Articles on this Page
- 10/26/14--02:03: _Sicily is no longer...
- 10/26/14--17:30: _The Little Big Thin...
- 10/27/14--18:00: _Finding truth in fa...
- 10/28/14--17:01: _Joan of Arc in 3D: ...
- 10/29/14--17:01: _Cabinet of Curiosit...
- 10/30/14--17:01: _Not one but TWO fab...
- 10/31/14--17:01: _Remembrance: a Game...
- 11/01/14--17:01: _Dialogue in Novels ...
- 11/02/14--16:00: _THE KING'S EVIL, by...
- 11/03/14--21:30: _Thou Shalt Not Ride...
- 11/04/14--23:00: _Royal Fireworks - J...
- 11/05/14--16:30: _Succumbing to Psych...
- 11/06/14--23:00: _SOME THOUGHTS AROUN...
- 11/07/14--16:30: _'Return of the Medi...
- 11/08/14--16:25: _To paint, click or ...
- 11/09/14--16:01: _Ellen Wilkinson and...
- 11/10/14--17:30: _Westminster Odditie...
- 11/11/14--16:30: _CHOCTAW CODE TALKER...
- 11/12/14--13:30: _October Competition...
- 11/12/14--22:00: _LOVERS' EYES – by E...
- 10/26/14--02:03: Sicily is no longer a five-letter word, by Carol Drinkwater
- 10/26/14--17:30: The Little Big Things - Louisa Young
- 10/27/14--18:00: Finding truth in facts and fictions, by Clare Mulley
- 10/28/14--17:01: Joan of Arc in 3D: a guest interview with Helen Castor
- 10/30/14--17:01: Not one but TWO fabulous October competitions!
- 10/31/14--17:01: Remembrance: a Game of Bones by Mary Hoffman
- 11/01/14--17:01: Dialogue in Novels - a Medieval Experiment by Gillian Polack
- 11/02/14--16:00: THE KING'S EVIL, by Y S Lee
- 11/03/14--21:30: Thou Shalt Not Ride Sunwise About Tara - by Katherine Langrish
- 11/04/14--23:00: Royal Fireworks - Joan Lennon
- 11/05/14--16:30: Succumbing to Psychogeography by Lydia Syson
- 11/06/14--23:00: SOME THOUGHTS AROUND MY NEW NOVEL....by Adèle Geras
- 11/07/14--16:30: 'Return of the Medieval Beast' by Karen Maitland
- 11/08/14--16:25: To paint, click or write... by Caroline Lawrence
- 11/09/14--16:01: Ellen Wilkinson and the uses of biography by Sarah Gristwood
- 11/10/14--17:30: Westminster Oddities by Laurie Graham
- 11/11/14--16:30: CHOCTAW CODE TALKERS by Tanya Landman
- 11/12/14--13:30: October Competition Winners
- 11/12/14--22:00: LOVERS' EYES – by Elizabeth Fremantle
I have just returned from a brief stay in Palermo and the western coast of Sicily. Autumn at the heart of the Mediterranean can hardly be bettered. The grape harvests have been completed, the olives are soon to picked and the weather is usually absolutely splendid.
I first visited Sicily in 2005. This trip kept me on the island for a month. I hired a car and went wherever the trail took me. I was searching for stories for my books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree. What I was intending was to discover and disclose the secrets roles the Mafia had played in the island’s olive oil history. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, due to exceeding poverty and mob rule, many Sicilians fled their homeland and set sail for America. A few of these immigrants were Mafia members on the run. Once these crooks arrived in the States, they established new Mafia organisations, and these proved to be fabulously remunerative, particularly during the years of Prohibition. These gangsters, Al Capone and his cronies or his gangland enemies, for example, needed a front for their nefarious dealings to keep the law off their backs. So they set up olive oil businesses for money-laundering purposes. The quality of olive oil in Sicily in the early twentieth century was very poor. The oil could be bought for next to nothing, which suited Mafia purposes perfectly. Shiploads of olive oil was exported to the States and sold as ‘Italian Olive Oil’. Who in the United States knew anything about olive oil? Once the oil was there, an international understanding that all olive oil was Italian was born. It is only in very recent decades that both American and other consumers have become aware of a far wider market range. For those who remember, in Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone as a young man started his own olive oil import business, Genco Pura olive oil.
Another little olive oil snippet, Puzo took the name of his leading character from the hilltop town of Corleone inland of Palermo. It was from here that the grandfather of the actor, Al Pacino, emigrated.
Fiction aside, the Mafia’s role in Sicily’s modern agricultural history is not only a complex story, it was a very challenging for me to unearth. I completed The Olive Tree, but felt that there was far more to be mined than I had succeeded in doing.
Over the course of the following years, I returned to the island regularly because I love it and because I still wanted to get beneath the surface of the place. After the two books were published, UNESCO invited me to work with them to help map a Mediterranean Olive Route and from there several television stations contacted me with interest to turn the inspiration for the books into documentary films. I was thrilled, of course. One of the bonuses was the possibility of getting another crack at Sicily.
When we came to breakdown the storylines for the five documentaries, the very first story I proposed to the television stations was 'Sicily and its olive oil history'. Naturally, the idea grabbed because everybody loves a good Mafia story. I returned to the island to recce the storyline and on this occasion the budget provided me with an Italian journalist whose expertise was in food and modern Italian politics.
Where I had been unable to gain access myself, doors would now open, I thought. Alas, it was not so simple. As soon as I hit on a name, a person who might make an excellent ‘character’ for the film and who was willing and not afraid to talk, to go public, my ‘man on the ground’, Sandro, found out their contact details, rang them and arranged a clandestine meeting. But how many afternoons did we spend sitting at roadsides waiting for the appearance of a lawyer, a land specialist, family members of --- who never showed up? I was beginning to lose heart until Sandro and I hit on a new angle to my story. Libera Terra . The name translates as Free Land. Briefly, Libera Terra was founded by a Catholic priest, Don Luigi Ciotti, living and working in Turin in northern Italy. Ciotti is a brave and visionary man, a social activist in a country that is being destroyed by greed and corruption. He has quite literally changed the way the Italian government handles lands and assets owned by Mafia members. In the past, when a high-ranking member of the Mafia was imprisoned, their assets just sat about doing nothing. Ciotti and others of like mind raised a petition with over one million signatures requesting of the Italian government (at the time it was Berlusconi, so no mean feat), to offer the lands out to be farmed in a manner that was good for the earth and free of all fear and Mafia influence. What a terrific concept, and it has taken off
I had the outline for my story: New Sicily and the unpicking of the Mafia stranglehold within the agricultural sector.
During the worst years of Mafia control of the island, people were employed for a pittance because there was basically only one employer: the Mafia. They called the shots (in every sense!). There was no social care, merely a pitiable wage. If someone else offered employment with more decent terms, the labourers refused because they were far too scared to quit and move on. They feared the threats of physical violence being meted out against them or members of their families. Tourism was almost non-existent because foreigners feared the bombings and shootings and the horror stories they saw on the news or in the movies. Who wants a horse’s head in their bed?! In any case, building permits for all construction including hotels were in the hands of who? The Mafia, of course.
In a sense, the island was becoming isolated and the young were leaving in droves in the hope of building a new, Mafia-free life elsewhere. This is an old agricultural story. When the villages and fields are emptied and only the older generation remain to tend them, the sector begins to die out. Knowledge and competence is lost.
Sicily has one of the richest histories of the Mediterranean. It has been conquered by everyone from the Phoenicians to the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs, Spanish and onwards until 1860 when Garibaldi landed and integrated it into the new state of Italy. Because of its colonizers, particularly the Romans, Sicily (also other parts of southern Italy) has been at the mercy of the feudal land system for two thousand years. One of the upsides of having been invaded by so many conquering powers is that it has a multi-layered tapestry of cuisines and agricultural expertise. But if there are no young left to grow the produce, to tend the lands and livestock, to learn the ways of the land?
In 1992, tragedy struck but it brought about a new seed of hope. In 1992, two shocking Mafia murders took place. Two leading Sicilian magistrates, colleagues and friends, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borselino who had vowed publicly to rid the island of its Mafia poison, were both murdered, one after the other within the space of a matter of months. The island reeled. It was grief-stricken. These men had been heroes, now they were martyrs. No one could now deny that the Mafia would not go to any lengths to protect its own system. For our film, we bought newsreel and archival footage of these assassinations and their two public funerals. It is very moving material. Sheets were hung from balconies offering prayers, promises to remember, the streets were flooded with waves of flowers. Thousands and thousands followed the funeral corteges.
Out of these grotesque deaths, came the seed of hope. Father Ciotti in Turin and others elsewhere on the mainland but most importantly the young of Sicily cried, ENOUGH, BASTA. It was the seed of regeneration. In 1995, Libera Terra was founded along with one or two other organisations such as Addiopizzo, meaning ‘goodbye to extortion monies’.
Several godfathers were arrested in quick succession and their assets were handed over to be used for organic farming and agroturismo. During one of my visits, I stayed in a Mafia hideout. It was very well concealed, sitting off a goat track high in the mountains, as one might expect for a hideout. Today it is rented out as a chalet to tourists. The monies earned from the rentals and sale of the organic food produced, particularly wine and olive oil, help to pay the working people decent wages.
There were setbacks. An entire, newly-planted olive grove was set alight one night as a ‘warning’. But Ciotti retaliated, and loudly. He organised a massive campaign all across across Italy. Pop stars, young people, celebrities flew to the island and replanted the groves on camera for the various news channels. We have a clip of this also in our film. It is very uplifting to see such courage and hope.
By the time we had finished our film, I believed that the island had broken free of its chains. There are indeed many signs of growth and there are many young who have returned to work where they were born and where they can today expect to be paid a living wage and feel secure that health care will be available and that their lives are not at risk. Tourism is on the ascent. Sicily is, in my opinion, producing some of the finest olive oil in the world. And it is not just oil from one or two isolated farms. Consistently, it wins awards internationally and the farmers, the producers, are setting themselves high standards. The quantity is not enormous but it is very fine.
But history is a slow mover, and the grip of an organisation as powerful and as invasive as the Mafia does not let go easily. It takes fearlessness and tenacity to push against a system that has snaked itself in and around every sector, to build reform, to take back what has been stolen. Italy’s financial crisis (in part due to corruption) is critical. Sicilian unemployment is running at twenty per cent. This last week in and around Palermo showed me that there is still an on-going struggle to be fought. Still, I like to think that this page – one hundred and fifty years old, at least – might be turning and that before too long these islanders might be able to hold their heads high and celebrate the land wealth that is theirs and very hard won.
As a history undergraduate at Cambridge in the early eighties, I learnt a lot about Balkans, Corn Laws, Reforms Acts, Causes of Wars. I had no female teacher after the age of 16. I loved history, but it really was the wars and the laws, the high thoughts and the doings of great men. If I had then the knowledge curiosity and confidence that I have now, I would have said: I've had it with the economic, can we do some social now? Enough men, bring me women. No more big things please - I want the small.
By the small, I mean of course the big small. I mean, while Mussolini was making those speeches, what were the farmers' eating? When all those Jews were waiting on the Polish border, what did they sit on? Those cholera figures - so what did those parents actually do, when symptoms appeared in their children? Who did you turn to? What colour was it? What was the greeting commonly used? When did you get your money? How did you clean your bed?
As novelists we need the small - but it's not just that. It's not irrelevant. It's not just amusing, or a curiosity. It's the finding of a voice for those who had none. This is why we need Sarah Waters, single-handedly, it sometimes feels, reintroducing the lesbian to a history which entirely left her out, blanked her, removed her even. Radclyffe Hall's line 'That night they were not apart' is no substitute for a true and proper set of accounts for innumerable lives lived in shadow - or at least loves loved in shadow. And she gives us housework. God, the joy of lying in a warm delicious bath, listening to the washing machine tumbling my sheets, reading in The Paying Guests exactly how much elbow grease and copper-boiling and boiler-twiddling and lugging and bleach and mangling and hanging women were putting into washing sheets in houses just like mine, ninety years ago.
Jo Baker, in her superb novel Longbourn, based on Pride and Prejudice, describes the maid, Sarah, cast down not only at Lizzie Bennet's carelessness with mud and her petticoats, but at the time of the month when all five daughters, Mrs Bennet, the maids and the cook are - literally - on the rag, at the same time as happens in households of women - and it's Sarah's job to deal with those rags. Esther Freud, in Mr Mac and Me, tells us so movingly and delicately about a small boy's response to his mother's miscarriage. These everyday historical things, tragic but small, normal but fascinating, novelists can give us back, when official history - or mainstream literature (ie, most literature) chose to, or had to, ignore it. I LOVE that these voices are being slipped back into history through novels.
My favourite at the moment happens only in the 1970s, the poet Salena Godden's memoir, Springfield Road. It's her life, her childhood. Her mother the go-go dancer, her father the jazz cat, her grandmothers, English and Jamaican (and a great grandmother with a pipe and a red bandana), her brother, her sister, holidays, sweets, chopper bikes, fingerless gloves, skateboards, dandelions, squashing berries with a stick, going farther than you were allowed, falling in love aged seven with the new boy, who pulled up his shirt and said: 'Punch me. Go on, harder.' Her father left, to join the house band of the QE2. Her new dad was not nice. The shared bedrooms, the housing estates, the ice cream vans, white carpets, a tea tray with a pictorial map of Jamaica on it . . . root beer . . . Liking being upside down. Waiting. Missing your dad. Tragedy, comedy, life . . It is another wonderful book.
I never quite knew what root beer actually is, so when a historian turned micro-brewer turned up at dinner last night I thought well, how convenient, and asked him. He told me about sassafras, and the market for non-alcoholic fun beverages during prohibition. (We looked up sassafras and discovered that its chemical, safrole, was also used in MDMA, and had been banned by the FDA at various stages.) Why was I asking, he wondered. I told him about the book. We'd been talking about grandmothers - his was there; she ran a home store in Boise Idaho in the 60s and 70s. One of Salena's Jamaican great great grandmothers was a Maroon. We knew it meant runaway rebel slave, but none of us knew the origin of the word - was it the same root as being marooned? Was that anything to do with mare, the sea? Marrone, the big sea? No, marrone means chestnut, or brown . . . Or the Jamaican band, the Cimarrons?
We looked it up. Cimmaron means wild, feral, fugitive and runaway; maroon is from cimarron. It's from the Taíno. Taíno? An Arawak language, historically spoken by the Taíno people of the Caribbean, in the Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the northern Lesser Antilles. This leads us to the Garifuna, the Caribs, and to this, which I offer direct from Wikipedia:
In the Lesser Antilles, the Carib conquest (which had advanced to Puerto Rico by the time of the Spanish conquest, and is still occurring to some extent among the Carib and Arawak in South America) created a sociolinguistically interesting situation. Carib warriors invading from South America took Taíno wives, or raided north and took female Taíno captives back to the southern Antilles. The women continued to speak Taíno, but the men taught their sons Carib. This resulted in a situation where the women spoke an Arawakan language and the men an unrelated Cariban language. However, because boys' maternal language was Arawak, their Carib became mixed, with Carib vocabulary on an Arawak grammatical base.
That shut us up. Different languages for the different sexes!
Here are some more words from that language none of us had heard of.
Mauby! The brewer got excited at that. We looked it up. The internet tells us it's sort of like - haha! - root beer. Only nicer.
I remembered, later that night, a sweet appley drink a friend at school's dad used to make, back in 70s, known to us as mavvy. I looked it up: you can buy it. Get some in, for the next barbacoa.
Ah, the joys of going round in circles.
It's all history. Keep it coming. Big and small. And poo to the Corn Laws.
(NB The novels I mention are all widely available. Springfield Road though is published by Unbound, so most easily found here.)
|Letter from Christine Granville to Harold Perkins, March 1945|
‘For God’s sake do not strike my name from the firm [SOE]… remember that I am always too pleased to go and do anything for it. May be you find out that I could be useful getting people out from camps and prisons in Germany just before they get shot. I should love to do it and I like to jump out of a plane even every day’.I laughed when I read this, thinking at first that Christine was joking – but, no, she was absolutely sincere. When this letter was written, she had already given five years of voluntary service, repeatedly working behind enemy lines at huge risk to her life. Her desperate request here tells us so much about her, her determination, her love for action and service and, above all, her courage.
But letters, so wonderful at preserving the evidence of that most intangible thing, emotion, are notoriously unreliable for facts. Letters are often full of mistakes, opinion rather than fact, or attempts to mislead. During my research I found many more letters to and from Christine, and what I discovered was that while the facts often did not add up, Christine’s character did: she loved to tell a good story.
Stories were always an important part of Christine’s life. Her father, Count Jerzy Skarbek, had brought her up with proud Skarbek family stories intertwined with patriotic Polish history. The etching above illustrated one of these stories, when the first Count Skarbek (with outstretched arm, right) refused to bow before a German Emperor (seated). Scorning the coffers of riches he was shown to try to buy his loyalty, the Count took off his own signet ring and threw it in the chest declaring ‘Let gold eat gold, we Poles trust our steel’, meaning their swords. He later helped rout the invading German mercenary forces. Listening to her father tell this tale, and many others, Christine quickly learnt how stories could be used for propaganda!
As a special agent Christine would later use her own stories to effectively cloud the details of her activities or motivations. I came across several versions of the same, wonderful story about her flirtatiously securing the unwitting help of a Wehrmacht officer to smuggle clandestine documents through train checkpoints in occupied Poland. Intriguingly however, in each version, the departure and destination train-stations were different. Perhaps Christine sensibly wished to keep her precise movements hidden, even years later. Certainly duty had required her to frequently change her name and identity, and arguably also her age and date of birth: fictions were part of her life.
As you can imagine, I got very excited and took photos of everything. At one point Maciek asked me why I was taking a shot of a blue plaque on the outside wall. ‘You never know what secrets it might hold’ I said in jubilation'. ‘It says…’ said Maciek dryly, ‘Please don’t play football on the grass.’
From Trzepnica we went on to Warsaw, where Maciek stayed with his aunt while I was lucky enough to have the use of a beautiful flat in the restored old town that belongs to Jan Ledochowski, the son of Count Wladimir Ledochowski, one of Christine’s close friends from the Polish resistance.
|Polish TV WWI drama being filmed|
Among my primary sources for my last book were reports, awards and certificates held in British, Polish and French archives, and various public and private collections. These things all helped to build up a clear picture of when Christine worked where. But the fact is that there are emotional, as well as factual, truths. A good biography will reveal why people acted as they did, how they felt and what they believed, and ‘the truth’ - or perhaps I should say ‘the many truths’ - of someone, must be found in both the facts and the fictions of their lives.
|Photo credit: Chas Gibbions|
This is what Helen says about herself: Helen Castor is a medieval historian and a Bye-Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Blood & Roses, her biography of the 15th-century Paston family, was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2005 and won the English Association's Beatrice White Prize in 2006. Her last book She-Wolves: the Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth was widely selected as one of the books of the year for 2010. She presents Radio 4’s Making History and documentaries for BBC television, including a three-part series based on She-Wolves and, most recently, Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death.
Harriet: Your last book, She-Wolves – The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, was about four medieval queens. How did She-Wolves lead on to Joan of Arc?
Helen: In She-Wolves I was exploring the constraints on female power in a world that expected its rulers to be male – and one of the most significant of those constraints was that women couldn’t lead armies on the battlefield. As I talked about the book, I kept finding myself saying, ‘The only woman who did lead armies on the battlefield was Joan of Arc – and look what happened to her…’.
And eventually it dawned on me that I didn’t really know what had happened to her. I knew the outline of her story, as most people do; but I didn’t really understand how she’d come to do what she did, or what she thought she was doing, or how those around her – friends and enemies – had reacted. Once those questions had occurred to me, I wanted to know more.
Harriet: Many books have been written about Joan. What did you feel still needed to be explored?
Helen: There are countless books about Joan – as well as plays, films, music, art – which meant that sitting down to write was a fairly terrifying prospect. But what I felt was missing was a book that told her story forwards, not backwards.
By that I mean that most books about Joan start with her in the fields at Domrémy, hearing her voices for the first time. But all our evidence for that part of her life comes from the transcripts of her two trials – one that condemned her as a heretic, and the other, held twenty-five years after her death, to clear her name.
And that leaves us with a problem. The trials took place when it was already clear what Joan had achieved, so the evidence they present is deeply infused with hindsight of one kind or another. And if we start with Joan in the fields, that hindsight is built into the narrative: it’s obvious from the start that she has an extraordinary destiny in front of her, so we’re already telling the story of the icon and the saint.
What I wanted to do instead was put hindsight aside as much as possible; to understand the war in France, and then to experience the shock of a seventeen-year-old peasant girl appearing from nowhere, claiming to be sent by God. Then, we can start the story by asking why on earth anyone would listen to her…
Harriet: What were the particular challenges of the research for this book?
Helen: I knew the fifteenth century very well, but almost entirely from the English perspective. So it was a challenge – and a fascinating one – to find myself in fifteenth-century France, within a civil war every bit as complex and brutal as our Wars of the Roses a few decades later.
Beyond that, the transcripts of Joan’s trials are deeply testing sources to use. Utterly absorbing, but never straightforward – the process shaped by medieval canon law and theology, the testimonies full of inconsistencies and contradictions, and many of the witnesses’ stories growing in the telling. Every time I go back to them I see new things.
|By Clément de Fauquembergue|
Harriet: There seems to be a push, in the non-fiction history market, towards adopting a fiction-like style of writing. In this context, how would you describe your approach to writing narrative history?
Helen: For me, the point of writing narrative history is that it allows the past to be immersive. I’m trying to look through the eyes of the people who were there, to understand what they thought and felt – and that, of course, means there are many points of comparison with what writers of historical fiction are seeking to do. It’s crucial to remember that the people I’m writing about don’t know what hasn’t yet happened, any more than we do in our own lives; so any mention of what’s still to come, or of what later historians have said about their experiences, jolts us out of their world – and I try very hard to avoid that. Instead, all that contextual and historiographical discussion goes into the notes, where it can stand on its own terms.
So I suppose I’m saying that historical imagination always has to be at work in attempting to recreate the past – but at the same time there are boundaries to what I’ll allow myself to do. I’ll try to summon up a scene from all the available details in contemporary sources, or put flesh on the bones of my protagonists using every scrap of information I can find; but I won’t, for example, put words into their mouths. Most of the transcript of Joan’s trial is in the third person (‘she said that…’). Very occasionally something is recorded in direct speech – and those are the only moments when Joan speaks directly in my text. There remains the question of the accuracy of the notaries who recorded her words and translated them into Latin; but at least I can be faithful to the transcript.
Harriet: As you explain in the book, Joan wasn’t the only holy ‘simple’ person to emerge at this time. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
Helen: It can be tempting for us to assume, I think, that Joan’s exceptional career came about because she was a completely exceptional figure in her own time. Though she was extraordinary in many ways, it’s important to realise that God was present everywhere in her world, and that she wasn’t the only person – or the only woman – in late medieval France to claim that she heard messages from heaven.
What was unique about Joan was her claim that she’d been sent to lead the king’s army, which of course could be regarded as a miracle for as long as she was winning battles, but rapidly became a liability once the victories stopped. And, once she’d been captured, her own side adopted another messenger from God who was almost an ‘anti-Joan’: a simple boy, known as William the Shepherd, who carried no weapons but rode side-saddle, with stigmata on his hands and feet. He didn’t last long either… But if we understand the landscape of belief in which she lived, we stand a better chance of seeing what was truly remarkable about Joan herself.
|Joan of Arc depicted in a 1505 manuscript.|
Helen: Her male dress appears to have started as a practical thing. When she set off for Chinon from Vaucouleurs, near Domrémy, the townspeople gave her a horse and an outfit of men’s clothes – which made complete sense, given that she would be riding across dangerous country for many days in the company of a small band of soldiers. But by the time she reached the Dauphin’s court, her male dress seems, for her, to have become part of her mission – an outward manifestation of the work she had been sent to do.
It’s very hard, though, to get a clear sense of what the balance was between the two – perhaps because they became so completely intertwined. At her trial, Joan said many different things about her clothes; she always defended her male dress, but not in consistent or completely coherent terms. Certainly, she was physically less vulnerable dressed as a man, because the cords with which hose were knotted on to a doublet offered some practical protection against sexual assault – and some later witnesses suggested that, during the three days towards the very end of her trial when she was dressed in women’s clothes, she was raped in her cell. We can’t know for sure; but it’s an important reminder of quite how vulnerable she was as a lone female prisoner in a castle full of soldiers who hated and feared her.
Harriet: Did your view of Joan change during your work on this project?
Helen: She moved from two dimensions to three. I felt I’d found the real person, standing squarely within her own world, rather than the icon who somehow escapes from history altogether. What I found particularly moving was coming to an understanding of her voices and visions that made sense to me in human terms. On the last morning of her life, some of her judges visited her in her cell in a last attempt, as they saw it, to save her soul. Some historians have completely rejected this part of the transcript as a fabrication after the event, but for a whole number of reasons that doesn’t convince me historically; and what Joan says during that meeting about her voices and visions – when she knows she’s about to die, and all her grandiose stories of angels and saints have gone – seems to me to have a real psychological truth. I’ve tried to leave room throughout the book for anyone who reads it to come to their own conclusions, but that, for me, was the moment when I felt I understood.
Harriet: She-Wolves became not only a book but also a series of BBC TV documentaries, which I know many readers of this blog thoroughly enjoyed (me included!). Can we hope for the same with Joan?
Helen: I’m working with the same director and producer and most of the same team – all of them brilliant – on a one-hour programme for BBC Two, to be shown sometime next year. We’ve just finished filming in France, following in Joan’s footsteps from Domrémy to Rouen – and one of the things we’re hoping to do, as well as going to all those glorious places, is bring the transcript of her trial to life as much as we can. It’s an exciting process.
Joan of Arc: A History is published in the UK by Faber & Faber, and will be published in the US by HarperCollins in May 2015.
Into this month’s Cabinet of Curiosities, I want to put my chair (of uncertain date but most likley Elizabethan) because it is a curiosity in itself with a past steeped in mystery.
However, as I became an older teenager and entered my 20s, my interest in all things historical had begun to spark and I became curious about the chair. I think we struck up a conversation about it after Auntie grumbled about having to keep polishing it. She was much older now and her arthritis made it difficult to bend and her eyesight had deteriorated, hence her hinting about preparing to pass it on.
Auntie (born in 1901) told me that the family story went that her great-grandfather had rescued it from a church during a period of refurbishment. The chair had been thrown out because it was badly broken. Said ancestor being of a waste not want not mentality brought it home and repaired it - rather crudely it has to be said. Round the back of the chair are some screwed in iron plates that show his fixings. The same with the seat which is screwed on firmly but rather brutally. The top of the chair shows holes for either finials or a decorative top but these are long gone.
|Victorian ancestor's crude cobblings to hold the chair together. Now a part of its history too!|
I have tried to work out which church it came from. Sadly my great-aunt has passed away and also my grandmother her sister. My father in his 80s, knows only as much as I do. We think that the chair may have come from the church of St Mary and St Bartholomew parish church of Radcliffe, because the other churches within walking distance of my aunt’s house are 19th-century and without the history to have housed such an item of furniture. Who sat in it? For what purpose was it used? I don’t know, but it’s endlessly fascinating to imagine. In my turn I shall pass it on to my eldest son and it will go to his children after that. In the meantime, I intend to find out more about the chair if I can and add knowledge to curiosity!
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We are lucky enough to have two competitions this month. Both are open only to UK residents.
Firstly, our usual one linked to this month's guest. You can win one of five copies of Helen Castor's Joan of Arc: a History, by answering this question in the Comments section below:
"Why do you think Joan of Arc has had more pop songs written about her than any other historical figure?"
Please also copy your answers to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org so I can contact the winners.
Secondly, Flybe have generously offered a pair of tickets for return flights from London Southend Airport to Caen. I wrote about the sights to be found at Caen and Bayeux. And more about Bayeux here and here, both places I visited courtesy of the airline Flybe and the Normandy Tourist Board.
All you have to do to be in with a chance of winning the tickets is Follow us on Twitter and send me an email at: email@example.com to say you have done so. We are @history_girls. We will pick the winner out of a hat and notify you by email.
Closing date for both competitions is 7th November.
Terms & conditions for the Flybe competition:
Flybe operated by Stobart Air Travel Voucher Terms and Conditions
1. Flight vouchers can only be redeemed on www.flybe.com.
2. You will be required to enter the voucher reference number provided at the time of
3. Seats can only be booked in Q Class or lower.
4. Seats must be redeemed together and seat availability is at Stobart Air’s discretion.
5. While every effort will be made to facilitate your preferred travel dates bookings are
subject to applicable seat availability on flights. Furthermore please be aware that
weekend availability is limited and a minimum of 14 days advance booking request is
6. The voucher cannot be used to redeem flights on bank holiday weekends, school
holidays or dates for major sporting events.
7. This voucher covers the cost of one piece of checked baggage per person per flight
(up to 20kgs) and one piece of cabin baggage (up to 7kg, subject to cabin baggage
terms & conditions). Please note this excludes all sporting equipment.
8. Routes and validity dates are not changeable.
9. Please retain this voucher as confirmation of winning.
10. The voucher does not entitle you to a cash value in lieu and is non-transferable. The
prize must be used by the winner and a companion travelling together.
11. Please check with your local authorities regarding passport and visa requirements
12. The prizewinner, if under 18, must be accompanied by an adult on the flight.
13. The winner may be required to take part in any publicity accompanying or resulting
from this competition.
The tickets must be redeemed by 26 February 2015. Also, please bear in mind that Flybe is only covering the flights, not accommodation, transfers etc.
Starting off November in this centenary year of the outbreak of World War One, inevitably leads to thoughts of Remembrance. Just how do we honour the dead, particularly those fallen in war?
Hugely successful has been the idea of artist Paul Cummins to fill the moat of the Tower of London with ceramic poppies. This has proved a very successful installation, with crowds flocking to see the growing "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red" artwork, while volunteers plant the poppies. The last of the 888,246 flowers, each representing "a military fatality during WW1"will be set in the moat on November 11th, Remembrance Day.
|From Tower of London website|
I always buy and wear a red poppy, alongside one of the Peace Union's white poppies. Leslie Wilson wrote about the poppy's symbolism here on 23rd October. Jonathan Jones, the Guardian's Art critic hates the sea of them at the Tower, calling it "a deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial."
Both feel, with good reason, that we are prone to honour only the British dead and those who were combatants. We are of course free to think of whom we wish in the two minutes' silence: men and women, Allies and Germans, military and civilian deaths, the "Great" war or any other conflict.
We need to honour the dead; it is hard to think of any culture where this is not important. Antigone needed to bury her brothers, Achilles had to retrieve Patroclus' body from the battlefield where he had been killed and Priam in his turn had to beg Achilles for Hector's desecrated corpse.
Where we don't have an identified body to bury, we take one unknown to stand for all:
|Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey|
Which brings me to Richard the Third. I'm sure you are aware of the latest on the funeral arrangements to inter appropriately the skeleton found in the Leicester car park, which was proved to be that of England's most notorious king (just pipping Henry the Eighth to that title)
|National Portrait Gallery Wikimedia Commons|
Anyway, I'm sure you all remember the excavation in the car park which revealed the remains later identified as those of Richard, under a parking spot conveniently marked "R" and the subsequent TV programmes, press conferences and so on. And then the fascinating court case about where those remains were to be interred.
The Plantagenet Alliance, consisting of "collateral descendants" of the king was formed by Stephen Nicolay, the 16th great-grandson of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York (father of Richard III). They were granted a judicial review of the burial place, wanting the king to be interred in York rather than Leicester. But in May of this year Lady Justice Hallett, sitting with Mr Justice Ouseley and Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, ruled there were no public law grounds for interfering with the plans for reburial at Leicester Cathedral.
The re-interment will cost £2.5m and will take place in Leicester cathedral as planned. It will receive the King’s remains on March 22, 2015 and they will then lie there for three days. The king will then be reburied during a ceremony on March 26, likely to be conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. And from March 28, the area of Richard III’s tomb will be open to the public.
There has been controversy throughout - were these Richard's bones? Where should they be buried? Should a king with his record be honoured at all? What was that record?
One thing is clear. A million pounds has already been raised towards the cost of the funeral of the last English king to die in battle. There are many people who want to see this thing done properly. Dr Alexandra Buckle of Oxford University has reconstructed the form of a medieval re-burial service.
I do hope they use it. In includes this prayer:
"Let us pray. Omnipotent and eternal God, creator and redeemer of souls, who through the prophecy of Ezechiel are worthy to bind together truly dry bones with sinews, to cover them with skin and flesh, and to put into them the breath of life, we suppliants pray to you for the soul of our dear [INSERT NAME] whose bones we now place in the grave."
We can all "insert name" this month, whether it is that of King Richard or not.
First can I say how very pleased I am to be here and to meet you all. I tend to approach life directly and straightforwardly and it all comes out aslant and sidewards and different to the way I expected: my history and fiction loves are this in spades. I thought the best way to introduce myself, therefore, wasn’t with a general post about who I am, but a quite specific post about a technique I was playing with for my new novel, Langue[dot]doc 1305. I type ‘new novel’ but by the time you’re reading this, my little work of subversive time travel or my little subversive time travel work will be properly out – blogging sometimes feels like time travel itself.
|Wattle and road: Australia in Spring|
|The physical setting for the novel: Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert|
|Something else that was round at the time my novel was set, the abbey of Gellone|
"I know bon frances from books. Writing.""Scripture.""Escripture et…" Artemisia joked. "Outside these writings, complex ideas are very difficult.""Let me explain again, then."Guilhem explains again.Artemisia said, "I hate it that I understood."
|Another emotional link to the period for me was this stream|
"I may not tell you much," Artemisia said, reluctantly. She understood the reluctance of holiness and she didn't like being the explainer of apparent miracles. Her own distrust in God was too great to lead an innocent into…whatever."Good," said Guilhem. "It is enough then to have this amount of knowledge. We will talk about this place, this time-""As I was instructed.""As God obviously wills."
|Never underestimate the creative power of an Australian road trip|
|image via wikipedia|
|Charles II, administering the royal touch|
|Queen Anne, "healing" a subject|
So what on earth were they all about? There’s a note by PW Joyce at the back of his translation of 'Old Celtic Romances’ in which he comments,
Statue of Cuchulainn by Oliver Sheppard in the window of the GPO, Dublin - commemorating the 1916 rising.
Source: Wikipedia, under Creative Commons License. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cuchulain_at_GPO.jpg#filelinks
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It seems that writing CANDLE IN THE DARK didn't end my interest in this time and this historical event. When I began CYE, I knew that Eva was a Kindertransport child. How this would affect the novel I didn't know, but it turned out to be the most important thing in the story and the events which happened back in 1938 inform Eva's subsequent life. They also provide the 'spooky' element in the book, because not only did Eva come to England as a small child, she is also haunted by things that happened on that journey. Pictured below is the full-length mirror in my wardrobe...it's covered in a few of my scarves to illustrate something about Eva...she has covered all mirrors since she was seven. This is because something, or rather someone, sometimes comes floating up through the glass....I will say no more.
I can tell you for a fact that Jacqueline Kennedy would have been one of Eva Conway's best customers.
I think the present is much more interesting when it's aware of the past; when it looks back in some way. In CYE, Eva's early years are woven through the text, threading scenes set in 1938 and at various times in the 1960s into a story that takes place in the present day. I hope that everyone who reads it enjoys this novel and relishes, like me, travelling magically through time.
If you're reading this post in Australia, this is probably an excuse you hear regularly, but we were in the middle of Devon, a rural English county not noted for its wild wallabies.
When we reported the sighting to the local police, I thought they might take the same sceptical line. But no, they had already had several reports of a wallaby hopping long the perilously narrow Devon lanes that evening. ‘But we don't know what we can do about it,’ they said, leafing through a copy of 'The Dangerous Dog Act' which, thanks to a Government oversight, singularly fails to cover marsupials, dangerous or not.
Devon has its fair share of strange animals, not least the fictional Hound of the Baskervilles, said to be based on the legend of the great spectral dog, the black shuck. And then there have long been rumours of the mysterious big black cats roaming across the moors, More recently warnings have been posted in several areas of Devon about what do if you encounter wild boar on walk, as they are now breeding in the forests.
But more controversially wild beavers have mysteriously returned to Devon and established a family, causing much debate about whether these creatures, should be removed before they start to change the landscape. One side argue they will cause flooding by damming streams, while others say that they will help to stop flooding by bringing back the wetlands that used to protect us.
But unlike the wallaby, beavers were native to Britain. The town of Beverley in Yorkshire derives its name from ‘beaver stream’, while Beavercoates in Nottinghamshire means ‘beaver huts’. But during the Middle Ages beavers were driven to extinction in Britain through hunting. They were killed for their scent gland which produced the valuable castoreum and also for food, because the Church declared that their tails were ‘fish’ and could therefore be eaten in Lent and on other fast days, when meat was prohibited. Recipes of the period suggest stewing their tails with ginger. After beavers were wiped out in England, a huge market grew up importing the glands and tails into England from the rest of Europe, through ports such as Bishop’s Lynn
|Medieval Beaver shown with 'fish' tail|
The castoreum or castor extracted from the beaver gland was burned by the Romans to bring about abortions and used to help suffers of epilepsy. (This is not to be confused with the oil called castor that comes from Castor oil plant, which is used today as a food additive) In the Middle Ages, they believed castoreum from the beaver could increase the honey production of bees. There may have been some truth behind this since it has been found to have strong antibiotic properties and might have protected the bees from disease or acted as deterrent to bee-mites.
Medieval physicians also used beaver castoreum to relieve headaches, hysteria and impotency. In later centuries, it was used a basis for perfume making and often found in the bottles of quack medicine sold by peddlers in the America who would mix American beaver castor with alcohol or spices and claim it was an elixir which could cure just about anything.
|Hunted Beaver biting off its own testicles|
There is curious legend about beavers to be found the medieval bestiaries which is also recorded in ancient Greece. In Medieval times both the animal and its oil were known as castor meaning ‘castrated’. It was believed that this oil was to be found in the beaver’s testicles. If hunted, the beaver would chew off its own testicles and fling them at the huntsman to save its life. Thereafter, the castrated beaver would turn round, stand up and expose itself to any huntsman, so that he could see its testicles were missing and it was not worth pursuing.
In fact the castoreum doesn’t come from the testicles but from a gland near base of the tail which is used for scent marking. But the beaver’s testicles are internal so it would appear to our ancestors to have been castrated. And it is interesting that the legend not only persisted down through the centuries, but was employed by the Church who used the beaver as a symbol of chastity.
‘Every man who would live chastely must cut himself off from all vices and lewdness as does the castor and fling them in the face of the Devil. Thereupon the devil shall depart from him.
Perhaps the next wild animal that might return to Devon will be the wolf. Though last time he lived in England he fared no better than the beaver.
'If a woman does not desire you and you would arouse her and make her lust after you, take the genitals of a wolf together with the hair on its cheeks and eyebrows and burn them together. Then give the ashes to the woman to drink in such a manner that she does not suspect. Then she will desire you and no other man.'
But that’s another story.
|Bertie (right) on his way to Cairo|
|Bertie (centre with fez) and entourage in Capernaum|
Upon their return from the royal tour, the photographer Francis Bedford displayed his work and even offered the collection for sale to the public. Cairo to Constantinople is a new exhibition at the Queen's Gallery in London showcasing about half these photographs, along with half a dozen paintings done during the tour, a few cases of artefacts bought along the way and – for the first time – the diary kept by the prince. It is a fascinating exhibition and no historian or writer of historical fiction should miss it.
I was particularly interested in this exhibition because it documents part of what was happening in the year 1862, the year my first two P.K. Pinkerton books are set. In the Eastern states of America, the U.S. Civil War was claiming thousands of lives in some of the bloodiest fighting ever seen. Out West, Americans were virtually untouched by the war. 1862 was the year a failed prospector named Sam Clemens walked into a Nevada mining town and decided to return to his first love, writing for newspapers. He soon became known by the pen name Mark Twain.
Meanwhile, Bertie was shooting quail on the banks of the Nile and enjoying multi-course banquets with sultans and pashas while Francis Bedford was taking landmark photographs. The Royal Tour of 1862 galvanised the western world and soon the rich of Europe were flocking to the exotic Middle East in the footsteps of the young Prince of Wales.
|USS Quaker City in which Twain sailed in 1867|
|Mount Lycabettus, Athens 1862 by Francis Bedford|
The book that resulted from Twain's letters home became The Innocents Abroad, one of the best selling travel books in the history of the world. Writing as a ‘the celebrated California humorist’ Twain had to be wittily critical of his fellow passengers and especially of ‘foreigners’, but in his accounts of the Holy Land he sometimes forgot humour to comment on the terrible poverty of the people and harsh conditions of animals.
|detail of Water Carriers by Bedford|
He described how badly the horses were treated: sometimes ridden up to nineteen hours per day without ever being brushed down or even having their saddles removed at night. Soft-hearted Twain chose the only horse whose back he had not seen. The others all had dreadful saddle boils that had not been doctored in years. He reasoned his horse must be like the others, but I have at least the consolation of not knowing it to be so.
Twain also touched on the horrible deformities of the beggars of Constantinople and the packs of dogs lying in the streets or scavenging the outskirts of towns. Another striking aspect of his account is that, unlike today, parts of Greece and the area around Galilee were almost treeless. Flies, dirt, dust and poverty were everywhere.
|Water Carriers in Albania|
The prince must have known his journal would be read, if only by his mother the Queen, but amid his mild descriptions of banquets and hunting there are a few clues to the squalor he must have glimpsed. He describes Tiberias on the shore of Galilee in terms Twain might have used five years later: Easter Sunday April 20th 1862 - we walked into the town wh. is the filthiest, the worst built & the most wretched heap of buildings I ever saw.
|Jemima Blackburn's 1862 watercolour of Bertie in Thebes|
Jemima Blackburn was an Englishwoman who happened to be travelling in Egypt and came across the royal entourage. She presented this watercolour of the Prince receiving the newly-discovered mummy of a child. Her depiction is charming, but when I recall Twain’s description of horses in miserable agony and children’s faces with ‘goggles of flies’ clustering on their eyes, I wonder how idealised it is.
This raises an interesting question. Which medium most accurately shows us the Middle East in the 1860s: photography, painting or the written word? The answer must be that all three are able to hide aspects, but with careful scrutiny and comparison of sources, a good historian might be able to tease out the truth.
To paint or to click? Learning to look at portraits in photography and paintingsis one of the sessions offered to pupils in Key stage 2 to Key stage 5. For more information, go here.
Cairo to Constantinople is on until 22 February 2015. Audio guide and study packs are included in the entry price.
Caroline Lawrence’s P.K. Pinkerton mysteries for kids feature Mark Twain and lots about photography. They are perfect for schools studying America at Key stage 3.
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Another march from Jarrow to London? - this time to protest against privatisation of the NHS. For many people that’s a crusade for today; for others, looking back to the 1930s, it’s just a colourful piece of history. It means something else to me. The original Jarrow march was made by many men, one woman, and a dog - and it’s the woman of whom I’ve always wanted to write a biography.
I’ve never succeeded, and that may say something about our reaction to politicians, and women politicians in particular (‘the two unsexiest words in the language’, one man said to me). But it also, surely, says something about what we want from a biography. Yet Ellen Wilkinson, MP for Jarrow, is someone who should be easy to pitch, surely?
She wasn’t just an early woman politician, trade union leader, feminist and socialist - try any of those on a publisher’s marketing department, and you can guess what they’re going to say. But she was also a writer and novelist, and, as ‘Red Nellie’, a hugely popular public personality. Reporting on the German refugee camps and the Spanish Civil War; visiting Gandhi in prison; making speeches with Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells; in the Tube tunnels during the Blitz . . . Something in that, surely?
The nuts and bolts of her career are easy. Born on 8 October 1891, near Manchester, into a nonconforming Methodist family. Into the ‘proletarian purple’, as she put it herself; a terraced two up, two down, with outside privy. Her mother was bed bound for much of her childhood; her father was an insurance agent, who had started out in a cotton mill at 8, and been head of a household at 12. Ellen herself won a teaching bursary to a Manchester school; was only 16 when she joined the Independent Labour Party.
In 1915 she became National Woman Organiser to the union of shop assistants and factory workers, crusading against the idea ‘that a woman’s wages are practically settled forever when she becomes 21, and that however important a woman’s work may be she must be considered as assistant to some male manager’, as she wrote. Manchester was a centre of suffrage protest; the Pankhursts lived nearby. But the young Ellen was a non militant feminist: a suffragist, rather than a suffragette; one, moreover, who regarded women’s suffrage as only one step towards a broader equality. A brief membership of the new Communist Party lead to a rapid resignation, but in 1923 she was elected to Manchester City Council and in 1924, as a trade union sponsored candidate for Middlesborough East (‘a book of illustrations to Karl Marx’, she called it), she became Ellen Wilkinson MP.
Only four women were returned to Parliament in that election, and each of the other three had inherited their husband’s seat. Lady Astor, the Duchess of Atholl and Mrs Philipson, a former actress. Women were only allowed to vote at 30. She was 33. Her maiden speech demanded the extension of female franchise; deplored the penalisation of women in pension and unemployment. Ellen Wilkinson’s ghost is still there when you speak the size of school classes, or questions of equal pay. These were issues on which she campaigned in her day.
Many of her favourite causes had particular relevance for women. She fought for the extension of child welfare centres; to allow women who married foreigner to keep their British citizenship, and to end women’s exclusion from the diplomatic corps on the grounds that they were unsuited to secrecy. There was a row when she equated wifehood to slavery . ‘A man never learns the cash value of a good wife until she falls ill and then he has to pay a housekeeper!’ Within the House she lamented the long hours and lack of female-oriented facilities. She knew that she was wielding a double edged sword. ‘I have women’s interests to look after but I do not want to be regarded purely as woman’s MP’, she said. Nonetheless she found herself with, in effect, a dual constituency. It’s still an issue for women Members today.
Her nicknames reflected her tiny size – under five foot – and her flaming red hair. The ‘fiery particle’, the ‘Mighty Atom’. The ‘Pocket Pasionaria’ and ‘Topsy MP’. She was aware of the dangers of being a ‘pet lamb’; but she was conscious also of the advantages of having an easily recognisable image, and one which bought her a certain amount of leeway. All her life in fragile health, she was not above playing on her very frailties. The Glasgow Herald once wrote of her ‘histrionic ability . . . She seats herself almost lost in the great chair, tiny feet dangling. Such a forlorn, child-like figure . . . “Ellen is overdoing it”, remarked a delegate.’
In 1926 - when only the miners held out, after the collapse of the General Strike – she chaired the Women’s Committee for the relief of the miners’ wives and children. She brought a miner’s hauling rope into the House of Commons, and raised cash in America with stories of children standing by soup kitchens in the rain, because they liked the smell. She was returned as MP for Jarrow – ‘The Town That Was Murdered’ as she called it - in 1935, at a time when the closure of the great shipyard had lead to 80% unemployment, so that men, as she told the Minister of Health, were actually dying of malnutrition. When a deputation set out to walk to London and present their petition to Parliament, Ellen went with them, covering much of the journey on foot.
Because of her links with European socialists, she was one of the first to warn against ‘treating Hitler as a bad smell, a temporary nastiness to be disinfected by boycott, or perfumed by legality.’ Visits to Germany in the early Thirties gave her the raw material for several brutally detailed pamphlets; as did relief work with the children of concentration camp victims. With the war, and Churchill’s wartime coalition, she became one of the Parliamentary secretaries to Herbert Morrison, the new Home Secretary.
Five sixths of her job, she said in 1940, was nights spent in endless visits to the air raid shelters that were to her special responsibility; dispensing ‘hygiene and cheer’ in the teeming tunnels of the London Underground. Serving on the Fire Service Council, she came under attack for conscripting women as well as men to Civil Defence duties. But the end of the war brought a return to party politics – along with a tidal wave of hopes and expectations that were unlikely to be fulfilled, since no-one could expect ‘to get a Socialist State tied up in pink ribbon as an armistice present’, as Ellen put it warningly.
As Minister of Education in Attlee’s new government, she was faced with the task of implementing the 1944 Education Act – a Herculean task and something of a poisoned chalice. The eighteen months of her tenure laid the groundwork for the much of the education system as we know it today - saw the raising of the school leaving age; saw free milk and school meals; and more state scholarships for further education. But it brought her a punishing workload, and the distress of finding herself at odds with many in her party. In 1947 she caught pneumonia and died at the age of 55. An inquest decided that she died from pulmonary problems, accelerated by an overdose of the drugs prescribed for her asthma. The Coroner felt it necessary to state that there was nothing to suggest she had taken the overdose deliberately.
But those who thought differently could suggest a cause – less Ellen’s problems as a minister than her feelings for Herbert Morrison, the unhappily married Deputy Prime Minister. Their relationship went back a long way; even to Morrison’s days at the London County Council. (‘An able administrator and a bit of a brute – the rudest man I know’, she called him. ‘Stick to women’s issues’, he himself once told another MP.) Great stuff! - just what a biography needs, a little love interest, and with a bit of a brute, ideally. But it may be because of her relationship with Morrison that Ellen left instructions her personal papers should be destroyed after her death . . . Bad, very bad, that, for anyone dreaming a conventional biography.
But, dammit, does that mean we have to leave it there? Is there no room for negotiation in the nature of the narrative? Any of us who write about more distant history are used to working with a infinitely more daunting paucity of sources. We have Ellen’s novels as well as her articles; colour and controversy; a Cinderella story.
Ellen Wilkinson’s sterling work in pushing through the Hire Purchase Act of 1938 isn’t going to make a page turner, granted. (Though it made a real difference to many in her day.) But a word picture of Gandhi sitting on the floor of her Bloosmbury flat, with its poster of Lenin above the bed . . Surely that would do nicely?
Yet she has been forgotten to a great degree. Back in the days of ‘Blair’s babes’ I found myself at a party to meet the new, unprecedented, influx of women MPs. I hoped, foolishly, for someone who had admired Ellen, someone who had read her speeches. Someone whose mother saw her in the wartime bomb sites, as mine did. Instead, I met with a blank, ‘who?’, unfamiliarity. But (if those women had but known it) her concerns and her challenges, her conflicts and her compromises, mirrored their own to an extraordinary degree. And without some awareness of how many have been battles fought before, we are going to be reinventing the wheel into eternity.
We thank our Reserve History Girl, Sarah Gristwood, for today's post. Michelle Lovric has been called away on a family emergency and should be back here on 10th December
So no swords, not now, not ever, and there is still a non-negotiable proscription against wearing armour. Just so you know.
The winner of the Flybe tickets is Pippa Goodhart - congratulations to her!
The winners of copies of Helen Castor's book on Joan of Arc are:
To obtain your prizes, please email Kate Burton: firstname.lastname@example.org with your land address.
What could be more beguiling than secret love and what more tantalising than such a love advertised in a way that was indecipherable to all but the lovers themselves. By the middle of the eighteenth century the miniature portrait was the requisite token exchanged between lovers, to be held in a pocket or slipped beneath a pillow, or carefully nested in a box of treasures. The Elizabethan miniature had performed many functions, one being a sign of political affiliation but it was not long before the art was entirely hijacked by love. Miniatures had become the selfies of their day, reflecting a life less public than the one we live now, when such portraits were destined for only a few eyes. But for some the miniature lacked sufficient mystery and secrecy to convey their feelings, and so was born the lovers eye.
Worn as pendants or brooches and often intricately jewelled, the lovers' eye could be worn publicly, as a badge of unavailability, without revealing the identity of the beloved. Who other than a lover can easily identify a disembodied eye? It is easy to picture the characters in a Jane Austen novel exchanging such tokens of clandestine affection, with perhaps even a mistaken identity causing an amorous plot to twist and turn. The symbolism is evident, with the eye being the window to the soul and the lover's gaze being so redolent of erotic desire. It was not considered demure or proper for a woman to look directly at a man, but rather allow the gaze to flicker furtively in his direction, so imagine the erotic charge of a female eye looking unstintingly out at the absent lover, a reminder of what they are missing but also a reminder to the wearer that they are watched.
For more about Elizabeth Fremantle and her books go to elizabethfremantle.com
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