Articles on this Page
- 04/22/13--17:00: _Denounced by Leslie...
- 04/23/13--16:30: _Horsing Around: Fun...
- 04/24/13--17:30: _FAKING IT by Eleano...
- 04/25/13--22:00: _THE LURE OF THE MIN...
- 04/26/13--16:01: _La Belle Sultane by...
- 04/27/13--16:30: _The Edit, or How th...
- 04/28/13--18:00: _GUEST - Ian Mortime...
- 04/29/13--16:01: _A Day Out In Histor...
- 04/30/13--16:01: _A little bit of fam...
- 05/01/13--23:35: _Hannah Glasse and T...
- 05/02/13--22:00: _Are you receiving m...
- 05/03/13--22:00: _Hero and Leander re...
- 05/04/13--22:00: _1000 Miles Up the N...
- 05/05/13--18:00: _Ten things you can’...
- 05/06/13--23:30: _NOT AN EVER-ROLLING...
- 05/07/13--16:30: _Sword and Scalpel b...
- 05/08/13--16:05: _The Sewers of Hercu...
- 05/09/13--16:30: _Lambs to the Slaugh...
- 05/10/13--17:30: _The Ghost of a Pala...
- 05/11/13--17:30: _DRESSING THE CHILDR...
- 04/22/13--17:00: Denounced by Leslie Wilson
- 04/24/13--17:30: FAKING IT by Eleanor Updale
- 04/26/13--16:01: La Belle Sultane by Louisa Young
- 04/28/13--18:00: GUEST - Ian Mortimer interviewed by Katherine Roberts
- 04/29/13--16:01: A Day Out In History by Susan Price
- 04/30/13--16:01: A little bit of family history by Mary Hoffman
- 05/01/13--23:35: Hannah Glasse and The Art of Cookery - Lucy Inglis
- 05/02/13--22:00: Are you receiving me, over? A Sound History - Eve Edwards
- 05/03/13--22:00: Hero and Leander retold, Elizabethan style - Katherine Langrish
- 05/04/13--22:00: 1000 Miles Up the Nile - Joan Lennon
- 05/05/13--18:00: Ten things you can’t do with a Kindle – Katherine Roberts
- 05/06/13--23:30: NOT AN EVER-ROLLING STREAM AT ALL by Adèle Geras
- 05/07/13--16:30: Sword and Scalpel by Karen Maitland
- 05/08/13--16:05: The Sewers of Herculaneum
- 05/09/13--16:30: Lambs to the Slaughter – Michelle Lovric
- 05/10/13--17:30: The Ghost of a Palace, by Laurie Graham
- 05/11/13--17:30: DRESSING THE CHILDREN by H.M. Castor
This is a photocopy of a letter written eighty years ago this week, denouncing my grandfather, Lieutenant Bernhard Rösel, of the Zabrze-Hindenburg police force in Upper Silesia, to the new Nazi authorites in Germany. It was written by his superior officer, First Lieutenant Goede, (who sat on the commission that tried his case.) The story I have to tell is mainly based on his police file, which I read in the German Federal Archive and then had photocopied. I wrote an article about it years ago in the London Review of Books (the link is at the end of this blog piece).
My grandfather had belonged to a kind of police trades union, the Schrader League (now the official association of the Saxon police force), which had a Social Democratic orientation. His crime was that he had refused to apply to join the Nazi-oriented Police Officers' Association when Goede had invited him to before Hitler came to power, but preferred to remain in the Schrader League.
|My young grandparents on their wedding day|
After the Reichstag Fire, the Nazis were rounding up Social Democrats and taking them to so-called 'wild' concentration camps, along with the Communists. This was the first great purge of Nazi Germany and many of its victims died in those camps. The Schrader League was therefore closed down, and its former members would have good reason to feel terrified. But colleagues of my grandfather who were already members of the Nazi police officers's association (which was now the only possible police association) suggested he should apply to join.
He grasped at this lifeline and applied. Goede spoke against him, quoting Rösel's earlier turn-down, and said he had only joined because the Nazis were now in power, therefore he wasn't suitable to join. However, the other police officers wanted Rösel in (he was always respected and liked by his colleagues) and he was admitted to the POA.
The next item in the file is a transcript of a statement by a police constable called Kullik, who was hauled in to answer accusations relating to a conversation he was supposed to have had with my grandfather in 1931. There seem to be two documents missing, as Goede's denunciation is 003 and Kullik's statement is 004. It is clear that Kullik was answering accusations my grandfather was supposed to have made against him. Now, when I wrote about this for LRB, I assumed that my grandfather had denounced Kullik, maybe to get in before Kullik could speak against him. I didn't like that, but, it has to be said, I didn't much like my grandfather (see the personality of Hanno's father in Last Train from Kummersdorf) and was perhaps unfairly inclined to think he had done such a thing.
Now, reading the documents again, this seems less clear. There is no written denunciation from my grandfather, and it seems possible, on re-reading, that my grandfather and Kullik had had this dangerous conversation and someone else reported it to the Nazi authorities. Perhaps he was hauled in for questioning and told that Kullik had made allegations against him, whereat he came out with what Kullik had actually said.
I do believe that my grandfather did in truth say he couldn't understand how Goede could belong to the Nazi party, and called him that wonderful word 'Gesinnungslump' (ideological slob). It's just the kind of word he loved to use. Then Kullik apparently said that if Goede led the Nazis in an attempt to gain control of the police station (which would hardly have been unlikely in that era of street-fighting and imminent civil war) Kullik would have been the first to shoot a bullet into his belly. Kullik then said that my grandfather totally agreed with this. My grandfather's answer, when he was then read Kullik's statement, was that he had never said any of these things, and that he had always tried to remain politically neutral as a police officer. But had the Nazis attempted a coup in 1932, to fight them off would have been the duty of a politically neutral police officer.
There had also been an article in the Ostfront (a Nazi Upper Silesian daily paper) in early 1933, complaining that there had been a Communist meeting in Biskupitz (now Biskupice, a district of Zabrze) and saying that the local police clearly didn't realise there had been a 30th January (the date of Hitler coming to power). According to one Senior Constable Franz Rückert, he mentioned this to my grandfather, who remarked, perfectly correctly at the time, 'that the meeting had been authorised, and if the National Socialists had tried to break up an authorised meeting, they should have been controlled with truncheon blows.' This remark, again, was not dangerous at the time - but by the date Rückert was interviewed, the 24th July, not only the Communist party, but also the Social Democratic party had been forbidden.
|The investigators: Captain Bär and First|
Thus began nine months of hell for the family. Reading the documents, what I find there is always terror.
The law that hung over my grandfather's head was the Law for the Reform of the Civil Service (policemen were civil servants). The aim of this law was to get rid of leftists and Jews. The threat that hung over Bernhard Rösel might seem bad enough for an ambitious young officer with a wife and little daughter to support; being sent to a different police station, to spend the rest of his life as a lieutenant with no chance of promotion.
However, Goering, when introducing this law, said: ‘You must bear in mind that your signature is often equivalent to a death sentence.’ What it meant was spelled out by the Nazi women who, my grandmother once told me, used to descend on her at home, inspect the books on the shelves, and say: 'You're scum. You'll go to concentration camp.' After the war, my grandfather said to my mother: 'I could have resisted the Nazis, but I had you and your mother to think of.'
A letter to the commission, written by my grandfather in August: he says he was shown nothing in writing, only had the accusations against him read out to him. Much of what he said in his defence was not written down by the commission. He had been at firing practice, at 9.45 in the morning, when he was fetched without warning and taken to the commission on the back of a motor bike, not knowing, as he was questioned, whether he was 'an accused or a witness.' I can imagine that motorbike ride, and the fear he must have felt. On the other hand, I can also imagine that he had been rehearsing what he would say whenever that happened, probably any time he had leisure to do so.
My mother remembered my grandmother's headaches, how she was depressed and would lie in a darkened room. She remembered that one day she heard my grandmother cry out: 'No, Bernhard, no!' and something fall on the floor. Then her parents left the room and little Gerda went in, to see her father's revolver lying there. I guess this was in August, when the commission decided against him. My mother heard her father say: 'He told me it was the only way.' Perhaps 'he' had told my grandfather that his suicide would have given my grandmother a widow's pension.
|Breslau, 14th August, judgement passed on|
Only then my grandmother went off, dressed in her best clothes, and begged 'a very important person' to help. And sure enough, when the case went up to Berlin for ratification, the authorities there decided that it wasn't proven and my grandfather should remain a police officer eligible for promotion.
Happily ever after? Hardly. My grandmother took an overdose of something and was taken off to hospital. She suffered thereafter - as I have written before - from acute anxiety and periodic nervous breakdowns, and a 'paranoid' conviction that Hitler would destroy Germany. And thus she became a hostage for my grandfather's 'good' behaviour - as he once indicated in a letter to my mother.
As for my grandfather, he had to live with the fact that the regime he had been kicked into shape to support had made him complicit in its crimes. During the war he came home on leave and one night my mother found him drinking in the kitchen. He told her he had seen dreadful things. Done dreadful things, probably, but there was no evidence against him, and there is nothing in the file.
This blog has already got longer than it should; but I have to say this. What do all these events, eighty years ago, mean to me today? What do I draw from them?
Well, I have long realised that I couldn't condemn my grandfather unless I had stood where he stood and done differently. I do clearly remember what it was like to stand in the dock having committed civil disobedience in order to contest the deployment of nuclear missiles; to feel as if the whole of society was against me. It wasn't good. And that was in a democracy, and nothing worse than a fine was going to happen to me.
From what I've read about Nazi Germany, and from psychological experiments that have been carried out since (like the Milgram experiment) it's clear to me that once there is an authoritarian situation, backed up by terror, only a very few people will stand out. Heroes are rare. And no decision is simple, especially not if you have a family. It is too easy to say, as people have said to me so often: 'The Germans should have defied Hitler.' Harder to do it.
We live, at present, in a culture where people are being lied to about disabled people. They have been told that welfare fraud is rife among them, that most of them are scroungers, and guess what? People start abusing the obviously disabled and even attacking them.
|apologies for home-made cartoon!|
Britain is not a dictatorship, and yet human rights abuses have been creeping in, not to mention abrogation of our rights not to be snooped on by the state, of our right to protest - and most people, like the Germans of that time, just get on with their lives and allow these things to happen. Objectors are called naive, even traitors.
Yet if we 'defend' our democracy by setting up abusive systems, then we ourselves become the people who are destroying it.
You can read an extract from the London Review of Books diary piece and download the rest at
|Horse shoe circa 1300 Museum of London|
I was something of a nerd about their colours and collected books and posters and trawled the library for pictures and information. I was a seven year old who knew my bay from my chestnut, my blue roan from a strawberry roan, and that white horses were always referred to by equine types as greys! I spent many happy hours identifying breeds with my Observers Book of Horses and Ponies, on the way discovering that the ancestor of the warhorse more resembled a Welsh cob or a Villanos heavy Andalucian, than a modern Shire, whatever commentator Dorian Williams said about Shires and Clydesdales at the Wembley Horse of the Year Show.
Those childhood obsessions stood me in good stead when I began writing historical fiction set in the Middle Ages, for what was a knight without his destrier and his palfrey? The common soldier without his all purpose rouncy? The merchant without his pack horses? The baron without his chazur for the hunt, and the farmer without his trusty, plodding stott to draw his plough and pull his cart?
12th century chronicler William FitzStephen gives us a view of a London horse market in the reign of Henry II.
"On every sixth day of the week, unless it be a major feast day on which solemn rites are prescribed, there is a much frequented show of fine horses for sale. Thither come all the Earls, Barons and Knights who are in the City, and with them many of the citizens, whether to look on or buy. It is a joy to see the ambling palfreys, their skin full of juice, their coats a-glisten, as they pace softly in alternation raising and putting down the feet on one side together."
This description is fresh and immediate. You could be there among the crowd. Palfreys were high class riding horses. You find them mentioned as gifts in the accounts of the period. Want to bribe or sweeten the king? Give him a palfrey! When an earl's son was knighted at court, the fond father was expected to donate a palfrey to the royal marshal. Lesser barons were expected to donate a saddle at the very least. Knights would ride palfreys and only mount their destriers (warhorses) when it came to the point of battle. William Marshal's uncle Patrick of Salisbury was slain in an ambush while riding his palfrey before he could arm himself and mount his destrier.
Palfreys were also used as riding horses by highborn ladies.
Back to William FitzStephen:
"Next to see the horses that best befit Esquires, moving more roughly, yet nimbly, as they raise and set down the opposite feet, fore and hind, first on one side and then on the other;
Lesser mortals such as squires and serjeants would ride more basic mounts, often referred to as rounceys. These were the all purpose riding horses of the period. When William Marshal's destrier was killed in a battle during the time when William was a junior knight of no status, he had to sell his cloak and make do with a rouncey which cost him 22 Angevin shillings. An ordinary every day riding horse known as a'haquenai' was also known. Not particularly large, it was often the kind that was hired out. Interestingly, Henry II had a mistress whom a chronicler refers to as 'Hikenai'. I suspect a connection!
"Then the younger colts of high breeding, unbroken and high stepping with elastic tread, and after them the costly destriers of graceful form and goodly stature with quivering ears, high necks and plump buttocks. As these show their paces, the buyers watch first their gentler gait, then the swifter motion, wherein the forefeet are thrown out and back together, and the hind feet also, as it were, counterwise.
Note the 'plump buttocks'. The requirement of the warhorse was to produce short, explosive bursts of speed over limited distances, and that power house was in the rump. Think American quarter horse for the sort of constitution.The warhorses of the 12th century were not enormous great beasts in terms of height. Equine historian Ann Hyland has calculated them to have been around 15 hands high, which is perfectly adequate. They were designed for the short, sharp shock, rather like steer-roping horses today, and not for haulage like the modern heavy horses such as Shires and Clydesdales.
When a race between such trampling steeds is about to begin, or perchance between others who are likewise, after their kind, strong to carry, swift to run, a shout is raised, and horses of the baser sort are bidden to turn aside. Three boys riding these fleet-footed steeds, or at times two as may be agreed, prepare themselves for the contest. Skilled to command their horses, they curb their untamed mouths with jagged bits and their chief anxiety is that their rival shall not gain the lead. The horses likewise after their fashion lift up their spirits for the race; their limbs tremble, impatient of delay, they cannot stand still. When the signal is given, they stretch forth their limbs, they gallop away, they rush on with obstinate speed. The riders, passionate for renown, hoping for victory, vie with one another in spurring their swift horses and lashing them forward with their switches no less than they excite them by their cries."
Although the above refers to destriers, it is likely that the chronicler would have included the horses built for speed, hunting and endurance among them. These were as prized as palfreys. In the Anglo Norman tongue, this sort of horse was known as a 'chazur' or 'chaser.' We find them given as gifts and as sweeteners on charters. When John Marshal sold his estate at Nettlecombe in 1158, part of the agreement involved the handing over of a 'chazur.' Think the ancestor of the modern steeplechaser.
In another place apart stand the wares of the country-folk, instruments of agriculture, long-flanked swine, cows with swollen udders, and wooly flocks and bodies huge of kine. Mares stand there, meet for ploughs, sledges and two-horsed carts; the bellies of some are big with young; round others move their offspring, new-born, sprightly foals, inseparable followers.'
This is interesting because it shows that by the mid 12th century the horse was being used as a plough beast as well as the age-old use of oxen. This was partly down to the production of a new horse collar that would not press on the plough horse's windpipe. Common plough horses were known at Stotts. The name Dobbin meant a farm horse by the 16th century and comes from the medieval fashion for giving creatures human names - for example. Robin Redbreast, Jenny Wren, Tybalt the cat - which became Tibbles. Horses started out as Robin too, but it swiftly changed to Dobbin and came specifically to mean a workhorse.
Medieval horses may have had pet names, but they rarely come down to us. Mostly when mentioned in lists and chronicles, they are listed by their place of origin or their colour. So Shakespeare's Richard III declaims 'Saddle White Surrey for the field.' There are exceptions. The hero Roland's horse is called Veillantif, meaning 'Valiant' and in Italian 'Brigliadoro' or 'Golden Bridle' but usually the colour is the dominant description. One of William Marshal's destriers circa 1170 was named 'Blancart' suggesting he was white. Richard the Lionheart's favourite horse was called 'Fauvel' which tells us that it was a golden or tawny colour, perhaps a golden dun or what are today called buckskins or even palomino. Morel horses were either very dark brown or black - think of morello cherries today. Bai horses were bay and if they were 'bayclere' were bright bay. and a 'sorel' was a chestnut. A horse that was 'Ferraunt' ws iron grey. If it was marked with spots as large as an apple it would be 'Pommele'. An iron-grey horse with these markings would be a 'Ferrauntpommele'. A 'Grisel' was a grey. A piebald, like today was of two different colours, strictly speaking black and white. The royal Marshal was entitled to every black and white horse captured on a battle campaign. The reasons have been lost, but the distinctive markings must have played their part. A roan was a horse of mixed colour, frequently white and red. A mingling of chestnut and white would produce what the medievals called a ronsorel.
I'm definitely still a nerd!
|HITLER HOLDING HIS DIARY (NOT)|
|Konrad Kujau. photo : Achim Necker|
Maybe we all love to see the experts overturned.
An Unknown Woman in Masque Costume |
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
With no click of the button, the answer might have been a Grande Tour to the courts of Europe. But this was unthinkable in the 16th and 17th century for someone of importance, when travel was still unsafe. Even Prince Regents had stooges of approximately the same age who would stand in like stunt artists and travel in place of them and bring back detailed reports, so they would know how affairs were conducted in the Spanish or French courts.
The answer to the lack of Social Media in the 16th and 17th century was in the miniature –painted and placed in the hands of a clever ambassador to be taken around the foreign courts.
In England the art was called limning coming from the Latin word luminare to illuminate or give light. The word miniature was later adopted from the Latin word miniare to colour with red lead, which became the Italian noun miniatura and then anglicised. As early as 1524 Henry VIII saw the advantage of having himself painted and Holbein became his favourite painter. Catherine Parr and Elizabeth I were both early adopters and by the time James I came to the throne, the miniature was in its heyday as a lover’s token in Court intended to kindle the flames of passion, or be given as a gift to show favour or loyalty.
What was its uniqueness?
- It had true intimacy. It had to be picked up and held close to see it, unlike a painting viewed from further away.
- It could be hidden in a pouch or worn either in a locket or on a cord around the waist or neck and kept close to the heart.
- It was often round or oval and so fitted comfortably in the hand, which made it tactile and again gave intimacy.
- Sometimes it was inscribed with tiny, almost indecipherable lettering that seemed to make the message more secretive
- The background often showed curtains, which suggested playful furtiveness.
- It was often enclosed by a lid that made it all the more enticing.
But the true art of the miniature was in the fineness of its brushstrokes and techniques. These were no ordinary paintings. They were not painted in oils but coloured pigment mixed with gum Arabic or egg white (glair). The technique was more spontaneous as the pigments dried quickly. Colour was laid down in layers. Often to illuminate the colours, silver was painted beneath the resins especially to enhance jewels. Backgrounds were often celestial blue or black to show steadfastness and to make the face stand out. I notice an absence of the colour green.
Some painters such as Nicholas Hilliard, but not Holbein, painted with the sitter in front of them. Hilliard recommended trying to catch a fleeting moment, such as a smile. Elizabeth I sat for him and engaged in long conversations about the art of painting. The two most important miniaturists of the Jacobean court were Isaac Oliver and Hilliard. Hilliard was the son of a goldsmith and was made King’s Limner. But James I hated having his portrait painted, so unlike the miniatures of Elizabeth I with her varying expressions even showing her in one by Hilliard, as the moon goddess, we get endless copies of his unchanging face.
For a fascinating insight into the technique click this video from the V&A exhibition Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars which is on until the 14th July.
Magnifying glasses are provided in the exhibition for a closer view but I still wanted to hold one of the miniatures in my hand right up close and examine the minute and lovely details of curl and pearl and innocent eyes!
La Belle Sultane: Aimée Dubucq de Rivery
Gallica, Aka: Violacea
Origin: France, early 1800s
Size of flower: 6cm
Flowerings: Once only
La Belle Sultane is a gallica rose, single, with a few extra petals when well grown. The centre and backs of the petals are crimson, darkening almost to black around the edges. Long, vivid gold stamens emerge from a white centre patch, which occasionally sends little streaks of white into the dark petals. The effect is rather brilliant. The bush is wiry and economic; the leaves small and dark with a purple outline, the stems slender and thornless. They have instead dark bristles, which smell of resin if you rub them off, rather like the moss of a moss rose.
La Belle Sultane: Aimée Dubucq de Rivery
Aimée Dubucq de Rivery was a character you could not invent, so fraught is she with bodice-ripping romance, oriental cliché and cultural imperialism. She was born in 1763, at Pointe Royale in Martinique, to an old French Creole family. Within six years she was an orphan, but her family was large and well-established: she was adopted by Monsieur Dubucq de Sainte Preuve and raised by a loving mulatto, as they called it then, nurse. Nearby lived her cousins the Tascher de la Pagerie family. One was much of an age with her: Marie-Josephe Rose, known as Josephine.
A semi-documented legend tells how the two young girls decided to visit a fortune teller who lived in a shack near Trois Islets, fifteen miles from Pointe Royale. The woman, Eufemia David, told Josephine that she would marry twice, have two children, survive a revolution, be widowed; that her second husband though apparently insignificant would turn out to be a mighty conqueror before whom nations bowed, that she would be a queen but would die unhappy and rejected.
To Aimée (according to Josephine's friend, the famous fortune-teller Mlle Lenormand) she said: 'You will be sent to Europe to complete your schooling. Your ship will be seized by Corsairs. You will be taken captive and placed in a Seraglio. There you will give birth to a son. This son will reign gloriously, but the steps of his throne will be stained with the blood of his predecessor… you will never taste the outward honours of court, but you will live in a great and splendid palace where you will reign supreme. At the very hour when you know your happiness is won, that happiness will fade like a dream, and a lingering illness will carry you to the tomb.'
And so, in the traditonal way of prophecies viewed with hindsight, it came to pass. Josephine became Napoleon's Empress - but hers is another story. Aimée is our subject here.
In 1776, at the age of 13, she set sail for France, for the convent of the Dames de la Visitation at Nantes, to receive a proper French Catholic girl's education. The war between France and England, which broke out in 1778, kept her there much longer than was initially planned, and it was not until she was 21, in 1784, that she was able to leave Nantes to return to Martinique.
A few days out, in the Bay of Biscay, a terrific storm blew up. Aimée's ship was not as strong as it should have been, and was listing and ready to sink by the time a Spanish trader, heading for the Balearics, appeared to rescue the fearful, sodden crew and passengers. Grateful for the safety, Aimée was carried towards Palma de Majorca. They were in sight of its spires when the Spanish rescuers were borne down upon by another peril of the sea - Algerian corsairs. The pirates took the ship easily - that year their leader, Baba Mohammed ben Osman, had defeated a fleet of 300 Spanish men-o'-war with his pirate flotilla. It was to Baba Mohammed, in Algiers, that Aimée was taken. In the five minutes it took them to capture her, she had ceased to be a young woman returning home, and been rendered nothing more or less than rare, prize booty. The daughter of a slave-owner, she was now a slave.
The pirates knew the value of this wellbred and beautiful European virgin. Baba Mohammed locked her up out of harm's way, treated her with respect, draped her head to foot in jewels and veils and shipped her to Constantinople as a luxurious gift for the Caliph of the Faithful, Padishar of the Barbary States, Shadow of the Prophet upon the Earth, the Sultan Abdul Hamid the First of the mighty Turkish Empire. His Royal Palace on the Bosphorous already held 20,000 slaves and soldiers, politicians and concubines, stable boys and torturers, nightingale-keepers and circumcisers, dwarves and clowns, turban-winders and astronomers, gardeners and cooks, imams and prisoners, eunuchs and envoys and the Keeper of the Pedigree of the Prophet's Descendents…. she was just one more.
Aimée entered through the Gate of Felicity, and was greeted by Son Altesse Noir, the Chief Black Eunuch, the Kizlar Aga. Apparently she fainted. But how can we know? Only glimpses of her life behind the veil, within the harem, emerge. What is well known is the nature of the court itself - the luxuriance and corruption, the jealousies and violence, the beauty and the intrigues.
All the concubines had to attend the Academie d l'Amour, and candidates for the Imperial Alcove had to pass an exam in voluptuary skills, which was presided over by the Sultan's mother, the Sultan Valideh, Crown of the Veiled Heads of the Empire, a woman of great power and honour. Among the women there were three levels of preferred concubine: the Guzdehs (who had caught the Sultan's eye); the Ikbals (who had enjoyed his attentions) and the Kadines (the mothers of his children). The Kadines spent most of their time, traditionally, trying to to murder each other's sons (and prevent their own sons being murdered), so that they in turn could become Sultan Valideh.
Even among all these specially trained and selected love slaves, Aimée was given the name Naksh - the Beautiful One. She was singled out for being a Giaour (a northerner), for her fairness, her education, her lateness in arrival at the grand age of 21. It was not long before she became an object of plotting and intrigue, between on the one hand the Janissaries - a reactionary and peculiar band of soldiers, kidnapped as Christian children and converted to Islam, who took their titles from the names of kitchen servants and banged on kettles when fomenting insurrection - and on the other the reformist factions, who looked to western Europe for civilisation, and claimed her as their own.
She did little to avoid being singled out. A description of her came through: fair hair to her waist, strung with diamonds on invisible golden chains, dressed a la Turque with many layers and jewels, hennaed hands and feet, and a little jewelled pillbox hat. When her turn came - as it soon did - to be led along the Golden Path, down which each night's chosen odalisque would be taken to the Sultan's chamber, she resisted, yelling and screaming and trying to run away. It was unheard of. Everyone thought she was mad to object to such an honour.
The woman who talked her through it was the Circassian Kadine, mother of Selim, Abdul Hamid's young nephew and current heir to the throne. She spoke of reform, of safety in alliances, of the impossibility of escape, and the need for a new Favourite to take the place of the mother of the Sultan's son Mustapha. Aimée took heed, and became ally to the Circassian Kadine, true friend to Selim, and Abdul Hamid's new Favourite.
Her son Mahmoud was born July 1785 - only the Sultan's second son despite his five hundred wives - and Aimée became a Kadine. A pavilion of spun sugar was built to celebrate, and a tulip festival arranged, with the flowers shown off in illuminated booths, among glass globes of coloured water and coloured lights.
Aimée spoke French to Mahmoud, and raised him with French influences alongside his Turkish duty. (One rumour says she converted the Sultan to Catholicism, which is very unlikely.) She encouraged Selim, who was of an age with her, to love the baby, and he did. In 1786, when Aimée had been two years in the Seraglio, Selim wrote a letter to Louis XVI. This was astonishing - there had never been any regular diplomatic relations between France and Turkey, there was no Turkish ambassador in Paris. Selim expressed friendly intent towards France. The French were too astounded to respond significantly. (The same messenger carried a letter to Aimée's uncle - there is no record of any response from him at all. Or any of her family. Ever.) This was the first of many pro-French moves made by Turkish rulers close to Aimée, a manifestation of her influence over the princes and of her yearning for her country, which in the end was to turn dramatically sour.
In 1789, that important year, Sultan Abdul Hamid died and the mild and elegant Selim succeeded him, age 27. He set about creating a new army, along French lines, employed French engineers and officers for training, and sanctioned a French newspaper to be published in Constantinople. To please Aimée he acquired a Montgolfier balloon and himself went up in it, to the shock and pandemonium of his loyal subjects. By 1797 there was a permanent Turkish ambassador to France.
The Janissaries hated all this for rotten reformist anti-Turkish conniving, and plotted.
Turkey's relationship with Napoleon was not easy. In 1798, Napoleon took an army of 30,000 to Egypt, then part of Turkey's empire. In 1801 a brief peace emerged with Napoleon acknowledging that Egypt was Turkey's, and Turkey agreeing to favour French interests. When in 1805 the Circassian Kadine, Selim's mother, died, Napoleon sent the dashing Sebastiani (known as 'le Cupidon de l'Empire', because he had 'the kind of allure that causes insurrection in salons and boudoirs'), as a special envoy to support Selim. Mustapha, Selim's heir, was enraged by all this French support. Within a month of Sebastiani leaving Turkey, after the sudden death of his beloved wife Fanny, the Janissaries launched their attack on Selim and deposed him. They put Mustapha in Selim's place, leaving Aimée unprotected and Selim and Mahmoud imprisoned in the Princes' Cage.
Napoleon and Alexander of Russia each privately decided they would take advantage of the situation to conquer Turkey and wrest its Empire from the Sultan's hands. Baraiktar, Pasha of Rustchuk, a Bulgarian satrap of the rank of Three-Tailed Bashaw, may have been a lesser power but he was dutiful, and felt obliged to go to Selim's rescue. Mustapha's mother was still trying to kill Selim and Mahmoud, and Baraiktar was only partly in time: Selim was killed saving Mahmoud, who escaped up a chimney.
So Aimée's son, now in his early twenties, finally became Sultan, and Aimée thus Sultan Valideh. Mahmoud was even more Frenchified than Selim had been - he learnt counterpoint from Donizetti's brother, and used a knife and fork, and introduced a western tax system, and quarantine. Aimée had a Louis XVI salon, with toile de jouy and swagged mirrors - out of date, but how would she know? She had a beautiful kiosk on the Bosphorus, she planned gardens, enjoyed music, continued to protect her son and promote western ideas. She still drank champagne, as did her son. (After Mahmoud's death, his widow threw his entire cellar into the Bosphorus, like unfaithful odalisques - thousands of bottles of the best French wines.)
There is no record whether even now in her glory days Aimée and Josephine ever corresponded - but Aimée sent presents to her cousin the Empress: diamond aigrettes, pearls and 100 cachemires. And when, on December 16 1809 Napoleon rejected Josephine in order to marry Marie Louise (qv), overnight Mahmoud in turn rejected Napoleon. By 1811 a Foreign Office despatch read: 'The CREDIT of the French at Constantinople absolutely GONE.' A month after Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, trusting to the Turkish army to keep half the Russian army occupied in the south, Mahmoud suddenly made peace, liberating the Russian army to concentrate on - and ultimately defeat - Napoleon. Was this another gift from Aimée to Josephine? Vengeance for her spurned cousin? Who knows?
La Belle Sultane died in 1817, three years after Josephine, and seven years after the rose which bears her name was recorded. It's not clear how the rose became associated with Aimée, but who could resist the idea that Josephine herself, the great rose-lover, gave the name as a token for the cousin she had not seen since childhood, echoes of whose loyalty shimmered out every now and again from behind the jewelled veil of the Seraglio? Only a churl.
At least three novels have been written about Aimée, including Sultana, by Prince Michael of Greece. This was adapted for the screen in 1989 under the title The Favourite, and retitled Intimate Power a year later. The tagline was 'He stole her innocence. She stole his heart… and his empire!' It starred Amber O'Shea and F Murray Abraham and does not seem to have been very good.
The liveliest account of her life is definitely that in The Wilder Shores of Love, Lesley Blanche's fabulously grandiloquent multi-biography of four European women who in various ways ended up as romantic queens of the Orient.
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So, here I am, sitting with my novel after a first meeting with my new editor. There are revisions to make and things to think about. I am delighted to do both. I've been exceptionally fortunate in my book editors. They do their job: spotting authorly digressions, catching phrases that shriek 'I'm a writer', plot malfunctions. I do my job: imagine a person, a situation, a world and try get everything down intact.
I've occasionally been less lucky with newspaper editors. Well, to be fair, not editors so much as sub-editors, who are rather different beasts and may, in the great internet revolution, be disappearing. Many journalists wouldn't miss them. Sub-editors are supposed to improve copy, correct solecisms, iron out silly mistakes. Ho hum. I once wrote a piece in which the age-old conundrum pitching freedom against determinism made an entry. The sub changed it to freedom and determination. I was mortified. My name was on the piece, not the sub's. I did get an apology from the real editor but never discovered whether the sub understood his mistake.
In books, editing is an art. It's the eye that sees what the author doesn't see. A good one can make your book, a bad one can ruin it. It's an arduous job, since some manuscripts need major corrections. Rather like Canute's ship, an author may, in the end, ask rather despairingly, when does it stop being mine and turn into somebody else's? But it's the author's book, of course, since the author had the idea and put in the hours. However, a good editor certainly deserves more than a mention in despatches: a good editor deserves a sustained round of applause.
My novel needs a small re-ordering. Yet even the smallest re-order has large reverberations. You have to unstitch your book, lay out the pieces, move what needs to be moved, then restitch, amending and recalibrating seams which are now out of kilter. I do it through total immersion. From the moment I take out the first stitch, I don't leave my manuscript - at least not mentally - until I've got the whole thing tacked back together.
I use two screens: one for the original text, one for the rejigged text, and I have a working copy which, were it paper, I'd attack with scissors and sellotape, much as, when I worked at Westminster, I used to attack lists of amendments to parliamentary bills. Marshalling amendments, we called it. Now I marshall my own text.
When editing, you realise your best friend is the delete button. Oh, how hideous it is, selecting words, phrases or whole paragraphs over which you've slaved so assiduously, then clicking them into oblivion. But oh, how much better the text is without them. When I tell people that before I send a manuscript to my agent I've often deleted 20,000 words, I think they think I'm either lunatic or hopeless. It's hard to explain to non-authors that quite apart from being lunatic and hopeless (I'm often guilty as charged), sometimes these words act like scaffolding: you need to write them even if you're going to get rid of them.
As I'm busy deleting, re-ordering, re-writing, I think of Victorian writers like Thackeray or George Eliot. It's enough of a pain moving chunks of text through the computer's copy and paste function. What on earth was it like when done by hand? Writing rooms must have been carpeted in novel - a whole house crackling with Middlemarch, a whole street paved with Vanity Fair. My editing is confined to my desk and despite my love/hate affair with the delete button, I've no wish to return to the days of tearing up and tossing on the fire. Editing is hell. No need to make it look like hell as well.
|Ian Mortimer (aka James Forrester)|
Today's guest is Dr Ian Mortimer, historian and (as of this month) TV presenter. As James Forrester he is the author of a trilogy of historical novels set in the 1560s. He talks to Katherine Roberts about his books and his passion for history.
KR: You are probably best known for your Time Traveller’s Guides, which seem to approach history with a novelist’s eye covering details that are often overlooked by other books, such as how history would have smelled and tasted… how did you get the idea, and where did the (absolutely brilliant!) title come from?
|Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England|
Ian M: It is not really one idea but a heap of ideas that have been growing since childhood. I’ve written several times about how I was taken to Grosmont Castle at about the age of ten, and, in my excitement to see the place where the first duke of Lancaster was born – with the fire burning on a central hearth in the hall and the walls all painted with red lines marking the stones, and servants coming in with firewood etc – forgetting it was a ruin. I was very disappointed by its open-to-the-sky, broken-tooth state. I stood there listening the wind in the nearby trees that day thinking that the people who lived here were described as dead, like so many butterflies pinned out in a museum case. But the best way to see butterflies is flying about – alive. So too are people. If you want to know what someone was like, you don’t think of them as dead.
The ideas have grown from there. I had a contract to write the book in 1999 but ripped it up as the contract and publisher were not quite right. I wrote "The Greatest Traitor" instead. It really helped that I got to grips with the postmodernist critique of history before starting work on the eventual text, so I had an intellectual platform on which to define and justify what I was doing. One of the best lessons I have learnt from history was a lecturer asking me: ‘would the Reformation have happened if Luther had not personally undergone his own reformation beforehand?’ To which the answer has to be – ‘if the Reformation had still happened, it would not have been because of Luther.’ So a lot of personal and intellectual preparation went into the book, which hopefully does not show. It appears instead in a long academic article written at the same time as the book, called ‘What isn’t history?’ (It is freely available on my website and will be for a few months yet.)
|Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England|
The working title in the very early days of thinking it through, in 1994, was ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to History’ as I thoroughly enjoyed the Douglas Adams books. That original scheme was a guidebook to the parts of the past that you should really try to avoid, due to the punishments or diseases etc.
An important idea hit me driving home from Exeter one night after watching the film Atonement. I was writing chapter 7 or 8 at the time. I asked myself: ‘if a novelist can create an emotional impact when writing about the past, why can’t historians, especially when they are presenting their work as the truth?’ That thought led to the Envoi at the end of the book, which I sketched out as soon as I got home.
KR: You’ve also written biographies of historical figures, including your namesake Sir Roger Mortimer in "The Greatest Traitor"… I’m fascinated to know if he was an ancestor of yours?!
|The Greatest Traitor|
Ian M: My father told me the medieval Mortimers of Wigmore were our ancestors, and took me to Wigmore Castle as a child. I love the place, and am now one of the Hon Presidents of the Mortimer History Society. However, the descendants of the man you mention, the first earl of March (1287-1330), died out in the male line in 1425. There are still Mortimers descended from his uncle, Roger Mortimer, Lord Mortimer of Chirk (1256-1326); I don’t imagine I am one of them, however. My ancestors on my father’s side are all from Devon.
Having said that, at the end of my biography of Edward III, "The Perfect King", I show how that king is a common ancestor of the English people now. The first earl of March had even more descendants by 1500, because he had eight daughters and seven of them married: so you and I and probably everyone of English descent is descended from him!
KR: I’m very much enjoying "Sacred Treason" at the moment, a novel you wrote under the pseudonym James Forrester. Whose decision was it to use a pseudonym for fiction, and is James planning to write any more novels?
Ian M: Thank you for your kind words. ‘James’ and ‘Forrester’ are my middle names. I did not want to use a pseudonym but I really did not want to write fiction under the name Ian Mortimer. In one strand of my work I argue that we can prove things about the past (a very contentious debate in professional circles). It would have been very unwise at the time to say we can prove historical details and then go and publish a book in which I simply made them up. "Sacred Treason" was followed by the "Roots of Betrayal" in 2011 and the last volume of the trilogy, "The Final Sacrament" in 2012.
KR: Sacred Treason is set against a background of Catholic persecution by a Protestant monarch. How important is faith in your work, and are you drawn to any particular period of history because of this?
Ian M: Wow. What a question. Okay, let me start with the easy bit. I am drawn to all periods of history, and religion is just one of many factors, so the answer to the second part of your question is a simple ‘no’. Apart from the fact that religion was more important an issue in the 16th century than probably any time before or since, and so it leads to some pretty fundamental discussions between my characters.
The important thing to know in this respect is that my historical fiction is not primarily about the past. It is about my concerns: a modern day story set in the 1560s. The reason I set my story in the past is because so many aspects of life are much more consequential in that time period than they are in the modern world.
"Sacred Treason", for example, is about loyalty – to one’s spouse, to one’s state, and to one’s religion. All these things mattered much more in the 1560s than today. Today no one really cares that much if a husband or a wife has a fling (except the parties themselves); in the 16th century you could be flogged and publicly humiliated just on suspicion of adultery. Disloyalty to the state – treason - would normally end in hanging, drawing and quartering. Disloyalty to the word of God – heresy – could result in being burnt at the stake. Therefore you can use the past as a magnifying glass to say things about humanity in all times – and to highlight the drama and importance of certain aspects of life.
I am not religious myself, in the sense that I don’t go to church and I don’t believe in God or a godly consciousness. But as a historian I can say that the Church has been the principal force for learning for all but 100 of the last 1500 years. At times it was the only agency working for peace in the western world. As an individual I am intrigued by the existence of life on Earth and its evolution, and this interest gives me something in common with many serious religious people. I find the spiritual quest uplifting; religious art, music and architecture are among the most beautiful creations I know, and I don’t think you need to define what it is you seek in order to engage in that spiritual quest. An atheist can quite happily be engaged on a spiritual quest.
My main character, Clarenceux, has no doubts about his faith but he does doubt his interpretation of God’s direction. He is a fervent upholder of the Catholic cause – but not at the cost of killing other Christians. He is very much a man of his time, and I say this (having said my novels are about me and the modern world) because only through a man of his time – a religious man, someone passionately concerned about matters of life, death and spiritual value – could I express what I think about these things. In the second book in the trilogy, "The Roots of Betrayal" Clarenceux comes up hard against an atheistic pirate, Raw Carew. I really did enjoy writing the argument about religion between them, and expressing Clarenceux’s shock that ungodly men might do godly things too.
KR: Being the proud owner of a Kindle, I noticed an abridged version of the Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England published as an ebook. How do sales compare with the original hardcover/paperback Guides, and do you think history-lovers in general enjoy traditional books rather than ebooks?
Ian M: Don’t buy the abridged version, the ‘brainshot’. It is only 10% of the book, and people feel ripped off by it (judging from their comments on the waterstones and amazon sites). You can buy the ebook as a whole, which is the same text. As for sales, most history readers want the hardcopy, the paperback. Ebooks (whole ones) account for about 20% of my UK sales of history books.
KR: I saw you interviewed on TV the other week wearing your very distinctive black hat! Are you planning to do any more TV work, and do you enjoy it?
Ian M: I am presenting a 3-part series for BBC2, based on my "Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England". It will be broadcast later in the spring. The black hat you saw has been retired. But I do use a different black hat with a leather band – very similar to the old one – in the series. I like working with people, so the odd bit of TV is good fun. Would not want to do it all the time, though.
KR: Finally, this blog was set up for History Girls… what would be your female pseudonym, and what sort of books do you think “she” would write?
Ian M: My father, who had two sisters, desperately wanted a daughter and decided before I was born that I was to be called Catherine Elizabeth Forrester Mortimer. So, I guess that if I had been a girl, then I’d have written history books as Dr Catherine Mortimer and fiction as Elizabeth Forrester. As a professional historian, I have met many women whose intellectual prowess fills me with admiration, and I like to think that if I were a woman I would be like them. In other words my history books would be much the same as they are – perhaps with a little less blood and thunder in the medieval biographies. The Time Traveller’s Guides would be more or less the same because they were slightly biased towards representing women’s lives (as men tend to dominate my biographies). My fiction too would not be that different, as I do like a strong female character – one who can speak her mind and stand up for what she believes in, even though the law and social prejudices might be against her. Hey, perhaps I should try writing as Elizabeth Forrester one day!
KR: Thank you very much, Ian!
Ian M: The pleasure’s all been mine. Thanks for asking me.
Ian James Forrester Mortimer is a historian and historical writer. He has four degrees: BA, MA, PhD (medical and nursing assistance to the dying in the 17th century), DLitt, and has published numerous research articles. In 2004 he won the Royal Historical Society's Alexander Prize for his work on the social history of medicine. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society since 1998, and a full-time writer since 2001. A firm believer in the public good of history, he sits on various public bodies, including the Lord Chancellor's Forum on Historical Manuscripts and Academic Research, the Fabric Advisory Committee for Exeter Cathedral, and Dartmoor National Park Authority. Spare time is spent walking, writing songs and poetry, and playing the guitar. He lives in Moretonhampstead, on the edge of Dartmoor, with his wife and their three children.
Ian's history books: http://www.ianmortimer.com/books.htm
Complete bibliography: http://www.ianmortimer.com/bibliog.htm
|The Black Country Museum from the Chapel steps|
|'The Ghost Wife' ebook by Susan Price - Art by Andrew Price|
Davy and I didn't have to fight any rats. We watched a showing of Chaplin’s ‘Getting Acquainted’. Davy chuckled, but I have to admit I found it completely incomprehensible. It seemed to consist of people running around, falling over and hitting each other for no reason at all. I suspect that some captions were missing.
One caption at the start of the film asked people not to read aloud as it annoyed other patrons - which reminded me of my Dad saying that, in his childhood, cinemas were murmurous with those who could read whispering the captions to those who couldn't.
|The Dudley canal tunnel|
Opposite the pub, of course, was the Methodist Chapel, which is used for carol services at Christmas. It had to be a Methodist Chapel, as the Methodists were important to the Black Country. They had more fire in their bellies than CoE, and were behind a lot of early Unions, Friendly Societies and Workers' Educational Societies.
|A Black Country pike|
One story that's come down to me from my grandfather tells how one of the brothers he shared his bed on the floor with 'went funny'. My grandfather went and told his father, who came, looked at the boy, and said, 'He's dead.' He then pulled the body into a corner of the room, told the other children to go back to sleep, and went back to bed himself. "Well," said my own father, when I was apalled at this, "he had to go work himself in the morning - he was a miner. There was nothing he could do, was there? - the kid was dead." Doctors cost half-a-crown (15p) for a vist. That was more than they could afford.
What do those Black Country words mean? A fowd is a yard or path - women were always 'sweeping the fowd.' A gleed is a small piece of burned out coal. In Chaucer you find hot-tempered characters being called 'gleedy'. And a malkin - pronounced 'mawkin' is a simpleton. As is a sawney-pump and a noggin-yed.
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This is my mother-in-law, Roshan Mirza as she was then, in her twenties. She was born a Parsi in Bangalore, where her father Nosherwan Mirza was a High Court Judge. He was murdered by someone he had sent down, when Roshan was in her teens. By then Nosherwan was separated from his second wife, Tehminabai, my mother-in-law's mother.
After studying for a degree in English Literature (English was her first language) at Madras University, Roshan came to Oxford to read English at what is now St. Anne's. She met her future, English husband, the drama critic John Barber, when they were holding opposite ends of a banner at a demo for Indian Independence.
John Barber was a Conscientious Objector in WW2 and drove an ambulance in the London Blitz; they were bombed out three times. Roshan was a Civil Servant during the war and had her first child, my husband, in 1946, followed by his sister a year later.
The marriage didn't last but Roshan, now known as Jenny Barber, remained in England, returning only once to the country of her birth. I met several visiting members of the Indian family, who were always intrigued by the fact that I - the only family member with no Indian blood - was the vegetarian.
Jenny retrained as a teacher of English in Further Education (as a single mother she felt she had enough children at home).
I was thinking a lot about her recently, because we visited her grave on the same day as Baroness Thatcher's funeral. This is what the headstone in Highgate Cemetery looked like this week:
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the death of a woman who began life in the year the Titanic went down, as an Indian Parsi called Roshan and ended it in 1994 as, effectively, an English Christian, called Jenny. She lived through two World Wars - one of them right in the thick of it. As well as her two children, she left five splendid granddaughters (each time one of them was born she got letters of commiseration from relatives in Bangalore but I think she treasured each one of those girls). She lived with us for sixteen years and told our three daughters stories about her childhood that we had never heard - the monkey who stole her banana, the aunt who had a pet panther...
It got me thinking of how each individual's life becomes a part of history, affected by events on the wider scene as well as the incidents of their personal lives. And in so many families there are people who have completely changed identities in the course of their time on this earth.
Do any of you have similar stories to tell?
This week I participated in a short film for the Great British Bake Off on Hannah Glasse, one of the eighteenth century's most influential cookery writers. Hannah was the Mrs Beaton of her time, publishing a huge manual in 1747, called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.
The Art of Cookery was a great fat book of over four hundred pages, containing recipes for lavish meals, but also for using up every single part of an animal - udder, anyone? - and the splendid Chapter Seven, Of Pies. There are also a few recipes for medicine, such as the Certain Cure for the Bite of a Mad Dog, and household tips in A Receipt to Keep Clear of Buggs.
Hannah was born in London but grew up near Hexham, in her father's household. The circumstances of her birth and who her mother really was are not entirely clear, although she described her mother as a 'wicked wretch'. Hannah left home at sixteen to marry John Glasse, an Irish soldier. The two spent some time in service, but the majority of their lives were spent in London, where Hannah may have worked as a professional cook to provide additional income. Whatever she was doing in the years after her marriage, she was certainly acquiring a great deal of knowledge about kitchens, ingredients and cooking.
Aged 39, Hannah published The Art of Cookery. John died the same year. Although Hannah had probably married beneath her, there's no doubt that her husband must have supported her in the writing of such a huge book. It was an enormous undertaking, and one of the most comprehensive books of domestic instruction written in the eighteenth century. Hannah's aim in writing it was clear. She wanted to get rid of all the obscure timings and measurements, as well as overwrought recipes featured by her male contemporaries in their tomes, for 'in all Receipt Books yet printed, there are such an odd jumble of things so extravagant, that it would be almost a shame to make use of them, when as dish can be made as good, or better, without them'. Instead, Hannah wanted things to be simple and straightforward. She includes in each recipe clear directions on how hot the fire or oven must be, and instead of vague references to quantities, she uses comparative measurements such as a piece of butter 'as big as a walnut' or 'no bigger than a nutmeg'. And contrary to the idea that everything in the past had the life boiled out of it, Hannah instructed smartly, 'Most people spoil garden things by over-boiling them. All things that are green should have a little crispness, for if they are over-boiled they neither have any sweetness or beauty'.
The key to Hannah's success though, was that she was appealing to women like herself, who wanted to put on a good show with the bare minimum of assistance in the kitchen. Even the way Hannah chose to publish, anonymously as simply, A Lady, reveals the market she was aiming for: the emerging middle classes. 'I...only hope my Book will answer the ends I intend it for; which is to improve the servants, and save the ladies a great deal of trouble.'
The Art of Cookery was an instant success, but things did not work out so well for Hannah. The publishing of such a vast and expensive book eventually ruined her in 1754, when she was declared bankrupt. She recovered however, and went on to publish more books of kitchen instruction. None were as popular as The Art of Cookery and her finances continued to be rocky. She even spent a brief spell in the Marshalsea debtors prison (made so famous by Little Dorrit).
Hannah died in 1770, aged 62. She was not identified as the author of The Art of Cookery until the twentieth century, although many of her contemporaries had puzzled over her identity, including Samuel Johnson. So clever and comprehensive was the book that many thought it must have been written by a man. Hannah's legacy was far-reaching, and the recipes from The Art of Cookery are still easy and workable today. It's a great book, giving a real insight to an eighteenth century kitchen and dining room, and a very enjoyable read. Hannah's voice is strong, feminine and no nonsense, as well as having lovely touches of wry humour. You can read The Art of Cookeryhere.
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I have been listening to the recent BBC Radio 4 programme, Noise: A Human History by David Hendy (you can catch some of it on iPlayer if you missed it). Fascinating. He has attempted to chart sound from the very first knockings of stone and wood, singing, drumming and echoes in caves to the most sophisticated uses of noise in our present day. It started me off thinking about historical sources and what we lack when trying to recreate the past for the purposes of novel writing. Until recorded sound comes along with a crackle and a hiss, we have some words and pictures but have to guess the soundtrack that accompanied, say, Ancient Rome or a medieval castle. It is an almost impossible task to recapture it - or perhaps I mean impossible to recapture it without applying a modern sensibility to the experience. I am not talking about the honourable exception of early music experts who perform music on original instruments - the high culture soundtrack of the past; no, I mean the everyday sound of the streets, forts and farms.
One of the problems is that we think we know what the past sounded like. Take films. You never see a scene of butch men drawing swords without that accompanying 'eek' from the scabbard. That's what battle preparation sounds like, right?
The sound is produced by two metals rubbing against each other. A scabbard was made to preserve the edge on the blade so was very often made of wood lined with wool or some similar combination. Drawing a sword should be a nearly silent operation, though perhaps there would be a nice clunk as you return the blade to its casing. This does not get into films because it doesn't sound right. Realism gets overruled for our fantasy of the past.
Bring our history forward from knights-in-armour to Victorian London and we struggle to conceive of the decibels endured by our ancestors. Annoyed by the building work over the road? Victorians put up with that and much more. In Judith Flanders' The Victorian City she has a fascinating section on street surfacing. A popular choice was wooden blocks, mainly for the muffling effect. The shopping streets around Oxford Circus was paved with them in the 1840s and 'the shopkeepers state that they can now hear and speak to their customers, even, some noted in wonder, when their windows were open.' (p. 37). The relief was only temporary. The wood degenerated rapidly and put the horses at risk so had to be replaced a few years later with granite. Back to the old rattle, crash, shout of the pre-wooden floor era.
For my next book, Dusk (June 2013), I've been writing about the First World War. The Wilfred Owen 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' has haunted my internal soundtrack for many years and does an excellent job in poetry of trying to convey the sounds of the various weapons heading the way of the man in the trench - 'monstrous anger of the guns', 'stuttering rifles rapid rattle', 'shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells' - an amazing poem. But the total blitz on the hearing - and I use the word on purpose - is almost impossible to convey in a restrained poetic measure. I came to the conclusion that the nearest peace time exposure to that level of sound would be a rock concert - the so loud you can no longer hear it - the deaf for days afterwards. One of the things that brought on shell shock was not necessarily the exposure to the blasts themselves but the constant noise of them. We are wired at a primeval level to react to sound in order to survive; we can only bear so much.
I would love an archive devoted to reconstructing historic sound-scapes if such a thing could be put together by some clever university techno-wizard. It would help me hugely if I could 'listen in' to a surround sound aural history, perhaps accompanied by snatches of conversation and street cries. It would have to be free of Hollywood or BBC costume drama tidying, a clickable sound track with footnotes to tell me what I'm hearing. Anyone volunteering?
And I suppose after that there would have to be the smell archive...
|Hero and Leander by Domenico Fetti, oil on panel, 1622/3|
|Hero and Leander, William Turner, 1837|
|The Last Parting of Hero and Leander, William Etty, 1827|
Okay, this is the plan. Don't get distracted. Just nip in, grab a little local colour, and get out fast. You know how the research can get out of hand - you really want to be writing this new book - it's all very well, Miss Edwards doing and seeing things you'd love to see, or have seen, since so many of them are gone now, but that's not the point ...
"It was dark last night, and I had no idea that my room overlooked an enchanted garden, far-reaching and solitary, peopled with stately giants beneath whose tufted crowns hung rich clusters of maroon and amber dates. It was a still, warm morning. Grave grey and black crows flew heavily from tree to tree, or perched, cawing meditatively, upon the topmost branches. Yonder, between the pillared stems, rose the minaret of a very distant mosque; and here where the garden was bounded by a high wall and a windowless house, I saw a veiled lady walking on a terraced roof in the midst of a cloud of pigeons."
The bazaar in Cairo - "a noisy, changing, restless, particoloured tide, half European, half Oriental, on foot, on horseback, and in carriages. Here are Syrian dragomans in baggy trousers and braided jackets; barefooted Egyptian fellaheen in ragged blue shirts and felt skullcaps; Greeks in absurdly stiff white tunics, like walking penwipers; Persians with high, mitre-like caps of dark woven stuff; swarthy Bedouins in flowing garments, creamy-white with chocolate stripes a foot wide, and head-shawl of the same bound about the brow with a fillet of twisted camel's hair; Englishmen in palm-leaf hats and knickerbockers, dangling their long legs across almost invisible donkeys ..."
But it's not all long descriptions - sometimes just a sentence reaches out and takes your hand.
"Everyone takes Herodotus up the Nile."
"The lights twinkled and flitted, like wandering sparks of stars."
"Every breath is laden with the fine grit of the desert."
I will get on with writing. Very soon. Any minute now. But first, just a few more pages ...
|Mmmm... tasty book!|
|Could you dry out a Kindle this way...?|
This is the corner of Benet Street and Trumpington Street in Cambridge. This picture shows the scale of the clock set into the wall there. It was named The Chronophage by its inventor, John C. Taylor, and it shows better than anything I can think of the inexorable eating away of every second of our lives. The face of the clock is huge, and under it there's an enormous gold pendulum which swings to and fro in a most hynotic manner.
Chronophage means Eater of Time and Taylor definitely wanted his creature, crouched on top of the golden dial, to be a kind of monster. The clock face has slits in it and a LED display lights up to show us the time. It's apparently only accurate once every five minutes but who cares? We have accurate timepieces on our own wrists to get us to our appointments early. This is something else. It's a piece of public art much more than a clock you can refer to...indeed I've never quite worked out how to read the actual time from it. I just stare, whenever I'm there, at the deliciously horrible Chronophage and think what a very good image of the passage of time she is. I say 'she' because the monster is, apparently, known to the students of Corpus Christi as 'Rosalind' though why is not recorded. Perhaps it's in honour of Rosalind Franklin who did so much work with Crick and Watson on the discovery of the Double Helix, DNA and so forth.
The Corpus Christi clock is a very short stone's throw from the Eagle pub in Benet Street. This is where Crick, Watson and the team came to celebrate after their DNA discoveries. It's also the pub frequented by US airmen during the Second World War and their names are visible, scratched into glass. On a less world-historical note, this is where I came with my then boyfriend in 1962 and at the time I thought The Eagle was very close to heaven. The Chronophage has only been in place since 2008, but all those seconds from the times I've mentioned have disappeared into its maw. Writing: putting things down on paper or on the internet, together with painting, sculpture, and photography, and the study of History, too: these are some of the ways we have of defeating the Chronophage.
I'm not tall enough to get a good close-up of the creature, but this is the best I can offer. If you put Chronophage into Google you will find all kinds of other sites to give you lots more scientific information and better photos than I can provide. I wanted to write about it here because it exemplifies for me not only a memento mori but also a very nice symbol of endless renewal. That scary locust-like thing devours every second that there is, but look: the seconds go round and round and never stop and there are always more of them to keep Her Chronophaginess well-fed and us hopeful. Every second is followed by another. Forever. That's comforting. And the clock face and dial shine with an almost supernatural lustre.
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|A woman fighting alongside men|
In Lincoln, Lucy de Taillebois held the office of Sheriff of Lincoln in her own right up to her death in 1136 and a sheriff in those days was far from a mere ceremonial role, for she was sworn to uphold the king’s law, deliver criminals and the king’s enemies to justice, supervise the royal lands in her area, requisition supplies for the king and preside over the shire courts.
|Man and woman fencing, 1300's|
We know the nunneries held a great store of medical knowledge, but perhaps more surprising is the large number of women who attended medical schools alongside male students in the early Middle Ages especially the school of Salerno where one woman or perhaps a group of women known as Trotula, became famous for writing a treatise on obstetrics which included breach births, prolapses and polyps of the womb. Her book De mulierum passionibusante, in post partum was still in use as the standard textbook by doctors centuries after women had been barred from practising medicine. It’s thought Trotula may be immortalised in the nursery rhyme which was well known by 1706, about Old Dame Trot and her cat.
Right across Europe beguines, who lived in the cities of women, set up hospitals for the local people in which the beguines worked as physicians and surgeons. Many of these hospitals are still in use today, though now in private or state hands.
|Woman blood-letting by by placing heated vessels |
over cuts to create a vacuum to draw off
a measured amount of blood. 1400's
They were much better at preventing infection than was the case in latter centuries, using antiseptics and even rudimentary antibiotics although obviously they didn’t have the modern understanding of viruses and bacteria. And it was medieval female physician who pioneered an early form of plastic surgery, binding a patient’s forearm to his face until the skin of the arm attached itself to the wound and then cutting it away. It is reported the patient survived and both wounds healed.
Not only were many of the medical skills and knowledge lost in later centuries and had to be rediscovered, but women also lost their right to work in many professions and had to regain them. Will it happen again? Sadly in some countries it already is.
Medieval surgical instrements from 'Mirror of Phlebotomy & Practise of surgery' by John of Arderne, written in the 1400's.
|The British Museum in London|
Last Saturday, 4 May 2013, I attended a free talk at the British Museum on the Sewers of Herculaneum. This was one of many fascinating lectures and other events supplementing the current Life and Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum exhibition. As readers of my Roman Mysteries series know, I am fascinated by the fabric of life in ancient times: the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and feel of another time and place. I want to know about the lives of real people, not just poets and rhetors. What better place to find the real people than by examining the remains of the sewers?
|Herculaneum, January 2013|
|Pompeian dog with pine cone|
Or were the pine cones some sort of toilet paper? A recent theory posits that Romans used pebbles to wipe themselves, so why not the scales of a pine cone, which could be plucked off one by one? (For more on this theory see HERE.) Or maybe they were ancient air-fresheners!
|clay oil lamps|
|Herculaneum toilet with washdown|
|Shellfish in a market near Stabia|
They also enjoyed many types of shellfish including cuttlefish, sea urchin and murex, which is better known as the source of purple dye. Professor Robinson showed us a photo of a shallow tin full of murices for sale in a market in the modern town of Herculaneum. A dozen years ago, I took a similar photo of shellfish for sale at nearby Stabia. (above)
|figs, dates, grapes and nuts|
|Roman donkey milling grain|
But that's a topic for another blog!
This is the brick-built Gothic church where the gruesome ‘Lambing’ ceremony happens in my book. Poor Venetian children are forced to walk to the top of the tower and wind the handle of the Fate in the Box, a sinister toy like a Jack in the Box. There are two possibilities when the tune stops tinkling and the lid springs open. A lovely Madonna-like face will mean that the child can skip back down to his or her family. But if a skull bursts out of the box, then the child is doomed to instant death.
Of course the real church, one of the biggest and most beautiful in Venice, has never been the site of anything so barbaric.
The Frari is a church of the Franciscans, who were given the land to construct it in 1250. Building took place in several stages and over several centuries. Its walls are vivid with works by Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Vivarini and other Venetian masters. There is also a magnificent collection of reliquaries containing the bones and hairs of various saints all jumbled up in a vast cupboard with glass doors. There’s a provisional look to these dusty shelves, as if someone plans to sort the collection out into arms, legs, fingers and patellas one day soon.
I’ve always been attracted to ancient relics (yes, the obvious comments apply, sigh) but it was in fact a stone relief that first gave me the idea for The Fate in the Box: a larger-than-life relief of a lamb in the Corner Chapel off the Frari’s left transept. This lamb wears a smile. His undocked tail is as bushy as a fox’s. He bears a tall cross. He marches proudly in a ring of rope held by two angels. He looks as if he might easily step out of it and take a little trot around the nave. I began to think about the idea of lambs being led to the slaughter, about the meekness of lambs and the helplessness of children … scribbled down a sketch of the Lamb in my notebook, and that was the start of this book and a year of many visits to the Frari as a writer rather than a relic-tourist.
As soon as I had my idea of sacrifice, I started looking for a spectacular way of performing it. At the Frari, I didn't have far to look.
On the left of the nave, you see the three steps descending to small door that gives access to the ramp of the square bell-tower, which was started in 1361 by the Venetian architect Jacopo Celega and completed in 1396 by his son Pier Paolo. (Outside, a stone plaque at the base explains these facts). Funds were raised by the Bishop of Trebizond, and the Viaro family. (I wonder if this was a way for the Viaro clan to ‘clean’ their family name, as they were implicated in the murderous Bajamonte Tiepolo conspiracy of 1310 that lies behind the events of my first two children’s novels, The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium.)
At 70 metres, only the bell-tower of San Marco is taller than the Frari’s, which is built of terracotta with horizontal stripes of white stone to mark of the three orders. White stone is also used for the arches of the belfry. A bolt of lightning struck the tower in 1490, which resulted in a partial reconstruction of the upper part. Once a lead pyramid (like San Marco’s tower), it is now a polygonal tambour. The Frari’s was one of the four towers in Venice whose bells announced meetings of the Grand Council. (The others were San Marco, San Geremia, and San Francesco della Vigna.)
The Frari’s bell-tower is not open to the public.
I lurked outside several times, making this drawing of the door to the tower, but never found it ajar. I had plenty of time to wonder if the clerical gentleman pictured on the right of the relief might be Bishop of Trebizond who had contributed to the cost.
But eventually, because of the kindness of Father Apollonio Tottoli, I was able to enter that low door and enter the shaft of the tower, discovering its unusual and fascinating construction for myself on one of those perfect Venetian days when everything seems to conspire to make a writer produce a good story, whether she had it inside her or not when she woke up that morning. I blogged about it here– somewhat breathlessly - at the time.
In that blog, I teased, promising to reveal later what was inside the forbidden tower. Now that The Fate is published, I can tell you, as the book does, that Frari’s stern campanile hides a rather lovely secret – it is, in fact, a double tower.
The inner tower has arched windows three times the height of a man.
The outer tower has tiny arched windows, which are, of course visible from the outside. A pale light inches in through the deep niches.
Eventually you find yourself in the roof of the church ... then above it ...
Reaching out to the lagoon.
My heroine Amneris, as you might guess, leaves the Frari tower’s top rather more quickly than she arrives there. And in fact, the tower made such an impression on me that I chose it for the penultimate scene of my villain, Fogfinger, who is pursued up its dark ramp with two angry Sea-Saurs literally nipping at his heels.
Climbing that tower was one of my favourite pieces of research in Venice. However, there is an easier way to get to the top and enjoy that three hundred and sixty degree view. The cult video game, Assassin’s Creed, offers a climb up the OUTSIDE of the Frari bell-tower. I’ve never played the game, but I have enjoyed looking at the clever pastiches of a mediaeval Venice. The artwork is amazingly detailed, including many real features. There’s a fascinating video of a protagonist scaling the bell-tower on Youtube here . Fast forward to the last scenes, where the view is wondrous, as in life.
PS Good news on the Venetian Bookshop campaign. It seems that the Goldoni bookshop has been bought by a new patron and saved from closure.
Portrait of Lord Arundel or Portrait of a Child with a Rattle, 1611|
- attributed to Paul van Somer (1576/1578–1622)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
For the last few years I have been concentrating my research on the childhoods and teenage years of various members of the Tudor royal family. You can imagine, then, my absolute joy when I discovered this spring that Jane and Ninya, along with their colleague Jane Huggett, have produced a new book called The Tudor Child: Clothing and Culture 1485 to 1625. For me, this book is a dream come true. And I wanted to blog about it today because I think it’s also a fantastic achievement.
Exactly as with The Tudor Tailor, The Tudor Child contains thorough, carefully researched text, plus beautiful reproductions of relevant paintings, effigies, stained glass and surviving original garments (rare, but there are some – and they are absolutely fascinating).
The authors provide detailed analysis of how children’s clothing demonstrated their rank as well as their level of maturity. Although inevitably there are more written and pictorial sources for ‘elite’ clothing, they have taken care to use every bit of information they can about clothing right across the social scale, including the labouring classes, the poor, and children who were reliant on charity. They have studied period childcare manuals, too, to gain an insight into contemporary attitudes to children, their development, their education and their play.
Children’s Games (1560)|
by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569)[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Marvellous nuggets of historical information abound, as you might imagine. Here, for example, is a passage about the colour red:
Infants may have worn red bearing cloths [a large cloth used as an outer wrapping] for superstitious reasons. From ancient times, red, as the colour of blood, was considered a protection against evil. Red was thought to bring healthy properties too. Andrew Boorde advised men to wear nightcaps of scarlet cloth in bed, petticoats (waistcoats) of the same in winter, and of stammel or scarlet linsey-woolsey in the summer. One childcare manual reported that some people placed a piece of scarlet (red cloth) on a newborn’s head.
[The Tudor Child– Chapter 2: Infants, Babies and Toddlers, pp.17-18]
I was very interested to learn, too, that the word bib was not recorded before 1580 – and that in the medieval period a bib was known by the wonderfully vivid term slavering clout. Similarly, tailclout and pissclout were satisfyingly straightforward terms for nappies. And I am also particularly fond of the muckinder, a large hanky or small towel that would be attached to the girdle round a toddler’s waist (it served as an alternative to an apron).
As for what nappies were made of, here is evidence from Elizabeth I’s reign:
In 1573, Anne Bacon wrote to her stepmother asking for some old linen “to make cloutes for myself & the childe. Your Ladyship knoweth how good old linen is [for] such uses, yea better than new.” Used linen was suitable because it was softened and became more absorbent with repeated washing. The linen clout may have been doubled and lined with a layer of soft rags or with an absorbent material, such as sphagnum moss, and was usually fastened with pins.
[The Tudor Child– Chapter 2, p.15.]
To a modern eye, boys of this period often seem indistinguishable from girls up to the age of about seven or so, because they had not yet been ‘breeched’, and instead of hose wore skirts (see, for example, the painting at the beginning of this post). However, The Tudor Child explains how gender was often indicated in other ways – by the style of hat worn, for example, or by the shape and fit of the collar, or shoulder rolls or wings.
If you click here you will see a (rather glorious) painting of a family group in which the boys are clearly distinguished from the girls, even though all the children are in skirts. Notice, also, that the youngest girl has her gloves on strings: as I did when I was little, and my daughters too... some things don't change!
In addition to its wealth of historical information, the book contains patterns for a whole variety of outfits, for those skilled enough to make their own replica costumes. Even for someone like me whose sewing skills are not up to the job, the step-by-step photos and drawings add so much to my understanding of how these garments actually worked. And it is, I think, key to the authors' command of their subject that they've had years of experience of making these clothes themselves, using the original techniques.
Finally, there's an added bonus: the photos are absolutely charming!
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