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    With strawberries and cream and summer here (?) and Wimbledon underway, I’m being a bit frivolous today. 

    There was once a time when women practiced their forehand not in neon spandex, but wearing lace-up corsets, court-length skirts and ladylike slippers. Even in the 50’s I recall my mother going to her weekly tennis game in a very discreet knee-length white skirt and a white V-neck cable knitted sweater with a white shirt and tennis shoes that I’d had to ‘whiten’ by rubbing on some paste that dried to a glowing white. Even the balls were white and the racket was wooden strung with real gut. Somewhere in a basement I still have a relic of one.

    Tennis wasn’t always played with a racket. In the earliest versions of the game, which originated out of France in the 12th century, the players hit the ball with their hands, as in palla or volleyball. It was called jeu de paume, initially spelled jeu de paulme, meaning ‘game of the palm’. In time, gloves replaced bare hands, then paddle-like bats and finally racquets became standard equipment for the game by the late 1600s.

    It became popular in England and was played indoors where the ball could be hit off the wall. Royal interest began with Henry V but the monarch who made the biggest impact on the game was Henry VIII who played with gusto on a court specially built at Hampton Court in 1530 (although I can guarantee he wasn't playing topspin.) It’s believed Anne Boleyn was watching a game of tennis when she was arrested. During the reign of James I, London had 14 courts and his son, Henry the Crown Prince, was a keen player before his sudden death from typhoid. When he first became ill it was believed he’d caught a chill from playing tennis without a shirt.

    The word tennis is thought to come from the anglo-norman word ‘tenez’ which means to receive or take. And then there is the peculiar scoring of 15, 30 and 40 which is said to follow the quarters of a clock – the 45 changed to 40 for ease of calling out ‘quinze’, ‘trente’, ‘quarante’. The origin of the word ‘deuce’ comes from 'a deux le jeu' meaning: to both the game, or they have equal scores.

    Interestingly the game was so popular in the 1700’s that the Venetian painter, Tiepolo, included a tennis racket and three balls (right hand corner) to reconstruct the scene between Apollo and Hyacinth, in his painting, The Death of Hyacinth. It was based on the adaptation of Ovid’s original story which had to do with a game of discus.

    I’ve gone off on a tangent when I meant to concentrate on fashion. So here are some bad hair days from the 70’s and 80’s. Can you guess the players? 







    And finally a picture from the 80's of my son, Phillip, with ... ?




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  • 06/26/13--15:30: Help! by Louisa Young

  • Today it is quite simple. I have nothing to say, I want only to ask. 
    Erudite ladies, do any of you know anything about this? 
    Other than that it is lovely, and mediaeval, and French in some way? 
    And seems to start with God, and go to Neptune, and something 'appelles en latin tritones' . . . is the next bit 'c'est a dire . . .'? 
    But why is the white horse in a cave on an island in a marsh populated by mermaids with hunting horns, and the most enchanting piscine brass section including a turbot (who by the rule of all turbots is called Herbert) and a dogfish of some kind, with real dog's ears . . . But does the left-hand mermaid have two little legs growing out of her tail? And what is she wearing round her waist? Fur? And what is the blue cholla-type item out of which Neptune is emerging?

    Look at the little bullrushes. Are they bullrushes? Or plantains? And the little irises - or are they tiny yellowish asphodels? 

    Why are they serenading the horse? 
    Is Neptune conducting? Or about to thwack?

    Clearly this is symbolic as anything. But I don't recognise any of it. Help? 

    Or just enjoy.



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    In the days before google maps provided answers (of a sort) to all essential pre-travel questions - how long? how far? how much? what way? - before, even, motor cars and motorways, you had to know your horse.  How far could you ride it in a day?  How often should you let it drink?  What does it need to eat?  How long does a pair of horseshoes last?  How do you tell if the creature is knackered or just idle?

    You also needed a whole raft of other equine know-how, now restricted to very few.  How many people, for example, are needed to harness a coach and four? Does harnessing said coach and four take five minutes, fifteen minutes, an hour?  Does it matter which horse goes in which position?   If a man drives a curricle, is he better with a steady cob or a speedier half-breed?  What, indeed, is a half-breed? More technical questions are of equal importance:  which bit (the steel bar in the horse's mouth) works best when breaking a young horse to harness?  And for anybody who has ever read Black Beauty, the stand-out question:  is there is ever any good use for a bearing rein.

    No historical novel ever reflects the hours of time our forefathers and mothers spent discussing these very important matters. All we get is the occasional 'never mind the carriage, take the gig!' when the doctor must be summoned quick quick quick, or men in a dudgeon high-tailing off at a hand gallop even when at such a pace the horse would blow up in a moment.

    In many ways, this lack of reflection is unimportant.  Nobody wants meticulously reconstructed hours of horse-talk or any other kind of talk, except about lavatories.  Children, particularly, always want to know about loos.  You could write a thousand words on lavatories, completely unconnected to any conceivable plot, yet still hold a child's attention, since children are always delighted and deliciously revolted to contemplate medieval evacuations.  On any visit to any castle, it's the ancient stains from garderobes that children remember.

    Equine knowledge, though more plodding ('scuse the pun), is still pretty essential to the historical novelist.   I've always felt lucky that horses - at least riding horses - are something about which I can write without much research.  I know, for example, that if a modern horse is fit and you ride well, that 100 miles in 24 hours is not out of the question, with neither horse nor rider suffering any ill effects.  I also know that medieval horses were not nearly as fit or well fed as their descendants.  Yet even in past times a horse could maintain a steady 8 miles an hour, though not for 24 hours.  Oh, and you need to calculate in rest time, and throw out of the window the ponyclub frowning on eating and drinking on the hoof.   As for horseshoes, a set can last up to six weeks if you don't do too much roadwork, and if you can't judge whether your horse is knackered or idle, you shouldn't be riding it in the first place.

    I'm very lucky:  my knowledge of horses comes courtesy of my mother.  She had ridden all her life and, after a bout of cancer, took up long distance racing on a kill or cure basis.   (It cured her, for a while.)  In 1985, she and I raced our horse from Vienna to Budapest:  my mother rode, I was groom.  The Iron Curtain still drawn tight, we were always bumping into Russian troops who couldn't believe a horse so small (our little mare was only 14.2) could be so fit.

    my mother and Miss Muffet, 150km down, 150km to go
    Two hairy moments:  one when the horse mistook the border barrier between Austria and Hungary for an obstacle to jump.  She pricked her ears and prepared to leap.  Guns were raised.  She was most affronted.  The second moment was when she stepped gingerly onto a raft to cross the Danube.   Raft?  It was a few rotten planks lashed together.  She placed her feet with great care and kept her nose jammed into my mother's elbow.   The British stiff upper lip doesn't just apply to humans.  If horses trust you, they'll do anything for you.

    receiving their prize - my mother and Miss Muffet came 2nd instead of 1st
    because, in true British fashion,
    my mother stopped to help a fellow competitor in distress
    Riding is one thing, harnessing quite another.  Harnessing one horse - at home, we drove as well as rode - took hours.  And I'm a useless coachman.   The horse seems so far away and if it sets off faster than I intend, I slam my foot on an imaginary brake.   I guess, though, that it takes twenty to thirty minutes to harness a coach and four.  As for the bearing rein, well, it's had a bad press.  It's perfectly true that bearing reins stop a horse lowering its head beyond a certain point.  For Black Beauty and Ginger, it was used simply to make cabhorses look good, whilst making their actual job unforgivably hard.  The bearing rein certainly killed poor Ginger.  Sometimes, though, a bearing rein's a safety measure, stopping a horse from lowering its head so far that the bridle catches on the shafts - that really would have fearsome consequences.   Too much information!  Still, one day it might come in handy.

    photographs:  copyright Katie Grant

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    We are delighted to welcome our June guest, Charles Palliser, whose best-known book so far is The Quincunx. It is also a pleasure to welcome back Linda Buckley-Archer to the blog, who was one of our original History Girls. Sit back and enjoy a real treat!

    The quintessentially English Charles Palliser was, in fact, born in the USA, in Massachusetts, near Boston. He arrived in England at the age of three and lives here still, in North London. A former academic, he read English at Oxford and taught nineteenth-and twentieth-century literature at Strathclyde University in Glasgow prior to becoming a writer. He is best known for The Quincunx, an epic work of gothic Victorian fiction which sold over a million copies worldwide and won him numerous accolades and legions of devoted fans. Publishers Weekly (US) commented that while “quintuple the length of the ordinary novel, this extraordinary tour de force also has five times the ordinary allotment of adventure, action and aplomb.” The Guardian dubbed him “our leading contemporary Victorian novelist.” Following on from The Sensationist, Betrayals and The Unburied (another densely plotted Victorian mystery), his fifth novel, Rustication will be published this November in the US and the UK by W. W. Norton & Company. In anticipation of this exciting event, Charles kindly agreed to talk about his work with erstwhile History Girl, Linda Buckley-Archer.




    LBA: The news that you are about to publish a new novel after a break of over ten years, will delight your many fans. Could you give them a flavour of what to expect in terms of genre, story and setting?

    CP: The novel is in the form of a diary written by Richard, a boy of seventeen, in late December and early January 1863-64 and so it covers just that month. He comes home in disgrace and finds his mother and older sister in crisis following the mysterious death of his father while he was at Cambridge. From a position of affluence as the family of a high-ranking Church dignitary, they have mysteriously become almost destitute. They are now living in a big but dilapidated old house in a remote village on the South Coast of England where they seem to be ostracised by their neighbours. Each of the three members of the family is lying to the others and concealing various things. They squabble with increasing bitterness as the winter closes in, trapping them in the house together.

    Inserted into the diary is a series of obscene and threatening anonymous letters which are spreading terror in the isolated community and are accompanied by increasingly violent acts against livestock.

    Suspicion falls on Richard and he is, indeed, a troubled young man. Tormented by sexual feelings he feels guilty about and by remorse for the offence which led to his suspension from University, he resorts to alcohol and drugs and his mental equilibrium is gradually destabilised.

    He becomes obsessed by a succession of girls and women whom he stalks and terrifies. Meanwhile he sexually exploits his mother’s maid-servant of fourteen. All this time, as hints and fragments of evidence suggest, a cunning plan is being carried out to commit a murder and pin the blame on an innocent person.



    LBA: Like The Quincunx, your latest novel has an intriguing title. For those of us who have not come across the word before, could you define ‘rustication’?

    CP: The word “rustication” essentially means something like “being in the countryside”. It has long been used by Oxford and Cambridge Universities (as well as some of the older public-schools) to mean “suspension” from the institution. The origin of that is the idea that if one left Oxford or Cambridge one was, in theory, being sent into the countryside – even though one might be going to a big city. In the novel, my central character, Richard, is suspended/rusticated from Cambridge and returns to the house of his mother and sister which is in a very remote part of the country. So both meanings apply.

    LBA: The world that you create is wholly convincing and I was interested to learn that certain aspects of the story have their roots in real-life events.

    CP: Yes, there are two main real-life events behind the novel.

    I grew up with a story told me by my grandmother and my mother. In the late 1930 my grandparents and mother were living in a remote village in North Wales when someone began sending vicious anonymous letters. The letters mainly accused people of sexual misconduct and my grandmother was particularly evasive about that. My mother thought that was because the letters possibly accused her father - my grandfather - of having an affair. She remembered elements of the story very differently from her mother, which was in itself fascinating. They both told me what a devastating effect the letters had on the community. Not only did nobody know who was writing them so that everybody was a suspect, but nobody knew what other people were being told about themselves. And, of course, the truth or otherwise of the accusations was known only to the victims.

    The second is a notorious murder case about twenty-five years ago. The police became convinced that a certain man was the killer of a young woman and they managed to entice him into a lonely-hearts correspondence with a policewoman who, guided by a forensic psychologist, pretended to be turned on by sadistic fantasies and tried to lure him into boasting about violent acts he had committed. The hope was that he would confess to the murder. I read a book that quoted the correspondence and argued that it showed that the man was a psychopath. I formed the opposite opinion and thought he was trying very hard but completely unsuccessfully to imagine what it would be like to be sexually excited by sadistic acts. It turned out that I was right and the man was completely innocent. That episode gave me the idea of writing a novel that would put the reader in the position of reading two texts and trying to decide if the same individual had written both of them and if he was a man with violent and perverted impulses.


    I have met Charles and this picture does not do him justice! - Mary Hoffman (ed)

    LBA: The fiction of the Victorian era clearly exerts a powerful pull on you. What aspects of the historical period and its literature appeal to you most? If The Quincunx which – to quote the History Girls’ own Essie Fox – “out-Dickensed Dickens”, to what extent did you set out to reference Victorian mystery writers (such as Wilkie Collins) in Rustication?

    CP: I’m so immersed in that literature that I don’t even do it consciously. But it seems to me that one of the best ways to keep a reader interested is to do what Wilkie Collins, in particular, does so brilliantly: tease and mislead so that as much as possible is put in doubt until the end.

    LBA: To which author (living or dead) would you say you owe the greatest debt?

    CP: There are too many. The list would begin with Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, George Eliot, Conrad, Faulkner, James.

    LBA: Rustication is a relatively slim volume (certainly compared to The Quincunx), although the first draft, which I read, was substantially longer. How do you approach creating and editing your fiction? Is it a long, drawn-out affair or do you take a disciplined and methodical approach? Dickens and Collins both wrote their novels in instalments and to tight deadlines. Is this something that might have appealed to you?

    CP: I wish I could write to a deadline but I seem to have to take a long time and write far more than I should and then in the final phase cut the whole thing in half – as I did with this novel. It’s a very wasteful way to work.

    LBA: The ‘envelope’ structure of the novel presents to the reader a journal – the Journal of Richard Shenstone, 12th of December 1863 to 13th of January 1864 – sandwiched between a contemporary foreword and afterword which is penned by a certain ‘CP’. From the reader’s point of view, one of the many pleasures of Rustication is the skilful unravelling of the plot from a tightly restricted narrative viewpoint. How did you set about finding Richard Shenstone’s voice and was it a process you enjoyed?

    CP: Keeping to Richard’s point of view was the challenge that made me want to write the book and almost prevented me from doing so. On the other hand, I think I found Richard’s voice fairly quickly but what was more difficult was making it modulate in response to the dramatic events of that single month. He begins the journal as a callow, boastful adolescent. By the end, that voice has changed greatly.

    LBA: How did you keep track of the intricacies of the plot? Did you hold it in your head? Were there post-it notes pinned to your walls?

    CP: I held the outline in my head but the details of the chronology had to be worked out very carefully on sheets of paper. There are many strands in the novel which had to be woven together in a way that made sense and yet kept crucial facts concealed. Achieving that was frustrating but absorbing.

    LBA: You are always very generous in promoting other authors’ work, for example in the regular talks you host at the Stoke Newington bookshop. Is the process of being published something which you personally enjoy?

    CP: It’s wonderful to be published but the greatest pleasure is in writing the book.

    LBA: Finally, do you have any new projects in mind which you are prepared to share with us?

    CP: I work on several novels simultaneously – a dreadful habit! – and one of them is going particularly well. It’s set in eastern Europe under the Nazi Occupation and I’m dealing with the question of how and whether decent values can survive in such conditions.

    Many thanks for talking with us!


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    Competitions are open to UK residents only

    Because Charles Palliser's new novel, Rustication, has been postponed till November, we are offering instead two signed copies of The Quincunx to the first commenters to answer this question correctly:

    "He out-Dickenses Dickens" says former History Girl Essie Fox. What is the connection between John Huffam, the protagonist of The Quincunx, and Charles Dickens?

    (The Quincunx is a long book, so two copies are roughly the equivalent of ten novels!)

    And as a bonus, Linda Buckley-Archer is generously donating two sets of her Timequake trilogy, about Gideon (the Cutpurse). Her question is:

    "In the context of eighteenth-century criminality, what was the difference between a highwayman and a cutpurse?"



    You have till 7th July to enter. Winners will be announced on 8th July. Good luck!



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    Photo by Anssi Koskinen from Turku, Finland

    It is now exactly two years since the History Girls began, on 1st July 2011! In that time we've had over half a million hits, almost twice as many from the US as from the UK, where most of us live. Hello to our 74 Followers in Russia and 52 in the Netherlands.

    The most hits ever (over 12,000) have been for Leslie Wilson's post on Maria von Maltzen on 23rd July last year. There have been nearly 750 posts. History Girls have come and gone. We've even had some History Boys as guests, starting with Kevin Crossley-Holland; our guest for July (29th) will be Tudor historian John Guy.

    High spots have included Hilary Mantel on the publication day of Bring up the Bodies last year and posts from Tracy Chevalier and Ian Mortimer. We are proud to cover both fiction and non-fiction.

    We had to disable Anonymous Comments, since they were getting to be a real pain for Admins to monitor and remove. We hope this hasn't proved a problem for those wanting to comment.

    We joined Twitter, as @history_girls and have reached 2,000 Followers. And we have a Facebook page.

    So a very good couple of years and we are still going strong! As a birthday game, as many of us as possible are going to play Time Machine.



    Here's how in works. Ian Mortimer has writte two very successful non-fiction titles called The Time-Traveller's Guide to the Middle Ages and the TTG to Elizabethan England, of which there has been a television version recently.

    So you need to enter the special History Girls Time Machine, twiddle a few dials to make it look scientific and take yourself back to whatever time and place you prefer. Tell us why and what your sensations are - good and bad.

    I'm going to start us off by setting the dial to Florence, Italy in 1503. I have spent a lot of time there already, researching my novel David, about Michelangelo's statue, so it will be interesting to see how the reality measures up.

    Here goes.

    I think I should have specified a month. It's cold and rainy and I was hoping to get away from the UK's miserable attempt at summer! The first thing I notice is the noise: hoofbeats, harness, the clanking of swords, market traders calling out their wares and - since I must have arrived at midday - the sound of bells from hundreds of church campaniles.

    Photo by sailko

    The next thing I notice is the smells. Not the heavenly perfumes of Santa Maria Novella's Farmacia but sweat, ordure, bad breath and rotting vegetation. Perhaps it is just as well I am not here in the summer, when it would be worse.

    I recognise myself to be near the Duomo of Santa Maria dei Fiori, which was as much a landmark then as it is now. If I climb Giotto's elegant Campanile the view below will be much the same as it is today. But I have vertigo, so I think instead I will walk behind the cluster of chapels under Brunelleschi's mighty Cupola and visit the Operai del Duomo.

    My clothes are attracting a great deal of interest or maybe it's my short red hair? I'm hoping to see if Michelangelo will let me into his improvised workshop to see the David but he is such a bear, even at 28, that I don't fancy my chances ....

    Oh wait - we seem to have had a power cut. Back to the present. Now it's someone else's turn to step into the machine.

    Katherine Langrish 



    My turn, I think, Mary!  And I'm on a Viking merchant ship, a knarr, and of course it's midsummer with its long days and short nights, the middle of 'Sun-month'.  There's a beautiful blue sky and a light wind: perfect sailing weather. We're tacking up a Danish fjord, with a cargo of greasy, strong-smelling fleeces rolled in the open hold. The square brown sail towers over me, and I can hear the chuckle and truckle of the water running along the sides of the ship and under the bottom boards.

    We're getting too close to shore on the port side. The captain, Thorstein, a thick-set man of perhaps thirty-five, calls to his crew to change the tack. The sail takes on a life of its own, flapping, billowing.  "Haul!"  The yard comes around, the man on the braces hauls down and fastens the sheet to the tack stick, and we've changed direction and are heading back across the fjord on the new tack.

    Except for the man at the steering oar, the crew settle down to play dice on the afterdeck. Sailing is easy in such pleasant weather: they have nothing much to do until it's time for the next tack. I trail my arm over the side and look down. Close under the boat, the surface of the water is dark,with clusters of white bubbles.  Further away it is shining pewter picked out with silver glitter and little scribbling ripples. Some of the men look up from their dice as a black cormorant dashes past, low above the water.

    They don't seem to find my presence strange - maybe they think I'm the captain's wife or sister? Maybe even Captain Thorstein thinks so?  At any rate, he sits down with his back against the side and stretches out his legs. He has straw coloured hair and beard, and one eye missing, but he smiles at me.  "So," he says shyly, "you wanted to hear tales about trolls?"


    Caroline Lawrence

    I am in a long corridor with frescoed panels: vegetable designs of lotus and papyrus on backgrounds of jade green, bulls-blood red and butter yellow. The black marble floor is smooth and cool under my bare feet. It is hot. But the heat is dry and makes my nostrils prickle. When I inhale, I catch the whiff of an exotic scent – sweet and cloying – that I smelled once in Cairo. I can hear the distant throbbing of cicadas and a strange rhythmic jangling of some kind of cymbal.

    Now I hear voices. I don’t understand the language and yet it seems familiar. Greek? Yes, Greek! But not the Classical Greek I learned at U.C. Berkeley. This is a guttural Greek, her words slurred by an exotic accent and his words blurred by tipsiness. I move away from the rhythmic jangling towards the sound of their voices. My bare feet are brown and small. I am wearing an unbleached linen shift and nothing else. I can feel my straight black hair brushing my brown shoulders. I am so slim! Slim and light. My skin is fresh. This time machine has transported me into the body of a ten-year-old slave-girl! What will they think of next?

    I am guessing it is early afternoon, the hottest time of the day. But the design of this palace catches a faint breeze that lifts my straight black hair and cools the moist back of my neck.

    blue lotus from Egypt

    Now I can see the arguing couple. They are standing by a splashing indoor fountain near a dining couch. She is wearing a linen shift like mine, but her body is fully developed. She must be forty years old. She has olive skin and a strong nose. Her dark eyes are bold with kohl and greenish-blue shadow. Her hair is glossy and black like mine. But even as I watch, she removes it. A wig! Underneath her frizzy dark hair is shot with silver. She starts to unpin it and it blooms over her shoulders.

    The man in the unbelted red tunic steps forward. He buries his right hand in the hair at the back of her head and pulls her forward into a kiss.

    She is small. Not much taller than I. He is almost six foot and good-looking apart from a small pot belly. Grey in his hair, too. And it’s thinning. Obviously Roman. I can smell the sour scent of wine, more vinegar than vintage. And that elusive scent again. Now I know! It’s blue lotus. A heavy cloying scent not unlike vanilla or patchouli. But they don’t have either of those here.

    For I know now. I am in Alexandria, Egypt about thirty years before the birth of Christ. I am in the presence of Cleopatra and her lover Mark Anthony.

    Now they are locked in a passionate embrace, their argument forgotten. I am only the slave-girl, invisible to them. Should I stay or should I make a discreet exit? You decide!

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    Recently I’ve been reading Victorian manuals on domestic happiness, aimed at women, obviously. With the storm raging at the moment over the changing nature of feminism, whether young women consider themselves feminists, or whether they even perceive the need for feminism, these manuals make fascinating reading. Consider the opening gem, from Daughters of England, published in 1843, but which proved most popular in America: ‘As women...the first thing of importance is to be content to be inferior to men’. The book then goes on to list the very many ways in which we might still prove ourselves worthy, whilst reconciling ourselves to our lowly position in life. For instance, whilst an unhealthy interest in science might result in sacrificing a ‘portion of your feminine delicacy’, a ‘woman without poetry is a landscape without sunshine’.

    But only English language poetry. For, ‘with regard to the time spent in the acquisition of languages, I fear I must incur the risk of being thought neither liberal not enlightened; for I confess, I do not see the value of languages to a woman, except so far as they serve the purpose of conversation with persons of different countries, or acquaintance with the works of authors whose essential excellencies cannot be translated into our own tongue; and how far these two objects are carried out by the daughters of England, either from necessity or inclination, I must leave to their own consideration.’

    There is, of course, much good advice buried in these manuals too. Time and again the emphasis is upon the importance of friendship and persistence in marriage. Rarely, if ever, is the subject of sex touched upon. The nature and conduct of marital relations were explained in cheaper pamphlets distributed through a more clandestine social network. Instead, in the more acceptable manuals, lines such as, ‘The bloom of modesty is soon rubbed off by vulgar contact; but what is thus lost to the young female can never be restored,’ served as a warning to young ladies inclined to bestow too generous affections on the opposite sex.

    The more polite manuals were intended for and of use mainly to the women of the ever-growing middle classes, but they were popular with poorer girls too, who perhaps wanted something to hope for in their hard lives. In poorer communities, social niceties and divisions of the sexes were more to do with division of labour if not outright survival. This was particularly pertinent on the American Frontier, where even until the latter half of the 1800s, a good worker with a cheerful demeanor was viewed as more important qualities than perfect manners. The man was expected to have total financial dominance, and control of family decisions, although both of these lessened by the late 1880s.

    Much of the advice for all classes in manuals, diaries and letters of advice centred on how to ‘maintain comity’ within the household once married. This, was not always successful. The wedding night was a surprise for many, though certainly not all. For many women, including Queen Victoria, entering into a successful sexual partnership was one of the delights of marriage and adult life. For others, it was dramatically less successful. When unfortunate Oregon couple Mary and Arnold Myers married in 1870, Mary informed Arnold on their wedding night that an injury in childhood had rendered her unable to have children and that a pregnancy might be fatal. The social purity movement associated with the Comstock Laws (following the Comstock Act of 1873, prohibiting the delivery or dispersal of contraceptives or birth control literature in the United States) meant that many couples were ignorant of contraception, or felt that contraceptive methods were unacceptable. Mary and Arnold's marriage survived only five days. They had sex once, on their wedding night. Mary later testified during their divorce proceedings that it was ‘imperfect and got more by force than by anything else & hurt her very much’. She had not told Arnold of her situation before the wedding, because ‘it was not the place of a young girl to tell such things’. But Mary and Arnold’s case was the exception. Arnold wanted a wife who would live with him and with whom he could have a sex life, a not unreasonable request from married life in any age. However, just over half of all Mary’s Oregon contemporaries seeking divorce stated verbal and/or physical cruelty during the same period (infidelity is cited only in a steady ten to twelve percent of cases). She escaped to California to live with her mother and Arnold was granted a divorce on grounds of impotence: Mary’s.

    As, towards the end of the nineteenth century, frontier conditions faded across America, the earlier manuals made a comeback and like the women they had tutored, gave birth to a second generation with more capacity for comfort and education. The marvellous Daughters of England went through further editions, still giving spurious advice, such as, ‘Beauty, health, and temper. These are the personal qualifications universally considered to be of great importance to the female sex’ but for those aiming higher than life as a simple ornament, ‘The art of writing a really good letter ranks unquestionably amongst the most valuable accomplishments of woman’.

    It seems there’s never been an easy time to be a woman. Our modern manuals, magazines and literature still continue to emphasize image over worth, publishing unattainable ideals and bizarre interpretations of what femininity should be. But one sentiment from 1843 remains as valuable today as it was then, and although it applies to the male in this instance, it's universally applicable: ‘Having chosen your lover for his suitability, endeavour to be satisfied with him as he is, rather than imagine him what he can never be. It will save you a world of disappointment’.


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    I wandered into my kitchen yesterday to find seventeen-year-old daughter watching what I thought was Game of Thrones.

    Jeremy Irons lookalike?

    'Oh, no.  It's The Borgias,' she says (she is doing history A level so I guess this counts as homework).
    I watched for a few minutes as Jeremy Irons and some improbably beautiful women plotted seduction, murder and church politics.
    'Is it historically accurate?' says concerned mother.
    'Um, yes, very.'
    Ho-hum, think I.

    She's also watching The White Queen because, she tells me, of the presence of Max Irons.  We agreed that was about as realistic looking as The Tudors (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Henry Cavill).  Henry miraculously escapes corpulence as if he is the Tudor Dorian Gray.  Readers, if you don't know who these three gorgeous guys are, they are worth a google (though that sounds vaguely rude so I apologise).
    Henry Cavill


    I have two historical points to make, which I hope you as followers of this blog will feel free to comment on, gainsay, challenge and generally kick about over a cup of coffee.  The first is the way we see history, not so much in books, where it is easier to live with snagged teeth or a bad complexion.  TV and film more often than not turn our ancestors into a cast of superheroes and villains (and surely it is no coincidence that Henry C is now playing superman after playing a super noble).  Philippa Gregory is quoted on the BBC iPlayer website as saying 'It looked exactly as I imagined it.'  Out of context, the website is inferring her blessing on the whole production which is far more sanitary than my imaginative rendering of the later Middle Ages, time of small pox, crop failures, no dentistry to speak of and low life expectancies.  Too much for the living room?  Possibly.  But the Beeb is doing what we have always done: they have gilded our forebears with the rosy glow of what we would like them to have been like rather than what they were.  Elizabeth even wears clear varnish on French polished nails.  Check the trailer if you don't believe me.  It's a gorgeous fiction based on fact so we don't care too much, just as no one really wants to ditch the mythical King Arthur for his historically more plausible contenders.  As you can see, the medievals were also doing this to their predecessors.

    Elizabeth Woodville
    My second point is that, so far as many people are concerned, history might as well be fantasy and fantasy is a pretty good substitute for history.  We seem to be crunching up in the middle of both genres.  My mistake about Game of Thrones is understandable because the cutthroat politics might well be that of the Borgias with added magic and dragons so I should not be blamed for thinking it was the same programme.  My teenage son is particularly keen on this book series and is reading them as I did Tolkien at his age.  The Byzantine (note the word) complexities of alliances and betrayals is like something out of real history - just more fun because no one real is suffering.  He also claims to have gained much useful historic knowledge from Assassin's Creed, the video game.  (And in case you think he's in danger of turning into a megalomanic killer, he is clearly channelling all his angst via the screen rather than bringing it into his daily life as he is a peaceful chap - but that's another debate.)

    My view is that the most powerful fantasies are always in truth about us and our real history.  I tell young writers that fantasy is often about taking something from ordinary life and putting it in the laboratory of a fantasy world to run as an experiment on human behaviour.  Personally I find Borgia politics depressing so do not watch or read any of those mentioned above.  I prefer the more humane focus on the moral courage of the individual both in history and fantasy, so I'm a fan of Tolkien rather than George R. R Martin.

    What's your historical/fantasy cup of tea?

    My latest book, Dusk, set in World War 1 is just out.  You can watch the book trailer below.
    <iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="270" src="//www.youtube.com/embed/dxfSHUW9znk" width="480"></iframe>





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    While Government education ministers moan about the history curriculum in English schools, I shake my head.  There is no way, no way at all, to fit the whole of British history into two or three lessons a week over the course of a few brief school years, so obviously stuff has to be left out, and the question: what? is highly political.

    In my own youth it used to be the case that ‘school history’ ignored the Roman conquest, skipped the Dark Ages and the early English kings, even Alfred, and began with the Norman conquest in 1066. This was presented as ‘the last time a foreign army ever conquered England’ but also as the event which created ‘the language of Shakespeare’ and therefore, as Messrs. Sellar and Yeatman would say, A Good Thing.

    Our history lessons then hopped several centuries to the Wars of the Roses in the late 1400’s, dwelt adoringly on the Tudors (especially Elizabeth the First, and the failure of the Spanish Armada: another Good Thing); did a little swift footwork over the Stuarts and the Civil War (leaving us with the impression that the Stuarts were a bit flaky but after all they were really only Scottish/French, weren’t they, and practically foreigners?), hurdled the next couple of centuries (we knew nothing of Queen Anne, for instance) to arrive breathless and panting at the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, Trafalgar: Britain in her habitual role of Holding the Tyrant at Bay). 

    After this, apparently nothing of much note occurred before the Industrial Revolution (a Good Thing because it made Britain Richest Nation and Top World Power): the downside of which in terms of human suffering was redeemed by heroic reformers like Fry, Wilberforce and Shaftesbury (English People with Moral Principles who Improved Lives). Our history lessons finally drew to a close in the mud of Flanders: the First World War was too close and terrible to be airbrushed in any way; my generation all had granddads who had survived it or died in it. And the Second World War wasn’t history at all, but something which belonged to your mother’s childhood, and she could tell you stories about it – dashing down to the air raid shelter with the cat – shivering to the explosion of the bomb that missed – listening to Churchill on the radio.

    And so, albeit with several lacunae, schoolchildren of my era did get a general sense of the progression of British history – a sense of the order into which the different portions fell.

    This is useful.  But it is not the only important, nor even the most important thing. For every version of history written by the victors, a different version is remembered by the victims; and when – as often happens – victors and victims switch places, their historical narratives switcharoo, till a single set of historical events may yield two opposing storylines that snake across each other’s paths like sine and cosine waves, intersecting at a few bare points of reference.
    Henry VIII

    Hence the Catholic view of the English Reformation goes like this: Because monstrous Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife he broke with Rome, dissolved the monasteries, turned nuns and monks into beggars and led England away from the true path.  Queen Mary I briefly restored the Catholic faith, till England reverted to Protestantism under Elizabeth I. The Catholic persecution was renewed and continued for centuries (not until this year, 2013, was the constitution amended to allow the monarch to marry a Catholic). Over 300 English Catholics were martyred (hanged, drawn and quartered) between 1534 to 1680.

    But the Protestant view of the Reformation goes this way: Henry VIII merely hurried the English Reformation along: it was inevitable, ever since Martin Luther and the unforgettably named Diet of Worms.  It’s a bit embarrassing Henry was such a monster, but the Reformation was still a good thing.  Of courseyou shouldn’t be encouraged to pay money to the Church to buy God’s forgiveness!  Of course people should have access to the Bible in English!  Under Bloody Mary (Queen Mary I) over 300 English Protestants were martyred (burned at the stake) between 1554 and 1558. And what about Catholic plots against Elizabeth I?

    I was brought up on the Protestant narrative, the Official Version in state education and in my own home.  I went to a perfectly ordinary rural grammar school where there were few Catholics, fewer Jews, and absolutely no Muslims.  I was therefore astonished at age eighteen, in the course of a conversation with a new friend who happened to be a Roman Catholic nun, when she quietly remarked, “The Reformation was the worst thing that ever happened to England.”

    I was utterly taken aback. Not once in my life had it occurred to me that anyone might question the view expressed in every history book (fictional or non-fictional) I’d ever read, that the Reformation was not only A Good Thing, but A Very Good Thing. It paved the way for Elizabeth the First, didn’t it – Gloriana herself?  And dim recollections of simony and the selling of indulgences, mixed up with memories of carousing friars and false prelates from stories about Robin Hood, had led me to take for granted that the late medieval Catholic Church had been sadly lacking in moral fibre.

    Many years on, I still wouldn’t actually agree that the Reformation was the worst thing ever to happen to England, but my views on it are more nuanced, and at least I know it’s possible to have the argument.  Much more important, however, was my belated realisation that what you read in a history book ain’t necessarily so.

    Robert Bellah, in his interesting book  "Religion in Human Evolution" (Harvard 2011) writes:

    Families, nations, religions (but also corporations, universities, departments of sociology) know who they are by the stories they tell. The modern discipline of history is closely related to the emergence of the nation-state. Families and religions have seldom been concerned with 'scientific accuracy' in the stories they tell. Modern nations have required national histories that will be, in a claimed objective sense, true. ...But the narrative shape of national history is not more scientific (or less mythical) than the narrative shape of other identity tellings, something that it does not take debunkers to notice. Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities recounts both the widespread establishment of chairs of history within a generation of the French Revolution and its unleashing of nationalist fervour, and of the strange mix of memory and forgetting that that history produced (not so strange to those familiar with other forms of self-telling). [My italics]

    Ignatius Sancho
    The narrative of British history taught to me in school was concerned with aggrandisement of Britain as a nation and the British as a race - with a fairly narrow definition of race. It's good to feel good about yourself, but not if it encourages blindness, ignorance and prejudice about your neighbours, local and international. For example, there have been black inhabitants of these islands since at least Roman times, but we were never told anything about that in my schooldays. They were invisible. Including them in the history curriculum was a step not merely towards a new and better national narrative, but also towards a more accurate one. It's got to make it harder to view black British people as foreigners, newcomers and interlopers if you've been taught about black Elizabethans like the trumpet player John Blanke, black Georgians and Victorians like the writer Ignatius Sancho and the composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor, black First World War soldiers... No wonder there was an outcry when Michael Gove tried to remove Mary Seacole from our children's history lessons.

    In my daughters’ time in school, during the last decade, I’ve been pleased that the history they have learned was very differently taught from the rather odd mixture of rote learning and essays which constituted my history lessons (the battle plans and dates of Napoleon's campaigns have long faded from my memory: but I enjoyed writing short imaginative essays about how it might feel to be sent down a mine at age seven.) They've been constantly asked to pay attention to the sources. They’ve been shown the difference between primary and secondary sources and asked to evaluate the trustworthiness of each.  They’ve been taught to think carefully, not just about what was said to have happened, but also about who was saying it, and why, and whether this person might be in any way biased.  Suppose Henry VIII had written a personal account of his break from Rome. It would be an important primary source: but you wouldn’t take it at face value, would you?  

    Rote learning of facts and dates is far less important than the skills my daughters learned in history, skills which will serve them well in life.  Especially in an age when you can look up facts and dates on the internet (which may not be accurate), it’s good to think for yourself.  It’s good to have an enquiring mind.  It’s good to retain a healthy suspicion of people with axes to grind. Above all, it’s good to know that you shouldn’t believe everything you read.  Just because it’s in a book – or available online – doesn’t make it true.

    Who wrote that book or that blog?  And for what purpose?  Is the author telling the truth?

    It ain’t necessarily so.



    Credits:

    Cover illustration by John Reynolds of '1066 And All That' by Sellar and Yeatman - published by Methuen http://www.methuen.co.uk/1066-and-all-that/b/3

    Henry VIII, in the Royal Collection:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1491_Henry_VIII.jpg

    Ignatius Sancho: portrait by Thomas Gainsborough:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:IgnatiusSancho.jpg

    : 'It Ain't Necessarily So' from George Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess', Trevor Nunn, 2006 (Youtube)

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    In 1964 David Hoffman was in the Appalachian Bluegrass country making a TV film about mountain music and dancing.  Well, they rolled back the carpet and showed him!  

    When I first decided to post this, I thought about adding a comparison to the balls in Jane Austen, or starting a discussion about how far into the past you need to go before you can technically call something "history",* or perhaps introducing a commentary on the regular recurrence of pointy shoes for men.  But that's not what this historical document is about.  

    Sit back and enjoy.  Or better yet, get up and join in!


    * I've gone back and checked our own A.L. Berridge's post and in fact it's a year shy of the magic number, which is 50 years.  So, not exactly what it says on the tin, but never mind.


    Joan's website.
    Joan's blog.

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    Rebecca Fergusson as Elizabeth Woodville "The White Queen"

    First night, first episode of the BBC’s The White Queen, and I waited with more trepidation than anticipation, quite honestly. On the one hand I wanted it to be a hit. Declaration of vested interest here: having written a book (Blood Sisters) about the women behind the Wars of the Roses, if the whole world suddenly went Woodville-wild, it would be good news for me.

    On the other, having spent years researching these women, could I bear it if their story was turned into a travesty? Well, The White Queen has been slated in the press, over matters of historical accuracy. But do I feel inclined to join in the chorus of disapproval? Not entirely.

    Yes, the series tells the stories of Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville in the highly coloured terms of story. Fairy story, almost, you might say. The point is, that version of events was current by the early sixteenth century. 

    Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville
    The series has been criticised for showing zip fasteners on anachronistic corduroy costumes.  Rubber soles on boots and visible drainpipes. Yes – but are these the sorts of historical inaccuracies that really matter most? I don’t think so, actually. When The Tudors provoked the same debate, I didn’t mind that the costumes were slightly out of their time. I didn’t even much mind that they amalgamated two sisters of Henry VIII.

    I did mind, however, when – in a scene set circa 1530 – they presented the printing press as a brand new discovery, though in fact Caxton had brought it here almost half a century before. That’s where I think the arguments about bringing history to a wider audience fall down on their head: can a picture of the early sixteenth century which suggests the printed word was not yet invented have use or validity? That’s where the price of (as Anthony Beevor put it) ‘histotainment’ may be too high to pay.

    But if you ask whether The White Queen commits these kind of sins, then to the best of my knowledge the answer is no – and I put in the caveat advisedly. The sources for this particular period are notoriously patchy – worse than for some earlier ages, oddly – and patchier than ever for the women, who fought on no battlefields and passed no laws.

    A lot of what passes for contemporary sources are in fact chronicles from the early sixteenth century, by which time the mythologizing had already begun – but ignore them, and all too often you find yourself with no sources at all; forced to allow these extraordinary women to remain forever hidden from history.

    I watched the first episode with my husband, a professional film critic, and half way through he turned to me and said, in tones of incredulity: ‘Is any of this actually true?’ (It’s the same question the American producers asked Michael Hirst when he was pitching The Tudors, coincidentally.) 

    Richard, Edward and George


    The series is of course based on three novels by Philippa Gregory, which means that she (more convincingly than the series always shows) had already done the work of turning the sometimes challenging figures of her three female protagonists into heroines for the 21stcentury.

    That job would have been comparatively easy with Elizabeth Woodville, the eponymous ‘White Queen’ - a commoner whose beauty captured a king’s heart. Mills  & Boon meets the Kate Middleton story. Margaret Beaufort isn’t quite so easy – though, heaven knows, there’s no lack of human interest in her story.  Married off at 12 and a widowed mother at 13, with all her ambitions centred on her one son, Henry.

    But much of our information about Margaret dates from later in her life, when ‘My Lady the King’s Mother’ was a power behind Henry VII’s throne. That brings the risk she’s remembered as an elderly battleaxe, famed for her religious austerity. Still, the materials are there, if you slant them properly. Earlier writers on Margaret Beaufort tended to stress her piety and resignation, but it is that ambition which works better today: and that’s what the series is playing up, wisely.

     Anne Neville presents a different problem, though her tale is even more extraordinary. A Yorkist daughter married off to the Lancastrian Prince of Wales to cement her father’s unlikely alliance with that dynasty; widowed within months; passed back into the custody of the Yorkists and kept disguised as a kitchenmaid for fear lest her large fortune should get away. And that is even before she became wife to Richard III . . . 

    But the trouble is that Anne’s is a victim’s story, and if there is one thing we want from our heroines now, it is agency. Spirit, determination, activity.  Philippa Gregory says she decided that at a certain point her Anne would seize control of her own destiny; and of course it is possible the real Anne did the same thing. But the scant surviving evidence doesn’t tell us, sadly. 



    But the tale at the heart of tv’s episode 1 – the oh-so-romantic meeting of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV under the oak tree? The one that had critics crying out on the absurdity? It’s in Hall’s Chronicle, first printed in 1552. Thomas More’s The History of King Richard III, much earlier in the sixteenth century, already has Elizabeth as the virtuous heroine who declares if she is too low to be the king’s wife, she is too high to be his mistress. And the tale of her defending her virtue with his dagger can be found in the work of a writer who died in the 1480s. It seems unfair to blame the scriptwriter, frankly.  In a work of non-fiction, you’d make the point that these writers did not necessarily share our views on the desirability of objective factual history . . . But you can’t put footnotes on tv.

    Do I believe the fifteenth century court looked as shiny as a Timotei ad? No, not really; and these bare bodies are so sparkling clean you could eat your dinner off them – something they’ll probably get around to in, ooh, episode 7, maybe. (Or not: there’s quite a lot of rumpy pumpy but of a distinctly anodyne variety. Fifty Shades of White Rose this isn’t – they’ve shot extra shove and grunt for American pay tv.) But if you look at the glowing colours of a medieval manuscript, you realise there’s a potential trap in just heading the other way.

    So what about the real first duty of a tv drama – to provide sheer watching pleasure? Three episodes down with seven to go, and I’m enjoying it more as it goes on, and they allow the story to develop just a little in complexity. To allow a few of the machinations that usefully remind us this, at the time, was the stuff of realpolitik, rather than the neat allegiances sanitised by the distance of history.  It’s arguable that in approaching the past through the medium of television, you are always supping with the devil, and should indeed use a long spoon. But then, for heaven’s sake, just relax and enjoy the icecream sundae.

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    YESTERDAY (first published by Walker Books in 1992) is a memoir I wrote of my days at Oxford between 1963 and 1966.

    This year, a whole lot of 69 and 70-year-olds will congregate at St Hilda’s College to mark the 50th anniversary of our Matriculation and I reckon half a century ago counts as Proper History. Below is a section of our Freshers’ Photograph. The whole photo takes up too much space, so I cropped it about a third of the way along the rows. This brings tears to my eyes when I look at it and remember the way we used to be. We were young. I'm second from the left on the front row and on my right is the clever-looking Helen to whom I refer in the short piece below. I’m going to use this post and the ones for August and September to put up on the History Girls blog three extracts from the book which has been out of print for a long time.
    The first piece is called: THE INTERVIEW
    (The only thing you need to know is that ‘Michael’ refers to my then (not terribly serious on his part) boyfriend, who was at Cambridge.)
    I was allowed an afternoon off from school to go to town and buy myself a suit for the interviews [at Oxford and Cambridge] My mother, who has wonderful taste, was far away in what had been renamed Tanzania, and left to my own devices, I ended up with a soberly-cut affair: straight skirt (straight skirts are slimming, aren't they?) and plainish jacket (didn't all magazines advocate simplicity, the classic, timeless elegance...blah-de-blah?) but in an eye-blistering emerald green with all the subtlety of plastic grass. Well, I thought, green suits me. Looking back, I can see that I must have seemed like an extra from a bad production of Finian's Rainbow, but at the time I sincerely thought I was knocking them for six with my stunning apparel.
    I bought myself some cigarettes at the station on the way to each of my interviews. I felt grown-up. I read through my French and Spanish textbooks on the train, making sure the covers were visible to everyone. I wanted all the other passengers to know where I was off to, to realize what an exceptional person was travelling with them. No one even looked at me, of course. To them I was just a podgy schoolgirl in a pea-pod of a suit.
    Of my Oxford interview, more than anything I remember the bells, ringing out from this tower and that all through the night. The room I stayed in was in a building called Hall, which looked out on to the river. I liked St Hilda’s immediately. There was a wonderful sweeping staircase in Hall, and the rooms were high-ceilinged and quiet, and everyone else at the interview seemed friendly. I met a girl called Helen, who was from London and looked clever. How do you look clever? Well, you are thin and intense, and having dark hair helps and the finishing touch is purple smudges under your eyes. It’s hard to appear a diamond-sharp intellectual with a chubby round face and rosy cheeks. Helen and I walked round Oxford, and I fell in love. Nothing had prepared me for the physical beauty of the town. I walked around with my mouth open and my neck twisted round, trying to take in everything at once. By the time we got back to College for supper, I’d decided. This was where I wanted to be, and so much so that I’d have been very upset if I’d had to go to Cambridge or RADA instead.
    Michael was unflatteringly philosophical when I told him I wouldn’t be going to Cambridge after all…… I had been awarded a Scholarship, (and so had Helen) and was therefore entitled to wear the long, black Scholar's gown. I thought I would look dashing and striking.
    I sent a telegram to my parents with the good news, and found it carefully folded into my father’s papers after his death ten years later. My mother told me it had remained stuck in the frame of his shaving mirror for months.

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    One of the great joys of historical research is the stumbling upon tales you weren’t looking for. Last week, I was researching the history of Greestone Stairs in Lincoln for my next novel. Greestone is reputed to be the most haunted street in the city. They are a long flight of stone steps which once linked the medieval dwellings in the lower part of the city, outside the city walls, to via the Postern or rear gate to which led into the Cathedral grounds at the top of the hill.

    These steps are haunted by, amongst others, a Victorian woman and a monk who hanged himself from the postern archway. But perhaps most sinister of all, numerous locals and visitors alike have reported feeling someone grab their ankle as they ascended the steps, even in daylight, causing them to fall heavily and they have the bruises and cuts to prove it!




    But when delving into the history of the steps and archway I came across an account written by A.F.Kenwick in 1928, which tells another story about the steps and postern gate –

    ‘... The cathedral towers, as well as the central one, were originally topped with tall spires of timber, coated with lead. The central spire had been blown down in a gale nearly two hundred years before it was decided by the cathedral body to remove those on the west towers, the excuse being that they had fallen into disrepair. The work of destruction was commenced on the 20th September 1726 or 1727. As the citizens in the town below saw the workmen engaged in this way, cries of indignation were raised, and towards evening a crowd of 500 men assembled to prevent the removal of the spires. The main gates of the minster yard were secured against them, but the small postern on the south side was apparently forgotten. To this the besiegers turned their attention, and, rushing up the Greestone stairs, they soon battered down the gate, and entered the close.

    'One of "Old Vicars," named Cunnington, appears to have suffered especially at their hands, whether he was the chief culprit or not. He is said to have been dragged from his house in the Vicars' Court, and compelled to dance on the minster green in the midst of the mob. The crowd only dispersed on the promise that the spires should be allowed to remain.

    'The next day, the Mayor and Aldermen were requested by the minster authorities to send the bellman round the city with the following message:— "Whereas there has been a tumult, for these two days past, about pulling down the two west spires of the church, this is to give notice to the people of the city, that there is a stop put to it, and that the spires shall be repaired again with all speed.” After which the mob with one accord gave a great shout, and said, “God bless the King!” … 

    'A foolhardy feat was performed in the year 1739 by a man named Robert Cadman, who did fly from one of the spires of the minster, by means of a rope, down to the Castle Hill, near to the Black Boy public-house. Cadman met his death in the next year at Shrewsbury, while attempting a similar performance there ...’


     The spires were finally removed in 1807. I wonder if forcing planners today who make unpopular decisions to ‘dance on the green’ would encourage them to think again!

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  • 07/08/13--12:30: June Competition Winners
  • The winners of our June Competition are as follows:

    Copies of The Quincunx go to

    Marjorie
    Lynne H.

    Copies of the Timequake trilogy go to
    Ruan
    Linda

    Please send me your land addresses to maryhoffman@maryhoffman.co.uk so I can arrange for your books to be sent.

    And Congratulations!

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    by Caroline Lawrence

    somewhere in the middle of the series
    I don't like fantasy.

    I find Tolkien tedious.
    Harry Potter was only fun for a book or two.
    Even books by the glorious and gracious Garth Nix (whom my husband practically worships) don't grab me.

    Until recently, the only fantasy novel I ever loved was T.H. White's The Once and Future King, mainly for its amazing scenes written from the point of view of fish, birds and animals after young Arthur is wizarded into their bodies by Merlin.

    But in the past week I have become squealing fangirl. Along with bazillions of others, including historian Tom Holland and politico journalist Toby Young, I'm in awe of George R.R. Martin, creator of Game of Thrones TV show, based on his fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire.

    I've enjoyed watching all three seasons on TV, and had been giving all the credit to HBO, which had produced some impressive drama series, including my favourite historical drama: Deadwood.

    Then last week I downloaded one of the Game of Thrones audiobooks – A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold– to see what the underlying books were like. As a result, I am now a total convert to the brilliance of George R.R. Martin, or GRRM, as his fans call him.

    Listening to this audiobook, I have been struck again and again by his storytelling skill. He uses tricks I know well, but that I often forget to employ. GRRM inspires my own writing even as I listen.

    Here are a dozen great techniques of the craft that this master storyteller employs.

    1. No good scenes, only great ones.
    The American film director Howard Hawkes once famously said that a good movie 'has three great scenes and no bad ones.' But Martin raises the bar. Every single scene of the audiobook I'm listening to at the moment is great. The following points all help to achieve this.

    2. multiple personalities.
    By switching from one character's POV to another's, GRRM keeps the story racing along. It also keeps the action from becoming monotonous as we go from the head of a 9-year-old girl assassin to a middle-aged dwarf. Also, by putting us right in the heads of his characters, Martin makes us care about them, even the misfits.

    3. Unpredictable storylines.
    My husband says of Patrick O'Brian's books: ‘A storm is more exciting than a battle and a dinner-party can be more entertaining than either of those.’ Martin has the gift of making you feel exactly this. We read an account of a wedding, ferry ride or council-meeting knowing that anything can happen.

    4. Torture and kill your darlings.
    Martin’s willingness to torment, maim and kill off major characters enrages some fans. But without this ruthlessness we wouldn't find his stories half as compelling. The mortality looming over each character gives us a queasy sense that anything can happen.

    5. Seeding in description.
    A masterful storyteller sprinkles sensory detail in every chapter and doesn't shovel a great load of description into the middle of action. Notice how often descriptions of characters eating occur in Martin’s scenes. Eating is good because it involves all five senses: taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight. I think that's also why he uses so much sex. It's sensory as well as sensual.

    6. Scene deepening
    I've just listened to a scene where a couple make love in a basement room full of dragon skulls. By placing your characters in an exotic or compelling setting – created by seeded description (No. 5) – every scene becomes enthralling. The setting can be ironic or symbolic to contrast or underline what is happening in the scene. Hollywood screenwriters often call this 'scene deepening'.

    7. Sexposition.
    The late, great screenwriting guru Blake Snyder coined the phrase 'Pope in the Pool' after watching a movie in which a planned heist was being described as the pope paddled in his Vatican swimming pool. Make exposition painless by having something interesting happening at the same time. But GRRM has discovered something better than the pope in his pool. SEX! He uses sex so much to keep us interested during information dumps that television critic Myles McNutt coined the term 'sexposition'.

    8. Original characters.
    A teenage bride is brutalised by the hulking groom who has been foisted upon her by an arranged marriage. What does she do? She goes to the local prostitute for advice on how to win his heart. Horribly sexist? Maybe. But show me another character in contemporary pop media like her. GRRM didn't even have to add Tyrian. Or Arya. Or Jaime. He had me at Daenerys.

    9. Odi et amo.
    Speaking of Jaime. Get your readers to really detest a character. Then refine them through suffering and get their detractors rooting for them. Odi et amo, said the Latin poet Catullus.  'I love you and I hate you'. Joss Whedon did this with Spike. Do we love him or hate him? Stop messing with our emotions. No, wait! Don't stop!

    10. No clichés
    They say avoid clichés in your writing, but how many of us succeed? The only time I've caught GRRM using a cliché is when he puts it in the mouth of a character. Otherwise he's sublimely original, with analogies that make me want to grab strangers on the tube and share what I’ve just heard.

    Gemma Whelan in Game of Thrones
    11. No capped teeth
    One of the biggest criticisms levelled against The White Queen is the Timotei hair, posh southern accents and eyeshadow. (Read Sarah Gristwood's great review HERE) What detractors rarely mention is the overall beauty of the actors in these period dramas. GRRM's heroes are not all square-jawed alpha-males or blonde beauties. There are cripples, misfits and children. HBO has done well by casting actors who are not conventionally attractive (or wearing makeup) but who win us over by force of personality.

    12. Make it REAL.
    In GRRM’s books, things feel real. A warrior who loses his right hand does not instantly learn to fight just as well with his left. Arrows don't always find their mark. Characters get hungry, sleepy, sick and use the latrine. Even the 'fantasy' elements ring true. His ice-wall mammoths remind me of Hannibal's elephants in the Alps. And his dragons feel more real that any horse I've ever written.

    And that's why I think Game of Thrones is the best historical fiction being written at the moment. 

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    Dolce and Gabbana held a Venetian costume ball at the Pisani Moretta palace last week – Dolce came as Arlecchino and Gabbana as a bullfighter  (not a figure I recall from the Commedia dell’Arte, strangely) – but the biggest celebrity in Venice at the moment is a supposed Mediterranean monk seal who has been baptized "Pryntyl".


    He or she was first spotted near the church of San Geremia, where the remains of Saint Lucy rest, and has also been seen at Malamocco on the Lido. A windsurfer at Bibione reported a close encounter on July 7th with a creature who was last seen swimming in the direction of Venice. Its shape, size and colouring were those of a young adult male monk seal.


    A video on YouTube shows a glimpse of a brown creature, who is definitely not a fish, disappearing underwater near Rialto.


    Life imitates ‘art’ yet again. In my second children’s novel, The Mourning Emporium, monk seals are washed up in Venice after a great ice storm.

    A mother seal helps my heroine, Teo, to escape from an iceberg on which she has been marooned. The seal meets a terrible fate at the hands of the villainous Miss Uish.


    When researching The Mourning Emporium, I looked for a species of seal that might conceivably make its way to Venice as a result of a great turbulence in the Adriatic. And Mediterranean monk seals seemed to be the best candidates. They were common enough to be hunted during the Roman Empire and Middle Ages. Fishermen regarded them as rivals, and suspected them of destroying their nets.


    There are historical accounts of the seals gathering to mate and give birth on open beaches, but increasingly they have taken to underwater caves for breeding. There they are vulnerable to storm surges and can be washed miles away from their homes. Today Monachus monachus, a pinniped of the Phocidae family, is an endangered species. Only 500 are thought to remain, with a few colonies on the coast of Croatia.


    How did "Pryntyl" arrive in Venice? There have been no recent turbulences in the Adriatic. Experts are theorizing that this seal inadvertently ended up in the city when chasing some prey, and then became lost in the labyrinth of Venice’s historic waterways.


    Comments on the website of the Gazzettino newspaper have been skeptical, with some readers dismissing the filmed creature as a nutria (coypu) or a dead cat. Others have suspected a clever digital faking. You can judge for yourself towards the end of this short video, filmed in early July. To me, the diving beast looks much too large to be a coypu, and it’s definitely vigorous. The copypu is a herbivore, and would find slim pickings in Venice. So I vote for Mediterranean monk seal, being the more credulous because desirous. I would love to see it for myself.




    Coypu or seal, I like to think that the creature’s appearance is an encouraging sign of the relative health of the water in Venice these days. In the last ten years, egrets have become a common sight, gobbling little fish they catch while hunting from jetties at high tide. Large flocks of cormorants come to dry their wings on the paline. They too seem to find good eating in Venetian waters.


    The monk seal feeds on fish, squid and eels. Squid are certainly more obvious on the canals than they used to be. The poor creatures are the prey of swooping seagulls. When locked in mortal combat with one of the yellow beaked “Magoghe”, the squid release their ink. Underwater, this would serve to blind a predator temporarily, but unfortunately the discharge of fluid lightens the squid so that the seagulls can more easily carry them off.


    A gondolier friend has told me about a seagull dropping a slippery squid from a great height directly upon the head of one of his clients enjoying a romantic voyage down the Grand Canal.


    How clean is Venice’s water now? I remember the historic year that Italy won the World Cup for some ball game or other, and the night air was filled with the sound of thuds and splashes. This was the soundtrack of Venetians jumping into the Grand Canal from the AcademiaBridge and at Rialto, where they swam from the market to the other side and back. They had sworn that they would do this if Italy won.


    I asked a Venetian friend if it was safe to immerse their bodies in the water of the Grand Canal, and he assured me that for natives of the city the water is completely healthy.


    ‘But you,’ he said, ‘as a foreigner, would dissolve on impact.’


    In fact, it is also illegal to swim in the historical canals now. But in the nineteenth century, when my current adult novel is set, women would throw their children into the canals, attached to a piece of rope, so that they would learn to swim. There are archival photographs of this activity.


    Personally, I hope that the monk seal stays in Venice. The amphibious city needs a healthy, lively mascot. The winged lion has served since 878, but we’re unlikely to see a real one flying around town.




    PS. Blogger did not desire that I should add any pictures today, so please supply them from your imaginations, as well as the italics for book titles and foreign words. Thank you!

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  • 07/10/13--17:30: Connected, by Laurie Graham

  • Novel-writing can lead a girl down strange research paths and this week I ended up in the Russian Museum of Telephone History  -  though only as an online browser, you understand.  How commonplace, I’d wondered, would domestic telephones have been at the time of Nicholas II’s coronation in 1896?  It was twenty years on from Alexander Graham Bell’s first patent being granted, and Queen Victoria had been a subscriber for years, but Russia? The answer was yes. Among the vast Romanov clan and the top drawer families of Moscow and St Petersburg telephones were quite the norm by the 1890s and I don’t mean two cocoa tins connected by string.  I’m talking about elegant candlestick phones, with a spring-loaded side hook for the receiver.


     ‘On the hook’ and ‘off the hook’ are two expressions we owe entirely to an antique design of telephone. ‘On the blower’ is an even earlier expression from the days of that enviable domestic appliance, the speaking tube.  The tubes, or blowers, were used on business premises first and then taken up by the owners of large houses whose drawing rooms might be inconveniently distant from the kitchen staff. But the use I particularly like the idea of is the speaking tube connecting a chauffeur to the sealed passenger compartment of a car. How fabulous to be able to pick up the tube and say, ‘Be so good as to stop at Asprey’s, Jorkins. I have urgent need of a pearl stomacher.’
     

     

    The telephone caught on pretty quickly in Britain in spite of the official view of the Post Office that it had a limited future, what with messenger boys being ten a penny. In 1878 there were 8 telephone subscribers in London. A year later there were nearly 200 with two phone companies offering competitive tariffs.


    By 1884 trunk calls became feasible and so did making a call if you were out and about, or if you didn’t have a telephone in your private residence. Silence Cabinets were installed in places like railway stations. They were manned at first, with an attendant to help you make your call. And in London, most particularly in Westminster, it became possible to make a call even in the middle of the night. A politician’s domestic peace was breached, for ever.

     

    There are some delightful pieces of telephone history trivia. In the early days of cable laying phone companies consumer tested different types of wire on in-house hungry mice. An interesting career opportunity for a rodent. Then there was the question of how to answer your telephone when it rang. ‘Ahoy!’ was the first proposal, in the same way sailors would make contact with another vessel. In the 1950s people still announced the name of their exchange and number by way of greeting. ‘WIGSTON 2958,’ my mother would recite, very clearly but always in a wary tone, as though she feared the invisible caller might be up to no good.


    Subscribers didn’t always have phone numbers though. Initially one would just call up the operator and say, ‘Get me that veterinary with the gammy leg,’ and the operator would say, ‘Putting you through. Your Rex still got the mange?’ It was an American doctor who came up with the idea of unique subscriber numbers. There was an epidemic of some kind in his town of Lowell, Massachusetts and people were dropping like flies. ‘What if the operator gets sick?’ he thought, the operator being the powerful creature who sat at the centre of the telephone network and knew every subscriber by name. And so was born the telephone number.  


    But to get back to the question of Russia in the 1890s. There were telephones in the Winter Palace and in the Alexander Palace out at Tsarskoe Selo, but Tsar Nicholas wasn’t keen on them. He became a great enthusiast for cars and for movies, but never for telephones. Perhaps, like my mother, he was nervous of them. Or perhaps it didn’t seem right to him that the Emperor of All the Russias could be summoned by a bell.  The Tsarina, who enjoyed poor health and often kept to her boudoir all day, loved the telephone. It’s said she even allowed her daughters to use it, though who those closeted dears might have called it’s hard to imagine.  They didn’t get out much.


    There was a telephone line between St Petersburg and Russian Army HQ at Moghilev at the time of the 1917 crisis that led to Nicholas’s abdication but he declined to use it. He wrote letters, sent telegrams, dithered, smoked, and shunted up and down in his increasingly beleaguered train. One can’t help wondering if things might have turned out differently if some more enlightened members of the Romanov family had been able to pick up the telephone and tell him what to do to save the day. We cannot know.


    But what I can tell you is that I’ve now added a speaking tube and a silence cabinet to my birthday wish list. I'm also considering answering my phone with 'Ahoy!' 


     


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    The "Cradle of Henry V" 

    Photograph William Edward Gray, 1912 
    [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



    With the firstborn child of Prince William and Kate Middleton (as was) due to arrive any day now, I expect that certain sections of the press and online media are awash with speculation about the nursery arrangements for ‘Baby Wales’. Not only will the décor and fittings of the room (/rooms) excite interest, but the identity and training of any staff (nannies? night nurses?) will also be scrutinised. How will the baby be raised? Will s/he be put on a Gina-Ford-style routine, or will the royal team take more of a Baby Whisperer approach? Will s/he be bottle- or breastfed? How should a future monarch be raised?


    With a high-status medical team on standby, presumably ready to rush to Kate’s side the minute she goes into labour, one has to conclude that the survival of this baby, its safe delivery, is deemed (by the powers that be) more important than that of an ‘ordinary’ child. You could argue that any person who can pay for private care might feel they are thereby dodging the worries the rest of us might feel over cases like the recent one in Cumbria (though private care of course does not necessarily mean better care), but there is something extra here. The status of the child in question simply cannot fail to affect those who care for it – at least on some level.

      

    Is this a blessing or a curse?





    The ramifications of this question – albeit in a very different era – have occupied me a great deal over the past few years, since my writing has involved plenty of research into the early years of Renaissance royals. Detailed information is very hard to come by: passing references in letters and dispatches, accounts of staff wages and clothing bought can, after all, only take you so far.


    Imagine my delight, then, in finding an account of a royal childhood that is every bit as detailed as one could wish. 






    This is Louis XIII: The Making of a King, by Elizabeth Wirth Marvick. Louis XIII of France (father of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’) was born in 1601 and became king at the age of eight when his father, Henri IV, was murdered. What enables Marvick’s account of his early years to be so astonishingly detailed is that his personal physician, Jean Héroard, who was in charge of his day-to-day – or even minute-to-minute – care from the moment he was born, kept a fantastically detailed diary for the first 26 years of Louis’ life. It is as graphic as any Freudian analyst might wish; indeed, a contemporary described it as “several volumes in which you will find nothing except what time he [Louis] awakened, breakfasted, spat, pissed, crapped, etc.” However, there is more to it than that. Conversations are reported verbatim, tantrums detailed, relationships with staff and family members tracked over time. The blurb for Marvick’s book says that the diary’s detail “makes it probably the most extensive record of the development of any individual – much less of an important political figure.”


    And what fascinating – and often chilling – reading it makes. Louis was given the very 'best' care. This did not, however, involve parental affection:


    ‘During his early months [his mother] saw him infrequently and did not once embrace him until he was nearly 6 months old. The king was initially more demonstrative but gave up holding the baby after a week, when Louis nearly fell to the floor while being presented to his father on a velvet cushion’.

    [Marvick, p.9]


    However, whilst parental attention was lacking, that of the physician Héroard and numerous other staff was so intense as to be damaging. From the moment of birth Louis was scrutinised, worried over, his every bodily function interfered with. On the second day after Louis’ birth, Héroard became anxious that the baby wasn’t suckling properly, and called for a surgeon to cut the membranes at the base of his tongue in three places. Worrying next that the wetnurse couldn’t provide enough milk, the physician had extra women brought in, and Louis was fed until he vomited. When Louis was ten days old, Héroard became concerned that he hadn’t ‘voided’ for a long time, and gave him a suppository. In an age when enemas (and ‘vomits’) were considered almost a cure-all, Héroard was thought to be conservative in his use of them, but taking control of Louis’ bowel movements was to become a habit, and tracing the long struggle of Louis’ later potty training through Héroard’s account is fascinating.


    Underlying this suffocating attention, of course, was terror shared by all the staff that the baby might die under their care. But Héroard’s aim was much broader in scope than that Louis should be physically healthy: he wanted to mould his future sovereign. For this, his job was ideal. Marvick tells us that he was ‘required by law to “be always near” his master, “at dinner, supper, on awakening, retiring, as well as at other times.”’

    When Louis woke each morning, Héroard was standing at his bedside, ready to take his pulse. When the dauphin ate, Héroard decided not only the types of food to be eaten, but the order in which they should be ingested, as well as the exact quantities, even down to the number of mouthfuls or the number of grains. It’s no wonder that, as he grew up, Louis never sampled any new food that appeared on his table without first consulting his physician.


    Héroard noted down the first time Louis’ blood was spilled (he cut himself slightly when a toddler), and the first time he spat. Héroard took seriously the spilling of any bodily fluids and was said, by a detractor, to disapprove even of sweating and nose-blowing (which seems to have had its effect on Louis, as will be seen below).


    Héroard described in his diary how Louis played with his toys, how he talked to his nurses, and his strong attachment to some of his personal guards. Right from the beginning, Louis was made intensely aware of his status. His sister Elisabeth, 15 months younger than Louis, was taught to call him “Little Papa” and Héroard informed the boy: “One day, everything she possesses will be your gift to her.”





    Louis XIII, by Frans Pourbus the Younger, c.1616
    [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


    But, though Louis knew how to lord it over servants and siblings alike, there was one person who inevitably eclipsed him: the king his father. And for the first eight years of his life, Louis’ relationship with Henri IV was a hugely confusing one.


    Henri was godlike in Louis’ eyes, and this was a god who was unpredictable. By turns playful and menacing, affectionate and taunting, Henri would treat his son kindly one minute, and ignore or humiliate him the next. Louis often had no way of knowing which sort of treatment to expect. Henri ordered Louis’ first whipping when the boy was only 25 months old, and told Louis’ governess:


     “I wish and command you to whip him every time he is stubborn or does something bad… there is nothing in the world that will do him more good.”


    Often Louis would be whipped soon after waking in the morning. Often he would be whipped by Henri himself. And those courtiers who were too scared to whip the heir to the throne would try to control his behaviour using ‘bogeymen’ figures of whom the child became terrified.


    Louis was taught from toddlerhood to regard his masculine prowess (both sexual and military) as of vital – national – importance, and yet not even allowed to have control of the evacuation of his bowels. Héroard records how King Henri would at times boast to the (very) young Louis of his own prowess – and at other times take him into his bed and abuse him. As a small child, Louis did try to resist his father, but any sign of anger or defiance was met with vicious punishment. And so Louis relinquished his resistance, becoming passive and even servile with the king, and increasingly tyrannical with everyone else. He also developed a stutter, which, as the 1619 account of Edward Herbert (ambassador of King James VI & I to the French court) shows, was to stay with him for life:


    “...his words were never many, as being so extreme a stutterer that he would sometimes hold his tongue out of his mouth a good while before he could speak so much as one word; he... was observed seldom or never to spit or blow his nose, or to sweat much…”


    (It seems as if Louis’ very pores had absorbed Héroard’s influence…)

    When Philippa Gregory was quoted online as having said the following, with regard to Henry VIII, she was expressing what seems to be a widely-held view:

    Asking oneself about the psychology of a Tudor king is profoundly a-historical; it is like asking oneself as to their compliance with traffic signals – impose a concept on people who simply didn’t think that way, having not yet invented the theory.

    But one thing this extraordinary account of a royal childhood shows us is that the fact that people didn’t “think that way” then doesn’t make the insights provided by psychology any less relevant. Paying attention to them seems to me no different from using modern medical knowledge to try to discover which diseases historical figures might have suffered from. No one, surely, could argue that Louis XIII’s childhood experiences would not have had a lasting effect on him.

    So much, then, for this particular poor little rich boy. We cannot extrapolate from Louis' case too many generalisations about child-rearing at the time, since so much clearly depended on the character of his father and the particular culture of the French court. However, we can say that to be the ‘most important’ child in the kingdom is not – in any age – an unalloyed blessing and has been, at some moments in history, a peculiar kind of hell.


    Happily, despite all the pressures of the modern media age, the prospects for 'Baby Wales' are much more rosy, if not without their own challenges...





    Children's books shown (both published by Ladybird):

    The Story of Sleeping Beauty by Muriel Levy (“Auntie Muriel of Radio Fame”), illus. Evelyn Bowmar (1949)
    Sleeping Beauty, by Vera Southgate, illus. Eric Winter (1965)

    Photographs © H.M. Castor. Please do not reproduce without permission.



    H.M. Castor’s novel VIII– a new take on the life of Henry VIII, for teenagers and adults – is published by Templar in the UK, by Penguin in Australia, and will be published by Simon & Schuster in the US next month.


    H.M. Castor’s website is here.





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    I spent yesterday evening at Rossiter books with the wonderful Andrew Taylor: one of the best historical writers alive today (do read ‘The Scent of Death, his latest book that explores New York, the bastion of loyalty to the English Crown during the war of Independenc). 
    We started off the evening by looking at how we’d both made the shift from crime writing to historical writing but the conversation slipped sideways, as these things always do, into the fact that history seems doomed to repeat itself: in our own personal lives, in public life, in the great span of empires and civilisations, we seem doomed to wander in great, repeating cycles.
    Or perhaps it’s just that, as writers, we are doomed to see the patterns in things, and then to imagine that they are repeating: this may also be true. Certainly, having spent a year immersed in AD69, the Year of the Four Emperors in Rome – which lasted 18 months and in which there were, strictly speaking, 5 men who called themselves Emperor, even if one of them never made it to Rome – I can’t help but see startling parallels with what’s happening just now in Egypt.
    Morsi's ousters celebrate in Tahrir Square
    So, whether it’s authorial paranoia, or a genuine recycling of inevitable history, it’s worth another look at the past and the present.
    The differences shroud the similarities and the most obvious of these is that Egypt is hardly a superpower in the way that Rome was: and Hosni Mubarak was not a hereditary ruler who clawed his way to power over the murdered bodies of his relatives.  He was, however, a man who ruled largely by force, and by intimidating the opposition, even if he did not, as far as we know, go as far as Nero went in ensuring that the opposition remained cowed.
    Nero, taken by Bibi: Saint-Pol, Wikimedia Commons
    Nero – who did rule the single superpower of his age -  overspent to such an extent that the treasury was in danger of bankruptcy.  His answer was not austerity –he cared too much about what the common people thought of him - but rather to present the Senators, (who were the super-rich of their age) with the option to kill themselves and leave their entire estates to the Imperial treasury , or stay alive, in which case he’d let his executioners wax creative on their families and they would die last after they’d seen each of those they loved die ghastly deaths.   A great many good men fell on their swords, and those left behind were too cowed to do much about it – until he killed Corbulo, and put down the Pisoan conspiracy and the legions decided it was time to lead a revolt.
    The situation in Egypt is less clear cut but there is no doubt that Mubarak used the powers of police and army to suppress dissent and particularly to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood and what’s striking is that in each case, the army (the legions in Rome) brought down the ruler and then took a relative step back to allow a new Emperor/President to take over.
    Mubarak, Former President
    In Rome, Galba was the first of the four men to reach Rome and name himself Emperor.  He had been a legionary commander but then in those days, legionary commanders were Senators and every Senator had to have spent some time commanding a legion: It’s one of the reasons that some legions made outstanding mistakes (the XIIth) while some were led by men of military inspiration (Vespasian and all the legions he led, including the by then ‘unlucky’ XIIth).  By the time he took the Imperial throne, he was Governor of Spain, which was a political position.
    And here the similarities start.  Everyone thought Galba would make a good Emperor until he actually started the job, at which point, it took a remarkably short time for everyone except Galba and his closest associates to realise he was worse than Nero had been: not an ‘actor’ or a musician, not given to spending money on wild artistic ideas, not prone to roaming the streets after dark assaulting girls and boys he fancied… but nonetheless, he was a martinet of the worse proportions, and nobody wanted him in the post.
    It was the legions who replaced him and, as in Egypt, they were split.  The Praetorian Guard in Rome killed Galba and installed Otho, while the legions in Germany gave their oath to Vitellius.  These two men were second and third of the four, respectively and the civil war thus begun would have been far, far worse had not Otho done the decent thing and fallen on his dagger to prevent men from throwing away their lives in his name.  One month after Vitellius arrived victorious in Rome, the legions of the east, of Judaea, Syria and Alexandria (which was then the capital of Egypt) took a look at their comrades in the west and, deciding they could have a bit of the cherry too, declared for Vespasian.
    Vespasian, image byShakko wikimedia commons
    The point, it seems to me, is that the legions, once they had realized they could make or break the Emperor, carried on until they got one they could all agree on.  Vespasian was one of the greatest emperors Rome ever had, largely because he didn’t really want the job, but, having been offered it, was a good enough organizer, a good enough military strategist – and a good enough Emperor once he returned to Rome – to be allowed to stay in post.
    And so in Egypt, the generals installed Mubarak, one of their own and his reign was lengthy, but still, the army sided with the people when the riots became overwhelming. The army stepped back and let the Muslim Brotherhood install one of their own as leader, but they were not slow to get rid of Mohamed Morsi when his incompetence and corruption became evident. 
    That’s two down.  And here is where I think history is repeating itself.  The gap between Emperors reduced exponentially in ancient Rome: Galba to Otho was 9 months.  Otho to VItellius was 3 months.  Vitellius to Vespasian was one month (tho’ it took longer for Vespasian’s forces actually to take Rome).
    If Egypt follows the pattern, we may see another President relatively soon, but the gap, I think, between his taking power and losing it, may be measured in weeks and months, not years, should he prove (as is likely) not to be up to the job.

    What Egypt needs is a Vespasian: a pragmatist, a generally sane, thoughtful, humane and above all, competent, individual.  Like Rome, there is no chance that a woman could take the top job, but in default of that, we have to hope that there’s someone with the courage to put his head above the parapet, and the foresight to lead the nation into peace: Rome’s civil war touched almost all parts of the Empire.  Egypt’s, should it spiral out beyond the borders, may well trigger another global meltdown. And as Einstein so presciently said: “We do not know with what weapons the third World War will be fought, but the fourth will be fought with sticks and stones.”  







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    I started off thinking I would write about Celia Fiennes. She was a late 17th century intrepid English woman who never married and rode around Spa towns for her health - alone. Of course she was not alone she had one or two servants at all times (you can read about her travels here.)

    She lived the later part of her life in London around the corner from me although she was there from 1738 until 1741 and I 1982 until 2013 so we never actually met.



    I don't know how many times I walked past this plaque, I read it thousands of times; it's on the wall of a modern carpet shop next to Iceland at the junction of Well Street and Mare Street in London. It's part of Hackney that has been ruthlessly ignored by the gentrifiers, an island of 1970s Hackney, still down at heel.  There are some clues that this spot might have once been the edge of the city, that there might have been big houses and market gardens rather than hostels and a giant LIDL. There's Elizabeth Fry's original safe house for women, a lovely Grade II listed pile that has been neglected for years, there's the name of the local estate - Loddiges - named for an ahead of his time gardener who built some of the largest glasshouses in England. And  just to the south a pocket of old houses that includes a different women's refuge, The Ayah's Home, which is actually the subject of this blog instead.

    The Ayah's Home has its own plaque and a very different, sadder, history. It was opened in 1900 - which in the run of things is almost touching distance - by well to do Ladies who lunch disturbed that some other well to do Ladies were treating their servants abominably.

    Ayahs were Indian and sometimes Chinese nannies, women who gave up any family of their own they might have to look after those of the wealthy English Sahibs and their families serving the Empire abroad. When these families returned to England their Ayahs would come too, taking care of the little ones on board ship for the long months of the journey home. Once back in blighty many of these Sahibs and Memsahibs abandoned their Ayahs and either employed English nannies or sent the children to school. The Ayahs were cut loose, abandoned in a city thousands of miles from home with no means of support and no way of getting home. Left destitute. This was obviously enough of a problem that the home was opened in a large leafy suburb in a large lovely house in South Hackney.

    That's an view inside of the grateful Ayahs passing their time at needlework.

    Here they all are on the steps along with some- no doubt benevolent- gentleman of the city. The home remained open until 1926. Read that again; this was still a problem, families were still abandoning their nannies until 1926. I have no doubt British servants were equally ill used, cast off, exploited, abused in every way imaginable. But every time I pass the Ayahs' home I can't help thinking of those poor women abandoned so far away from home.



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