If you love historical fiction, you'll be fascinated by the story behind The Sworn Virgin, the debut novel from Kristopher Dukes. This gripping historical novel tells the tale of a desperate Albanian woman who will do whatever it takes to keep her independence and seize control of her future...even if it means swearing to remain a virgin for her entire life.
When eighteen-year-old Eleanora’s father is shot dead on the cobblestone streets of 1910 Albania, Eleanora must abandon her dream of studying art in Italy as she struggles to survive in a remote mountain village with her stepmother Meria.
Nearing starvation, Meria secretly sells Eleanora into marriage with the cruel heir of a powerful clan. Intent on keeping her freedom, Eleanora takes an oath to remain a virgin for the rest of her life—a tradition that gives her the right to live as a man: she is now head of her household and can work for a living as well as carry a gun. Eleanora can also participate in the vengeful blood feuds that consume the mountain tribes, but she may not be killed—unless she forsakes her vow, which she has no intention of ever doing.
But when an injured stranger stumbles into her life, Eleanora nurses him back to health, saving his life—yet risking her own as she falls in love with him...
We were lucky enough to have Kristopher write a guest post for us! Keep reading below to find out more about what inspired her to write The Sworn Virgin.
From the Author:
I dreamed of writing a novel since I was a child, but I never dreamed of writing a novel that would take five years of meticulous research, that would take place in 1910, in the faraway mountains of Albania, and that its title—The Sworn Virgin—and premise would come from the true tradition that allowed a woman to swear to remain a virgin her entire life, in exchange for gaining the legal rights and social privileges of a man.
When I first discovered the tradition through a New York Times article, I was immediately intrigued, and wondered: What would happen if a sworn virgin fell in love?
I began writing right away, afraid to lose the momentum of my unfolding story, and the discovery of who my characters were.
But after a few starts and stops and starts again, I realized I could not know who my characters were without knowing their culture. And knowing the culture of Albania, let alone of its remote mountains, was not something I had happened to simply soak up. (Edith Wharton, on the other hand, swore she had not needed to do any formal research for her debut novel The Valley of Decision, a historical romance set in Italy, and surely her own upbringing supplied any research for her masterpiece The Age of Innocence, which it’s easy to forget took place nearly 50 years before it was written and published.)
So many books about writing advised against too much early research. (Who am I to question Stephen King’s approach?) When I think back to my early drafts, written with the intention of filling in any gaps and make any historical corrections later, I see how my characters existed in an anachronistic void, and the characters’ motives made no sense.
My story people needed cultural context—like all of us do. No matter how independently individualistic we imagine ourselves to be or are, we cannot be different from everyone else unless there is everyone else, and everyone else’s rules and customs to be different from.
My five years of intense research into first-person accounts of life in the mountains of Ottoman Empire Albanian started with, natch, Google.
Internet searches quickly led me to Edith Durham’s High Albania. Edith Durham was an English woman, an adventurous traveler turned anthropologist, whose diaries and artifacts were donated to various British museums. She cruised the Dalmatian coast, eventually traveling deep into the Albanian mountains where no foreigner had been before. She kept journals, and drew pictures of how different tribes shaved their skulls, tattooed their bodies, built their fences and shelters, and noted how women would keep their children away from her while she sketched, as they thought what they called her “writing”—as most of these people had no concept of written language—was magic. She also went on to explain how most everyone assumed, due to her boyish bobbed hair and her traveling without a male relative—and I imagine her aura of authority—that she herself was one of the sworn virgins, whose existence she documented.
One version of history leads to others: Edith Durham’s book revealed spellings of tribes and villages, the various names of what is now known as Shkodër, a city at the base of the mountains, and using this new knowledge I continued my searches online, discovering old postcards, hundred-year-old travel articles, letters from Lord Byron’s adventures in Albania, and another key book: Rose Wilder Lane’s Peaks of Shala. There was one lone copy in the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, and I went there many times to read it and take notes, as the book was too precious to be borrowed.
Rose Wilder Lane was as fascinating a figure as Edith Durham, and a much more entertaining writer, which was no surprise after I discovered she was the daughter of American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder—and her mother’s theorized ghostwriter of the Little House on the Prairie series.
Rose Wilder Lane approached her stories of the mountains with much more, well, rose-tinted lenses: whereas Edith Durham was interested in anthropology, in documenting and explaining, Rose Wilder Lane came from novel and magazine writing, and almost all the mountain women she encounters have hands as beautiful as any Parisian, the profile of a classical Greek bust, the figure of a model. Whereas Edith Durham’s women have no shining hair, but intricate coifs relating to their station in life, and men’s mouths aren’t noble, only the invisible vessels of stories that, as best she can surmise, are the origin of ancient Greek myths. (Perhaps more importantly to anyone familiar with Albanian culture, is that these two women even spelled rakia—the brandy-like alcohol drunk throughout the mountains and country—differently.)
It is spelled differently, but it is the same drink. It is spelled differently, but it is the same tribe. The same city. Different words record the same place and people, even in the accounts of two Western women’s travels into the Albanian mountains, only 15 years apart.
So who was right, and what was true?
As far as I am concerned—they both were.
It’s a matter of perspective, just as historical fiction is a matter of perspective: the perspective of the author, and their research sources, if any; the perspective of the point-of-view characters; and the accumulation of unconscious perspectives from the author and the sources and the characters.
Novels, at their best, are purely a matter of perspective, which is why, no matter when they are written, or what year their characters seem to live, novels continue to be valid and unique forms of storytelling, offering unique advantages to radio, movies, and for now, virtual reality.