Monday, September 22, 2014

M.M. Bennetts: The Closest Friend I Never Met

By Nancy Bilyeau

On December 11, 2011, I sent a Facebook friend request to a British writer named M.M. Bennetts with the following message: "You are the funniest person in our group. Please do me the honor of permitting Facebook friendship."

Her swift response: "Ha. Ha. Ha. Can't think what I've said. But yes, absolutely, delighted to."

And that was the beginning of it.

In December 2011 I was a woman with a debut novel one month away from publication. As we are all advised to do, I was writing a flurry of blog posts and meeting fellow authors in person and online. And enjoying myself. I loved writing my first post, one about Halloween in the Tudor era, for English Historical Fiction Authors, a group blog launched by author Debra Brown with the idea that each day a different person would post something on real history, either touched on in the research of a novel or simply of great interest.

Enter M.M.

As Debbie told me in an email: "It was in December. Things got behind with holidays, and I did not have enough posts. I invited British histfic authors from the Triberr group I was in to join, and that is when she came in. She said she could provide two or three posts if I needed them. 'Just ask,' she said. 'Anytime.' "

She was the perfect addition to the group and soon became one of its most active members. M.M. Bennetts, an accomplished author of two novels, Of Honest Fame and May 1812, was also a tireless researcher and editor and a book critic of many years with The Christian Science Monitor.

Or, as M.M. once put it to me: "I know I'll dig and dig until I get as close to the truth as possible, even if it means I annoy the hell out of everyone. And I don't care if people like me--I was too long a book critic to care about that."

You see, that was what I loved most about her. She was brilliant and talented and generous--and she had an edge. A wicked sense of humor and little tolerance for a "nincompetentpoop" or "wholly unintelligible drivel." We reviewed each other's books--mine Tudor thrillers and hers Napoleonic spy stories--and furiously promoted each other's blog posts on social media. And in 687 private Facebook messages over nearly three years (is this a record??), we would vent to each other about the difficulty of publishing novels. "The prob is at the minute over here, everything is World War I until I'm about to vomit. It's everybloodywhere." We swapped bits of hard-won experience and insight. There were a few tears but more often there were jokes, as in her priceless assessment: "The publishing industry is knee deep in horse muck. Only horse muck is good for roses and I'm not sure what they're good for."

I was a little intimidated by how many things she did well. She was a talented pianist. She was a horsewoman. She knew a lot about gardening. M.M. and I had in common a distaste for easy sentiment about historical figures. She had done years of research into Napoleon and knew about the havoc of his armies. She did not like the romanticizing of him, and she approved my similarly un-sentimental feeling toward Henry VIII.

I was nervous about my first bookstore reading, and she shot me useful advice in an email. Afterward I celebrated with her. No one was better than M.M. Bennetts at celebrating something going well for once.

On the bookstore reading: "The worst is one where no one comes. Ha ha. I once had a reading at a local shop and about an hour before really bad weather blew in and the heavens just opened and there were flash floods locally. So there I was with the bookshop owner and one friend who braved the deluge (and she was dripping...) So that was a bit tense, but you just have to laugh because there's nothing you can do about it. Though you do feel like a numpty with these stacks of books just sitting there. So chuffed it went well for you."

We kept nagging each other to visit. Only the Atlantic Ocean separated us! I'd traveled to London in the summer of 2011 to research The Chalice but I hadn't known M.M. then. When I pressed her to come to Florida for the June 2013 Historical Novel Society conference, she responded: "Me, on an airplane, with my claustrophobia? That's just not going to happen." Also: "June is the month in which Parnel sits her A-levels, has her final Speech Day, has her Leavers' Ball (parents invited) and sundry parties. You may have thought otherwise, but really, I'm just a high-end taxi service. So I have a better plan. You come here. For research for your next book. I could be nice and take you on the cakey tour!"

I wanted very much to visit, but finances wouldn't permit it. Still, we talked a lot about our agenda during my theoretical stay. I confided: "High tea is what has the power to bring me to tears."

M.M. responded: "Don't cry over it. That just ruins the tea. If you want high tea, we should go over to what used to be the family shack in Sparsholt. Now it's a posh hotel. Or there's a place down in Brockenhurst which does a fine high tea. Ginger Two has the best cake in Hampshire and that's in Winchester. Very homey--there's a pic of all the cake on my wall--the only pic. I have my priorities."

Of Honest Fame is a suspenseful and beautifully written novel. Read my review here: "A Regency Novel Like No Other." M.M. was doing an amazing job with her article writing and her editing of the EHFA anthology  Castles, Customs and Kings. But what about another novel, I asked?

"I want to--just as you say--have fun with writing again," she responded. "Enjoy my work, enjoy playing with the language and characters like a sculptor plays with clay. But there's this manic focus on numbers--how many books have you written and how many have you sold and it's all push, push, push, and no time for reflection--but at heart, books are about dreaming... which is just the opposite. So I don't know..."

This past March I received an email from M.M. that surprised and worried me: "I've been, er, fighting the big c for a few years now, am just about finished with a kind of big thing with radiotherapy to the head--they are also convinced I'm going to be fine, and I'm looking forward, but you know, I want my life back, and I want to get back in the saddle with my work."

She reassured me several times that she was getting better, suggesting I write a guest post for her blog on the Hermit of Dartford, but at the same time I noticed her witty and knowledgeable comments on the EHFA Facebook group were becoming less and less frequent.

My last email to my friend M.M. Bennetts was on August 9, alerting her to my blog post on the Hellfire Club in Medmenham Abbey: "I thought that if anyone would enjoy a bit of Georgian debauchery, it would be you!"

There was never a response. And then I knew. Yet when her daughter emailed me in that M.M. had died, peacefully, surrounded by family on August 25, I looked at the message on my phone in disbelief. I read it on the way out of my apartment building and found I couldn't get out the door. I sat in the corner of the lobby, facing the courtyard window, and I cried and cried.

I mourn her friendship, her knowledge, her warmth, her never-to-be-forgotten jokes. I wish with all my heart she'd written another novel. I hope people will find the fine ones she did write.

"We learn and we grow wise and we do it ourselves," she once emailed me.

M.M., I promise you I will try.

Love, Nancy


M.M. befriended many members of English Historical Fiction Authors besides myself, and touched readers with her storytelling gifts as well. Debbie Brown and I would love it if we all shared a memory of M.M. Bennetts in the comments section of this blog post.

M.M. Bennetts
29 July, 1957 - 25 August, 2014

37 comments:

  1. Lovely post Nancy, I am feeling very 'full-up' now. I owe so much to her. When I was a nervous new comer, too scared to share my posts, worried I'd seem boastful, M M encouraged me. 'You are terrific author,' she said, 'very frank and unembellished. I admire that.' I took heart from her words, especially when she went around for a day or two telling everyone to read my book because I was 'peachy'. Coming from M M, who was so clever at everything, it was one of my best ever compliments. I miss her dreadfully.

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    1. MM included you in a short list of excellent authors on EHFA in a message to me once, Judith. :)

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  2. I find this heartbreaking. I think she helped me with the look over of my early posts. And I remember her witty comments too. I was not aware of how ill she was and it came as a shock to learn of her death. She had always seemed to be there even when she was not. I guess she still is.

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    1. I still watch for her to Like comments on Facebook, Carol. It leaves me with an empty feeling.

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  3. Where do I start? MM stepped in and helped out here from the first days of her membership. At first she wrote her witty posts, and over time she began to look at posts ahead of time to edit them, lending the blog her years of literary experience and eventually giving me the courage to do the editing when she could not, so she has had a lasting effect here.

    We exchanged many emails, and I always enjoyed her humor. I wished I'd had more time for emailing just for the laughs. I learned Thing One about horses from her and much about England.

    She was always someone you could ask questions about history of, and she had an encyclopedic knowledge--as she said, "little known facts of dubious value". That and her literary experience were of great value in editing Castles, Customs, and Kings. At one point she wrote a post on her own blog about how people should NOT ask questions but do their own research. She gave great reasons about the enriching value of it, but I felt that she was weaning people off, knowing she would not always be available.

    This was such a loss. I wish she'd have had more years to focus on her books, but she did not really get to market the first two as she'd have liked due to her illness. She was grateful to EHFA for helping with that, so any of you who tweeted and shared were making her day. A special thanks to those who hosted her blog tour, and also to those who never received the scheduled post. Sorry I couldn't let you know why.

    A last thank you to M.M. Bennetts.

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  4. A lovely tribute, and very moving. She will be so missed.

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  5. Such lovely memories both in the post and here in the comments. A wonderful tribute.

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  6. This wonderful lady worked on a guest post for my blog and I had no idea that she was so ill. I can honestly say that working with her on the post was one of the most rewarding highpoints of my entire blog - I laughed SO much. What a wonderful, kind, helpful lady. I so regret not knowing her outside of social media. Here's the guest post - enjoy. http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/my-tuesday-talk-guest-cue-music-james.html (I hope it is in order for me to use the lovely photograph above of this wonderful lady on my post. )

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    1. Thanks for the link, Helen. I appreciate that the family released the beautiful picture of MM.

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  7. MM and I got to know each other through our mutual love of Dorothy Dunnett books. We had lovely chats about them which I miss. She knew of my ambition to write a regency romance book and gave me lots of links to blogs and some books which would help me find the Information wanted . She was witty, knowledgeable and very kind and I now is very much missed by many . I am sure she will be looking down from heaven smiling at all the tributes to her . God Bless You MM

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    1. Thank you, Jayne. I am glad you had those chats!

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  8. Who but M M would initiate FB threads about the best cakey? Who but M M would admit that she really liked all kinds of cakes... Generous and encouraging, she was fantastic at giving constructive criticism, and at reviewing submitted posts along the lines of "I brushed up your commas - tedious, I know, but the aim is always to be perfectly clear, isn't it?" Err...yes!
    I am convinced M M is up there somewhere, probably with a huge selection of cakes spread before her, a horse within sight and hopefully an interesting historical person or two to converse.

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    1. Cakey, commas, and clarity. That's MM. :)

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    2. I regret I didn't know her better. I loved her humor and her knowledge of Napoleon and his invasion of Russia was one of our better posts.
      Marilyn

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  9. An absolutely lovely tribute to a wonderful woman.

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  10. I knew her a little through FB mainly - initially, I think, because I had written a HF about the 17th century composer, Alessandro Stradella. And when she saw I was writing a novel which included Henry Purcell, she suggested a CD by the beautiful singer Barbara Bonney who M M had done a master class with. Of course, whenever I listen to it, I can't help but think of M M's connection to fine music, as well as her wit, wisdom, intelligence, and dedication to writing that strives for truth and excellence more than popular appeal. The quote 'speaks' to how I will honor her: "I want to--just as you say--have fun with writing again," she responded. "Enjoy my work, enjoy playing with the language and characters like a sculptor plays with clay. But there's this manic focus on numbers--how many books have you written and how many have you sold and it's all push, push, push, and no time for reflection--but at heart, books are about dreaming... which is just the opposite."

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    1. Thank you. MM was a classical pianist. And this quote is something all writers should take to heart.

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  11. You all make me wish I'd had the chance to know her! Wonderful tributes.

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  12. This was one of the finest obituaries/tributes I have ever read. Thank you for your kind words about M.M. Bennetts, the lady I was only beginning to know.

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  13. I wish people would collect her sayings... The wit and wisdom of MM....for those of us not lucky enough to have known her. Thanks to this marvelous tribute , I almost feel I did . Thank you

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    1. I will try to look for some of the things she said later today, both wit and wisdom. If you get a chance, read her EHFA posts and her own blog. You will get a good taste of it all.

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    2. Thank you, I will. I went over to her guest post at Helen Hollick 's blog and certainly want to read more! Her insistence on research is so important ....because as she said in that post. "you can't make this stuff up" Indeed Research is not merely something one ought do...you'd be crazy not to. History is always more interesting than anything we could cook up . Thank you again

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    3. MM teaching me to ride a horsey from 6000 miles away:

      "They're prey animals. We're predatory in their minds. So if we're scared, they're scared, really scared. But if we turn to a bag of jelly on their bag and are so cool, they're like, hunh? Maybe it's okay. That's why after a big spook and a throw, it's important that one looks after them, they remember that for ever, that tells them, I'm safe with you, and they will ALWAYS protect you after that. Bally, who isn't the brightest button in the box, would defend me to the death. He carried me through a gale force 8 storm when the winds were throwing us from one side of the path to the other...and he never faltered. Horses heal your heart."

      I said, "But they twitch." and "I'm scared of heights."

      She said, "That only lasts about one or two lessons. I could teach you. Put you on a gentle sweetie who'd nanny you. So darling."

      I believe MM could have taught me to ride. :)

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    4. We got on that topic because we were working on her blog tour. I gave her a list of dates on her schedule and asked if I needed to pull on the reins and slow it down so she could get the posts written on time. She said,

      "Nope! I'm good! Steph is done! Actually it may not slow things down--if you've got a spooking galloping horse, the thing to do is to relax, sit heavy in the saddle and toward the back, and loosen the reins so they've nothing to rebel against. Head up a hill or into a tree or a shrub. They think, oh, my person's not fussed--hunh? Maybe not so scary after all..."

      A good teacher, don't you think?

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  14. MM once said to me ' ...you can write him (well-known HMF author) into a cocked hat...' which was very flattering, but I don't have the ego to quite believe it. If I could write like her - now, that'd be something special. Never happen, though.

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    1. She wasn't known to hold any punches. You must have something going for you there!

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  15. What a wonderful post! It made me cry. I was so shocked and devastated to hear about her departure... so much passion, wit and talent - gone...

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    1. Thanks for your comment. It is sad when someone with so much to offer dies. How unfair.

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  16. Thank you so much for this lovely post. I had only a few Facebook conversations with M.m., but even so I felt she was a friend. (And of course I love both her books--wonderful reads and rereads.) Thanks so much for posting her comment that at heart, books are about dreaming. This is so comforting in this crazy world of publishing, and how awesome that M.m. is still giving us advice even though she's no longer here.

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    1. Yes. A big thanks to Nancy for sharing her comments.

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  17. Wonderful tribute it an intelligent lady of much worth. I also was just getting to know all the marvellous writings that she contributed to and did. Thank you all for sharing more information on a much loved lady.

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  18. I missed this wonderful tribute to M.m. in my own stunned reaction to her passing, Nancy. To read it now, separated by time, is quite honestly better than if I had read it when I felt her loss quite keenly.
    We were not as close as you, but her interests in life mirrored mine quite substantially and I found we were on a similar wavelength. I loved her wit and her need not to suffer fools gladly. I loved her refreshing honesty, her immense intellect, her love of gardens and cakey - I am a fool over cakey and it brightens every day/week/month of my life. And we shared an awful claustrophobia on planes. Ha!
    I am reading Of Honest Fame for the second time and keep standing back and marvelling. I have to say that I have no interest in Napoleon whatsoever and this clever, clever writer beguiled me to read on and what a read it is. What does that say about her skill? Her writing is par excellence - it truly is. A wonderful representation of the woman she was.
    She and I shared an absolute love of Dorothy Dunnett and it is to my everlasting joy that she wrote the post to end all posts on her relationship with that wonderful writer. More joy when the DD Society, to which I belong, contacted me to ask if they could print the post. I immediately contacted M.m and it must have been in the last crucial month when she agreed for it to be printed in Whispering Gallery, the DD Society's regular journal.
    My copy arrived the other day and I was thrilled, touched and heartened to see that M.m's lucid, erudite words were there for all DD lovers to read.
    Thank you for sharing your friendship here.
    She is missed online.
    Quite simply there is no one like her at all...'
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  19. Thank you for this moving tribute. It brought her back for a moment. She is deeply missed.

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  20. She was my best friend. She was my sister (without blood relations). I heard of all of you. She would talk about you all. I was so happy you welcomed her. Emmy's talent and knowledge was beyond anything I've ever known. I loved her. I love her girls. I am their Aunt Jenni, and it is so marvelous to see posts such as these. After all she has done for me and others... this heals my wounded heart. Thank you. She is dearly missed. And loved. And I'm so grateful she eventually began to share with others of her illness... I held her as she wept for life, for love... even though she had given so much to everyone around her. This was simply beautiful. Thank you.

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  21. I just discovered M.M.'s historical blog. Her voice and wit come through the posts, and I want to savor them. She must have been an amazing woman. I love English history but haven't got the guts to do the intense research for a book. I wrote a contemporary romantic suspense set in my state of Oklahoma. Even the research for this book took me some time. I am a former history teacher. I'm so happy that I found M.M.'s blog.

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    1. Mary, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here. M.M. was an amazing woman to be sure.

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