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    We have an extra guest post today from Eliza Graham, who latest book is The History Room. She raises some very interesting questions for all writers of historical fiction.

    I’ve just been rereading Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, set in Cornwall during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and memorably filmed by the BBC in the seventies. Sadly, despite our shared surname, Winston Graham is no relation of mine.

    As a teenager I was smitten by Poldark: the dashing men galloping over cliff tops between shipwrecks, daring raids on prisons, and romantic encounters with women in daringly cut bodices. But there was so much more in the series: real historical understanding of the period and of how people related to one another.

    Now I’m returning to the full series of twelve novels with a writer’s eye and rediscovering just how good they are, particularly the first seven novels. I’m addicted and I’m delighted about my addiction. My subconscious has latched on to something it badly needs. I own many books on the craft of novel-writing, but I learn most from compulsive rereading of someone else’s novels. But while I’m feeding my addiction and trying to learn from a master writer, I’m also musing on this point: what is it about particular historical people or periods that draws us to them?

    Winston Graham wrote the first of the series, Ross Poldark, in 1945 and it’s the story of a soldier returning to his home, having spent time in America as a prisoner of war. It’s impossible not to see the parallels between Ross’s return from the American War of Independence and the period in which the novel was written. Ross struggles to regain the things he left behind to go to war: home, livelihood, love, just as returning soldiers in 1945 struggled to adapt to bombed and disrupted homes and lost family and friends. I actually wrote a novel, Jubilee, with a returning POW who can’t reintegrate to a quiet life on a family farm. It was a challenge to convey that sense of dislocation and alienation. I wish I’d thought to re-read Ross Poldark first.

    Fast forward a little and I’m now reading Winston Graham’s middle Poldark novels, written in the seventies. The Four Swans is essentially a novel about four very different marriages. The protagonist in each of the marriages act out some of the hottest debates of the seventies: women’s rights, the nature of an equal marriage, what happens when a partner is attracted by a third party, whether there can be rape in marriage. We may be reading about Georgian Cornwall but the observations are doubly interesting when simultaneously applied to the landscape of marriage in the late twentieth century.

    Very occasionally I wonder whether anachronisms have crept into the books. A mauve dress is described; I believe the dye was a Victorian invention. A character talks about a ‘week end’, a term probably unfamiliar to the late Georgians. Occasionally the dialogue doesn't sound exactly of its time. But it’s the mark of a great novelist that none of these things matter: the essence of eighteenth-century Cornwall, its remoteness (at least three days away from London) its reliance on mining, fishing and agriculture, the fear of invasion by the French, the start of the Industrial Revolution and the early sparks of the Romantic movement, they’re all there.

    I’d forgotten how much of the industrial life of Cornwall in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is in the books. Family fortunes ebb and flow as mines are closed or reopened or as fresh lodes are discovered. The miners work in dangerous and unpleasant conditions: fatal accidents are common. But they can do well, far better than farm labourers. When the economy slumps and the miners are laid off they don’t behave like saints: a number take to armed robbery and over-enthusiastic plundering of shipwrecks. As Winston Graham wrote on through the seventies he was entering a period of increasingly strident industrial stand-offs between the unions and various governments. Perhaps some anxiety about this failure to find a balance between workers’ rights and industrial efficiency transferred itself to the books. Ross Poldark is a ‘good’ employer: he tries to provide work in his mines as long as he possibly can, to the point of bankruptcy. But he doesn’t scruple to deal firmly with any challenge to his authority: sacking drunken and unruly servants and threatening homelessness to antisocial tenants. At the same time, he turns a blind eye to minor misdemeanours. He is the attractively humane face of capitalism and in great contrast to his arch-enemy, George Warleggan, with his compulsion to own and control everything and everyone.

    I find myself returning my own work-in-progress, a novel partly set in the thirties and eighties and looking at it for the freshness I’ve found in these favourite historical novels. If I don’t find it, I will have failed.

    This new book concerns itself inter alia with Kindertransport children. I’ve realized that the novel is actually the fourth I’ve written that contains refugee or migrant characters of some kind. Perhaps I’m writing about one of the big dilemmas for our country at the moment: how to be humane and enlightened, yet realistic when it comes to making and enforcing immigration policy; how to retain the prized parts of national and regional identity while welcoming newcomers. I’m an immigrant’s daughter myself and I’m possibly also writing about a part of my family history that I don’t consciously think about very much.

    It’s not a new dilemma. Going back to the Poldark novels, I recall how Winston Graham describes the career of the incomer doctor, Dwight Enys, who painstakingly builds up the trust of the locals over a period of years, surviving an affair with a miner’s wife and a dental operation that goes badly wrong, resulting in death. Dwight isn’t ‘foreign’ in terms of being non-British, but he faces many of the issues of the immigrant in establishing himself in a community.

    So, whether it’s eighteenth-century Cornwall, or seventeenth-century France, Thomas Cromwell or Charlemagne, my question is: what is it about particular periods of history, or historical characters, that draws us to them? And what do those choices say about ourselves as readers and writers?

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  • 11/17/12--17:00: Bletchley Park - Celia Rees

  • Now, I have to admit that I'm useless at codes and cyphers which is probably one of the reasons that I'd never visited Bletchley Park. I assumed it was a couple of huts in the grounds of a crumbling country house  with nothing much to look at when you got there. Perhaps some machinery. If you were lucky. 

    I could not have been more wrong. Yes, there is a country house but it is no longer crumbling. Yes, there are huts but even though the paint is peeling and the fabric decaying they are far from dull and lifeless. They are empty now, some in dangerous condition so you can't go in them, but there is something about them that is highly evocative. It is not hard to imagine a time when they were full of activity of a top secret nature. Uniformed young men and women coming and going, civilian boffins like Alan Turing wandering around in tweed sports jackets, smoking pipes and cracking codes while   Tommy Flowers and the Dollis Hill telephone engineers were busy inventing the computer.  

    Even today, something feels illicit about seeing the code breaking machines. Mysterious mechanisms  humming away, coloured wheels turning and clicking; cables dangling like loops of red spaghetti  making connections, carrying secrets. 

    I did listen very carefully to the man who explained how the code was broken and I actually understood for a second or two, until it fell right out of my head like algebra in school. The intricacies of the codes, how they worked were never going to be my major point of interest. I was much more excited by the human stories here. By the ingenuity and the vision of the codebreakers who knew it was impossible to crack the Enigma encryptions head on, the possibilities ran into millions of millions. Rather, Turing thought about what the machine didn't do and the code breakers pounced on the mistakes of German operatives made complacent by the apparent invulnerability of their coding system. Even so, Enigma would have been remained just that, almost impossible to crack, without the knowledge passed on by the Polish cryptographers and mathematicians who were the first to discover how the machine worked and, as their country fell to the Germans, smuggled out their knowledge, code books and copies of the machines.

    Mixed in with the day to day workings of the place are stories of great heroism. Several young sailors lost their lives capturing code books from a sinking German submarine. Their sacrifice meant that  even though the Enigma machines had been modified, the codes could still be broken. 

    Over 12,000 people, 80% of them women, worked at Bletchley Park at some point in the war, yet the centre was never penetrated by German Intelligence. How do we know that? If it had been, it would have been bombed into oblivion. Churchill referred to the Bletchley staff as 'The geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled.' 

     After the war, those who had worked there kept the secret. It wasn't until the 1970s that the work done at Bletchley was revealed to the general public. By the 1990s the site had fallen into serious disrepair and might have been lost altogether but for the efforts of Milton Keynes Borough Council and the formation of the Bletchley Park Trust. The site opened to the public as a museum in 1993 and the work goes on to open more of the huts and to re-build the machines that broke Enigma

    Never in my wildest historical fantasies do I see myself as a member of the Bletchley Circle (despite the outfits). Cryptography is really not my thing. If I invented a code, it would be very different. Nevertheless, Bletchley has me hooked. I have my year long pass. I'll be back! 

    Celia Rees' latest novel, This is Not Forgiveness is published in the U.K. by Bloomsbury and in the U.S. by Bloomsbury U.S. and has been long listed for the Carnegie Medal and for the U.K. Literary Association Book Award.


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    It was one of those never-to-be forgotten experiences.

    As a writer who is also a librarian I’m always interested, when in different countries, to visit their libraries. Recently, on the Russian leg of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference with Melvin Burgess and Tibor Fischer, I’d asked if it was possible to see around the Russian State Library in Moscow. I expected a quick tour of various departments. Instead what Melvin and I were treated to was a privileged glimpse of the archives and special collections.

    Dwarfed by the massive statue of Dostoyevsky we made our way with our British Council escort to meet the librarian and archivist, our charming hosts for the afternoon. We were led through a maze of corridors, across an open courtyard to a separate building where they’d laid some exhibits out for us.
     First up was a stunning bound illuminated manuscript, with colours from natural dyes still vibrant after hundreds of years.

    Some manuscript leaves from a writer of later date were next. There were pages of pre-typewriter elegant ink script, with scoring out of text and corrections inserted. Empathy flowed from us. But who could this be? Which famous Russian writer? 

    Leaning closer we could distinguish the words ‘Brothers Karamazov’ Dostoyevsky’s own writing! 

    The archivist then picked a green covered exercise book and laid it before us. 

    We literally gasped when we realised it was a handwritten version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, ‘The Master and Margarita.’ 

    It was an exceptional day. We left, dizzy with delight.

    Our trip took us further east - four hours flight plus four hours time difference - to land in the pale yellow and lilac light of a Siberian winter morning. Beautiful clear air and a mesmerising twinkle from the ground’s frosty sheen. Mild snowfall, but it wasn’t that cold, honestly, (and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Scot) A myriad of things done and seen and shared, and then, on our last night, something happens, one of number of things which I’m starting to call a Siberian Serendipity moment.

    We’re invited to a ‘Night at the Museum’ – a very innovative idea here - when the public have free late night access to the Krasnoyarsk Cultural and Historical Museum Complex. Wandering through some amazing exhibits in one of the galleries we come across a painting. Ahh! The artist has chosen to illustrate scenes from a book. I’ll leave you to guess which one….       

    More info:

    Twitter: @theresabreslin1 

    Spy for the Queen of Scotsis nominated for the Carnegie Medal and an Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales  illustrated by Kate Leiper is nominated for the Greenaway Medal.

    An interactive session on Scottish Folk and Fairy Taleswith illustrator Kate Leiper is scheduled for Tuesday 27th November, Rothes Hall, Fife.  
    In conjunction with the Citizens Theatre and South Lanarkshire schools the Divided City musical will be produced at Hamilton Town House Theatre in February 2013.     


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    I had one of those bad writing days yesterday. The kind when you spend an hour struggling to perfect a single paragraph, then ‘read it back at a run’ and have your eyes pop out with horror when you see how ghastly it is. The kind, in fact, that historical writers are never supposed to mention. 

    Shutterstock, not me. Trust me, it's prettier.
    I don’t know why we’re not. Authors of contemporary novels blog about writing all the time, but historical novelists tend to talk about only one thing – history. Even here on ‘The History Girls’ we usually discuss research, re-enactment, historical field trips, all the really labour-intensive stuff we do before sitting down at our computers and letting a novel ooze effortlessly out from our fingertips.

    Well, I’m going to break ranks and admit that mine doesn’t always ooze. Sometimes it trickles. Sometimes it coagulates into a sticky clay mass that forms hideous faces to jeer at me. Sometimes I look around at the wonderful writers on this blog and think with shame that I shouldn’t be here at all.

    All writers do that sometimes (don’t they?) but it's not something we discuss in historical forums. Research is what sets us apart, research and history – the writing is the same as in any other genre, so why should we bother talking about that?

    But it’s not the same, it’s nothing like the same, and I'd argue the writing is even harder than in contemporary novels. It’s true we share the same concerns with storytelling, pacing, characterisation and narrative drive, it’s true we need the same ‘writing tools’ to start with – but the first thing you do when writing historical fiction is throw half of them away.Half your modern understanding of how things (and people) work, half your modern perspective, half your knowledge of the very time you’re writing about – and half of your precious, hard-won vocabulary. If this is a fight, the historical novelist starts it with one hand tied behind her back.

    Historical words. Sometimes even reading is difficult...
    The words are the thing. Those black squiggly creatures we need to nail to a white screen to make them tell the story we need to tell. Even if a historical writer has decided to ‘translate’ her work into modern English, half her vocabulary will still be useless because it refers to things for which there wasn’t even a concept, let alone a word. True, we don’t need words for computers or telephones or radios before such things existed – but what about those phenomena that have been around and observed long before we ever had words for them?

    Here’s a tiny example from my current novel. A wounded soldier is being tended in a freezing cave, and when his friends peel off his woollen ‘Balaklava’ helmet, his wispy grey hair behaves just as we’d expect it to. A modern reader needs only one of the words ‘static’ or ‘electricity’ to know exactly what I’m talking about – but in 1855 my characters can’t use either of them. All right, that’s a good ‘writerly’ challenge, and I duly come up with a detailed description – but in doing so I’ve given a fleeting image an importance wholly disproportionate to what’s going on. There’s a risk that the reader will stop and think, and I want him to move on with the story. There’s an even worse danger that my ‘point-of-view’ hero will seem more interested in a physical peculiarity than in the fact his friend may be dying. So what do I do?

    The problem’s everywhere. Even common internal sensations can be tricky when we're not allowed to know about simple chemicals like adrenaline. I try telling myself that's good, that it's better to ‘show, not tell’, but there’s a limit to the amount of ‘showing’ we can do before the action grinds to a horrible halt. My first draft of the Battle of the Alma for ‘Into the Valley of Death’ dealt with three characters facing imminent death for the first time, and there was so much sweating, heart-thumping and stomach churning in the first five minutes they looked ready for the ambulance before ever facing the guns.

    Everywhere. Artistic concepts like ‘surreal’, retail terms like ‘wholesale’, technical phrases like ‘crossed wires’ – all out. Psychiatric concepts – no-one can be ‘obsessed’ or ‘fixated’ or even ‘have a thing’ about something, even if I know they damn well do. Computers alone have given us so many useful phrases it’s hard to work out how we once managed without them. I’m old enough to remember when we talked about putting on different ‘hats’ rather than working in different ‘modes’, but I still struggled for nearly ten minutes with the idea of a man trying to ‘process’ his feelings before I came up with the sentence ‘She was hitting him with so many emotions at once he could no longer fathom his own.’

    Not great, perhaps, but ultimately I think it’s better. ‘Fathom’ is a lovely word, plumbing the depths, digging down through the layers – it’s much more evocative than ‘process’. Modern language may be full of useful words it’s hard to replace, but there’s a soulless quality to them I’m never sorry to lose. Many are little more than a glib shorthand to save us the effort of thinking what we really mean. Writing historical fiction forces us to look at everything with fresh eyes, as if we are seeing it for the first time. 

    All well and good – until we have to communicate it. When there’s an ‘old’ word like ‘fathom’ to do it, then we’re home and dry, but when there isn’t we often have to resort to imagery. That's what I did in the end with my old man's electric hair - I let it crackle and'float about the lined forehead like torn cobwebs’. Unchanging nature is still the best way to make the unfamiliar familiar – which is why historical fiction is often so bung full of ‘natural world’ imagery as to make Thomas Hardy look positively industrial. 

    The problem comes when the natural world is silent. Human invention and behaviour are both complex, and unfortunately not everything can be explained in terms of sun, moon, stars, earth, water, fire, plants, animals and bloody birds. When that happens we have to hunt for other things that will be meaningful to the modern reader but still within the grasp of a protagonist who lived centuries ago. 

    It can be done. Writers like fellow History Girl M.C. Scott deal with the Roman world, but in ‘The Eagle of the Twelfth’ we find men with ‘cheekbones jutting sharp as bridges’, blades ‘held forward like clubs’, and slaughter with the ‘dance-like elegance of a mummery made for our entertainment’. It can be done and done brilliantly.

    When we’re ‘in the zone’, it can even seem easy. I haven’t had to worry much about the unfamiliar in the Crimea (mud and trenches are well enough known through WWI) but even in my 17th century Chevalier novels I didn't have to look far to find the simile for my hero being goaded by a crowd of men ‘like a bear at a fair’

    When we do this we’re almost defeating the purpose of imagery, using the unfamiliar to describe the even less familiar, but when we’re behind our characters’ eyes it just somehow happens. In ‘In the Name of the King’ I had the character of Jacques confronted for the first time by a firework rocket, but I was ‘in his skin’ at the time and knew exactly what it looked like. The image that sprang into my mind was this:

    Chateau at Lucheux - Wikipedia Commons
    That’s the chateau at Lucheux which Jacques would have seen in the distance every day of his boyhood. The modern reader won’t necessarily know that, but he’ll know what a cone is, he knows what a firework is, and even if he’s never seen 17th century French architecture I’m hoping that ‘a pointed cap like the cones on the roof of the chateau at Lucheux’  will give him enough to join the dots.

    I hope. That’s what it’s like when it works, when we’re really ‘in period’ and don’t have to ‘translate’ modern ideas into their 17th or 19th century equivalents. When it works, we’re seeing things as our characters do and conveying them as our characters would, and for me there is nothing more satisfying and exhilarating.

    When it works. I’m not complaining at what we have to do – I think both our perception and our writing are better for it. I'm only saying thatI sometimes find it hard, and really hope I'm not the only one.

    And I think it’s going to get harder for the next generation. It’s only when we start to write historical fiction that we realize how fastour language has changed in the last sixty years. William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ (1954) hardly uses a word that couldn’t have been spoken in my Crimean world of exactly a hundred years before – but how many books written in 2012 could have been easily understood by a passenger on the Titanic? 

    And the gap is growing. My own childhood was filled with books written long before I was born: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1865); Beatrix Potter (1902); ‘The Just So Stories’ (1902); ‘The Railway Children’ (1906); ‘The Secret Garden’ (1910). Like most children I knew, I was familiar with Victorian and Edwardian English long before I picked up ‘Jane Eyre’ at the age of nine. Is this still true of children now? How long before even ‘Great Expectations’ has to be taught with footnotes, as Shakespeare is today?

    Inkwell dug up near British HQ in the Crimea
    The past is slipping away from us. I’m now old enough to see it, to watch as experiences from my youth crystallize and freeze into history. I’m not ancient, but I remember those first writing lessons with pen and ink when we dipped the scratchy nib into an ink-well in the desk that was usually half-full of pencil shavings. A few weeks ago I was writing a scene when a Crimean officer was writing a report, and had to consciously remind myself to describe those things I remember so well: the clink-clink-clink of pen against ink well, the shaking to remove the drops, the careful application of blotting paper afterwards. Time’s whirligig has brought in its revenges rather quicker than it used, and my childhood is now history.

    So be it then. That is sometimes our job, to write about the strange as if it is familiar, and the familiar as if it is strange. We must be the translators, the guides who hold the door open to the past and allow the reader to re-enter a lost world - and the only tools we have to do it are our words.

    That’s why writing historical fiction is hard. Definitely not because I’m rubbish. Not at all.

    Or then again, maybe I’ve just had a bad day.

    A.L. Berridge's website

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    Circle of Shadows is due out in paperback tomorrow, and as the novel is set in Germany that gives me a chance to talk about what a wonderful place Baden-Württemberg is to spend time. For those of you who don’t know it, please do put it on your ‘to visit’ list at once. The scenery is magnificent and the whole region is packed with enough castles, cathedrals and museums to satisfy the most committed of culture hounds. My partner Ned and I spent some blissful busy weeks there and can’t wait to go back.

    Ned helping with the research
    I spend a lot of time researching my novels in various libraries, for Circle the excellent library at the German Historical Institute of London was particularly useful, but nothing beats walking the ground. I like doing the walking research as soon as possible after I’ve started working on a book. That way I can fold in all those memories into my plans and be open to inspiration before I have a plot too fixed in my head. Wow, that sounds pretentious. It’s often also a good excuse for a holiday once the last novel is put to bed! 

    So I went to Germany with Ned, a notebook and a rough idea of where my novel might take place and when, but that was about it. We went to Freiburg, and Karlsruhe to look at palaces and museums and out of Baden-Württemberg a little way to see Trier and Speyer, both ancient and beautiful cities. Going to Gengenbach was a chance to walk in the Black Forest and get a feel of a smaller town. When we arrived I had no idea how important it was going to be in the finished novel. 

    Gengenbach Town Hall
    Gengenbach was made a free city in the 14th century, almost completely destroyed at the end of the 17th during the Nine Years’ War, then rebuilt in the 18th century so it is to that period (luckily enough for me) that you feel you are returning to when you visit. The magnificent town hall was built in 1784, the year before Circle of Shadows takes place and is now made into a huge advent calendar every year to coincide with their Christmas Market.

    When Ned and I visited we fell for it completely; me with the half-timbering and Ned with the beautiful blonde in traditional dress who brought us our beers. We walked in the woods and peered at the buildings, but it was finding in Gengenbach the Museum of Fools which made it so important to the finished book. The Shrovetide carnivals of misrule are a long standing tradition in this part of Germany and involve parades were inhabitants dress up in elaborate masks and costumes, often mocking their rulers or officials. You can see some of the photographs of the festival in Gengenbach here, including the wonderful and terrifying masks. 

    I was fascinated by the masks, and standing in front of the town hall imagining that torch-lit pagan procession gave me the start of the book. A young Englishman, Daniel Clode, visiting the area in 1785 and watching the parade suddenly finds himself confused and afraid. For him the people in costumes are replaced with real demons and witches. He goes missing and is found some hours later by his friends in a locked room, his wrists cut and the murdered body of a young woman alongside him. She is a favourite of the ruling Duke and Daniel has no memory of what has happened or how he came to be there. Things looks very black for him indeed… So there between the beer, the walk and the museum of fools I found my novel. And if you’re curious to find out what happens to the young Englishman next, well, I did mention the paperback is due out tomorrow, didn’t I? 
    Andreas Praefcke's shot of Hopfennarr Veranstaltung:
    Narrensprung beim Narrentreffen in nearby Meßkirch

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    What is writing like? Someone asked me this the other day and I’d honestly struggled to provide a decent answer. What does it actually feellike, on the whole, the act of being engaged in writing?

    Button and hat-cord maker, Nurnberg, 1669
    Later that week I was on a train heading eastwards with a pile of scribbles that I was trying to cohere into a short story, (at least once the crazy lady with plants in the luggage rack had got off at Romsey). The scribbles, so far, seemed to be amounting to the right kind of atmosphere, they sketched out a proper length and I could almost picture the arc of their finishedness neatly ahead of me. Now it was time to gather together the moment of crystallisation, or punctuation note, which I’d already planned quite a while ago on another piece of paper. I read through that, and thought it might work best as dialogue, straight from the voice. My biro marked out some arrows to help me remember what I’d decided. I drew a snail in the margin. But still something was missing. It became horribly clear that I needed a sub-moment; that in fact nothing was done and it would all have to be reworked if it was to work at all, to hang properly. But what was the missing thing? I read it through a few more times and the lacuna gaped at me all the way past Havant, getting larger and larger until it ate up the point of the scribbles. There was nothing in my head for that bit, nothing at all. The last of my coffee got cold, the fields outside slid by.

    Suddenly a man moving along the aisle let out a loud, startling grunt and bent over to pick up something from the carpet right by my seat. ‘I need one of those!’ he shouted, delightedly, to anyone that had no iPod in their ears, and held up a white button in the air like a little trophy.

    And at that moment I was struck by how writing is so often like that - always waiting for that lucky button to appear. At first it’s all about laying down the groundwork, preparing, limbering up with thousands of words, and then it’s just a wait for the right thing to come from nowhere, when you least expect it, like heading back from the buffet car in that jacket that doesn’t button up anymore.

    Of course – what you come across might not be quite the right shade or size, but it might be useful. Some days there’ll be some kind of button, some there won’t, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the last few years it’s that you have to be looking, looking all the time, scribbling with the pen, staying alert. It’s not the camera that will steal your soul – it’s novelists. Novelists would steal any aspect of your life if it were interesting enough or relevant enough to whatever they’re currently doing – they’re out there, waiting to pounce on any fragment the unwary might let slip, to use straightaway or to save for later. There should be signage on trains like there is for pickpockets; Novelists operate in this area. Next time the person beside you is furtively scribbling something down – beware.

    Jane Borodale’s novel 'The Knot' is currently out in hardback. She is working on her third. Her website is www.janeborodale.com

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    I don't have a photo of my mother as a teenager, but here she is
    aged 20.

    Gerda, my mother, was the daughter of a police officer, born in Germany, but living in Graz, Austria, where my grandfather had been posted at the Anschluss. She had a mother who suffered from depression, (though at this time my grandmother had only had one nervous breakdown, after months of persecution when my grandfather was in danger of losing not only his job, but his life.)

    My grandmother disliked and feared the Nazis, which my mother understood as 'some kind of phobia connected with Hitler', and knew she had to be careful about mentioning him to her mother, for fear she should become ill again.
    My grandmother after her first nervous breakdown

    My grandfather had been reinstated in his job, largely because my grandmother had put on her best clothes and gone to plead for him with a high official who had fixed things in Berlin, as the documents I have seen confirm. He was doing well in his career now, but he was reticent about Hitler. Sometimes Gerda tried to ask him questions about the Führer, but he was non-commital and changed the subject.

    It wasn't safe to tell your children how you felt. They might, quite innocently, say something at school, and the teachers might pass it on. My grandfather had decided to go along with a system he detested and he had to be very careful. 'I could have resisted,' he told my mother years later, 'but I thought about you and your mother.' If he had been taken to concentration camp and murdered there, there would have been no state money for them. They would have been left to the charity of relatives.

    It was just before the outbreak of war, when Gerda was thirteen or fourteen, that Hitler visited Graz. She wrote: 'Everywhere I see pictures of Hitler surrounded by cheering crowds, ecstatic adoring youngsters, and I am beginning to envy those to whom he speaks.' Meanwhile, flags and banners adorned with swastikas and 'EIN VOLK, EIN REICH, EIN FÜHRER,' began to appear everywhere. It was only a year since Austria had been 'taken home into the Reich', to widespread jubilation, and now the Führer was coming in person. 'Excitement,' my mother wrote, 'grows to fever pitch.'
    Graz in the Forties

    And then she discovered the ecstatic truth. She had been chosen to be among those who met Hitler! She lay awake in her excitement, and was worried to see the next morning, that her mother looked pale and ill. Maybe it was the fact that the man she really regarded as Antichrist was coming to the city that filled my grandmother with horror. But she only went to lie down, so my mother was free to escape from the apartment, feeling slightly guilty, and run to the place where the schoolgirls were waiting for the Führer. 'Then,' she wrote, 'the intolerable waiting starts.'

    Why did they choose my mother, the daughter of a man with a shadow in his past and a mother who had a psychological illness - which was bad news in the Nazi period? She wasn't even a member of the German Girls' League. She had joined at first, but had quickly left because she found it boring and annoying: 'Too much standing around for hours so you could form a swastika when some important person flew over,' she told me. She also said her teacher told her the family would lose their ration book if she left the League, but she did anyway, and the family did kept the ration book.
    Gerda was probably chosen because she was a pretty girl with blonde hair. She looked like the Aryan ideal.
    My mother's ID card from 1943. A typical
    bad id document photo!

    My mother described the roar of cheering as Hitler's motorcade approached them: 'Throats are choked with excitement, eyes blinded by tears of emotion; in a delirium of joy and happiness hands are raised to jubilant heights in the Hitler salute. At this instant everyone present feels that this is the moment in history to be talked about to children and grandchildren for years to come.

    'Then, as in the close-up of a film, everything fades and there is only a fair-skinned face, a wing of fine dark hair falling across a broad forehead, the compelling gaze of hypnotic blue eyes, the firm grip of his hand, a flash of gold as he laughs at something I have said in reply to his question, something to do with school, I think. I am aware of my madly-pumping heart and the blood roaring in my ears when he smiles kindly, pats my cheek and moves on to the next child in line.'

    Photograph: German Federal archive via Wikimedia Commons,
    clipped by me. 

    Afterwards, she wrote: 'the memory of the brief moment when I was actually speaking to the Führer, an event so momentous that it almost seems like a dream, makes all else pale into insignificance.'

    Re-reading her account of the meeting takes me right to the heart of the German and Austrian experience of the mass Nazi event, something so powerful and adrenaline-fuelled that it would sweep you away even if you weren't one of the favoured ones. I remember seeing a TV programme about Jews who survived Nazism by hiding; one of them, in Berlin, would go to Nazi events because you were safer in a crowd, and he said he'd so often wished they had let him be part of it, it had felt so marvellous.

    And Hitler had charm - though the gold tooth is less appealing. In those days it wasn't as off-putting as it would be now. Hitler was good with children. You can see that charm in some old videos - I have never liked to see it, I don't want to be beguiled by him even for a second, and yet if one doesn't see it, how can one understand his success?

    I had to let myself feel it when I wrote, in Saving Rafael, about Jenny going to see Hitler with her school, and even though she and her family hated him and she was far more aware than my mother, she too was caught up in the mass experience, a communal high that was temporarily irresistible.

    My mother did tell me about it, and about Hitler's intensely blue eyes, when I was a child - but it was a different kind of telling than she or anyone else had dreamed of on that day. Now Hitler had been exposed as exactly what my grandmother always knew he was, the quintessence of evil, though she had been accused of phobia and mania for doing so.

    Shadow of War, by Gerda Erika Baker, Lion publishing, 1990

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    Charles Dickens working at his desk

    The past is foreign country: they do things differently there.” So reads the opening lines of L.P Hartley’s The Go Between.

    Any writer of historical fiction almost needs to become a time-traveller, to ‘go native’ and familiarise themselves with the cultural workings of the place in which their story will be set - to draw their reader into that world without qualms as to authenticity regarding the characters, settings or themes that, if placed in a contemporary tale, might seem entirely alien.

    A good starting point for this cultural immersion is to read the work of established authors; those from the nineteenth century, and the best of the Neo-Victorians now. That way an author’s ear can attune to the nuances, rhythm and tone of the ‘foreign’ language used back then. My Victorian favourites are Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, and Thomas Hardy; each one offering a unique style to define the age they represent.

    However, of all Victorian writers Charles Dickens is widely considered the master, his work rising above mere plot and offering social commentary on almost every aspect of the world that he inhabited. But here, a word of warning: attempts to emulate his work may result in clichéd parody. A writer should never be afraid to develop their own personal style, even when following the ‘rules’ or restrictions within the chosen genre. 

    Not all nineteenth century literature adhered to Dickens' formal tone. Moby Dick, written in 1851, begins with these strikingly ‘modern’ lines – “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation…especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off…”

    We still have the formal Victorian phrasing to anchor us in the era, as exhibited in the phrase: ‘requires a high moral principle’. But, at the same time, Melville creates a very strong vernacular; a tone entirely original; a real, living character’s voice, who could belong to any age, who draws us straight into his world.

    However, it must be admitted that Melville was American. Many writers prefer to emulate the more English tradition of ‘Victoriana’ – that which has been so well observed by the modern-day author Charles Palliser whose The Quincunx, according tomany reviews, out Dickensed’ Dickens himself.  Most ‘Sensation’ themes are covered, with lost or stolen inheritances, laudanum-addicted governesses, dens of thieves, and asylums, along with doomed affairs of the heart. The narrator is called John Huffam, the middle names of Charles Dickens. An audacious decision, but justified, because Palliser’s writing is superb.

    Sarah Waters, who also excels in the genre, uses a spare and lyrical prose, rarely florid or overblown, as illustrated in these lines taken from the start of Fingersmith – “My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me.”

    The reader is immediately toldthat the narrator has been orphaned – a common Victorian theme around which secrets and mysteries can be woven into complex plots. Similarly, clues are laid inThe Meaning of Night by Michael Cox, another stunning ‘Victorian’ novel which begins –“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.It had been surprisingly – almost laughably – easy. I had followed him for some distance, after first observing him in Threadneedle-street. I cannot say why I decided it should be him, and not one of the others on whom my searching eye had alighted that evening.”
    Oyster Shop by Boz
    The novel is ‘placed’ immediately by the archaic use of ‘Threadneedle-street’– and the fact of the oyster supper: a common meal in Victorian times and not the luxury food of today. The language has a formality with words such as ‘had alighted’, all of which leaves the reader in no doubt that the genre is Victorian.

    The writer of historical fiction must also ensure accurate scene descriptions, considering the houses, shops, theatres and bars from which many settings can be derived, not to mention the streets through which their characters walk or drive. There would be the creaking of carriages, the jangling of reins, the clopping of hooves. And then, there would be the railways with the rhythmic chugging beat of the trains exuding their clouds of steam. 

    The expansion of the railways was of huge significance. For the very first time this transport means enabled a mass mobility, even though, as depicted in one of my novels, the less adventurous came to fear that “the motion and velocity might cause such a pressure inside our brains as to risk a fatal injury – a nose bleed at the very least.” Still, many did travel to London which, to this very day, has a wealth of preserved Victorian settings.

    18 Stafford Terrace in Kensington remains just as it would have been with Chinese ceramics and Turkey rugs, Morris wallpapers and stained glass windows – not to mention the letters, the diaries and bills that provide an accurate insight into the running of the house. For those unable to visit, there are countless images in books, or via a search on the Internet. The nineteenth century saw the dawn of the science of photography and that is why Victorian scholars have a distinct advantage over those of earlier centuries. What better way to get a sense of interior or exterior scenes, or to study the fashions that were worn, or to catch the glint of life in an eye than by looking at a photograph. I can only agree with Henry Fox Talbot, one of the pioneers of the art, who described the photographic art as ‘the genius of Alladin’s Lamp…a little bit of magic realised.’

    As to the day to day running of any Victorian residence, the relentless slog of housework would have lacked any magic at all. But do not take my word for it. Why not read Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House, or go to an original source in Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. In fact, Mrs Beeton offers advice on almost any subject, from cooking, to fashion, to medicine - and her words occur in The Somnambulist; myfiction being melded with fact when the narrator quotes the book as a means of objecting to the clothes she wears – 

    I was looking through Mrs Beeton’s book, and she wrote several chapter on fashion, and with regard to a young woman’s dress her advice is very specific indeed. She says that” – and I had this memorized for such a moment of revolt – “its colour harmonise with her complexion, and its size and pattern with her figure, that its tint allow of its being worn with the other garments she possesses.”

    Other contemporary factual works are still available today. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is surprisingly readable while giving a detailed insight into grim social realities. Very useful indeed when researching the Victorian demi-monde was My Secret Life by Walter - Walter being the most shocking libertine whose pursuit of physical gratification led to many a melodramatic encounter, and the exploration of a world that could not be any more different to what is generally perceived as a moral, upstanding society. 

    I feel quite sure that Walter would have visited Wilton’s (a music hall setting in both of my novels) with all of its night-time clatter and bang, where prostitutes called from the balcony to those who sat at tables below, with the glisten of the lime lights glancing off the brass of the barley twists posts around. No doubt he would have loved Cremorne – the Chelsea pleasure gardens described in Elijah's Mermaid; that resort finally being closed down for ‘lewd and raucous behaviour’, of which nothing now remains intact but a pair of ornate iron gates.

    The  Dancing Platform at Cremorne by Phoebus Levin 1864

    Unable to visit the actual place I read articles in Victorian newspapers (the archives available online). I looked at paintings and adverts to gradually built a vivid scene of lush lawns with statues and fountains, a banqueting hall, and a hot air balloon, and regular theatrical displays – such as the infamous Beckwith Frog who, along with several fish, performed in a great glass aquarium. Freak shows were a popular, if not sordid, entertainment form - though the mermaid display in my novel is purely the product of imagination. Even so, that image was inspired when reading about Feejee Mermaids; the hideous monstrosities created by grafting a monkey’s remains onto the body of a fish. Imagine the smell of that! 

    And thinking about aromas, here is another writing prop to create a complete Victorian world; albeit one invisible. It may well be a cliché when describing nineteenth century scenes to allude to the stench of filthy streets. But it would be wrong to ignore the fact of the constant odour of rotting food, or the effluence from horses who drew the carriages and carts, or the noxious stink from factories exuding acrid yellow smoke. A skilful writer might convey the intensity of common smells without a descent into parody, but also to think ‘outside the box’, revealing less obvious fragrances, which, in the case of The Somnambulist, happened to be a perfume that came to have great significance within the novel’s plot. For this I employed the Internet, seeking out aromas that a Victorian gentleman might use and finding Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, first produced in 1872, and described by the manufacturers as ‘animalic and golden…warm and mature, redolent of old books, powdered resins and ancient rooms. At its heart is the dusky Turkish rose, with jasmine, woods, musk and powdery orris.’

    Quite a vivid description I’m sure you’ll agree. And quite a serendipity, because, after the book’spublication I realised that Hammam Bouquet is still in production today. I couldn’t wait to buy some, to lift out the bottle’s stopper and breathe in the vivid scent that, until then, I had only thought about – to close my eyes and step right back into a lost Victorian world. 

    This article was originally published in Writing Magazine to coincide with the publication of Essie Fox's new novel, Elijah's Mermaid.

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    Interesting, but uncomfortable

    I've developed an eye problem that makes reading difficult, and it's set me off wondering about the mechanics of handling books.  As I labour to make out words which look to me (and me alone) as if they have been produced on a printer running low on ink, I can’t help but admire the generations who slaved over early texts in dimly-lit libraries, devoured Dickens by candlelight, or even coped with early postwar paperbacks in the glow of a 40 watt bulb.
    Reading is not just an ocular occupation, though.  It takes a lot of muscular co ordination in the hands, arms, back and neck. It requires a reasonable ability to balance. Am I the only person who has reached an advanced age without finding a really comfortable way of reading in bed?
    One way of doing it
    and another

    Reading on a high-speed train is hard enough, but can you imagine succeeding in an unlit horse-drawn carriage, bumping across ruts in the road?  And What must it have been like for eighteenth and nineteenth century ladies, perched on hard settees with closely-printed books?

    How did they do it?

     Perhaps I should risk a confession here.  I have never dared say this before - and for an author it may be a fatal revelation - but what the heck. Here it is:
    Though I have always loved stories and research, and adore books and manuscripts as objects, even when my eyes were working properly, I never much liked reading as a physical occupation. For me, it has always been a rather uncomfortable means to an end.
    When children tell me they don't like reading, I encourage then to persevere, and wax lyrical about how books will open doors for them (which is true) but secretly I sympathise.  I have never cracked how and where to sit. Does anyone else find some books just difficult to hold? No wonder the gentlemen's clubs of yesteryear commissioned all sorts of reading stands to attach to those wonderful winged armchairs. a friend of mine reads in the bath.  I'm too shy to ask to see how she does it.  my books just get wet.

    It's not just the fatal mix of fat books and small hands. These days paper-saving narrow margins and tight gutters can make it a struggle to catch the beginnings and ends of lines. Bindings can be too tight, or too cheap and weak.  A couple of months ago I was sent a brand new book by an author I was to interview at a festival.  As soon as I opened it, all the pages fell onto the floor.  A few days later, I was looking at a 300 year-old text almost as tightly sewn and robust as the day it was bound.
    St  Jerome doesn't seem to be having much fun
    Alas, I may be reading less in future. It's simply not much fun any more. But I'm lucky to have my eye trouble now.  There have never been more electronic and mechanical aids to reading (and writing), not to mention the glory of audiobooks (and here I must recommend Dan Stevens' wonderful reading of My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, by History Girl Louisa Young ). Even if my sight doesn't improve, thanks to modern science it will be a while before I can't read at all, and that may never happen. In the meantime, does anyone out there know of studies of how people read in the past: of where and how they sat, how/whether they held or balanced their books, of reading machines, and so on?  Did anyone grumble about the sheer physical awkwardness of reading?  Or is it just me? I would love to know.

    pictures from Wikimedia Commons

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  • 11/25/12--21:30: THE HAREM - Dianne Hofmeyr

  • Early Orientalist paintings seduce us with their sumptuousness. Women turbaned and bejewelled, lush garments, rooms that glitter with latticed screens filtering the light, stained glass windows casting coloured lozenges across marble floors, fountains, richly patterned Persian carpets, a tame fawn, all suggest the sensuousness of life in the women’s quarters in the Tulip Age.

    In the vibrant painting by Jean Baptiste Vanwouw below, depicting a woman’s ‘lying-in’ after the birth of her baby, there’s a sense of sisterhood. A girl prepares a sherbet, another makes coffee, two others pass around incense and rosewater and the woman herself is wrapped in luxurious cloth while others are preparing the baby’s cradle.

    But are the paintings a true reflection of life in the harem?

    At any given time, Topkapi might have had up to 400 women and children living in its the harem. It was segregated from the rest of the palace by corridors and courtyards and even the girls were segregated by a pecking order. It was presided over by the sultan’s mother – valide sultana– then came the sultan’s sisters, then the four kadins, the official wives, then the girls who had recently caught the sultan’s eye and then the girls he had already slept with. Most famous of these was Roxelana who rose from being a concubine to Sūleyman the Magnificent’s first wife and who managed to persuade her husband to have his oldest son and heir murdered, so that her own son could take the throne.

    It couldn’t have been easy to live in harmony. Girls from all parts of the world, with different languages, different customs, dress and eating habits were thrown together, often without the luxury of being able to converse with one another. Some were incredibly young and the large rooms with their stained glass windows and latticed shutters filtering the light must have seemed more like prisons.

    As I strolled through the harem rooms at the Topkapi Palace, I tried to imagine their lives. In the screened, light-filtered rooms with their shimmer of mother of pearl I was looking for ghosts. I imagined how, when they gathered outside in the sunshine in their enclosed courtyards, and caught a glimpse of the Bosphorus, they might have longed to return home to Russia, or Greece or North Africa or wherever.  

    And in the quiet, harem rooms at the magnificent palace of the Khans in Bakhisaray which was the Khanate of the Tatars from the 16th century and shows a strong Tatar, Mongolian influence in the architecture, I was looking for ghosts too. Here tucked away in a deep valley between the mountains of the Crimea where winters are snow-filled and bitter, the quiet and beautiful rooms with fountains and inner courtyards filtered by intricate panes of coloured glass, seemed even more isolated, shut off and lonely.

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  • 11/26/12--16:05: Debora, by Louisa Young
  • On Remembrance weekend I was in northern France, where even the railway timetables shriek of poppies and blood.

    I was staying at Cambrai, at a nice hotel, the Beatus,  run by a M Philippe Gorcsynski. He has surrounded the hotel, which he inherited from his mother, with maple trees, for the many Canadians who visit. 

    Inside, he has a small room off the foyer dedicated to a tank, 
    containing tank models, press cuttings and so on. 

    A few miles away, he has a real tank. She is British. Her name is Debora. 

    I was humming the Pulp song all weekend.

    Tanks often had nicknames. There was one called Peak Freans, after the tinned pie company. Which is a bit bloody bleak. 

    M Gorczinski is a local man, and thus grew up immersed - literally, when it rained - in the detritus of the Great War. His town - small, pleasant, with two Moorish giants (Martin and Martine) on the clocktower - had its own famous battle, in October 1918. It is mostly famous for the use of tanks, a new thing. Here are the grandfathers and uncles of the Canadian visitors.

    The tanks were developments of the same technology that Captain Scott had tested in the Antarctic seven years before, in the form of motorised sledges.

    M Gorczinski knew that a British tank had been shot up and captured at a nearby village, Flesquieres. An old lady told him she had seen it being buried when she was small - this wasn't unusual, tanks made good extra strength for trenches. M Gorczinski looked for the tank for years. He located the spot. He used aerial photography and metal detectors and infra-red. He dug. And dug. And found it. And dug it out. And got a crane. And hauled it up. And cleaned it out, 

    and put it in a barn.

    I was in France to take part in a talk at the Musee de la Grande Guerre at Meaux, about facial reconstructive surgery during WW1, which as some of you know is my thing. The French facially wounded soldiers called themselves the Geules Cassees - the Broken Mugs, if you like. They have their own fondation and are well respected as a distinct group to this day, with modern sufferers of similar damage taking the place of the WW1 poilus. Debora is known as a geule cassee. You will see why from the pictures above (from the left, amidships) and below (right, front on). 

    It is unbelievably cramped inside. You can't imagine that five men and an engine could fit in there.

    This is the kind of anti-tank gun that destroyed her. It is next to her in the barn.

    The walls of the barn are streaked with bullet holes - quite possibly made by Debora as she came through the village, a giant Dalek, on her way to her fate. 

    (I shouldn't call her a Dalek. Daleks look much more like German tanks. Their designer, Ray Cusick, served in the army in Palestine. I thought about looking into whether there was a connection, but there is rather more information on Dalek design on the web than I dare approach.)

    Debora's entire crew died. Their portraits are propped up, above the wreaths.

    Here are M Gorczinski, my publisher Cynthia Leibow, and I, feeling respectful and sober.

    Here is an emblematic hat

    And here is an old WW2 photo of Martin and Martine, standing in front of a tank called Black Prince. The Nazis had taken them down from the bell tower and sent them by train to Belgium to be melted down. Someone took them off and sent them back.

    Their legend is that in mediaeval times a Moorish couple lived at Cambrai, and when the town was under attack they came out with hammers and chased away the enemy. 
    Now they get to strike the clock.

    Here is their clock tower. You can't really make them out (they are not the odalisques lounging on the pediment). It was, as so often, a rainy day in Flanders. 

    M Gorczinski is trying to raise funds for a smart new museum for Debora, half a mile away near the spotless War Cemetery, where Debora was destroyed. The building still stands behind which the guns were concealed; the road leads peacefully through where the ambush happened. The dead are buried in that cemetery. While I respect this plan, and dare say it will come about, I like where she is now. I like that she is in an open-sided barn, with rain and rust and dandelions and her own bullet scars on the old bricks, and some boxes of dusty helmets and bottles and old shellcases, and M Gorczinski's remarkable story. I like museums to be old too, and to look it. 

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    Every All Souls Day, my family gathers together and prays for all the dead relations.  We're Catholic, so that's a lot of relations.  Mass is said in the chapel at Towneley Hall, our family home until 1902, when a dearth of male descendants caused my great great aunt to upsticks and sell the place for a song.  When my family gathered itself together again, since they couldn't live at Towneley they chose to live in the house previously allotted to the agent who looked after the estate.  Where the agent went, I don't know, but I doubt he was particularly sorry to move from a house memorably, if unkindly, described by my grandmother as a 'suburban villa on a bleak hillside'.  Certainly, the ancient peculiarities of house in which I was brought up hardly make it an Ideal Home - when we were little, more water came through the ceilings than out of the taps.  Thanks to my father, though, it does have a wonderful garden coaxed from from the surrounding fields.  Anyhow, the Burnley Corporation (as it then was) who bought Towneley and turned into a museum and art gallery, eventually allowed us to hear Mass there once a year.

    the altar at Towneley, ready for our All Souls Mass

    To non-Catholics, Catholics' obsession with the dead seems gloomy and macabre.   But preoccupation with the condition of the dead predates Catholicism by many thousands of years.   Why else did the Neanderthals bury their dead with tools and animal bones, if not to assist them on their way?  Praying for the dead is similar assistance, although for the soul rather than the body, and it's been Catholic practice to have Mass said for the souls of the faithful departed since at least the 8th century.

    Catholics are keen on souls.  They're also keen on reparation for sin, hence the doctrine of Purgatory, formally defined in 1274, but connected to the ancient Jewish belief of purification after death.  Purgatory is the place where, unless you've been ludicrously good all your life, you atone for your sins before slipping gratefully into Heaven.

    What a load of nonsense, you might say.  You may be right.  But understanding even the most apparently nonsensical religious practices (and this isn't nearly the most nonsensical, if you're on the lookout for nonsense) is vital to understanding how we are all shaped.  Historical novelists need to be careful.  It's fine to show that, for example, people in 14th century Europe disliked religion in the form of priests and bishops, but it would be wrong to remove their healthy respect for God, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.   It wasn't tradition that had them pray for the dead or build chantry chapels for perpetual intercession:   the driving force was the need to get the relations into Heaven asap and by doing so to ensure your own swift passage in due course.   Call them silly if you want. Call them superstitious if you must.  But Catholics' care for the dead was neither silly nor superstitious; they believed, and still believe profoundly, that the dead need us and we need them.

    I am not a good Catholic.  In many ways, I'm barely a Catholic at all - it goes in phases and I'm currently in a 'no' phase.  Nevertheless, when I see the Whalley vestments, brought to Towneley during the dissolution of the monasteries;  when I pass through the oak door bearing the initials of John and Mary Towneley, married in 1556;  and when I kneel in front of the sixteenth century altar in the house of my ancestors, I feel challenged.  Do I really know better than them?  And so what if I do?  Isn't praying for the dead better than not praying for them?

    After we've done the Dead, we have breakfast in the servants' dining room.  That, far more than the continuation of the All Souls Mass, would cause surprise.  'Good Heavens!' the spectral relations might well exclaim.  'The servants' dining room?  What the hell are you doing in there?'

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    Our guest for this month is Sarah Gristwood, whose latest book, Blood Sisters we reviewed here on 1st October.

    Sarah Gristwood is the author of a number of books including the Sunday Times best-seller Arbella: England’s Lost Queen, Elizabeth and Leicester and the novel The Girl in the Mirror. She was born in Kent and read English at St Anne’s College, Oxford University. She is married to film critic Derek Malcolm and lives in London and Kent.

    Over to Sarah:

    Who’d have guessed it? – same as buses, really. You wait for a news story on the women behind the Wars of the Roses, and then two come along at once. First was the news that the BBC, with its eyes firmly fixed on the market that gobbled up The Tudors, are filming Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Cousins’ War. Then there is the ongoing saga of the bones unearthed in the Leicester car park, hoped to be those of Richard III. If the hope turns out to be a certainty, then it will be thanks to the distaff side of fifteenth century history - through a descendent who shares with Richard his mother’s DNA.

    The mitochondrial DNA which may make the identification is passed only through the female line; from Richard’s mother Cecily Neville to her eldest daughter Anne, and on through seventeen generations to descendents living today. I wrote about seven women in my book Blood Sisters, but Cecily is the one who most fascinated me – the one who best illustrates both the pleasures and the pains of writing about the late fifteenth century.

    Image in public domain

    We know Cecily Neville lavished a fortune on clothes, and ordered a specially padded loo seat. We know that in youth, stories said she had an affair with a common archer, and that in old age she lived a life of extraordinary piety. But the questions that remain are extraordinary. Where did she stand when her son Richard took over the country, amid rumours he had murdered his nephews, her grandsons, the ‘Princes in the Tower’? Or when her eldest son Edward ordered the death of his next brother Clarence (in the famous butt of Malmsey according to Shakespeare)?

    When Richard III died on Bosworth Field Cecily had lost all the sons she’d seen into adulthood; and, out of the four, only one had died naturally. As lives go, this is the stuff of writer’s fantasy. Yet all most us know of her, as of the other women behind the Wars of the Roses, are the stories Shakespeare set down, and that was four centuries ago – never mind any questions of historical accuracy. Perhaps The White Queen will help to change that, but it has been a long wait from William Shakespeare to Philippa Gregory.

    Anne Neville - image in public domain
    The era is rich in dramatic female stories. Take Richard III’s wife Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’; queen to a Yorkist king and Cecily’s great-niece as well as her daughter in law. But before Richard married Anne (snatching her from Clarence, who was said to have kept her disguised as a kitchen maid for fear her huge fortune might escape his hands), she had been married off by her father to the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, to cement an unlikely alliance with Henry VI’s queen Margaret of Anjou. Even if there is no truth in suggestions Richard caused Anne’s early death, either by poison or a campaign of psychological warfare, she had been passed from one side to another in the wars as though she were as insentient as any other piece of property. Shakespeare telescoped events to make her his ‘Lady Anne’, but the truth is even more poignant.

    Cecily bore daughters as well as sons – three girls who survived into maturity. The eldest died early, though it is her descendents who have given the Leicester archaeologists their DNA. The second, Elizabeth, had to see her de la Pole sons fall foul of the new Tudor dynasty. The youngest, Margaret, became Duchess of Burgundy. In a sense, she was the Plantagenet who had got away (got away to Bruges, where they are filming The White Queen today). But that didn’t stop her sending the pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck to plague the Tudor who had taken her brothers’ throne. Tudor chroniclers used a gendered language to lambast Margaret of Burgundy as having ‘the spirit of a man and the malice of a woman’ but I rather warmed to the doughty duchess who refused to be sequestered into ladylike domesticity.

    Charles the Bold, Margaret of Burgundy's husband 1460 by Roger van der Weyden. Image in public domain. For Margaret's portrait, see book jacket below.
    The question of a royal woman’s role – the exercise of power vs. the constraints of femininity – is the subtext to this story. The nature of the ways in which a woman can most influence history . . . Cecily Neville was the matriarch of the Yorkist dynasty. In the early days of her son Edward’s reign, it was said she could rule him as she pleased, and when that influence began to wane, she did not surrender it happily. But in that age one of the main imperatives was dynastic – genetic, if you like – and Cecily might have been consoled to know that her bloodline runs through every monarch from Henry VIII to the present royal family. If these women were playing a game of thrones, their descendents were the most popular currency. It was the marriage deal brokered by Elizabeth of York’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor which cemented the peace which followed Bosworth, and give birth to the Tudor dynasty.

    But I like also to trace another, a spiritual, line of descent. It starts with women like Cecily’s daughter Margaret of Burgundy; like that formidable schemer Margaret Beaufort; and like Margaret of Anjou, the ‘great and strong-laboured woman’ who dared to break all the rules by seeking power openly. It runs through the Tudor queens, Elizabeth and Mary, who ruled in their own right, and it can still be seen in where we are today.

    My book was almost subtitled ‘The Women Who Won the Wars of the Roses’. We thought better of that, of course - on the one hand, it hardly seemed to fit those of the women whose children predeceased them and whose lives ended in misery; and on the other, too many men were taking it for military history. But maybe we shouldn’t have thrown the idea away so readily. Maybe, just maybe -whether or not their lives were easy, or they left children to carry on their bloodline - all these women were winners in a way.

    Sarah Gristwood is the author of Blood Sisters: the Hidden Lives of the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, published by Harper Press

    Thank you, Sarah!

    Watch out for the November competition tomorrow, when we'll have five copies of Blood Sisters to give away.

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  • 11/29/12--16:01: November competition
  • We have five hardback copies of Sarah Gristwood's Blood Sisters to give away to those who best answer this question:

    "Who is the woman that you think History has most neglected, and why?"

    Answers in the Comments section below.

    Open to UK residents only.

    Closing date 7th December

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    This one's a beaut, isn't it? It shows the ancestors of Sigmund Christoph, Graf von Zeil und Trauchburg.  I've been thinking a lot about family trees since an email conversation with our November guest Sarah Gristwood. I had mildly criticised the one in her excellent book, Blood Sisters,  for the Houses of York and Lancaster. Sarah was in complete agreement, having been compelled to make simplifications by the book's designer.

    The scales fell from my eyes at that point. Ever since seeing the RSC's magnificent Histories Cycle - twice - a few years ago, I have been fascinated by Plantagenet history and no book I have read on the subject since has had an adequate family tree. I have been compiling my own composite genealogical chart on a large roll of paper and I can see why designers might ask for simplification!

    Miniature, Jacques de Besançon, Paris, c.1485. Showing 43 generations.

    Family trees have been popular ever since this representation of the Jesse Tree, representing the descent of Christ. That's a pretty ambitious project; not even my Plantagenet one aims at 43 generations!

    But if you think about it, no family tree can include everything, or it would end up containing everyone in the world. So where do you stop? Confucius's genealogy, initially represented as a fan, was said to have two million people on it. The update has 1.2 million living descendants! Not even the longest roll of lining-paper would cope with that.

    Genealogy is a fast-growing hobby in the UK for people who want to research their family history; in our family, it's my older sister who has the bug. She sends me bulletins from the genealogical research front, with titbits about obscure relatives from generations back, complicated by the fact that in our parents' families there was a marked tendency to call people by names other than their given ones.

    The resources for such seekers after  facts - the chroniclers and archivists to be found in many families - are so much easier to gain access to in the Internet age. My sister uses the UK censuses up to 1911 and they have yielded much information. There are many books published to help and the success of UK television shows such as Who do you Think you are? has swelled the numbers of people joined Societies which share resources. There is even genealogy software to help generate family trees. And websites like Family Search and the BBC's Family History

    When our youngest daughter brought home the man who was to become her life partner, she lent us the DVD of a TV show that used him as a subject to discover links to distinguished ancestors, such as the Duke of Wellington, the man who helped win the Battle of Bosworth field for Henry Tudor and - the clincher - King Arthur!So that's a new use of family trees - a sort of Debrett's to impress potential in-laws.

    When I write my own novels, I always make family trees. Sometimes they end up published in the final books, as in the di Chimici genealogy above, for the Stravaganza sequence.  This one takes you up only to 1578though the most recent book, City of Swords (2012) has added - and subtracted - some names. That's what writers of fiction do after all: bring people into existence and sometimes kill them.

    But even when they aren't published, I need my family trees. How can you write about any characters without knowing how they fit in that web of relationships? How can you get the ages right? And how can you climb about confidently in the branches of your story without a strong tree to support you?

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    Instead of generic 'desirables', the eighteenth century sees the emergence of the individual in art as never before.  Certain subjects, such as Hogarth's Shrimp Girl fascinate me, as does the male model in the picture from St Martin's Lane Academy life drawing class.  Sadly, the details of the models' identities are almost always lost in the bustle of London's streets, but not Wilson.
    Born in Boston, Wilson arrived in London in the summer of 1810.  Arriving in the city, he sustained an injury and visited a doctor, Anthony Carlisle, who also happened to be the professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy.  Carlisle immediately saw his patient's potential, and hauled him into life classes.  Thomas Lawrence was particularly impressed, and declared Wilson 'the finest figure He has ever seen, combining the character & perfection of many of the Antique statues'.  This is no mean praise: 18thC artists, particularly those of the early Royal Academy, studied the figures from antiquity in a mathematical fashion, rather like computer programmers now study the symmetry of models' faces.  Lawrence would go on to compare Wilson to Antinous and Hercules.  Soon, Wilson was earning 2 guineas a week, making him very well off, considering his previous occupation as a sailor. 

    Benjamin Robert Haydon, Wilson's greatest artistic patron, soon took him on for extended periods of time to further study his body and to make the extensive sketches which would inform an entire career.  There can be no doubt Haydon's admiration bordered on the fervent, but his intensive study of Wilson's form is also a delightful commentary on the beauty of the Black physique.  His notes include such gems as 'a perfect model of beauty and activity', a flexibility of the loins 'like whalebone' the fact that he could put his 'foot over his neck' and perhaps the most apposite: 'everything was packed in'. 
    Years later, Haydon would wistfully remember how, 'pushed to enthusiasm by the beauty of this man's form, I cast him, drew him and painted him till I had mastered every part.'  He did cast poor Wilson, who, up to his neck in seven bushels of plaster began to suffocate and had to be broken out, but not before Haydon had obtained a perfect cast of his subject's bottom. 
    Sadly, Haydon was not so keen on his model's face, who apparently did not meet the standards of antiquity about the lower jaw and there is no record of his face, either by Haydon, or by anyone else, including George Dawe, who painted the image illustrating this post displaying Wilson in his glory.  After 1811, and the 'buffalo' painting, little more is heard of Wilson but his astonishing physique would have continued to bring in work were he minded to pose.
    Wilson's fleeting cameo in Georgian London is too short, and much of what it reveals does not reflect favourably upon the attitudes of artists or critics; he was at once beautiful, yet parts of his face and body corresponded to 'the animal'.  Their admiration is often charming in its candour, then tripped up by its pettiness.  In every modern sense, Wilson was an American man who came to London and made a small fortune in a short time: for him, her streets really were paved with gold.  The image his body created, that of the noble savage, would endure to become an icon for abolitionists.  Until the Nubians of the late nineteenth century harem pictures, his body-type dominated the image of the Black male in British and American art.  The details of Wilson's life may be scant, but we are left with the image of an 'extraordinary fine figure'.

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    I had a shock this afternoon.  I was singing along to Disney (yes, I know - sad) because my children have been playing the excellent song from the Chinese fairytale Mulan called 'To be a Man'.  (If you don't know it - listen to it for me as it makes me laugh every time - the joke being that they have sent a woman to do a man's job).  I digress.

    Imagine my shock when I noticed who had sung the original track for the film: Donny Osmond.  What!  The Donny of my girlish infatuation - big brown eyes and luxurious dark hair? The Donny of 'Donny and Marie'?  How I used to croon 'Paper Roses' as if my heart was breaking (I was about six so please give me a break).  The Donny with the host of less hunky brothers who all thought they were rock stars (remember 'Crazy Horses' anyone?).  Donny was up there on my bedroom wall with the other gorgeous guy of the time - David Cassidy.  (I hope in the comments you are all going to confess similar infatuations; I don't want to be alone here, girls and boys.)

    Reminded of this 70s hottie, I of course had to google him.  He is still going strong in Vegas (where else?) but I now noticed that his youthful photos showed him to be a dead ringer for today's Justin Bieber.  I promise on my hamster's grave that I will no longer mock the teeny boppers' love for this baby faced pop star - I now completely understand the attraction.

    Justin Bieber?  No, it's Byron c. 1802
    by Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun
    My trip down memory lane led me to think about the history of girlish adoration of lovely young men - not something that makes it in to the history books but, come on, isn't it more interesting than Corn Law Reform?  Is there a connection between the development of mass media, leisure and girls' reading with the rise of the hottie?  That's my thesis anyway.  The first serious contender I could think of was Lord Byron. Other stars had briefly had their day on the stage, mainly in London, but he was the one whose countenance graced the equivalent of bedroom walls nationwide.  He even reached international fame in his lifetime.  We all know Caroline Lamb's quip that Bryon was 'Mad, bad and dangerous to know' - but she was on to something, wasn't she?  Even with the scandal attached to his name, every red blooded young lady wanted to know Byron and dreamt of his Corsair.  He was more a Mick Jagger than a Donny, but his image was arguably as famous as his work.  Just look at the iconic pictures of him and the stories that attached to his legend.  One I remember was that he was said to keep a bear while at Trinity College, Cambridge because it was not disallowed in the rules against pets. Eat your bat heart out, Meat Loaf.   Byron went on extreme diets then binged.  He abused various substances and slept with all sorts.  He was exiled for bad behaviour.  He died young(ish) in a semi-heroic way - of fever but while fighting for Greek independence. He, m'lud, anticipated rock-stardom.

    The commentators of the late eighteenth century coined a word to describe what happened to these literary rock gods - to lionise.  Accounts talk of these writers coming into the saloons as lions coming among the ordinary folk - hence the word.  Walter Scott - NOT a hottie in my book - was perhaps the most celebrated one. Worship of him reached the period's equivalent of screaming, panties-throwing crowds yelling for Tom Jones - odd to think of now that Scott had fallen out of fashion. The key development was the rise of mass media to publicise their works.  The old patronage system had been replaced by commercial publishers who had an interest in puffing their authors' reputations, building excitement for the next new work.  The (male) authors became the story.

    Harriette Wilson - a lady of experience
    There's an interesting contrast here to the experience of female writers who did everything in their power to remain anonymous.  The most famous woman writer of this period in terms of celebrity status was not Jane Austen but the notorious Harriette Wilson, courtesan, whose memoirs inspired another most famous quote, this time from Wellington: 'publish and be damned!'.  To be known as a female writer was a very mixed blessing; safer to take on a male pseudonym as many did.

    You will have spotted the weakness in my argument.  Byron was really an older girl's infatuation.  He would have despised an Osmond or a Bieber, I fear.  So when did the teeny ones get their chance to languish over portraits?  I'm wondering if they had to wait until they were allowed out to the pictures, children's literature and music being heavily policed in the Victorian era.  Maybe they had to wait for the likes of Creighton Hale who starred in Snow White - the 1916 version. According to Wiki, after playing the prince, he went on to a porn career (innocently I didn't imagine there was such a thing as a silent movie porn star).

    So my question to you: does anyone know when pre-teen infatuations began?  I'd love to know your thoughts.


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    Letters to a Young Lady

    (by the Rev. John Bennett)

    …on a Variety of Useful and Interesting Subjects, Calculated to Improve the Heart, To Form The Manners and Enlighten the Understanding

    That our daughters may be as polished Corners of the Temple.”

    Have you ever felt a wish to be a Polished Corner?   I bought this little book a few years ago in Corning, a small town in rural New York State. It’s dated 1843, and this is its Tenth American Edition, but the original edition was published in England in 1795.  The author's preface states, ‘this Work was originally dedicated to the Queen of England’. That would have been Caroline of Brunswick, unlucky enough in 1795 to become the unloved bride of George IV.  An ill-starred choice of dedicatee. But so many editions! And so many decades! How many hundreds, perhaps thousands of girls were presented with a copy of this book? 

    It doesn’t claim much - only to Recommend:

    I          Religious Knowledge, with a list of proper writers.
    II         Polite Knowledge, as it relates to the Belles Lettres in general: Epistolatory Writing, History, the Lives of particular Persons, Geography, Natural History, Astronomy, Poetry, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Heraldry, Voyages, Travels etc; with a catalogue of, and criticisms upon, the most improved authors under each article.
    III        Accomplishments, as displayed in Needlework, Embroidery, Drawing, Music, Dancing Dress, Politeness, etc.
    IV        Prudential Conduct and Maxims, with respect to Amusements, Love, Courtship, Marriage, etc.

    What can he mean by that last ‘etc’? 

    The book was certainly read, for here are some bookmarks I found left in it - the labels from a bottle of Sarsaparilla Fluid Extract! (WHAT is Sarsaparilla?) And it is written in the form of letters to one Miss Lucy ******* whose mother has died. Rev. John begins by condoling with her:

    It would give me the sincerest pleasure, if I knew how to alleviate your grief, or afford you a single moment’s consolation.

    He proceeds to attempt to do so:

    I need not press upon you the doctrines of religion.  You have, doubtless, considered who it is, that has deprived you of this invaluable parent; a God of infinite wisdom

    (God! – God has done it to her deliberately!)

    who, without the strongest reason, would not afflict; and a Being of unbounded power, who is abundantly able to make up your loss, and open you to a thousand sources of comfort.

    He’s scarily sincere.  I can’t think what Lizzie Bennett would have had to say to this.  Poor Miss Lucy! Indeed, for me, the spirit of Jane Austen hovers over the pages of this little book like the spirit of God over the face of the waters, lifting one cool eyebrow and smiling a Giaconda smile.  The Rev. John concludes his first letter by assuring the young lady that both parties will benefit from their correspondence:

    If I am able to communicate to you any little knowledge, you will more than repay it by that ease, delicacy, refinement, confidence and expansion, which the mind never effectually feels, but in the friendship of a sensible and an interesting woman. 

    The frontispiece to the book

    It’s fascinating to see how he goes on.  While he clearly believes in educating women, and feels they are let down by contemporary standards, he never for a moment expects a girl to step out of the domestic sphere.  Reading his second letter, I shudder at the lot of a young lady in the late 18th/early 19th century.  Imagine being told this kind of thing, again and again; imagine having this kind of mirror continually held up to you:

    The timidity, arising from the natural weakness and delicacy of your frame; the numerous diseases to which you are liable; that exquisite sensibility which in many of you vibrates to the slightest touch of joy or sorrow; the tremulous anxiety you have for friends, children, a family…; the sedentariness of your life, naturally followed with low spirits or ennui, whilst we are seeking health and pleasure in the field; and the many lonely hours, which, in almost every situation, are likely to be your lot, will expose you to a number of peculiar sorrows which you cannot, like the men, either drown in wine or divert by dissipation.

    Those were the days.  And it doesn’t end there.  “From the era, that you become marriageable,” Reverend John warns, croaking like Poe’s Raven, “the sphere of your anxieties and afflictions will be enlarged.”
    Well whoopee-doo.

    Here is his advice on personal adornment.

    Finery is seldom graceful.  The easy undress of a morning often pleases more than the most elaborate and costly ornaments. [He may have something there.]

    The nearer you approach to the masculine in your apparel, the further you will recede from the appropriate graces and softness of your sex.  Riding habits… conceal everything that is attractive in a woman’s person… they wholly unsex her, and give her the unpleasing air of an Amazon, or a virago.  [Good grief!]

    Painting is indecent, offensive, criminal. It hastens the approach of wrinkles, it destroys constitutions, and defaces the image of your Maker. [Oh come on…]

    He is hilarious on dress:

    Young ladies should not be too liberal in the displayof their charms. Too much exposure does not enhance their value.  And it approaches, too nearly, to the manner of thosewomen, whom they would surely think it no honour to resemble.  Bosoms should throb unseen.

    Yes, those are his italics.  I really don’t think the comedy is intentional… Rev. Johnwarns Miss Lucy frequently of the danger presented by the opposite sex, and in doing so throws much light, for me anyway, on the behaviour of Elinor in ‘Sense and Sensibility’(1811). No wonder she suppresses all trace of feeling for Edward, if she’d read much advice of this sort:

    To entertain a secret partiality for a man, without knowing it reciprocated, is dreadful indeed. If you have address and fortitude enough not to betray it, and thus expose yourself to ridicule and censure (and yet what prudence is always equal to the task?) it will cost you infinite grief, anxiety and vexation, and a victory over yourself, if you do gain it, may be at the expense of your health and constitution.  It will, at the same time, totally unfit you for any other connexion, for who would take the body, when another person is in possession of the soul?

    Good works, though, are always acceptable in a woman.  Do you remember Jane Austen's Emma and Harriet, visiting the sick and poor of Highbury?  Well, here is the Reverend John's Miss Louisa, daughter of a clergyman, being held up as an example to Miss Lucy:

    I have often heard Louisa dwell with rapture on the entertainment and edification she has received in many cottages, when she has been carrying clothing, cordials or money, to the distressed inhabitants…

    General admiration is Louisa’s reward:

    [she is] praised as often as her name is mentioned, and followed, whithersoever she moveth, with their tears, and with their blessings.

    Contrast with this from Austen's 'Emma' (1815):

    'She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those, for whom education had done little … and quitted the cottage with such an impression of the scene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away, “These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good.  How trifling they make everything appear! –I feel now as if I could think of nothing but those poor creatures all the rest of the day; and yet, who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind?”'

    And of course it does so the very next minute, as Mr Elton appears, Emma’s designated suitor for Harriet’s hand.

    “To fall in with each other on such an errand as this,” thought Emma, “to meet in a charitable scheme; this will bring a great increase of love on each side.  I should not wonder if it were to bring on a declaration…”’

    Whereupon she falls back to retie a perfectly good bootlace, in an attempt to throw Harriet and Mr Elton together. What censure would the Rev. John Bennett have had for such scandalous behaviour?  Let us hope and believe that in real life, Emmas have always been more common than Louisas, and that most, if not all, of the young women who read this tightly printed little book did so with at least the occasional wicked smile.

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    As we watch these elegant, white-clad, straight-backed ladies weave genteelly in and out, it is hard to remember that they were commiting an act of rebellion.  Snooks were being cocked.  Gauntlets flung.

    At the end of the 19th century, a bicycle with a woman astride was still a disconcerting sight - a challenge to trouser-wearing men.  In Cambridge, when the question of full degrees for females was being discussed in the Senate, an effigy of a "rationally dressed" lady on a bicycle was hung out of the window of the building opposite, flanked by banners declaring “No Gowns for Girtonites” and “Varsity for Men”. 

    (Image: Cambridge Daily News, 21 May 1897.)

    The effigy was burned later in the day, and the motion was defeated.  But the ladies went on riding.  They wore bloomers.  They went places without being taken by a man. They started carrying toolbags. 

    "Let me tell you what I think about bicycling," said Susan B. Anthony, American campaigner for Votes for Women, in 1896.  "It has done more to emancipate women than anything else in this world. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman on a wheel."

    It was a wheel that would not be turned back.  But completely "untrammelled womanhood"?  Not quite.  Even in a world full of "new women" there had to be some standards ... In 1895 the New York World printed a list of Don'ts for Lady Cyclists, which included the following admonitions:
    • Don’t be a fright.
    • Don’t faint on the road.
    • Don’t forget your toolbag
    • Don’t imagine everybody is looking at you.
    • Don’t go to church in your bicycle costume.
    • Don’t wear a garden party hat with bloomers.
    • Don’t contest the right of way with cable cars.
    • Don’t wear white kid gloves. Silk is the thing.
    • Don’t ask, “What do you think of my bloomers?”
    • Don’t let your golden hair be hanging down your back.
    • Don’t allow dear little Fido to accompany you
    • Don’t scratch a match on the seat of your bloomers.
    • Don’t discuss bloomers with every man you know.
    • Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.
    Good advice about cows, though.

    Many thanks to Joan Lennon, who is one of our History Girl Reservists, for this fascinating post.You can read about her on the About Us Page.

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    Eowyn in the film version of "Lord of the Rings"
    History gives us traditions, which provide a strong foundation for our society. But eventually tradition becomes unwieldy, society moves on, and things need to be changed.

    After an attempt at allowing women bishops, the latest in the firing line is the royal succession law. In the old tradition, a younger male child could inherit the throne ahead of his older sister. The change to the law gives girls and boys an equal claim to the thone, so that the firstborn child inherits ahead of any younger sibling, no matter what gender. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge William and Kate’s baby will therefore be born into a very different world... boy or girl, their child will take his or her rightful place third in line to the throne. (Unless Kate has twins, of course, when I guess things could get a bit more complicated!)

    This got me thinking how many executions, wars, and heartache might have been avoided if someone had only thought of changing this law a few hundred years ago. Would Henry VIII have been so hung up about getting a male heir that he saw fit to execute so many of his wives, if a girl could have lawfully inherited? He might have relaxed a bit instead of developing an eating disorder and a morbid fascination with beheadings.

    Even my own Pendragon Legacy series, while based on legend and rather than real history, has a central plot that hinges upon the old royal succession law. To provide a strong motivation for my characters, I tweaked Malory’s family tree a bit so that Arthur becomes King of Camelot ahead of his older sister Morgan Le Fay (Arthur's half sister in Malory), who feels she has been hard done by and uses her witchy wiles to snatch the throne back for her son Mordred (a nephew in Malory’s version). Cue magic and mayhem, hundreds of books, and a TV series or two. With the recent change to the succession law, however, Morgan Le Fay might have inherited the throne, in one sweep turning Arthur and his daughter into the villains of the story, and the brilliant hook my publishers came up with:
    Introducing Rhianna Pendragon, Arthur’s secret daughter and Camelot’s last hope.
    would need to be rewritten as:
    Introducing Rhianna Pendragon, Arthur’s villainous daughter and Camelot’s darkest enemy.
    Doesn't have quite the same ring, does it? Morgan Le Fay thus becomes the wronged heroine, her actions and Mordred's (while still as nasty as ever) at least justified in the reader’s mind.

    Of course you might argue it’s not that simple, and heroines/villainesses are born not made. But often it’s unfairness and persecution that provides the hook for the greatest stories – and historically women seem to have had more than their fair share of unfairness and persecution. Maybe that's why women have such an affinity for historical fiction, because we can identify so closely with the heroines? Much of history is about wars and battle, and girls have had to struggle for their place in it... but thanks to the change in the succession law if Kate has a little girl next year, she's unlikely to have to fight as hard as Eowyn above!

    History Girl challenge:
    Can you think of a famous historical epic that would lose its plot, if the succession law had been changed during its period?


    Katherine Roberts is the author of the Pendragon Legacy series for young readers.

    Book 1: Sword of Light is now available in hardcover, paperback and ebook.
    Book 2: Lance of Truth is available in hardcover.
    Book 3: Crown of Dreams will be published in February 2013
    Book 4: Grail of Stars coming in autumn 2013

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