape and affect the unfolding of the story? In what ways does Joanna’s character change over the course of the novel? In the end, how have the events of the novel changed her forever?

    4) Who directs Gertrude Courtenay to find Joanna? Were you surprised by this revelation? How are Joanna and Gertrude’s lives bound up, beyond the fact of their relatedness by marriage? How do their fates become so entwined? And how does it tie back to Katherine of Aragon? Discuss, as well, how Gertrude and Joanna’s lives are directly impacted by the Boleyn family.

    5) Joanna resists meeting the seers and hearing the prophecies, and yet Bilyeau writes, “We’d all been forced to abandon our dream. Yet now, because of what I’d revealed, a restoration was possible. Why didn’t I surge forward, snatching at my place in the prophecy, eager to bring back our way of life? But I couldn’t.” Why do you think she isn’t able to? What are the myriad ways in which Joanna resists her fate and why? Discuss the idea of free will versus fate, and fate versus destiny.

    6) Geoffrey Scovill appears in several places to warn Joanna or to help her or to persuade her to be with him. He claims he wants only her happiness, and yet when it is time for Joanna to marry Edmund, he prevents it. What was your reaction to his behavior at that moment? Sometimes Joanna wants Geoffrey near her, yet at other times she pushes him away. What is your impression of their relationship? When they meet again in the cemetery, Scovill regrets that he didn’t appreciate his wife, Beatrice, more before her death. What do you think Scovill has learned about love and life? What do you think the future holds for Geoffrey and Joanna’s relationship?

    7) When Joanna is alone in Blackfriars with Edmund Sommerville, Bilyeau writes, “I waited, with eyes shut. After I don’t know how long, his lips pressed against mine, but so gently I almost doubted it was happening. I had never felt a touch this tender. I ached for more from him.” How does Bilyeau handle the delicate issue of desire in a work about celibate religious men and women? How does Joanna deal with her own desire?

    8) Just as Gardiner once used Joanna’s father to get her to look for the Athelstan crown, now when Jacquard Rolin threatens Edmund’s life to force Joanna to complete the prophecy. When she complies, what does this say about Joanna’s character? Her sense of loyalty? How might you respond in a similar situation?

    9) When Joanna meets Ambassador Chapuys in Antwerp, she says, “I know that you and others look to me to put a stop to evil. But in so doing, I am creating evil…The man who spied for Gardiner in Hertfordshire and now Master Adams? God would not have it so – I know in my heart it’s not right.” What do you think about what Joanna says? How do you think Chapuys feels after she’s said this? Have you ever been confronted with such a dilemma in your life?

    10) “Was I indeed a fool not to see that this was the plan from the beginning – for me to kill the king of England?” Bilyeau writes. “I’d hoped, and perhaps it was grossly unrealistic, that in the end I would commit some act, such as the abortive attempt to rescue the body of Thomas Becket, that would turn the tide of history…But how wrong I was, how tragically wrong. This, then, was the prophecy that I’d been intertwined with since I was seventeen. To be a murderess.” Were you surprised by this revelation as well? Were you hoping for a different sort of prophecy as Joanna was? What might it have been?

    11) When Bishop Gardiner takes Joanna to see Gertrude in the Tower of London and Joanna asks her if she regrets she entered into conspiracy, given how much she has lost – her husband, her son, her homes and fortune – Gertrude hisses, “Never.” How do you feel about this? Do you find it hard to believe? What sort of a person is Gertrude? How would you feel in her situation?

    12) Joanna asks Bishop Gardiner if he has written the article that forbids religious people from marrying with her in mind, and he says, “Did you really think that religious policy for the entire kingdom was written just to strike out at you? Revenge, perhaps, revenge on my part for your failure to secure the Athelstan crown or perhaps for your recent flouting of my will?” Joanna says nothing, and then he finishes by saying, “You have never been a consideration of that import. Not everyone is meant to play a significant part in the affairs of the world, Joanna.” Do you believe him? Does Joanna? What do you think is the truth?

    13) In the beginning of The Chalice? , John is a madman, running around Dartford spouting scripture about doom. In the end, he turns up at Joanna’s house in Dartford sane, well-dressed, and working as a wood collector. Do you think he is a symbol and/or metaphor for something in the novel? If so, discuss what it might be.

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1) Read Nancy Bilyeau’s debut novel The Crown, which also features Joanna Stafford.

    2) If you are in New York City and interested in tapestries, you can visit The Cloisters; they showcase two sets of breathtaking tapestries known as the Unicorn tapestries and the Nine Heroes tapestries. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is also a wonderful place to see medieval artifacts, paintings, tapestries, and clothing.

    3) If it is more historical information about this period you are after, there are two wonderful books by Alison Weir: Henry VIII: The King and His Court and Six Wives of Henry VIII.

    4) Enjoy these films about this period in history: Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, is a wonderful 2009 TV documentary by historian David Starkey which follows Henry from his childhood to the end of his life. But if you’re in the mood for fiction films, try Anne of a Thousand Days and A Man for All Seasons and/or the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth films.

    A Conversation with Nancy Bilyeau

    1) Both your first novel, The Crown and The The Chalice? , are set in 16th century England. Why have you chosen this particular time period? What resonance does it have for you?

    Before I had a protagonist or a single character, I had my chosen time period: the 16th century. I never get tired of reading about it or thinking about it. I guess I’ll be in trouble if I do. I am not sure why I am so captivated—it’s an intoxicating time, it’s the transition from Middle Ages to Early Modern England, with Shakespeare and Erasmus, those vivid Holbein portraits, the music, the fashion, everything.

    2) Explain how you decided to write another novel featuring Joanna Stafford after writing your debut The Crown

    From the first, I envisioned a series of books about Joanna. I love discovering a book series myself, to know that something I am enjoying so much will be followed by another story by the same author, featuring the same main characters. I want to give readers that feeling when they are reading The Crownand The Chalice. And yes, I have more ideas. I think as I go, I get bolder, too. The adventures will become more surprising.


    3) Of all the many facets of the reign of Henry VIII, you chose to focus on the dramatic religious changes. Why this particular aspect?

    The marriages and sex life of Henry VIII have been written about quite a bit. They are dramatic fodder for storylines, but ultimately the people who were primarily affected by the king’s many marriages were the wives, children, and extended family. The daily life of a typical English man or woman was not altered by whether Henry VIII was married to Catherine Howard or Catherine Parr. But the violent wrench from Catholic to Protestant affected the entire country in profound ways. Since I wanted to create fictional characters in a time of change, if not chaos, I chose the religious conflict as engine for my narrative. I sought to understand what it would be like to live through a forced reformation. Religious faith was central to your life in the 16th century, and there was little understanding of freedom of expression, of freedom of speech. You had to adhere to the will of the king, who most believed was anointed by God, or face pretty dire consequences.

    4) There is a great deal of historical detail in The Chalice. What methods of research did you use to gain such breadth of knowledge? Can you describe how you dealt with the mixing of history and fiction?

    I was already very interested in Tudor England when I started my first novel. I have a home library of many books of nonfiction. To write my second book, I took a year off, essentially, and went to the New York Public Library and read extensively in many subjects, from medieval astrology to fashion trends to the streets curfews of London to the intricate European politics of 1538, just lots and lots of reading. I had notebooks full of information.

    I also traveled to England to research The Chalice. I spent time inside Dartford's Holy Trinity Church, which is still a functioning church in the center of town; I walked the High Street where Joanna and Edmund and Geoffrey would have walked. I found the block in London where the Red Rose once stood, and I re-visited the Tower of London. It was quite unnerving to stand on the spot where Henry Courtenay and Henry Pole, Baron Montagu, were executed on Tower Hill. And I spent hours searching for the remains of Blackfriars. It was once a thriving, massive monastery, now all that you can find is a bit of wall in a park.

    I do like to mix in “real” people from this time, to take a deep breath and decide for myself what Mary Tudor would have looked like, sounded like, behaved like, and then set her in motion. It’s a thrilling creative challenge. In my books, quite a bit of what happens is “real.” It’s faithful to recorded history.

    5) What drew you to the world of prophecy and seers? What are your personal beliefs about such phenomenon?

    What has not often been written about is how much prophecy and astrology—the arts of seeing into the future—was woven into life. Being religious did not rule out belief in these other ways, many of which pre-dated Christianity. The Tudor-era Popes had their own astrologers, I find that fascinating. Because it was a period of tremendous religious and cultural upheaval, I think people sought out seers more than a generation earlier, to get some answers. Henry VIII himself did not like prophesizing because it strayed into what would happen to him and whether he would have a son to follow him. That was treasonable. As for what I believe, I haven’t quite made up my mind.

    6) What has been your inspiration for both The Crown and The Chalice?

    The ideas suddenly come into my head, I don’t have a source of creative inspiration. Just my imagination, mixed with love of Tudor England and wanting to bring it to life. I do like to get into the mood for writing my Tudor novels, whether it’s listening to Thomas Tallis, or visiting The Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or taking a very long walk in the snow.

    7) Do you see parts of yourself in Joanna Stafford? In any of the other characters?

    I’ve been told that in some respects I am like Joanna but I don’t see it myself. The only trait that I possess that I deliberately gave her is I have a bad sense of direction. It’s frustrating!

    8) Most of your female characters are very strong. Did you consciously craft the book around strong female characters? Are you, in effect, making a feminist statement in writing The Chalice?

    I want to write about strong women. Not paragons who effortlessly do the right thing and conquer all obstacles, but women who use their brains and their inner resources to struggle to get what they need, to do what is right. I am drawn to determined women. It could be argued that the story of Joanna Stafford is of a feminist, two and a half centuries before Mary Wollstonecraft. But I don’t want to create an anachronistic character—in the 1530s women simply did not have many rights. Still, you only have to read about Anne Askew or Bess of Hardwick to know that within this period, women could be forceful and act with some independence. Or simply look at Elizabeth the First.

    9) When you began writing, did you know that Joanna Stafford would end up not marrying Edmund Sommerville? Or did you discover this during the process of writing? Have you imagined a future for Joanna beyond this book?

    I never imagined Joanna marrying him in this book. The complexities and contradictions of their relationship deepened while I was writing. I am pleased that some readers are so taken with Edmund. I like to think he is an original character.

    10) You have worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping, and are now a features editor of DuJour Magazine What inspired you to begin writing novels? How do you balance the different demands of magazine editing and novel writing?

    I didn’t think about writing novels while building a career in magazines. But after I gave birth to my son, I felt a craving to tell my own stories. I wrote a few screenplays and got pretty far in writing competitions—I have a manager for screenwriting—but then I joined a fiction workshop and was deeply bitten by the bug. I wrote at night or on weekends at Starbucks, an hour here, an hour there. I took some “staycations” when I did research and wrote. I started getting up early in the morning to write fiction before everyone else wakes up. That is a system that works, and I still do it: waking up early to write.

    11) What writers have most deeply inspired and influenced you?

    My first love was Daphne du Maurier, and I think her books hold up very well. I re-read them all the time, and I have to assume she has influenced me. I read a lot of historical fiction when I was young, primarily Norah Lofts, but also Jean Plaidy and Mary Stewart. When I was at college, I studied F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. I’ve read almost all the books of Edith Wharton and Henry James. I’d have to say I’m influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Wilkie Collins too. I really love Mary Renault and Robert Graves—they are sources of great inspiration. Most recently, I have gotten so much from reading A.S. Byatt, Katherine Neville, Elizabeth Kostova, and Ariana Franklin.

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