I’m delighted today to hand over the reins to author Tessa Harris – her latest book, Beneath a Starless Sky, will be published for kindle by HQ Digital on 9th December, with the paperback and audiobook to follow on 4th February. As soon as Tessa told me about this book, I knew it was one I really wanted to read – and I’ll look forward to sharing my review on paperback publication day. But let me hand over to Tessa to tell you more – in a guest post she’s called The Crown, but No Glory…
Tessa Harris reveals that the truth is stranger – and even more shocking – than fiction in her new novel, set in the lead-up to the Second World War.
If you’ve been following the Netflix series The Crown – as usual I was late to the party, but am now hooked – you might have been shocked by the episode in which the former King Edward VIII is exposed as a traitor, even willing to allow the slaughter of his fellow countrymen at Hitler’s hands. In it, the then titled Duke of Windsor is banished by Queen Elizabeth after she reads what is known as the Marburg files, found among secret documents uncovered in Germany after the defeat of the Nazis. It was an episode I was particularly keen to watch because the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s sympathy for the Nazi regime is central to my new novel.
Beneath A Starless Sky will be my tenth book, but I completed the first draft of it nearly thirty years ago. It was inspired by an article I read in the Sunday Times magazine in 1990 about a remarkable auction of cars, exquisite antiques, jewellery, and haute couture, including several dozen pairs of shoes. The former owner of these extraordinary items was a reclusive millionairess, who died without leaving a will. But perhaps most intriguing of all among her possessions was a photograph, presumably of her, on which someone had scribbled on the back the words The Woman Who Danced With Fred Astaire. The trouble was – all the photographs of her had been deliberately defaced. So, who was this mystery woman? A spy? A German Jewish refugee? In pre-Google times, the press was sent into a frenzy and speculation was naturally rife.
It took almost six years for the (rather less prosaic) truth to emerge, by which time it was too late. I’d already written the first draft of a novel and turned the mystery recluse into a Jewish ballerina who’d made it to Hollywood and become a secret agent. A friend of Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, Lilli Sternberg is introduced into English society and, more importantly, to the then Prince of Wales and Mrs Wallis Simpson, who, as the release in 1957 of the Marburg Files revealed, were more sympathetic to the Nazis than the British government.
With the novel complete – or so I thought at the time – I started sending it off to agents, but after a few rejections, I just put it back in the drawer. I’m glad I did, because there were more shocking revelations about the Duke of Windsor and his dealings with Hitler yet to emerge. In 1996 another portion of the Marburg Files was eventually opened at the Public Record Office in Kew. The papers apparently revealed the duke’s “ambivalent attitudes to a continuation of the war”, according to The Independent. The Guardian reported that Sir Winston Churchill wanted to “destroy all traces” of telegrams of a Nazi plot to put Edward VIII back on the British throne, codenamed Operation Willi.
I did another rewrite, incorporating the newly-released information, but to no avail. A further two or three rejections followed and another period of purdah for the novel ensued as motherhood and my career as a journalist took over.
So there the manuscript languished until in 2009, I was assigned by a magazine to interview the Hollywood legend Leslie Caron. In her heyday Miss Caron starred in over thirty films and partnered both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. She was in England to promote her autobiography – Thank Heaven – the title of the famous song in the musical Gigi with Maurice Chevalier. Having been a huge fan of classic musicals like Daddy Long Legs and An American in Paris in my childhood, I was star-struck. What also amazed me when I read about her life was how like her story was to the character in my novel. Serendipity? Who knows? Anyway, the encounter with a living legend re-energised me and I sent off my novel to two more agents, but when the rejections arrived, back in the drawer it went, yet again.
Fast forward ten years and nine murder-mystery novels later. I was looking for a new publisher and a new agent – I had finally landed one in America. I wanted a bit of a change in direction. My passion is still for historical novels, but I was seeking the freedom to write one-off stories, not series. Once again, I dusted off my novel, now vastly-changed from the original, and sent it off, this time directly to a publisher, not an agent. I was so thrilled when, after almost thirty years of trying to get it published, I finally signed a contract with HQ Digital.
It’s amazing how the novel has evolved over those years. Essentially, it’s still a love story – a Jewish dancer is forced to make tough choices to protect her family as war looms over Europe – but it’s also richer in its historical depth, thanks to the work of historians who continue to dig deep into the archives to uncover the truth – however uncomfortable it is for some, including the British royal family. Edward left behind a crown without any of the glory.
If you’re interested in reading the facts behind the fiction, I recommend in particular Michael Bloch’s Operation Willi, Andrew Morton’s 17 Carnations and Martin Allen’s Hidden Agenda: How the Duke of Windsor Betrayed the Allies. Anne Sebba’s That Woman, puts flesh on the bones of a woman so often portrayed as a monster.
Tessa, thank you – I hope everyone’s as excited by this one as I am! Beneath A Starless Sky is out in e-book, price 99p, on 9th December and in paperback and audio on 4th February 2021, price £ 8.99.
Smoke filled the air. Lilli Sternberg’s quickening heart sounded an alarm as she rounded the street corner. Lifting her gaze to the rooftops, a roaring blaze of thick flames engulfed the side of the building and joined the stars to fill the black sky. Her father’s shop was no more.
Lilli Sternberg longs to be a ballet dancer. But outside the sanctuary of the theatre, her beloved city is in chaos and Munich is no longer a place for dreams.
The Nazi party are gaining power and the threats to those who deviate from the party line are increasing. Jewish families are being targeted and their businesses raided, even her father’s shop was torched because of their faith.
When Lilli meets Captain Marco Zeiller during a chance encounter, her heart soars. He is the perfect gentleman and her love for him feels like a bright hope under a bleak sky.
But battle lines are being drawn, and Marco has been spotted by the Reich as an officer with great potential. A relationship with Lilli would compromise them both.
Will Lilli be able to escape the threats facing her family, and how much is she willing to risk for the man she loves?
An absolutely gripping and emotional historical fiction novel about love, courage and betrayal, for fans of My Name is Eva and The Woman of War.
To celebrate the release of the gripping and utterly heart-breaking Beneath A Starless Sky, Tessa will be going live on the HQ Stories Facebook page in conversation with Mandy Robotham, the international bestselling author of The Berlin Girl, on 9th December at 3pm GMT. Don’t miss it! Set your reminder here.
Tessa will also be talking about why historical fiction matters on 10th December at 7pm. Follow this link to register.
About the author
Tessa Harris read History at Oxford University and has been a journalist, writing for several national newspapers and magazines for more than thirty years. She is the author of nine published historical novels. Her debut, The Anatomist’s Apprentice, won the Romantic Times First Best Mystery Award 2012 in the US. She lectures in creative writing at Hawkwood College, Stroud and is married with two children. She lives in the Cotswolds.