Articles on this Page
- 06/25/13--21:30: _THE CHANGING FACE O...
- 06/26/13--15:30: _Help! by Louisa Young
- 06/27/13--16:30: _Want to know and ne...
- 06/28/13--16:01: _Charles Palliser in...
- 06/29/13--16:01: _June Competition - ...
- 06/30/13--16:01: _Now we are two by M...
- 07/01/13--22:00: _A Peep into Marriag...
- 07/02/13--22:00: _Game of Thrones - h...
- 07/03/13--23:45: _It Ain't Necessaril...
- 07/04/13--23:00: _A Historical Docume...
- 07/05/13--16:01: _The White Queen rev...
- 07/06/13--23:30: _YESTERDAY....Part 1...
- 07/07/13--16:30: _Ghostly Hands & Dan...
- 07/08/13--12:30: _June Competition Wi...
- 07/08/13--23:00: _Game of Thrones Sto...
- 07/09/13--16:30: _A new mascot for an...
- 07/10/13--17:30: _Connected, by Lauri...
- 07/11/13--17:30: _The Making of a Mon...
- 07/13/13--01:45: _History Repeats: Ro...
- 07/13/13--17:00: _Celia Fiennes and T...
- 06/25/13--21:30: THE CHANGING FACE OF TENNIS – Dianne Hofmeyr
- 06/26/13--15:30: Help! by Louisa Young
- 06/27/13--16:30: Want to know and need to know, by K. M. Grant
- 06/28/13--16:01: Charles Palliser interviewed by Linda Buckley-Archer
- 06/29/13--16:01: June Competition - double opportunity!
- 06/30/13--16:01: Now we are two by Mary Hoffman
- 07/01/13--22:00: A Peep into Marriage Manuals - Lucy Inglis
- 07/02/13--22:00: Game of Thrones - historical roots of fantasy by Eve Edwards
- 07/03/13--23:45: It Ain't Necessarily So - by Katherine Langrish
- 07/04/13--23:00: A Historical Document - Joan Lennon
- 07/05/13--16:01: The White Queen reviewed by Sarah Gristwood
- 07/06/13--23:30: YESTERDAY....Part 1: THE INTERVIEW by Adèle Geras
- 07/07/13--16:30: Ghostly Hands & Dancing Vicars by Karen Maitland
- 07/08/13--12:30: June Competition Winners
- 07/08/13--23:00: Game of Thrones Storytelling Tips
- 07/09/13--16:30: A new mascot for an ancient city? - Michelle Lovric
- 07/10/13--17:30: Connected, by Laurie Graham
- 07/11/13--17:30: The Making of a Monarch, by H.M. Castor
- 07/13/13--01:45: History Repeats: Rome and Egypt, by Manda (MC) Scott
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.
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.
And finally a picture from the 80's of my son, Phillip, with ... ?
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|
|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
photographs: copyright Katie Grant
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!
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!
|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.
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.
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?"
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!
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’.
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).
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.
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>
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]
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)
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.
|Rebecca Fergusson as Elizabeth Woodville "The White Queen"|
|Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville|
|Richard, Edward and George|
YESTERDAY (first published by Walker Books in 1992) is a memoir I wrote of my days at Oxford between 1963 and 1966.
(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.
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!
The winners of our June Competition are as follows:
Copies of The Quincunx go to
Copies of the Timequake trilogy go to
Please send me your land addresses to email@example.com so I can arrange for your books to be sent.
|somewhere in the middle of the series|
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'.
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|
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.
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!
The "Cradle of Henry V"
Photograph William Edward Gray, 1912
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Louis XIII, by Frans Pourbus the Younger, c.1616
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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.
|Morsi's ousters celebrate in Tahrir Square|
|Nero, taken by Bibi: Saint-Pol, Wikimedia Commons|
|Mubarak, Former President|
|Vespasian, image byShakko wikimedia commons|
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.