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    The History Girls: Hide & Seek, by Clare Mulley: This month The Folio Society republished one of the great memoirs of the Second World War; Xan Fielding’s Hide & Seek . Described by Ant...

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    Our August guest is Debbie Taylor, whose life seems to provide enough material for a whole bookshop of novels. Welcome to the History Girls, Debbie!

    Debbie Taylor is Editorial Director of Mslexia, which she founded in 1999. She has written for Oxfam, UNICEF, Anti-Slavery, WHO and others about women and social issues. Her books include My Children, My Gold (Virago), a nonfiction travelogue about single mothers, and The Fourth Queen (Penguin), a novel set in a harem in 18th Century Morocco. Her latest novel, Herring Girl (Oneworld), a paranormal historical thriller set on the banks of the Tyne, came out this month. www.debbietaylor.com

    We historical girls often like to wax lyrical about the amount of research we do to source the details of the era and characters we're writing about to recreate an authentic period atmosphere.

    Sarah Waters immerses herself in the literature of the time, reading letters, newspapers and magazines, as well as novels of all kinds – and latterly, I assume, seeking out radio recordings and transcripts for her 20th Century historicals like The Paying Guests and The Little Stranger. Her policy of total immersion continues while she's actually writing, too, so that it becomes well-nigh impossible not to imbue her prose with the nuances of her chosen period.

    Other historical novelists go even further. I'm reliably informed that you can take part in themed weekend extravaganzas, attiring yourself in period clothing and eating and drinking as people did at a particular time in history. (I once suggested this as a joke in a talk to the Historical Novelists' Association, only to be told in no uncertain terms that it was already de rigueur for some hard-core novelistas)

    Then there's the method used by Rose Tremain, which is basically to write the book first, making up the historical details as she goes along – and do the research later to correct anything she's got wrong.

    Which is the opposite method to that used by Margaret Atwood, who collects boxes and boxes of information on every aspect of her work-in-progress (aided by several research assistants) and plots all her characters' timelines on an elaborate grid, before she starts writing. This is partly because she finds real life far stranger than fiction – indeed she boasts that every bizarre, brutal or arcane event or practice in her novels has actually occurred somewhere at some time in the world – and partly because she lives in fear of some old timer popping up at a reading to correct a detail she's got wrong about butter-churning in the 1920s.

    Much of my own 'historical' knowledge comes not from reading about fishing communities in the 1890s or listening to old recordings of Tyneside voices – though of course I did all of that for my novel Herring Girl (published by Oneworld and out now!). Most of my sense of what life might have been like in 19th Century Northumberland comes from living amongst people in third world countries when I worked as a development journalist. I've slept four to a bed, for example, been bitten by fleas, ticks and mites, gulped down water from sources I didn't dare enquire about, and witnessed traditional healers in the throes of a spirit possession. I know first-hand how to resurface a mud wall, wash head to toe without taking off my clothes, and go to the loo in public – in daylight in an open field, as well as in a bucket inside with an entire family watching.
    Debbie's house in Botswana
    However we go about it, all historical novelists are striving for some kind of authenticity. But I want to argue that, no matter authentic we are trying to be, what we actually end up producing is more akin to science fiction than history. Because we are not simply relating the facts about people's lives in the past, we are trying to project ourselves – and our readers – backwards in time to imagine what it was actually like to live those lives.

    And however much we research our subject matter, however many old letters we read or museums we visit, we can never be sure that we have got it absolutely right. All we can do is use the incomplete information we have to hypothesise what it might have been like in 18th Century Morocco, say (as I did in The Fourth Queen), or 11th Century England (as Paul Kingsnorth does in The Wake). Which is exactly what science fiction authors do.

    Starting with a series of assumptions – melting ice caps, mass infertility, alien entities – they painstakingly construct a viable and believable alternative world, along with the viable and believable human (or humanoid) beliefs and experiences that would result.

    Indeed many novels in the fantasy genre are set in a sort of hybrid world, part historical part paranormal part science fiction. The recent emergence of the steampunk genre, which marries science fiction plotlines with a sort of grungy late 19th Century milieu, makes this connection even more obvious. Which is why it's not surprising that Margaret Atwood, for all her enthusiastic amassing of contemporary and historic fact, bestrides the fictional world so comfortably between the past and the future. And who knows, perhaps Hilary Mantel's next novel might be set on a far planet in the 23rd Century. I don't know about you, but I can't wait.

    Resurfacing a courtyard in Zimbabwe

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    On the 30th of each month, when it's not the last day (i.e. in January, March, May, July, August, October and December) a History Girl puts up an extra post about something she would like to put in our virtual Cabinet of Curiosities. This month it's my turn and I'm afraid I'm going to be greedy.

    You see, I want the Bayeux Tapestry.

    I have already written about it on my Book Maven blog. And Adèle Geras has written her own post here on the History Girls.

    You will have to bear with us. We both saw it this summer and it makes a huge impact. But because it is 70 metres long and difficult to stuff into our cabinet, I'm going to concentrate on the Alderney Finale, a brilliant initiative carried out on the Channel Island to complete the Tapestry, which is missing its final panels.

    It was the brainchild of Librarian Kate Russell and artist Pauline Black and was unveiled in April of last year. This summer it has been on display in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum and in fact tomorrow is the last chance to see it there. Then it will return to Alderney.

    From the 1st February 2012 when Kate and Pauline applied the first stitches 400 people have had a hand in working on the Finale, including Prince Charles and and Duchess of Cornwall.

    There are Four scenes. In Scene one, the victorious William of Normandy has a celebration dinner with his half brothers Odo, who is thought to have commissioned the Tapestry, and Robert. The remnants of the Battle of Hastings are shown: corpses, severed limbs, grieving widows. After the battle is when William gets his nickname of "the Conqueror" though this is not shown here. (Formerly he was known as William the Bastard - no comment on his nature, just that his parents were not married).

    Scene two shows William at Berkhampstead, charmingly rendered in Latin as "Bercheha(m)steda," accepting the surrender of English nobles, including the Archbishop of York.

    Scene three is the climax of the piece and surely a subject very likely to have been in one of the lost panels: the Coronation of William at Westminster. It is Christmas Day 1066.

    Scene four is a little tailpiece showing the beginnings of the White Tower at the Tower of London, built with Caen stone, from Normandy, that shines out to this day.

    The Latin inscriptions are by Robin Whicker in forms appropriate to the 1070s. And the style and design is satisfyingly close to the original Altogether an inspired piece of work. You can see lots more pictures on Flickr.

    Just as in the 11th century work, there are other scenes enacted and symbols added in the strip that goes along the bottom. A big favourite is the one showing the donkey, toad and puffin, representing Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney itself, all encircled by the tail of the lion of England.

    Well worth constructing a bigger cabinet, especially since anything is possible in cyberspace.

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    Debbie Taylor has given us a lovely question to help to win one of five copies of her latest novel, Herring Gull, kindly donated by publisher OneWorld.

    Just write you answer below in Comments. Closing date is September 14th, to allow for holidays.

    We regret our competitions are open to UK readers only.

    "What aroma from the past are you grateful no longer to smell? And what past aroma would you like experience again as a part of everyday life?"

    Please also email your answers to readers@maryhoffman.co.uk, so that it is easier to get in touch with you if you have won a copy.

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  • 08/31/14--16:01: Bayeux without the tapestry
  • You must all be getting a bit sick of the Bayeux Tapestry, whose merits Adèle Geras and I have been extolling here and elsewhere.

    So I thought I'd tell you a bit about the town it resides in. Bayeux really is a little known gem of Northern France, a small town in Normandy, whose visitors come for one reason only. But it is well worth exploring in its own right, for its long and interesting history.

    It was a Roman town, built after the invasion of Gaul on the river Aure, and named Augustodurum. Before the Romans got there it was a market town of the Bodiocassi tribe of Gauls and its name might come from them. In the 9th century it was ravaged by Vikings. But it is in the Middle Ages that it becomes important. Guillaume le Conquérant, as he is known in France (William the Conqueror) gave the Bishopric of Bayeux to his legitimate half-brother Odon, who enlarged the cathedral, which was dedicated in 1077. Over the years the basically Romanesque building acquired its distinctive Gothic additions.

    Unfortunately William made Caen his capital and in the years after his death Bayeux declined, until it was burned by the victorious Henry l of England, who had seen off his rivals.  It went on suffering throughout the Hundred Years War, only achieving some sort of stability and peace in 1450.

    The town has a few of these timber frame houses, dating back to that period; this one, near the cathedral, is the Adam and Eve house, named for its statues. It's now a factory for the bobbin lace (dentelle) which is one of Bayeux's great specialities.

    It was also a centre for tanning and dyeing and you can still see the wheel that was turned by the fast-rushing water of the Aure.

    This little wooden door led to a turnstile where illegitimate babies could be placed and taken into care (like the wheel in the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence). They were all given the surname Marie, "les enfants de Marie," and the girls were put to the lace trade, the boys to making calico. This was rather touching, given that William was "The Bastard" long before he was "The Conqueror."

    Back to the cathedral where, as we entered, our guide told us about "Saint Catherine" who turned out to be not-quite-a-saint. Catherine of Bayeux was an Augustinian Sister, who went as a missionary to Canada, which brought me up with a start: we were clearly no longer in the Middle Ages! She was a 17th Century Augustinian nun who was Beatified in the late 19th Century, so Blessed Catherine, not (yet) Saint.

    But in the Crypt, the oldest part of the Cathedral, there is genuinely ancient art, recently discovered frescoes, thought to date back to the 15th century:

    Each pillar is topped by an angel playing a musical instrument.

    You emerge blinking into the daylight to tales of hundreds of years later. Bayeux was the first town liberated by the Allies on 7th June, the day after the D-Day landings. Family traditions tell us that the inhabitants hid in the crypt and burst out crying "there are no Germans here!" thus saving their town.

    Today it is small and fascinating town (the population was little more than 13,000 five years ago), ideal for a long weekend, as full of gastronomic delights as historical ones. It is also remarkable crime-free. We didn't see the single beggar, who is named Roger, because he wasn't yet up. And we also did not see any graffiti, of which there are apparently two!

    All this and you get the Tapestry too.

    Mary Hoffman was a guest of Flybe and the Normandy Tourist Board in July 2014

    A walking tour of Bayeux in English
    Museums in Bayeux

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  • 09/01/14--23:00: Bruges by Sarah Gristwood

  • Perhaps we all feel we have a stake in the BBC’s version of Wolf Hall, to be filmed in Bruges this summer. After the Bookers, and the rave reception it’s had on the boards, the book and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, have reached national treasure status. But I feel more of a stake than most. Before Wolf Hall, another BBC crew were in Bruges, shooting the adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. And before, either of them, there was me.

    Half a millennium ago, before any of us, there was Margaret of York; why I was there, really. I was writing a book, Blood Sisters, about the women behind the Wars of the Roses – and I can tell you, it didn’t come easy. Not only are the written sources notoriously patchy, but it’s very hard to know where to go to get into the mood for that period – or to do visual research, as is sometimes put, politely.

    It’s a strange, specific time, that changeover between the medieval world of castles and clashing knights, and the far more familiar Elizabethan era in all its glory. In Britain it’s oddly hard to find . . . some of the Oxbridge colleges, maybe? It was a problem for me – and for the Wolf Hall team too, maybe. Thomas Cromwell’s later career took him to palaces like Hampton Court; but where do you go for his home turf, the City? Where did I go, to find women who predate Hampton Court by half a century? To Bruges. Curled up in a window seat in the Gruuthuse museum - where Margaret of York’s brother Edward IV once took refuge, while the turmoil of the Cousins’ War briefly thrust the opposing Lancastrians back onto the throne – I felt that at last I had finally found the fifteenth century.

    In Bruges you don’t even need to gaze at the turret on the Markt from which Margaret of York watched the tournaments in her honour, when she was brought here in 1468 to marry the Duke of Burgundy. You don’t need to take out a second mortgage, as I did, and stay in the hotel which has been made from part of her palace. (The Dukes’ Palace Kempinski, since you ask, and the tower once decorated with marguerites for her name is still there plain to see.) Just to walk the sparsely-vehicled streets is to be clobbered by history. The past – not some mouldering ghost but bustling, prosperous and full of energy, just the way it would have been – is there in the very layout of the streets, in the shops full, now as then, of covetable goodies.

    I bought embroidered silk purses and some good modern jewellery; chocolates go without saying; as far as I’m concerned, you can keep the lace and embroidery. Back in 1468, as part of Margaret wedding party, John Paston wrote that for the splendour of the jewels he saw at the Bruges feasts, he ‘heard never of none like to it save King Arthur’s court . . .’ But then he had just been fed on gilded swans, while trained monkeys tossed beads and purses to the company.

    The Burg is one of the finest medieval squares in Europe; the outside of the Stadhuis a white Gothic wedding cake. The glowing decorations inside the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, may date in part from the nineteenth century, but the great black chimneypiece in the main chamber of the Bruggemuseum-Brugse Vrije is a Renaissance masterpiece - and that’s even before you’ve headed into museum territory.

    Edward IV stayed in the Gruuthuse, across the Dijver canal, with his younger brother, the future Richard III. So did Charles II in his exile, and the carved angels, the tranquil rooms flanked by waterways, gave reassurance to him, too, maybe. From the private chapel of the Gruuthuse, a discreet window looks straight down into the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, the Church of Our Lady, and the golden tombs of the ducal family, caught with their pet dogs at their feet. It seems to be another of Bruges’s specialties – that combination of colourful richness, and an unexpected intimacy.

    On the other side of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk is Sint-Janshospitaal, which did indeed function as a hospital from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. In the old hospital church you’ll find a small museum, Memling in Sint-Jan. Stop in front of Memling’s The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, and the faces of the saints Catherine and Barbara may be those of Margaret of York, and her stepdaughter Mary of Burgundy.

    It’s a cliché that Bruges is the ‘Venice of the north’, firstly for the canals that circle and cross the city. But while Venice is a lateral waterscape of pale dreaming tones, Bruges is vertical and verdant, built in warm brick and of the earth, earthy. Except when it isn’t. Bruges boasts many different brands of charm, for a place so tiny. Up to the north east of the Markt is the Sint-Anna district – what used to be the artisan area – has open streets of small houses, elegant in their simplicity , where the almshouses and folk museum still pay tribute to the city’s craft history.

    One of attractions for film makers must be that Bruges offers so many different moods, without ever having to step outside the late medieval past. Ten minutes walk from the craggy medieval buildings of the centre is the Minnewater - the Lake of Love, with swans sailing on the dark water - where the secluded spaces of the Beginhof manage to feel a world away. Founded in 1245 as a beguinage, a refuge for religious-minded women who stopped short of the full nun’s vows, it operated as such until very recently. Past meets present again – it is still a Benedictine convent today.

    I mean – if we can just lower the tone for the moment - even the eating in Bruges is the kind of thing you’d expect to find after a careful study of medieval cookery. Rich and satisfying, with sometimes unexpected combinations of flavours. Never mind the mussels and the waffles, and the fries with mayonnaise; there’s also eel with herb sauce, or hare cooked with prunes; carbonnades and chicory. Cherry beer served warm on a cold day; and yes – has anyone warned the BBC? - the weather does tend towards the damp and chilly. Margaret of York arrived in July but it was pouring anyway.

    The citizens were impressed that she still got drenched leaning out of the litter to wave to them; but give the girl credit, she knew what was expected - the demands of royal life are still the same today. In Bruges, you do get used the idea things haven’t changed much since the fifteenth century. Wolf Hall is being produced for the BBC by the same firm, Company Pictures, who did The White Queen, which may or may not worry us slightly. But give them credit – they learned one thing, on that earlier production. They knew to come to the right city.

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    What am I doing here, amongst the History Girls? After all, my title isn't a typo. I really mean "ahistorical fiction" and for the purposes of this post, I'll define it as a subset of historical fiction that includes elements which stand apart from mainstream history. I'm not talking about fantasy (set in an imagined world that may or may not straddle our own) or speculative fiction (which includes fantastic, supernatural or futuristic worlds). Neither do I mean fiction that is broadly anachronistic (Napoleon with a smartphone!) or counter-historical (undermining the very idea of history). Today, I'm here to defend the use of ahistorical elements in otherwise realist historical fiction.

    The obvious, reflexive objections are:
    1. Doesn't that undermine historical fiction as a genre?
    2. Why bother with ahistorical fiction at all? Why not write something else?

    My short answers:
    1. No, it enriches it.
    2. See answer no. 1.

    Are you ready for my longer answers? In the afterword to Code Name: Verity, Elizabeth Wein explains some of her plot choices and acknowledges that her first priority is not perfect historical accuracy. Instead, she says, her goal is simply to tell a really good story. I like that justification; it's at the core of my writerly impulse, too. And Wein makes it sound so clean and easy. But I think it skims over some of the tricky decisions and border-drawing that happens when writers carefully include ahistorical elements in their work.

    When we use ahistorical elements, we're being selective. We're not haphazardly inventing conveniences to rescue a stalled plot or sprinkling in some cute embellishments. Instead, we're trying to open up our understanding of historical relationships. For Wein, this is having an English girl pilot crash-land in Nazi-occupied France. For me, in the Mary Quinn mysteries, it's the creation of a women's detective agency in 1850s London. In both cases, the ahistorical element is technically possible (just about). For my detective agency, I'm leaning on two historical precedents: the beginning of progressive girls' education in the mid-nineteenth century (Bedford College was founded in 1849) and the career of Aphra Behn, the eighteenth-century playwright and spy. (The Agency is also an affectionate homage to Miss Climpson's "typing bureau" in Dorothy L Sayers's Peter Wimsey novels.) These specific historical leaps allow writers a different way of asking the big question at the heart of historical fiction: what if?

    When I began to write A Spy in the House, the first Mary Quinn novel, I wanted to focus on an orphan girl without any advantages of money, social status, or education. I quickly realized that such a novel would be a swift, bumpy descent from poverty to prostitution to prison and, almost inevitably, early death. (This last sentence basically gives away the plot of Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin, which I highly recommend. It's a gorgeously excessive tragedy not the least bit diminished by its inescapable ending.) Yet I wanted to rescue my protagonist, not sentence her to death. I decided to play with ideas of power by giving my orphan, Mary, a quasi-realistic opportunity to make her own way in the world: a handful of allies, a good education, a job that was more than underpaid drudgery. She would carry with her the baggage of her childhood suffering, but she would have a second chance. It was my way of using fiction to right an ongoing injustice. It was also a way to, in David Copperfield's words, make Mary the hero of her own story.

    Ahistorical elements in historical fiction are a way of rearranging the furniture. They're also a bit like social history's quarrel with the great-man narrative of history: what about everybody else? What if we shift our focus away from what's always been there, and ask a different question? The use of ahistorical elements is born of love and respect for history and historical fiction. As in any relationship, though, sometimes you bump up against its limits. Sometimes you crane your neck, trying to see what exists outside its bounds. Sometimes, a fresh idea knocks you breathless. And once you've considered it, it helps you to see your old love anew.

    Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn mysteries, published by Walker Books (UK) and Candlewick Press (USA). Rivals in the City, the fourth and final book in the series, is now available in the UK and will be released in North America in February 2015. Ying blogs every Wednesday at www.yslee.com.

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    Skullduggery and Sabotage in the East Anglian Fens

    People think of the East Anglian fenlands as flat and dull, but look a little closer and you come to appreciate their wide skies, their remarkable bird life and their rich and romantic history.

    Recently I saw a particularly spectacular sunset in the Cambridgeshire fens as I was returning from a walk along the banks of the great Bedford dyke which connects the River Ouse to the Wash. As I stood watching the red and gold reflections in the water, a marsh harrier drifted silently by and I felt again the eerie atmosphere of this extraordinary tract of land which is as famous for its myths and legends as for its fertile soil.

    Nowadays, the fens of East Anglia have some of the best farming land in the country but for thousands of years the area had long periods when it was flooded and uninhabitable, interspersed with drier periods when people moved in to live on the edge of the marsh and on its islands. They ate fish, eels and wildfowl, harvested reeds and sedge for thatching and used peat for fuel.

    Making eel traps

    The Romans saw the potential of the fens and started to build dykes and banks to protect the land from the sea and rivers. However, once the Romans left, the area reverted to marsh and wilderness.

    Between 400AD and 1066 building work had begun, on the higher ground, of many abbeys, notably Crowland and Ely, the monks being attracted by the solitude and the ability to be self sufficient.

    Ely Cathedral (The 'Ship of the Fens') today

    From the 13th to 15thcenturies the drainage systems had all but disappeared and the fens were subject to severe flooding; it wasn’t until the 1600’s, with the age of the ‘gentlemen adventurers’ that a serious attempt was made to drain the land. This was a time of exploration and trade with the Far East and there was a new class of people who had become wealthy through trade rather than land ownership and were keen to invest their wealth. Some of these ‘adventurers’, led by the Duke of Bedford, got together and invited a young Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, to design a drainage system for the whole area which, when completed, would provide vast tracts of excellent land whose ownership would be divided between them and the Crown.

    Cornelius Vermuyden

    After Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the grip of the religious houses on the area was loosened, thus removing what could have been powerful objection to the scheme, and work began a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. During the war the project was halted, but in 1650 it began again and Vermuyden declared it completed in 1653. 

    He was over optimistic. Unfortunately, no one foresaw the unintended consequence of the scheme. The drained peat soil started to shrink and dry out and its level dropped to below that of the dykes and rivers. Wind pumps were introduced to overcome this, later replaced by steam pumps and later still by electricity. The battle to keep the fens dry goes on to this day.

    Then and now. Ancient 'bog oak' forced to the surface through peat shrinkage

    So why choose a drainage scheme as a subject for a children’s book?

    It was, of course, the human story behind the scheme that attracted me, the struggle of the 17th century fen dwellers to hold onto their way of life as they fought the powerful, wealthy adventurers and their workforce.

    Not only did Vermuyden have, among his workforce, many of his countrymen who hoped to rent land in the reclaimed fens, but there were also Dutch and Scottish prisioners of war and Walloons (Belgiums fleeing religious persecution).

    Imagine then, the shock to the people of the fens when this huge influx of foreigners appeared, threatening their livelihood.  Until then, fen dwellers had lived in relative isolation. So much so that myths had grown up about them. They were known as ‘yellow bellies’ and reputed to have webbed feet so they could travel across the marshes. They were mocked for being slow witted and inbred.

    They were also superstitious folk, seeing wraith like creatures rising up from the gaseous water and believing in the great black dog of the fens who was loosed just before a death and bounded, howling, across the marshes, rattling his chains.  For death visited them often, not only death from drowning in flood water but also from the ‘fen ague’ (malaria).

    However, the fen dwellers were tough and Vermuyden and his workers had not anticipated the level of their opposition. They murdered the interlopers and vandalized dykes, ditches and sluices.

    A fen dyke today
    In my book ‘Flight of the Mallard’ I wrote about two fen dwelling children who rescue one of Vermuyden’s sons from drowning (he had 13 children, so there were plenty to choose from!) and thus become pawns in the battle between those draining the fens and the childrens’ friends and family, fen dwellers fighting for their survival, knowing that there would be no place for them on the reclaimed land.

    It is a book I wrote a long time ago and for years it was required reading for schoolchildren visiting Wicken Fen, one of the few remaining tracts of original fenland, run by the National Trust.

    A visit to the fens never fails to affect me and, as I watched that amazing sunset the other evening, I could imagine the ghostly images appearing as the mist rose from the water and (almost) hear the distant rattle of the black dog’s chains.


    The herd of wild Konig ponies at Wicken Fen 

    The elusive 'booming' bittern

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    Another delightful resource I wanted to share with you can be found here.  Nine tiny handmade books, written and constructed by Charlotte and Branwell Bronte when they were children - to just see these little objects through the glass of an exhibition case would be a treat ...

    ... but now we can read them as well!  
    (photos from a Harvard Magazine article)
    After painstaking conservation using surgical instruments and fibres of kozo paper no wider than a human hair, these minute Bronte volumes have been made available in full, free, online.  There is a fascinating article about the project in the Harvard Gazette.
    So, whether for research or just for your own reading pleasure, here is the full list -
    By Patrick Branwell Brontë:
    Branwells Blackwoods magazine, June 1829
    Magazine, January 1829
    Branwells Blackwoods magazine, July 1829

    And, with a certain sense that I may be lowering the tone, here is a video for something I long to own -

    Joan Lennon's website.
    Joan Lennon's blog.

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    I have to admit the idea of tracing my family roots never really excited me, until my dad casually dropped into the family Sunday lunch conversation one day (as you do) that he’s listed as one of the heirs to 77 acres of prime Manhattan real estate, worth approximately 800 billion dollars, and including sites such as Wall Street, Ground Zero (previously the World Trade Center), the Trinity Church, the Woolworths Building, New York University, and Washington Square Park. For those of you who don’t have any Welsh blood and therefore probably have no idea what I'm talking about, I’m referring to the Edwards Millions, now an urban legend and notorious for attracting bounty-hunters keen to get their legal fingers on a piece of this increasingly valuable pie. There are apparently around 5,000 potentially legitimate heirs alive today so the fortune would have to be shared, but that’s still several million dollars each if someone ever manages to make a legitimate claim... and it's a big IF.

    The story goes like this.

    Back in the 18th century, a young Welsh pirate named Robert Edwards sailed the high seas, sinking Spanish galleons. Since England was embroiled in the War of the Spanish Succession at the time, Queen Anne rewarded him with 77 acres of land on Manhattan Island, New York… then mostly farmland. Robert later became a captain in the Royal Navy and continued to serve his country in a more respectable fashion.  

    In 1778, Robert Edwards leased this Manhattan land to brothers John and George Kruger, wardens of the Trinity Church (which had been built on it), for a period of 99 years with the provision that, when the lease expired, the land and its rents should be divided among his lawful heirs. Immediately after signing the lease, however, Robert boarded a ship to England which went down with all passengers and crew and was lost in a storm. His bones and papers relating to the lease lie somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic, and were never recovered.

    Fast forward 99 years to 1877, when the lease to the Kruger brothers expired. Robert Edwards was unmarried at the time of his death, so the land should have passed to the descendants of his six brothers and his sister back in Wales… i.e. the children of William, Jacob, Leonard, Joshua, John, Thomas, and Martha Edwards. However, the Trinity Church (having had use of the land and its rents for almost 100 years, during which time its value had soared) proved reluctant to give it up. The Welsh family's attempt to claim their inheritance at the time was half-hearted at best, and the Trinity Church performed a land grab, claiming that the 77 acres were part of land gifted to the church by Queen Anne of England in 1705… although no deed has ever been produced to prove this.

    Queen Anne of England
    Since the expiry of the lease in 1877, there have been many attempts by groups of Edwards heirs scattered across the world to reclaim their inheritance – some possibly legitimate, others false claims filed by lawyers eager to get their hands on a piece of the increasingly valuable pie. All these claims have been successfully fought off by the Church, and were also hampered by the New York Statute of Limitations which I understand states that any such claim must be made within 15 years of expiry of a lease (1892 in this case). Since the original heirs would presumably have filed their claim for the land within this 15-year period, the main problem seems to lie with the patchy records kept back in the 18th century and the many different spellings of Edwards/Edwardes, further complicated by the Welsh tradition of using a father’s Christian name as a surname, which gives rise to completely unrelated Edwardses.

    To confuse things even further, Robert Edwards seems to have multiple identities. Naval records do prove the identity of Robert Edwards as a captain of that period, but not – understandably – in his original career as a pirate. American legend tells how our dashing hero Robert saved a Native American princess from death and was rewarded with the land by her father the chief… a more politically correct version, I guess, since it’s highly questionable that the Queen of England should own 77 acres of Manhattan in the first place, no matter who she gave it to!

    So where does all this leave me?

    I believe the Edwards line follows from my Welsh grandmother, Evelyn Edwards, who came from the Valleys, married Henry Cudmore, and after the war lived out her life as a humble shop assistant in Devon. Here is Gran as I like to remember her, surrounded by her beloved budgies:

    Evelyn Edwards
    Her only child, Derek Cudmore, is my father. This picture was taken about 30 years ago, and I think you can see a bit of Welsh pirate blood in there somewhere! (That’s my mum beside him, who has a bit of Spanish ancestry, so the connection is obviously in their genes.)

    My dad Derek Cudmore, Evelyn's son. 
    Almost a hundred years of sketchy history and hard-to-trace documentation lies between Gran Edwards and a possible multi-million-dollar fortune. Even if Gran turns out to be a direct descendent of one of the Edwards siblings who apparently inherited the land, I doubt this mystery will be resolved in my lifetime. But that still leaves what I think is a fascinating story.

    Robert Edwards’ tragic loss at sea with all his legal papers immediately after he signed the lease to the church is highly coincidental, if not downright suspicious. There was supposed to be a Trust Fund, set up for his heirs, in the Chase Manhattan Bank – which denies all knowledge of this. The resulting century-old struggle to reclaim the money for the Welsh heirs from the powerful (and now extremely wealthy) Trinity Church, with its potential for a rags-to-riches happy ending, would make a great historical novel for an author with romantic fantasy twist… hmm, maybe I should write it one day?


    Katherine Roberts has some Welsh and Spanish blood, is (possibly) heiress to a multi-million dollar slice of Manhattan Island in New York, and writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers. Her latest series is the Pendragon Legacy about King Arthur’s daughter, published by Templar Books in the UK.

    She is retiring from the History Girls blog to take up a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship, while she works on making her first million the hard way.

    You can keep in touch with Katherine and find out more about her books at:

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    A note from Adèle Geras:

    This month I'm handing over my slot on this blog to my daughter, the novelist and poet Sophie Hannah.  To introduce her, I'm quoting the back flap copy on her new novel which stars Hercule Poirot: THE MONOGRAM MURDERS

    "Sophie Hannah is the internationally bestselling author of nine psychological thrillers which have been published in more than 20 countries and adapted for television. Her novel, THE CARRIER won the 2013 Specsavers Crime Thriller of the Year. Sophie is an Honorary Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and as a poet has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize."

    A question I've been asked at least a hundred times since it was announced that I was to write a new Hercule Poirot novel is: 'Wasn't it daunting?  Weren't you scared by the prospect of having to fill Agatha Christie's shoes/write in her voice/wear two-piece tweed suits and move to Torquay?' More than a hundred times I explained that I wasn't going to attempt to copy Agatha's voice, that no one could 'become' Agatha Christie who was not Agatha Christie from the start; that there was no moving-to-Torquay requirement attached to the project, that the wearing of tweed suits was not compulsory (though actually I'd rather like one, come to think of it.  I could do with some additional gravitas.)

    Daunting, though?  Scary?  Yes, for sure.  Agatha Christie is the best and most successful crime writer of all time, and Poirot is the greatest fictional detective that ever lived in the world's imagination.  I didn't mind being scared - I decided it was character-building, and, besides, a healthy dose of fear of catastrophic failure does wonders for any work-in-progress.  I suffered not only from Agatha's-a-hard-act-to-follow fear but also from Historicalnovelophobia: terror of historical novels.  I'd never written one before.  My knowledge of History (by which I mean anything that happened before The Good Wife Season 1) is scanty.  

    You might think, therefore, that I would be paralysed by fear.  I wasn't.  There was one certain fact that I clung to for reassurance: Golden Age mysteries are easier to write than contemporary mysteries because you don't have to be ashamed of storytelling.  I've read enough of both to be struck by the difference.  Of course, writers of modern crime novels love story too, but we can't begin our books, as 1920s mystery authors so often did, with a first person narrator saying: 'Let me tell you about the baffling murder case I encountered last summer, during a brief stay in Downham Market, Norfolk.  It all began when...' Etcetera.  These days, such an opening would seem too unsophisticated, too top-down, too 'Sit down children and let me tell you a gripping tale'.  Contemporary crime writers go to great lengths to create the illusion that their novels are not stories they are telling - or even stories their protagonists are telling - but rather real people's actual lives that the reader happens to be observing, without any inventive authority patronising them by telling them anything.  

    Perhaps strangely, I wasn't aware of this difference until I started to think about how I would approach the writing of my Poirot novel.  I didn't realise that part of the 'Aargh, this is hard!' feeling I had whenever I wrote one of my Simon Waterhouse/Charlie Zailer novels was the frustration of having what I thought was a dramatic, surprising and exciting story to tell and being unable to approach it in what you might call a straightforwardly storytelling way.  Edward Catchpool, the Scotland Yard policeman narrator of The Monogram Murders, tells the story in his own personal chronological order - what happened to him first in connection with this mystery, then what happened to him next, then the next interview/clue, and so on.  He starts chapters with announcements like, 'The next day, I set off to X to interview Y.' Simon Waterhouse, my twenty-first century police detective, would be laughed out of every branch of Waterstones if he attempted similarly straightforward narration.  He can't tell readers that he has the most puzzling case of his career to solve but that, not to worry, he's a brilliant genius so he'll solve it with panache and aplomb.  Poor old Simon has to hope that readers infer this by eavesdropping on his thoughts and conversations.  

    Contemporary readers won't be told in the way that Golden Age readers liked to be.  If a detective in a modern crime novel has an intriguing, exciting case to solve and an array of cryptic clues to help him do so, he mustn't appear to be too excited by the challenge; it's not merely authors but also fictional characters who can't seem too enthusiastic about a great mystery story.  These days, our detective heroes have to be depressed and defeated by the puzzles laid before them, bleakly certain they'll fail and ruin their entire careers, until the moment just before the end of the book when they work out the truth and deliver a solved mystery.  Even their moments of triumph should ideally be muffled, though.  They mustn't yell, 'Tee hee, I've got it!' like boastful Golden Age detectives.  Instead, we expect them to produce their revelations casually and/or covertly, with minimal fanfare and grand guignol, and certainly no long explanations revealing precisely how clever they've been.  'So, yeah, once that piece of evidence came in, the obvious conclusion to draw - the one anyone would have drawn because there's nothing special about me - was that X did it.  It's no big deal, really. LOOK OVER THERE AT THAT SOCIO-ECONOMIC CONDITION! DON'T NOTICE THAT I'M A HUGE BRAINBOX GENIUS SOLVING A BAFFLING MYSTERY THAT NO ONE ELSE COULD SOLVE!'

    I knew before I started writing The Monogram Murders (which is set in 1929) that Golden Age fiction's lack of shame about storytelling would make my Poirot-writing process so much easier.  If what you're trying to do is tell a compelling story, it helps if you don't have to pretend not to be trying to do that.  Plus I had a plot idea that was hugely high concept and grand-guignol-ish - rather like the solutions in Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None.  I knew my idea was perfect for a Golden Age detective novel - for a book set in an era when readers valued startlingly unpredictable storytelling and gasp-inducing twists more highly than their own right to say carpingly, 'Yes, but would that actually happen?  I mean, it's never happened in Basingstoke where I live.' 

    In an age (the present one, that is) that chronically undervalues plot, mistakenly believing that depth of character and insight into the human condition are somehow more compatible with stories that happen every day in Basingstoke rather than with unusual you've-never-heard-this-before-and-you-never-will-again stories, it was an utter joy to be able to write the Golden Age way.  I'm pretty sure I will try to find a way to do so again, even though my (updated - this post has taken a whole morning to write) definition of History is now anything that happened before The Good Wife Season 4.

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    I’ve been to two very different exhibitions this month, one was in a village church to honour the men who fought in the First World War, the other was the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall. But curiously I found the same item on display in both – a little good luck charm called Fums Up. It took the form of a tiny doll made of wood or metal holding up a thumb, as a good luck gesture.

    These dolls were first made around 1880’s, appearing not just as models, but on cards and china too. Back then they were commonly called ‘Baby Mercury’. But they become increasing popular in the First World War when girls sent these charms to sweethearts and brothers who were fighting in the trenches, to bring the soldiers luck and keep them safe. They were worn as lapel badges, on neck chains or on tucked into pocks. But why were the Fums Up charms thought to be lucky?

    For a long time it was one of those popular myths that thumbs-up gesture originated in the Roman gladiatorial arenas. That's largely been discounted now. The thumbs-up sign is probably much older than that. But by the Middle Ages it was recognised as sign of good faith and peace. In some parts of the country, right into the twentieth century, children would make the thumbs up sign to declare a truce in a fight or indicate they wanted to halt a game.

    There is saying, still used in some country districts – Here’s my thumb on it. This comes from the medieval custom of spitting on your raised thumb and pressing it against the raised thumb of someone else to seal a sale or pledge that the agreement was binding. It was also used to confirm that a bet had been accepted. Spittle was thought to contain the power of the soul, hence as well as a pledge, it could be also used to ward off evil or to curse someone. Thumb prints were also used for centuries to sign a written agreement if the person couldn't write. Robert Chambers records an incident in 1642 when a Scottish lieutenant spat on his thumb to pledge himself to a dual in which he was then killed. And thumb-licking was also a pledge of loyalty and allegiance. A rhyme recorded in 1724 goes,
    Though kith and kin and a' revile thee,
    There's my thumb I'll ne'er beguile thee.
    If you feared you were in the presence of a witch or someone was trying to put a spell on you, then you could protect yourself by tucking your thumbs into your fists. Many people still tuck their thumbs into their fists for luck, instead of crossing their fingers when they are betting or hoping for good news.

    The famous line from Macbeth -By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes was based on an old superstition that a tingle or twitching of the thumb, especially the left one, was a sign that unwelcome company or an enemy was approaching.

    Many of the first Fums Up charms sent to the soldiers of the First World War were made of wood which made them doubly lucky. We still say touch wood, even if we don’t actually do it, when we’re talking about future plans – Touch wood, I’ll have the book finished by Friday. This harps back to one of mankind’s oldest and most enduring fears that if we talk about any good thing, something bad will happen to curse it. So we try to avert that, by warding off the evil – touching wood.

    British paratroopers of the World War II preparing
    to go into action giving the thumbs up sign.
    The wood we used to touch would have been from one of the sacred trees- oak, ash and hawthorn etc. because the spirits of those trees were thought to have the power to protect us. Today touching any wood will do. I’ve even seen people touch wood-effect laminates.

    Sadly, although I’m sure the Fums Up charms brought a great deal of comfort to the soldiers in the
    trenches, not least the knowledge that a sweetheart was waiting for them, it did not keep many of those young men safe from harm. It must have been one of the most poignant things for those grieving families and girlfriends if they found the cheery little doll returned to them among the soldier’s personal effects. Fums Up came home, but they never would.

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    My spot at Le Livre Sur Les Quais Book Fair 5-7 Sept 2014
    by Caroline Lawrence

    My first overseas book fair was a bit of a disaster. I was newly published and when I received a letter inviting me to a Séance de Livres near Cannes, I thought it would be very glamorous. I ended up paying my own airfare and found myself in an industrial park outside Nice in a large warehouse sitting behind a small selection of my books in French. There were dozens of other authors there vying for the attention of very few buyers. Nobody spoke to me, much less bought a copy of any of my books. It was a depressing (and expensive) experience. My publishers could have warned me if only I’d asked, but I didn’t yet know how these things were done.

    Tasja Dorkofikis (centre) with Caroline (right) at GEMS 
    Last weekend I attended Le Livre Sur Les Quais in Switzerland. They paid my airfare, put me up in a lovely boutique hotel and – thanks to my gifted co-ordinator, Tasja Dorkofikis – got me gigs at two excellent bilingual schools before the Book Fair even opened.

    The Book Fair itself is held in big tents in the picturesque town of Morges on the edge of Lake Geneva, or Lac Léman as the Swiss prefer to call it. In addition to giving panels, readings and seminars, authors sit in front of cartons of their books and behind trestle tables and make themselves available to sign books. I only signed a handful of books during a couple of hour-long slots, but because we’d had excellent sales at the two schools the day before I was very ‘zen’ about it. 

    My only regret is that the timing wasn’t quite right for me to enjoy one of the literary cruises or attend many of the other events. For another author’s take on Le Livre Sur Les Quais, read Marina Sofia’s delightful post on this year’s event.

    A literary cruise ships for Le Livre Sur Les Quais in Morges

    In the meantime, here are some of my best tips for kidslit authors invited to international book fairs like the one in Morges.

    I went to La Côte twice in one day: once to talk, once to sign!
    1. Try to get a few school gigs before the book fair opens. That way you know you’ll have the chance to reach teachers, pupils and – most importantly – parents.

    2. Make contact with someone who is au fait with your books as well as the local schools. Tasja found me – not the other way around – and I’m very glad she did. She matched me with two ideal schools: GEMS Academy in Etoy and La Cote in Aubonne.

    Giving a talk on brand new equipment at GEMS Academy
    3. Be flexible about audio-visual. Have at least three backup methods of displaying your show, including a low tech version of your talk. (I always bring my ancient Roman version of toilet paper: a sponge-on-a-stick: poo transcends space and time.)

    4. Many children attending international schools don’t have English as their first language, even if it’s a British or American institution. So remember to speak clearly and slowly. Use body language, mime, slides and props as much as possible.

    Bring books to give as prizes and gifts
    5. Bring extra copies of your books in the relevant languages to give away as prizes to teachers for answering questions correctly. They will feel affirmed and they might even use your book as a class reader!

    6. Believe it or not, some schools forget to tell their librarian that an author is visiting. Personally invite him or her to attend your talk and promise them a free gift as well.  

    Be sure to sample the local delights!
    7. Take the opportunity to do some sightseeing. See the local sights, enjoy the local cuisine, sample the local wine. Don't miss the opportunity to explore a new place.

    8. BUT... be willing to give up some sightseeing time to go back at the end of the school day to sell and sign books when parents arrive.

    9. Children at both the schools I visited displayed the perfect balance of good behaviour and enthusiasm. However, some countries impose draconian behaviour rules on their pupils, while others allow kids to run wild. Keep in mind my made-up Latin motto: flexibilitas in omnibus!

    10. There may possibly be delayed flights, misunderstandings and small turnouts, but don’t be discouraged. Learn from them and chalk it up to experience or grist for the writer’s mill. 

    Le Livre Sur Les Quais book tent
    Caroline Lawrence is the author of 30+ books for children, mainly history-mystery stories.  

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    Sometimes, as a vegetarian, it's distressing to wander around Venice.

    There’s a great deal of carnivorous behaviour going on. I write not only of the tourists devouring fish alfresco at Venetian restaurants, nor of the rats gnawing cutlets behind those same establishments, or the seagulls wrenching squid out of the water, nor yet of the egrets fishing for tiny living slivers of silver which fight for life all the way down the birds’ long, creamy gullets.

    In fact, the most fearsome eating you see in Venice goes on in Byzantine stone circles: reliefs, between 20 and 80cm, which can be seen on the walls of many secular buildings. This is one of the most vivid.

    These poor hares can be seen the Campo del Luganeger, which, incidentally, means the Square of the Sausage-Maker. Hare sausage? I don’t know.  I hope not.

    Such stone circles are called' patere' (singular: 'patera'). Their shape and size indicates their material origin: they were often cut from slices of old marble columns, with the stone originating from Venice’s conquests in Greece. Most patere were made between the 11th and 14thcenturies.

    They are sometimes described as charms to ward off evil, which may explain the fact that they are usually attached to the outside walls of domestic dwelling. In most of the patere, the enemy is being despatched by mouth.

    Given their antiquity and their style, scholars have suggested that the patere might originate in those parts of Italy governed by Byzantium or in Byzantium proper, manufactured for export. They have been cited as the spoils of conquest. However, such motifs and shapes are not frequently found in secular Byzantine architecture. So the patere seem to have been a special feature of Venice’s promiscuous accommodation of her varied cultural maternity.

    However, the visual tropes of the patere borrow from Byzantium: the poses and body forms of the beasts and flowers, and even the ways in which fur and feather are depicted.

    Variations of the same images can be seen in many patere. The most popular vignette shows an eagle eating a rabbit or a hare, symbolizing the victory of virtue over vice. Apparently these rodents represent concupiscence and lust. (Their expressions, however, tend to connote wide-eyed shock at the prospect of being eaten alive.)

    There are also lions eating dogs or wolves or horses.

    A recent university project made a census of 482 patere, with 150 different themes. They are found in every sestiere of the city. In fact, one third of the world’s population of patere can be found in Venice.

    When rectangular with an arched top, these stones are known as 'formelle'. The formelle show many of the same themes as the patere. They are far less numerous than the patere.

    The earliest examples that can be dated are to be found on the extreme left arch of the façade of the Basilica – the arch of Sant’Alipio, where there are two formelle from the late 12th century.

    Many are not in their original locations. This is because Venice’s vernacular architecture frequently succumbed to various waves of fashion: Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance.  Buildings were torn down, or re-facaded regularly. The patere were saved and added to the new walls, as were other pieces of public art. Or new walls were built around them, as this interrupted rabbit shows, on the wall of the church of San Giacomo dell'Orio.

     Other buildings were razed to the ground punitively, such as the palazzo of Baiamonte Tiepolo at Sant’Agostin after his conspiracy to murder Doge Pietro Gradenigo in 1310. The patere from Baiamonte’s home ended up on the walls of the Tagliapietra chapel in San Vio. Here are some details ...

    This is no doubt connected to the fact that the conspiracy was defeated on the day of San Vio, where a ceremony to celebrate its failure was held for centuries afterwards. Meanwhile a different kind of stone memorial - a column of infamy - was erected for Baiamonte himself on the site of his former home. (I've spent quite a few years of my life devoted to that column.)
    the column of infamy of Baiamonte Tiepolo
    at Sant'Agostin - now secreted in a storeroom of the Doges Palace
    There are less bloodthirsty patere. Some show two birds or other animals eating from the tree or drinking from the well of life. Sometimes two birds are shown with their necks intertwined, to express harmonious coexistence.

    If you happen to be in Venice, and would like to look at some patere, there are good conglomerations of them at Ca' Donà de la Madoneta, the Ca' Cappello in Castello, and the Ca' Vitturi in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, at San Aponal, and near the Ponte de le Oche. Opposite the famous wine bar at San Trovaso there’s a yellow wall well studded with them too.

    patere at San Trovaso
    Carnivorous behaviour is not restricted to the patere. On this column of the Doges Palace you see each animal with its prey in its mouth. My favourite is probably the bear with the honeycomb.


    This feline creature –‘Musipul’ is a character in my work-in-progress for children.

    In this, she is a testy Arabian leopard from the Castle of Jabrin in Arabia. But that's another story ...

    Michelle Lovric's website
    Her latest book is The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, published by Bloomsbury.

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      The research for my new novel The Grand Duchess of Nowhererequired me to untangle the vast network of the Romanov dynasty as it was in the early years of the 20th century. There was much discussion with my editor about Russian names  -  to give people their full name with patronymic? Always? Sometimes? And then what about nicknames and diminutives? The Russians do love their diminutives. Compromises had to be made in the interests of being reader-friendly, and my solution, given that I am no Tolstoy, was to focus on just a few members of this very large family. Size apart, the Romanov family was much like any other. It contained roués and straight-shooters, the prim, the giddy and the seemingly normal. Factions were on no-speaks with other factions, and some of the rifts that appeared as the Revolution gathered pace and loyalties were tested were never repaired.  

    The story of what happened to Tsar Nicholas II, his family and his closest retainers is well-known, though none the less chilling for being so often retold. But what about the rest of the dynasty? At the time of Nicholas’s abdication in 1917 there were more than fifty recognised Romanovs living in Russia, plus a number of semi-detached scions, principally morganatic wives and their children. Romanov men were never afraid to follow their heart rather than the rule book on suitable brides.  Of these fifty or so Romanovs the majority escaped into exile. But eleven of them suffered the same fate as the Imperial Family, and a recurring theme struck me as I researched their deaths: the Bolsheviks always executed their enemies in the dead of night.

    The first Romanov to be killed was Tsar Nicholas’s brother, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich. In the family he was known as Misha. For just a day or two after Nicholas’s abdication he was Tsar Michael II. You see what I mean about names?  

    In March 1918 Grand Duke or ex-Tsar Misha, pictured here with his beloved (but unapproved) wife Natalya Brasova, was exiled to Perm. His faithful friend and secretary, Brian Johnson, went with him and so, for a while, did Natalya and their son. Brian Johnson, by the way, was half English, half German, born in Russia, and was more generally known by his Orthodox name, Nikolai. See, names again?  Early on June 13th, in the gloaming of a Russian white night, Grand Duke Misha and Johnson were driven to a forest clearing and shot. Their bodies have never been found though several searches have been made in recent years. You may find this link of interest.

    A month after Misha’s death, on July 17th 1918, in Yekaterinburg, the Imperial Family were woken from their sleep and murdered. The following day, in the town of Alapaevsk, a further six members of the Romanov family were killed:  Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna (the Tsarina’s elder sister) with one of her fellow nuns, Varvara,  three Grand Dukes from the Konstantinovich branch of the dynasty, and 22 year old Vladimir Paley, a young poet and one of the morganatic offspring of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich. Here is a photograph of Vladimir in his cadet uniform.

    In the dead hours of the early morning they were bundled into a cart, driven to an abandoned iron working and thrown down one of its shafts. What the fall failed to accomplish was finished off with grenades and bundles of burning brushwood. None survived.

    There was then a six month hiatus before the final Bolshevik cull of Romanovs. Grand Dukes Paul Alexandrovich, Dmitri Konstantinovich, Nicholas Mikhailovich (aka Bimbo) and George Mikhailovich aka Gogi) had at first been detained under a fairly lenient form of house arrest in Vologda, free to associate with one another, but after the assassination of Nicholas and his family they were transferred to the Shpalernaya House of Detention in Petrograd (now St Petersburg).

    On January 29th 1919, long before dawn, they were brought by truck to the Peter & Paul Fortress. Grand Duke Paul was so frail he had to be carried to the place of execution and was shot where he lay on a stretcher. The other Grand Dukes had the briefest moment to embrace each other on the edge of the trench that had been dug to receive their bodies. For me one of the most poignant details of that scene -  four elderly men, taken from their beds, stripped of their shirts in sub-zero temperatures, and shown the grave that awaited them  -  is that Grand Duke Bimbo, the Romanov’s oddball intellectual, botanist, historian, enthusiast and prankster, had brought his cat with him from jail and his very last act was to entrust it to one of his executioners and ask him to care for it.

    Here is Bimbo decked out for an official portrait. I'd like to think there was a cat just out of shot on that button-back chair or perhaps already making its scornful way out of the door.

    This is recent history. There is abundance of photographs of all the people I’ve mentioned in this post and I studied those faces often as I was writing The Grand Duchess of Nowhere. But as novelists we’re always searching for the little human stories beneath the starched collars and corsets. For me, Grand Duke Bimbo and his cat were just one such.  

    THE GRAND DUCHESS OF NOWHERE, Quercus Books, will be published on October 2nd.

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    When researching Buffalo Soldier I came across some heartbreaking stories, perhaps none more so than that of John Glasgow  (related in Slave Life in Georgia, a Narrative of the Life, Sufferings and Escape of John Brown a Fugitive Slave).

    Born a free man in British Guiana,  John Glasgow went to sea as a cabin boy and worked his way his way up on vessels that sailed between Britain and the West Indies.

    He married a woman from Lancashire and they took on a small farm.  He had saved his money while he’d been at sea and invested in three horses, a plough and a cart.   But John Glasgow knew nothing of farming and so, leaving his wife to manage their land,  he returned to sea.  The couple prospered, but in 1830, when John Glasgow was around twenty five years old and the father of two children, he signed for an English vessel bound for Savannah, Georgia, for a cargo of rice. He promised his wife that this would be his last voyage to a distant country, and that in future he would confine his trips to the English coast.

    Georgia law required black seamen to remain on board their ships from 6pm until 5am.  As soon as John Glasgow set foot on shore he was seized, handcuffed and incarcerated in gaol.  There he was kept confined for several days until the ship had discharged her cargo, re-loaded and was ready to start the return journey to England. His fate lay in the hands of the ship’s captain who would have  to pay the high gaol fees to release him.  The captain – who’d had to pay for a slave to do John’s work while he was in gaol - chose not to do so and set sail without him. On the day John’s wife and children expected him home he was put on an auction stand and sold as a ‘green hand’ to a Georgia farmer for  $350.

    John Glasgow had the carriage and bearing of a free man.  His ‘brave look’ offended his new master, Thomas Stevens, who swore to flog the pride out of him. 

    There was no hope of escape for John Glasgow.  He couldn’t read or write; he was utterly friendless in a distant country.   After three or four years in Georgia his master ordered him to find himself a wife.  John picked Nancy – a young woman from a nearby plantation but Thomas Stevens didn’t approve his choice.  Any children Nancy bore John would be the property of Thomas Steven’s neighbour and it was his own ‘stock’ he wanted to increase.  Stevens commanded John to pick a woman from his own plantation but John Glasgow refused to do so.   For slipping away on Christmas Day to see Nancy once more he was punished.  When John still refused to choose a different woman Thomas Stevens vowed,   “He’d cure him of Nancy any how.”

    This time John Glasgow was given ‘the Picket.’  In his autobiography John Brown describes the procedure in detail and it makes gruesome reading.  After that particular punishment John Glasgow,   “could not stand, much less walk, so they carried him to his quarters where the usual application of salt and water and red pepper was made to his wounds.  It was a month before he stirred from his plank, and five months elapsed ere he could walk.  Ever after he had a limp in his gait.”

    John Brown made his escape from the plantation some time afterwards.  “The last I know of John’s history is that in 1840, or thereabouts, the poor fellow was felling a white oak in the woods, which in falling struck him on his right thigh, just above the knee, and broke it in two.  As he was thus rendered comparatively useless for field-work, Thomas Stevens gave him to his son, who kept him to shell corn off the cob.”

    John Brown eventually made his way to England. “One of my chief regrets is that I cannot remember the name of the place where John’s wife lived.”

    I am haunted by the idea that John Glasgow’s English wife never knew what had happened to her husband, that his children grew up without their father.  But there’s a small gleam of light in this sad, sad story.  I like to think the spirit of John Glasgow remained intact and unbroken because John Brown concludes his account with this tribute,   “To John (Glasgow) I owe a debt of gratitude, for he it was who taught me to love and to seek liberty.”

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    There are lots of people who don't like stories from the past retold in the present tense and they can be very vocal about this aversion, especially on Radio 4. But the present tense is the mode of drama, it is the mode of conversation, so why not too, the mode of story telling? Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion but as an historical novelist, I tend to seek the best possible way to recount a particular story depends on many factors, not least, and particularly with first person accounts, the fate of the narrating character. Often in historical fiction the reader is aware of the protagonist's outcome but even if the reader knows that, say, Anne Boleyn or Catherine Howard are going to end up on the block, the fact that the character does not have the benefit of hindsight creates an effect that is filled with dramatic irony and tension.
    Hilary Mantel employs this to spectacular effect in Bring Up the Bodies, a novel that is tightly plotted, like a thriller, and written in a third person that is so close to protagonist Thomas Cromwell that it creates the illusion of the world seen through his eyes alone. We watch in horror as Cromwell unravels the Queen's world and even though we all know what will become of Anne Boleyn and the five men she is accused of adultery with, neither she nor they know and somehow we, as readers, are drawn into their world so completely we forget what we know about the outcome and are shocked when it comes. 

    Another example, though one much more straightforward and written in the first person, is from Philippa Gregory in The Boleyn Inheritance.  The teenaged narrator Catherine Howard is about to be carted off to the Tower. She still believes she will be pardoned when her uncle Norfolk comes to tell her she is to die. 
    'You should acknowledge your sins, and ask forgiveness,' he says promptly.

    I am so relieved I could almost weep. Of course I will be forgiven if I say I am sorry.
    We are entirely drawn into this poor child's world watching her articulate the belief that a simple apology will suffice, when we know that nothing can save her. It is a powerful device. This moment simply wouldn't have the impact or poignance if written with hindsight. And indeed, how does one write a first person past tense account of someone who is about to die, and get away with it? But then again, anything is possible in fiction if you can make it work. 
    Other writers use the present historic to create layers of meaning in a text. Take Sarah Waters for example:

    I do not know who cries it, she or I: I reel away unnerved. But in the second I have her skin between my fingers, my own flesh leaps in a kind of relief. I shake horribly for almost an hour. 'Oh, God!' I say, hiding my face. 'I'm afraid, for my own mind! Do you think me mad? Do you think me wicked, Sue?''Wicked?' she answers, wringing her hands. and I can see her thinking: A simple girl like you?

    This quote from Fingersmith, illustrates the intensity and immediacy of the present. We inhabit the flesh of narrator Maud as it 'leaps' and 'shakes', and we are able to observe her watching Sue, who is not party to what the reader and narrator know. We are drawn right into the plot because we are on the inside of Maud's narration. Waters has used both present and past tenses to tell this story. Sue, the sly cockney girl relates her part in the past. This seems to be an inversion of our expectations; wouldn't a girl like Sue employ the more casual tense of the raconteur? But the past is the knowing tense, and Sue knows, or thinks she knows, exactly what is going on. Maud's narration is told in the moment, as if without hindsight. Again there is an oddness to it; Maud is a refined girl employed to read to her uncle and surely more suited to the formality of the tense of literature. 
    This quote from 

    Waters's subterfuge is clever here because, as it turns out, neither girl is what we first think and so the tense they narrate their stories in works as a key to our overall understanding. But the action is almost subliminal because, if the writing is good enough, the reader, lulled into the voice and world of the novel, loses awareness of the tricks perpetrated by the author.

    Viennese author from the early twentieth century, Stephan Zweig, uses tense in a very particular way moving between present and past like a conjurer. In Beware of Pity he introduces his story in the voice of a kind of faux author; a writer who encounters a man, a so called, 'historically authentic hero,' Hofmiller, in a cafe. The story is then told as if from Hofmiller's mouth, going back in time twenty years, and shifting in an apparently casually conversational manner between past and present tense: 

    So one afternoon – it must have been the middle of May 1914 – I was sitting in the cake shop with one of my occasional partners...We had long ago finished playing our usual three games, and were just idly talking about this or that... but the conversation was drowsy, and as slow as the smoke from a cigarette burning down. At this point the door suddenly opens, and a pretty girl in a fulll-skirted dress is swept in on a gust of fresh air...

    This is exactly what happens when people tell stories, they slip back and forth from the now to the then. But beneath this appearance of veracity lies a device that manipulates the tone of the piece. We are with the narrator in his provincial town, in his state of lassitude and boredom and something happens. The girl is characterised as a breath of fresh air, which is the function she performs in the story, bringing the excitement of possibility with her, we are jolted out of our torpor into the moment. Indeed the appearance of this girl heralds the true beginning of Hofmiller's story. Zweig is using this mode of story telling to enhance our experience of the atmosphere in which our narrator exists. It is a beautifully conceived trick, hidden behind the guise of an 'authentic' raconteur's voice.

    Fiction is, by its very nature, a deceptive art and writers have only a limited number of tools at their disposal: mostly grammatical; so the use of tense is crucial to the crafting of a novel. To simply use the past tense because we are recounting past events is missing the point. after all, any narration is necessarily describing past events, even if they happened only a few moments ago. Novelists are creating an artificial world and how better to bring the distant past, its sounds, smells, textures, the inner worlds of its inhabitants, to life, than to speak of it as if it's happening now. It is sometimes said that the 'fashion' for the present tense is the result of the ubiquitous Creative Writing MA, with the suggestion that it is the preferred tense of such courses. This is nonsense of course, the use of the present tense is more a natural progression of Modernism, via authors like Zweig, in which writers strive to build ever more convincing worlds and climb further into the minds of their characters. So it could be seen as a contemporary style, and let's not forget that even historical fiction is contemporary fiction.

    Find out about Elizabeth Fremantle's novels Queen's Gambit, about Katherine Parr, and Sisters of Treason, about the younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey, on ElizabethFremantle.com

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    I think a book came out with that title recently I think by Catherine Flynn, but that's not what this blog is about. It is, like a lot of books, about identity and local TV news and is more than a little muddled.

    Deedee Cuddihy's Glaswegian Yes Egg

    This goes out on the 14th, a few days before the momentous Scottish referendum. There as been so much said about this and I am in no way Scots, although there is a good chance that one of the plantation owners in the hills of Jamaica who gave his name (and no doubt his genes) to my family was.  And I have no say in the vote and when all is said and done if I did, I  certainly see the optimism and hope that comes with the power to vote in a high taxing, high spending socialist/green government along Icelandic lines.

    There have been a lot of posts from English people who want the status quo, who feel Scotland shouldn't go, there's talk of family break ups... This does not resonate with me at all. I don't think Scots will be foreign, they'll still be British, there are not building a wall or using the Trident missiles to disengage Scotland from England and sail their new country down to the more salubrious Med.

    So while it has been fascinating to see the excitement of the debate, I still feel that it is fundamentally nothing to do with me. What has got to do with me is being English. I have never - I don't think - typed I am English anywhere ever before. I don't go around saying 'I am English'. I think at the age of 52 I probably ought to start. I have always been happy with British, but English? It's not got the excitement of the Celtic fringe, we're not the downtrodden we're the ones (usually) doing the treading.

    My previous get out was that I was a Londoner, and if I still lived there would see all kinds of advantages in (so long as we lost Boris) cutting loose from the rest of the UKIP addled country, slashing house prices and letting out the Shard and every other half empty ball swinging 'look at me' tower block as utterly affordable housing.

     One of the worries that have been raised about Scottish nationhood is the possible rise in English Nationalism. English Nationalism for any of our overseas readers, unlike the Celtic sort has always been problematic. This is to do with history of course. In the UK family England has always been the bossy one, the one who ate all the pies and told the others what and how to do.
    Jim Murphy talks to Nos. From the BBC

    Scots Nats have had in the past, a reputation for anti Englishness, Welsh Nats too. Those pesky Welsh - they are just like the French and the Spanish - they will insist on speaking their own language in pubs and shops even when English people walk in....

    English nationalism is probably best  illustrated by the hearty lads and lasses of UKIP or  the EDL or the now almost defunct BNP. These parties stated aims include an end to immigration and an end to 'Politically Correct Culture'.

    I believe the difference in the two forms of nationalism is that the Scots and the Welsh sort are not - these days anyway - driven by fear in a way that English Nationalism seems to be. I am well aware I may be wrong, this is just my viewpoint.

    I was always terrified of moving away from London. London is  a bubble of comparative safety and normalcy for the brown skinned. In the past year and a half out of London enjoying fresh air and sea views, I have only experienced friendly enquiries about my provenance, in fact the most recent was from a woman who introduced herself as a Tanning Consultant. She informed me that my skin shade was the one her white clients aspired to most.

    God I have got completely off the topic. Excuse me.

    Right, so I love local news. In Hackney I loved the Gazette, and here in Hastings we have our precious Observer. There's also that bit on the end of the BBC News at Ten - The News Where You Are.
    So the first spring I was here the one big  thing I noticed was how often they referenced Calais. Calais with it's desperate hordes, just across the water, all waiting to jump on lorries, cars, trains, little boats, maybe soon, with global warming they will be walking across and taking our jobs. I am being facetious but the fear level was high. The way they have told this story must engender fear.  Fear among these Kent and Sussex residents that they are suddenly going to be swamped.  Fear among those of us whose melanin levels are higher than most.

    And then this summer there has been the explosion in anger and desperation among the (mostly) men camped out desperate to find work and help their families back wherever they came from. Can we imagine (perhaps with the help of Gillian Cross's excellent book After Tomorrow) what these people have gone through to get here?

    What am I saying here?  You're thinking, does this woman want the floodgates open? She should go back to where she came from if she's going to mouth off? What exactly is her argument?

    I suppose it is this. We all want safety, we all want hope, and we all want fairness. Please lets not talk up fear, and please lets emphasise similarities not differences. In whatever country we happen to be in,


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  • 09/14/14--21:42: Laurits Tuxen 1853-1927
  • by Marie-Louise Jensen

    Den druknede bringes i land

    The drowned man is brought ashore
    Wikimedia Commons; no restriction.

    I was lucky enough to be in Skagen this summer at the time of the Tuxen Exhibition at Skagens Museum. This ran from 3rd May to the 14th of September 2014 (its last day is in progress as I write this). 
    The exhibition is a gathering together of the work of artist Laurits Tuxen. In the picture above, Laurits Tuxen has painted a Skagen scene. In many ways this is typical of the Skagen paintings; its focus on everyday life and death in the isolated community at the time of the artist community in the late 1800s. The focus on fishing, fishermen and drowning was a frequent motif. It resembles paintings by Ancher, Krøyer and others; though it has a more photographic quality to it, to my mind. (Tuxen worked from photographs). I have grown up going to see the paintings and they were important to the writing of my first novel Between Two Seas.
    But Copenhagen-born Tuxen was not a typical Skagen artist.
    Like many of the Skagen artists, he lived and studied abroad for spells. He married a French wife and they had three children together. But he was commissioned to paint portraits of many of the European royal families. It must have been quite a career. It certainly surprised me to come face to face with paintings of the British Royal family (including Queen Victoria) and of a Buckingham Palace garden party in the exhibition.
    What struck me most about his life was the tragedy. He lost his wife and his first three children to tuberculosis and meningitis. It must have been such torture, watching them fade and die one after another, until he was left alone. I felt heartbroken, reading his life story in the museum. It was heartening to see that he remarried and had more children (what courage!) and eventually settled in Skagen with his new family. Tuxen was instrumental in founding the Skagens Museum, where so many of the artists' works are preserved and displayed.

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  • 09/15/14--13:30: August Competition winners
  • We had lovely answers to the "old pongs" competition! This month's winners are:

    Pippa Goodhart
    Elspeth Scott
    Roz Cawley
    Mark Burgess
    Anne Rooney

    To get your copies of Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor, please email your land addresses to: Lamorna Elmer in publicity at OneWorld

    Congratulations to you all!

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    Your ISP TRACKS Your Online Activity! Hide your IP ADDRESS with a VPN!
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