Articles on this Page
- 12/30/15--02:22: _My Cabinet of Curio...
- 12/30/15--16:01: _December Competition
- 12/31/15--16:01: _Looking backwards a...
- 01/01/16--16:23: _Researching 1682 - ...
- 01/02/16--16:58: _Fast before you fea...
- 01/03/16--22:00: _The Ballad of Mulan...
- 01/04/16--16:30: _Where and When? - J...
- 01/05/16--16:01: _THE MASTERY OF KNAC...
- 01/06/16--17:30: _A VISIT TO THE CUTT...
- 01/07/16--16:30: _'Killing the Worm t...
- 01/08/16--16:28: _The Mystery of Virg...
- 01/09/16--17:00: _Tweet of the Day – ...
- 01/10/16--17:00: _Things That Go Bump...
- 01/11/16--16:30: _Stig and Me by Tany...
- 01/12/16--22:00: _NEW HISTORICAL FICT...
- 01/13/16--18:30: _Another Great Prete...
- 01/14/16--16:00: _Interview with Mack...
- 01/15/16--18:00: _About 'Caleb's Cros...
- 01/16/16--22:00: _THUNDERBALLS, SNOWD...
- 01/17/16--16:01: _The Right to Write ...
- 12/30/15--16:01: December Competition
- 12/31/15--16:01: Looking backwards and forwards by Mary Hoffman
- 01/01/16--16:23: Researching 1682 - Gillian Polack
- 01/02/16--16:58: Fast before you feast, by Vanora Bennett
- 01/03/16--22:00: The Ballad of Mulan, a history girl of note - by Katherine Langrish
- 01/04/16--16:30: Where and When? - Joan Lennon
- 01/05/16--16:01: THE MASTERY OF KNACK by Lydia Syson
- 01/06/16--17:30: A VISIT TO THE CUTTY SARK by Adèle Geras
- 01/07/16--16:30: 'Killing the Worm that Gnaws at the Tooth' by Karen Maitland
- 01/08/16--16:28: The Mystery of Virgil's Camilla by Caroline Lawrence
- 01/09/16--17:00: Tweet of the Day – Michelle Lovric
- 01/10/16--17:00: Things That Go Bump In The Night by Katherine Clements
- 01/11/16--16:30: Stig and Me by Tanya Landman
- 01/12/16--22:00: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION for Spring 2016 – Elizabeth Fremantle
- 01/13/16--18:30: Another Great Pretender - Grey Owl Catherine Johnson
- 01/14/16--16:00: Interview with Mackenzi Lee, by Y S Lee
- 01/15/16--18:00: About 'Caleb's Crossing', by Geraldine Brooks: Sue Purkiss
- 01/16/16--22:00: THUNDERBALLS, SNOWDROPS AND FURS by Penny Dolan
- 01/17/16--16:01: The Right to Write by Elizabeth Laird
|Dame Henrietta Barnett|
Henrietta Barnett was one of those formidable late Victorian/Edwardian dames who set out to change the world. Along with her husband, she set up a 'settlement' in Whitechapel in the East End of London to help and educate the poorest of the poor, it's still there -Toynbee Hall - and Canon Barnett has a primary school named after him nearby.
Henrietta herself was interested in the burgeoning new towns movement. She saw an opportunity to build a model suburb, one where rich and poor would live together in a semi rural idyll with public woods, low density housing and clean air. She was also big - very big - on the education of girls. This would be a place to build a new society, far from the filth of the city, up high on a hill outside London. It was born out of a mixture of the idealism of late Victorian England, Arts and Crafts and back to the land, an idyll of space for all according to their need.
So Hampstead Garden Suburb was born, a place with a central square laid out by architect de jour Lutyens, with education at its heart. There was an adult education Institute (Orwellianly named 'The Institute') and the school, named after the Dame herself. all roads were to be tree lined, and there were to be no church bells rung. She even vetoed the building of the Underground Line, no tube stations here thank you! Also what's noticeable is that even in this brave new world, the houses farthest from the Central Square and the Heath are smaller, meaner. This was a carefully zoned kind of socialism after all.
I don't know what the Dame would make of it today. The Institute has moved out of The Suburb (that's what it's called, The Suburb, as if there isn't any other) and only the very very (very) rich live there these days. It's cut in two by the North Circular road, so I doubt the air is as clean as it was a hundred years ago...
What has this got to do with John Lennon? I am getting to this....
Close your eyes. Let the years fall away.
|Henrietta Barnett School|
Oh. And another.
This was a mirror to my school life in which everything went downhill very slowly fading out like John and Yoko. My school, I was sure, was the most boring, most turgid, and the most uninspiring place in the whole universe.
It was designed to offer free education to girls who at 11 managed to jump through the hoops of the 11 plus. It never had the glamour or sass of it's near neighbour Camden Girls. HBS girls were always well behaved and useful members of society; Opticians, Estate Agents, Dentists and Doctors*. It might be a school parents fight to get their girls into - it's free! it's socially exclusive! it has great exam results! There is no scope for lunchtime excitement as the school is miles from ANYWHERE! (Dame H banning the tube station totally worked).
So the Grey Cat? Well this year isn't easy at the best of times, everyone posting happy Christmas pics when for a lot of us it hasn't been. People making brave and bold resolutions and brave and bold new years.
I have been lucky never to have been visited by the Black Dog of depression, but many around me have. All of us know what it's like to feel empty with pain or to feel so sad and terrified of life that you can't eat or breathe.
One thing I wish I could have told myself as I lay on my back on the parquet in my navy leotard is that it gets better - as well as worse.
I think children are sold a pup. Life isn't the mirror to school, progressing up one class after another, come what may. That's completely unnatural. Things go up and down. There will be bright spots and utter lows. Both are a kind of illusion. Keep going. The Grey Cat - unlike the dog which needs proper help - will pad past on silent paws.
I am a fan of contentment. Of the middle road. Of the just about alright. Of the 'it could always be worse'.
But of course I would be lying if I didn't harbour secret hope - why on earth write otherwise?
Here's hoping for all of us that the year brings contentment and good health.
Happy New Year!!
The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo is out now, published by Corgi.
To win one of five copies of Rhian Ivory's The Boy who Drew the Furture, answer this question in the Comments below:
"Have you ever visited a place and experienced déjà vu or seen or heard something you couldn't explain?"
Please copy your answer to email@example.com so you can be contacted if you win.
Closing date 14th January, to give you time to recover from Christmas and New Year!
Our competitions are open to UK Followers only.
Since I have the first-of-the-month position in which to write History Girls posts, I can take the opportunity to wish all our Followers a very happy and fulfilling 2016.
And I can, Janus-like, look back over 2015 and forwards to the coming year, in which the History Girls will turn five! Watch out for a special birthday party on 1st July.
|Statue of Janus in the Vatican Museum|
In their place we welcome Vanora Bennett, Katherine Clements, Katherine Webb, Miranda Miller and Julie Summers. You can read about the new HGs on the About Us page. People only ever leave us because of pressure of work and sometimes they come back; the door is always open.
Looking back over last year shows we had a slew of anniversaries, from VE Day (70 years) on 8th May
|VE Day celebrations in London (Imperial War Museum)|
|Magna Carta 12 97 version|
And there was the Evacuation of Dunkirk (75 years) at the end of May/beginning of June;
|The Little Ships, Chatham (Colin Smith Creative Commons)|
the Battle of Waterloo (200 years) on 18th June
|Artist: Thomas James Barker|
and the Battle of Agincourt (600 years) on 15th October.
|15th century miniature|
It's a bit heavily biased towards the military and the political, perhaps because History being "about chaps" tends to show up in commemorations. What do we take from the celebration of these dates in the calendar? The Battle of Britain Memorial Service (also 75 years autumn 2015) created more column inches over Jeremy Corbyn's non-singing of the National Anthem than anything about what was actually being remembered and honoured.
|Photo credit: Beata May|
After Henry died young his infant son, Henry Vl was crowned king of England and France but it was downhill all the way after Agincourt in terms of England claiming territory across the Channel. That was an ambition that seemed obvious and right to English kings for reasons the woman in the street now (and possibly then)would find incomprehensible.
Borders are artificial politically-imposed boundaries but they do at least make some sense when marked by a large geographical feature like a stretch of water. In our era, when Superpowers from countries thousands of miles away from a conflict feel they have a right (or to put it more charitably, a duty) to intervene with bombs and drones and soldiers, the whole notion of sovereign states is differently undermined.
"Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it"
says the Norwegian Captain to Hamlet in explanation of his massed forces marching on Poland.
Hamlet Why, then the Polack never will defend it.
CaptainYes, it is already garrison'd.
Which brings me to next year's major anniversary, at least for me. Not a battle or a treaty or a natural disaster but the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare on 23rd April. The History Girls really must do something special for that. My own personal celebration of the life of my favourite writer will include publishing on that date my YA novel Shakespeare's Ghost. The cover came yesterday and you will be seeing more about it here.
BBC 2 will continue its very successful The Hollow Crown series with the first tetralogy (to be written, though later historically) of the three Henry Vl plays and Richard lll. The previous cycle had a very memorable Ben Whishaw as Richard ll, Jeremy Irons as Henry lV and Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal/ Henry V. The ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch will play Richard lll and Geoffrey Streatfeild his older brother Edward lV. I can't wait!
By coincidence I have just finished reading Dan Jones'The Hollow Crown, the sequel to his The Plantagenets. it is very readable indeed and it's such a complicated period of battles, treachery, familial in-fighting and summary executions that one needs a clear guide.
But back to 2016. There are a host of anniversaries coming up from the Battle of Hastings (950 years) on 14th October
to the Great Fire of London (350 years) in September.
|Artist Rita Greer 2008|
Here on The History Girls we have a stellar list of guests lined up, including Tracy Chevalier and Alison Weir.
It only remains for me to wish you all the very best that 2016 can bring and preferably no battles!
My grandmother used to say indulgently that there was no harm in twelve mince pies a year, one for each of the twelve days of Christmas. This year I’ve way exceeded my quota, as I’m afraid I do most years. December, from start to finish, was the usual binge of food, drink and shopping, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes just panicky, too often to the tinny background noise of shopping-mall carols. Now is the time to pay the price. From feast to fast
From feast to fast
Very practical considerations governed Church leaders as they established the calendar of fasting in the early centuries of Christianity. The Church had much less to do with the faithful in the summer, certainly demanding less fasting in the season when people wanted to be out and about and at peak strength for tending the crops, partying and making wine or love.
The religious timetable was geared towards the quieter and more reflective winter months, starting in autumn after the harvest and, through the calendar of feast and fast days, running over the whole story of Christianity from the birth to the death and ascension of Christ by the time Common Time, and the next summer, came round again. The two biggest blocks of fasting time – before Christmas and Easter – both occurred in the low season for food production, when days were short, work minimal and food, no longer being produced, needed to be eked out till spring.
December: the big fast
But what has always surprised me (as I imagine it would anyone who has walked down Oxford Street or Regent Street in modern times) is how serious the autumn fast before Christmas was, traditionally, and how long it went on for. For many centuries, it lasted much longer than Advent does today - it was a full six-week penance going from mid-November through January. Almost every day in the weeks of late November and December right through to Epiphany on January 6 (40 out of 56 days) were earmarked for self-denial.
This autumn fast followed the roast goose of St Martin’s Day, or Martinmas,which was celebrated on 11 November, and at which the last bits of the year’s earthly business were tied up. Martinmas was the time for a labourer who wanted a new job to go to a seasonal hiring fair looking for a master. Autumn wheat seeding was completed. So was the annual slaughter of fattened cattle, producing Martinmas beef, wine, and a mini-carnival before winter really set in.
With the hangover the next day, November 12, came what was then called St Martin’s Lent. Later the Church shortened this to Advent, but kept December as a time for fasting and praying and listening to music in preparation for the Christmas feast. It was only in the late 20th century that this spiritual cleansing was cut down to nothing much more, for most people, than the occasional carol service or even just a burst of godrestyemerrygentlemen warbled in the bath, while the jolly secular seasonal preparations in the shopping malls mushroomed.
More salted caramel truffles with the foie gras, anyone?
It’s very much within living memory that the weeks leading up to Christmas stopped being a fast and became the feeding-and-shopping frenzy we know today.
It’s also pretty much a new departure from the traditional twelve days of Christmas that, just when my grandmother would have been innocently tucking into the seventh of her 12 mince pies and guiltlessly breaking open more champagne to celebrate the 12 days of her modest festive season, I (like millions of others who have already been feasting for many, many days by now, pretty much a month) am swearing off everything and going on a radical detox for January.
It now seems to me that we might have done better to stick with the more ascetic older tradition, and not just gone for the bloatfest of sick-making mince pies and overstuffed stuffing starting about 57 shopping days before Christmas. A bit of self-denial first would have made the self-indulgence afterwards sweeter. The guilt of doing it the other way round is much less fun. With her one mince pie a day for the twelve days of Christmas, I think my grandmother had her timing absolutely right.
Vanora Bennett’s website
I've always liked Arthur Waley's translations of Chinese literature and poetry, and I came across this one recently in an old edition I found in a second-hand bookshop. It was exciting to find a source for the story most of us know only from Disney, and I thought History Girl readers would enjoy it too - especially the unexpected ending as it pokes fun at the notion that men and women are essentially different in their abilities. The rough ballad style Waley has chosen seems well suited to the simplicity of the story, to which he adds the note: 'Written in northern China during the domination of the Wei Tartars, Sixth Century AD'. You can compare it with a more recent translation here: http://www.chinapage.com/mulan.html
Hua Mulan on white horse: image from http://athenaenoctua2013.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/la-ballata-di-hua-mulan.html
Hua Mulan on bay horse: image from http://www.chinese-swords-guide.com/mulan.html
Here's a little light relief in the dreich days of what may feel to some of us like Flanders and Swann's "bloody January again". It's a quiz: can you guess the place and the date for the 3 summery historical photos below? (Click on them to make them bigger) There are no prizes and no penalties, so if you know, put it in the comments and impress us all, and if you don't, have a wild stab. I'll be posting the correct answers in the comments at the end of the day.
(with thanks to snapzuearth - wikimedia commons - and wikipedia)
Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Twelfth night is over, the last sprig of desiccated ivy has been twitched away, and pavements are filling up with fir trees, propped up at dejected angles. Time now, if you are so inclined, to turn to new year resolutions. Back in 1957, had you been one of the million subscribers in Britain to The Practical Householder, you would probably be promising yourself to 'Modernise your home with Hardboard' this year.
But darker stories lurk between these colourful covers. Concealment is everywhere. Adverts and advice alike hint at domestic versions of Cold War conspiracies. Were the 1950s simply one big cover-up?
One article gives instructions on 'Secret Locks': Simple to Make from Scrap and Which Can be Suitably Fitted to Poultry Houses and Sheds. Another tells you how to make good with plaster - just cover over the cracks - while a third explains how to disguise a door with a false wall. Making things stick was clearly a major issue. Ready-made adhesives had suddenly made this a whole lot easier. Some brands are familiar, like Evo-stik or Bostik; others have now vanished from the market, like Jiffytex, Casco, ('It pays to be fussy'), Certofix ('Make it immovable'), Dyox ('without a stain'), Seccotine ('sticks to everything') or Croid. (Perhaps even 'indisputably the world's strongest glue' loses its staying power when its name has the ring of a haemorrhoid cream.)
Everything can be sealed or filled or covered up somehow. As well as boards for baths, there are curtains for chests-of-drawers, pelmets for curtains, fire screens disguised as bookcases, all kinds of flooring you can fit over floorboards, rugs galore, and any number of stick-on tiles, panels and plastic wipe-clean surfaces. Buy 'Remix', 'Seelastik', 'Plushionpile', 'Tryka', 'Warerite', 'Dekflor', 'Hardura'...
Despite their frilly aprons, clinched waists, and a worrying tendency to use 'Tool Power' for polishing rather than the manly tasks of sawing, sanding, turning, and drilling, women are visibly doing-it-themselves in the pages of The Practical Householder.
But though they might be single-handedly tiling bathrooms, laying floor tiles, renovating tables and binding carpets, these cheerful female figures can't entirely dissipate the building sense of unease. Isn't there something mildly sinister about the 'Denison' disappearing loft ladder and the extra room it helps to hide?
And there she is, looking glorious as you step out of Cutty Sark station, having travelled on the Docklands Light Railway. But have you ever given any consideration to the ship's name? I must admit to being aware of it for almost the whole of my life without once asking myself: what does it mean? What's the origin of the words? I'm willing to bet that 90% of my readers will be just as ignorant.
CUTTY SARK is the name of a garment traditionally given to young Scottish girls when they were deemed to be grown up...a sort of rite of passage. It means 'short petticoat' - quite a risqué garment in the 19th century. John Willis, the Scot who built this ship, was a great Robbie Burns fan and the name is taken from Burns's poem Tam O'Shanter. Tam, riding his horse Maggie, spies on a witches' Sabbath, taking place in a desecrated church. The music is played by the Devil himself. The witches are all hideous and old except for Nannie, who is young, ' a winsome wench' and wearing a cutty sark. Tam cries out 'Well done, Cutty Sark!" and the witches see him spying on them and start to chase him. He runs for the nearest bridge, because everyone knows witches can't cross the water, but Nannie, following close on Tam's heels, catches hold of Maggie's tail and tears it off. The ship's figurehead shows Nannie, in her cutty sark, holding poor Maggie's tail aloft. There's a photo further down in which you can see this.
The Cutty Sark was a clipper ship. She sailed the waters between England and China bringing back quantities of tea which would boggle your mind. Tea consumption in the 19th century was astonishing and on the trips back from China the whole hold was packed with crates such as the one below, to provide for the needs of a population which couldn't get enough of it. The very beautiful decoration on the tea crates was like an early bar code: many of the men unloading the ship couldn't read, and the pictures showed them where the tea came from and what sort of tea it was. The crates were mostly broken up after they were unloaded and the lead strips which you can see in the photographed were gathered up and sold to the printers in nearby Fleet Street. The Cutty Sark carried tea and later on, wool from Australia and many other cargoes too. Tea and wool are light cargoes and the ship needed to be ballasted with stones coming back from China. Going out to China via Sydney, coal was often packed into the hold but in her time, Cutty Sark also carried (on the way out to China and I am quoting from the excellent guide book I bought) "baking powder, cocoa, currants, fruits, liquorice, marmalade, sugar, tobacco, brandy, sherry, wine.......oils and paints, galvanised iron,....spades, nails, bolts, paper, books, machinery, engine springs....boots and shoes, candles and matches."You get the idea...I've left out more than I've copied.
A crew of about 25 men sailed the Cutty Sark across the world's oceans. As you can see from the photos below, the conditions were, for the time and the conditions, rather good. In all her years at sea, with almost 600 men having sailed on her through every kind of weather, only five men were lost overboard. That's quite a record. The bunks are narrow but I've seen worse quarters in modern prisons. There was even a student residence I once stayed in which was not as pleasant as these little rooms. The bunks were shared, because as one watch went on duty, the other watch went to sleep. This meant that in cold weather, the bed was warm when you got into it.
Below is the view from the top deck looking across the river.
True, if you were poor and in agony with toothache, you’d have probably consulted one of the itinerant tooth pullers at the local fair who would advertise his services by wearing a necklace of teeth or a belt with teeth sown to it. The whole spectacle would be performed with a flourish for the entertainment of the crowd and the screams of the patient drowned out by jolly music. Claims by these men that it was quick and painless gave rise to the medieval insult – ‘you lie like a tooth-drawer.’
|St Apollonia. Patron saint of toothache suffers and dentists.|
These untrained tooth-pullers often dislodged other teeth in the process of extraction. They could even dislocate the jaw, break the bone or cause severe haemorrhaging. The victim would not only have to pay for their brutal ministrations, but would also be charged to buy his own tooth back. It was a widely held medieval superstition that if you got buried without all your teeth you’d be forced to spend the Day of Resurrection looking for them. Your teeth and hair combings could also be used against you in malicious spells if they fell into the wrong hands, so it was important to keep any removed teeth. If you were worried they might not be buried with you, you could send your teeth on ahead by casting them into the fire sprinkled with salt. It was believed that for each bad tooth you sent ahead in this way, you would receive a good tooth in your resurrected body.
But for those who could afford their services, there were professional tooth-drawers. In the early medieval period these specialists in dental work were mostly found in Europe, trained in European medical schools. They often included women, many of whom were Beguines, who were much sought after as it was known they relied on skill rather than brute strength. The principle male professionals, especially in England, were the members of the Guild of Barber-Surgeons. But there were some notable amateurs too. King James IV of Scotland (1473-1513) had a great interest in medicine and paid some of his subjects to allow him to extract their teeth and bleed them!
But if you had money in the Middle Ages, extracting a sore tooth was by no means the only cure. Tooth-ache was believed to be caused by a worm gnawing at the tooth, which does very much capture what it feels like. Many cures involved ‘killing’ this worm or putting it to sleep. Using cloves, peppers or herbs seeped in wine to ‘kill the worm’, would have had some useful effect since they must have helped to fight infection and numb pain.
Bad teeth could also be filled. Rhazes, a Persian physician (850-923), had perfected the art of drilling and filling teeth. His fillings of alum and mastic (a gum resin known as ‘Tears of Chios’) weren’t very strong, but by the Middle Ages, fillings which also contained ground sheep bone had been introduced which were much more durable. An Italian scholar, Arculanus (1412-1484), records that gold leaf made an excellent tooth filling, if pressed in little by little and this was still being used right up until the 20th century.
|Dental Scrapers illustrated |
by Abulcasis (1050-1122)
An Arabian surgeon, Abulcasis (1050-1122) illustrated 14 different dental scrapers and described their uses for scaling teeth and removing deposits which would otherwise ‘corrupt’ the gums. He scaled teeth by laying the patient’s head in his lap. He also recommended a slow extraction to avoid damaging other teeth by wobbling the bad tooth from side to side, instead of yanking it out. He bound loose teeth to good ones, using gold wire and employed the same method to insert false teeth carved out of animal bone into gaps where teeth had been lost or removed.
These days we are grateful for pain numbing gels and injections, but in the Middle Ages pain relief, or at least the dulling of pain, was also used in dentistry. Syrups made from various herbs such as the white marsh poppy, could be drunk before treatment and another popular method was to breath in the fumes of henbane which was heated over a small charcoal brazier.
A couple of decades ago Americans probably regard British dentistry as still being the Middle Ages, since professional teeth whitening took hold in American long before the British succumbed. But in the medieval and Tudor period they also made attempts at teeth whitening. The barber-surgeons cleaned the teeth of their patients with aqua fortis (diluted nitric acid), which effectively whitened teeth, but had the unfortunate effect of eating away at the tooth enamel, so if it was used too often it destroyed the teeth. A slightly safer medieval method of tooth whitening was boiling together equal parts of honey, vinegar and wine to brighten teeth, though that probably didn’t do the enamel much good in the long term either. Another tooth powder was made from ground up alabaster mixed with jelly that could be rubbed on the teeth, which sounds a little safer.
|Monks carving a grotesque for an abbey |
modeled on a man with toothache.
Teeth whiteners were also used in the home including the stems of the vine plant which were burnt to ashes then rubbed on teeth to whiten them. Chewing mastic (gum resin) was said to strengthen teeth and gums. Bistort or snake weed when boiled in white wine helped sore and loose teeth, as did wild tansy. Or if you really hated barber-surgeons and wanted a guaranteed pain-free extraction apothecaries recommended filling a clay crucible with ants, known as pismires, burning them and touch the ashes to the tooth, which was then supposed to fall out at once.
Barrington Stoke produced a beautifully illustrated version of The Night Raid and asked if I’d like to do another. I thought Camilla, another character from Virgil's Aeneid, would be the perfect complement to the story of Nisus and Euryalus. Like them she is a warrior whose downfall* is caused by her lust for booty. But unlike Nisus and Euryalus, who are both mentioned in other sources, Camilla is Virgil's creation and her first appearance is in his Aeneid, books 7 and 11. As Trudy Harrington Becker says, 'Camilla herself is extraordinary in that she is a creation of Vergil, unknown before him and unattested after.'
Of course Virgil was inspired by Amazons like Penthesilea and girls consecrated to Diana like Thracian Harpalyce, but like Dido, Camilla is a unique and complex character.
Her back story is extraordinary, too. She is the baby tied to a spear and lobbed by her father across a raging torrent.
What is frustrating about Virgil’s account is that the events of Camilla's life come out of order and there are tantalising gaps. The Aeneid is famously 'unfinished'. Would her creator have fleshed out Camilla's story? Maybe. Maybe not. But I thought it would be fun to tell the story of this bellatrix (female warrior) in a linear fashion, using my imagination in conjunction with the 'facts' that Virgil mentions.
It was a little like solving a mystery, piecing together clues and filling in the blanks. It took several false starts and many drafts before I finally found the voice and story.
Here is a film clip I put together – my very first effort! – to explain why I found her story so compelling.
As always, one of my motivations in writing fiction set in the Classical world is to whet kids’ appetites for more. But I mainly wrote this for myself, to flesh out the story of this fierce young warrioress, one of Virgil's most complex and fascinating female characters.
Queen of the Silver Arrow is out on 15 January 2016. You can order it here or from any good bookshop.
*NB parents! I try to deal with it sensitively, but Camilla dies in a fairly horrific way, so although the reading age is only 8+, the content is PG12.
We have our different reasons.
The cats twitch their tails and lick their lips at the sound of birdsong. Meanwhile I relish the names of the birds and the disclosures of their intimate habits.
The bird who has caught my attention lately is the Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa). This is because the female of the species seems to me to live the life of polyandrous Riley.
Here’s a photo of a pair of them, by Dominic Sherony, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The female Jacana spinosa lives out that aphorism - acting like male of many a species. Unfortunately she also acts like jerk with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
She chooses her mates, seduces them with her plumage, has her way with them. Then she leaves them to look after the eggs and chicks while she goes off in pursuit of new males.
Here’s a Northern Jacana foraging for delicacies (picture by Hans Hillewaert, Wikimedia Commons).
Here’s a picture of a Northern Jacana acting provocatively, if you want my opinion. This one is by Benjamin Keen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Thinking about this avian 'hussy' drew my mind to an issue I have long found interesting. In a bad way.
Why are there so many insulting words for a woman who has a lot of sex? And why so few for men?
One of my favourite resources, given that I write a lot of 18th century, is Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
Here are some of the words in it for women who have a lot of sex: a cunning baggage, a wanton baggage, a biter, a bobtail, a buttered bun, a bureck, cleaver, a cleft, a coming wench; a forward wench, a breeding woman, a demy-rep, a doxy or a dodsey, a Drury-lane vestal, a froe, a fusty luggs, a giggler, a lady of easy virtue, a left-handed wife, a woman of the town, a harlot, one who prays with her knees upwards, a quean, a rantipole, one who lets out her fore room and lies backwards, a trollop, a wagtail, a woman of pleasure, a hedge whore, a mob or mab, a strumpet, an Athanasian Wench, a Quicunque Vult, a demanders for Glimmer or Fire, a bawdy Basket, a doxy, a Kinching Mort, a Kinching Co.
And for a man? A very few. The worst I could find was a ‘beard-splitter’.
In other sources, one might find ‘a Casanova’, ‘a bit of a lad’, ‘a ladykiller’ (and not in the Jack the Ripper sense’ or a snickering ‘one for the ladies’. Nothing very judgmental. In fact one imagine each of these phrases delivered with a wink and even in an admiring tone.
Francis Grose also has a vast number of insulting words for men who live in subservience to a female partner, or, heaven forfend, helps her around the house. So Mr Northern Jacana might have these things said of him:
His eyes water from the smoke of Charren; a man of that place coming out of his house weeping, because his wife had beat him, told his neighbours the smoke had made his eyes water
COMB. To comb one's head; to clapperclaw, or scold any one: a woman who lectures her husband, is said to comb his head. She combed his head with a joint stool; she threw a stool at him.
COT, or QUOT. A man who meddles with women's household business, particularly in the kitchen. The punishment commonly inflicted on a quot, is pinning a greasy dishclout to the skirts of his coat.
CURTAIN LECTURE. A woman who scolds her husband when in bed, is said to read him a curtain lecture.
DISHCLOUT. He has made a napkin of his dishclout; a saying of one who has married his cook maid.
A little later, in 1860, there appeared the Dictionary of Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words Used at the Present Day in the Streets of London; the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; the Houses of Parliament; the Dens of St. Giles; and the Palaces of St James. John Camden Hotten was the author.
Here we find another colourful collection of ladies of easy virtue: We still have mort and drab and mutton. Now we also have ‘a gay woman’. To which we can add a Kiddleywink, a Poll, a Shake, Shakester or Shickster, and the delightful Showfull Pullett. Less nice are a Blowen (a showy or flaunting prostitute) and a Jack, a low prostitute.
We also have a clause that I have failed to penetrate: To Joe Blake the Bartlemy, meaning to visit a low woman.
Any clarifications welcome.
Meanwhile, speaking of low, here’s an update to my last post in this place, about the brutal re-branding of a Grade II Listed building in the historic view of a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The perpetrator, the sub-tenant of a Famous Chain of coffee shops, has been ordered by the council to remove the garish illegal advertising ‘forthwith’ from the façade of historic Wharf W. That was on December 15th, a month ago. Does anyone think Famous Chain's sub-tenant might have complied? Hands up who thinks that the Borough of Southwark has done anything to make him do so. Who is convinced that Famous Chain must have rushed in promptly to deal with its tenant’s non-compliance?
Michelle Lovric’s website
The picture at the top is also from Wikimedia Commons, and is by Marc Athanase Parfait Œillet Des Murs (1804-1878).
As I settle down to pen my first History Girls post, I’m watching a neighbor tussling with the naked, bedraggled Christmas tree that, for the last few weeks, has stood, bedecked and glittering, at her window. The beginning of January is always an odd time. We leave behind the tinsel and mince pies and welcome in the New Year with resolutions, fresh starts and, thanks to the mild weather, the first glimpses of spring. But we’ve still got a few winter months to go and this year, instead of longing for the daffodils and lighter evenings, I’m embracing the dark.
I’m writing my third historical novel, a ghost story of sorts, set on the Yorkshire Moors in the 17th century. As part of my research I’ve been reading accounts of early modern ghost sightings. What better way to relish the long evenings than curling up under a blanket, reading by candlelight and scaring myself silly?
The most striking thing I’ve noticed is how the elements of a good ghost story have remained relatively unchanged over the centuries. Belief in ghosts, or in the ability of the dead to return and influence the living, has been around for millennia. Archaeology provides proof of pre-historic cults of ancestor worship, ideas about the afterlife, and rituals for the appeasement of the dead. And throughout history most religions have had some concept that allows for the existence of the supernatural.
By the mid 17th century, my period of research, belief in the supernatural was still strong and still tied closely to religious belief. Visitations from beyond the grave were largely divided into two types: returning spirits of the dead, mostly ‘vengeful ghosts’ – those who had returned to right some wrong or settle some score, and ‘noisy ghosts’ – those who haunted houses or caused physical disturbances – the kind we might today call poltergeists.
The concept of the vengeful or intentional ghost has been around for a long time. The spirit usually returned with some task to complete, such as delivering a warning or ensuring justice was done. There are numerous reports of ghosts appearing to take revenge upon wrongdoers, to atone for their own misdemeanors or even settle legal disputes. The ghosts in Shakespeare’s plays might have been interpreted this way by a contemporary audience. Their intentions were often good. After all, if God was allowing them to return, then it must have been for some heavenly purpose.
Poltergeist hauntings, or noisy ghosts, were interpreted with less certainty and more fear. Strange disturbances, sounds, smells, footsteps and voices – all the elements of a modern day horror – can be found in these accounts and then, as now, people loved a scary story.
As the century progressed towards the Enlightenment poltergeist hauntings become not only a source of gossip and fascination but also a debating ground for theologians, natural scientists and philosophical thinkers. The topic was a touchstone for the very existence of the supernatural. Were these occurrences the work of the vengeful dead? Were they malevolent demons working on Satan’s behalf? Or was it witchcraft? Though prosecuted cases of witchcraft began to decline at this time, belief in and fear of witches was still a reality for most.
The most famous example of the period is that of the Tedworth Drummer. In 1662 strange noises, smells and lights plagued the house of John Mompesson in Wiltshire. Next, a drum that had been confiscated from a local vagrant, William Dury, began to emit beats and even play out distinct tattoos. The source of these noises was a mystery, especially as the prime suspect, Dury himself, was locked up in Gloucester gaol.
Considered by some to be Dury exacting his revenge from afar by means of witchcraft, others believed it to be a genuine haunting. Word of mouth spread and the press had a field day. Before long, visitors curious to experience the phenomenon besieged the Mompessons. Among the supernatural tourists were gentlemen scholars, aristocrats and clergy. Two members of the Royal Court were even sent to investigate by Charles II.
Eventually, in a meeting with the King, Mompesson confessed that he had been the victim of a hoax, but it’s been suggested that this was simply a ploy to rid himself of the expense and inconvenience of all his uninvited human guests. His son, writing to John Wesley’s eldest brother admitted that ‘I, and all the family, knew the account which was published to be punctually true’.
17th century woodcut of the house at Tedworth
We’ll never know the truth about the Tedworth Drummer, but what I love about this story and others like it is the mystery that still surrounds it and the sense of timelessness. On the first day of 2016 I watched a horror film made just a few years ago. It was a haunted house story, peppered with creepy knockings and bangings, unexplained smells and a disruptive, malevolent presence. Sound familiar?
Even in our skeptical, secular world, we still get a thrill from a good ghost story. And as their continued popularity shows, they can still be relevant. As part of our folklore they are an important part of our cultural, storytelling history – an attempt to explain our place in the world and those things that can’t yet be explained.
Books can be transporting. They can carry you into someone else’s head and allow you to see other lives, other ways of being. They can show you different countries, strange worlds, alien planets. But sometimes the stories that are closest to home are the ones that have the most lasting impact.
|Coldrum Long Barrow|
One Question. Two paths. A choice that will make history.
France 1399: The Duke of Brittany is dead and his widow, Joanna of Navarre, has inherited control of their land - a testament to her intellect, integrity and political prowess.
Then comes an unprecedented proposal from Henry IV, King of England. And the price of becoming his Queen? Abandoning her country by marriage, leaving her children and sacrificing her independence.
What will Joanna choose? And how will she face the accusation of witchcraft and necromancy?
Three thousand years ago a war took place that gave birth to legends - to Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, and Hector, prince of Troy. It was a war that shook the very foundations of the world. But what if there was more to this epic conflict? What if there was another, hidden tale of the Trojan War?
Now is the time for the women of Troy to tell their story.
Thrillingly imagined and startlingly original, For the Most Beautiful reveals the true story of true for the first time. The story of Krisayis, daughter of the Trojans' High Priest, and of Briseis, princess of Pedasus, who fight to determine the fate of a city and its people in this ancient time of mischievous gods and mythic heroes.
In this novel full of passion and revenge, loyalty and betrayal, bravery and sacrifice, Emily Hauser breathes exhilarating new life into one of the greatest legends of all - in a tale that has waited millennia to be told.
A BRIEF AFFAIR – Margaret Leroy (Sphere, Feb 11th)
September 1940. England is at war and London has become an ever-fragile place for widowed Livia Ripley and her two young daughters. When Livia meets charismatic publisher Hugo, she is hopeful that her life is about to change for the better. But as clouds gather in the clear autumn sky, the wail of the siren heralds the arrival of the Luftwaffe. As the raids intensify, Livia reluctantly volunteers to become a warden, at the invitation of the intense and enigmatic Justin Connelly.
THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER– Carol Drinkwater (Michael Joseph, Feb 11th)
The annual grape harvest at the Cambon family's vineyard is always a cause for celebration. But not this year. When an accident destroys the crop, leaving the estate facing ruin, Clarisse Cambon knows exactly who to blame – her daughter-in-law Jane.
It's just the latest incident in a decades-long feud whose origin both women have concealed and going back to Algeria in 1962 during the dying throes of the War of Independence.
1648. Orphaned heiress Lady Katherine Ferrers is forced into marriage for the sake of family honour … but with Cromwell’s army bringing England to its knees, her fortune is the real prize her husband desires. As her marriage becomes a prison and her privileged world crumbles, Katherine meets her match in Rafe – a lover who will lead her into a dangerous new way of life where the threat of death lurks at every turn…
Enter Kate Ferrers, highwaywoman, the Wicked Lady of legend – brought gloriously to life in this take of infatuation, betrayal and survival.
WATCH THE LADY– Elizabeth Fremantle (in paperback, Penguin, Feb 11th)
Penelope Devereux arrives at Queen Elizabeth’s court where she and her brother, the Earl of Essex, are drawn into the aging Queen’s favor. Young and Naïve, Penelope, though promised elsewhere, falls in love with Philip Sidney who pours his heartbreak into the now classic sonnet series Astrophil and Stella. But Penelope is soon married off to a man who loathes her. Never fainthearted, she chooses her moment and strikes a deal with her husband: after she gives birth to two sons, she will be free to live as she chooses, with whom she chooses. But she is to discover that the course of true love is never smooth.
Meanwhile Robert Cecil, ever loyal to Elizabeth, has his eye on Penelope and her brother. Although it seems The Earl of Essex can do no wrong in the eyes of the Queen, as his influence grows, so his enemies gather. Penelope must draw on all her political savvy to save her brother from his own ballooning ambition and Cecil’s trap, while daring to plan for an event it is treason even to think about.
Unfolding over the course of two decades and told from the perspectives of Penelope and her greatest enemy, the devious politician Cecil, Watch the Lady chronicles the last gasps of Elizabeth’s reign, and the deadly scramble for power in a dying dynasty.
FAITH AND BEAUTY– Jane Thynne (in paperback, Simon & Schuster March 10th)
Berlin, on the eve of war…
Clara Vine, Anglo-German actress and spy, has been offered the most ambitious part she has ever played. And in her more secret life, British Intelligence has recalled her to London to probe reports that the Nazis and the Soviet Union are planning to make a pact.
Then Clara hears of Lotti's death, and is determined to discover what happened to her. But what she uncovers is something of infinite value to the Nazi regime - the object that led to Lotti's murder - and now she herself is in danger.
In a drama which traverses Berlin, Paris, Vienna and London, Clara Vine tries to keep her friends close, but finds her enemies are even closer.
London 1881: Bayswater is in the grip of panic as a ruthless murderer prowls the foggy streets of the nation's capital.
Crisscross America — on dogsleds and ships, stagecoaches and trains — from pirate ships off the coast of the Carolinas to the peace, love, and protests of 1960s Chicago. Join fifteen of today’s most talented writers of young adult literature on a thrill ride through history with American girls charting their own course. They are monsters and mediums, bodyguards and barkeeps, screenwriters and schoolteachers, heiresses and hobos. They're making their own way in often-hostile lands, using every weapon in their arsenals, facing down murderers and marriage proposals. And they all have a story to tell.
ALTAR OF BLOOD– Anthony Riches (Hodder & Stoughton, March 10th)
The Tungrians have no sooner returned to Rome than they find themselves tasked with a very different mission to their desperate exploits in Parthia.
Ordered to cross the river Rhenus into barbarian Germany and capture a tribal priestess who may be the most dangerous person on the empire's northern border, they are soon subject to the machinations of an old enemy who will stop at nothing to sabotage their plans before they have even set foot on the river's eastern bank.
THE ENGLISH GIRL– Katherine Webb (Orion, March 24th)
Joan Seabrook, a fledgling archaeologist, has fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit Arabia by travelling from England to the ancient city of Muscat with her fiancé, Rory. Desperate to escape the pain of a personal tragedy, she longs to explore the desert fort of Jabrin, and unearth the treasures it is said to conceal. But Oman is a land lost in time - hard, secretive, and in the midst of a violent upheaval - and gaining permission to explore Jabrin could prove impossible. Joan's disappointment is only alleviated by the thrill of meeting her childhood heroine, pioneering explorer Maude Vickery, and hearing first-hand the stories that captured her imagination and fuelled her ambition as a child.
Joan's encounter with the extraordinary and reclusive Maude will change everything. Both women have things that they want, and secrets they must keep. As their friendship grows, Joan is seduced by Maude's stories, and the thrill of the adventure they hold, and only too late does she begin to question her actions - actions that will spark a wild, and potentially disastrous, chain of events.
Will the girl that left England for this beautiful but dangerous land ever find her way back?
THE HOUSE OF DREAMS– Kate Lord Brown (Macmillan, April)
In 1940, an international group of rescue workers, refugee intellectuals, and artists gather in the beautiful old Villa Air Bel just outside Marseilles. American journalist Varian Fry and his remarkable team at the American Relief Center are working to help them escape France, but "the greatest man-trap in history" is closing in on them. Despite their peril, true camaraderie and creativity flourishes - while love affairs spring up and secrets are hidden. At the House of Dreams, young refugee artist Gabriel Lambert changed the course of his life - and now, sixty years later at his home in the Hamptons, the truth is finally catching up with him.
SHAKESPEARE'S GHOST– Mary Hoffman (Greystone Press, April 23rd)
From A Midsummer Night’s Dream onwards, Shakespeare’s plays are often peopled by fairies, witches, ghosts and apparitions. In Shakespeare’s Ghost Mary Hoffman imagines why that might be, by giving the poet a familiar spirit who urges him to include more and more paranormal events and characters in his work.
Meanwhile, Ned Lambert, a boy player in Shakespeare’s own company, The King’s Men, is having inexplicable experiences of his own, with a beautiful and elusive woman in green, who is not of this world.
It is 1610 and Jacobean London is full of dangers, from the plague to plots and revolutions. And Ned – now a man on and off stage – is caught between fears and temptations. The poet is his friend, as is the popular young Prince of Wales, but is Faelinn friend or foe?
BACK HOME– Tom Williams (Accent, April)
1950s Brighton. WWII is over but Mirabelle Bevan's time in the backrooms of Whitehall has made her the most stylish sleuth in Brighton.
When Mirabelle is rescued from a fire at her home on the Brighton seafront she's lucky to escape unharmed - but the blaze takes the life of her neighbour, Dougie Beaumont, a dashing and successful racing driver living in the flat above and it isn’t long before Mirabelle finds herself drawn into the mystery surrounding his death….
Look at this chap, all rugged and craggy faced with his long hair, grim set mouth and serious eyes. It's of a man called Grey Owl, taken at the height of his international fame in 1936. What was he famous for? Not an actor in Westerns, but one of the first nature conservationists who - ahead of all popular notions - advocated complete bans on hunting wild animals.
He wrote books, appeared in non fiction films about the wild Canadian country in which he lived and worked (he was a park ranger in the mid 30s), and toured all over North America and Europe giving lectures and meeting royalty (he was presented to George IV in 1937).
He was born in 1888 and like many First Nation Canadians joined up to fight for Britain in World War One. He'd already been working in the wilds of Obijwe country working as a fur trapper since he was in his late teens. His military documents identified him as born in Montreal and 'Indian'.
During the war he suffered a serious bout of gangrene and ended up in British military hospitals for nearly a year.
He returned to Canada at the end of the war where he took up his life as a woodsman, trapping beaver mostly. The war had taken it's toll and he began drinking.
But in 1925 he met a young woman who completely changed his point of view. She was nearly half his age, she was Iroquois and called Anaharheo.
Grey Owl told his publisher - and the world - that he was half Scots and half Apache. That his parents met on one of Wild Bill Hickok's Western Tours in Great Britain and that he'd travelled with them and he was born in Mexico.
Everyone believed hm.
He went on lecture tours and on one stop, in Hastings in 1937, had tea with two of his fans, a pair of elderly English women. They probably had a lot to talk about, they were the women who'd bought him up, in a terraced house just down the hill from where I live now. They were his Great Aunts Cary and Ada. He was Archie Belaney. Hastings born and bred.
They kept his secret safe.
But Grey Owl was drinking more, he split up with Anahareo and married a French Canadian woman shortly after. But as well as being an alcoholic Grey Owl was a bigamist. He'd married legally for the first time just before World War One, then married - illegally - an English woman while he was in hospital in Britain.
He died in 1938 from pneumonia (aggravated no doubt by the drinking) alone in his cabin. The truth came out and his work was discredited. He was the Rachel Dolezal (the American white woman who made a career out of being black) of his age, like her his career depended on his ethnicity and when he was discovered to be a man from an East Sussex seaside town his authority on matters of the Canadian wild was shot to pieces.
But Anahareo, who'd split with him in 1936, forged an independent career as an animal rights activist. She was awarded a medal for her work by an International Animal Rights elected a member of the Order of Canada. Anahareo was truly a woman ahead of her time.
She asserted she never knew the truth about Archie Belaney, that she'd been hurt when she found out his true identity. When they met he'd already been lying about his identity for the past twenty years.
The only thing that was true about Archie Belaney was his birth date. Archie Belaney emigrated to Canada as a teenager, as soon as his aunts would let him go. He didn't want to be a grammar school boy from a seaside town, he wanted to be that noble savage he'd read about all his boyhood in books.
|The blue plaque in Hastings|
Perhaps the more he was believed, the more he wanted to be believed. I don't know what it takes to make yourself over so entirely. This is far from Mary Willcocks who spent a just few months as south seas royalty - this is whole a lifetime. Did he have to convince himself first? Was it chance, opportunity, foolhardiness or arrogance? Or maybe, when he was canoeing on the lake outside his cabin in the Canadian wilderness, far from the prom and the pier, he just didn't care...
My latest book is about another impostor - The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo is published by Corgi.
PS Hastings Museum has a lot of info about Grey Owl - and I haven't forgotten there was a film about him made recently with Pierce Brosnan.
For those who haven’t yet had the joy of reading This Monstrous Thing, Mackenzi Lee's debut novel is a re-imagining of the Frankenstein story set around the 1818 publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
Here's the back-cover bumpf:
In 1818 Geneva, men built with clockwork parts live hidden away from society, cared for only by illegal mechanics called Shadow Boys. Two years ago, Shadow Boy Alasdair Finch's life shattered to bits.
His brother, Oliver—dead.
His sweetheart, Mary—gone.
His chance to break free of Geneva—lost.
Heartbroken and desperate, Alasdair does the unthinkable: he brings Oliver back from the dead.
But putting back together a broken life is more difficult than mending bones and adding clockwork pieces. Oliver returns more monster than man, and Alasdair's horror further damages the already troubled relationship. Then comes the publication of Frankenstein, and the city intensifies its search for Shadow Boys, aiming to discover the real-life doctor and his monster. Alasdair finds refuge with his idol, the brilliant Dr. Geisler, who may offer him a way to escape the dangerous present and his guilt-ridden past, but at a horrible price only Oliver can pay. . .
Inspired by Mary Shelley's classic novel, Mackenzi Lee's dark yet redemptive debut is part fantasy, part Gothic horror, and ultimately the story of two brothers who might just keep each other human.Somehow, I don't think that description does the book justice. It ticks all the boxes but somehow doesn't quite convey the thoroughness of Lee's (no relation to me) re-imagining. Instead, allow me to say that This Monstrous Thing is one of the most exciting and enviable YA novels I read last year. I was delighted when Mackenzi agreed to talk to us about research, taking liberties with history, and the scandalous Shelleys and their circle.
YSL: I really love the novel’s premise: what if Victor Frankenstein was not driven by hubris and he didn’t abandon his hideous progeny? Instead, what if scientist and monster were brothers, bound together by love and guilt and grief (not to mention a string of lies and a thoroughly oppressive police state)? How did you arrive at this starting point?
ML: My novels never have a single inception point, so THIS MONSTROUS THING was borne from many different places. The first was my initial exposure coming to the novel through a stage production at the National Theater--I didn’t know anything about Frankenstein beyond what pop culture had taught me, and I was shocked by how different it was. I was especially struck by how much of a voice and personality and humanness the creature had--that seems to be the first thing modern culture has robbed him of. This initial exposure shaped my reading of Frankenstein when I finally picked up the novel, and definitely shaped how I approached my own story.
The second was hearing Frankenstein misidentified as the first steampunk novel, and thinking “Well that can’t be right...but that’s cool and someone should do it and maybe that person should be me.” The third is a lifetime of being the volatile older half of a pair of siblings.
My story evolved from there.
YSL: In THIS MONSTROUS THING, you give Percy Bysshe Shelley a cameo and make Mary Shelley a substantial secondary character. What kind of research did you do before you felt confident writing Mary Shelley as a fictional character?
ML: I did a lot of research--I felt a huge responsibility in portraying them, and was very nervous with how readers would respond to their characterization. The best research I did was reading Mary Shelley’s journals and letters from the time she was traveling the Continent and eventually ended up in Geneva, where she wrote Frankenstein. They gave me a sense of her as a person in her own words, and I related to her so deeply. Even though, when she was abroad with Percy, she was pregnant and he was married to someone else, she was only nineteen, just a few years younger than me at the time, and she struck me as a young person trying to find her footing in adulthood, in the shifting, larger world around her, and also find where she fit with the people around her. All things that, as a young twenty something myself, I felt very deeply. It reminded me of my favorite thing about history--that no matter how much society and technology and the world changes, people never really do. There are universalities that stretch across centuries.
YSL: When reading your portrait of Mary Shelley, I kept thinking of Joan Didion’s dictum: “writers are always selling somebody out.” How do you balance being fair to a historical figure and doing what is artistically necessary within the scope of your novel? ML: My favorite books are historical novels that portray real people as characters, but I’m often frustrated with how those real people are portrayed as either all good or all bad. History has written a verdict on the legacy that person has left and whether that makes them a good guy or a bad guy, and so we often forget they were real, multifaceted individuals with a lot of complex parts, making choices in the moment with no idea what the consequences of those actions would be. In writing Mary Shelley as a character in the novel, I wanted to portray her as someone with both huge potential for good and bad, same as the other characters in the novel, struggling with which of those qualities is going to define her, and struggling to reconcile with regrets in her past.
I’m also fascinated with real-life Mary’s inspiration to write Frankenstein--she says it came to her in a dream, but that dream was a product of the world she was living in, with its advancing science and enlightenment sensibilities and the questions those raised about the relationship between man and the divine. Part of my reason for writing my novel was wanting to know what that dream and Frankenstein would have looked like in an alternate, hyper-industrialized, mechanized 1818. Mostly cause I like mechanical stuff.
YSL: In your Author’s Note you say, “there are facts that I ignored completely, because I am willing to play fast and loose with history in order to tell a better story”. But changing the closing date of the university at Ingolstadt is a very small thing, especially when you’ve invented an entire steampunk industrial revolution around it! Where do you draw the line when playing with historical fact? ML: Historical fantasy is such a weird genre--like you said, I feel totally confident making up a steampunk society and revolution that happens within it, but I didn’t feel like I could use the word dyslexic to describe the main character because that isn’t a historical term. Why get obsessed with the fact that words like cheeky and posh weren’t used in the early 1800s and spend a long time trying to find a substitute, but that same novel has cyborgs in it?
For me, what can and can’t be played with is never arbitrary. The historical details need to be informed by the alternate historical world you’ve created. I always let the fantasy elements that form the premise inform what I can take liberties with--I stick to true historical details that would have been unaffected by the magical elements I’ve added. For example, a hyper-mechanized cyborg population probably wouldn’t have influenced research into dyslexia, or cause the word posh to be coined a century earlier than it actually was. The fantasy that shapes that initial premise always informs what I’m willing to adjust and what I feel needs to stay true to history--when you’re deep enough in your world, it becomes instinctual.
As for details like changing the date of a university opening--those are the sort that keep historical writers up at night. No one knows them but us, but we feel honor bound to fess up to our fudging.
YSL: On Twitter you mentioned having read YOUNG ROMANTICS, Daisy Hay’s group biography of Shelley’s generation, as part of your research. (I loved the details you harvested from it!) What were some of the biggest surprises you encountered in your research? Are there any delicious anecdotes that didn’t make it into the finished novel?
ML: I love that so much of the Shelleys’ lives have been intertwined with myth and rumor and the celebrity gossip of the day, but also that so much of their lives read like the plots of Gothic novels. My favorite story that didn’t make it into This Monstrous Thing is that Percy Shelley had a disease which caused his heart to calcify, which wasn’t known until he died in a sailing accident in his 30s. And then they only discovered it because, when they burned his body, his heart was basically a bone and DID NOT BURN. Is that not the spookiest thing you’ve ever heard?! Whether it’s true or not, it’s so fitting for these Gothic writers. And, as the story goes, Mary Shelley kept that calcified bone heart for the rest of her life, in a drawer wrapped in her husband’s poetry.
I also love the story that Mary learned to write and spell her name--which was the same as her mother’s--by tracing the letters on her mother’s gravestone. So freaking spooky.
YSL: Could you share with us a couple of quotations or moments from the book that really encapsulate its aims and its atmosphere?
ML: I’m so fond of the first line, and I think it’s a pretty good example of the tone for the rest of the book: “My brother’s heart was heavy in my hands.”
Agreed! Despite the guarded optimism of the ending, I couldn't help wondering what kind of future was possible for Oliver Finch. I imagine that his heart will always lie (a little) heavy in Alasdair's hands.
Thank you so much, Mackenzi, for speaking with me about This Monstrous Thing. I can't wait to learn more about what you're writing next.
Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Agency mysteries, published by Walker Books (UK) and Candlewick Press (USA/Canada).
Caleb's Crossing was published in 2011, but I've only just come across it. I think it's remarkable, in a number of ways.
It's based on the few facts that are known about a young man from Martha's Vineyard who in 1665 became the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Geraldine Brooks, an Australian who now lives on Martha's Vineyard, first became aware of him from materials prepared by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah. In her afterword, where she explains the relationship between the known facts and the fiction she created from them, she says that some members of the tribe were sympathetic towards what she was doing, whereas others were doubtful about whether it was right to fictionalise a figure who meant so much to them. I found her discussion interesting; many historical novelists feature real people in their work - I certainly have done; and it can be problematic. How faithful should you be to the truth?
Well, Geraldine uses her afterword to explore this. Certainly, it is not surprising that those to whose culture and history 'Caleb' belongs should feel proprietorial - and probably protective - towards him; but as an outsider, it seems to me that she has honoured him, and that it was a hugely worthwhile thing to bring his story to a wider audience.
So what is the story of the novel? Well, it is narrated by Bethia, the daughter of very early settlers in America. Her grandfather first came to the island because he found the beliefs and practices of his coreligionists on the mainland too restrictive. The island is a gentler place than the mainland in terms of its climate, and also in terms of the relationships between the settlers and the native Americans, which are far more respectful than on the mainland.
This is not to say that the settlers are enlightened in every way. Bethia's role is very constricted. She is subservient not only to her father and grandfather, but also to her brother. Although her father does begin by educating her alongside her brother, he stops when he feels that she is becoming more learned than is suitable for her gender - and when it becomes obvious that she is much quicker than her brother. This doesn't stop her though; she eavesdrops on her brother's lessons and continues to learn Latin and Hebrew and theology.
But she learns much more than this. She has a yearning for freedom, and she begins to explore the island alone. She meets Caleb, at this point very much a Native American, and they begin to teach each other the ways of their respective peoples; she learns the Wampoanoag language. She comes to love Caleb, although she never voices it - perhaps doesn't even quite realise it.
At first he is very much under the influence of his uncle, Tequamuck: a 'pawaaw' who seems to have strange powers and sees the settlers as a terrible threat. Caleb comes to believe that there is another way; that if he uses his formidable intellect to become educated in the settlers' ways - if he 'crosses', that may be the best way to help his people. So he comes to learn from Bethia's father.
Things happen, and the lives of Bethia and Caleb keep crossing over. Both are beautifully realised characters, and it's almost unbearable when things almost, but not quite work out for Caleb. The island is vulnerable, and life is hard; the ocean has to be crossed even on the short journey to the mainland, and storms arise swiftly and fatally. Nowhere is a safe haven, and one tragedy follows and leads to another.
It's an absorbing story and a fascinating one. The world it creates is completely convincing and seems built on a foundation of careful research; the details of everyday life, of how the settlers survived and sustained themselves, are almost as interesting as the emotional journeys of the characters. I was intrigued by the language Geraldine Brooks uses; I'm normally wary of attempts to recreate the rhythms of speech and vocabulary of past times - how can they ever be accurate? But she does this, and for me it works; it sounds authentic.
And at the back of it are the familiar stories - of colonisation, and of how societies treat the stranger in their midst.
But it's even more sobering - and heart-breaking - when the stranger is actually the original inhabitant.
There's been a lot of chatter lately about "cultural appropriation". The term doesn't refer to the natural take-up of one group's culture by others who live in proximity, when such markers as cuisine, art, music, language, costume and so on begin to be exchanged. It describes what happens when members of a powerful group exploit the culture of less dominant groups, without any true understanding of their history, traditions or even religious symbols. In the USA in the 1950s, for example, record companies hired white musicians to copy the rhythm and style of black musicians, who were never credited with (or paid for) the music they had pioneered.
insulting." (Insert your own choice of adjective).
If that happens I shall stand my ground. Writers write the stories that enter their heads, the stories that demand to be told. Readers choose whether or not to read them. And everyone has the right to reply, to object or to correct.
When it comes to writing historical fiction, we're faced with a double dilemma. We must not only create characters that are true to the cultures in which we set them, we must also make sure that they inhabit the often vastly different mental and emotional world of the past.
My greatest challenge was during the writing of Crusade. My twelfth century characters included the dog boy of an English baron, a Saracen boy apprenticed to a Jewish doctor from Baghdad, the doctor himself, a Mameluk knight, and a whole cast of knights, squires, servants, kings and lords, both English and Saracen.
|A tea garden in Kerala|
Celia Rees will be back next month