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    I attended the first Australasian Historical Fiction conference in March. I know some of you would be very interesting in a detailed report, full of life and colour. I meant to write that report, but when I looked at my notes I realised that it was such a very good conference that if I were to write up a proper detailed summary, even from my notes (which are scatty, for I was very much engaged with conference happenings) I would be writing 5,000 words. I don’t want to work through the programme and give you elegant highlights, either. What do I do, then? I give you a quirky report, with pictures.

    Let me start with Kate Forsyth, the patron of the HNSA. My notes were riddled with quotable quotes by her. My notes would be more riddled if she had not given us a bedtime story about the history of the king and the oak tree, during the conference dinner. We were so busy participating that I quite forgot to record any of it. There's just one that's so important, I have to share it: thanks to historical fiction, she said, she’s never been without a book she wants to read, there’s always something to look forward to. She can always find the stories she wants. I’ve seen the piles of books that attendees bought at the stall (my Langue[dot]doc 1305 was there, among the timeslips and the historical romances) so Kate’s words have become, for me, the theme of the conference. There was so much advanced learning for writers going on, and so much sharing of stories and experience: it was an amazing event. 

    Kate Forsyth welcoming conventioneers to the conference (Balmain Town Hall).

    This focus was thanks to the committee. They did such a wonderful job that  when Colin Falconer gave his keynote address, he looked at us and explained how important HNSA was going to be to our region, to the world of fiction. He said we would say “I was there, at the first one.” 

    This would have been immensely more reassuring if he hadn’t soon after said “I have nothing against ripping bodies: I think it’s a fine pursuit.” He was discussing the cultural importance of historical fiction as a genre, but a few of us took it out of context, on purpose. We didn’t take his deeper statements out of context, however. The focus of his speech was on how historical fiction can help us understand, rethink and question our myths. It made me think that in Australia so many of those questions come from newer migrants and from Indigenous Australian writers. Patrick White and Alexis Wright offer question and reinterpretations that change our realities. Colin didn’t talk about this aspect, but for me it’s very important. Current Australian politics are partly what they are to reduce dissident voices and diminish the questioning of myth.

    Colin Falconer giving his keynote address at the HNSA conference

    I was part of the great debate, which was itself part of the opening events (alongside an address by Sophie Masson and the launch of Felicity Pulman’s new novel).

    Sophie Masson giving the opening keynote address at the State Library of NSW, Sydney.

    We were supposed to tear out each throats and create blood on the floor. Historians and fiction writers, after all, are dangerous beings and see the world so differently. 

    Except we didn’t. We came to amicable agreements and told jokes about pus. I am not guilty of the pus jokes, let it be known, though I did point to a certain scene in a Gabaldon novel (a long scene, with breast milk) as my contribution towards the use of the mundane in historical fiction.

    We talked about how changes in historiography make it easier for us to engage in polite discourse. In other words, if we all realise what modern historiography is about, then historians and historical fiction writers find we’re on the same page, just telling different stories and telling stories in different ways. The trick is, of course, understanding each others’ work, seeing that words like ‘research’ have a range of meanings, and understanding that a narrative can have an index and footnotes and careful definitions of a subject and still narrate. I’m afraid I made the obvious joke that even my first novel had footnotes (for I was there as the historian more than the writer) and yes, the audience laughed. It was a nice audience.

    Books on sale at the HNSA conference

    Jane Caro on a panel devoted to the Tudors  said what I’ve heard quite a few Tudor writers say “I think that when I was a young girl I was looking for a Tudor hero.” Wendy Dunn underlined this a little while later when she explained “I can’t write something that I can’t believe of my characters.” Elizabeth I became Jane’s hero because she never married and never had to share her power, while Anne Boleyn became Wendy’s. Jane is always political and so it wasn’t at all surprising when she said, very soon after, “Tony Abbott can’t be misogynist because he has three daughters; well, Henry VIII had six wives.”

    On another panel Linda Funnel, Sulari Gentill and Peter Corris talked about magic time. Gentill remembered lying on her back in a lawn. It was a hot Australian summer and she lay there, looking at the stars while her father told her stories. This encouraged her to take up astrophysics at university, but she left it behind because the lectures were “turning my beautiful constellations into balls of gas.” For her, as for most writers, story is at the centre of things and history is “the scaffolding on which my story is built.” The panel talked about this and agreed that one of the joys of historical fiction writing for some writers was to finding the gaps in history and filling them with story.

    It’s all about the story, isn’t it?

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    In my recent novel, Rivals in the City, a young gentleman in 1861 jokes about body art: "'Perhaps I'll have your name tattooed on my arm so there's no doubt as to whom I belong', he said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow and resuming their steady walking pace. 'What would you say to your initials in Gothic letters, surrounded by scrolls and hearts?'" I loved being able to include this moment of dialogue because it's such a familiar cultural motif for us now. It's another way of bringing the Victorians closer to us, one of the projects at the heart of my fiction. But it's also rooted in a fairly well-documented tradition.

    There are brief mentions of tattoos in Victorian literature. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Sybil Vane's brother, James, is identifiable as a sailor because of his tattoos. I believe Sherlock Holmes notices and assigns tattoos the same kind of cultural value. According to wikipedia, it was during Captain James Cook's voyages to Polynesia from the 1760s to the 1780s that the idea of tattoo (from the Tahition word, tatau) was introduced into English culture.

    Apparently the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, a member of Cook's expedition, came back to England with a tattoo. (portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1773)

    By the mid-nineteenth century, tattoos were firmly established as the domain of seamen and soldiers - working-class Englishmen who had travelled widely and come into direct contact with tattoo culture.

    Tattoos, however, were about to make an interesting social transition. In 1862, when the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) toured the Middle East, he acquired a tattoo of the Jerusalem Cross.
    The Prince of Wales in Constantinople at the end of his Grand Tour (1862). Somewhere on his body, there is a fresh tattoo. (image via the Royal Collection)

    By 1870, the trend had spread not only amongst the English aristocracy, but into the courts of Russia, Germany and Spain. And beginning in the 1880s, upper-class women also began to sport discreet tattoos. One of the most celebrated was Lady Randolph Churchill, who had a "dainty" and "elaborate" tattoo of a serpent entwining her left wrist.
    Lady Randolph Churchill, with her signature bracelet. (image via NYPL)
     She frequently covered it with bracelets, but it was described in the New York Times in 1906. Tattoos were fashionable enough that Country Life magazine featured them in an article dated 27 January, 1900 - as if to kick off the new century. As you might expect from Country Life, it described “one of the most popular Masters of Foxhounds in England” who had “tally-ho!” tattooed on his forearm along with a fox’s head and brush and a hunting crop.

    Like all fashion trends, however, tattoos were fairly swiftly brought down by mass imitation.
    Nora Hildebrandt claimed that she was forced by Indians to receive hundreds of tattoos. The truth was more mundane: her father was a tattoo artist. (image via the Human Marvels)

    Once performers like Nora Hildebrandt began displaying her hundreds of tattoos for the horror and delectation of the masses (she travelled as part of P. T. Barnum's American circus), aristocrats promptly lost interest in tattoo art.

    I haven't. I've always been intrigued by the idea of a tattoo, yet never been able to choose a single motif or image that I'd want to wear on my body forever. In the meantime, I'll keep reading. May I suggest Margot Mifflin's Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo? To start you off, there are some amazing images pulled from Mifflin's book right here.

    Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn Mysteries (Walker Books). She blogs weekly at www.yslee.com.

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    Not long ago my mother handed over to me this book, which had been my grandfather's.

    I suppose my grandfather must have been given it by someone else - in fact, it must have been handed down for generations.  It's an atlas of the classical world, dated 1785: 'Designed for the Ufe of Schools, and of Gentlemen who make the Antient Writers their Delight or Study.'

    The maps cover all areas which such Gentlemen might wish to consult while following the journeys of Herodotus, or perhaps the campaigns of Alexander, or the Gallic Wars.

    Of course they are deliberately limited to the parts of the world known to ancient geographers: but they aren't themselves ancient. They're drawn to an eighteenth century knowledge of the shapes of coasts and continents.

    Like any historical atlas of today, they fit the old stories into what was then a modern frame. Here for example is Mesopotamia, with its squiggly rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

    But I wanted to go looking for griffons, and in a way I found them. In Book Two of Paradise Lost, Milton describes how Satan launches himself out on his 'Sail-broad Vannes'  into the abyss of Chaos:

    As when a Gryfon through the Wilderness
    With winged course ore Hill or moarie Dale,
    Pursues the Arimaspian, who by stelth
    Had from his wakeful custody purloin’d
    The guarded Gold...

    So - who were the Arimaspians?  It turns out they come into the first century 'History of Alexander the Great' by Quintus Curtius Rufus: they were also known as the the Euergetae, the Benefactors, whose kindness had once saved the army of Cyrus the Great of Persia. Alexander, a fan of Cyrus, respected these people for assisting his hero, and also for their laws and customs which the 2nd century historian Arrian reports 'had as good a claim to fairness as the best in Greece.'  Nothing, sadly, about stealing gold from griffons.  That's left to Herodotus, in Book 4 of his History: 'Aristeas ... son of Caystrobius, a native of Proconnesus, says in the course of his poem that wrapt in Bacchic fury he went as far as the Issedones. Above them dwelt the Arimaspi, men with one eye; still further, the gold-guarding griffins; and beyond these, the Hyperboreans, who extended to the sea.'

    Wow. They have only one eye, and still succeed in robbing griffons?  But here they are, the Ariaspae, Euergetae, halfway down the map on the left-hand side.

    I went hunting for more. Here, at the top of the map of Scythia and Serica (peppered with cities called Alexandria), on the very verge of Terra Incognita, are the Anthropophagi, Eaters of Men, while below them, fittingly a little less distant, a little less uncivilised, we encounter the Hippophagi, eaters of horseflesh.


    Pliny the Elder describes them: "The Anthropophagi, whom we have previously mentioned as dwelling ten days' journey beyond the Borysthenes, according to the account of Isigonus of Nicæa, were in the habit of drinking out of human skulls, and placing the scalps, with the hair attached, upon their breasts, like so many napkins."

    It doesn't sound impossible, but I feel that Ammianus Marcellinus was embroidering when he adds: "And these men are so avoided on account of their horrid food, that all the tribes which were their neighbours have removed to a distance from them. And in this way the whole of that region to the north-east, till you come to the Chinese, is uninhabited."  Although that's the China Sea, there, at the eastern edge of the map...

    I've always had a soft spot for the Anthropophagi since first meeting them in The Sword in the Stone:  Robin Hood explains,

    ‘Now, men... You know about these Anthropophagi, and how we have lost Matthew, Peter, Walter, Colin and many others. God rest their souls.  Tonight the Anthropophagi are holding one of their feasts of sacrifice and it behoves us to slay them at it.
    ‘You know how many varieties they have.  The Scythians, who wrap themselves in their ears, can hear a twig break half a mile away. The Pitanese, who live by smell, can detect a man upwind for three miles.  The  Nisites, with three or four eyes, can distinguish the faintest movement anywhere. All these men, or beast if you prefer to call them so, are ... armed with poison arrows.  Our chances are small.’

    Sir John Mandeville knew of creatures like these, living in the Island of Dodyn - not to be found anywhere in my maps, alas - and had more to say on griffons, this time from Bactria, north of the Arimaspians:

    'In that land are trees that bear wool, as it were sheep, of which they make cloth. In this land are ypotains that dwell sometimes on land, sometimes on water, and are half a man and half a horse, and they eat naught but men, when they may get them. In this land are many gryffons, more than in other places, and some say they have the body before as of an Egle,  and behind as a Lyon, and it is trouth, for they be made so, but the Griffen hath a body greater than viii Lyons and ... worthier than a hundred Egles. For certainly he will bear to his nest flying, a horse and a man upon his back... for he hath long nayles on his fete, as great as it were hornes of Oxen,  and of those they make cups there to drink of, and of his rybes they make bowes to shoot with.'

    Ypotains equal hippos, I suppose - and the wool growing on trees, might that be cotton - or even silkworms?  Then why not griffons?

    What fun for the eighteenth century Gentleman to muse on all this as he sat in his study, drinking his port.

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    This is not the first occasion I've indulged my delight in guide books and Orkney (see The Elevated Limpet) but this time I've brought things right up-to-date.

    Caroline Wickham-Jones is an experienced archaeologist who has worked on and written about sites across Scotland and Scandanavia.  Her Orkney: A Historical Guide was first published in 1998 and has been updated and re-issued a number of times since then.  Wickham-Jones' clear writing, expertise and obvious enthusiasm for her subject make her brand-new 2015 Guide a must-read for anyone drawn to this approximately 70-island-strong historical treasure trove.

    There is so much to see, and one of the confusing things about visiting Orkney is the way remains from so many different historical periods often sit cheek-by-jowl in the landscape.  Wickham-Jones'Guide is extremely helpful in separating the layers out, starting with a series of maps, which show:

         Neolithic sites
         Bronze Age, Iron Age and Pictish sites
         Norse and Scottish Earls sites
         18th- and 19th-century sites
         20th-century sites

    The chapters of the book take the same approach, with an overview for each block of time and then a description of sites of interest - and accessibility.  She also explores the effects of geography on the Orkney Islands' history.  The power of the winds, the fertility of the soil, the lack of trees and the easily splittable sandstone rock - all have their place in the way human life here was shaped and preserved. 

    I would thoroughly recommend this Historical Guide for your reading and research pleasure - and I would also thoroughly recommend using it on a visit to Orkney.  Orkney may seem a bit out-of-the-way (though you can't really see the edge of the world from there, as Pytheas of Marseille claimed in 330 BCE).  But for a large part of her 10,000 years of habitation, the sea roads made her nearer to being at the heart of things than the edge.  Granted those roads were treacherous* and, as Wickham-Jones says,

    "Rather like a six-lane motorway today, you have to know what you are doing, but the northern seas could lead you directly to your destination and provide varied benefits in the form of sheltered harbours and plentiful supplies."

    Reading her book, I defy you not to be convinced that those "plentiful supplies" include history preserved in abundance, to excite the imagination and furnish us with thoughts and ideas, whether as readers, writers or historians. 

    * Don't worry - the roads to Orkney are much safer now. 

    Caroline Wickham-Jones'Orkney: A Historical Guide
    pub. Birlinn Books

    pub. date 12 March 2015
    ISBN: 9781780272641          

    (With a YA novel inspired by Skara Brae coming out next month, and therefore at too late a stage to change anything, I approach all archaeological writing on my period with some uneasiness ... I'll be talking more about that next time!)


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

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    Not far into writing Liberty’s Fire, I realised that my male characters would have to have facial hair.  There was just no getting round it.  Pretty much the only clean-shaven men in Paris in 1871 were priests, and the sensible ones were either in hiding or trying to escape the city dressed as women.  (I exaggerate just a little.)

    I consulted my daughter.  She made a face.  Just don’t mention it, she said.  Specially not when there’s kissing involved. There’s something about the word moustache. 

    I knew exactly what she meant, but I’d hoped it was a private prejudice.  Are YA readers ready to embrace romantic heroes with facial hair?

    Looking around my neighbourhood, I feel she can’t be entirely right.  The beards have been moving in for a few years now. Around the same time as the London orbital came our way – something between the train and the tube, and an excellent thing for us transport-deprived South-East Londoners –  an explosion of facial hair (and fixies) took place in and around the local bars and cafés.  Young beards.  In fact, I notice, intrigued, not unlike Communard beards. 

    Photograph: Brock Elbank
    Photograph: Brock Elbank

    The Beard exhibition at Somerset House has now closed but Mr Elbank’s brilliant contemporary beards can be seen in all their glory on Tumblr and will give you a good idea of what I'm talking about.  Beardseason, the Australian-born campaign to raise awareness of melanoma which was the start of this portrait series, continues to go from strength to hirsute strength.  To support it, I bring you a small selection of inspirational facial hair from nineteenth-century France, complete with links to more information about the revolutionaries (and one reactionary) sporting them.

    Jules Vallès, journalist and author of the intensely vivid and highly autobiographical Commune novel, L'Insurgé (The Insurgent), as painted by fellow Communard Gustave Courbet:


    himself (photographed by Nadar):

    Journalist and politician Henri Rochefort…

    And as painted by Manet…


    ore than once…here he is again, this time escaping from New Caledonia (4,500 Communards were deported to the Pacific penal colony after the fall of the Commune):

    Napoléon La Cécilia, who found refuge in London where he taught French at the Royal Naval School then in New Cross:

    Jarosław Dąbrowski, Polish activist, who died on the barricades during the final Bloody Week of the Commune.  His nom de guerre was Dombrowski, and was honoured in the name of an International Brigade battalion made up mostly of Polish miners during the Spanish Civil War.

    Maxime du Camp, probably the Commune’s most vitriolic and effective critic and author of the 4-volume attack Les Convulsions de Paris, whose representations of women in the Commune endure to this day:

    And finally, a man from a different kind of commune altogether, the transcendentalist Fruitlands, which was established by Louisa May Alcott's father in 1843. Joseph Palmer's interest in utopian politics, free speech and prison reform was sharpened by his own imprisonment after he fended off some men attempting to shave his beard in 1830, when beards were anything but fashionable. His gravestone in Massachussetts is apparently marked 'Persecuted for Wearing the Beard': 

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    I hope readers of this blog will indulge me. I recently wrote this essay about one of my literary heroines, Dorothy Whipple, and because I am keen for as many people to read her as possible,  I'm posting it on this blog which is my public forum, as it were. It's quite long...if you don't want to read it, that's fine, but please heed the message: READ DOROTHY WHIPPLE"S NOVELS. They are all published by the admirable Persephone Books, whose beautiful dove grey covers and carefully-chosen endpapers make each volume a 'thing of beauty and a joy forever.'  I have taken photos of some of them and interspersed them here, to break up the text a bit. 


    A funny thing happens when I discuss books with my friends. We  talk a lot about what we’re reading. Many of us are writers, so I suppose it’s talking shop, in a way. Mainly, I’m thinking of conversations with women, but on occasion this has happened in mixed gatherings, too.  I mention the name of Dorothy Whipple and there follows a bemused and (to be fair) interested silence. No, no one has read her.  Who is she? Never heard of her…

    This dismays me. My friends are very literate. Literary even and yet , almost always, I’m the one who has to explain to them about Whipple. Many of them have gone on to read her books and they have all thanked me for pointing them in her direction.  
    I am an evangelist about Dorothy Whipple for reasons which will make up the greater part of this essay, but one question to which I have no answer is this: how does it happen that  her novels  (which are published by Persephone Books in the most beautiful way imaginable) have made no discernible mark on the Great British Reading Public?

    One answer is: Persephone Books does not waste money on unnecessary advertising. The books have not been televised, (though goodness knows they’d make good television) They are not entered for literary prizes because they’re reprints of novels which first came out decades ago. For this reason, they are not reviewed in the press.  They are not controversial, and they are in competition daily, even hourly, with the latest sensation to make into the public consciousness.  Also, there’s this inconvenient fact: if someone one has heard of Whipple, it’s because they know that when  Carmen Callil set up Virago, she famously said that there was something called ‘The Whipple Line’ below which she was not prepared to go as a publisher. In other words, Dorothy Whipple’s novels were dismissed as not being worthy of publication by Virago….for reasons which no one can remember any longer but basically, as I recall, that these works were deemed too easy to read and too undemanding to be of any great literary merit.

    My response to this is a question: How wrong is it possible to be?  And the answer comes back clear as clear: dreadfully wrong. In order to show why and how Callil’s judgement is flawed,  I must describe for those readers who don’t know it, what Dorothy Whipple’s work is like. This is hard to do in a short piece but I’m going to try. I am going to attempt once again (I’ve written about this before, here and there) to demonstrate that those who haven’t read her are missing a huge treat. 

    The internet will give you the main facts about her life, so I’m not going dwell on the biography, but as a bit of sic transit gloria, I’ll note simply that in her day she was very popular indeed. Her books were Book of the Month, and so forth. One of them ‘They Were Sisters’ was made into a (not terribly good) film starring James Mason. She fell out of print and it was not until Persephone books began to publish her work that she was brought to the attention of today’s readers. And she does have  many appreciative readers. She is, I think, the bestselling author in the ranks of those Persephone have rescued from oblivion, to our great delight and pleasure. 

    So why the lack of recognition? The first reason is: Whipple’s novels are DOMESTIC.  That’s to say, they deal with families, and relationships and concerns (love, children, siblings, older parents, money and how to cope when you don’t have it, etc. working women, clothes, home making etc )  which historically have been bunched under the heading: Women’s Fiction.  What this means is: many men don’t even try to read them. I can report that when they do, they are often as keen on them as any woman. My late husband was a huge fan and read every one of the novels and the short stories and I’m sure he wasn’t alone. 

    I cannot imagine why the domestic novel has such low status. We live in an age where women have a larger measure of equality than ever, even though there are, of course, sundry inequalities  and injustices still in place.  But the novels which get noticed, mainly, are those which deal with war, ideas, history, crime, horror, fantasy, almost everything, in other words that isn’t WOMEN’S FICTION. Under this latter heading you will find chick lit, sagas, mum lit, and a huge, spreading lake of Romance in all its guises.  There are a few women writers, (Margaret Forster comes to mind) who still write intelligent novels about proper people in interesting situations, but if a woman does break through into the bestselling mainstream, it will generally be under a Historical, or Crime or Literary heading. The ordinary real life of contemporary women is still being written about, of course,  but not many such books make it into the Bestseller lists. It seems that most people like to flee, in their reading matter, from all they know and rush towards the fantastical (Game of Thrones, and lots of other fantasy) the distant past (Historical) or versions of reality that most of them will never encounter: books about movie stars, big business types, the very rich, the very promiscuous, the very drug-addicted, etc etc. They like gruesome, Baroque killings in exotic places, not ordinary murders which are often shabby and squalid and do not reach levels of inventiveness that we find in a great many crime novels.

    I wouldn’t want anyone to misunderstand me. I am as fond of the outrageous as the next person, as long as it’s well written and about fascinating characters (Lizbet Salander of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes to mind)  but I also love and am comforted by the existence of, novels that mirror real  life and real people as I know them. I like the suburban and I make no excuse for that. I have nothing against the Middle Class.  I don’t require obvious strangeness to make me aware of the truth of the saying: “There’s nowt so queer as folk.” This desire to lead a whole variety of different lives is one reason why I am so fond of Whipple. I can imagine myself inhabiting these houses, with these people. I will  return to the matter of Whipple’s depiction of the Middle Classes.

    Others have written learned articles about the ratio of men to women writers being reviewed in the press. Most books reviewed seem to be by men. On the other hand, space for reviewing of every kind has shrunk drastically over the last few years. The movers and shakers in the literary world are busy promoting the latest thing and there is only so much reading time available so fitting in a book that is published quietly and decorously with no huge razzmatazz is probably not going to happen. 

    Whipple’s novels have another mark against them from the start. They are not hard to read. You know where you are, what you’re dealing with, who the protagonists are from the very first pages. You’re introduced properly to a set of people and there are no barriers to your understanding. You do not have to puzzle out what the writer is doing. There are no tricks being played. You don’t have to go over a sentence to make sure you’ve read it correctly.  You are plunged straight into a situation which is most often ordinary.   There is  not enough money, perhaps. How do we deal with that problem? Three sisters, devoted to one another, nevertheless have issues with one another and especially with some of their respective spouses. How do they cope? A prosperous son, looking for a companion for his mother, hires a Frenchwoman…what happens to everyone next?  A young woman goes to work in a shop in a Northern town. What happens to her? Does she succeed? Who will she meet? Will she fall in love? A grandmother and her relationship with her granddaughter is the basis of one book; a big house is at the centre of another. It’s not exactly Lee Child. Nor is it John Updike. It isn’t noisy. It isn’t blustering. It isn’t headachingly clever. Nor is it the world of  much modern fiction. 

    It has most in common, I think…and this is a large claim…with the work of Jane Austen. Like her, Whipple is interested in how people interact. She is often witty, like Austen. She’s ironic too. She’s got a quick  eye and  sharp tongue as well as a kind heart. But she spreads her social net much wider than Jane Austen. She is extremely good, for example, at writing about France and the French. She’s good at the daily grind of work and knows how commerce operates. She’s brilliant at children, who play a full part in the action of several of the novels.

    Back to the Middle Classes. A criticism that’s sometimes levelled at Whipple is that she writes middle class books about middle class people. This is not entirely true. She manages, in each world she creates, to vary the kinds of people she’s writing about. She’s very good at the middle class, but also knows about being a poor young woman working in a dress shop. She knows about the agonies of not having the right thing to wear because you can’t afford it, and one of the more heartrending moments in They Were Sisters  occurs when  a much poorer sister is lent a blouse by her richer sibling.  She knows a great deal, like Jane Austen again, about money and the corrosive effects of having both too little of it and too much. They Knew Mr Knight is the story of a family whose paterfamilias sells his soul to the Devil in order to be rich. And in They Were Sisters, she gives as good a picture of domestic abuse as any I’ve read anywhere. Here’s an understated, unhysterical, moment which nevertheless chills the blood:
    Charlotte, changing for dinner, put down her brush and paused. She was seized by one of her old impulses to run down, throw her arms round Geoffrey’s neck and implore him to let them be happy, to let them all be open and candid with one another, she, Geoffrey, the children, the maids. They could all be so happy together if only he would let them. But she took up her brush again. The last time she went down like that, he unloosed her arms and said with disgust: ‘Don’t fawn on me.’ Not once had any of these appeals succeeded.”

    Another thing that might conceivably irritate a reader, though it’s one of the things I like best about Whipple’s writing, is her love of detail. You know exactly how her houses are furnished. You can see the clothes, the gardens, the rooms, the landscapes: everything physical about the world of her books is there in front of your eyes.  This  is a short piece from Greenbanks.
    “Laura returned with the albums,massive with brass clasps and backs of stamped and padded leather. Rose took one on her knee and opened the stiff pasteboards, decorated round the inserted prints with painted sprays of rose and maidenhair, forget-me-not and lily.”
    That album is so much there in your imagination that you can practically smell it.

    Whipple writes about love a great deal but with no illusions as to the suffering and anguish it can cause. Someone At A Distance (possibly my favourite from among her novels) describes the progress and results of an adulterous relationship not only on the lovers, but on all the members of the family who are affected. 

    And in They Were Sisters, she has created possibly the most horrible husband in the whole of literature. Geoffrey, whom I have mentioned before,  is a monster and Whipple doesn’t mince her words. She draws no veils over the agonies he causes his family, especially his children.  There’s a scene where he’s almost ridiculously cruel to his son’s dog which is quite appalling and which, once read, will never leave you. 

    Here’s the thing about Whipple’s novels: her clear belief that she is telling a story designed to draw readers into her world does not lead her into the trap of sugaring the reality she describes. There are cruel, unkind, thoughtless and stupid people everywhere and Whipple gives them more time and attention than many other writers. She does this so well that every ‘baddie’ is seen as having other sides, other possibilities, other paths they might have taken.  She does not quite believe, like Oscar Wilde,  that fiction means the good end happily and the bad unhappily but she provides hope even in the direst of circumstances.  Often, too, a seemingly unhappy ending turns out to have a silver lining.

    There’s little more I can say without lengthy quotation, which is boring to read and which, taken out of context, would  not do  full justice to Whipple’s gifts. What I would say to sum up is this: her novels are perfect for anyone  who likes to read about characters leading recognisable lives, in recognisable places, but  lives and places most carefully, elegantly and perceptively rendered.

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    Legends often arise when people try to explain a landmark, like a great boulder, or something strange they’ve witnessed. The medieval idea that the dead could rise from their graves and walk among the living as revenants could have sprung from many sources, but what happened at the church of Saint Michael de Rupe (of the rock), Brentor in Devon might well have occurred at other churches too and helped to fuel this belief.

    St Michael’s is a tiny church, built 1,100 feet above sea level, on the top of a tor on Dartmoor, and surrounded by the remains of an iron age hill-fort. The base of the tor is often wreathed in mist, so that church appears to be floating on a cloud. It looks more like a watch tower than a church and many believe that was originally why it was built up there, to act both as chantry chapel and as a beacon because it can be seen as far away as Plymouth Haven.

    Brent’ as well as meaning ‘rock’, also means a loud or strident voice and sometimes the winds blew so hard on the top of the tor that the priest’s voice couldn’t be heard however loudly he shouted. The
    church is still lit by gas light, and candles. There is no electricity up there.

    Churches built over ancient burial grounds, sacred springs or sites of pre-Christian worship where the gods of the underworld and the gods of the air met, were often dedicated to St. Michael. Being an archangel, he has wings, like the old gods of the air, but in medieval times he was thought to guard the gates of Hades, far below the earth. Dedicating a church to him, may have been an attempt to wean the locals off their traditional gods by substituting a saint that was
    similar in function and appearance.

    A survey carried out a few years ago revealed that more supernatural events were recorded in medieval churches named St Michael than in all of the churches dedicated to other saints. If that is true, it may well be because of the strange quirks of the landscape where the St Michael’s churches are built, which is also why those places were regarded as sacred or magical in ancient times.

    As this is certainly the case in St. Michael de Rupe. There is very little earth up on the tor, and wherever the sextons put a spade in the ground, a spring welled up. So in medieval times, or so the story goes, coffins were placed in the crypt, which was only opened when new corpse was to be interred. So you can imagine the consternation of people when on several occasions they opened the crypt to discover the coffins had moved and in some cases, the dead appeared to have clambered out of their coffins and were found lying near the door as if they’d tried to claw their way out.

    High up on the top of a tor, no one at first realised the explanation. The crypt flooded in heavy rain. The coffins floated and in some cases the corpse drifted out. Then the water drained away, leaving the bodies where the water had deposited them.

    The church has a fascinating history and is well worth the climb to visit, especially for the stunning views. But I particularly loved one entry in the church accounts of 1727 –
    "Paid for a book to noat ye names of strange ministers - 3d"

    Was that to ensure those ‘strange’ ministers never got invited to preach again?

    In 1758, there are records of the amounts spent in burying a pauper, which as well as coffin, shroud
    and fees to the parson and sexton, also included 5s 2d spent on cider, 10d for a pint of brandy and 3s 10d for ‘liquer’ at the service.

    If this is typical, perhaps it’s another reason why spirits of the other kind are so often seen at St Michael’s churches.

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    As aviation features in my forthcoming novel, Time of Flight - the latest in a series of detective stories, set in the late 1920s and early 1930s - a visit to the Air Museum at Shuttleworth in Bedfordshire seemed imperative. Here, a marvellous collection of vintage aeroplanes - some dating from before the First World War - is to be found. Everything from a 1909 Bleriot XI (the oldest plane in the collection) to the relatively modern Tiger Moths, DH Comets, Sopwith Pups, Avro Tutors and other magnificent aeroplanes of the period, is on view in a series of hangars, through which one walks in ever-increasing awe.

    The thought that anyone ever managed to get these beautiful but undeniably flimsy-looking machines to fly is astonishing enough; the fact that they are still flown, eighty or a hundred years later, beggars belief. But the museum regularly puts on Air Shows, at which these splendid old aeroplanes take to the air. Included in the collection are gems such as a 1912 Blackburn Monoplane (the oldest aeroplane still flying), resembling nothing so much as a gigantic child’s toy, made out of paper and string, and a 1910 Bristol Box-kite, which looks almost too unwieldy to fly. Aeroplanes were still being constructed out of wood and canvas (actually Irish linen, covered with ‘dope’, or glue, to make it watertight) well into the 1920s, when metal fuselages became the norm.

    This 1916 Sopwith Pup is one of the aeroplanes flown by pilots of the Royal Flying Corps (later the RAF), during the 1914-1918 war. To the dangers inherent in flying such machine through strafing ‘ack-ack’ fire, and the difficulties of keeping a steady enough path for your gunner to direct his own fire at the enemy, was the fact that none of the British ’planes carried parachutes. It was thought that these might encourage cowardice - and a readiness to jettison an expensive machine, by ‘baling out’ too soon. No wonder most pilots carried a revolver with them, to avert a still more terrible death…

    Since my story is set in 1931, I was particularly interested in the ’planes of that era, which seem wonderfully sleek and streamlined, by contrast with the First World War models. Here is a 1931 Tiger Moth (also featured above), developed from the popular De Havilland Gipsy Moth for use as a racing machine.

    And here’s a 1931 Avro Tutor, which, with its ease of handling, would have been ideal for anyone competing in one of the numerous Air Races, such as the annual King’s Cup Race, or the Schneider Race. Flying during the 1930s was a hugely popular spectator sport. Inspired by the record-breaking flights of aviators such as Charles Lindbergh, Amy Johnson, and others, the public of the post-war era found itself becoming increasingly ‘air-minded’, with people being encouraged as a matter of government policy to take to the air. This seems an almost inconceivable attitude today, when we are being encouraged not to fly, and the horrors of climate change are what one thinks of first, when one thinks of air travel.

    But no such qualms troubled the ‘Golden Age’ of flying. And, in that spirit, one can set one’s twenty-first century misgivings aside, and just enjoy the collection for what it has to offer to the enthusiast - or to the novice, like myself. It was started in the 1930s by Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, a wealthy young industrialist and landowner, who indulged his passion for speed and state-of-the-art technology by competing in any race going, on land or in the air.

    Photograph of Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth (1909 - 1940) reproduced by kind permission of the Shuttleworth Trust 

    Obviously something of a daredevil, Shuttleworth amassed a collection of racing cars, including Bugattis and Alfa-Romeos, in one of which he won the first International Grand Prix at Donington in October 1935. Flying soon overtook motor-racing as Shuttleworth’s chief enthusiasm, and, with his friend George Stead, he flew his Comper Swift aeroplane 6,000 miles in order to compete in the Viceroy Trophy Race in India. Shuttleworth’s meteoric career was brought to a tragic end when he was killed piloting test aircraft during the Second World War. His remarkable collection remains - a testimony to the bravery and occasional foolhardiness of ‘those magnificent men…’ (and women) in their flying machines.

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    We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and bandied
    Which way please them.
                John Webster (1580?-1625?), The Duchess of Malfi, IV.iv.52 

    The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
    But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
                William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Julius Caesar, I.ii.134

    It seems appropriate on this astronomically important day, which sees the spring equinox and an eclipse of the sun, to take a brief look at the relationship between celestial bodies and humankind. 

    The two quotations above from near contemporary Renaissance dramatists reflect two diametrically opposed views: is our fate determined at our birth by certain conjunctions of the stars, or is our fate in our own hands? It is the age-old dispute between predestination and freewill, which has torn mankind apart in violent religious disputes. If it is less bitter nowadays, it is perhaps because we live in a largely secular society. 

    When for thousands of years humans lived in a world free of light pollution, it is little wonder that they looked up at a night sky peopled by a changeable moon and wheeling stars and believed that their own lives must be inextricably linked to these distant and unknowable bodies. Early peoples developed extensive astronomical knowledge, as demonstrated by their monuments like Stonehenge:

    and Maes Howe:

    Tales of the gods living amongst the celestial bodies must have existed long before writing and are firmly embedded in the traditions of all early nations. The Greeks saw and named images in the patterns of the stars which we still recognise today in the symbols of the Zodiac.

    The wise men, coming from the east, were led to the birthplace of Jesus by a wandering star, which may have been a comet.

    Comets, even more than fixed stars, evoked wonder by their seeming visitations from some incomprehensible Elsewhere and by their mysterious transit of the heavens. Surely they must foretell some joyous event or – more likely – disaster. The Norman invasion of England:

    Even more terrifying is an eclipse of the sun, when (depending on your religion) the sun is gobbled up and spat out by some monster, or the hand of God blots out the sun as a warning to mankind of His power and mankind’s helplessness. According to Virgil, there was an eclipse of the sun on the day Julius Caesar was murdered:

    If our fate is somehow tied up with the movement and positions of the stars, especially at the moment of our birth, then surely a man skilled in reading the heavens can help us make sense of our lives, warn us of times and places to avoid, inform us of appropriate dates for important ceremonies, even foretell our death. The art of drawing up astrological charts was known to the Romans and persisted right through the Renaissance and beyond, until the development of science in the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment cast scorn on such beliefs.

    Simon Foreman

     Simon Foreman, apothecary, alchemist, astrologer and serial rapist was a contemporary of our dramatists Shakespeare and Webster. He made a very comfortable living out of the preparation of astrological charts for his clients, who came from every walk of life. (At any rate, those who could afford his fees.) 

    John Dee

    Another contemporary, Dr John Dee, mathematician, mystic, book collector, alchemist, astrologer, and amanuensis to angels, cast charts for the greatest in the land. Queen Elizabeth I chose the most auspicious date for her coronation based on his advice, and she was a woman of immense intelligence and learning. It was not merely the ignorant and gullible who believed in the influence of the stars.

    Today, of course, we know better. Or do we? Why, then, do magazines and newspapers persist in publishing predictions based, it is claimed, on reading the stars? And it seems that the ancient debate about predestination versus freewill must continue for ever.

     By the way, I’m a Libra, so that must mean that I am a rational, well-balanced person, mustn’t it?

    Ann Swinfenhttp://www.annswinfen.com

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    There are many good reasons to visit Chichester. There’s a fine cathedral, some brilliant architecture, and a great second-hand bookshop. The library and its staff are also lovely. I know that because I was there on Thursday talking about historical crime fiction with Laura Wilson and Ben Fergusson. I was very glad to be invited, then became frankly over-excited when I realised I now had an excuse to stay the night and visit the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum the following day.

    One of the things Ben, Laura and I discussed at the event was how, as historical novelists, we often have to find voices for people who didn’t leave much in the official record. It was a particular problem with my latest book, Theft of Life, which I’ve blogged about here, but it is common to writers of every period. If you want fully rounded, convincing characters who do not come from the diary-keeping, letter-writing, will-leaving minority you have to work a bit harder. That is what makes a place like Weald and Downland Open Air Museum such a god-send. It is a collection of vernacular buildings from the south east of England dating from the late medieval period to the late 19th century. It’s also a home for the preservation and investigation of the crafts which built them and sustained the people who lived in them.

    We can still walk through some remarkable manor houses and stately homes, but the ordinary dwellings of the majority got over-written or erased from the landscape more often that not, just as the people who lived in them are often absent from the written record.  This place helps fill in the gaps. Each building at the museum is packed with careful reproductions; wooden plates, horn cups and spoons - there’s a working Tudor kitchen, beds complete with straw mattress and blankets made in the original manner and dyed onsite with locally grown plants. And because they are reproductions you allowed to touch. Feel the fabrics, the weight of a leather jug or the warmth from the fire. 

    In Poplar Cottage, the windows are not glazed, but fitted with lattices covered in oiled linen. I’d read about these windows and wondered how much light they would be likely to provide but no informed guesswork is ever going to replace actually standing in the the room. Fascinating for anyone, but the novelist in me just kept wanting to hug people.

    All the volunteers are knowledgeable and friendly. We quizzed Phillip in the mill about construction materials and millwrights, then just enjoyed the sound of the mill working - much quieter than I’d expected, but the whole building vibrates gently, and we ended up in a long discussion about what herbs to mix with the rushes to keep away flies in the Bayleaf Farmstead. Tansy, it turns out, is nature’s fly spray. Oh, and there’s a shire horse… 

    Now this may be one of the times when my fellow history girls all go ‘oh, we go to that place all the time,’ but if any of you haven’t found it yet do go. You may well find me doing one or other of their rural trades and crafts courses. Any year where I can boast I’ve learned to mow with a scythe has got to be a good one. 

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    In many parts of the world, from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa, South East Asia, India and Pakistan the dried and milled leaves of Lawsonia inermis the mignonette tree, also known as the Egyptian privet, are prized. The small shrub has fragrant white or reddish flowers, but it is the elliptical leaves which are mixed with lemon juice and essential oils to produce a cooling, scented paste which imparts an intense rust red dye for the skin and hair.

    The word henna comes from the Arabic hinna. Originating in the Middle East, and sometimes called mehndi or mehendi, adorning the body with henna paste is a tradition dating back thousands of years. Here, at fetes and children's parties it is as common to find a henna artist as a facepainter in the UK or US.

    Each region has its characteristic designs. Khaliji henna of Eastern Arabia and the Persian Gulf, practiced here, employs ornate floral patterns and natural forms. In African designs the motifs are more geometric, and Indian henna is abstract and linear.

    Henna plays an important part in celebrations throughout the year, such as Eid, but it is central to traditional weddings. The night before the wedding is known as laylat ul henna - the night of henna. Artists from a local salon are booked to come to the house of the bride to adorn the women. The paste is ground fresh from the leaves, or applied ready mixed in cones of coloured cellophane rather like piping bags for icing cakes. The tips are cut away to a fine point to allow the artist to deftly paint the designs, squeezing the henna paste through the tube. They are incredibly skilful - I bought a couple of tubes from the local supermarket to have a go at home, and it looked nothing like this:

    Henna symbolises good luck and health, and it is traditional in the Arabian Gulf for the bride to wear a green gown embroidered with gold on henna night - a symbol of new life and abundance. The guests throw petals and money in celebration, and enjoy music and dance. The bride, her female relations and friends settle down to relax and talk as the henna artists paint the intricate patterns on their hands and feet. The process can take hours, during which the person receiving the design cannot move in case the paste smudges. It is an intimate and calming ritual, which necessitates the bride being still and surrounded by the support of her closest female friends and relations, no doubt an excellent practice for pre-wedding nerves. I remember having an intricate tribal pattern applied a few years ago, sitting next to a fully veiled local woman who was having her legs covered from thigh to ankle in ornate flowers. Perhaps it is a way of expressing yourself when so much is forbidden, and hidden.

    It is important to let the paste set and dry - the mud will eventually flake away to reveal the patterns. Sugar and lemon juice can be dabbed on the design to intensify the colour and make the pattern last longer. At first the design will be a light ochre colour, but overnight it deepens to a rich brown. The design is only temporary, and therefore acceptable to Islamic tradition (which forbids permanent tattoos). The intricate floral patterns of khaliji henna will fade gradually over a period of up to three weeks, a lasting reminder to the wearer of family, celebration and good luck.

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    Music affects me in two ways when I’m writing. Firstly, there’s the music that actually occurs in the novel – a lot of Django Reinhart and Louis Armstrong in Last Train from Kummersdorf . When I was writing Saving Rafael, I had a cd called ‘Berlin by Night’ which contained popular music from Germany in the Nazi period. Not, I hasten to add, Nazi songs, but songs ranging from ‘Lili Marleen’ to disguised jazz, given a German title and lyric to make it more acceptable to the authorities. It has ‘Es geht Alles Vorüber’, the smash hit of the end of the war, the one that people played over and over again. Its message: ‘Everything passes, everything goes by, and every December is followed by May’ annoyed Propaganda Minister Goebbels – not martial enough – but that made no difference. My mother associated it, bitterly, with the letter she got telling her her first love had been killed in action – but she did have her Maytime after all, when she met my British father.
    I listened to that cd over and over again, and composed the ‘theme lyric’ for the novel, in slight imitation of a terribly shlocky number that had me frankly laughing my head off. Jenny, in the novel, knew it was trash, but because it was playing the first time she realised Raf was interested in her, it got terribly important to her.
    And yet – the scene where my young hero reaches across the table and starts playing with Jenny’s fingers comes, not from any of those contemporaneous songs, but from Tchaikowsky’s Violin Concerto (in D Major, I believe). I’d been wondering how to write that scene just before I was taken abruptly into hospital to have a tumour taken out of my spine. The second night after my surgery, I had a dreadful moment when I woke up and thought: ‘Somebody’s in pain,’ and then realised it was me – just as authors describe in many novels, and I always thought they’d made it up! But the thing that made me cry was that I thought I’d lost my novel. I got some more opiates from the nurses, calmed myself down – they were dealing with an emergency in the room and the last thing they needed was an author agonising – and then the next morning I was listening to the Tchaikowsky on my personal stereo and suddenly I was in the Café Kranzler again. I’d found the novel! Such a relief, because honestly, it was an awful moment, and I realised how important a companion the novel I’m working on is to me.
    Tchaikowsky wrote the concerto as a love-letter to a young violinist – who didn’t reciprocate his affection – but it is the most passionate, flirtatious, wonderful bit, and the part of the slow movement I was listening to was just like someone playing with their loved one’s fingers. I had something to write on, so I reached out – I had to lie flat in bed – and scrawled it down.
    There’s a jazz cd by Abdullah Ibrahim called ‘Water from an Ancient Well’ that my brother gave me, that I played over and over again while I was writing Kummersdorf.
     Music so often releases something in me, and it’s vitally important to me for that reason. I can’t imagine writing without music. If I didn’t have any of the machines that are our personal musicians nowadays, I’d have to sing for myself, or relearn to play the piano and play every morning, as Jane Austen did. Perhaps that would be better, who knows?
    But I’m a twentieth/twenty-first century writer, though I write historical fiction. My childish imagination was fired by ‘Music and Movement’ and by the stacks of wonderful glossy records, ‘78s, that lived in our house in Kendal – my parents didn’t have a lot of money, so I guess these were left over from a YMCA jumble sale, since my Dad worked for the YM and the house was a YM house. We lived over the office. Anyway, I have wonderful memories of my brother and me, on wet Lake District days, putting on The Night on Bald Mountain, and dancing excitedly to it. And that music surfaced years later when I wrote my novel about a witch persecution in the 17th century, Malefice. 

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    Two men playing at a dicing table. Detail from the Prodigal Son window at Bourges Cathedral
    Note that the chap on the right has no money and is down to his underpants.
    Last month I reviewed LOST LETTERS OF MEDIEVAL LIFE by David Crouch and Martha Karlin.  One of the letters in the collection is from a man refusing to help a friend's shiftless kinsman who has fallen into debt.  Part of the letter calling time on the kinsman says in translation:
    I do not wish, nor am I able to lend him anything of mine for he is an inveterate dice player and he loses everything that he gambles...  He goes on to say that any money lent to the kinsman will disappear the same way and 'those who were with him in the tavern when he lost (either 10 marks, shillings or pounds)...gained everything, right down to his underpants (braccas).

    Plainly gambling away one's wherewithal has been a folly for as long as dice have been around (and probably longer. I hazard that cavemen gambled the odds with bones or stones), but my concern is with the medieval aspect of the the vice.

    Gambling with dice seems to have largely been a male folly. Men were mostly the ones with access to the cash and more leeway to go out losing it.  It was a game associated with drinking, and tended to have a rough, macho element to it.  It could lead to rowdiness, violence and - as in the case of the above mentioned young man - nudity!  Men would get drunk, wager all their money followed by their clothes and possessions.  This is alluded to in many works of literature of the period. Wace, writing of a dice game in the Roman de Brut of 1155 describes it in very similar terms to the above. The man who sat down to play clothed, might arise naked at the close of play.' 

    Another literary source, the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, completed in 1226,  reveals that dice were used to settle disputes.  The argument below is settled by a simple game called 'Highest Points.'
    The poem's hero, William Marshal had won a horse at a tourney but was having trouble obtaining it from its erstwhile owner. In the end, after some discussion, the men agreed to play dice for the animal.  'Let the horse...be the sole property of the man throwing the highest score with three dice.  Isn't that the way? Shall it be so?'
    The men agree and 'Three dice were brought which quickly slipped out of the hand as soon as they were thrown.'
    Which makes one wonder if there were dice that didn't slip out of the hand so easily and if such dice were fixed.
    As it happened, the other man threw a nine and the Marshal threw eleven, so he won the horse, which is as one would expect from a tale lauding our hero!

    The main dice games of the Middle Ages were 'Highest Points' (plus poins)  played as above mentioned with three dice thrown onto a dicing board or table - highest score takes all, Then there was ''Raffle' also played with 3 dice.  In the latter the hope was to throw all three dice alike, or failing that, to throw a pair with a higher value than one's opponent.  Hazard was a dice game very popular from the thirteenth century onwards and the ancestor of the modern game of craps. Its name came from the Arabic word 'al-zahr' meaning a die.  It was played like the other with three dice.  There is only one thrower per round who is decided by agreement of the other players, or by all the players throwing the dice to see who goes first. If the player with his first throw scores a 3,4, 5, 6, 15, 16, 17 or 18, then those scores are called 'hazards' and he wins. If he scores them with his second throw, however, he loses.  If neither his first or second score is a 'hazard' it is called a 'chance' and will be anything between 7 and 14.  He goes on playing until either his first score or second score comes up again. If it's his first score he wins. If it's his second, he loses.
    A replica die owned by the author.
    Bone with a ring and dot design.

    We know from the pipe rolls that King John enjoyed gaming. He gave his illegitimate brother William Longespee money so that he could gamble. and in the summer of 1210 John could be found whiling away the time on his Irish campaign by wagering at dice. He'Lent to to Robert de Ros for play, when he played with Warine FitzGerold at Carlingford, and the King was his Partner, £1.17s 4d whereof he returned 14s 8d. Also to the same Robert £1. 0s 4d when he played with the same Warine, and the King was again his partner in the game. (Praestita roll, 12th year of King John).
    There is a tale from the medieval French Fabliaux in which a minstrel is brought into hell by a demon and left in charge of all the souls there while the devils go out looking for more. St. Peter turns up in their absence and plays dice with the minstrel until he wins all the souls the latter is supposed to be watching for the devils and promptly leads them out of hell and up to heaven.  The minstrel is in dire trouble when the devils return to find the place empty. They decide he's a rotten servant and throw him out.  He runs all the way to heaven and St. Peter lets him in, and that, says the tale is why minstrels, among other rogues and gamblers are refused entry into hell!

    A game of dice chess.  The Prodigal Son Window Chartres Cathedral. Again, no money and he's
    lost most of his clothes!
    Chess at this time was sometimes played with dice too, adding in an element of chance to the game. It  was seen as slightly inferior and less intellectual than unadulterated chess and as a game slightly more fit for ladies' to play than straight dice, the chess element lending it the respectability of a parlour rather than tavern game, although it could be both. A lady who gambled with dice was risking her reputation, although it was considered acceptable to do so in a social context if the company was mixed and the men put up the money for the stakes.  This happened for example in 1260 when Count Alphonse of Poitiers, brother of King Louis IX invited everyone to play dice in his chamber and paid for the ladies' stakes himself so that no one was embarrassed and no reputations called into question.

    Dice and shaker. Museum of London.

    The dice themselves were generally rather small and usually carved from bone with ring and dot patterns marking out the six sides. They are frequent finds on archaeological dig sites.  The dice were sometimes fraudulent. The set above which can be seen in the Museum of London are all fixed.  Three only have high numbers and three only low. The rest are weighted with mercury to fall the same way every time.  The pewter shaker in which they were found was originally a pot for birdseed.

    Although it is often said that the past is a different country, I am often struck by the similarities between then and now. Some things are hard wired.  My personal view is that the past is the same country, but just a few bus stops further back. Crane our necks that little bit further, and we can catch sight of our ancestors in the distance.  Gambling has gone digital in a huge way and TV programmes bombard us with late night adverts to be cool and get down to the online casino. Where presumably some of us, in the grip of too much wine and adrenaline will end up losing our virtual underwear!

    Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of several best-selling novels set in the Middle Ages including THE GREATEST KNIGHT about William Marshal and THE SUMMER QUEEN and THE WINTER CROWN about Eleanor of Aquitaine. She is currently working on her third novel in the Eleanor trilogy THE AUTUMN THRONE.

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    The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

    The Zone of Interest is a terrifying book by a writer who inhabits his subject with passion. The foul details of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz Birkenau (called Kat Zet in the novel), are gut churning in their reality. Only the sickest imagination could have conjured up the scenes Amis portrays, but no imagination brought them into being. This is not a fantasy. The horrors are real. The Zone of Interest is a historical novel, written with respect for its terrible subject.
    There are few linguistic fireworks in this book, and the writing forbears to draw attention to itself. Any humour is subtle, and arises from the manifest absurdity of the Nazi project and the monstrous buffoonery of the camp commandant, Paul Doll.
    But The Zone of Interest is also a love story, and the reader is forced into feeling some empathy for the main character, Angelus Thomsen, the nephew of Martin Bormann, a cynic and womaniser who becomes disenchanted with the Nazi regime as he becomes erotically obsessed with Hannah, the camp commandant's unhappy wife.
    The character of Szmul, the head of the Jewish Sonders, whose job it was to clear away the ghastly remains of the murder machine, remains understandably more opaque. There was a place here where even Amis did not dare to go.
    The subject of the Shoah has been treated in recent novels with sentimentality that belittles the horror. It is a subject that deserves only the greatest reverence and respect which Martin Amis accords it in this unforgettable novel.

    The Lie by Helen Dunmore

    In The Lie, set straight after the First World War, Helen Dunmore delves with great sensitivity into the enduring trauma of guilt and grief that so many survivors had to suffer.

    Daniel Bramwell, a young man without a family, returns to his native Cornwall for want of anywhere better to go. He is given a rudimentary shelter by Mary Pascoe, an old woman in her last illness, and he sets about growing vegetables on her patch of land. When she dies, he follows her request and buries her in her own garden. The small lies that he is forced to tell become greater and greater and soon dominate his life.

    Suffering from guilt and shell-shock, Daniel is haunted by his memories, particularly by his failure to save the life of Frederick Dennis, his childhood friend and "blood brother" who had become his commanding officer. Frederick appears to him in nightmares, reeking of earth, "exposed in all its filth, corrosive, eating away at the bodies that had to live in it."
    But there is more than horror in this novel. There is tenderness in Daniel's care for old Mary Pascoe, in his attempt to bring her garden back to life, and above all in his growing friendship with Felicia, Frederick's sister, who is herself wounded by grief and loss.

    Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre

    Venetia Stanley was one of the great beauties of Charles 1st's court. Painted by Van Dyck and celebrated by Ben Johnson, she had all the star quality of a Marilyn Monroe or Lady Diana of a later era. But as she reached middle age, and her beauty began to fade, she went to desperate lengths to try to preserve it, recruiting the charlatan physician Lancelot Choice and becoming addicted to his potion, Viper Wine.
    There's a terrific verve to this exuberant and inventive novel which hurtles along at a thrilling pace, sweeping into its embrace great characters from Charles 1st's court, such as Venetia's husband, the alchemist Sir Kenelm Digby, Cornelis Drebbel, the eccentric inventor who launched a submarine into the Thames, other great beauties at Court, notable lords of the time and King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria themselves.

    Opinions will be divided on the eruption of the twentieth century into the text, via special powers enjoyed by Venetia's husband Sir Kenelm, but they are all part of the fun in this youthful and hugely enjoyable novel.

    In the Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds

    A new novel by Adam Foulds is to be keenly anticipated, and this one fulfils all expectations. His spare, sharply observed writing brings to life a moment in Sicily at the end of the Second World War, when the Allies unwittingly facilitated the return to power of the Mafia, which Mussolini had strenuously attempted to suppress. 

    The novel opens on a remote and rocky hillside, where Angilu, a young shepherd, is forced to surrender his sheep to Ciro Albanese, a local Mafioso. The old cards of corruption and connivance are reshuffled as the Allies arrive to liberate Sicily from the Fascists. Will Walker, an English officer, and Ray Marfione, an Italian American soldier, struggle to understand what is happening in the country they are occupying, their efforts impeded by incompetent superiors.

    Adam Foulds has spun an intricate web of lives, in which the forces unleashed by war draw everyone out of their familiar worlds. Forced to operate in strange and shifting circumstances, the characters each bring with them the baggage of the worlds from which they come, and inevitably collide in misunderstandings.

    Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

    Arctic Summer is a book of profound compassion and sensitivity. It recreates the inner life and emotions of Morgan Forster (E.M.Forster), his yearning for romance and affection, and the lonely agony of being homosexual (a "minorite" in Forster's words) in a hostile and unsympathetic world.
    The book draws heavily on Forster's own diaries and letters and Galgut's depth of research is impressive, but it is a novel, not a fictionalised biography. The long, unproductive years between Howard's End and A Passage to India are fully imagined, and the characters who inhabit Forster's life and emotions are vivid and touching.

    The novel follows Forster's slow progression towards the writing of A Passage to India. He embarks on a journey to India to visit his Indian friend Syed Ross Mahmood. His love for Syed is unrequited, and this is a relationship that can never satisfy him. There is more affection in his affair with an Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed el Adl, and the scenes in both India and Egypt are vividly evoked.

    It was on his second visit to India that Forster began to understand the corrupting effect of power on love, as he struggles with his feelings for a barber at the court of the Maharajah of Dewas. Galgut shows how Forster's emotional journeys are  preludes to the writing of A Passage to India, surely one of the most profound studies of colonialism, power and love ever written.

    A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

    The mark of a novel worth reading must surely be that it plays out a moral argument, and A God in Every Stone achieves this with vigour, passion and style. It careers along with unstoppable momentum, scooping up characters, attitudes, places and ideas and meshing them into stirring political events in Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and India.

    The story opens in 1914. Vivian Rose is a young Englishwoman who is in love with Tahsin Bey, a Turkish archaeologist. Following a hint he had sent her, she travels to Peshawar. There her life becomes entangled with two men, the former soldier Qayyum Gul, who has returned wounded and angry from the horrors of trench warfare in France, and his young brother Najeeb.
    As the push for Indian independence gathers momentum, the characters find themselves forced to take sides in the struggle. Here Kamila Shamsie shows her true understanding of what it is like to live through violent civil unrest. Events, like shards of broken glass, are fragmentary. They follow each other at frightening speed, and it's only afterwards that the pieces can be put together and some kind of picture revealed.

    At its heart this is a story of betrayal, broken loyalties and the crumbling of empires under the onslaught of war, big themes brilliantly illuminated in this ambitious novel.

    The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling

    The central character of this mesmerising novel is Wang Meng, a bureaucrat who lived in the fourteenth century during the final years of the Yuan dynasty, as a new Ming emperor swept away the old and brought a new dynasty to power. But Wang Meng was also a master painter, some of whose exquisite landscape paintings are still treasured in China today.

    Wang Meng sought a quiet life, wishing to devote himself to the creation of works of art, a process which John Spurling follows in passages of serene beauty. But China is in turmoil and the artist is inevitably pulled into the maelstrom, meeting along the way powerful characters such as the White Tigress, a warrior queen, other master painters devoted to their art, and a restless young monk who will rise to the heights of power. Others spring to life: Wang Meng's beloved servant Deng, Jasmine the good-time girl, and the Emperor Zhu himself.

    In spite of the stirring events it portrays, there are no literary histrionics in The Ten Thousand Things. The writing is spare, enriched with perfectly placed details and a vivid sense of place, so that fourteenth century China unrolls before us like one of Wang Meng's painted scrolls.

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    In aditu autem ipso stabat ostiarius prasinatus, cerasino succinctus cingulo, atque in lance argentea pisum purgabat. Super limen autem cavea pendebat aurea in qua pica varia intrantes salutabat.

    "At the entrance of Trimalchio's townhouse stood the doorkeeper, decked out in grass green and belted with a cherry-red sash. He was shelling peas on a silver platter. Above the threshold hung a golden cage in which a particoloured magpie greeted all those who entered." 

    The Satyricon of Petronius XXVIII

    I love these lines from Petronius's Satyricon – a book written in Latin 2000 years ago in the age of Nero – because they give us a wonderfully vivid snapshot of a scene from ancient Rome. Or perhaps instead of snapshot I should say gif because you get a shudder of animation as you read it.

    You can almost see the door-slave in bright green with the red sash, perhaps leaning against the doorframe, cradling the silver platter in the crook of his left arm while he uses his right hand to shell the darker green peas with little pops. Above his head swings the golden cage with the chattering magpie inside, fluttering his white and petrol blue wings.
    In those two Latin lines are colour, movement, taste, sound, smell and humour. All elements, incidentally, that memory masters like Tony Buzan encourage us to use when we want to fix something in our memory. 

    I love colours and the words that describe them. I especially love colour-words with attached synaesthetic qualities: movement, scent, sound. 

    Peacock blue shimmers. 

    Rose pink smells delicious. 

    Silver makes me think of bells. 

    Best of all are colours associated with taste: chocolate, vanilla, tomato, peanut butter, mocha, orange, whisky and bubblegum. Yum.

    But wait! I write historical fiction and all the taste-colour words I just listed are anachronistic because none of them existed in Imperial Rome.

    What to do? 

    Taking a leaf out of Petronius's codex, I started using taste-colours that the Romans would have known about: nutmeg-coloured tunic, sea-green eyes, tawny hair, etc. 

    Procrastinating one day by surfing Twitter, I came across this Writers' Color Thesaurus, a visual prompt to "help you name any color imaginable". 

    Because I don't quite agree with all the shades, I thought it would be fun to make my own Pinterest scrapbook of colours that would be allowed in Roman times. 

    Because I am linking the colour to an object, I get a special flavour (sometimes literally) for each colour. So a visual thesaurus like this is great for poets as well as writers of historical fiction. 

    Here are some of the tasty colours I've uploaded: nutmeg, cinnamon, peach, pear, mulberry, grape, pomegranate, pear green, cherry, pistachio, cream, milk, whey, clove, celery and almond.

    Here are some luxury colours: gold, amber, silver, amethyst, green bronze, lapis lazuli, ivory, cinnabar red, egyptian blue, emerald green and frankincense. 

    Here are some textured colours: charcoal grey, dove grey, peacock blue, rust orange, tawny, moss green, egg yolk yellow, eggshell beige, bran and mud. 

    Here are some fragrant colours: pine green, violet, mint, salmon, beeswax, sardine, lavender and grass. 

    Here are some sinister colours: blood red, bone white and coal black. 

    And as with all good synaesthesia, some colours can do more than one thing. Check out my Ancient Roman Colour Thesaurus. I hope it inspires you to create your own!

    Roman Mysteries author Caroline Lawrence has just signed up to write four history-mystery books for kids set in Roman Britain in the year AD 94. With a provisional series title of Seekers of Britannia, the first book, Escape from Rome, will be published in May 2016.  

    Warnning: Do NOT Get Caught While Searching!!
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    Before you searching always remember to change your IP adress to not be followed!
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    It was Casanova’s birthday this week.

    He was born on April 2nd, 1725.

    A little celebration was in order, I thought.

    A man so gifted in many ways was not adverse to gifts himself. He loved novelty of all kinds.

    I gave Casanova words for his birthday. He liked words, and was a great connoisseur of them. He was also keen on oysters, stinking ripe cheese, the smell of a woman’s sweat, but I couldn’t deliver any of those items to his sadly unmarked grave in Bohemia.

    My gift was in fact one I’d prepared earlier, and published in my first novel for adults, Carnevale, which tells the story of Cecilia Cornaro, a young portrait painter who becomes one of Casanova’s lovers. I believe it was the first novel written from the point of view of a woman who loved him. The book is about to be reissued by Bloomsbury with a new cover.

    I’m not the only one celebrating Casanova at the moment.

    My gift of words is to be displayed as part of Il Grande Mosaico, Opus magnum, a collection of tiny canvases on the most controversial of Venetians. Only in this prismatic way can one hope to glimpse even a paltry proportion of the many sides of this fascinating character, who was, in his time, a trainee priest, a necromancer, a violinist, the author of a science fiction novel, a philosopher, a diplomat, an inventor, a spy.

     The idea is the masterpiece of Manuel Carrión of the Carrión Gallery, founded in January 2014 at the Giudecca.

    Here is how I made my tile.

    Obviously, I began with the poem ...

                                             Casanova's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

    First, you need the lips to eat it.

    Lips of purple heather, lips of persimmon, lips like mandarin skins scraped through honey.

    And then the occasion to eat it.

     The first time you make love to her, the last time you make love to her, one of the times in between (may they be many, or at least long).

    Of course you also need the sweet wine to moisten it.
    With the soul of a bottle inside you, your tongue sees more clearly. This is true, be it Falernian, Scopolo, Tokay, Burgundy, pink partridge-eye Champagne, or that liquid chalk they make in Orvieto. No matter. Maraschino from Dalmatia, even, with cinnamon and sugar. Or milk. Once I myself, on my knees, suckled from the rose-pink spigot of a young mother in Milan.

    In those days, I had teeth.

    Where was I? O yes, chocolate cake.

    Then you need a bed.
     A bed to lie on, a bed to feed on, sleep on, in which to lose the crumbs to lick off the next morning.

    And a surprise is always acceptable, too.

    A snuffbox with a secret spring, an unexpected dearth or luxuriance of hair,
    a fruit preserved for just this moment,

    a virgin who proves as amorous as a pigeon.

    Oh, and yes, you need a chocolate cake, too.
     Send out for one immediately!

    (from Carnevale 2001)
    A birthday present needs attractive packaging. So I made my unusual shopping list of images - spigot, breast, chocolate cake, snuffbox ... Then I searched my collection of ephemera to find them. I used to be a packager of illustrated books, so I happen to have useful drawers full of images for 'devices', 'death' and 'body parts'.

    I found what I wanted and arranged them around the poem.

    Then glued them.
    And photographed my tile

    And sent it to indefatigable Rosemary Wilmot who’s been kindly coordinating the UK end of operations for the Carrión Gallery. She and her husband Brian had it printed to the right size and mounted on the tile … to go to Venice.

    So Happy Birthday, Casanova.

    Wish I could blow out your candles.



    Michelle Lovric’s website

    Here's a sneak preview of the new Carnevale jacket at left.
    The Bloomsbury edition is out in June.

    You can see all the Casanova tiles here:

     Carrión Gallery
    Venetian Soho
    Giudecca 317
    30133 Venezia (VE)
    +39 335 1587654
    +39 328 3526992

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    Three weeks ago I was in Leicester for the re-interment of King Richard III. Amidst the modest but beautiful ceremonies and the sincerity of the thousands who lined the streets and queued for hours to pay their respects at his coffin, there was something else: the television imperative to keep talking in excited voices even when there was nothing new to say.


    Richard III, by Graham Turner
    ‘Why?’ asked presenter Jon Snow, so forcefully I thought he might levitate clean out of his chair, ‘Why on earth would a King risk his own neck by going into battle?’ 

    Granted, the Royal Health & Safety Directorate would advise against it these days, but seriously, it was a question that encapsulates our difficulty of getting into a medieval frame of mind. It’s too easy for us to think of the 15th century as being like the 21stcentury but without indoor plumbing.

    Why would a King risk his life leading a cavalry charge? Because he was a warrior, that's why, trained from childhood in military skills, and because in the 15th century might was right. There was no arbitration. Battlefields were where crowns were won or lost.  

    Did Richard fear for his life that August morning at Bosworth Field? Like every other soldier mustered there he knew how flimsy the veil is that separates life from death. Death was a fact of daily life. Richard’s wife, whom he apparently loved, had died, but he was already thinking of the Plantagenet succession and shopping for another bride.  His only child had died too. There was nothing remarkable about that either.

    Richard’s personal Book of Hours shows us that like all his contemporaries he lived in the fear of God and the hope of salvation, and if Jon Snow had been around on the eve of the battle to ask him why he insisted on riding forth the next morning, you can be sure that King Richard would have been baffled by the question. His world view was not the same as ours.

    It’s a problem every historical novelist faces, to get beneath the sallet and the wimple and into the minds of people who saw the world very differently than we see it today. Tudor historian David Starkey misses no opportunity to sneer at historical novelists but here’s the thing: ‘Serious’ historians aren’t so very different from us.  There are facts and figures, verifiable to a certain extent. Interpretation of them is a matter of joining the dots.  A novelist aims to join the dots in an engaging and entertaining way. When they succeed they may whet a reader’s appetite to know more and to read to read more widely and even more deeply. Nothing wrong with that, Dr Starkey.   

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    On 19th February 1999 President Clinton officially pardoned Lt. Henry O.Flipper in a ceremony at the White House.

    I hadn’t heard of Henry Flipper until I started researching Buffalo Soldier.  Here’s an extract from the President’s speech.

    “The man we honor today was an extraordinary American. Henry Flipper did all his country asked him to do. Though born a slave in Georgia, he was proud to serve America: the first African American graduate of West Point; the first African American commissioned officer in the regular United States Army. He showed brilliant promise and joined the 10th Cavalry. While stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he perfected a drainage system that eliminated the stagnant water, and malaria, plaguing the fort. Still known as "Flipper's Ditch," it became a national landmark in 1977. He distinguished himself in combat on the frontier, and then was transferred to run a commissary at Fort Davis in Texas.

    In 1881, Lt. Flipper was accused by his commanding officer of improperly accounting for the funds entrusted to him. A later Army review suggested he had been singled out for his race, but at the time there wasn't much justice available for a young African American soldier. In December, a court-martial acquitted him of embezzlement, but convicted him of conduct unbecoming an officer. President Chester A. Arthur declined to overturn the sentence, and in June of 1882, Lt. Flipper was dishonorably discharged.

    His life continued. He became a civil and mining engineer out West. He worked in many capacities for the government, as special agent for the Department of Justice; as an expert on Mexico for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. He died in 1940, at the age of 84. But even after his death, this stain of dishonor remained. One hundred and seventeen years have now elapsed since his discharge. That's a long time, even more than the span of his long life. More than half the history of the White House, indeed, of the United States itself. And too long to let an injustice lie uncorrected.

    The army exonerated him in 1976, changed his discharge to honorable and reburied him with full honors. But one thing remained to be done, and now it will be. With great pleasure and humility, I now offer a full pardon to Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper of the United States Army. This good man now has completely recovered his good name. It has been a trying thing for the family to fight this long battle, to confront delays and bureaucratic indifference, but this is a day of affirmation. It teaches us that, although the wheels of justice turn slowly at times, still they turn. It teaches that time can heal old wounds and redemption comes to those who persist in a righteous cause. Most of all, it teaches us -- Lt. Flipper's family teaches us -- that we must never give up the fight to make our country live up to its highest ideals. Outside of this room Henry Flipper is not known to most Americans. All the more reason to remember him today. His remarkable life story is important to us, terribly important, as we continue to work -- on the edge of a new century and a new millennium -- on deepening the meaning of freedom at home, and working to expand democracy and freedom around the world, to give new life to the great experiment begun in 1776. This is work Henry Flipper would have been proud of. Each of you who worked so hard for this day is a living chapter in the story of Lt. Flipper. I thank you for your devotion, your courage, your persistence, your unshakable commitment. I thank you for believing, and proving, that challenges never disappear, but in the long run, freedom comes to those who persevere.”

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    I thought I’d run out of things to say about Wolf Hall when my attention was drawn to Laura Miller’s article in Salon, in which she responds to the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall in the context of other Tudor texts. In it Miller sings the praises of Mantel’s serious approach to a period that she scathingly describes as ‘for chicks,’ applauding the way the author draws out the idea of the Tudor period marking the break from Medieval feudalism and the beginning of the modern world, with the increase of social mobility in figures like Cromwell.

    This is all well and good and cogently argued, but Miller also takes an opportunity to serve a crushing and sweeping blow to pretty much all other fictional material set in the period. She compares Mantel’s ‘high-brow’ approach with what she disparagingly terms ‘princess novels’ or Tudor set fiction that is focused on women’s lives. Her main point being that such fiction foregrounds lascivious sex and scandal and in so doing makes it no different to schlocky high-school teen dramas.

    Philippa Gregory comes in for a particularly contemptuous drubbing, accused of digging out uninteresting female figures from the past and padding out their stories with romance that has no historical validity. Though Miller makes her point well and there is legitimacy to some of what she says, certainly about the gratuitous soft-porn elements of the Showtime series The Tudors, and the wilful manipulation of history in the teen drama Reign, what she overlooks is the serious nature of some of the themes of much Tudor set fiction.

    Even the more commercial, romance led, Tudor novels have a profound darkness that makes them a poor comparison to the teen dramas cited. Yes, there are parallels to situations in which young women are living at close quarters and competing for prestige. Miller correctly points out that in such novels much is made of clothing but refrains from exploring the value and symbolic resonance of women’s clothing in these texts. For the Tudors, an upstart family with a tenuous grip on the throne, clothing was a crucial indication of status and thus merits description. Indeed Mantle also employs, to great effect, descriptions of clothing to create a sense of the importance of the outward representation of rank and affiliation through apparel within the courtly arena, where position and allegiance were of primary significance.

    The cumbersome clothing women were laced into was also a part of the broader denial of female freedom in much the same way 21st century women living in fundamentalist Islamic communities are required to cover and restrict their bodies. The early modern female body was a precious commodity and was at once expected to be a site of allure and yet also to be contained and kept out of sight to guard its value.

    To view such narratives as inconsequential refuses to acknowledge that for these Tudor ‘princesses’ the stakes were vertiginously high. They describe a world in which young women were brutally murdered for political ends and had to negotiate a dangerous path through a male power structure that gave them no agency.

    Surely any woman who can gain even a modicum of power in an oppressively misogynist system merits having her story told, and many of the generation of serious historians who are rediscovering such stories would agree. It is unhelpful to regard all such fiction as romantic clap-trap that uses sex as its narrative drive, when marriage was the primary route to power for women. What is noteworthy about these stories is that it becomes impossible to separate sexual and state policy. Princesses are interesting because of, rather than in spite of, the power that was invested in their bodies, and how they used that power makes for fascinating reading.

    By comparing a novel about Anne Boleyn to Gossip Girl, Miller is refusing to acknowledge that these privileged young women are unlike their contemporary counterparts because their stories are inherently tragic – real tragedy that ends in brutal death – when he worst outcome in teen drama is social ostracisation. What could be more pitiful than the execution of of Catherine Howard. Yes, she may have been a shallow girl preoccupied with love (she was seventeen, for goodness' sake) but her life was caught up in a political vortex over which she had no control and as such it is worth inspecting as a means to understand the extraordinary lack of power such women – even queen consorts – had in those days. These women were rendered shallow and infantalised by the paternal hegemony to which they belonged. To compare them with modern women who have sexual and professional freedom, who are educated and, importantly, choose to be largely concerned with superficial matters is missing the point.

    Early modern women had no freedom, yet they found ways to make themselves heard. For the first time the humanist project, led in England by Thomas More, encouraged education for women, albeit for a limited and privileged cohort, which was surely an important social change that merits our attention. Take Katherine Parr for example, a minor queen of apparently little political importance, but few are aware that she was one of the first women to publish an original text in the English language. At a time when women were obliged to be silent and submissive, to publish religious political texts was an audacious and dangerous act. Indeed these educated females laid the ground for an unprecedented half-century of female rule in England. To say such lives are not worth examining and reduce them to little more than titillating tales, plays into the hands of the misogyny that sought to silence them in the first place.

    Because Cromwell’s story is essentially one of social mobility and money, doesn’t automatically invest it with greater legitimacy, as Miller suggests, indeed it could be said that as women’s bodies were a currency traded at the highest level their stories have equal importance from a socio-economic perspective. Social mobility too was mediated through the bodies of women. Consider how the minor landed gentry such as the Seymours and the Parrs became elevated in such a way. These women’s lives provide a vital key in understanding the period, so please let’s not do as David Starkey has long done, and dismiss them as trivial.

    Elizabeth Fremantle is the author of Tudor trilogy: Queen's Gambit, Sisters of Treason and Watch the Lady. ElizabethFremantle.com

    Queen's Gambit, about the life of Katherine Parr, has been chosen for World Book Night.

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    I have been focusing quite a bit on war recently so I thought for this month’s blog I would choose a subject that is closer to home and of a lighter aspect.
    A love story. This true story is set along the Côte d’Azur, the Blue Coast, but it began in the north of France in Lille.

    In 1908 in the town of Hazebrouck near Lille a boy, Aimé, was born to a railway employee and his wife, Monsieur et Madame Maeght. At the outbreak of WWI, Monsieur Maeght set off for the war never to return. Worse, the family home was destroyed. Aimé, now six years old, along with his mother and three siblings, was evacuated to the Gard in the south by the Red Cross. Aimé was bright and he was passionate about art, poetry and music. After a brilliant school career, he attended art school in Nimes, but he decided he could not pursue his artistic ambitions because he had the responsibility of his family to consider. He turned instead to the printing trade and decided to study lithography. Once he had gained his engraver’s diploma, he had no difficulty finding himself a job with a printer in Cannes. He was twenty-one years old with, it is reported, “spades of charm”. He joined the choir in the church in the Suquet.

    Within a year, he had met a local girl, Marguerite Devaye. She was the daughter of wealthy trades people. They married the following year. He was twenty-three. She, nineteen. In 1930, Adrien, their first son was born. Their lives were blessed. Aimé was bursting with ambition and plans. In 1932, whilst still empoyed at the same printer’s, he opened his own shop near to the famous seafront, La Croisette, and christened it Arte. He began exhibiting paintings in the window. Soon, Aimé’s print shop was also a gallery. Pierre Bonnard, who lived in the hillside village of Le Cannet overlooking Cannes, visited the gallery and requested of Aimé that he colour his lithographs.

    Bonnard’s request was the turning point in Aimé Maeght’s life. A friendship between them was born. From hereon, the greatest names in modern art frequented Aimé and Marguerite’s lives.

                                                           Marguerite Maeght, Henri Matisse

    When the war broke out, Aimé discreetly put his printing presses at the services of the Résistance, whose leader, Jean Moulin, opened a gallery in Nice as a cover for the underground work he was doing. In 1943, when Jean Moulin was arrested (he died from wounds inflicted by the Gestapo on a train to Germany), Bonnard begged the Maeghts to move inland. Their second son, Bernard, had been born the year before. They moved to Le Mas des Orangers, a villa outside Vence. Henri Matisse was a near neighbour. Marguerite sat for Matisse for a series of charcoal paintings.

    After the Liberation, the Maeghts, encouraged by their celebrated friends, opened a gallery in Paris, the renowned Galerie Maeght. Aimé soon became one of the twentieth century’s most respected art dealers and art publishers. The Maeght lives were blessed, until tragedy struck.

    In 1953 their second son, Bernard, died of leukemia. The couple were, understandably, heartbroken. Fernand Leger advised them to take a trip to America. A month after their son’s death Braque visited Aimé. Here is what Aimé wrote of that visit:
    ‘When Braque came to see me in Saint-Paul a month after the death of my little boy, I was in the depths of despair. He said, “Since you want to do something that goes beyond the business of art dealing, that you seem to despise, and I understand you, do something here, something without a speculative purpose, that would enable us artists to exhibit sculpture and painting in the best possible conditions of light and space. Do it, I will help you.” ’
    "Create something that will live on after you…" encouraged Braque.

    And the seed was sown...

    Whilst in the United States, the couple visited the private art foundations of Guggenheim, Barnes and Phillips and were very impressed. Although still deep in grief they decided, upon their return, to build a property near their home to house their private art collection. At that time, they were not intending it to be open to the public. It was to be a haven for artists, writers, poets; somewhere to congregate and share their ideas. Miró and Braque in their different ways encouraged the Maeght couple to create a space where exhibitions could be held, where young, lesser known artists could also participate.

                                              A part of the Joan Miró Labyrinth. The Artwork is
                                                       La Fourche, or The Fork and the Devil

    "The night gradually rises from the hills of Provence, all the way to Miró's Fork and Devil,"             wrote André Malraux.

    A beautiful pine-clad hillside outside the village of Saint-Paul de Vence is the location. The Catalan architect, Josep Lluis Sert, who had just finished designing a studio for Miró in Mallorca, was brought in to assist. However, the local prefecture refused the planning permit. It was only when the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, stepped in that the project was given the green light. Malraux, a writer himself, was a man of passion and vision.

    One astounding moment during the preparations for the foundations was the discovery of a ruined chapel on the land. Marguerite saw this a good omen. The Maeght couple restored it and it has been integrated into the labyrinthine structure displaying splendid stained glass windows designed by Braque and Raoul Ubac. It is the Chapel Bernard.

    The construction took four years. Artists and workmen picnicked together regularly on the site. Sadly, Braque died the year before completion.

    On the 28th July 1964, the Fondation Maeght was inaugurated by André Malraux (also a former member of the French Resistance) who in his opening discourse declared, “this is not a museum”. An accurate observation:  It is indeed an indoor/outdoor structure created by the artists and architects themselves, a Mediterranean playground full of joy and colour. A marriage of art and nature. The inauguration dinner was held in the Giacometti courtyard. Ella Fitzgerald and Yves Montand were the evening's concert. The Maeghts had financed everything themselves. It is their monument to their departed son, Bernard. Today, its director is Adrien Maeght, older brother of long-deceased Bernard.


    Earlier this week, while still waiting for editorial input on The Last Domain, I decided to give myself a treat. It is spring here, full-blown. warm and flower-filled. A day out on my own seemed long overdue, so I set off for the Fondation Maeght, situated a ten-minute walk outside the ramparts of the medieval village of Saint-Paul. It is in the final throes of celebrating its fiftieth anniversary last year.
    Here follow a small selection of the photographs I took at this serene and magical place.

                                                                    Giant Seed, Jean Arp

                                                             Les Renforts,  Alexander Calder

    Giacometti figures in the Giacometti Courtyard

    Fountaine, Pol Bury  

                                                               Personage,  Joan Miró

    I want to close with an extract from a correspondence sent to Miró from Aimé Maeght:
    "Yes, my dear Joan, we will create a unique work in the world that will remain in time and in minds as evidence of our civilization, that through wars, social and scientific upheavals will leave humanity one of the purest spiritual and artistic messages of all time. These are the stories I want to make visible to the generations that follow us and to show our grandchildren that in our very materialistic age the spirit remained present and very effective thanks to men like you."
    29th August 1959

    Marguerite Maeght died in 1977. Aimé Maeght followed her, his most loyal ally, on 5th September 1981. Both are buried in the cemetery of Saint-Paul de Vence. Chagall lies nearby.
    Alongside her octogenarian father, Adrien Maeght, Aimé and Marguerite's granddaughter, Isabelle, presides over the foundation now. It remains a family affair. And, in my opinion, an inspirational love story.


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