Sharon Kay Penman, whose novels plumbed Britain's past, dies at 75

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Sharon Kay Penman, whose novels plumbed Britain's past, dies at 75
Lionheart: A Novel by Sharon Kay Penman.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Sharon Kay Penman, a former tax lawyer whose bestselling epics about medieval England and Wales drew legions of admirers for her meticulous research and commitment to historical facts, died on Jan. 22 in a hospital in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She was 75.

Her brother, William J. Penman Jr., said the cause was pneumonia.

“She was a giant in the field,” said Margaret George, the author of historical novels like “The Splendor Before the Dark,” about the Roman emperor Nero. “She was a diligent scholar but she was able to write accessible books that were real page-turners.”

Starting with her first book, “The Sunne in Splendour” (1982), about King Richard III, Penman loaded her novels with material she gathered from years of research, both on the ground in Britain and in the stacks at the University of Pennsylvania library, near her home. Before the internet made finding obscure history books easy, she would scour secondhand shops in England, shipping home boxes and boxes of texts, amassing a library of several thousand volumes.

Though many of her books topped 1,000 pages, she developed an extensive fan base, and several of her later works made The New York Times’ bestseller list. She reciprocated that devotion, leading tours of medieval English sites and even bringing a few readers with her on a trip to Jerusalem to research her last book, “The Land Beyond the Sea” (2020), about the Crusades.

“She told me many times, ‘Don’t forget who’s reading your books,'” said Steve Duffy, the author of the forthcoming historical novel “The Kaiser’s Web.”

Penman was likewise appreciated by other historical novelists as a mentor and advocate. She offered advice to unpublished writers, sent critiques of their drafts and wrote blurbs once their work appeared.

“I was a longtime admirer of her writing and was hugely flattered when she published an appreciation of my work,” said Bernard Cornwell, the author of his own long list of historical bestsellers, including, most recently, “War Lord” (2020). “She was immensely generous with her encouragement and praise, a tireless supporter of other writers, and self-deprecating about her own work.”

Sharon Kay Penman was born on Aug. 13, 1945, in New York City and raised in Atlantic City, where her father, William J. Penman, waited tables and drove a jitney. Her mother, Theresa (Riggs) Penman, also waited tables. She is survived by her brother.

Her father wrote novels in his spare time, though despite decades of labor, he never managed to have one published. His daughter followed his lead, writing short stories in high school and later as a history major at the University of Texas at Austin, sending them home for his approval.

It was in Austin that Penman first encountered the more positive revisionist view of Richard III, the last king of the Plantagenet dynasty, who died at the hands of Henry Tudor on Bosworth Field. She became consumed with his story.

Though there is a rich historical debate over the king’s record, most people still think of him as the power-mad hunchback depicted by Shakespeare. “My Richard is a revisionist Richard,” she said later. “He’s not Shakespeare’s ‘bottled spider.’”

She began research for a novel about the much-maligned monarch in 1968, and continued through law school at Rutgers University-Camden. One day, six years into her work on the book, she left her 400-page manuscript, her only copy, on the trunk of her car while she was moving things into her apartment. When she returned, moments later, it was gone. Though she suspected a passerby, she later lay blame on a “vengeful Tudor ghost.”

Unable to comprehend starting from scratch, Penman set aside her creative aspirations and turned to her legal career. She graduated in 1974 and moved to Los Angeles, then returned to Atlantic City, where she joined a firm specializing in tax law.

It took almost four years for her writer’s block to pass. When it did, the work on her Richard novel flowed. She left her job to spend months in York, England, for research, eventually producing a 1,236-page manuscript. When she submitted it to her publisher, Henry Holt & Co., her editor asked if she felt any pangs of conscience for all the dead trees her book would require. The two whittled it down to a relatively slim 936 pages.

Penman would go on to write 14 more novels, most of them in series — one about Welsh royalty, another about the Plantagenets and yet another about a fictional medieval detective working for Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Though all her books were doorstops, filled with regiments of characters, she maintained that at least 90% of their material was drawn from the historical record. At the end she appended a lengthy author’s note, sometimes 40 pages or more in length, in which she explained where she had done her research and where she had taken liberties with the facts.

She also kept up with developments in academic history. Richard the Lionhearted makes a brief appearance in her early book “Here Be Dragons” (1985), in which she implies that he is gay, but in later books he is decidedly not — a revision, she said, that reflected changes in the historical consensus about the king.

Such was her commitment to the factual record that she kept a running list on her website of historical errors in her novels, owning up to even the most minor offense, like describing a medieval greyhound as “brindled,” long before the breed developed that particular coloration.

For Penman, a commitment to historical accuracy was more than just a personal choice; it was, she wrote in an opinion piece in 2020 for the History News Network, the writer’s moral obligation to keep as close to the facts as possible, and to be transparent about where the record had been fudged — especially when “fact” itself was under assault.

“We need to be able to rely upon a novelist’s interpretation” of the past, she wrote. “So, truth matters. I would never have expected that statement to become controversial, but never has that bedrock value been under such relentless assault.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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