Lady Bracknell said it, in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. "Ignorance, " she pronounced "is a delicate exotic fruit. Touch it, and the bloom is gone."
I am aware that many writers on this blog are immensely knowledgeable about different periods of history and that my studies haven't taken me nearly as deep as they ought to have done, but I enjoy contributing as an interested amateur. My understanding of the history of the Netherlands comes from reading, a long time ago, Simon Schama's excellent book, An Embarrassment of Riches. I have also, of course, read Tracy Chevalier's lovely The Girl with the Pearl Earring and most recently, Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist. Through these books, and of course, even earlier through the Diary of Anne Frank which I read as a teenager, I had an affectionate regard for the Netherlands in general and Amsterdam in particular.
I've just come back from four days in that city and I'm in love. It's a marvellous place, as anyone who's been there knows, and on the basis of this very short visit, I'd like to write about two things. The second is ART (and again, I have only general and not specialised knowledge of this) and the Oude Kerk.
This place is the oldest building in the city. It used to be a Catholic church and then after the Reformation, it became a Calvinist one. My companion, the illustrator Helen Craig particularly wanted to see it because she'd visited it years before and was impressed. So we set out on foot, from very near the Anne Frank house. We walked and walked. Tourist arrows showed us the way, but we did find ourselves going back and round and about and in the end, it took us a long time to find the Oude Kerk even though it is enormous and imposing .We came upon it after asking for directions several times. This is apparently normal. The delightful guide begins: "It may have taken a while to find it, but you've made it. Amsterdams's Oude Kerk is one of the city's best kept secrets."
There was an organ playing when we were there. Someone was rehearsing for a concert. The high pale columns support a vaulted roof. Saskia Rembrandt is buried here. Rembrandt and his family worshipped here. Nowadays it is a space for cultural events of every kind. We walked round an exhibition of photographs and marvelled at images from all over the world celebrating Lesbian Gay and Transgender life. Everything was calm and beautiful and still very church-like. The Oude Kerk has changed through the centuries. In the Middle Ages, it was the busy centre of a growing town. In the Golden Age (17th Century) wealthy trade guilds supported the church and it became a hub for commerce and trade. Today, (and I found this very heartening and somehow moving) it's in the Red Light district. On our way there, on our long walk, we saw pretty young women in bras and panties (they were too lacy and colourful to be 'knickers' ) smiling in the windows of houses where some of the red curtains were drawn shut. These were the sex workers, and it seemed to me that their work was being as respected as anyone else's work, and that the people who passed their windows who were not interested in a sexual transaction were friendly and accepting. A business that could have been sleazy and unpleasant was rendered ordinary and less threatening than it could have been. At no time did Helen and I feel in the least uncomfortable. The women smiled at us as we went by and some even waved. I suppose they are used to the curious glance of strangers, but from the passers-by, I saw neither disapproval or embarrassment on public display.
There are beautiful stained glass windows in the Oude Kerk but the one that I liked was a kind of stained glass collage of bits and pieces that were salvaged when they were restoring the ancient windows.
And I loved the modern tapestry of the seat cushions, done in shades of pale grey and sage green in a kind of willow pattern.
I can't resist saying an ignorant word about the Dutch art that I saw. I came away full of admiration, not only for Vermeer (whose Girl with the Pearl Earring is as beautiful as I expected but almost eclipsed, even so, by the transcendent View of Delft on the opposite wall) and Rembrandt, but also for a whole raft of others, whose names are daunting but who are well worth investigating. Artists like van der Velde, Mignon, de Heem, and van Ruisdael. It seemed to me that they were portraying a world that was basically a good and respectable one; a world based on trade, and farming, and flowers and good governance. Yes, Holland was an imperial power and doubtless that history must have its own share of darkness, but what we mostly see is a place where order and serenity were valued. Of course, death and murder are part of every society, but here it seems the main impulse was towards the light. What is depicted is a place where everyone, whoever they were, had a right to a good life. We associate Holland with tulips and cheese and that cliché says something true about the country: wholesomeness and beauty and a kind of sanity which we only appreciate when we consider other kinds of societies, past and present.
I'm going to finish with a little picture show of some of the things I like best, including, in the Mauritshuis café the best ever Hazelnut Meringue in the whole world and a live flower arrangement in the tradition of those glorious flower paintings of the 17th century.
This is the cake....
This is from a series of battle scenes by van de Velde, in the Rijksmuseum, done in pen and black ink on canvas. They were stunning.
And here is that flower arrangement.
Next, a haunting collection of lovely dresses in the Rijksmuseum which also incidentally has the best tomato soup I've ever had.
I will be going back. And meanwhile I will plant the tulip bulbs I bought in the Tulip Museum and wait for them to bring to my garden next spring a serene and harmonious kind of beauty which I think of as particularly Dutch.
I recently visited the stunning parish church in Ottery St Mary in Devon, birthplace of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The church is like a miniature cathedral with one of the oldest working astrological clocks in England, constructed in the 14th century. But for me, one of the most intriguing things about the church is the weathercock high on top of the tower. The weathercock is thought to be the oldest in England, though its tail has had to be restored since Cromwell’s troops used it for target practise. It was once a whistling cock which had two tube-like holes, so that the stronger the wind blew the louder the bird whistled. For the sanity of the villagers, the holes have now been blocked off. But it made me wonder - why a cock as a weathervane? And why a whistling one?
The earliest known weathervane is thought to be the bronze Triton that stood on the Tower of the Winds in Athens in about 100BCE. The oldest surviving weathercock, made in 820, is to be found in the Museum di Santa Giulia in Brescia, Lombardy. And in the Bayeux tapestry there appears to be depiction of a man fixing a weathercock to Westminster Abbey.
|Tower of the Winds, Athens|
As it might have appeared in 100BCE.
A papal decree in the 9th Century said that every church must display the emblem of St Peter, which was the cock, the symbol of vigilance. By the 1300’s this had often been combined with a weathervane. But the use of cocks to protect buildings certainly predates Christianity in England. Straw cocks were attached to thatched roofs and hayricks, as they were thought to prevent witches from landing on the roof and keep houses safe from fire. On the Eve of St Martin, in November, millers would slaughter a cock and sprinkle the blood on the working parts of the mill, ‘blooding the mill’, to keep the mill and miller safe in the coming year – a combination of ancient sacrifice and a Christian saint.
Tradition says that the cock was the first creature to announce the birth of Jesus and cocks have crowed through the night on every Christmas Eve since. Although, I can’t help wondering if they were crowing in alarm because the farmer’s wife was coming into the henhouse to find a bird for Christmas dinner. But legend also says that both weathercocks and real cocks will crow on the Day of Judgement to call the dead from their graves and waken the living. This belief may, in turn, come from the Norse myth that a golden cock will crow at the dawn of Ragnnarok signalling the end of the world.
Cockcrow is associated with the coming of dawn when ghost and demons must vanish. A cock was kept by many households to frighten off ghosts and even the devil himself. There is an old country saying -
‘Keep a dog to drive off humans and a cock to drive off ghosts and your stock shall thrive.’
So it follows that a cock on a church tower watching over a graveyard would help to keep the ghosts of the dead contained.
A fierce wind was thought to be conjured up by witches or demons. The weathercock would spin to face the wind and whatever evil was riding upon it, so it could drive off the demon and restore calm.
The whistle in the cock might have been to alert parishioners to the increasing strength of the wind, or even to guide people to safety on a dark, stormy night. But it might also be linked to the idea of using noise to drive off ghosts and demons, which is reflected in old customs of All Hallows Night when clappers and rattles were used to drive back ghosts into their graves.
The way in which Christian and pre-Christian beliefs become woven together like this is illustrated by an account I stumbled across, recorded in 1949. As a farmer lay dying, his wife went out killed a black cockerel and said it was to be buried with her husband. When the district nurse, who was caring for the man, asked why, the wife said her husband would carry the cock to the gates of heaven to remind St Peter that he denied Christ. In that way the saint would forgive her husband’s human weakness and let him into heaven. But the farmer’s wife was insistent it must be a black cock. An interesting survival of an ancient custom given a Christian veneer.
Incidentally, there was also a whistling weathercock on the Church of St. Mary’s, Exeter. In 1501, Katherine of Aragon was staying nearby, and the noise was so loud she couldn’t sleep. So she ordered some poor soul to climb the tower in the gale that night and take the weathercock down. It was put back after she left.
|Bayeux Tapestry which appears to show a man fixing a weathercock|
to Westminster Abbey
As he moved towards the mist of the fountains, Langdon had the uneasy sense he was crossing an imaginary threshold into another world. Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code p 37
|Crossing the Threshold in The Assassins of Rome|
Next weekend I'm going to hear a man named Christopher Vogler present his Essence of Storytelling Masterclass
. Even though I've been a published author for nearly fifteen years, I still enjoy the occasional writing workshop or weekend seminar to hone my craft. Vogler is one of those Hollywood script doctors who never fails to inspire and excite. I look forward to hearing some of his gems on the craft of writing, especially plot.
Vogler was the Disney executive who – nearly forty years ago – wrote a memo suggesting that his fellow Disney screenwriters could base their plots on what he called The Hero's Journey. This was an outline derived from anthropologist Joseph Campbell's study of hero in world mythology: The Hero with a Thousand Faces
. It set out 12 steps of the cyclical journey that a hero often makes. The memo went viral and soon writers from all studios were clamouring for it. George Lucas "discovered" Campbell's about the same time as Vogler and used it for Star Wars. The rest is history.
Some people claim that The Hero's Journey, also known as the Monomyth
, is too constricting and has rendered all Hollywood formulaic. Like any tool, it depends on how you use it. I personally find it exciting because some of my favourite books and movies employ it. You can see a brief outline of the Twelve Steps of the Hero's Journey HERE
I've heard Vogler speak before, but am looking forward to a return visit. At the moment I'm excited about step 5 of The Hero's Journey: Crossing the Threshold.
This is the point in any story where the hero leaves his ordinary world and enters the world of adventure. Sometimes it happens very early on in a story. Sometimes it happens at the end of Act 1, which some screenwriters mark as the Point of No Return. Sometimes there are several thresholds to be crossed.
Sometimes the hero Crosses a Threshold unwittingly. When Alice falls down the rabbit hole, she leaves her ordinary world and enters an amazing world of giants, miniatures and hookah-smoking caterpillars. When Lucy when she pushes through fur coats in a musty wardrobe she emerges into winter-gripped Narnia.
Sometimes the hero refuses the Call to Adventure and has to be urged to cross the Threshold. This urging is often the job of the mentor. Think of Obi Wan urging Luke to come with him to fight the Empire. Or of Morpheus urging Neo to take the red pill.
Sometimes the hero does not hesitate, but runs to enter the World of Adventure. Think of Katniss in the Hunger Games. In this case she meets the anti-Mentor Hamitch after she steps onto the train. Katniss will cross several thresholds and actually gets a second mentor in the form of Cinna. Or think of Mattie Ross in True Grit, when she rides Blackie across the icy river into Indian Territory.
Rivers are a popular obstacle to pass through when entering the World of Adventure. The River Styx is the border between the world of the Living and the World of the Dead. The Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. Jesus emerged from baptismal waters and went straight into the wilderness to be tested.
In film, fantasy and myth-based stories, the moment of crossing the Threshold is often visually stunning. Think of Neo melting into the mirror. Or of the tornado that whisks Dorothy out of black and white Kansas and drops her into technicolor Munchkinland.
One of my favourite examples of Crossing the Threshold is a spoof from Monty Python and The Holy Grail:
Bridgekeeper: Stop! Who would cross The Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
Sir Lancelot: Ask me the questions, bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.
Bridgekeeper: What... is your name?
Sir Lancelot: My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.
Bridgekeeper: What... is your quest?
Sir Lancelot: To seek Holy Grail.
Bridgekeeper: What... is your favourite colour?
Sir Lancelot: Blue.
Bridgekeeper: Right. Off you go.
|"Devils' Gate" Nevada|
In my first Roman Mystery, The Thieves of Ostia
, I have my girl detectrix Flavia Gemina crosses a threshold in the very first chapter when she leaves her Roman town house to venture into the necropolis surrounding the port of Ostia. I didn't consciously know it was a literary trope when I wrote that chapter back in 1999. But we know how stories work by instinct. Now I do know about it, I try to use it wherever appropriate. In my first P.K. Pinkerton novel I have P.K. ride through Devil's Gate (left) on the way to Virginia City."Devil's Gate!" cried the driver, and I lifted my head to see two demonic rocks rearing up on either side of the road and the stagecoach about to pass between them… There was no going back now."The Case of the Deadly Desperados p 27-28
One of the reasons we derive so much satisfaction from watching our hero cross a threshold is that it is something we do every day of our lives. Every time we step outside our door."It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." Bilbo Baggins in Lord of the Rings
When speaking to primary school aged kids, I ask them to think of the Seven Thresholds We Cross in Our Lives. They usually come up with.
2. First Day at School
3. Trips Abroad
4. Leaving Home
5. Every New Job
6. Marriage/Moving In
That's why this is such a great beat to put in our stories. It resonates with every human being.
What are some of your favourite Crossing the Threshold moments in stories, plays, movies or TV?
September competition winner:
Elizabeth Chadwick had a hard time picking a winner but has chosen Suzanne's entry. Could Suzanne please get in touch with me on: firstname.lastname@example.org you that I can pass your address details to Elizabeth?
Congratulations to Suzanne and commiserations to the other entrants. There were some marvellous ideas.
I’ve written before about the Natural History Museum in Venice, quite recently reopened after decades of restoration. I’ve recorded how, among all the state-of-the-art graphics, tools and devices, the visitor can find the dusty remnants of a vast collection of hunters’ trophies from the days when ‘men were men’ and not ashamed to murder helpless animals in the name of sport.
Walking swiftly past the espaliered gorilla and the dozens of mounted heads, I always make my way into a little circular room where the museum keeps its curiosities. The room is styled like that of the famous Neapolitan collector Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625). The image below shows his cabinet of curiosities in the Palazzo Gravina in Naples. In this picture, it is thought that Imperato’s son, Francesco, is showing off the collection to a pair of visitors. Meanwhile, his father looks on with what seems to me to be a rather affected nonchalance, legs casually crossed.
Imperato, who trained as an apothecary, collected and classified flora and fauna. He was also interested in fossil, ores and gems. He recording his findings and inventoried his collection of about 35,000 specimens in his 800-page Dell’ historia naturale published in Naples in 1599. This title page, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, is from the copy at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. This book was a rarity in its time, being written in Italian, rather than in the more traditional Latin.
In the first picture above,Francesco Imperato uses a long stick to point to one of the exhibits. One writer has suggested that the crocodile is above so as not to distract visitors from the less spectacular ores and minerals. But the baton seems to me to point at a bird. Is it the remains of a chicken? Perhaps.
Certainly in the Ferrante Imperato ‘tribute’ room in Venice’s Natural History Museum, a chicken occupies pride of place. And it was there that I found 'The Monstrous Chicken'.
When talking to the curator Margherita Fusco, I discovered that this chicken had a history all of her own. As we History Girls are taking a beastly turn this month (see the blogs of Mary Hoffman and Louisa Young), I thought I would write the biography of this chicken.
In most ways, she was a chicken like any other. Like any other chicken of the mainland Veneto, that is. Her development in the egg would have followed the destiny engraved in a book, closely contemporary to Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’ historia naturale: Hieronymous Fabricius’s De formatione ovi et pulli, 1621, as shown above.
Except this chicken did some extra growing.
Two extra legs, to be precise.
Despite popular superstitions against ‘freaks’, her farmer let her live, as did the other chickens in her coop. She grew to maturity. Apart from the legs, she probably looked rather like this illustration of hen from Charles Darwin’s 1872 work, The Expression of the emotions in Man and Animals.
The four-legged chicken of the Veneto eventually found herself for sale at Treviso market, probably sold by someone looking rather like this poultry-dealing 'contadino' in an engraving, also closely contemporary to Ferrante Imperato, being from the book, Habiti antichi, et moderni di tutto il mondo / Di Cesare Vecellio. Di nuouo accresciuti di molte figure. Vestitus antiquorum, recentiorúmque totius orbis, 1598.
One can only hope that she was not carried upside down like this contadino's chicken.At the Treviso market she was seen by Emilio Ninni, the curator of the Natural History Museum in Venice. He bought her straightaway, and took her home. She became both a pet and living case-study for him.Here is the skeleton of a normal hen, rather charmingly rendered in Jean Germani’s 1625 tract, Breve e substantiale trattato intorno alle figure anathomiche.
And here is Ninni's cross section of the skeleton of the chicken from Treviso. She had two pairs of limbs like this.
Apart from the extra set of limbs, the scientist observed, this chicken was not much different in stature from others of her species. ‘Perhaps a little taller,’ he observed. She ate rather well and walked without any visible impediment. However, he never saw her run and he never heard her sing. She submitted patiently to his examinations.
Sadly one day, Ninni found her drowned in her water bowl. Possibly, it was on account of her extra legs that she fell into this peril, unlike ‘her other companions in slavery’.
Ninni examined the skeleton of his former pet, and published a short academic paper on ‘Lo scheletro di un uccello mostruoso’. The skeleton of the freak or monstrous bird.
Ninni’s four-legged chicken found her way into a display cabinet in his museum, in which you can also see a ‘baby mermaid’ made of a monkey head and shoulders stuffed into a fish, a basilisk confected of a parrot and some sharkskin, and my favourite exhibit of all, the cat of Doge Francesco Morosini, who esteemed his pet so much that on her death he had her mummified with a large rat between her paws.
And all of these creatures played their parts in my children novel, The Fate in the Box, as did the espaliered gorilla, the giant’s skeleton and the billiard table with four rhinoceros legs, which was, of course, begging to come to life and walk carefully down the stairs.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what constitutes and constituted a ‘freak’, especially in the 19th century, the setting for my novel, The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters. A minor character in my novel, which deals with the Victorian obsession with hair, is the famous Mexican Gorilla Woman, Julia Pastrana, about whom I have blogged previouslyin this parish.
Julia (pictured right) had hair where hair should not be. This chicken had extra legs where legs should not be. Freaks tend to have extra or fewer limbs, larger or smaller features or appendages than ‘normal’. But what is normal? What kind of physiological status anxiety has given us such narrow parameters of normality? In Victoria times, it has been theorized, Darwin's explanation of our simian origins created such a need to 'monsterize' those who are a slightly different. But what is our excuse today?
And what of the animals in Venice's museum, killed and contorted into bizarre furniture and light fittings on the whim of a trophy hunter? Who is really the freak in this scenario?Among all those stuffed and mounted creatures at Venice’s Natural History Museum, there are many other stories to be written. The Curiosity Room is full of creatures that were regarded as freaks. All died before their time. Writing about them is one way, I console myself, of bringing these unfortunate creatures back to life. Until we find a better one, it will have to do.
In 2012, the museum published a new illustrated guide in English and Italian.
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As anyone who has been in London recently must know, the city has become a Mecca for wealthy Russians. They want the best of British for themselves and their children, and not for the first time in Russia's history.
When I began researching The Grand Duchess of Nowhere
I was already aware of a British presence in Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries - I remembered, for instance, being shown the former English Church on the Angliskaya Embankment of the Neva in St Petersburg - nevertheless I was surprised by just how a la mode
we Brits had once been. The Germans may have been there in greater numbers, but we were the flavour of the day.
The ground was laid by Empress Catherine II's trade treaty with Britain. Industrialists emigrated to Russia and built factories there. They brought an energy and enterprise and technical expertise that Russia desperately needed. For the most part those men, like the grandfather of the novelist William Gerhardie, went native and made Russia their true home. In their wake came British merchants, shop-keepers, bankers, doctors (Scots medics were especially esteemed)), and tough-love nannies. Tsar Nicholas II chose one such for his four daughters. Though Nanny Eager was Irish by birth she has a definite look of cod liver oil and no nonsense about her.
When Nanny Eager arrived in St Petersburg in 1898 she would have found it well-provided with familiar things. There were at least four stores that called themselves The English Shop, vying with each other for the custom of wealthy Russians. Crosse & Blackwell piccalilli, Huntley & Palmer's ginger nuts, Pears' soap, Trumper's badger-hair shaving brushes. And for those difficult birthday gifts for friends who already have everything there was always Nichols and Plinke - a kind of Liberty's of its day - established in St Petersburg before Faberge arrived and stole their thunder.
There was an English bookshop on Gorokhovaya Street and a subscription library attached to the English church. Burton ale may not have quite the cachet of champagne or Crimean wine but it was hugely popular in 19th century St Petersburg, and so was Newcastle coal, in spite of Russia's unimaginably vast sources of birch wood which also makes excellent fires.
English landscape gardeners were all the rage too, as were our coach-builders, and a Grand Duke's country estate was considered nothing without a string of English hunters in the stables and a pair of English hounds chewing on the legs of his brand new Maple's mail order mahogany sideboard.
What did we ever do for the Russians? Quite a lot it seems. And now we've come full circle.The Grand Duchess of Nowhere was published by Quercus Books on October 2nd.
For me history’s appeal doesn’t lie in the grand sweep of events. I’m not particularly interested in kings and politicians, or empires rising and falling. It’s the small things, the ordinary people living through extraordinary events, the humdrum details of their daily lives that I find fascinating. I suppose that my interest in history really began at home.
My mother (now in her seventies) recently went to see a concert - a ‘work in progress’ – on the theme of the First World War. Afterwards the audience were invited to send in their own stories and experiences. This is what she wrote:
“My grandfather (John Edward Avery, pictured below) was a Cornish mining engineer, working in Johannesburg at the outbreak of the Boer War. He had many friends in South Africa of all cultures, whom he refused to fight.
He returned to Truro, where he made himself unpopular, declaring that the Boer War had been created by politicians and was being waged against defenceless women and children (thousands of them died of dysentery in our concentration camps).
My grandmother married Jack Avery in the peace after the Boer War. A tenant farmer’s daughter from Exmoor, she rode horses as she learned to walk, and when Jack took her out to South Africa she rode with him, side saddle, from Cape Town to Swaziland, a thousand miles or more. The railways had been destroyed in the Boer War. There were no roads. Later they returned to Cape Town with their four children in an ox wagon and took ship for their beloved West Country.
In 1914, as soon as war was declared, Jack Avery, this same man who had refused to fight in the Boer War, enlisted in the British army. Meeting his sister (my Great Aunt) coming down May Hill in Truro, he gave her the joyful news. Years later she told me she had been so angry she could barely speak beyond, “Jack how could you? You have a wife and four young children.”
“It’ll all be over by Christmas,” he jauntily replied.
What propaganda made a man of his mindset believe that?
He became the first man from Truro to die. His only son, my uncle John, went unscathed through the Second World War, only to die just before it ended. It was the only time I ever saw my stoic grandmother with tears in her eyes, her hands shaking so much she could not hold the cup of tea my mother made for her. “Everyone I love is taken from me,” she said. I must have been six-years-old and I can still see and hear those moments as if they were happening before me now. My grandmother and mother were typical of their generations. They lost fathers, husbands, brothers, sons.
I was grateful that you included material based on Vera Brittain’s writings but, with all due respect, Vera Brittain (bless her) was well educated, well off and at that time single and childless. The women in my mother’s and grandmother’s generations were very often fatherless, widowed, poorly educated, poor, and with big families. They were exhorted to ‘keep the home fires burning’. They did so. Who thanked them?”
I think one day, I might just try…
Twitter Trolls are a twenty-first century phenomenon and one that exposes the darkness that lurks beneath the surface of society. I am always shocked to hear of the venomous attacks launched on people who find themselves in the public eye by those hidden behind the veil of anonymity that social media offers. Such practices have once more come to light with the recent news of Brenda Leyland's presumed suicide in the wake of allegations that she was behind a Twitter smear campaign against the McCanns, a couple who have not only suffered the loss of their daughter but also had to bear a tirade of abuse and accusation, mostly based on poor reporting and misinformation. It seems people are determined to have their say, no matter what the cost.
But though the platforms that allow such anonymous personal outpourings are a recent innovation, the desire to have one's opinions heard, however unpalatable or inaccurate, is nothing new and can be traced back to the rise of the pamphlet in the sixteenth century. Pamphlets originated in the wake of the invention of the printing press, with the Reformation, and were used to spread the new religious ideas that were taking hold across northern Europe. But before long pamphleteers, who were often anonymous or hidden behind pseudonyms, were spreading scandal as much as politics and religion; and the pamphlets themselves were much like today's social media in that they were ephemeral and not designed to endure.
The heroine of my novel Queen's Gambit, Katherine Parr, widow of Henry VIII, fell foul of the scurrilous pamphleteers when she married her fourth husband Thomas Seymour with what was considered indecent haste in the wake of Henry's death. The scandal mongers had a field-day, loudly citing her hasty marriage as evidence of her wantonness and the insatiable nature of womankind. London's watering holes reverberated with lewd jokes about the Dowager Queen and her untrammelled sexual desire, so much so that Seymour tried to suppress the crude tirade with an act of parliament.
By the middle of Elizabeth I's reign pamphlets had superseded ballads as a means of imparting news and scandal to the public and were increasingly used in attempts to topple unpopular powerful figures such as the Queen's favourite The Earl of Leicester. A long pamphlet titled Leicester's Commonwealth was published with the sub-heading: 'Conceived, spoken and published with most earnest protestation of dutiful good-will and affection towards the realm.' It was actually a character assassination of the earl and filled with accusations of all kinds of wicked behaviour directed at him, suggesting that he was behind the murder of his first wife Amy Robsart, a scandal I write about in my novel Sisters of Treason, and also that he had a hand in the death of Lettice Knollys first husband, to pave the way for his own marriage to Lettice. 'No man's wife' the anonymous author stated, 'can be free from him, whom his fiery lust he liketh to abuse.' The Queen, however, was unswayed by the pamphleteer's scurrilous accusations and Leicester remained her favourite until his death.
Find out more about Elizabeth Fremantle and her Tudor novels on elizabethfremantle.com
Pamphlets and Pamphleteers in Early Modern England – Joad Raymond
Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr – Linda Porter
This post really is just a puff for the wonderful Bodleian Broadside Ballad collection. My site of the month. It's here, go on waste all morning. There's stuff here from the sixteenth century to the twentieth.
|Bodleian Library Creative Commons.|
There's something about old Broadside Ballads. A sort of hard wiring into street culture of the past. Although it is hard to imagine some kind of future me imagining I could glean any kind of knowledge from 'You're insecure, don't know what for'
Actually having written that snippet from the ouevre of modern big haired popstrels One Direction I think it says quite a lot about teenage girls in the early 21st Century.
|Bodleian Library Creative Commons|
Anyway. I had to squeeze out a story fairly quickly last month, and when you're in the middle of a million other things finding a clean and empty space inside your head can sometimes prove hard.
I started faffing and wrote ten beginnings ranging from useless to 'ok but what the hell is this about then?' Then I remembered the lovely Bodleian Library Ballad collection, the place that gave me the title of the Mary Seacole story I wrote for Daughters of Time.
There are so many wonderful story nuggets gleaned from just looking at the pictures - from just looking at the printers addresses.
|From the Bodleian Library Creative Commons|
The Bodleian is a fantastic resource. If you have a spare hour (or two or three). There are songs about everything and some marvellous illustrations.
But I was in a hurry. And I couldn't find a tune I knew the name of but was there at the back of my head. Thank heavens for Wikepedia. I thought I found it in the The Child's Ballads. A collection of English and Scottish folk songs. But I had misremembered the ballad of the Nut Brown Maid was about women, but not exactly what I needed.
However noodling around the Child Ballads I found one with a lovely and intriguing title - The Wife Wrapt in a Wether's Skin - a wether is a sheep and I recognised some of the lines she wouldna wash, she wouldna spin
. From a song from my childhood The Wee Cooper From Fife.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CX2KMDoOtQA
However the song original ballad is one of domestic abuse, a 'how to' beat your wife. It's about a working man who marries a high born woman who won't lower herself to do any work. He threatens her, she says if you mark me my family will know. So he wraps her in a sheep skin and blithely beats her happy in the knowledge no one will know.
She soon knuckles down. It sort of ruined the White Heather Club for me.
But it does sort of bring us back to modern pop songs. How many of them, while not actually advocating physical abuse (let's forget He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss
by The Crystals) do make romantic love seem like something close to masochism.
Just say Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo.
Catherine's latest book is Sawbones
, a murder mystery set in 18th century London, it won the 2014 Young Quills award for historical fiction.
A few things have made me reflect on the concept of childhood in the last few days, so I thought I'd muse a little here.
I'm aware that childhood in its present form in Western industrialised society is a modern construct. The idea that childhood should be protected, a time for learning and development is recent. And sadly it's not the case for many children world-wide.
In the past, of course, even in Europe, things were very different. Take the age of 15. Thinking specifically of girls, in many eras in the past they would be married or at least thinking of marriage if they were well off. If they were poor they would have been working for years.
When I wrote Daughter of Fire and Ice
, my first Viking novel, I discovered that many girls of standing were married off very young indeed. Some were so young, it was considered normal that they took their toys with them to their new home. I found that rather heartbreaking. Although I didn't use that particular information in the book, it helped shape my understanding of how my 15-year-old protagonist would have seen life.
It's especially interesting given that wives of householders in the Viking age were in charge of the store cupboard. They decided how much food could be taken for household use and when and held the key. This was an incredibly responsible job in a world without shops or regular markets - if you misjudged, the whole household could starve before spring; something that does nearly happen in my story.
Wives were also left in charge of the farmstead when the husband was away trading or raiding - sometimes for a season, sometimes for years. What a responsibility for a young wife.
Throughout the ages girls have shouldered responsibilities very young; managing long working hours, providing competent labour, running households, caring for children. In war years, women and girls stepped up and did men's work while they were away fighting. Particularly on the land, girls would often do a full day's heavy work from a very young age.
This is perhaps one of the things that makes teen historical fiction so very different from the other genres. In the past, only the very wealthy would have been able to indulge in the kind of stroppy, sassy, self-indulgent behaviour that is portrayed in some contemporary teen fiction. When a historical novelist writes about the girl of the same age, the weight of adulthood is already resting firmly on her shoulders in the way that perhaps only child-carers face in contemporary Europe. It's a very different proposition to write about such girls and make it possible for today's teens to relate to their place in the world, their concerns and their ambitions. But so important, I feel, for today's girls to be aware of how much things have changed.
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Last month I wrote about our trip to the Alpujarra, in southern Spain. You can read about it here. The Alpujarra is a region of the Sierra Nevada, and by the nature of mountainous regions, it's not easy to get to or get out of. Places that look close on a map are not in reality. But there was one place we all agreed we must go to: the Alhambra in Granada.
The Alhambra is a supremely beautiful mediaeval Arab palace; yet, ironically, it was founded (in the 13th century) as the power of the Moors was declining. It is set on a hill above the city, and although the landscape around it is sandy and arid, the citadel itself is surrounded by woods and gardens; you are never far from a fountain. The gardens are irrigated by water from the Sierra Nevada, carried by a series of cunningly contrived channels: in my previous post, I wrote about how cleverly the meltwater from the mountains is conserved and distributed, and that the foundation of the system was laid by the Moors, and perhaps even before them by the Romans.
We were only able to be there for a few hours. It wasn't nearly long enough to take in all that there was to see, and I hope one day I'll go back. The Nasrid Palace, which is the jewel in the crown of the Alhambra, is a curious combination of simplicity and extreme complexity: the rooms have no furniture, so there is nothing to stop one's gaze being drawn to the meticulous, intricate, exuberant patterning on every surface.
I know really nothing about the origins of the patterns, the history of the decoration. So I'm just going to put up some pictures, so that you can take a virtual tour, and think, not only about the long-ago kings who commanded the building of the palace, but about all the craftsmen who must have laboured so long and with such care to create it.
|The Ambassadors' Hall|
|The Court of the Myrtles|
|The Lions' Court|
|A view over Granada from the Alhambra|
A couple of weeks ago, away in Llangollen, I came across an interesting answer to one of those questions that sits in the back of your mind:
“How exactly did they do that, then?”
I was at Plas Newydd, the home of the famous Ladies of Langollen: Miss Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler.
The Ladies were a pair of aristocratic women who rejected the expectations of high society in Regency Dublin. Rejecting the trials of society marriage, or the low status of spinsterhood, the friends eloped together. Twice.
The second time, they were successful, although they had to rely on friends as well as family to live.
Inspired by romantic ideals, the Ladies left Ireland, crossed to Anglesey and travelled on rough, unmade roads through Wales.
In 1780, the Ladies settled, “retiring” to a cottage in the beautiful Dee valley
Close by were the picturesque ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey and the hill fort settlement and broken walls of Castell Dinas Bran were visible from the site.
With Mary Carrell as their formidable housekeeper, the Ladies lived a quiet and cultured life. They decorated their home in the Gothic style, with strange wood carvings broken from old furniture, fragments of old stained glass and the many curiosities brought to them by their many visitors. Later, under General Yorke, the wood carvings were increased and darkened and the place took on its distinctive black and white look.
Plas Newyydd had brought "retirement from society" but not seclusion and the Ladies, with their scandalous and romantic tale, became celebrities. Over the years, visitors included Southey, Shelley, Byron, Caroline Lamb and Wordsworth as well as the Duke of Wellington and many more. The Ladies were involved in local culture and music and the Welsh harpist Jonathan Hughes often played in their drawing room.
Back now to the start. The eighteenth century was still an era of wigs, pomades, hairpieces and hair-powder. This French fashion had been popularised by Charles II back in the seventeenth century, when “big hair” was linked to the display of health and wealth, to the comfort of hair easily de-loused and to concealing the ravages of hair loss and diseases. Men were the main wig-wearers, but women included a variety of hair pieces as part of “natural” hair-styles.
Hair-powders, coloured or white, helped with these fashions. The powders absorbed natural oils at a time when hair was not frequently washed as well as the grease of pomades, the styling gels of the period.
Such powder, made of some form of starch, was applied with bellows and brushes by a maid or servant, and was useful for blending both false and natural hair together.
The gentle-person's garments needed to be protected by arrangements of capes or coverings. Plas Newyydd offers what may be a more ingenious everyday idea. The Guest Bedroom still has a true “powder room”. It is a small walk-in cupboard off the bedroom, a place where one could attend to one’s personal toilette.
The wooden door has a large round hole cut into it. Although this could just be for daylight, the current National Trust Visitors Notes suggest that the servant stood inside, with the bowl of powder at the ready.
The gentleman or lady, remaining in the bedroom, stuck their head of hairs, various, through the hole and were duly be-powdered, thus protecting their garments - and the room - from an untidy scattering of dust. I do not know if this “invention” was common at the time - or even if this is just historic supposition– but what a simple and practical device it appears. And what a fascinating scene that would be to write!
The picture of the elderly Ladies above shows them in rural hunting dress. Other portraits show the pair with fairly short hair, cut in the style of their youth, but probably still lightly powdered.
"Powder” however, was already disappearing. With revolution in France and riots and unrest in Britain, society people were less eager to display grand hairstyles. William Pitt’s 1795 Duty on Hair Powder Act, raised to fund the war against the French, finally killed off such powder rooms, except for the coy use of the term in occasional modern hotels.
Author of A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury)
Last week, I went to see Sarah Waters at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. I was there purely as a punter, a fan, no magic access to the Green Room this time. Just like any other reader, I like to go and see my favourite authors and hear what they have to say about their writing. As a writer, I go to see if there are any tips I can pick up - you never know - and as a sometime performer, I like to see how other authors present themselves on the platform or stage. I've appeared at Cheltenham a few times myself and I like both the town and the Festival. One tiny gripe about the latter. I was there in the evening. Waterstone's Book Tent in full swing. I looked in vain for Children's and Y.A. titles, however. Then I noticed another, smaller tent, shut and darkened. 'The Children's Books are in there,' I was told, as if any fule should know, delivered with a look that seemed to say: why would the Children's Bookshop be open at 7:30 in the Evening? Children will be in bed, for goodness sake.
That apart, it was a very rewarding evening. Sarah Waters has a quiet, unassuming way about her which readers warm to immediately but which speaks to me of enormous assurance and confidence. She is not afraid to use self deprecating humour or to admit to problems, confusions, worries and concerns about her books as they are being written. With that, she's won over the writers in the audience (well, me, anyway). Not that I needed winning over. I've been an avid fan since I first picked up a copy of Tipping the Velvet in 1998.
I was flying to Belfast and was looking for something to read in W.H. Smith's in Birmingham Airport, which I feared might be a fruitless task, when I saw Tipping the Velvet. I have a passing knowledge of Victorian Underworld slang and was intrigued. I'd never heard of Sarah Waters but the title was enough for me. I started reading on the plane and went on reading when I got to my hotel. I tried to slow down, to make the book last, but just couldn't stop. I recognised immediately that here was a story teller of rare power, writing about a 'hidden' history, exploring a world that seldom appears in period fiction or non fiction. Better than that, I'd discovered a new writer and I've followed her ever since.
She said at Cheltenham that she makes 'an imaginative leap into [her characters'] perspective', and that the story comes from 'what the characters need to do and how they feel about it.' Her knowledge of her period, the period in which her characters live, is immaculate. It is built up through intense research, using the writing of people who lived at the time: letters, diaries, novels. This seems a good model for any historical writer. It seems a simple idea. If you are going to write about people living in a particular period then that's where you need to go to find out what they thought and felt, but what they did actually think and feel is often surprising. Our ideas about what it was like to live in wartime or post war Britain, as in The Night Watch
, or The Little Stranger,
are often coloured by hindsight, filtered through modern pre-perceptions or the distorting glass of memory. Waters' unearths the unexpected, continually confounding lazy, cliched views of the past.
She never allows her research to overburden the text. She uses it to make her period come alive to the modern reader and to give validity to her characters as they move through it. Her extensive reading of contemporary sources imbues her writing with a feeling of the times she is describing, not pastiche, more authenticity, and her plots work with the precision of a swiss watch. Her latest novel, The Paying Guests,
the subject of her talk at Cheltenham, is just as clever, accomplished and absorbing as the others, a kind of Suspicions of Mr Whicher
from the inside out.
I'm just left thinking, 'How does she do that?'
‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,’ says Amanda in Private Lives. The same might be said of fiction – at least of a certain sort of ‘cheap’ fiction, variously known as the thriller, the murder mystery, the detective story, and the whodunnit. To this genre – or rather to a particular sub-genre, disparagingly referred to by aficionados of the grislier sort of crime fiction as ‘cosy’ – I am, I freely confess, addicted. In the past few months, I’ve polished off twenty-eight novels by Ngaio Marsh, fifteen by Dorothy L Sayers, eight by Josephine Tey, forty-four by Agatha Christie, six by Edmund Crispin, five by Margery Allingham, two by Nicholas Blake, and the collected Sherlock Holmes stories. I include these last in the awareness that they were published around forty years before the ‘Golden Age’ of English detective fiction (roughly 1920 – 1940) which encompasses the others, but since none of these later works would have existed without Conan Doyle’s sublime creation, I feel they belong together.
|Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget 1908|
With his louche, but essentially ‘gentlemanly’, appearance, eccentricities of behaviour (violin-playing, cocaine addiction) and the forensic acuity of his mind, Sherlock Holmes – now enjoying a revival of interest, due to the cult success of a recent television treatment, starring Benedict Cumberbatch – is surely the pattern of the English detective, for the period leading up to and immediately following the First World War. Here he is, making his debut, in A Study in Scarlet:
In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawklike nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of an extraordinary delicacy of touch…
In this mesmerising piece of description can be seen the inspiration for a whole clutch of detectives – from Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, with his ‘sensitive’ mouth, and eyes whose supposedly ‘foolish’ expression can turn at the drop of a stiletto to lethal sharpness, to Marsh’s tall, ascetic-looking Roderick Alleyn, whose looks are a cross between those of a ‘polite faun’ and a ‘monk’. Tey’s Allan Grant is another aesthete-turned-policeman, with his ‘dapper’ good looks and his fondness for solving historical puzzles (not least that of who really murdered the Princes in the Tower (vide: The Daughter of Time). Christie’s Hercule Poirot, too, though lacking the dashing style of Alleyn, or the aristocratic demeanour of Wimsey, has, when on the case, ‘cat-like’ green eyes, that flash with intellectual fire. Most of these men – and they are (with one notable exception: the redoubtable Miss Marple) all men – conceal their ruthless intelligence beneath a veneer of absent-mindedness or ineffectuality. Crispin’s Oxford-academic-turned-private-eye, Gervase Fen, is a case in point, with his donnish fussiness and predilection for sixteenth century poetry.
Blue-bloodedness is another factor common to several of these characters – apart from the impeccably well-connected Wimsey and Alleyn (both younger sons of lords), there is Allingham’s Albert Campion, who has a title but prefers not to use it. Though born into high society, these gentlemen detectives seem to enjoy fraternising with the demi-monde – not only that of the criminal underworld, but of the theatre (cf Marsh’s Enter a Murderer; Crispin’s The Gilded Fly) the art world (Artists in Crime), and the bohemian world inhabited by the followers of cult religions (Death in Ecstasy). This is just as well, considering that so many of the crimes they are called upon to solve take place in these milieus. Not that there is any shortage of homicidal incident in the ostensibly more respectable walks of life, such as academia (Sayers’s Gaudy Night; Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding) advertising (Murder Must Advertise) and the House of Lords (Clouds of Witness).
Then there’s the question of the women. Because whilst Holmes – apart from a passing fancy for the beautiful but untrustworthy Irene Adler (A Scandal in Bohemia) – is famously wedded to his poisons and his different types of cigar-ash, a number of his fellow detectives seem to have found time not just for the exacting science of criminal investigation, but for love, and indeed, marriage. Given that these are men who spend a great deal of time hanging around police courts, it is perhaps hardly surprising that their inamorata should often be women on trial for their lives. The splendidly arresting beginning of Sayers’s Strong Poison finds Harriet Vane in the dock:
There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot face and his parrot voice were dry, like his old, heavily veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harsh with the crimson of the roses…
Harriet is on trial for poisoning her lover, an egotistical poet, and the evidence looks very black against her. Fortunately, Lord Peter Wimsey is in court that day. He falls for Harriet’s ‘eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows’ – and the rest, as they say, is history. Indeed Harriet, a best-selling writer of detective stories, proves a valuable asset when it comes to solving a number of Wimsey’s more intractable cases. That it takes him several books before he convinces her to marry him, only adds to the thrill, with the crime-solving, on occasion, taking second place to the romance. Inevitably, given both the author’s academic background and that of her characters, things come to a head in Oxford:
‘Tell me one thing, Peter. Will it make you desperately unhappy if I say No?’
‘Desperately?… My dear, I will not insult either you or myself with a word like that. I can only tell you that if you will marry me it will give me very great happiness.’
They passed beneath the arch of the bridge and out into the pale light once more.
|Ngaio Marsh in 1935 by Henry Herbert Clifford|
Roderick Alleyn also goes for the intellectual woman (can it be mere co-incidence that the authors of so many of these celebrated crime novels were themselves intellectual women?). His Agatha Troy is an artist – first encountered on a voyage back to England from the Antipodes – and prickly as hell when Alleyn interrupts her painting. (‘”How long have you been there?” she demanded ungraciously…’) Back in England, it isn’t long before she, too, becomes the prime suspect for murder – although luckily, not as far as Chief Inspector Alleyn is concerned:
‘Do you think for a moment,’ said Troy, in a level voice, ‘that I might have killed this girl?’
‘Not for a moment,’ said Alleyn…
Again, it isn’t until several books – and quite a few murders – later that the independent-minded Troy consents to become Alleyn’s wife, thus consolidating one of the more durable partnerships (Holmes and Watson notwithstanding) in crime fiction.
Then of course there’s the question of murder, and why it should be such an attractive subject for writer and readers alike. It’s not a question to which I can find a ready answer. Because there’s no escaping the fact that, delightfully old-fashioned as these stories might seem, with their titled detectives and their country house settings, and seemingly unassailable hierarchies of class and wealth, they deal with the darker side of human behaviour: fraud, embezzlement, blackmail, sexual jealousy, and murder. One could argue that it isn’t the crime itself that attracts, but the intellectual puzzle involved in unravelling what has led up to it, and that this – the murder – is merely a necessary convention. Murder is, one might say, the mechanism on which the story relies, and is secondary (surely) to the pleasures of detection. Certainly, by the gruesome standards of most contemporary thrillers, which revel in describing ever more sadistic killings, the murder mysteries of the Golden Age seem like pretty tame stuff. Almost cosy, in fact.
And yet one can hardly describe as ‘cosy’ a tale in which a man dies horribly from drinking nitric acid (Artists in Crime), or one in which the murder weapon is a peal of church bells (Nine Tailors), whose combined clamour, experienced at short range, is enough to drive the victim to madness and death. People are routinely stabbed, shot, strangled, bludgeoned, drowned and – on one memorable occasion – brained with a plant pot (Busman’s Honeymoon), but the favourite method of dispatch in these homicidal tales is often poison, with all the possibilities it offers of being slipped into coffee or strong drink, or substituted for the sleeping tablets or heart medicine of the victim.
|Plaque in Torre Abbey Photo credit Violetriga Creative Commons|
In False Scent, a leading lady dies after spraying herself with her favourite scent, into which a lethal agent has been introduced. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, an autocratic matriarch expires as a result of drinking poisoned cocoa. Sad Cypress, another of Christie’s Poirot novels, begins with the trial of heiress Elinor Carlisle, for the murder of her rival, beautiful Mary Gerrard, whom she has allegedly poisoned with a fish-paste sandwich. Nasty. Very nasty. And yet one finds oneself reading on…
But – dashing detectives aside – what exactly is the appeal of the whodunnit? I suppose it comes down to one thing, really: the pleasure to be had from uncovering the layers of falsehood and half-truth with which the narrative has been overlaid, in order to arrive at the ‘real story’. Of course, readers of any work of fiction are to some extent playing this detective role, in as much as they’re searching out clues, as they read, about the meaning of the text; it’s just that in crime fiction the process is more overt. As George Orwell pointed out in ‘Decline of the English Murder’, nothing is so enthralling to the general public as a murder by a hitherto upstanding citizen, for whom ‘respectability – the desire to gain a secure position in life, or not to forfeit one’s social position through some scandal such as divorce – (is) one of the main reasons for committing murder.’
So perhaps it’s not just the excitement of the chase – of following up clues and unravelling a mystery – that makes detective stories so compelling. It’s their psychological complexity – the fact that they deal with the darker aspects of human nature; its hypocrisies and self-deceptions – which makes us avid to read them. Detectives, in these stories, often fulfil the role of psychiatrists, enabling those burdened with unbearable secrets to reveal them, and those guilty of terrible crimes to confess. There’s an inevitability to the narrative which somehow never seems to undermine the suspense. Even though one knows from the beginning that the murderer will be found and the crime punished, there is always the faintly subversive thought that this time it might not happen, and the forces of darkness will be allowed to triumph…
There are of course quite a few celebrated examples of murder stories in which the killer ‘gets away with it’ (Patricia Highsmith’s beguilingly nasty Mr Ripley series being amongst them), but in general, what one looks for in a good whodunit is for the agent of chaos (the murderer) to be caught, and for the social order to be restored. It’s this that draws one back, time and again, to these tales – ‘cosy’ or otherwise – of mystery and imagination. Bodies in libraries, shots ringing out, faces frozen in dreadful rictuses of terror… it’s just the kind of thing for a long winter evening, in front of the fire, or tucked up under the duvet. Who needs tiresome reality, when you can have Roderick Alleyn raising a quizzical eyebrow, as his sidekick Nigel Bathgate presents him with the latest piece of evidence? Or Jane Marple speculating about murder weapons, over the tea-table? I’m happy to say that my Kindle is currently well-stocked with several dozen pre-war thrillers, to see me through until Christmas.
It is a truism that history is written by the victors.
Western history and culture have their roots deep in the Judaeo-Graeco-Roman tradition, and it is a strongly patriarchal tradition. Archaeological evidence points to earlier matriarchal cultures which preceded the pervasive patriarchal bias, but by the time written literature began, this matriarchal culture had been suppressed, pushed to the margins into folktale, superstition, and myth. The patriarchal principle had won the battle for social dominance.
And men wrote our history.
One of the earliest written records is, of course, the Bible. Assembled over several centuries it is not simply a testament of faith. The Old Testament is an historical record of a nomadic people’s wanderings over the Middle East and north Africa followed by their settlement in Judaea. It also contains a carefully preserved genealogy of families and tribes, and a collection of some of the world’s most memorable stories. The New Testament takes matters forward into the birth of the modern world and the foundation of Christianity. The world’s three great faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are all rooted in this extraordinary book, a book which has outsold every other and whose influence on our thoughts, culture, literature, and history is incalculable. Would our individual perceptions of ourselves be the same without this influence? Difficult to say.
Here I am not planning to look at the Bible as a religious work, but in those other three aspects: a history, a genealogy, and a collection of stories.
Have you noticed how few ‘good’ women there are? By and large they are found in the New Testament. This reflected the kindlier, more humane face of the new dispensation. Women even played a major role in the early Christian church, preaching, travelling through Gentile lands spreading the word, and perishing for their faith in the Roman arena. Until, that is, the church fathers seized control of the church hierarchy and turned it into the mirror image of the male secular power of the time, the Roman Empire.
However, the majority of women in the Old Testament who are sufficiently honoured as to have their names recorded for posterity are ‘bad’ women. So bad, indeed, that their names have become by-words for evil. And how the authors rub their hands in glee over their horrific ends!
If you ask the average person brought up in our modern secular society (which still has its roots in the Christian tradition) to name women from the Bible, the answers will go something like this. From the Old Testament: Jezebel, Delilah, Eve, the Queen of Sheba, Ruth . . . er, Moses’ sister . . . was she called Miriam? A few might remember Judith, the heroine who slew Holofernes. The list is unlikely to extend much beyond that. From the New Testament: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Salome. Some will recall that John the Baptist’s mother was called Elizabeth. Then there was that widow with her mite. What was she called? What indeed.
If we examine the many genealogies in the Old Testament, which can make parts of it very tedious for the modern reader, we have to ask: Where are the women? X begat Y begat Z ad infinitum, but only the generations upon generations of men are recorded. Who gave birth to all these generations? All these men had wives and mothers, but the women remain nameless, lost for ever in the mists of time. They constituted half the Israelite population, those women. They wandered with the men, living in tents, herding the sheep and goats, cooking over open fires, giving birth to their children and sometimes burying them. They fed, clothed and reared each successive generation of the nation, yet they are ignored as if they never existed.
Just occasionally one woman is glimpsed for a moment, usually because it is obligatory to mention her in order to clarify the links between families or tribes – for example Sarah, wife of Abraham [Genesis 11:29 ff.]. There is just a whiff here of the ancient matriarchal culture which still held sway at the time. Though Abraham is credited with elevating the strictly masculine Yahweh to pre-eminence in Israelite religion, the fact is that Yahweh was not the only god of those early Israelites, and he had a spouse, Asherah, equally powerful, equally exalted, the Great Mother, who was still being worshipped centuries later, when Hezekiah tried to suppress her cult around 700 bc.
Sarah’s granddaughter Dinah, only daughter of Jacob amongst his thirteen children by two wives and two concubines, also receives a tiny mention [Genesis 34]. Dinah achieves fame because she is raped by Shechem, a prince of the Hivites, who loves her and wants to marry her. In Genesis Dinah is seen as a victim and then disappears from the story as her brothers wreak a terrible and sadistic vengeance, betraying their own promise to the Hivites to forgive them and allow the marriage if the Hivites agree to be circumcised. The Hivites keep their part of the bargain, but are then slaughtered to a man by Dinah’s brothers. I’ll be returning to Dinah later.
In a slightly later period, the period of Judges, there was one remarkable woman, Deborah, whose historic deeds do earn a mention [Judges 4-5]. She was herself both a prophetess and one of the Judges, part civil, part religious leader, and that is remarkable in itself. She was also a military leader, which is even more surprising. With her general Barak she attacked and defeated the Canaanites, who were long-standing and aggressive enemies of the Israelites. The Song of Deborah [Judges 5] is one of those extraordinary things one encounters in the Bible, a paean of triumph and national fervour, a wonderful work of literature in its own right, like The Song of Songs, which is surely the greatest love poem in world literature. The Song of Deborah is possibly the earliest surviving example of Hebrew poetry and has been dated from linguistic evidence to the twelfth century bc.
Occasionally the Israelites encountered foreign women of power, like Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued the infant Moses. The most memorable, of course, was the Queen of Sheba, who came on a state visit to Solomon [I Kings 10:1-13 & II Chronicles9:1-12]. Clearly she fascinated the Israelites with her beauty, power, and riches, as she has fascinated people ever since. Yet she and her country remain mysterious. And she is nameless.
In the earliest religions practised in the area, the Great Mother or the Earth Mother seems to have been the foremost deity. Statues of her appear all around the Mediterranean basin, far surpassing any images of male deities at the time. Women, who give birth and so perpetuate mankind, were reverenced. Yet all this changed. By the time the book of Genesis came to be written down, Eve had been named as the First Woman and, above all, the villainess who brought about all man’s suffering, his exile from Eden, his mortality, his monstrous fall from grace [Genesis 3]. It was her fault that women suffered great pain in childbirth. Convenient, that. The men of Israelcould point the finger and say: It’s all your own fault for eating of the Tree of Knowledge. Interesting that we would have been better off, would have remained in Eden, if we had also remained ignorant. More of that later.
Eve’s villainy was of a fairly mild variety; she merely yielded to temptation. So did Adam, but he doesn’t appear to have carried so much of the blame. Later on in history we find some real, full-blown villainesses, of whom Jezebel and Delilah are the most notable examples. What strikes me about both of them is that they were foreign women of strong character who came from a different religious and cultural background to that of the authors of the Old Testament.
Jezebel [Kings 1 & 2] was a Phoenician princess, daughter of the King of Tyre and married to Ahab, King of Israel (the northern kingdom of the Holy Land), in what was clearly a dynastic and political marriage intended to cement an alliance between the two kingdoms. Israel was always keen to acquire access to good sea ports on the Mediterranean coast, while Phoenicia wanted an agricultural hinterland together with overland trade routes. Ahab and Jezebel had two sons, Ahaziah and Jehoram, who were the natural heirs to the crown. Under the joint rule of Ahab and Jezebel, the religions of both peoples were tolerated. This was the ninth century bc, before the worship of Yahweh was established as the approved religion of the Israelites. Ba’al, one of the gods of the Phoenicians (known by them as Melqart or Melkarth, identified by the Greeks with Heracles)
, was also one of the ancient gods of the Israelites. After the death of Ahab, his sons succeeded to the throne, but Elisha – leader of the Yahwehist faction – who had slaughtered 450 priests of Ba’al, now had the usurper Jehu illegitimately crowned. Jehu then murdered Jehoram, son of Ahab and Jezebel, as he fled for his life.
The queen mother, Jezebel, a strong woman of royal blood, was a danger to Jehu, so he and Elisha incited some of the court officials to murder her by throwing her out of a palace window and further dishonouring her by leaving her unburied body to be eaten by dogs. The fact that Jezebel dressed in her royal finery to confront her murderers has been vilified by the puritanical, but it reminds one of Cleopatra’s similar defiance in the face of political murder. If this were a modern crime novel, wouldn’t we expect the investigator to look a little more closely into the circumstances of her death, instead of simply accepting the official version which was put about by her political enemies who wanted to be rid of her? And as in the case of all murders, shouldn’t we ask: Cui bono?In whose interest was it to portray Jezebel in the form that has come down to us? She was painted as an evil woman by the usurping victors. (Common practice: compare the propaganda put about by Henry VII who had usurped Richard III’s crown.) Yet seen from the Phoenician point of view, their royal princess and her sons were the victims of a politically motivated coup d’état. An interesting footnote to her story is that Josephus [Against Apion 1:18] tells us that she was the great-aunt of Dido, queen of Carthage. A strong but unhappy lot, these Phoenician princesses.
If Delilah’s story [Judges, 16] had been written down by the Philistines, it would have been told from a very different angle. She would probably have been cast in the role of a national heroine, like the Israelite Judith, but one whose life ended in tragic sacrifice. Her origins are obscure. Her nationality is unclear. She was said to come from the Valley of Sorek or Soreq, which has not been identified. ‘Soreq’ means vine, and so is probably symbolic of Samson’s fall from grace. As a dedicated Nazarite, he was forbidden to drink wine or cut his hair. It’s likely Delilah was a Philistine, or had some connection with that country which, like Phoenicia, lay between the Israelite kingdoms and the sea. The tensions over access to the sea shaped Israelite politics for centuries. Delilah yielded to the temptation of the bribe offered to her if she discovered the secret of Samson’s strength. She was foolish and perhaps greedy, but may not have realised the magnitude of what she did. In any case, it ended tragically. The whole story reads like an allegory. The woman from the valley of the vine cuts off the hero’s hair, that is, Samson, through lust for a woman, betrays his vows as a Nazarite.
I’m playing the devil’s advocate here. Perhaps they were both evil women, but we don’t hear their side of the story. Consider a much more recent example, where we do know both sides. Jeanne d’Arc was a heroine to one of the political factions in her own contemporary France. To the opposing French faction – who handed her over to the English, then ruling a large portion of France– she was a dangerous insurgent (terrorist, if you like) and a witch. Nowadays she is generally regarded as a heroine, but that was not the universal attitude at the time, not even in France.
Ruth, however, is one woman from the Old Testament whom most people can name and whose story is both poignant and positive. In a time of famine, a family from Bethlehemflee to Moab: Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion, who marry the Moabite girls Ruth and Orpah. After the deaths of her husband and two sons, Naomi decides to go home and urges the two young widows to return to their families, who will find them new husbands. Orpah sadly does as she is bid, but Ruth makes one of the most famous pledges in literature:
Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God. Where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. [Ruth 1:16–17]
Together the two women make the perilous journey from Moab to Bethlehem, where Ruth gleans in the fields to support them both and is eventually married through Levirite practice to a kinsman of Naomi’s family, becoming the great-grandmother of King David. Even the Israelite author of her story – painting her glowingly for her conversion – seems to have recognised what it had cost her, this exile and loneliness, where she has to labour like a pauper in the fields and risk the attentions of reapers, until Boaz gives orders: ‘Have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee?’ The implications for a young foreign girl working in the fields are clear.
Enough about those women whose names are generally remembered. Perhaps the most intriguing of all, despite being the most elusive, are the nameless women. All those wives, mothers and daughters who are blocked from our view by an intransigent male presence. Sometimes they are mere shadowy ghosts, hovering in the background. Sometimes their existence is acknowledged through their husbands, sons or fathers. When Noah was selected to survive the Flood [Genesis 6-9], he took into the Ark, besides all those animals, his wife (unnamed), his sons (named: Shem, Ham and Japheth) and his three daughters-in-law (unnamed). Did he have any daughters? If so, no one bothers to record them. Now we have to ask ourselves, who did the cooking? Who provisioned the ship? Who packed the clothes, made sure there were blankets and cooking pots and fuel for the stove and a means of lighting it and a supply of fresh water? Did the men organise the animals’ feed? Or did the women do that as well? Nobody would have survived on that stinking ship for forty days and nights (and longer before they were able to disembark) without the women looking after the demanding problem of feeding everyone. When the ordeal was over, ‘God blessed Noah and his sons’ [Genesis 9:1].
Then there is the daughter of Jephthah [Judges 11:30-40]. Jephthah had made a vow that if God gave him victory over his enemies in battle, then ‘whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.’ When Jephthah does return home, it is his daughter who comes out to meet him ‘with timbrels and with dances’ – his only child. Submissively she accepts her fate, but asks for two months’ grace, so that she can go up into the mountains with her friends to ‘bewail her virginity’, as she will never live to have a marriage and children. When she comes home, Jephthah carries out his vow. In this brutal story, Jephthah is given the distinction of a name, but his daughter is not. Unlike Isaac on a similar occasion, she is not saved at the last minute. Interestingly, at the end of the story the author mentions that it was the custom that ‘the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gildeadite four days in a year.’ So although she remained nameless as far as the writer was concerned, she was not forgotten by the girls who came after.
Most of the women I have been discussing occur in the Old Testament. However, in the New Testament there is this intriguing reference. When Jesus speaks in the synagogue in Nazareth, his neighbours, annoyed at his presumption, say: ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?’ [Matthew 13: 55-56] Once again, the sisters are nameless, although his four brothers are named.
If we turn to the Protoevangelium of James, we find that two sisters are indeed named there as Melkha and Eskha. Were they his only sisters? Matthew refers to ‘all’ his sisters. Perhaps there were more.
In recent years, some of these women of the Bible have begun to be rescued from obscurity. And one of the Old Testament stories in which a woman plays the part of a villain has been turned on its head.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has achieved worldwide fame, been translated into numerous languages, gained many awards and provoked considerable controversy. Set in a world parallel to our own, and moving in and out of other worlds, it has as its central character Lyra, a clever, unconventional, courageous and unruly girl whose destiny (whether she likes it or not) is to save mankind. The enemy is obscure but takes the form of a kind of ecclesiastical hierarchy. Pullman appears to be attacking not innate spirituality but the kind of organised religious bureaucracy which denies mankind intellectual and spiritual freedom. Thus Lyra becomes a latter-day Eve, who has eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, and is celebrated for it. Pullmanis saying that eating the fruit of knowledge is what has raised mankind above the beasts and should never, ever, be seen as a fall from grace.
It is through knowledge, not ignorance, that mankind is redeemed, becomes godlike.
I’m not alone in wondering what really went on in the Ark. I’m taking the story literally here. Though we know there was never a flood which covered the entire earth, there is geological, archaeological and literary evidence that there was at least one major flood in the Middle East in ancient times. (Amongst other early references, it is mentioned in the Sumerian Epic ofGilgamesh.)
So there seems to be a germ of fact in the Noah story. Geraldine McCaughrean has taken the original text and developed it into the novel Not the End of the World, in which she explores the minutiae of daily life aboard the Ark: the stench, the fear, the illness, the growing tension between the passengers. The central character is a daughter of Noah, for, after all, who is to say that he did not have a daughter? This is no idealised version of the story. Above all it confronts the cruelty involved as Noah and his sons smash the fingers of their drowning neighbours who cling desperately to the ship, begging for their lives. Noah’s daughter is appalled by the whole experience and manages to rescue two children, whom she conceals amongst the animal pens. The five women on board, Noah’s wife, daughter and daughters-in-law, all play major roles in the novel. Often at loggerheads, at the last minute they are united in an action which defies the ruthless cruelty of Noah and his two eldest sons.
The story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, has been turned on its head by Anita Diamant in The Red Tent, where she takes as her premise the idea that Dinah was notraped, but was in love with Shechem and wanted to marry him. The murder of Shechem and all his people by her brothers is seen as a preliminary to their attempted murder later of their brother Joseph, he of the coat of many colours. However, this episode involving Shechem occurs well into the novel, which starts by exploring Dinah’s upbringing by her four ‘mothers’ (Jacob’s two wives and two concubines). As the only girl in her generation, Dinah is instructed in all the female lore handed down from mother to daughter. It is a remarkable reconstruction of women’s lives, beliefs and everyday work in this early Israelite period, right down to their religious practices involving Asherah and other ancient goddesses who were still worshipped, although this was the period when monotheistic Yahwehism began to gain ground. In the latter part of the book, Dinah makes a new life for herself in Egypt, where her brother Joseph also famously made his mark.
Something which has intrigued me for many years is the real-life background to Jesus’s life. He did not appear on the public stage until he was about thirty – what was he doing in all those missing years? And what would it have been like to be part of his immediate family, a peasant family living in a village amongst the hills of Galilee? In particular, what would it have been like to be his sister? Those nameless sisters, brushed aside by history. One day Mariam, sister of Yeshûa (Aramaic for Jesus), simply walked into my head and started talking. I knew about the nameless sisters [Matthew 13: 55-56]. It was only later that I discovered Melkah and Eskah, but Mariam came to me complete with her name and I sensed she had been written out of history for some compelling reason. Fired up, I began to do research into the period and discovered that far more was known than I realised. I also needed to know about domestic life – houses, food, clothing – in order to understand the daily life of a Galilean peasant girl. One part of the story which has always baffled me was why Yehûdâ (Judas) would have betrayed Yeshûa. I read the recently transcribed Gospel of Judas. And then I realised that Mariam might have been betrothed to Yehûdâ, her brother’s oldest friend, while the ‘betrayal’ was the result of a painful but inescapable bargain between the two men. I brought these strands together in my novel, The Testament of Mariam. What has been remarkable has been the response, including astonishing warmth from men of the cloth, some of whom shared my mystification at the Judas story and said my version suddenly made sense of it. The novel has also been praised for depicting the important part played by women in the story.
So: Where are all the lost women, the named, the vilified, the nameless?
In recent decades, both historical fiction and non-fiction have reached out to cover a much wider field than the traditional one of ‘great’ deeds performed by kings and generals. Interest is constantly growing in the lives and experiences of ordinary people. And once writers began to look at the majority of humanity, it became impossible to ignore the female half. Recent research by historians and archaeologists has brought to light a vast amount of detail about the daily lives of our ancestors, which has enhanced our perception of the past and made it possible to write about them with conviction and credibility. Those lost women of the past, so often neglected and ignored, are stepping out of the shadows and making their voices heard.
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I have a thing about medieval wall paintings. That probably wont come as a great surprise to you. I also have a thing about the medieval marginalia as regularly tweeted by Medieval Manuscripts
, but the wall paintings in churches have a special place in my heart. I think it's because they exist in the place they were created. They are part of the fabric of a community, a place and its people. This was art for the many not the few, and it’s impossible to look at them without thinking of the thousands of others who have looked at them before.
I was in Rochester a few days ago - nothing to do with the upcoming by-election, though I did dodge Nigel Farage on the pavement and heard a man saying indignantly to his friends, ‘it was the Huguenots that made Kent anyway!’ I was there for the castle, the cathedral and the bookshops. They are all excellent, by the way. I added to my collection of 'Highways and Byways' in Baggins Book Bazaar
and picked up a fantastic little book on hop pickers a bit further along the High Street, and the castle is still pretty intimidating, but my highlight was a partial 13th century wall painting of the wheel of fortune, featuring Fortuna herself and some scrambling citizens. The best image I can find of it is here. https://www.flickr.com/photos/lysander2/3938405986/in/photostream/
The painting survived because for centuries it was hidden from the reformation by a pulpit and when that was removed, it was discovered looking almost as fresh as the day it was painted.
I know where my wall painting thing comes from. When I got married a couple of years ago, Ned and I made quite a meal of the occasion and had three weddings. We had a legal ceremony in Peckham, our real wedding in a Sussex barn, and then another party the following week in Darlington, my home town.
We spent part of our between weddings week in Richmond, North Yorkshire (in a slightly dazed state and a damp cottage), and while we were there wandered down to Easby Abbey and the adjoining church of St Agatha where we saw this:
I went to Easby Abbey many times as a child, but perhaps because we always had the family dog with us, we never went into the parish church, so the paintings were a new discovery. It is a small church, and not very distinguished looking from the outside but it was built before the magnificent Easby Abbey, which now lies in ruins around it. The paintings are mid 13th century and are wonderfully preserved (whitewashed during reformation, rediscovered during Victorian restoration). They are extensive, but I like in particular these surviving Labours of the Month designs in the window splays. Were they portraits of individuals? I hope so. Anyway, as I stood in the chancel with my new husband they cast a particular spell.
I haven’t become religious, but I find I’ve been visiting churches a lot more since then. I find them fascinating. Each one is a palimpsest; unique, made over generations as a reflection of the community around it and of those that have visited that community, scored by the times lived through. Standing there I felt like one ghost among thousands - the ghosts of those who had been there to worship, celebrate, mourn or just look, and those that were still to come. Our feet polishing the stones, our hands resting on the woodwork, we were like water moving over a riverbed. We were part of the movement of time passing through this still point.
Many medieval wall paintings have survived reformation and restoration in churches and cathedrals all over the country. The best guide to the subject I’ve found is Roger Rosewell’sMedieval Wall Paintings. Looking at the book now, I find that illustrations of Rochester and Easby are on facing pages, which I find strangely pleasing.
I highly recommend the book and I’ll end with a quote from it: ‘In a physical sense they [the wall paintings] belonged to every parish. They were part of its inherited tradition, its history, the kinship of men and women who worshipped beside them, before them and beneath them… They were a peoples’ art for a peoples’ faith.’
Today I have a puzzle for the HGs. I was recently asked to interview the curator of a new show at the Museum of Islamic Art here in Doha. 'The Tiger's Dream: Tipu Sultan' explores the life of the south Indian ruler and statesman (1750 - 99).
I only knew of Tipu in the context of the C18 automaton in the V&A which has fascinated/horrified many a child ('he's being eaten by a tiger! it plays music, too!'). Tipu earned his moniker 'The Tiger of Mysore' because he allegedly stabbed a beast. The exhibition in Doha shows a host of fine paintings and weaponry, all emblazoned with Tipu's signature tigers - he knew the power of a good brand symbol way ahead of Nike et al. He commissioned the automaton to celebrate the savaging of a British enemy by a tiger - and it was plundered as booty from the Palace of Seringapatam at the end of the fourth Anglo-Mysore War when the Brits finally defeated him.
At the heart of the exhibition are a sequence of paintings on paper - they are ink and gouached on rice paper, on a cotton backing. They have also been digitally 'stitched' together for the first time to show how the mural at Tipu's summer palace Daria Daulat would have looked in its original state.
The paintings depict the Battle of Pollilur, at which Tipu thrashed the British (with the help of the French). 7000 men were captured (and an 'unknown quantity of women' ...). The Tiger of Mysore was a man of his time - the battle was brutal, and his treatment of his enemies has been described somewhat euphemistically as 'controversial'. But Tipu is revered as a freedom fighter on home ground - (he was the first Indian king killed in battle defending his homeland against the British), and the mural depicts one of his finest moments, the victory of 1780.
The cycle of paintings preserves the design in its original state - the murals themselves have been defaced, and were at one time whitewashed in the summer palace. The design was originally on a long roll of paper, but at some point it was cut into sections. They are read left to right like a cartoon strip, and tell the story of the battle, rather in the same way as the Bayeux Tapestry. Interestingly, at some point a European hand has noted down the significant players of the battle in pencil on the paintings - so it is artistically and historically important. Some believe the author might be Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington.
No one seems to know exactly what the painting was for - in its original state, it was the same size as the finished mural. Was it a maquette for the finished piece? A trial run? There are no pin pricks on the paper, so it wasn't a rough sketch to plot out/mark up the wall. Was it propaganda - perhaps the design on paper was taken around to show Tipu's victory to people who wouldn't visit his private palace. I've not come across a scale design of this size and intricacy - it wasn't a sketch for the finished piece, but an exact replica on paper.
So, HGs and others - what do you think? Have you ever heard of something similar? What do you think Tipu's painting was for?
More information at MIA: http://www.mia.org.qa/en/tigers-dream
I received this cardboard poppy in the unsolicited post in late September, from the British Legion. It invited me to write a message on it, so it could be placed in Flanders Field to 'remember with pride the sacrifices that hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth Service men (sic) made..' and 'to remember the thousands who have laid down their lives for our country since then.'
To be fair, the covering letter does also mention servicewomen. You can read for yourself what the envelope says:
But were the dead really 'the bravest of the brave? I don't think so. They were the sacrifices to modern mechanistic warfare, sent out to walk, well-spaced apart, across No Man's Land, while the enemy fire hammered them. For most of them, there was no opportunity for courage, and even those who won VCs spent the rest of their lives trying to forget (something which has been movingly depicted by many of my co-contributors to the Stories of WW1 anthology.) But let a man who experienced it speak here.
What passing bell for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them, no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth
My English grandfather didn't fight in the war: his heart condition forbade it, but my uncle by marriage, Edgar, did - he survived Gallipoli, and his wife, my Aunt Molly, told me about his bad nights, sweating, and muttering in his sleep: 'They're coming! They're coming!' I had forgotten this, till I began re-reading my father's autobiographical fragment for a future blog. As I have said before, my German grandfather was a teenage soldier and two of my great-uncles on the German side were killed; my uncle Leo's head, brutally blown off at Verdun, leers at the myths of heroism.
The British Legion poppy card says 'for all those who fell' - but is that what they truly mean? What will they think if I write Leo Kolodziej on it, 'killed fighting for Germany at Verdun'? Will they include it, or throw it away? Everywhere else, it is stressed that the intention is to honour British and Commonwealth soldiers.Why cannot we remember those who fought on all sides, especially this year?
I was on a British Airways flight to Hamburg a few years ago, and it was the 11th November, and 11am was just after take-off. So the captain came on the air and said we would observe the 2 minutes silence 'for British servicemen.' This was a flight to Hamburg, for God's sake! What would it have cost him to include all the victims of war? If you visit the exhibition of the incineration of Hamburg at the ruined St Nikolauskirche, you will read that Operation Gomorrah was the deserved result of German aggressive militarism. I would take a slightly different view. I think two wrongs don't make a right, and I contest the ethics and even the effectiveness of the bombing of civilians.What had the small, half-Jewish Wolf Biermann,* for example, done to deserve the terror of running across melting tarmac with his mother, to escape the walls of flame? What had all the children done who didn't make it out? I do not apologise (warnings notwithstanding) for posting the following dreadful image, from Dresden (which was full of refugees at the time of the incendiary raid). This is what air-raids do.
View of a public air-raid shelter, with 243 corpses,
fourteen months after the bombing of Dresden
photographer Richard Peter (1895-1977)
Deutsche Fotothek, Saxon State Library/
State and University Library, Dresden
Bomber Harris would have loved to cause a big firestorm in Berlin, but was frustrated by the layout of the city; the roads were too wide for the flames to leap across, and the buildings mainly made of stone and brick. There were small firestorms however, which few people survived.
And that brings me to what I dislike about Remembrance Day (apart from the rhetoric of 'heroes); it seems only to be about those who fought and those who were actively engaged in supporting them. But what about the civilian victims of war, world-wide? Who falls silent to remember them? Well, demonstrators, and Quakers. But officially, civilians don't count. Are the British Legion inviting us to remember great-aunts or grandparents and great-grandparents who died in Zeppelin raids, or family members who died in the air-raids of World War 2, even on the British side? Or the countless victims of landmines? They aren't, because they are a charity that works for British ex-service personnel - which is of course why they don't extend Remembrance Day to other combatants. I do think disabled soldiers get a raw deal, and deserve support. But the fact that Remembrance Day seems to 'belong' to the British Legion is questionable, to my mind, because of the excision of civilians. Do we need a second Remembrance Day for them, or is it possible to extend the day, make it more generous, and open the fund-raising field to those who support ALL victims of war?
I did send the poppy back, with my uncle Leo's name on it. I wonder if they will put it in the field?
*Wolf Biermann was an East German singer-songwriter. His father was murdered (and his body incinerated) at Auschwitz, with the whole of his Jewish family. I need not state the irony.
In 1964 an interesting an intriguing discovery was made at an ancient chapel in Chinon dedicated to St Radegonde. The story goes that a piece of plaster fell off the wall and revealed a mural of five mediaeval figures - two of them crowned - riding out to hunt. The discovery having been made in the Angevin heartland and the figures appearing to date to the 12th century caused a stir among historians and art historians. The original finder, Albert Heron, thought that the figures represented among others King John, his wife Isabelle of Angouleme, and her second husband Hugh of Lusignan. Debate as to the identity of the riders has continued ever since, with the most popular vote (to judge by biographical book covers and photographs in said books) identifying the lead crowned figure as Henry II and the middle one as his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine with sundry other family personages suggested for those surrounding them.
Ever since setting eyes on this mural, I have found it curious that so many people believe the middle crown figure to be Eleanor of Aquitaine, even while I can see their reasoning. She is always linked with her husband Henry II and they are larger-than-life personalities who automatically loom large in people's minds. St Radegonde was an important Saint in the territories held by Eleanor of Aquitaine, so of course the reasoning goes that it must be her. But without actual names written under the figures, it can only be guesswork - and perhaps flawed guesswork at that.
How do we know the lead figure is Henry II? We don't; it's another assumption, but the circumstantial evidence points that way because we know from contemporary evidence that Henry II was red haired, The mural is at Chinon which is solidly in his territory and the figures clearly date in terms of the style of their clothing to the 12th century. Since Richard the Lion heart was also a redhead, it might be argued he is also a candidate for the rider on the white horse.
|The 'Henry II' figure detail from the|
Alison Weir thoroughly debates the issue in her biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She believes the lead character is Richard because'Richard's effigy at Fontevraud shows him bearded, whilst Henry II's is clean-shaven. Given the special relationship between Richard and his mother, it follows that the crowned woman is Eleanor herself.' I beg to differ, While Henry's effigy at Fontevraud does indeed show him beardless, Weir has ignored the detail that Gerald of Wales portrays Henry in life as bearded - see illustration below, drawn from life more or less.
There may be many reasons for Henry's non-beard at Fontevraud. Perhaps to show how dignity and power has been stripped from him in death - a sort of emasculation. Richard I's 13th century tomb effigy for his heart burial in Roeun cathedral is also beardless.
|Henry II complete with beard. Illustration by|
Gerald of Wales who knew him.
So, having dealt with that matter, let's assume that the lead figure is indeed Henry II. So who are the four figures following him? Weir believes like many others that the crowned middle figure is Eleanor and that the young woman riding at her side may be either Berengaria of Navarre who was Richard's wife or Eleanor and Henry's daughter Joanna, Countess of Toulouse. She also believes that the two young men behind Eleanor are her grandson Otto of Brunswick, and possibly Arthur Brittany, or John. She thinks the mural may have been painted in 1196 when Eleanor was in residence at Fontevraud.
A couple of ideas she refutes are the opinions of historian and Israeli professor Nurith Kenaan-Keder, who said in an article dated to 1998 that the mural either depicts King John with Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabel Angouleme or else that it is Eleanor being led into captivity by Henry II 1173/74 and being accompanied by her daughter Joanna and two of her sons including Richard to whom she is giving a falcon as a symbol of passing on ducal power. I agree with Alison Weir that neither of these theories stands up to scrutiny. A mural of Eleanor being led into captivity would hardly be a subject for the wall of this chapel.
Studying the mural myself and being au fait with 12th century costume, it seemed to me that all the figures in this mural are male. Only men that pin their cloaks high on the right-hand side. No woman ever does. I have been collecting manuscript images of the cloak fastenings of men and women of the 12th century for some time and I have not found a single one of a woman with a right hand shoulder pin. It doesn't happen. Nada, nope, no. They just don't dress like that.
|Queen with open cloak, king with the standard shoulder|
pin on his cloak. I could show you dozens of other such images
So the figure that is sometimes mentioned as Joanna, sometimes as Isabel of Angouleme, isn't female at all. And the crowned figure in the centre isn't female either. But he is still an important personage. He has a wonderful fur-lined cloak of the kind only seen on high nobility, and he has his crown the same as the lead figure, although I have been reliably informed by historian Henk T'Jong (who is a mediaeval clothing expert and agrees with me that these are all men) that this headgear is in fact representative of jewelled fur hats - still very high status!
So if we rejig our ideas of who these figures might be, it becomes a lot less messy. The foremost figure on his fine white horse is Henry II and he is leading out his four legitimate sons on a hunt. There's his eldest son the Young King wearing the other jewelled hat and flashing his fur-lined cloak to further emphasise his status. He was crowned in 1170 during Henry's own lifetime to absolutely secure the succession. So you have two Kings in the picture. The slighter, more youthful figure at young Henry's side is his younger brother John. There's around 11 years difference between them. When their father had suffered a serious illness in the early 1170s, he charged his eldest son with taking John under his wing and caring for him should the worst come to the worst which young Henry had agreed to do. So this may well be symbolic of that bond. The two figures following behind are Henry II's second and third sons Richard Count of Poitou and Geoffrey Count of Brittany. Those little caps with the stalks that they are wearing, are very indicative of young 12th century high status men about town. The Falcon itself on 'Richard's' wrist may or may not be symbolic of an act of homage.
I've recently read Inventing Eleanor: The Mediaeval and Post-Mediaeval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Michael R. Evans published by Bloomsbury academic. He has something very interesting to say about the Chinon mural. Leading art historian Ursula Nielgen wrote a detailed study on the mural in 2004: 'Les Plantagenets et la chapelle de Sainte Radegonde de Chinon: un image en debat.' Nielgen suggests that all five figures are men and that there is nothing in the hairstyles or figures of the supposed 'women' that differentiate them from the 'male' figures. She postulates a date the rebellion of 1173/4 when the family had been reconciled all except for Eleanor. That makes total sense to me given what I know of Henry's personality. I have seen it said that the Eleanor figure has longer hair, but I have seen plenty of examples of men with that length of hair, and the leading Henry figure is not short of a lock or two, so that argument doesn't hold water.
My conclusion is that these figures are male, Eleanor of Aquitaine has absolutely nothing to do with it. They depict Henry II and his four sons, not only riding out to the hunt, but riding out into the future, the pater familias leading his heirs.
Mural photographs courtesy of John Phillips.
Elizabeth Chadwick is working on a trilogy of novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine. The Summer Queen and The Winter Crown have been published and she is working on The Autumn Throne.
A few months ago I was on about the great 19th century cad, Henry Cust, who lived high on the hog, and is said to have left descendants in cradles all over upper-class England. Well, it turns out that he was a mere amateur. I have just stumbled across the Master, who died in 1861, the year Cust was born. Step forward Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, otherwise known as the Second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, born into a life of wealth and promise in 1797.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Before inheriting his dukedom in 1839, he held a variety of titles, was MP for Buckinghamshire, was Briefly, in Peel’s second administration, Lord Privy Seal, and was awarded the Order of the Garter.
|© National Portrait Gallery, London|
He was a butt of the cartoonists for his politics:
© National Portrait Gallery, London
© National Portrait Gallery, London
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Yet Richard (as we will call him for the sake of brevity) spent a great deal of time abroad, mainly collecting art treasures for his grand houses in London and elsewhere, notably the fabulous palace he inherited at Stowe.
By a chain of family marriages through the 18th century, and even before 1819, when he took as his own bride a Scottish heiress (Lady Mary Campbell, daughter of the Earl of Breadalbane) Richard was related to almost everyone who was anyone, including royalty back to the Plantagenets and, in the world of politics,the Pitt and Gladstone families. None of the links (even to the earlier Dukes of Buckingham and to the first Chandos dukes) was exceptionally strong, but they were very many. Richard had his elaborate lineage depicted in this grand armorial banner showing 719 quarterings of the dynasty.
|Stowe House in the mid 19th century|
His lifestyle was lavish, and founded on a talent for persuading people to lend him money. The trouble was that he was very bad at paying it back, and the interest mounted up.
It was no help when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came to stay at Stowe for several days in 1845, running up yet more bills.
By the 1840s, the Duke was in serious financial trouble, and In 1848 he found himself having to sell off the contents of Stowe House in one of the greatest auctions ever seen.
|Queen Victoria departing from Stowe - Illustrated London News|
The auction took twenty-nine days between August and October 1848, and raised £75, 562 4s 6d. - a fabulous sum at the time, but a mere dent in his debts of more than a million pounds - perhaps a billion in today’s money.
The editor of the (best-selling) catalogue, Henry Rumsey Forster, wrote an introduction that captured the glee felt by many of his contemporaries at Richard’s downfall:
The desecration to which the ancestral halls of the Duke of Buckingham have been subjected, has been regarded almost as a national disgrace; and Rumour has, accordingly been busy in assigning causes for the event, and denouncing the imprudence which is presumed to have occasioned it...Yet, if all the imputations which have been so freely indulged in were well founded, it cannot be denied that the penalty has been, at least, adequate to the offence. The “household gods’"of the ancestral home of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos have been shivered to fragments, which can never again be reunited.”
The wonderful paintings, marbles, furniture, tapestries and china are indeed scattered across public and private collections today, though the twenty-one thousand bottles of wine have probably been drunk by now. The armorial banner, which had cost Richard £400, was sold for thirty-two, and ended up decorating the lobby of a hotel in Tunbridge Wells. Forster's edited catalogue, with details of who had bought what, and for how much (or how little) was a physical emblem of disgrace for the whole Grenville family.
But worse was to come. And once again it was all Richard’s fault. Society gradually became aware that after thirty years of marriage he was being publicly imprudent with a woman called Henrietta Parratt, the middle-aged wife of one of the Clerks to the House of Lords. The couple were spotted by reporters riding around in a cab with no apparent destination. Edward Parratt was not prepared to put up with humiliation by ‘a pathetic empty-headed woman who had been swept off her feet by the attention of a great nobleman’, and everybody knew it.
On Sunday 7th January 1849, the young Benjamin Disraeli wrote to his wife after an exhilarating conversation in Brighton with the exiled Austrian leader, Metternich.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Disraeli was after Metternich's endorsement for his campaign for the Tory party leadership, but the two also talked at length about the state of European affairs. Disraeli ended his letter with a reflection on the Duke’s:
The Duke of Buck’s female case is going on, I hear; the husband being injured, brokenhearted, disconsolate, alas, determined to get rid of his wife, now the Duke is ruined. What a vexatious climax to his catastrophes.
London was electrified by the scandal. Edward Parratt sued the Duke for ‘Criminal Conversation’ with his wife. He won the case, and was awarded £2,000 in costs and damages, along with a divorce. But Richard’s charm was still working. Fellow members of the Carlton Club paid the bill. Henrietta Parratt was denied contact with her children and fled to Paris to await her lover. Of course, he never turned up.
Meanwhile the Duchess had had enough. In early 1850, she was awarded a divorce in the Consistory Court. She spent the next ten years fighting legal battles to get back the money her father had settled on her when she married. There was no hope, and she eventually went mad.
The woman who had once entertained the Queen was completely cut out of polite society. I could find no surviving pictures of her.
The 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos died in 1861, a bankrupt living at the Great Western Hotel in Paddington. He had spent his last days writing about his earlier travels in search of artistic treasures. A year later, his former wife was dead too. It was all over.
The Times had summed up the public view of Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville on Monday, August 14, 1848. As the fabulous auction approached, it described him as
“a man of the highest rank, and of a property not unequal to his rank, who has flung away all by extravagance and folly, and reduced his honour to the tinsel of a pauper and the baubles of a fool”.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
National Portrait Gallery Picture credits:
Richard Grenville, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos
by Richard James Lane
lithograph, circa 1825-1850
8 in. x 5 5/8 in. (202 mm x 143 mm) paper size
Given by Austin Lane Poole, 1956
The House of Commons, 1833
by Sir George Hayter
oil on canvas, 1833-1843
Allsham versus Evesham (Richard Grenville, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos; Sir Charles Wetherell)
by John ('HB') Doyle, printed by Charles Etienne Pierre Motte, published by Thomas McLean
lithograph, published 26 February 1831
Demolishing a Prude
by John ('HB') Doyle, printed by Alfred Ducôte, published by Thomas McLean
lithograph, published 5 March 1834
Auction Extraordinary, that is to say, an Extraordinary Auction
by John ('HB') Doyle, published by Thomas McLean
lithograph, published 23 March 1830
16 1/4 in. x 11 1/4 in. (412 mm x 286 mm) overall
acquired Unknown source, 1900
Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield
by Harry Furniss
pen and ink
9 in. x 8 1/2 in. (229 mm x 216 mm)
Transferred from National Portrait Gallery Reference Collection, 1994
Richard Grenville, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos
by John Porter, after John Jackson
mezzotint, published 1841
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