So what’s in your coat pocket? And are you, like me, also hauling around a shoulder bag that feels like it’s full of rocks?
When a person is found murdered there can be few things more eloquent than the possessions found on them. This was especially true of the women killed by Saucy Jack in Whitechapel in 1888. They all lodged in doss houses and whatever they possessed in the world they either pawned for a bit of cash to tide them over or carried with them at all times.
I’ll begin with Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, officially the first of the Ripper’s victims. I believe there’s a strong case for making Martha Tabram his first victim but as I’ve been unable to find a police record of her possessions I’ll say no more about her in this post.
It was a late August night when Polly Nichols was killed, thundery and not particularly cool. Nevertheless she was wearing an ulster overcoat, a dress, two petticoats, stays, a pair of flannel drawers, a bonnet and spring-sided boots. In her pocket she had just three items: a comb, a handkerchief and a piece of mirror. Where Polly had been lodging, at the White House on Flower and Dean Street, a piece of mirror would have been a prized possession.
Twelve days later Annie Chapman was killed.
Her clothing was similar to Polly’s-a coat, a skirt, two bodices, two petticoats, wool stockings, a neckerchief and a pair of lace-up boots.Multiple petticoats were the norm. They kept you warm while you trudged the streets and anyway, where else would you keep them when you never knew where you’d be sleeping from one night to the next? The contents of Annie’s pockets were even more wretched: a scrap of muslin, two combs and two unidentified pills screwed up in a piece of old envelope. The post mortem revealed that Annie suffered from advanced tuberculosis for which, of course, there was then no remedy. The pills could have been anything. Hooper’s Female Pills, Dr Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, it’s anyone’s guess.
Three weeks later the Ripper struck again. September 30th, the night of what has become known as The Double Event. First, Lizzie Stride, out drinking and looking for trade. She was wearing a fur-trimmed jacket, a skirt, two petticoats, a bodice, a chemise, stockings and boots, and a bonnet. Sometime between leaving the lodging house and meeting her killer she had also acquired a nosegay which was found pinned to her jacket. Did Jack give it to her? We can never know.In her pockets: two handkerchiefs, a thimble, a scrap of muslin, a length of wool wound onto a card, a small key, a stub of pencil, two combs, a spoon, and a few buttons.
And then Kate Eddowes, killed the same night, on Mitre Square. She is for me perhaps the most vivid of all the Ripper’s victims with the varying fortunes of her life and her relentless decline. The list of her clothes and personal effects makes for the saddest of inventories. A cloth jacket, a skirt, three petticoats, a man’s vest, a bodice, a chemise, stockings, boots, a neckerchief, a bonnet, and three tie-on aprons or pockets as they were then called. In the pockets: two clay pipes, one small tin containing tea, one small tin containing sugar, various pieces of fabric with pins and needles, six scraps of soap, a comb, a teaspoon, a length of string, a button, a thimble, a pair of spectacles, one mitten, and an old mustard tin containing two pawn tickets.
The worldly goods of a forty six year old woman who had worked every day of her adult life. Imagine.
The Night in Question by Laurie Graham is published by Quercus.
“I have never had a book launch but woke up vaguely toying with the idea of doing one for Hell and High Water. In my mind it's an elegant affair, on the deck of a ship perhaps, with me in black velvet, chilled champagne in one hand, having elegant, witty conversations with wise and charming people. In reality 50 + years of life experience have taught me that: a) I am rubbish at organising events b) If I did organise one I would have MONTHS of sleepless nights beforehand. c) Come the day I would be sick with nerves d) No one would come e) Except, possibly, the people I kind of wish I hadn't invited f) I would have a monster hangover the following day (having drunk all the nauseatingly warm prosecco on my own) and wake up rueing the day I was born. Help me, writerly people. What are your experiences of organising book launches????”
I was expecting a few replies along the lines of‘They’re more trouble than they’re worth. Don’t bother.” Writers are usually full of dire tales of events that have gone disastrously wrong. But to my surprise I had a flood of responses encouraging me to go ahead and have one.I was still undecided until Lynsey Southern – the extraordinarily wonderful librarian at Bideford College – said she’d organize it for me.
That was too good an offer to refuse.To have a launch in Bideford – overlooking the river that features in the book – in the library of the school my sons go to and where I’ve just become Patron of Reading all seemed very fitting.
The deal was done. The date was set.
And as time went on it seemed that Lynsey wasn’t organizing a launch, she was organising a major happening.
After she’d read a manuscript of Hell and High Water (for reasons that will be obvious to readers of the book) she declared, “We need a Punch and Judy man.”
Well that was easy enough – I’m married to Rod Burnett who performs all over the world with his Original Punch and Judy show. But it didn’t stop there. She arranged cakes from Donna Marie Kreations, books from the local independent Walter Henry’s, music from the supremely talented students, and even a writing competition with copies of Hell and High Water as prizes for the winners.
I didn’t have any sleepless nights and the librarians, teachers, booksellers, writers, readers, family and friends who have been so supportive over the years all came along to drink wine and eat cake.
It was a truly wonderful evening – better than I could ever have imagined.An absolutely MASSIVE thank you to Lynsey Southern and the superb staff of Bideford College for making it all happen. Lynsey has confirmed what I already knew: Librarians are extraordinarily wonderful people. Where would we be without them?
We all know that you can wait a hour for a bus and then three come along at once, but this seems to also apply to characters in historical novels. The particular character I have in mind, due to a personal interest, is Tudor Queen Katherine Parr, about whom there have been three very different fictional explorations in as many years.
In 2013 I published my novel QUEEN'S GAMBIT, which focuses on Parr's role as not only a royal wife but a political operator and flawed but canny survivor, last year there was CJ Sansom's acclaimed LAMENTATION, a thriller which places Parr's controversial and dangerous text, Lamentation of a Sinner, at the heart of a mystery and this year Philippa Gregory's THE TAMING OF THE QUEEN explores Parr's marriage to Henry VIII.
There are probably many reasons for a single figure to become the focus of such attention and in this case it is likely that some very good recent historical scholarship such as Linda Porter's excellent biography of 2010, KATHERINE THE QUEEN: THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF KATHERINE PARR, has played a part in bringing Parr's extraordinary life to our attention. Porter's research has worked to rid Parr of the reputation of the dull nursemaid of popular belief and show her as an intelligent and ambitious woman who strove to further religious reform during the upheaval of the Reformation.
This portrayal of Parr as an intellectual who was prepared to forward her beliefs at great personal risk and engage in political power-play in a man's world, casts her, in my mind, as rounded and interesting subject likely to engage modern readers. As Parr was not born into royalty, yet rose to be the most powerful woman in England, she serves in some ways to prefigure ideas of social mobility and as a woman (indeed one of the first) to publish an original work in English she was trying to circumvent contemporary notions of female silence and obedience in her resolute determination to be heard. This refusal to be silent is another decidedly modern trait.
Yet Parr was no po-faced scholar; she was a passionate and headstrong woman – her ill-advised fourth marriage, a mistake that would ultimately be her undoing, serves as testimony to this. It is her flaws as much as her strengths, the contradictions in her character, that made her appeal so greatly to me as a writer of fiction. I think what lies at the heart of Parr's recent popularity is that, as an individual and, to use a Gladwellism, an 'outlier', she seems somehow less distant than other Tudor women – more like us.
Elizabeth Fremantle is the author of a trilogy of Tudor novels all focusing on notable women: QUEEN'S GAMBIT on Katherine Parr, SISTERS OF TREASON on the younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey and WATCH THE LADY on Penelope Devereux, the controversial sister of the Earl of Essex. Her next book, about Arbella Stuart, will be published by Penguin next year. Find more information about Elizabeth's work on elizabethfremantle.com
A view of an earlier Kara Walker Installation, Darkytown Rebellion at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery
I don't know a lot about the American Civil War. I've read Amanda Foreman's book and a few others. I've seen photographs, some of the first war pictures ever taken. I remember a terribly emotional TV show with Cicely Tyson as a 100 year old ex slave remembering the war.
I know it was a war about slavery and a clash of ideals. I know the Unionist north won and that the south, the Confederacy, saw themselves as rebels fighting for their way of life which included the right to buy and sell and own other individuals.
I'm writing about it today because last week I went to an art exhibition. It was unusual in that it made me feel so much at once. I think we are so used to our culture being so saturated with images that they lose their power. Occasionally something will break through, for example in recent months the photograph of Aylan Kurdi provoked a massive response, but that was particularly shocking. And so terrifying it was hard to look at.
Kara Walker's life size friezes are, at first glance, very easy on the eye.
I don't go to loads of art exhibitions, previously to this I saw some local artists' work exhibited in a derelict newspaper building, oh and a couple of weeks ago I popped into the National Portrait Gallery to look at the portraits of the Tudors. Oh I do love those paintings!
But last week I went to the Victoria Miro gallery to see a new show by an artist whose work I've only ever seen before in books or in photographs.
The title of the show is the title of this blog, Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First, the artist Kara Walker is known for her silhouette cut out friezes. Which on first glance appear whimsical and almost fairytale, but on closer inspection are also insightful, political, shocking and horrific.
The show was Walker's reaction to the Confederate Monument, Stone Mountain, a colossal carving of Confederate Generals on the side of a mountain. This mountain was the site of the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915, and in 1916 the Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned the carving. Several artists worked on the sculpture, there were accidents and fallings out. It was not finished until 1970 when it was 'consecrated. (the State of Georgia bought the mountain off the Venables family who were big in the Klan in 1958).
The Klan rise again, Stone Mountain 1915 from the Atlanta Constitution newspaper
The Stone Mountain Monument, Georgia
This show was Kara Walker's response to this gigantic memorial. There were preliminary sketches downstairs in the gallery and then upstairs one massive open space with the finished frieze on one side and a massive photograph of the monument on the other.
I felt completely overwhelmed by Walker's work. Shocked and stunned and monumentally sad. Moved to tears. I thought about trying to get a reproduction up here, but it would never have that punch, that power. I've tried to show some sketches and a couple of samples of her silhouettes but without standing in that space surrounded by those images it's never going to be the same.
If you're in London and anywhere near the Angel do go, the show is free and on at The Victoria Miro Gallery , 16 Wharf Rd London N1 until November 7th.
I have since read up loads - Stone Mountain is a popular hiking and picnicking venue for Georgians of all colours, it does seem to be on it's way to reclamation. But Walkers' is not the only uneasy voice about the monument. There's talk of making a memorial to Martin Luther King on the top of the thing, as it gets a name check in the famous 'Dream' speech as if this might cancel out the power of the earlier images.
From Go to Hell or Atlanta, Kara Walker
I was trying to think of parallels in this country and of course in Britain we have our Tate galleries that glorify the fruits of slavery. Also we should never forget that most of the 'big houses' around our country owe their existence to a horde of unpaid and horrifically exploited labour.
I suppose what grates is that this enormous bas-relief - the largest of its kind in the whole world - was only finished and 'consecrated' in 1970, over a hundred years after the war ended.
This is a gruesome post. If you are squeamish, don't read on.
I was asked to talk to Year 7s and 8s last week about my book the Lady in the Tower and about the Tudors. It's not a recent book and I've never spoken specifically about it before, so I had a reread and a think and the thing that struck me most was the deaths by execution. Really, the monarchs of that time, and especially Henry VIII were unfettered psychopaths and mass murderers.
Execution was so common; and it was a grand day out for all the family - take a picnic, take the kids. Poor people were hanged at Tyburn. Mostly their main crime was just that; poverty. The same law for rich and poor, but as we know, the rich have no need to steal. Although they often do, just in more sophisticated ways.
But hanging was deemed too brutal for the nobility. They got to be beheaded instead on Tower Hill instead. Lucky them. Interestingly they also got to step up onto the scaffold with a priest, who would be offering religious comfort, and there they had to pay and forgive the executioner before execution. Yes, really. I asked the class how much they'd pay him. The overwhelming response was 'nothing'. But I think I'd pay him an awful lot. Because what good is money once you're headless? And if you've got to lose your head, you really, really want to do it quickly and cleanly. You don't want him taking eleven goes at it, which I believe is the record. There's nothing non-brutal about that. Anne Boleyn, as is common knowledge, was so afraid of the axe that she begged and was granted, execution by sword instead. She was also one of only seven nobles to be granted a 'private' execution inside the Tower of London at Tower Green, rather than the public spot of nearby Tower Hill. Five of these nobles were women, revealing that even unleashed psychopaths who murdered on trumped-up charges to protect their own position were aware that some sensitivity was required executing women. Even inside the tower grounds, there might have been privacy from the masses, but the audiences still numbered up to 200. And that nice little habit of picking up the severed head to show it to the crowd? Anyone who has always believed that this was to show the head to the crowd is wrong, or at least only partly right. It was mainly intended to triumphantly show the head itself its own body as it lay on the block: we remain conscious for at least 8 seconds after our head is severed, before lack of oxygen causes brain death. I didn't share this detail with the students; I find the brutality of this deeply disturbing as an example of what human beings are willing to do to one another. If only beheading was a practice that belonged firmly in the past in the world.
As for my main character's father, Sir Walter Hungerford: he was beheaded at Tower Hill, with Father Bird, the vicar of Bradford-on-Avon, a month after the execution of his friend and ally Thomas Cromwell. Reportedly he raved and fought his executioners on the scaffold. That's considered to be a sign that he was mad. But you could see him as the only sane and normal person in a sick charade (if it hadn't been for some of his more dastardly acts towards his own family).
After an execution, the family were handed the body to bury while the head was boiled ready for display on a spike on London Bridge. The final step in the gruesome pageant of power and death.
As for hanging, drawing and quartering or burning at the stake - well, that wasn't divided into commoner and nobility. These tortured fates were reserved for those the king really, really hated.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I were lucky enough to be taken on a tour of Pembroke College in Cambridge. Bron was at Cambridge, and he'd recently realised that someone he knew back then, Nick Davies, now teaches there, and is an eminent behavioral ecologist. They share a love of birds, and it was after Bron had read Nick's recent book, Cuckoo, about how cuckoos adapt their behaviour to trick their hosts, that he guessed the writer must be the student he knew years ago.
So we had lunch, and then Nick took us round the college. It was as he was showing us some of the portraits in the dining room that I noticed a familiar profile with a loose lock of hair falling over a high forehead. 'Oh yes,' said Nick. 'That's Ted Hughes. Didn't you know he was here?' Neither of us did.
It's a beautiful college, with a chapel that was built by a youthful Christopher Wren. In one of the rooms, the Thomas Gray Room (yes, it's named after THAT Thomas Gray, and the manuscript of the famous Elegy is on display there) there is a portrait hidden behind a section of wooden panelling. It's a 17th century graffito of a youngish man with reddish hair and a beard, and it's said to be of Wren. It doesn't look much like the later portraits of him, but maybe he changed over the years - or maybe the artist was better at building than he was at catching a likeness. Anyway, it's a nice story, and whoever the subject is, it's one of those threads that lead you back into the past, to a particular moment on a particular day when, in a moment of rest, someone decided to pick up his chalks and start sketching.
But the greatest treasure, for me, was in the new extension to the library. We went up a flight of stairs, and there, facing us, was this glorious window, etched with poems by Hughes and some of the creatures and landscapes that feature in them.
One panel is inscribed with the poem The Thought Fox, which Nick told us was generated during a long, dark night of the soul, when Hughes, labouring over an essay, saw or imagined he saw a fox...
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The Thought Fox
It was after this experience, so the story goes, that Hughes realised that if he continued to do English, his ability as a poet - which he knew was the most important thing of all for him - would be stifled by the aridity of endless dissection and criticism. So he switched to anthropology. And later, much later, he went to a party, where he met a girl called Sylvia Plath... and the rest, as they say, is history.
You may have seen the splendid BBC documentary on October 10th about Hughes. In it, one of his contemporaries at Pembroke spoke of gatherings in Hughes' room, where like-minded students read their poetry to each other. It was always clear to everyone, he said, that Hughes was the leader, the one whose attention all the others wanted to capture.
In 1970, I had just started at Durham University. It was Freshers' Weekend and, for a girl from an ugly town in the industrial East Midlands, everything was incredibly exciting and beautiful and fascinating. I remember only one specific event from that weekend. It was a poetry reading. It was held in Dunelm House, in the Students' Union, and the poet in question was Ted Hughes. He would have been forty. I can't remember whether I'd even heard of him, though others certainly had.
But what I do remember is the incredible presence the man had, and the sense of gravity and sadness that he exuded. All the twittering and giggling and breathless excitement in that large room was stilled instantly as we took in this tall, brooding figure, which seemed to concentrate darkness within itself like the hawks and the crows he wrote about. When I compare dates, there's no wonder he was weighed down: although he had just married his second wife, Carol, Assia Weevil had only killed herself and their child the year before, and Sylvia had died in 1963. So much sorrow.
Logically, I think he must have read from Crow, as that came out in 1970. But the collection I have is The Hawk in the Rain, and that's how I think of him, standing there in Dunelm, reading to to an enrapt audience: his shoulders slightly stooped, his nose beaky, his hair falling over his forehead, his voice deep and as rugged as the Yorkshire countryside which bred him.
But I'm glad to think of all those happier years he had afterwards in the softer country of Devon, of all the other work he went on to produce. And I'm very glad to know that he has that beautiful window in Pembroke as a memorial, with the sunlight shining through and gloriously giving light to the images that pervaded his poetry and the words that formed it.
At the moment, I’m in the writing zone, so my post today is about that subject rather than any historical visit, research or knowledge.
Twenty years ago – can it be? – an American author called Karen Cushman wrote a historical novel for teens, Catherine, Called Birdy. Written in simple, short-chaptered “teenage diary” style, the book was much praised by school librarians because the central character is charming and the book is very “readable”.
After the cover and the blurb, the opening lines are what lures the readers in, encouraging them to spending time on this very particular story. Birdy echoes a modern teen, unwilling to do her homework, but yet conveys a very different time, place and society:
12th Day of September.
I am commanded to write an account of my days. I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.
13th Day of September.
My father must suffer from ale-head this day, for he cracked me twice before dinner instead of once. I hope his angry liver bursts.
Ever since coming across Birdy, I’ve tried to make my own writing as directly readable too, though in my own style. Right now, I’m head-down in revision, trying to untie the knots in the plot and make my story cleaner and clearer. It’s not easy. On one hand, I want to create a “past time” experience for my young reader. On the other, I don’t want to make a historical prose-porridge that’s indigestible – knowing my natural style isn’t as sparse as Cushman’s – and especially on that crucial first page for the reader.
Hoping for guidance - or at least a fresh eye - I decided to look at the openings of six teen and young teen novels, picked almost randomly from my bookshelves. Did these openings have any features in common, and how were the “historical clues” laid in for the reader? How were the unfamiliar settings made understandable right from the start?
Here are the passages, followed by my own very general observations on the way these opening lead the young reader into the time of their story.
When we reach the river landing, I can’t get off the ship fast enough. A storm hit us during our voyage up the coast, which is no fun if you’re tethered in a dung-spattered hold with a hundred terrified horses slipping and neighing around you.
------- rode out early while the dew was still wet on the grass. The grooms had not risen when she stole from the stables, and thin layers of mist wound themselves round her horse’s legs like skeins of discarded muslin as she crossed the bridge over the lake.
“Oi! Meshak! Wait up you lazy dolt!” The sound of the rough voice set the dogs barking.“Can’t you see that one of the panniers is slipping on that mule there? Not that one, you nincompoop,” as the boy leapt guiltily from the wagon and darted in an agitated way among the overloaded animals,“that one - there - fifth one back! Yes. Fool of a boy. Why was I so cursed with a son like you?”. . . .A man and his boy were coming out of the forest with a wagon and a train of six mules. They were heading for the ferry at Framilodes Passage, which would take them across the River Severn and on to the city of Gloucester.
Charles Finch closed his eyes and winced as the knife dug into his skin. He bit down hard on the handkerchief and tried to think of good things: his daughter, Loveday, entering the vanishing cabinet with a flourish; the crowd at the Alhambra, Paris, cheering on their feet. The heat from the footlights, the smell of tallow and rouge, a crescendo of applause.
The sting of the knife seared into his reverie. He wanted to turn his head, to get up off the table, but the surgeon’s boy held him down tight, his head wedged sideways.
I didn’t hear my cousin’s voice at first. It wasn’t until the library door was flung open with a bang, making me jump, that I came back down to earth.
“There you are, Sophia,” exclaimed my cousin Jack loudly, bursting into the room. He was a tall, gangly young man with laughing blue eyes, ruddy-faced from many hours spent outdoors. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Didn’t you hear me calling?”
“Vaguely,” I admitted. “But I didn’t realise it was me you wanted.”
“Well, who else would it be?” demanded Jack, exasperated. “If I’d wanted the servants, I’d have rung for ‘em.”
“Sorry. This arrived this morning.” I showed him the play I was reading, knowing he’d understand.
The first day of my new life began with ice and ended with flames.
As soon as I woke, I was wide eyed awake. Under my badger-skin it was warm, and for a little while I lay as still as a huntsman in a covert. I stared round me at the high hall where I have slept and woken almost every day of my life. I tried to waken my brother and sister by making faces at them. I listened for a moment to my grandmother Nain snuffling, and one of the hounds groaning and grinding his teeth. Then I leaped up. The whole world was waiting for me.
How do these openings work? Reading them though, there’s an over all sense of living closer to animals, and living much closer to the outdoors and weather than the modern teen might experience.
There’s an emphasis in the sounds and senses and scents, suggesting that “then” was a very different physical experience and possibly a dangerous and painful one. Not one opening, however, feels too far a step. All the scenes are “imaginable.”
The writers use just enough “historic” words – dung-spattered, pannier, discarded muslin, vanishing cabinet, tallow, nincompoop– to intrigue and to suggest another vocabulary, and a hint of unusual phrasing: “why was I so cursed?” that suggests different forms of speech, even though the place names make it England.
There’s often a glimpse – note that “If I’d wanted the servants. . .” - into the status of the central character among the group, and the social relationships of the time. There are also omissions, such as school and education, and the rich girl reading in the library is obviously not doing quite the expected thing. The last passage, in particular, subtly lets the waking narrator convey both the expected sleeping conditions of the hall, and his mischievous, rebellious nature.
All the authors keep the reader close to the main character. Three have already chosen “first person” narratives, binding the reader and character close together. In “c” and “d”, where third person is used, we aren’t quite into the story yet. Note how Loveday the daughter because of the interesting worries about her, becomes a more central character than the father facing the knife, while “c” grows into a complex tale involving a greater variety of characters than the boy Meshak.
It’s also clear that each opening offers movement and suspense and a strong sense of an overarching emotion – flight, fear, secrecy, expectation – all dramatic feelings that make the reader want to read on and find out “why”, no matter the nature of the “hero”.The reader is enticed in, and page one becomes page two and onwards.
I would not be surprised if you could point out more tricks hidden in these short passages.
Now if only I can make use some of the same skill. Back to the words. . . .
If you want to know the books I chose, here are the titles, and thanks to the authors for the loans. A. I am the Great Horse by Katherine Roberts; B. Sovay by Celia Rees; C. Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin; D: Sawbones by Catherine Johnson; E. The Girl in the Mask by Marie-Louise Jensen; F. Arthur: At the Crossing Places by Kevin Crossley Holland.
I'm sure that some of my fellow History Girls and our blog readers will have either tutored or attended an Arvon Course during their writing lives. For anyone who doesn't already know, Arvon runs a programme of residential creative writing courses and retreats for schools, groups and individuals. The five day courses are held at three centres: Totleigh Barton, in Devon, Lumb Bank in West Yorkshire and the Hurst in Shropshire and cover a wide range of genres, including fiction, poetry, screenwriting and playwriting.
My first Arvon Course as a tutor was at Lumb Bank. The 18th century mill owner’s house once belonged to Ted Hughes and is set in a distinctive Pennine landscape with woods all around, a river at the bottom of the steep bank and the ruins of old mills just visible along the valley. It is about half a mile from the village of Heptonstall where Sylvia Plath is buried. Her grave is an object of pilgrimage. Writers leave pens and other offerings. If I'm there, I always find time to make the steep climb up to the village to visit her grave.
My co-tutor on my first course was the late and much missed Jan Mark. A writer of considerable stature, huge talent and enormous erudition, we will not see her like again. It is good to see some of her books being re-published in the admirable Hachette Hodder Silver imprint. They serve as reminder of just how good she was. She was also a highly experienced tutor, who had taught on numerous Arvon courses as well as being a regular at Ty Newydd in North Wales. I couldn't have had a better co-tutor; I learnt a great deal from her.
Jan and me - photo: Claire McNamee
Each day at Arvon is divided into workshops in the morning with individual tutorials and free writing time in the afternoon. The workshops are designed to look at aspects of the craft but also to stimulate new writing and can often be testing and challenging, pushing those participating out of their comfort zones. The one-to-one tutorials offer feed back and constructive criticism on work produced. The week is intense and draining for tutors and tutees alike, but at its best it can be transformative. Jan was a formidable tutor. Her workshops were brilliantly crafted to spur creativity and spark the imagination. She was quite willing to read anything and everything offered to her and she read every word. Her analysis was forensic and the criticism she offered, although not always welcome, was meticulously fair. Her advice was often to go away, try again, make it better. Wise words to any writer. She was also adamant that, while at Lumb Bank, writers had to engage in new work, not carry on with something that they had been writing before coming on the course. The last night is reserved for readings and new work was what Jan expected to hear. So that's what would be happening. No-one argued with Jan.
Lumb Bank from across the valley
Jan was right, of course. Arvon has to be allowed to work its magic. And it is a kind of magic, a creative alchemy that comes from those five intense days and nights, the mixing of writers together, the focus on writing and only writing, the place itself. I still remember some of those Friday Night Readings, from this and other courses, how writers were transformed, how they wrote out of themselves.
The most satisfying thing for a tutor is when a piece of writing that you remember, that was conceived at Arvon, becomes a book. One of the writers on that course was Tricia Durdey. She came with a book already finished, she was just going to do a bit of final editing but Jan wasn't going to allow that. Tricia had to go away and think again. She came back with an idea for something she'd long wanted to write. A story set in war time Holland, involving a dance teacher and her class. It sounded intriguing, different. I told her to give it a go. She did. I can still remember her Friday night reading. Powerful, arresting, moving. Even Jan was nodding and smiling. I told Tricia that she should develop it into a novel, which she did, only to fall foul of mainstream publishers with their 'Not quite right for our list/the market'; 'If you could just change this, change that, make it for Young Adults/Real Adults/Children, give it another title...' and so on - we've all heard it - but she did not give up. Tricia has written about her experience of writing the book here.
By happy coincidence, another writer on the same course, Jan Fortune, went away and co-founded Cinnamon Press . Even more Arvon Magic. Not only are they writing books and getting them published but they are starting their own publishing houses. How brilliant is that?
Jan has now published Tricia's book, The Green Table. My congratulations to both of them. Tricia has fulfilled her ambition to tell the story of dance teacher Hedda Brandt's struggle against Nazi oppression in wartime Holland. As Hedda's class dwindles, first the Jewish girl goes, then the girl handicapped by polio, we are reminded of bleak choices to be made, the heroism and sacrifice of ordinary people and the words of Pastor Niemöller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
underlying all is the eternal question: what would you do?
The Green Table is a story of love, loyalty and courage. Tricia makes fine use of dance and music to express spirited defiance in the face of brutal occupation. The book is beautifully produced and contains all the originality and passion I first heard on that Friday Night Reading in the sitting room at Lumb Bank.
Researching my latest novel, ‘Game of Chance’ - which is published today - has involved me in some enjoyably off-beat areas of research, from the detective stories of the Golden Age, to cocktail recipes, card-playing, the West End theatre, films, and popular music. In trying to convey a flavour of the times - the late 1920s - I’ve found contemporary newspapers invaluable, not as a source of information about political and social events, but also as a marvellous ‘window’ onto a vanished world.
Here are accounts of glamorous parties, and the clothes that were worn at them; here, too, descriptions of the latest ‘Paris’ fashions - such as this one from the columns of the Times, for January 1929: ‘Skirts will probably be a little longer this Spring. Already French ladies are insisting on an inch being added to their skirts… Ladies are getting their real jewels from the bank to wear with their evening dresses. On plain satin, taffeta and georgette or chiffon, jewels looks right, but they must not be crowded…’
Also to be found are the graceful line drawings that were used to advertise the latest fashions (photographs being relatively rare in advertising at the time). I’ve made a selection of some of these, which seem to me to epitomise the elegance and sophistication of the era.
And so there are fur coats aplenty (no anti-fur lobby then!), as well as chic satin cocktail dresses, ‘tea gowns’ for afternoon, clothes for playing tennis and golf (the new craze) and all kinds of evening dresses: ‘It is now possible to buy a supple Bianchi brocade of black satin interwoven with gold roses in tarnishable metal thread (rhapsodises the Times fashion columnist)… a soft buff brocade with a design of silver palm-leaves and, loveliest of all, an ethereal blue brocade with a design of stars in silver…’
For the thrifty, there were regular Sales advertised, in which you could buy ‘Handsome, Natural Mink Coats’, reduced from the whopping price of 350 guineas to a more affordable 189 guineas… or ‘Evening Gowns in Lace and Georgette, the flared skirt dipping to the side in a new line’, in Shell Pink, Eau de Nil, Pale Blue, Violet, and Black, for a mere 6 guineas.
Nor was the man in one’s life left out. Ads for the latest motorcars - Hispano-Suizas, Rolls-Royces, Wolseleys, Bentleys, and Alfa- Romeos - are interspersed with those for Players cigarettes - ‘100 for 4s 10d’ - and garments such as the following, from Harrods Man’s Shop: ‘The Five Guinea Basil Coat - Double-breasted, broad-shouldered, clean-waisted - a man’s coat in every line. No ambiguity about material, either. 100% pure Saxony wool, woven on West of England looms - stuff that will endure…’
Of course, there was another side to all this apparent ease and luxury, as reflected in the social columns of the Top People’s paper. Underlying the insouciance is a note of growing unease at the worsening economic situation, which was to culminate in the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, and which was already causing widespread hardship and unemployment across the world.
In the Times for January 1st, 1929, among the ads for Sealskin Coats at 59 guineas, and new productions of ‘On Approval’ at the Fortune Theatre, or ‘Funny Face’ with Fred Astaire (to be followed, perhaps, by supper at the Kit-Kat Club, for what would then have been the extravagant sum of 15 shillings and sixpence) are to be found headlines such as the following: ‘Unemployed Men to March to London’ and then the news item itself: ‘A “Red” march to London is being organised by the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement, and it is hoped by the organisers that nearly 1,000 men will arrive in the capital early in February to draw attention to the unemployment problem in industrial areas…’
Looking at these charming images now, with the knowledge of what was to happen across the globe in the aftermath of the financial Crash, it’s hard not to see them as epitomising a sort of ‘fiddling-while-Rome-burns’ mentality.
Certainly, by the following year, the mood had darkened considerably, with even fashion advertisements being couched in the language of ‘economy’ and ‘thrift’: ‘Can you dress with economy, without sacrificing chic, cut, or quality? Yes, if you come to the House of Marshall & Snelgrove’, announces one such ad for coats, while another is even more blatant: ‘Today, when economy is the theme of all discussions, the House of Debenham & Freebody maintains its long reputation for quality at prices which are found to be a real economy…’
Although then, as now, the better-off (and most readers of the Times doubtless fell into that category)were able to ignore the crisis in a way those directly affected by it could not.
But perhaps one shouldn’t think too hard about what was going on behind the scenes, as it were, of these fashion drawings, but should just enjoy them for what they are. There’s something about the drawings themselves which is pleasing in a way that a mere photograph is not.
There’s a whiff of Modernist stylisation about them; a touch of the avant-garde. Is it fanciful to suppose that some of the artists might have been recent graduates from the Slade and the Royal College, forced to turn their hands to commercial art, in order to earn a living? Surely not.
The American Navy is stepping back in time. The US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, is to reintroduce training in celestial navigation, abandoned in the 1990s in favour of the exclusive use of computerised and satellite navigation systems. Now the threat of cyber attacks by the country’s enemies has led to a reassessment. In future, American naval officers will have an attack-proof backup system – navigating by the stars.
US Naval Academy
It is impossible to know how long ago mankind began to use the stars for navigation. It seems likely that as early hunter-gather tribes moved over the land they would have found their way to the most promising territories by using the ever-present map of the fixed and moving stars above their heads. Once they ventured out to sea, the knowledge of the stars would have been even more vital when there were no mountains, rivers or forests to serve as landmarks.
At what point this knowledge began to be codified and analysed using sophisticated mathematics is equally unknowable, but it was very, very early. Why can we be sure of this? Because of the extraordinary discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism found on a Roman shipwreck as long ago as 1901.
The Antikythera Mechanism
This amazing object was originally believed to be about 2,000 years old, contemporary with the ship on which in was found. However, in recent years it has been the subject of comprehensive research, revealing details which indicate a date of about 200 years earlier, around the time of Archimedes and Hipparchus.
That is not to say that either of them invented the Antikythera Mechanism, but it is an indication of the complexity of the astronomical and mathematical knowledge current at the time, which could not only determine locations for navigation but predict celestial events such as eclipses.
Schematic of known mechanism
The Antikythera Mechanism is so complex that the researchers have not yet been able to create an exact physical replica, although they have generated computer images of the mechanism. One of the problems in producing a physical object is the very precise cutting of the cogwheels, something which must originally have been done by hand, yet it is proving difficult to reproduce with today’s apparently much more advanced machine tools.
Computer generated front panel
Computer generated back panel
The Antikythera Mechanism may have been unique, which was why it was still in use 200 years after it was made, or it may simply have been a unique survival. However, owing to its complexity, it must have been a rare, expensive and precious object. Another device, less complex, was in use amongst the Arab nations at least from the eighth century, the astrolabe. Even earlier than the Arab astrolabes, Byzantine texts indicate that a similar device, made of brass, was known in eastern Christendom.
Astrolabes, made both of wood and of brass, were in constant use throughout the Middle Ages and up to the late Renaissance. As early as the tenth century, astrolabes were being employed for a vast number of calculations – predicting and locating the positions of the stars, the sun and moon, and the planets, working out exact time, assisting in surveying and construction, and preparing horoscopes. One Arab writer described over a thousand uses of the astrolabe. It was, in effect, a computer.
This versatile instrument reached the West via Arab Spain, and was known in northern Europe, in Reims, by around 1100 AD. Its manifold uses were immediately recognised and it became as popular in the West as in the eastern Mediterranean world. So important did Chaucer feel the astrolabe to be that he wrote a manual on its uses for his nine-year-old son in the fourteenth century.
Interior of 18th century astrolabe
In the following century, astrolabes were on sale in Parisalongside the popular pocket sundials (which were somewhat easier to use!).
16th century pocket sundial
Anyone who has seen an astronomical clock, such as the famous one in Prague (1410), will recognise the influence of the astrolabe. These clocks display the movement of the zodiac and other major astronomical phenomena without the need to study the complex workings of the astrolabe.
Prague astronomical clock
Clearly an astrolabe would be a vital instrument for any mariner far out to sea, needing to calculate his position. However, the large, heavy brass astrolabes were awkward to use on a pitching deck in a Force 10 gale. Mariners did not require all the manifold uses of the full astrolabe, which led to the development of the mariner’s astrolabe, a much simpler instrument.
The principal use of the mariner’s astrolabe is to determine the ship’s latitude by measuring the vertical angle of the sun’s height at noon. It can also be used to measure the vertical height of a star, if its declination is known. By taking such a measurement, the mariner could fix the ship’s position north or south of the equator, and thus its latitude. The problem of determining longitude was much more difficult and was not solved until the eighteenth century, by John Harrison in 1773 with the use of his very precise chronometer.
The earliest date for the mariner’s astrolabe is uncertain. The end of the thirteenth century has been suggested, but it was certainly known by the end of the fifteenth century, many improvements having been made during the golden age of Portuguese navigation. These simpler astrolabes continued in use until the late seventeenth century, when they were being replaced by newer instruments. Since the mariner’s astrolabe required the user to sight a celestial object along a movable rod called an “alidade”, any sailor who valued his eyesight would not look directly at the sun. Instead the alidade would be moved along the scale in the body of the astrolabe until the sun shone through it on to another surface and the angle could be read off the vertical plane of the astrolabe. Sighting a star did not create a problem, and the user could look directly at it.
Using a mariner's astrolabe
During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, experiments were being made with so-called “reflecting” instruments, which used mirrors to allow the user to view two images at once. The experiments were driven by the growing need to determine longitude as well as latitude, and many distinguished scientists contributed to their development, including Hooke and Newton.
These reflecting instruments took many forms – the quadrant, the octant, and finally the sextant, which was found to give the most accurate readings. One great advantage over the mariner’s astrolabe was that they did not need to be held steady, an almost impossible task at sea.
Using a sextant
By the mid eighteenth century, sextants with an arc of 120° were in general use, and no doubt it will be modern versions of these sextants that the young officers at the US Naval Academy will be learning to use, along with all the complex theory of celestial navigation.
There is a personal postscript to this story. As my character Christoval Alvarez is currently engaged on a Voyage to Muscovy, I wanted to become more familiar with the astrolabe. Earlier this month I had a birthday, and my husband gave me this beautiful astrolabe, an exact replica of one made in 1602, on display in the Museum of Science in Oxford. Now all I have to do is to learn how to use it.
I was at the Plymouth International Book Festival last Sunday with Holly Davey, talking about how we explore hidden histories in our work in a discussion chaired by the artist Sarah Chapman. It was a great session, ranging over a wide range of topics but with a particular focus on the types of research we use to work imaginative responses to individuals who leave very few historical records behind them. We also talked about how difficult it can be to stop the research and get on with the art/writing.
When I talk to creative writing students who are interested in historical fiction this is a topic which comes up all the time. I use an analogy stolen from one of my old TV bosses when he talked about research - that of the child’s drawing of a Christmas Tree. The little stumpy bit of trunk is the idea or initial inspiration. The first phase of research is that long line going off it in both directions. It’s broad, a great gathering in of information, a quite free and unfocussed time of following interesting trails, finding fragments, of establishing background and context to whatever project you happen to working on. Then comes that all important upwards stroke bringing it back towards the middle. The narrowing stage when you begin to make choices, develop characters and senarios and find the focus of your story. You’ll need to go sideways again in a minute, but hopefully, if your christmas tree is going to stay up, not quite so far.
Say - just a random example - you’ve decided that your lead character is an artist in Paris during the Belle Époque - that’s the trunk. Your first phase of research might range across all sorts of artistic disciplines, all sorts of places where she might have been trained, anything and everything about the artistic community of the certain period from the academy to the barbarians at the artistic gates. Now you look at your options and narrow in. Perhaps in that first narrowing you decide that your artist should be working in oils at a fictional version of the Académie Julian. Now you need to research again, but this time the research is more tightly focussed around that particular place, and that particular discipline.
Making that decision about when to stop doing one sort of activity (gathering research), and to move into the other (making decisions and starting to create the work) is hard. We are always sure that there is something else we should be reading or looking at. Another place to visit or person to talk to. I believe it is a lot harder to do now than it was twenty years ago and I blame the internet.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the internet and you’ll have to pry my wifi homehub from my cold dead hands. I’m delighted by the huge amount of primary material now available through archive.org and Google Books. I can get hold of PhD theses, the collections of specialist museums, high quality scans of thousands of works of art in moments. This is obviously brilliant, but it makes it even harder to break out from gathering mode into creating mode. It also makes it much more difficult to stay in creating mode once you get there.
While we write, the writing throws up endless questions. Which street did that street lead into? What are the passing carriages like? What was the weather like that day? What were the headlines in the evening paper my character might see? In the far off olden days of twenty years ago, you’d have to make a note of whatever questions came up for your next visit to the British Library. Now the immediacy and omniscience of the net gives us the impression we can break off mid-sentence and just look something up quickly. I could not count the number of times I’ve done that, broken off, then disappeared down a research rabbit hole only to emerge half an hour later via facebook, twitter and email to discover myself in the middle of a sentence on the page, and no idea how I thought I was going to end it. Thing is, I start with the best of intentions. Just look up the thing and return to the page, but there is so much interesting stuff out there. Follow a thread for a while, find a gem, share it on twitter, see tweet from friend which reminds you you need to set up a time to meet up with them… are they still on holiday? No, but they’ve just put up an excellent video of goats wearing pyjamas! Oh hell, I was supposed to be working… get back to it, Robertson.
You know you’re in trouble when you start referring to yourself in the third person.
On the way back from Plymouth I started reading The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin. Its subtitle is Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload and it is a fascinating and terribly useful book. (Musicians and music lovers should also read This is Your Brain on Music too, his 2011 book which examines the neuroscience of making and listening to music). Organized Mind confirms my belief that multi-tasking is a terrible idea and shows with clear and commanding explanations of the neuroscience how counter-productive that repeated switching between modes is. It also shows why the internet rabbit-holes are so damn attractive. Basically we are wired to really, really enjoy flipping around between wikipedia references, amazon wishlists and cat videos. Paying attention to the task at hand (writing) is much more mentally demanding. I was glad to read that. I feel a bit less rubbish knowing that when I’m resisting looking at my email I’m fighting brain biology rather than just demonstrating a deplorable weakness of character.
Now I know I’m not the first person to have worked this out, I have at least one friend who writes on a computer that is not connected to the internet at all, but reading the book has made me reintroduce an old discipline. I have a lovely programme called freedom which will shut off my internet connection for whatever period of time I specify. That way I have to stay with the work and can save my will power for when I need it. Normally resisting the siren calls of toast and gin. So I am going to reclaim my morning writing time. No internet between 9.30 and lunch for me from now on. No one is going to send me an email that can’t wait for an hour or two and the shiny baubles of goat videos can go… ooh look a gorilla playing with kittens!
I am still a 'new girl' compared to many of the illustrious HGs, but the more I write, the more it feels publication is a case of letting go. Studying English in the 80s, our teachers went on endlessly about Barthes' concept of 'the death of the author', that work and writer are unrelated. The author doesn't count, (allegedly). Once a book goes out into the world, do you think it belongs to the readers, or does it still have something to do with you?
Along the way to publication what does an author let go - in editing, a character or two? a passage they particularly loved? the title? When writing is going well and you are in a flow state, frankly it feels less like it has anything to do with you, than that you are chanelling something which exists quite perfectly already without you. Maybe that's where the frustration you feel comes from - an inability to quite conjure this world, these people and their story in all their perfection.
I've been thinking a lot about how this relates to historical fiction, and Mary's post the other day dealt with defining the genre. What is historical fiction? Work set a generation ago - 25 years, or the 50 years and based on research rather than personal experience that the HNS suggests? So far I have written about the twentieth century. The book published today, 'The Christmas We Met', spans the whole of that century, from the Battle of Mons in WW1 through to a final chapter set in the present day.
The story embraces the flappers and bright young people of the twenties, the treasure hunts and balls, Beaton's photographs of the Sitwells, the gilded, fading youth captured by the Mitfords and Waugh.
But then, most of the story is set in the 1970s, whose aesthetic was in turn so influenced by the 20s. I'm in my forties so according to the HNS definition it fails the hist fic text both on personal experience and era. The thing is, though, I may have grown up in 'the olden days' as my child so charmingly put it once, but I had to do just as much research to conjure the era convincingly as I did for recreating a war diary from the Battle of Mons.
The Biba showroom became the model for Fraser Stratton's study, the winter of discontent meant historically accurate strikes and power cuts as much as easily written generic winter scenes, and in the part where the protagonist visits Chichester cathedral, the Chagall window is 'new'. I was alive when all of this happened, but I didn't experience it. So does that make it hist fic rather than personal recollection? It was pretty funny talking to schools while writing this book. I showed several classes of young children aged seven to early teens a slide of a penny farthing and a Chopper, and asked them which they thought we rode in the 1970s. Every single child chose the penny farthing.
Perhaps we all think we are younger than we are, but to those children the 1970s really is the olden days. For me, it has been fun revisiting and recreating an era remembered, of ice storms and petrol crises, when the men in the village met regularly to discuss what to do in the event of nuclear war, and we wore Kickers beneath our long broderie anglaise dresses to birthday parties (or was that just me), and danced waving our arms madly to 'Wuthering Heights'. Childhood is a vanished world, historical in every sense. But is this historical fiction? The Christmas We Met, Orion, October 22nd 2015
We used to chant that at Greenham Common, and maybe that's why, when I was wondering what to write a novel about in the late eighties, I thought: 'I'm going to write about a witch.' People are very fond of asking writers how novels are born: in this case, it came in this bald sentence.
It was going to be about an English witch, I thought, indeed, one from near my place of residence, so I went to the Local History section of the library and asked if they had any material about actual local witch prosecutions. They came up with one, the unpromisingly-named Mabel Modwyn, of Waltham St Lawrence. The record describes her as:
'widowe abact 68 years old arraigned for witch craft at Redding 29th Feb: and condemned on the 5th of March, 1655. Shee lived at ye south-wist cornr. of lower Innings in ye cornr. next to Binfield" She was buried in the churchyard at Waltham.
The librarian couldn't understand why I was so delighted with this information, when it was so scant, but it gave me a place to visit, and a date. And the next entry in the small typed and hand-bound book of extracts from the Parish Register was the story of a suicide who was secretly buried in the churchyard by her son and her female relations (I think I've got that right.) I felt I had the spark of a story there. My witch should be buried secretly, too. There was a question, however, as to why Alice Slade, the witch of Whitchurch St Leonard (I really couldn't stay with Mabel) might have been forbidden burial in the churchyard, when it wasn't a problem with Mabel. The Vicar would have to be involved.
Research taught me that England hardly ever experienced anything like the Great Witchhunt of seventeenth century continental Europe and Scotland. The notable exception is Matthew Hopkins's Essex witchhunt, in the course of which a staggering 200 or so witches (men and women) were hanged. So who was the English witch?
Three women examined in the case of the witches of Belvoir
Well, the witch was usually but not invariably female, and most often old and annoying (though not invariably). There were many old women and some men who actually found it very useful to have the reputation of being a witch, because people were reluctant to offend them and would let them have a cup of flour or some 'yeaste to make beere', when they needed it. However, this useful strategy could, under certain circumstances, tip into catastrophe for 'witches' when they suddenly found themselves formally accused, or just murdered. What is striking in these cases is the way in which often the 'witch's' offence was the result of some offence against her: her bees had been stolen, or she had asked to hold a child, or had been refused that 'yeaste to make beere.' She might then mutter something or even strike the offender, and if some catastrophe occurred in that household, she would then be blamed. I built Malefice round the narratives of Alice Slade's accusers, and the reasons for her supposed magical assaults were the commonest reasons cited for a witch to have taken maleficent revenge on her neighbours.
What happened to the accused witch (I'm saying her for convenience) was far less clearcut than in the Continental witchhunts, where the unfortunate victims were tortured until they confessed and then burned. The English witch might be acquitted; many witches were. If she'd been convicted by an ecclesiastical court, she might have to do penance in a white sheet, and then could return home. If she was convicted by the Assize courts, she might be put in the stocks.
However, if she was condemned to death, she would be hanged, not burned, though under English law you could be burned alive for murdering your husband (petty treason) and also for coining, if you were a female. I don't know when people stopped being burned for heresy, though I believe the practice, contrary to the impression I grew up with, continued under Elizabeth the First.
It shows how rare witch prosecutions actually were in England that one judge told an accused witch that she would burn, only to be publicly corrected by his clerk. I assume that the judge had never had another such case come before him in his career.
The English witch was very seldom a cunning person or white witch. It did occur that a person came before the courts accused of black witchcraft after a previous prosecution for 'white witchcraft' but it is rare in the court records that Alan Macfarlane examined. Cunning folk carried out healings and found lost property, but most importantly, they pointed the finger at witches or at least witchcraft as the source of someone's problems. They were largely distrusted by the ecclesiastical authorities, who believed they drew their power from the Devil, though churchwardens and clerics were sometimes cunning folk! But they were considered to do good, and relied on in England, and often their evidence was accepted in a witchcraft prosecution in a court of law. 'They played an important part in both spreading and directing witchcraft beliefs,' Macfarlane says. This pattern continues in Africa, where the witch-doctor will identify unfortunate people as witches. Where the cunning person was prosecuted as a witch, he or she had become the victim of a practice that s/he had actually encouraged.
Alas, therefore, if I was looking for a feminist heroine when I wrote about a witch prosecution, I didn't find her. Even the cunning woman was no good candidate, because her accusation might cause the death of some harmless, if weird, old woman. On the other hand, it was an opportunity to write about the lives of obscure women, so often sidelined in history, about the kind of things that might happen to them, and about people's attitudes to perceived female power. And so Alice, my witch, was one of those cunning folk 'gone bad', and it became important to find out why the community that had relied on her suddenly turned against her. The story of this witch prosecution was thus the story of relationships gone wrong, of an outsider whose utility to the community failed, about the 'criminal' being persuaded that she had in fact committed a crime. I was helped by a psychotherapist friend who had travelled in Peru and told me that in the small places he visited he could believe the plot of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude,' because it was 'a different kind of reality.' Going to Cecil Sharp House and reading broadside ballads of the time showed me what kinds of images lived inside people's heads at that time.
At a time when fits, strokes, plagues, and the sudden and terrifying diseases of livestock and children could strike without warning or explanation, when the devil's existence was official (and not just one devil, there were dozens of different ones, all with separate specialities), when night-times were truly dark, and only lit by flaring torches and weak candles and rushlights, and the shadows danced on the staircase when you went up to bed, people looked for supernatural explanations (nowadays some people blame immigrants for all the ills of society, and actually, the narrative is the same; clear these bad people out of the way, and society will be healed. See Theresa May's speech at the Tory Party conference.) A different kind of reality, but driven by psychological forces that are still with us. Injury produces anger, and then it's natural to want someone to blame.
Hansel and Gretel
And there was something else I recognised. I found stories of people who said a witch would visit them at night and sit on their chest so that they could not breathe. Sometimes they saw demons flitting about too. Now I knew what this was, for I had experienced it. My mother had, too, though neither of us actually saw demons. It was sleep paralysis. My mother felt that a person with whom she was in destructive conflict was actually attacking her; she dealt with it by having a crucifix blessed by a vicar and placed in her bedroom, when it left her.
What I experienced was a terrifying sensation of suffocation (I didn't personalise it), and though I cried out for help, I couldn't wake up or make a noise. It felt as if I was dying. However, after a few years this would change into a sense of being on a high cliff and about to fall. I dealt with it by, in my sleep, spreading my arms and launching myself out into the void, when I flew. I had a vivid view of the landscape beneath me which I can still remember (in colour.) The flying was exciting, and after a while the sleep paralysis left me altogether. I was having therapy at the time, and had acquired a shortlived lucid dreaming facility (when you can direct your dreams). In both my mother's case and mine, it was stress related, but I met a woman who suffered from it who got very angry with me for saying so (in a day school about witch prosecutions, which I ran).
The experience, and the hallucinations, are prevalent nowadays, and they are not connected with mental illness. Some poor people suffer lifetimes of bad nights as a result.
I'm not about to pronounce on what causes sleep paralysis for other people than myself and my mother, but one can see how easy it was to be convinced it was a direct attack from an enemy. My mother's and my experience brought the 'different kind of reality' very close to home.
The most influential studies I used, when writing 'Malefice' were Alan Macfarlane's 'Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England,' and Keith Thomas's 'Religion and the Decline of Magic.' Also Alice Clark: 'The Working Lives of Seventeenth Century Women.'
There is a school of witch studies nowadays that relates the witch cases to psychology and culture. I read one of these books, but it was too Freudian for me. I have no problem with psychology, but what I like about Macfarlane's study is that it gives me a solid grounding in the reality of historical witch prosecutions.
With my next novel THE AUTUMN THRONE handed in, concluding my trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine (although not being published until Autumn 2016) I'm now looking to the next project. This is always an exciting time, brimful of possibilities. An awareness that there’s a story to be told and at least a quarter of a million words to be written (many of which will be deleted and changed during the writing process) but I don’t know what those words are yet. There's a thinking time before the journey starts, a Hobbity preparation of cloaks and maps. I am in tune with Tolkien's poem in this matter! THE ROAD GOES EVER ON AND ON
I'm not totally unaware of my road as I step outside my door and sniff the air - I know my destination – I even know some of the major places I intend visiting along my way, but at this stage all the smaller stops in between remain a mystery, as does much of the landscape. How are my characters going to go from what they are at the moment to the changed people they will be at the end of the novel - after I have put them through the wringer? That is the irresistible challenge and enticement.
I need to consider the history and the landscape that will shape their personalities, their interactions, the structure of the narrative. At this stage I only have a general notion of that aspect. I now have to acquire that knowledge and in so doing, begin to map my roads. You would think that after more than forty years of dedicated historical research into the twelfth century I'd be au fait with it all by now but that's not true. The more I learn, the more I realise how little I actually know.For my new project I am revisiting William Marshal, whose life story I covered in THE GREATEST KNIGHT and THE SCARLET LION, the former novel a New York Times bestseller and the latter nominated by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society as one of his top ten works of historical fiction in the decade between 2000 and 2010. Since writing those novels I have continued to study the Marshal as a personal project and have gained an increased knowledge and understanding of him and his family. I was asked to give the Founder's Day Lecture at Cartmel Priory in 2011 to celebrate William's life and I have given talks about him at a few academic venues. I also had my brains picked for several hours on behalf of historian Thomas Asbridge by his researcher Catherine Stefanini for his BBC TV programme on the Marshal in 2014.
A part of the Marshal's life I didn’t cover in my earlier novels about him except on a very superficial level was the period he spent on pilgrimage between 1183 and 1186 following the tragic death of his young lord Henry the Young King, eldest son of Henry II. Partly this decision was taken in order to keep down the word count of the novel because commercial publishing has its constraints, especially if one wants to sell in overseas markets. and my agent keeps a stern eye on that factor. Another reason was that very little is known about what William actually did on his pilgrimage and it would have taken a tremendous amount of extra time to research the historical background of the Middle East for that particular section of the novel, and the digression would have diverted the narrative mainstream flow. I took the decision to cover his sojourn in the Middle East with brevity and skim over it.
Nevertheless, the subject of what William Marshal did on that pilgrimage has continued to tug at me and with it a growing conviction that it really has to be written. I need to know what happened to him during that time because the experience must have had a huge impact on him and been a vitally important part of the great man he was to become, and yet we know so little - although much can be extrapolated and mined from delving into books on the subject. I have taken a conscious decision to call his experience a pilgrimage rather than a crusade because I believe it was an immense personal journey of the soul.
The novel has the working title of TEMPLAR SILKS (which I very much hope will be its final title when published). It’s a reference to William Marshal’s burial shrouds, which I knew were going to be the start of my journey and the compass on my road. Why should these be so important? One of the few things we do know about William Marshal’s time in the Holy Land is that he obtained his own shrouds in the form of two pieces of silk of ‘choice workmanship’. He brought them home with him and then put them away out of sight, not telling anybody until he was on his deathbed and it was time to send for them to the castle where they were being kept. That in itself tells us a great deal about William's personality. His control, his ability and wish to keep the personal things out of the public eye.
"Bring me the two lengths of silk cloth which I gave to Stephen to look after."
And then when they arrived:
"Look at this fine cloth here!' "Indeed my lord (says his retainer Henry FitzGerold), but I can tell you that I find them a little faded unless my eyesight is blurred." The Earl replied: "Unfold them so that we might be in a better position to judge!" And once the lengths of cloth had been unfolded, they looked very fine and valuable, choice cloth of good workmanship. He called for his son and his knights to come before him and once they were all present he said: 'My lords, just look here! I've had these lengths of cloth for thirty years; I had them brought back with me from the Holy Land, to be used for the purpose which they will now serve; my intention has always been that they will be draped over my body when I am laid in the earth; that was the destination I had in mind for them.' .... "These are my wishes, with the Templars is where I shall lie, for so I have vowed and arranged it."
Source: The History of William Marshal vol II edited by a.J. Holden with English translation by S. Gregory and historical notes by D. Crouch. Published by the Anglo Norman Text Society Occasional Publications series number 5 2004.
We don’t know the colour of the shrouds or anything about them, only that they were of high quality. We don’t even know how he came by them. Some biographies say he ‘bought’ them, but the only source we have for the incident says not that he 'bought' them but that he ‘obtained’ them. Which could mean many things. And since at the time William was a man of limited means and on a budget, purchasing two lengths of expensive silk cloth was quite likely to have been outside of his means. I have already decided what my version is, but now I have to bring him to that moment via a journey of epic proportions, both his and mine. It's daunting, exciting, a moment to savour as I hoist my pack, take that first step away from my door and embark on a pilgrimage.
Here are just some of my reading list books for TEMPLAR SILKS. Some I've already devoured, others I've dipped into. Yet others await their moment. And already my path is rolling out before me, full of rich and textured possibility.
Elizabeth Chadwick is an award winning author of 22 historical novels. Her latest work The WINTER CROWN, the second novel in her Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy is published in paperback in the UK on the 17th of November.
Some place names always raise a smile. Residents of Nether Wallop and Chipping Sodbury must be wearily accustomed to the suppressed giggles or open guffaws that their address can evoke. I’ve had to get used to it too, since I moved to Morningside in Edinburgh. People pucker up and squeal “Ooo Murrrningseeyed!” in an attempt to mimic the tone of those Edinburgh ladies who think they don’t have an accent. It’s a voice made famous by Dame Maggie Smith in her wonderful performance in the film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
The other day I went to a talk which sent me straight to Muriel Spark’s original book (different from the film in several important ways) and introduced me to an episode of Edinburgh history of which I knew nothing, despite the fact that some of its ugliest scenes took place outside my front door. Did you know about Morningside Riot of 1935? It's not featured in the film or the book, but in the book especially there are echoes of the religious tensions that led to the trouble.
One of the things that appears in both the book and the film is Miss Brodie’s infatuation with the demagogues of the 1930s: Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. In the book, she maintains her admiration for the fascists well after the War, although she admits 'Hitler was rather naughty’. The leaders she admired were forceful, uncompromising, and charismatic. It turns out that Muriel Spark, a Morningside resident, had a local model to hand. A political rabble rouser in the style of Oswald Mosley, but driven by a different creed: his passionate Protestantism.
This was John Cormack, a councillor for South Leith, who drove round the city in a van with ’No Popery’ painted on its side. After serving in the Black and Tans during the nationalist uprisings in Ireland, in 1933 he set up his own political movement in Scotland: The Protestant Action Association. It was his populist (and popular) anti-catholic campaign, firmly centred on himself, that led to the events of June 25th 1935 - a clash which he had rightly predicted would be ‘a real smash up’.
Four weeks before the riot, supporters of Cormack overflowed the Usher Hall (which holds about 3,000 people). They were gathered to protest about the Catholic Church’s proposal to hold a grand gathering described as a 'Eucharistic Congress' in Edinburgh. When the event went ahead, there was trouble all over the city. In a letter to The Scotsman, the Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh said this was the culmination of months of trouble:
The office which I have the honour to hold has been the object of gross insult and of the vilest accusations. For some time it has hardly been possible for a priest to appear in the city without being subjected to unspeakable indignities. They have been not only the target for vile abuse and most filthy and obscene language, but they have repeatedly been spat upon and molested in public streets. In the factories and public works Catholic employees, and particularly defenceless girls, have suffered bitter persecution, as contemptible as it is cowardly, and strenuous efforts have been made to induce employers to dismiss Catholics on the ground of their religion alone.
On 25th June 1935, when 10,000 catholics converged on St Andrew’s Priory in Morningside for the climactic ceremony of the Eucharistic Congress, an equal number of Protestants came out to meet them. The police, many on horseback, spent hours dealing with a throng of people crammed into three-quarters of a mile of road. Accounts vary as to Cormack's role in the unrest, which included violence and damage. Tram after tram disgorged Protestants ready to fight. The Scotsman noted that a van with 'No Popery" on its side was seen early on, but then apparently left - implying that Cormack was unwilling to face the consequences of unleashing a rabble. No one was killed, and so the event's appeal to journalists and historians beyond Edinburgh was limited. But it was an extraordinary day, nonetheless.
From The Scotsman, the next morning
But why was Edinburgh's anti-Catholic fervour focussed on respectable Morningside? Well, despite its reputation as the natural habitat of repressed and prim Presbyterianism, the area has a strong Catholic heartbeat, even now. Catholic churches are often architectural horrors, but St Peter’s in Morningside - designed by the great architect Sir Robert Lorimer, and completed only a few years before the riots - is a striking Italianate building, inexplicably off the tourist trail.
Not far away, is St Benet’s, the grand domestic base of the Catholic Archbishop.
It’s now rather under a cloud. In 2013, the then Cardinal Archbishop Keith O’Brien was removed from his post and kicked out of the house after sexual misdeeds were revealed just as he was hoping to go off to vote for the new Pope. Round the corner from there, in 1935, stood St Andrew's Priory, where the Catholics gathered on the day of the riot.
Of course, anyone who has studied history, even in England, will not be surprised that a ferocious form of Protestantism has thrived north of the border. We’ve all been taught about that grim old Edinburgh resident, John Knox - indeed he’s one of the few non-royal names from Scottish history familiar to those of us educated down south.
Add John Calvin's teachings into the mix, and you'd got a pretty uncompromising national mindset on your hands even before Irish immigration added new Catholics to those who had survived the Reformation.
The effect of centuries of Calvinism on the Scottish temperament is a standing national joke. Who can forget Private Frazer in Dad’s Army: 'We’re all doomed!'?. In the book, though less so in the film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the clash between Catholicism and Calvinism is a resonant theme. Towards the end, one of the Brodie set, Sandy, ponders on Calvin’s view of the almighty:
God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died. Later, when Sandy read about John Calvin, she found that although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was but a mild understanding of the case, he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.
In the novel, Sandy eventually becomes a Catholic nun. In the real world, a year after the riot, Cormack was still fighting. He spent at least one night in prison, for refusing to pay caution money to keep the peace.
His campaign seems to have fizzled out with the advent of the Second World War, and though he remained on the City Council until 1962 (a year after Spark’s novel came out), his death in 1978 appears to have gone unmarked in The Scotsman. His memory is kept alive now by the present Orange Lodge, but otherwise he seems to have disappeared from the memory of the city.
This is from the Scotsman website. I'm not sure whether the Orange Lodge know
about the site's addition of an invitation to light a candle in Cormack's memory,
they make of it if they do
Although sectarian rivalry remained fierce in Glasgow well after the War and into the present century, to hear that as recently as 1935 there was such extremism in Edinburgh seems surprising - even shocking.
A young boy who had been caught up in the riot spoke to The Scotsman more than 70 years later, after a career as an undertaker:
I was chased along Canaan Lane by a group of gentlemen when I was just seven-years-old because I was dressed in the uniform of St Andrew's Priory, which is where the Catholic Congress was being held when Cormack's lot turned up. It was a terrifying experience at the time. But while that was a horrible experience, I can honestly say it was the only anti-Catholic thing that ever happened to me. It's in the past and I just don't think you'd come across anything like that now in Edinburgh. I remember my dad telling me about problems he faced, but again that was mostly Cormack's crowd. Many years later I actually met Cormack's son and a nicer person you couldn't meet. I really don't think sectarianism or bigotry has been an issue in Edinburgh like it is in Glasgow. I'm in the funeral business so you come across all sorts of religious types but I've never experienced any prejudice or discrimination.
Nevertheless, some Catholics still talk of discrimination. As recently as 2006, Cardinal Keith O’Brien said:
It is not poverty, alcohol or football which underpins most cases of religiously aggravated crime in Scotland, but blatant anti-Catholicism.
But today the main feature of the many Protestant churches in the capital is their emptiness. True, the population is over catered for, after the 19th century competitive orgy of church building which accompanied the many schisms in the Presbyterian camp, but the city on a Sunday is nothing like the bleak, buttoned-up place I first encountered more than forty years ago.
A personal note: This is my last post for The History Girls. I haven’t written an historical novel for a few years now, and I’ve only read a handful in that time, so I no longer have the essential credentials. As Jean Brodie would say, I am past my prime. It’s been great to be part of Mary Hoffman’s bold enterprise, and some wonderful new writers (the Creme de la Creme) are about to join the gang. Before I go, may I return to the hobbyhorse I rode in my first ever contribution, more than four years ago? That piece was a plea for everyone involved in broadcasting about history to stop using the present tense - or 'Nowspeak' as I call it - when they are talking about the past; or at least to be consistent if they really can’t help themselves. If you listen to or watch history programmes, you will know what a failure my campaign has been. Maybe I should paint my message on the side of a van and drive around like John Cormack. But there is new hope. The Royal Literary Fund asked me to do a podcast about it, and you can listen to it here:
Some of you may have read about or seen on the news the appalling floods that hit my homeland of Cannes and its environs in the south of France at the beginning of this month. We were there; we had driven down the day before to spend a quiet week together, olive harvesting and writing. We arrived late on the Friday evening and woke to a sunny Saturday. I swam and pottered in the garden enjoying the autumn colours and the swelling fruits on the silvery trees. It was during dinner at about 9pm that it began to rain with cracks of distant thunder and flashes of lightning somewhere off in the distance.
‘Oh, I love storms,’ I cried. Little did I know what was to come.
It drew closer and the sky grew black. The force of the falling rain surprised and then begin to worry us. The rain slanting towards the front of the house from the direction of the sea began to creep in under the French doors. We ran to gather towels and bank its flow. Such downpours, when they come, last twenty minutes, perhaps half an hour at most and then they move on out to sea or just rain themselves out. This one didn’t. The water kept falling. We have a flat roof, such as those in Greece or north Africa, and we remained at the dinner table in the candlelight - that upper level of the house did not lose electric power so we weren’t at that stage aware of the severity of the event – listening to it drum and tap dance on the roof.
We were astonished. It kept up its force for over two hours. I went outside to confirm that the dogs in their stable were not freaked and found I could not reach them. Our olive farm is on a hillside overlooking the sea and the water was cascading down from the summit. It flooded down stone stops that descend to the foot of our land and sounded like Niagara Falls. I began to be afraid.
Finally, it was over. By now it was midnight and we had discovered that the floors of the kitchen and guest loo on that level were swimming in about an inch of water. Michel, my husband, thought a pipe had burst.
But he was wrong.
The following morning we awoke to a glorious sunny 25C day. Of course, the land was sodden and steaming. We began to take stock. It was then we realised the extent of the damage. Every room that is built into the mountainside, into the rock, at the rear of the house had been infiltrated. The water had come in through the walls, had actually seeped through the walls and plasterwork.
On the Friday, the day we arrived, the decorator had completed a four-month redecoration of the whole house. The new paintwork was bubbled and flaking. I could not believe it. Books, paintings stacked like card packs on the floor – all were water-stained or ruined.
The lower house was without electricity. Upstairs, I switched on the television for the local news. We were the lucky ones. Cannes’ streets were a river more suitable for white-water rafting that cruising by in a convertible. Seventeen were dead, more than twenty missing. Homes had been crushed; folk drowned in their vehicles; others pushed out to sea and drowned in the swells. The homeless numbered hundreds. Our president, François Hollande, was there on Monday morning assessing the damage, allocating funds, meeting with the destitute.
We cleaned up our mess as best we could. Our electrician set our fuses and boxes right and, other than the artwork lost and the walls which will all need to be stripped and redecorated when thy have dried out, we got on with lives but I cannot say we were not shocked. Our olive trees, at least, were looking sprightly and well-fed.
This deluge - on the third day of this tenth month - has made Côte d’Azur history. The like of such had never been seen before... or perhaps once during the early part of the twentieth century… People talked of nothing else.
It set me thinking. We read on a daily basis about the horrors taking place around the world. A tsunami, a flooding, an earthquake... but until you have been a victim of such you never really comprehend the extent of its perpetration, its human impact.
Being a writer, and I have no doubt that every HG reading this will agree, one immediately begins to think ‘how can I use this, where to put drama of such an epic scale into my story?’ And it has already found its place in the early stages of the novel I am at work on.
But, of course, I am not the first to use a deluge as writing material...
The Story of a Great Flood goes back to the Bible. Genesis 6: 5-8 God is angry with Man and decides to wipe him and his animals out, regretting the creation of them. However, Noah, a six-hundred-year-old man, finds favour with the Lord who suggests he builds an Ark and take a pair of everything with him... well, you know the story.
When I was travelling through the eastern Mediterranean I came across some very interesting thoughts on the story of the Great Flood, which is also narrated in several other texts with slightly varying details. The Epic of Gilgamesh is probably the other popular and well-known example in our western culture. However, so many cultures have written about a Great Flood in their ancient history that scholars have asked themselves whether they have all taken from each others’ sources or whether there really was one devastating deluge that flooded the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean basin. The scientific community is divided about the historical authenticity of such an event. Most archaeologists and geologists recognise that there were many major floods and they devastated substantial civilized areas, but the majority do not hold that there was ever one single deluge that in the last 6,000 years covered a major portion of the inhabited western world.
However, when I was in Crete ferreting out olive clues and studying the Minoans who were worshippers of the olive tree, terrific seafarers, sailing far and wide in the commercialisation of their liquid gold and the perfumes they created from their oil, I heard a fascinating theory about the unexplained disappearance of these people who were wiped off the face of their island with no explanation and no trace.
Santorini, classic name is Thera, is a neighbouring island one hundred and ten kilometres north of Crete in the southern Aegean Sea. It, along with several other smaller islands in its archipelago, is all that remains of one far larger island destroyed by an enormous volcanic eruption. The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, the Minoan eruption, which occurred some 3,600 years ago. In other words at the height of the Minoan civilization.
Here is where it gets really interesting. The volcanic eruption is fact. The theory that accompanies it is that the force of the eruption left volcanic ash deposits that were hundreds of metres deep and could have caused a tsunami that rolled all the way to Crete and literally swept away the entire Minoan civilization. When I first heard this some twelve years ago, I thought it fanciful, unlikely, and then I was in Syria. I had the good fortune to travel for a short while with a guide who was an archaeologist. He told me that inland of Latakia on the Syrian coast, towards Aleppo, which is just south of Turkey, south of Mount Ararat where Noah’s Ark was situated (and was supposedly found in 2010), deposits of ancient volcanic ash were discovered. The provenance of these, geologists have traced to Santorini. That is a distance of some 1,600 kilometres. Some explosion, don't you think?
Santorini in relation to Crete, to its south
The tsunami that rolled from the volcanic eruption to Crete crashed onto the land, destroying all in its wake. It brought about a massive disruption in the weather patterns and caused rains, deluge and flooding.
Mount Ararat in Turkey where explorers claim to have found Noah's Ark
Why did the dove bring an olive sprig back to Noah? The olive tree is, has been for over 5,000 years at least, the cornerstone of the Mediterranean kitchen. It provided sustenance and medicine. The people respected its value, its importance, and it was great deal taller than the vines or the wheat, both of which would have been wiped out by the weather.
As the floods subsided, the canopies of the olive trees were no longer submerged. They were visible, accessible. The sight of them, the ability to pluck off a twig from a branch was proof that the waters were lower than the tree tops. The rains were subsiding. The worst was over. The world was returning to calm.
The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, Thomas Cole 1829
As I said there are several different variations of this tale, including my own humble version, but the fact is that such a monumental event did take place in the Aegean Sea and its impact was experienced, lived through in the Middle East.
It makes our deluge of a few weeks back seem like a shower, but it does give pause for thought. And it certainly offers material for the next novel.
Many people aspire to it, but the job of writing is not easy, and never has been. ‘The most seductive, the most deceiving, the most dangerous of professions,’ said the Victorian biographer John Morley of writing.
Juvenal warned in the first century AD that ‘An incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many, and grows inveterate in their insane breasts.’
William Caxton 1422-91
William Caxton's celebrated the invention of printing by publishing The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, the 15th century equivalent of The Little E-Book of Text Messages. Publishers soon cottoned on that people really wanted something a bit more lively and an early best-seller was Merry Tales of the Madmen of Gotham. Martin Luther was not keen on the opportunity given to non-religious books: ‘The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this fever of writing; everyone must be an author; some out of vanity to acquire celebrity; others for the sake of lucre and gain.’
Dr Johnson was quite clear on the matter: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’
Dr Johnson 1709-84
Even Gustave Flaubert said, ‘To practise art in order to earn money, flatter the public, spin facetious or dismal yarns for reputation or cash – that is the most ignoble of professions.’
Louis XIV didn’t like books, ‘I see no point in reading’; and Jean Jacques Rousseau agreed, ‘For they only teach people to talk about what they do not understand’. When Edward Gibbon finished writing The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire in 1776, he knelt on bended knee and presented a copy to HRH the Duke of Gloucester. ‘Another damned, thick, square book!’ said The Duke. ‘Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh Mr. Gibbon?’
Thomas Babington Macaulay (1771-1845) was a barrister, a Whig politician and so prolific an author that Sydney Smith said of him, 'He not only overflows with learning, but stands in the slop. He is like a book in breeches. He has occasional flashes of silence, that make his conversation perfectly delightful.’
Elizabeth Montagu 1718-1800
Mrs Elizabeth Montagu was immensely rich, well educated and loved parties – she once gave a breakfast in her feather-lined boudoir to 700 guests. After she became bored of card-playing, she only invited people who liked books, such as Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds and Horace Walpole. Rousseau was not amused by these early Book Reading Groups which encouraged women: ‘Every blue stocking will remain a spinster as long as there are sensible men on earth.’
Mary Russell Mitford 1787-1855
Women writers have never had it easy, even from each other. Mary Russell Mitford wrote in 1815 that before her success, Jane Austen was ‘the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly ever and was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen.’ After her success poor Jane ‘stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn, piece of wood. She is still a poker - but a poker of whom everyone is afraid.’
Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806–1861
When Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in 1861, Edward Fitzgerald, the translator of Omar Khayyam, wrote to a friend ‘Mrs Browning’s death is rather a relief to me. A woman of Great Genius I know, but what is the upshot of it all? She and her Sex had better mind the Kitchen and the children; and perhaps the Poor. Except in such things as Little Novels, they only devote themselves to what Men do much better.’ The letter was read by Robert Browning 28 years later. Understandably upset, he wrote a poem to the now dead Fitzgerald, threatening to spit at him with the lips that had once kissed his beloved wife.
Lucile-Aurore Dupin, alias George Sand, 1804–1876, was described by Nietzsche as ‘a great cow full of ink.’
Amanda McKittrick Ros 1860–1939
Supporting the argument against women writers, the American critic George Jean Nathan believed that ‘perhaps the saddest lot than can befall mortal man is to be the husband of a lady poet.’ Sadly, Amanda McKittrick Ros, the wife of a stationmaster in County Antrim, did not help. Mark Twain considered her 1897 novel Irene Iddesleigh‘one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time.’ The novelist Barry Pain failed to notice she had no sense of humour when he reviewed it as ‘a thing that happens once in a million years’, and mockingly termed it ‘the book of the century.’Mrs Ros took such a dislike to him that in her next book the whole introduction was devoted to Pain’s appalling character and defective personality. She then made a point of tracking down her critics and loved to see if she could ‘wring from the critic-crabs their biting little bits of buggery.’
Eric Blair alias George Orwell 1903-50
Maybe writing is bad for us.
George Orwell died only four years after announcing:
When researching biographies I am privileged to meet and exchange letters with many people whose observations, perspectives and actions present new insights into the past, and sometimes into the present. My current work, on two remarkable female pilots from the Second World War, has led to interviews with veterans and other witnesses from several sides of that terrible conflict. As always, many tales have emerged that have no bearing on the story I am telling – but which I cannot bear to let go unrecorded. This is the story of some USAAF servicemen who crashed into an enemy field, and the young German boy who was desperate to find them...
The Do Bunny (Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)
On 25 March 1945, twenty unescorted US B24 bombers were releasing their lethal load over their target when they were attacked by a set of seven of Messerschmitt Me262 jet fighters whose approach had been deliberately concealed by the glare of the sun. These pioneering machines were far faster than any Allied planes, and they were about to show how devastating they could be to heavy bombers. Their first target blew up in mid-air. Only the navigator survived after he was blown free from the nose of his B24. Crew in the other planes saw his boots suddenly jerked from his feet as his chute openned above him. He was taken POW. The lead bomber in the formation was then attacked, and tragically spiraled down into a shoe factory in the town below – loss of life unknown. The three of its crew who managed to bail out were all also captured. A third, badly damaged, bomber made it to the Swedish coastline, only to swing round and ditch into the Baltic Sea to avoid crashing into local housing. Its surviving crew were interned in neutral Sweden.
The crew of the Do Bunny, Charles 'Chuck' Blaney is standing, back right. (Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Another plane, the Do Bunny, also took extensive damage. Having been caught in a storm of cannon shells, one engine burst into flames and had to be shut down. The attack had left no time to close the bomb-bay doors, and damage now made this impossible. Despite returning fire, the Do Bunny took several more hits, eventually leading to the loss of a second engine - with one of the propeller blades left dangling below. ‘Time seemed to stand still’, the radio operator and top gunner, S/Sgt Charles ‘Chuck’ Blaney, later wrote. ‘The flight engineer was knocked out of his top turret and he dropped to the flight deck. The plexiglass in the rear tunnel shattered in the tail gunner’s face. Fuel and hydraulic liquid from pierced pipelines were pouring and swirling out of the still open bomb bay, which we were never able to close. Do Bunny was in real trouble.’
Charles 'Chuck' Blaney (Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Suddenly the attack ended. Perhaps the Messerschmitts were out of fuel or ammunition. Either way, forced out of formation, the Do Bunny began a slow descent while its crew threw out ‘everything that was not nailed down’ to lighten their load. When a third engine packed up it was clear that they were not going to make it the last 220 miles to friendly territory. Opting to stay together instead of bailing out, they prepared to make an emergency landing.
Down below, a class of schoolchildren in the German town of Soltau were watching the crippled plane bleeding smoke across the sky. One girl shouted out, and twelve-year-old Gerhard Bracke rushed to the window to look but, by the time he got there, the Do Bunny was already out of sight. Disappointed, Gerhard decided to search for the remains of the plane on his own, as soon as he got the chance. Lt Joachim Grauenhorst, the Wehrmacht officer in charge of the Soltau Riding Academy, had also witnessed the B24’s final descent. Surprised not to hear an explosion soon after it had passed directly over the Academy building, he quickly assembled some soldiers to find the downed plane.
Gerhard Bracke in 1944 (Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)
Inside the coasting Do Bunny, ‘all went well until a wing dipped into the ground as we lost speed,’ Blaney wrote, ‘and then all hell let loose’. The torn, burnt and battered B24, riddled with hundreds of bullet holes, broke apart on impact. Miraculously five of the nine crew managed to jump to safety. It was not long before they were joined some scared and angry locals, some carrying pitchforks, followed by Grauenhorst and his soldiers who kept the crowd back while they began working to free the last four of the crew still trapped inside the wreckage. Incredibly, despite injuries including a broken leg, none of them had been killed.
The Do Bunny (Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)
The Do Bunny (Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
The prisoners were escorted to the town square. Here two SS officers started building up the growing crowd’s resentment against the Americans as an enemy bomber crew. It was probably only because Grauenhorst had command of several soldiers that, after some tense moments, he was able to take the men back to the Riding Academy under his command. Here they were locked in the stables, partly for their own safety. ‘He probably saved all our lives’ Blaney believes.
Lt Joachim Grauenhorst (Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
A passionate member of the Hitler Youth, Gerhard was keen to learn everything about the downed B24 and the enemy soldiers being held at the Academy. After school that afternoon he went exploring until he found the crash site. There he stood in awed fascination, looking at the wreck with its crushed nose, splintered fuselage and open bomb-bay doors which were now cut into the ground. It was a seminal moment for the impressionable boy, and he stayed for a long time.
The next morning the Do Bunny’s crew were driven to an interrogation centre, and started the long journey to a prison camp. They were liberated by the Russians in late May 1945.
Gerhard was still a schoolboy when the Second World War ended. He grew up to become a respected biographer and historian of the war. During our conversations, he not only told me about the downing of the Do Bunny, but of a rather wonderful postscript to the story.
Many years after the war, Gerhard spent some time researching what had happened to the Americans who had so miraculously survived the Luftwaffe attack and their own crash landing. Having tracked down Chuck Blaney and the other surviving crew members, he arranged a 50th anniversary reunion. In 1995 he travelled to Ohio, USA, to join them. With him, Gerhard brought a biography of the Luftwaffe pilot who had shot them down. Fighter pilot Ace Lt Rudolf Rademacher had survived the war only to die in a glider crash in 1953. Gerhard had also found the archived ‘missing crew’ reports from the other B24 bombers in the formation, and old photographs of the destroyed Do Bunny from the Soltau local newspaper. But what touched Chuck Blaney most was the warm personal letter Gerhard brought from Joachim Grauenhorst of the Soltau Riding Academy, along with an invitation from the Mayor of Soltau to a reunion in their town the following year.
Soltau newspaper coverage, 1995 (Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Former enemies, Gerhard and Chuck are in touch to this day. 'He is still a best friend forever', Chuck told me touchingly of Gerhard. Both men were pleased that there is continued interest in their story, and that it might now reach a new audience. Sometimes, when certain people find themselves acting for, or representing, one side of history or another, it appears that time, rather than ideologies or national boundaries, is the greatest barrier. How awful it is, among the many terrible tragedies of the war, that a German shoe factory was hit by a downed American bomber, and that so many airmen lost their lives altogether. But how uplifting that one young witness to history was compelled to restore the common bonds of humanity between people once torn apart.
I'm sad to say that this is my final regular blog for The History Girls, though I hope to come back as an occasional guest. It has been a wonderful 20 months. Thank you for reading, and do keep in touch and visit me on my website:www.claremulley.com
We are delighted to welcome James Shapiro to the History Girls as our October guest.
James Shapiro, who teaches English at Columbia University in New York, is author of several books, including 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (winner of the BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006), as well as Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? He also serves on the Board of the Royal Shakespeare Company. 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear is published by Faber and out now. Find out more at www.jamesshapiro.net
Mary Hoffman: Thank you so much for agreeing to appear on our blog. We know how busy you must be with your new book 1606 out this month and your academic teaching.
Confession time: you are being interviewed by a fan, who has read 1599, Contested Will and now the new book. Like you, as you said in your YouTube interview about 1606, I never tire of thinking about Shakespeare’s work.
OK, on to the questions: First 1599 and now 1606; what do you think it was about those two years, one Elizabethan and one Jacobean that turned them into such fruitful periods for Shakespeare?
James Shapiro: The great challenge for Shakespeare in 1599 was writing plays that would draw Londoners to the Globe his company’s newly erected theatre in Southwark, rather than to the plays of their rivals, the Admiral’s Men, who were well established at the adjacent Rose Theatre. The pressure to write a string of box office successes, culminating in Hamlet, must have been intense. 1606 turned out to be a great year for Shakespeare—one in which he wrote three remarkable tragedies—in large part because it was such an awful year in England: he made much in the plays he wrote this year of the tumult of the times. Shakespeare seems to have written plays in inspired bunches—though the sources of inspiration, and the pressure to produce, necessarily changed over time, as they do for all writers.
The new Globe on Bankside
MH: You’ve said that you hated Shakespeare as a kid and didn’t acquire your addiction until you were a young man visiting London and saw the plays performed. Have you encountered any of Shakespeare’s plays first on the page or did it take seeing them to bring understanding and enjoyment?
JS: Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not read; so I’ll take Shakespeare onstage rather than on the page any day. I reread and teach the plays every year but it is only when I see them staged, or work with acting companies in rehearsal (something I am doing more and more these days), that I really get excited or discover new things in them.
MH: I watched your BBC4 series “The King and the Playwright” about Shakespeare as one of James the First’s King’s Men acting company. Did 1606 grow out of your research on that?
JS: I’m glad that you had a chance to see it. After finishing 1599 on the Elizabethan Shakespeare I realized how little I knew about the Jacobean one who wrote plays—including some of his greatest tragedies and romances--from 1606 to 1613. So I was very lucky to be asked to co-author and present that 3-hour BBC series. It forced me to learn a great deal in a brief time period—and do so in a vivid way and imagine the period visually. There was a lot to learn. So, yes, 1606 definitely grew out of the research for that documentary and is a much better book because of that.
MH: Your chapters on Lear made me look at the play afresh, even though I’ve known it since it was a set text for my English Literature ‘A” Level exam. Stupidly, I had never made the connection between Lear’s dividing of the kingdom and James’s pressing for Union. Can you outline that argument briefly?
Lear and Cordelia by William Blake
JS: The play famously begins with a discussion of Lear’s “division of the kingdoms.” Everyone in the playhouse in 1606 would have heard echoes of what was going on at this moment outside the Globe: King James’s plan to unite his kingdoms into a Great Britain. Should the kingdoms unite or remain divided? James, as King of Scotland and now England (and by extension Ireland and Wales and even France), complained that he would be a bigamist were he married to more than one nation. His efforts to create the Union this year failed. He would create an identity crisis where none had existed before, one that Shakespeare was quick to exploit, turning in his plays from questions of Englishness to those of Britishness. The fault lines that threaten to divide Scotland and England today can be traced back to the bitter debates over Union in 1606, and which powerfully inform King Lear.
MH: You set the three plays, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony & Cleopatra, in the political and social context of that year: the influence of debates on Union, the aftermath of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, the plague and the visit of Queen Anne’s brother Christian of Denmark to London. It all makes perfect sense. Why do you think no one has taken quite this approach before?
JS: Many, many scholars have drawn attention to the ways in which these plays respond to their times, and my long bibliographical essay at the end of my book acknowledges my debt to them. But they tend to do so in studies or editions devoted to one of the plays or have done so in scholarly articles or books that aren’t intended for broader audiences. Academics aren’t rewarded for writing popular books or for taking more than a few years to complete a monograph. I’ve drawn on a lot of scholarship, added to it some of my own, and, as with 1599, tried to frame it within a more gripping narrative, tried hard, as well, to bring that moment to life, using the plays to illuminate the times, and the times to illuminate the plays.
MH: You’ve been a Sam Wanamaker Fellow at the Globe in London and have clearly been involved in the new indoor theatre there. How closely do you think it replicates seeing Shakespeare performed in the indoor theatre at Blackfriars where the later plays were staged and perhaps written for? (though later than 1606 of course).
JS: As plague raged in late 1606—and threatened the survival of the boys’ playing companies, including the one renting the indoor Blackfriars Theatre—Shakespeare knew that it would only be a matter of time before he and his fellow players would acquire Blackfriars (they were already in negotiations for it). I love the indoor Wanamaker stage at the Globe thetre, and am thrilled whenever I get to stand on the stage there (though always worry about banging into the candles when I do). It’s probably the closest we will ever get to recreating the experience of Blackfriars, and seeing productions of Jacobean plays like The Duchess of Malfi in that space has been thrilling. I can’t wait to see Pericles there next month.
MH: From the hideous executions of the Gunpowder Plotters in January to Lancelot Andrewes’ Christmas sermon “of warning and consolation” 1606 was a dark year. Is this the reason ultimately that all three of the great tragedies written in that period end so bleakly? Even with Malcolm taking the throne in the Scottish play we know his line will be overthrown by Banquo’s heirs.
JS: It certainly was a grim and divisive year. I agree that the three plays he wrote this year all end tragically, though I would say that the endings are not dark in quite the same ways. The ending of Lear is certainly unrelievedly grim, with the deaths of Lear and his three daughters (all the more grim when we remember that in his source play, King Leir, the king survives and is reconciled with his youngest daughter). Macbeth ends more hopefully, if equivocally; as you rightly note, we are left wondering why Malcolm and not Banquo’s heirs, are in power at play’s end. Antony and Cleopatra ends on a surprisingly different tragic note: yes, the two title characters commit suicide, but there is something defiant and even nostalgic in Shakespeare’s portrayal of their ends.
MH: Most of the members of this blog write historical fiction, covering many different periods. Hesitantly I ask if you ever read books in that genre and whether you have ever found fiction or narrative non-fiction illuminating in your study of Shakespeare? (I’m thinking of books like Jude Morgan’s The Secret Life of William Shakespeare)
JS: I’m friends with quite a few writers of historical fiction (I’m thinking especially of Grace Tiffany, author of The Turquoise Ring and Andrea Chapin, who recently published The Tutor). I enjoy their books and hugely admire their gifts. But it is very important for me to draw a line (one that they can cross and I cannot) between fact and fiction. Given the scarcity of facts about Shakespeare’s life, especially during the so-called “Lost Years’ of his early adulthood, it is a boundary that many scholars all too often ignore. So what I mostly feel about historical fiction is jealousy.
MH: Finally, can we expect a 1611? I’d love to read that.
JS:1599 took me fifteen years to research and write, 1606 another decade. I’ll have some challenging decisions to make about what’s next. I’m not sure that I have many more books (given how long these ‘years’ take to research) in me. But if I undertake another about another slice of Shakespeare’s life, 1610-11, in which he wrote The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest would definitely be it.
MH: I hoped you'd say that! I have a sort of PS for you: I had always taken the Fool’s metaphorical egg in King Lear to be a boiled one, not raw, because of eating the “meat” or yolk. But your analogy with the jagged edges of the shell resembling crowns has got me thinking. Thank you!
JS: You are very welcome—these were terrific and engaging questions. I hope that I have done justice to them. (And am glad you like the image of the broken egg with the pair of jagged crowns)
MH: You certainly have! Thanks so much for being our October guest. And readers look out for the competition to win 1606 on 31st.
I wanted to give you a whole set of curious objects today. Haunted objects. They represent a haunted city. Instead, I gave myself nightmares. They're perfectly ordinary objects in perfectly ordinary places. They still give me nightmares.
This is isn’t the first time I’ve done that. Given myself nightmares. A friend is an expert in the ghosts that haunt Canberra and she gave me a tour so that I could use them in my novel, The Time of the Ghosts. There is a plane at the Australian War Memorial I can’t look at for other people have looked at it and seen the dead pilot looking out at them. There is a staircase at a local high school where a hanging woman floats, her feet just a bit too high above the stair. There is an empty ballroom in a major hotel where, if you walk past at the wrong time, you can hear someone’s finger running over the edge of all the glasses at once, making you want to scream. There is no-one there. There is never anyone there.
I have been in the room where one of our Prime Ministers died. He haunts it, I'm told. There is no-one there either. There is never anyone there.
This was to be my Cabinet of Curiosities. Many objects, all haunted: the plane, the staircase, the ballroom and those glasses were just the beginning.
Instead, I find myself thinking of the car. It burns. It’s a 1976 electric blue Toyota Celica. If you travel the wrong road at the wrong time, you will see it burning. 1985 was when it crashed, and rumour has it that the people who answer the emergency phone line gets calls about it regularly. This happened in a place I know, and I’m very grateful I do not drive, for I do not want to see the car. I do not want to go into the ballroom, I will not look in the cockpit of that plane and I refuse to go anywhere near that staircase.
My Halloween present to you is a spooky, haunted Cabinet of Curiosities. My insult to injury is that I’m writing this just after midnight. Five minutes ago the burning car seemed the object I least wanted to haunt my dreams.Right now, I’m thinking of the dead pilot looking out of that ancient airplane.