Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Labyrinths and initiations by Elisabeth Storrs

Labyrinths have always been a source of fascination to me. None more so than the famous lair of the Minotaur in ancient Crete. According to Greek myth, this bewildering structure was designed by the inventor Daedalus (father of the doomed Icarus) at the behest of King Minos. The maze was built in the city of Knossos to hold the half man/half bull monster to whom 7 youths and 7 maidens were sacrificed each year as tribute owed by the Athenian King Aegeus to Minos for killing the Cretan king’s son. The minotaur was ultimately slain by Aegeus’ son, Theseus, who was sent as one of the sacrificial youths to Knossos. Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with the prince and assisted him to kill the monster and then escape the labyrinth by giving him a ball of thread to enable him to retrace his path.

Classical pattern, medieval pattern, modern walking labyrinth and hedge maze

A seven course single path design known as ‘unicursal’ became associated with the labyrinth on Cretan coins as early as 430 BC, and became common as a visual depiction of the legendary labyrinth from Roman times onwards. In later religious tradition, large labyrinth designs set into floors were walked and used for private meditation or for therapeutic purposes based on the concept of a pilgrimage from the entrance to the centre where God awaits. In comparison, a maze is a complex pattern with branches and dead ends known as ‘multicursal’ which require a series of choices to be made in order to safely navigate. Medieval garden hedges are a fine example of these.

In the ancient world, the feat of escaping a labyrinth was associated with a triumph of life over death. In some cases, navigating one was seen as a form of initiation where a boy was required to enter as a child and emerge as a man after surviving danger. One such initiation ritual was known as ‘The City of Troy’ in Rome and Etruria.

The City of Troy was a reference to the labyrinth of Crete. Yet what was the connection between the legendary cities of Troy and Knossos? An explanation comes from both archaeological evidence and the poetry of the Roman poet, Vergil.

Tragliatella Vase
In his great epic, The Aeneid, the Roman poet Vergil tells of the wanderings of Aeneas, the son of Anchises and Venus, following the fall of Troy. After fighting to defend the besieged city, Aeneas escaped carrying his father on his shoulders while leading his young son Ascanius (who later came to be called Iulus) to safety. According to Roman tradition, during the funeral games for his grandfather, Ascanius took part in a processional parade or dance called the Game of Troy (Lusus Trojae) while mounted on a horse given to him by the Carthaginian queen Dido. The young prince and his companions performed a complex weaving pattern by riding between and around each other as though threading their way through a labyrinth. Vergil drew a comparison between the tortuous convolutions of the rite to the twisting pathways within the Minotaur’s den at Knossos. He also referred to the manoeuvres of the game as mimicking the ‘Crane Dance’ performed by the youths Theseus saved from the Minotaur. From Vergil’s description it is clear that completing the game involved great skill to avoid injury or death.

The column split apart
As files in the three squadrons all in line
Turned away, cantering left and right; recalled
They wheeled and dipped their lances for a charge.
They entered then on parades and counter-parades,
The two detachments, matched in the arena,
Winding in and out of one another,
And whipped into sham cavalry skirmishes
By baring backs in flight, then whirling round
With leveled points, then patching up a truce
And riding side by side. So intricate
In ancient times on mountainous Crete they say
The Labyrinth, between walls in the dark,
Ran criss-cross a bewildering thousand ways
Devised by guile, a maze insoluable,
Breaking down every clue to the way out.
So intricate the drill of Trojan boys
Who wove the patterns of their prancing horses,
Figured, in sport, retreats and skirmishes        
(Aeneid, V. 5.580–593 Translation by Robert Fitzgerald)

Vergil conjured the image of the Lusus Trojae when writing in the 1st century CE, but there is archaeological evidence of its existence dating from the late C7th BCE. The Tragliatella Vase discovered near the Etruscan city of Caere (modern Cerveteri) depicts two horsemen emerging from a spiral marked with the word ‘Truia’. A line of marching warriors is also displayed on the wine jug which seems to suggest that the vase portrays a military ceremony similar to the one of legend. As the Romans were heavily influenced by the Etruscans, it is plausible that the equestrian ceremony that was later referred to by Vergil was in fact an Etruscan tradition.

Detail Tragliatella Vase City of Troy design
The Game of Troy was ‘revived’ by Julius Caesar who claimed to be a descendant of Iulus (Ascanius) and was performed by the young sons of high ranking families. It was not associated with any particular religious festival and was conducted at funeral games and in military triumphs. Suetonius and Tacitus also wrote of the Lusus Trojae which appears to have become more of a military review by the time of Nero.

With my love of all things Etruscan, I found the etchings on the humble Tragliatella Vase intriguing enough to inspire me to include an episode in my book The Golden Dice: A Tale of Ancient Rome involving the Troy Game. Yet what strikes me most about the Lusus Trojae is how legend, poetry and history are intertwined and held fast by a strong thread from two epic stories that inspired three great civilisations: Etruria, Greece and Rome. 

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at www.elisabethstorrs.com  
Images are courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 20 May 2019

Inspirational homes (3) by Carolyn Hughes

The “inspirational homes” I discussed in my previous two posts represented the sort of mediaeval houses that might have been lived in by the poorer members of society and those of the “middling sort”. We saw how the way of life afforded by the homes of the wealthier members of society included more space, a little more privacy, a degree of greater warmth and light. The peasants might have thought the homes of the yeoman farmer and the merchant offered unbridled luxury compared to their own modest houses, even if, to us, those “luxurious” houses still seem distinctly lacking in comfort.

So what of the houses of the gentry? I am not considering here the great castles and palaces of the aristocracy, for none of the characters in my novels have such high status. But my novels do have knights and their ladies, the sort of people who held manors big and small, some of which (though not all) included a manor house. Manor houses might have been relatively modest, scarcely much different from the yeoman’s farmstead, Bayleaf, that I described last month. Others might have been quite grand, almost castle-like, with high crenellated walls, towers and moats. And of course there were manor houses of all sizes in between. But what perhaps they all had in common at this period was that they were centred around a main great hall, had a number of other rooms and most likely a solar on the first floor.

These posts concern buildings that have “inspired” me in my writing about the homes in which my characters live. For the previous two posts, the houses I discussed came from either the Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex, or English Heritage. In today’s post, the “inspirational home” again comes from English Heritage.

Stokesay Castle is a 13th century fortified manor house 7.5 miles (12 km) north-west of Ludlow in Shropshire. It is perhaps not quite the right style for a Hampshire manor house, but nonetheless I love it and its interior in particular lives in my head as I write about the homes of my lords and ladies. 

Stokesay Castle, Shropshire
By Andrew Mathewson, CC BY-SA 2.0

This wonderful building was constructed in the 1280/90s. It was extended and refurbished during the 17th century, but it is the 13th century aspects of the house that are my “inspiration”. The house is another merchant’s house, built at almost exactly the same time as John Fortin’s house in Southampton, which we saw last month. In Shropshire, the wool merchant Laurence of Ludlow, one of the richest men in England, bought the manor of Stokesay in 1281, and soon embarked upon building his grand house.

Ten years or so later he obtained a licence to crenellate – or fortify – his house. Although Edward I’s conquest of Wales in 1284 meant that there was now relative peace in the border counties, it seems that bands of thieves continued to roam the countryside and Laurence wanted to ensure that his new house was secure. However, the fortifications did not detract from Laurence’s apparent desire also to demonstrate his sophistication and wealth.

The house is surrounded by a walled moat, though it is not clear if it ever actually held water. An entrance through a gatehouse (17th century, though there was probably an earlier one) leads into the courtyard or bailey. The huge courtyard area (the grass in the photographs would not of course have been there) would have contained additional buildings, such as a kitchen, bakehouse and storerooms.

The main house has an enormous hall and an upper private solar area, and there is a tower at each end of the main building, also containing various private rooms and facilities like privies. To the south is a high crenellated tower, and to the north a tower whose roof balances that of the solar block at the other end of the main central building. On the west side of the building, however, the upper storey of this north tower juts out in a grand jetty. You can see this jettying in the first photo.

By Tony Harrison from Farnborough, UK -
Stokesay Castle Shropshire IMG_8744, CC BY-SA 2.0

By LisaPB73 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The great hall lies between the north tower and the solar block, beneath the wide span of roof that you can see in the picture above. On the east wall, overlooking the bailey, are four pointed gables, three of which have double lancet windows with a circular light at the top.

The vast space of the great hall has a magnificent cruck roof. Originally, the curving timber beams that hold up the roof – the “crucks” – reached further down the walls than they do now. Apparently they were replaced with stone in the 19th century when they began to rot. Nonetheless the roof is one of the glories of the hall.

Chris Gunns/Stokesay Castle, the great hall/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Nick Hubbard - Stokesay Castle-21
Uploaded by AlbertHerring, CC BY 2.0

The high windows on the east side of the hall are matched by others on the west wall, making the great space really very light. Today, the windows are fully glazed, but originally it is likely that glass was put only in the top windows, leaving the lower ones to be covered by shutters in cold or wet weather.

Another of the hall’s glories is the wonderful staircase, most of which is original – that is, remarkably, its treads are over 700 years old! It leads to the upper rooms in the north tower. You can get a splendid view of the hall from the top of the staircase. But it is possible that, on special occasions, minstrels played on the gallery area at the top of the stairs.

It is imagined that the lord, Laurence, and his family and guests would have dined at a table set at the opposite end of the hall from the staircase. This table might well have been raised up from the floor on a dais. The rest of the household would sit at tables set along the side walls. The central hearth – octagonal in shape – was located in middle of the U shape of the tables, the smoke apparently curling up and out of an opening in the roof. I suppose that with the room being so very large, one might not have really noticed the unpleasantness of the smoke. Though it might also be true that the fire would have struggled to heat such an enormous, and enormously high, space!

It is thought that a timber screen might have been installed between the dining area and the staircase, sheltering the diners from the draughts coming from the great main door, which gave access out into the courtyard and the kitchens. It might also allow for the dishes being brought in from the kitchen to be given a discreet last-minute once-over to ensure they met Laurence’s undoubtedly high standards.

The north tower reached by the staircase has its original tiled floor and the remains of wall paintings. Interestingly (given that the great hall has a central hearth), there is a fireplace on a wall in both of the upper rooms. The top floor room overhangs the one beneath by means of a supported jetty on three sides (see the first photograph), although the windows themselves were added in the 17th century.

At the southern end of the hall is the two-storey solar block, which it is thought Laurence and his family used as their private living area until the south tower was built. The ground floor of the block contains what was probably a storeroom. The upper room of the block was refurbished in the 17th century, converting it into a panelled chamber, so sadly there is no sense of how it originally appeared. This room was accessed by an external staircase (the existing one is not original), and it seems that the staircase was sheltered by a “pentice”, a sloping roof attached to the wall. You can see the line of it in the photograph below, just underneath the cut-off window.

The Solar, Stokesay Castle
By Tony Grist - Photographer's own files, CC0

Beyond the solar block is the tall south tower, the most castle-like part of the house, built perhaps as a further demonstration of Laurence’s power and taste. But it was also where he moved his private quarters.

The room on the first floor has six windows giving views in almost every direction. Four of them are large enough to accommodate window seats, where – with a cushion or two, perhaps – it must have been very pleasant to sit on sunny days. But the windows were not glazed and had to rely on shutters to keep the heat in and the weather out. Fireplaces and access to a privy were provided for both this room and the one on the floor above. Plenty of mod cons!

By LisaPB73 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Sadly in some ways, English Heritage hasn’t attempted to furnish the mediaeval parts of Stokesay Castle, although there are a few pieces of furniture in the solar refurbished in the 17th century. It would be wonderful in particular to see the great hall furnished with cloth-covered tables, and benches, perhaps great tapestries on the walls, and to have a fire burning in the hearth, as they do in the houses at the Weald and Downland Museum. But I must put my disappointment aside and simply use my imagination and try to visualise what life in this wonderful building must have been like.

Clearly, Laurence of Ludlow’s fortified manor house was state-of-the-art in the 13th century. The grandeur of Stokesay Castle is undisputed, but the comforts of fireplaces and privies, the light offered by the large windows, the availability of lots of space and even a little more privacy, all of these surely contribute to its status as luxurious accommodation? But one presumes that, on his manor, while there might have been a few relatively affluent villeins whose homes were closer to the Bayleaf farmhouse we saw last month, the majority of his tenants undoubtedly lived out their lives in one of those small, dark, smoky cottages – with no luxury at all.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Roman Recommendations by L.J. Trafford

I thought for this month’s post I might do something a bit different. Rather than write a piece on some part of Roman history I thought I would recommend some Roman related things that I have enjoyed and that you might too.


When I became Roman obsessed in the early 90s there really wasn’t much in the way of ancient Rome set fiction. What there was were weighty, long and frankly, dull books in the vein of Ben Hur and Quo Vadis. Which ,yes I did read but by Jupiter’s fiery thunderbolt they were a struggle.
But then I stumbled across a few books that gripped me in their story and not once did I have to skip chapters of long philosophical meanderings to get to the ruddy plot.

I, Claudius – Robert Graves 

The classic book that has forever, probably unfairly, set our views on the Emperor Claudius. Here he is the underdog in the nest of vipers that is the Julian Claudian clan. He’s clever and able but he can’t show it if he wants to survive. But survive he does through the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. Which is no mean feat given the family members who are popping off left, right and centre of him.

This is also notably the book that casts Livia as a mass murderer intent on getting her son, Tiberius to be emperor. You do have to wonder when she found the time for all that murder let alone why she bothered when the Tiberius portrayed here is such a freaky pervert. Really she should have bumped off everyone much sooner. I mean at one point there is only Agrippa and Augustus standing between Tiberius and emperor-hood. Surely that was the time to strike? Why wait until Agripppa has children who clutter up the system? It makes no sense.

Elsewhere Graves tries to make more sense by straightening out that Julio Claudian habit of giving everybody the same name, e.g. Agrippina becomes Pina, Drusus Castor. Which takes all the fun out of trying to work out which generation of Julia is bonking about the place.

It’s a work of classical fiction. But with sex a plenty, skulduggery a muchly and all the best bits of Suetonius wrapped up as literature.

The Falco Series – Lindsey Davis

Whereas I, Claudius concentrates on life in the palace and the fierce battling to be emperor, the Falco books examine life for the ordinary Roman making do. Yes, Imperial types such as Vespasian and Titus do feature and act as sometime employer of Falco but the emphasis is very much on Rome’s ‘others’.

Falco himself is from the rough Aventine district where he works as a detective for hire. Falco’s job gives Davis scope to explore wide ranging aspects of ancient Rome, such as criminal gangs, religion, law, gladiatorial shows and slavery. She also takes Falco out of Rome into the provinces like Britannia and Germania.

They are written as a 40s crime noir but with the twist that although Falco is your typical cynical, hard edged tec he is burdened with a large interfering family. Philip Marlow never had to counter with a Ma like Falco’s!

In fact it is Falco’s extended family, friends and enemies that make the series so enjoyable. Not least his arch nemesis, palace spy Anacrites. Now I know my fellow writer and ex History Girl, Alison Morton will disagree with me most passionately on this, but Anacrites is by far the best character. Possibly because Davis maintains him as a man of mystery, the genuine noir loner, for nearly the entire series.
Falco says of Anacrites that ‘he could be pleasant and was tolerable to look at’. By which I think we can deduce he is well sexy and charming. For which I will forgive his occasional attempts to murder Falco.

Augustus - Allan Massie

This was the book that cemented my passion for ancient Rome. It is a simply brilliant telling of the rise of Augustus from the man himself. Massie gets Rome's first emperor dead on; his sentimentality but ruthless ambition, his never ending drive and controlling nature. If you ever wanted to understand how devious Octavius become benevolent first citizen Augustus, this is the book to read.
Massie followed this up with Tiberius. Another absolute cracker of a read, Massie reject those Capri stories about Tiberius and instead paints a credible picture of a humiliated but proud man. It has never been bettered as a portrait of Tiberius, nobody has come even close. Highly, highly recommended.

Other books worth reading:
Steven Saylor’s hero Gordianus the Finder flexes his detecting muscles in Late Republican Rome. It would be difficult to write a dull book about the late republic, it is positively bursting with characters and incidents. Both of which Saylor uses magnificently.
His portrayal of Marcus Caelius Rufus is stuck in my head as definitive and nothing but nothing can shift it.

Also see Ruth Downie's Medicus series for another Roman detective, this time based in the wilds of Roman occupied Britain.

Podcasts! They’re like radio shows that you can listen to anytime you like! And seemingly the technology is there for any bod with a bedroom and a microphone to inform the nation about their particular passion. Which has done wonders for history broadcasting.

Totalus Rankium

As the introduction informs, this podcast “ranks all the emperors from Augustus to Augustulus” not unlike a game of Top Trumps.
Our presenters Jamie and Robb review the record of each Roman Emperor giving them a rating for
  • Fightius Maximus – Were they an all conquering Caesar? Or a hide in a march until the battle is all done with type of emperor?
  • Opprobrium Crazium – Meglomania alone won’t get you a high ranking, best to juice it up with dollops of scandal, a dash of sadism and a strong belief that your horse would make a decent politician.
  • Sucessus Ultimus – With all the power in the world, how well did they wield it?
  • Imigo Facius – With extra points for sexiness, a commanding chin and a truly great beard.
  • Tempo Completo – How long did they reign for?

And then finally deciding whether they possess a certain Je Na Caesar

As you can probably guess from the above, this is no serious history programme. It is a very funny, sometimes nonsensical, sometimes idiotic and always hilarious podcast.
Where else can you hear about the Flavian conquest of the east on two Vespa mopeds?
Or the students that plagued Antoninus Pius’ life with pranks?
Not to mention Elagbalus and his unique way of hiring staff based on their erm advantage.

Highly recommended. Though a word from the wise, probably best not to listen to at work. Unless you want to spit tea all over your desk from laughing, as I once did.
Series One took us up to the fall of the Western Empire. They are now covering the Byzantines who are properly extreme in a cut off your nose, eunuch-tastic way.

Roman Things to See (if you’re not in Rome)

British Museum
Upstairs in the Roman Gallery you have the treat of hanging out with scary Augustus head. Be sure not to look in his eyes.

Look out for the clever positioning of the bust of Tiberius, a clear three paces behind that of his mother Livia. Ha! Also Hadrian and his lover Antoninus directly facing a bust of Hadrian’s wife Sabrina. Ouch!

Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge
Having lived near Cambridge the vast majority of my life I had somehow, shamefully, never quite managed to visit the Museum of Classical Archaeology.

I put this right a few months ago. Situated in the grounds of one of the colleges this Museum is a joyful collection of plaster casts of famous Greek and Roman statues.
Augustus kindly points the way to the toilets. Gent

L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors Series of books.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

The Tarot - Celia Rees


I own several different packs of Tarot cards. Over the years, I've used them for inspiration and divination. In various ways and guises, they've found their way into the books I've written. The name derives from the Italian tarocchi , a pack of playing cards used from the 15th Century for various card games, some of them still played today in various parts of Europe: Italy, France and Austria. Like common playing cards, the tarocchi pack is divided into suits: coins, clubs, cups, and swords, which equate with our more familiar diamonds, clubs, hearts and spades. It has the same numbered cards, from one to ten and ‘face’ cards: King, Queen, Knight and Jack or Knave. There is also a single separate card, the Fool, which equates with our Joker, and has no face value but can be played in different ways, depending on the game, and is therefore, in some ways, the most valuable card to have. 

The tarot pack was not just used for playing games, it was also used for cartomancy, the art of fortune telling, with the different cards and suits attributed with different significances and meanings. The esoteric tarot developed from this. One of the earliest packs used in this way was the Tarot of Marseilles. The design has changed very little. This is a 1751 pack and the pack I use today. 

The biggest difference between a tarocchi pack, a pack of ordinary playing cards and an esoteric pack is the Major Arcana (the greater secrets). The Minor Arcana (the lesser secrets) is almost the same as in a conventional pack of cards. Fifty six cards, divided into four suits, ten numbered cards, with the addition of a Knight into the face card suits. The Major Arcana is different. It contains 22 cards without suits: The Magician, The High Priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Heirophant (or Pope), The Lovers, The Chariot, Strength, The Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, The Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon, The Sun, Judgement, The World, and The Fool. The cards are numbered from I to XXI in Roman numerals with the Fool, like the Joker in a conventional pack of cards, having no number. 

For many people, this is where the fascination, mystery - even fear – lies. In a reading, cards from the Minor Arcana are just as significant to the querent but it is cards from the Major Arcana that appear to hold the greater meaning. The central images appear simple but there is a strangeness about them. The backgrounds and the details within them are heavy with symbolism and invite you to look deeper in. The cards are not just for divination. They can be used for meditation, creative inspiration or as arresting images in their own right. 

My favourite card is The Fool, titled Le Mat in the Tarot de Marseilles. In more modern packs he is shown as a young man walking, seemingly unaware, towards the brink of a precipice. He is accompanied by a small dog and holds a rose in one hand and carries a bundle over his shoulder. He is accompanied by a butterfly and above him, the sun shines in the sky. The Fool belongs to the tradition of the Wise Fool, the Sacred Fool. The rose he carries symbolises innocence and hope. The dog at his side, sometimes tearing at his clothing, symbolises old ways of thought seeking to hold him back. The pure light of the sun shines down on him and his bundle contains an accumulated store of wisdom and knowledge. He is led on by a butterfly to new adventures and higher attainment. That he is stepping towards a precipice, doesn’t seem to matter.  He knows he will be just fine. 

Celia Rees


Friday, 17 May 2019


With the gardens full of rhododendrons and exotic blooms, today seemed a good month to re-post this review of History Girl Sue Purkiss's plant-hunting adventure for junior/middle-grade readers. 

How does one start to hunt for plants? My own love of plants began with Cecily Mary Barker’s picture-and-verse Flower Fairy books, Yet the works are not pure fantasy: Barker’s charming fairies, first appearing in 1923, were based on drawings of real children in her sister’s kindergarten, while the detailed flowers and settings are painted with meticulous, botanically-accurate skill. The Flower Fairies taught me- and no doubt many others – to find and identify common plants, even though some of those flowers are rarer than they used to be.

However, Barker’s pretty fairies - still hovering around today – can surely only charm a very particular young audience. There’s space for bolder books about the history of the plants and stories for older boys and girls who would welcome tales of adventure.

I was very pleased to come across JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY, a novel for 8-12 year olds, written by fellow History Girl Sue Purkiss.

Inspired by the lives of 18th century plant-hunters, Sue has written a fast-moving historical adventure story.  Jack Fortune, the young hero, is energetic and most interestingly naughty. Bored, and not allowed to attend school, he can’t resist devising tricks that shame his stern widowed Aunt Constance and horrify her genteel guests.

As a character, Jack is immediately likeable - and trouble! When he accidentally damages a priceless object, Constance summons her  brother, Uncle Edmund, insisting that he take responsibility for his young nephew.

Uncle Edmund refuses; not only is the scholarly bachelor unused to children but he is about to depart on his first plant-hunting trip to India. Jack, hearing this exciting news, wants to accompany the expedition so Uncle Edmund reluctantly agrees, while Aunt Constance, unable to face any more disobedience, agrees despite the dangers.

From this point on Jack and his uncle  – and the reader – experience a new life full of challenge and interesting people and places. They sail to Calcutta, cross the Great Plain and travel through the jungle before reaching a high mountain kingdom with a hidden valley. All the way, Jack and his uncle face setbacks and dangers: vagabonds, wild animals, “mountain sickness” and, at last, reports of a huge, legendary being who brings death to any intruders in the Hidden Valley. Moreover, Jack soon realises that an unknown traitor is spoiling the expedition’s food supplies and stirring up problems with local villagers.  Who wishes them ill? Is it Sonam, their guide or Thondup, the heir to the throne who accompanies the party, and whom Jack has begun to admire?  

Sue Purkiss’s plot moves along with plenty of pace and action and just enough description to fix the story in its historical time and place without overloading her young reader’s enjoyment. She also touches lightly and skillfully on darker issues such as servants and colonisation, but lets the bold adventure end as happily as it should.

However, I felt the book was about more than the plant-hunting quest: Jack and Uncle Edmund make a wonderfully odd and warm partnership, and the hardships met on the expedition teach them more about the other.

Bookish Uncle Edmund slowly reveals his bravely determined nature and his passion for plant-hunting. Gradually, Jack sees the burning passion that lies behind Uncle Edmund’s search, and his desperate hope that the plant will bring him fame, fortune and the approval of the influential Sir Joseph Banks when - and if -  they ever return to London.

Meanwhile, faced with real demands and responsibilities rather than endless tea-parties and polite manners, Jack becomes the boy-hero he was meant to be and is even able to accept his own inherited artistic gifts and inheritance.

One of the particular reasons I enjoyed JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY was that, despite the difficulties Jack and his Uncle face, the adventure is a positive and hopeful experience and one that might encourage children to look beyond everyday life and issues in school and out into a much wider world with all its interweaving histories.

Penny Dolan
ps. Years after the Flower Fairies, my gardening interests led to a set of children’s stories based on the history of British gardening, written for re-telling at RHS Harlow Carr gardens.

NB. Alma Books have also created some downloadable activities to support of this title:  http://almabooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Jack-Fortune-Activity-Book.pdf  as well as an interview with the author Sue Purkiss: http://almabooks.com/interview-sue-purkiss-author-jack-fortune/                                                                  

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Miss Rosalie Chichester of Arlington Court: Sue Purkiss

At the end of April, we had a few days down on Exmoor, venturing just over the border from Somerset into Devon. Unfortunately, a heavy bank of rain (closely followed by Storm Hannah) was paying a visit at the same time - but in fact that turned out to be a Good Thing, because it led us a National Trust house nearby called Arlington Court. We'd never heard of it, but were delighted to have come across it.

Arlington Court: photo from the National Trust.
(All other photos are mine.)

Relatively speaking, the house isn't huge - but it's packed full of interesting things. The last owner, Miss Rosalie Chichester, was a great collector, and she left everything to the Trust.

Her father, Sir Bruce, died when she was only 15. Until he became ill, he had lived lavishly, spending money he didn't have on the estate and on entertaining - so that Rosalie inherited a hefty burden of debt, as well as the house and its acres of parkland. There's a room upstairs which is furnished to reflect her personality and interests at this point. She had her two pet mice stuffed when she died, and there they are, encased in small glass cases on the mantelpiece. There are books, toys, drawings and pictures; it's a comfortable, slightly shabby room, and you get the impression of an eager, enthusiastic personality, a girl who loved her home but was also curious about the world beyond.

As the owner of an estate which was saddled with heavy debt, she was never going to attract swarms of suitors, and she never did marry. But it doesn't seem to have bothered her: she certainly didn't become a reclusive, quiet spinster. She was careful with the estate, cancelling her father's extravagant plans for expansion, and over a number of years she managed to pay off the money owed. In any case, she had her own ideas about what she wanted to do with the grounds in particular.

For a start, very unusually for this part of the world, she was adamantly against hunting. So she had an iron fence erected round the park: it was to be a safe haven for deer and any other animals which chose to seek refuge at Arlington. In order to study the natural world which she loved, she had an observatory built. She was also a keen photographer, and some of her pictures form a slideshow of the estate as it was at the beginning of the 20th century

As time went on and the debts began to clear, she used the extra money she now had at her disposal to  travel widely with a paid companion. You can see at the house some of the journals she wrote; there is one of New Zealand illustrated with lots of sketches of the people, places and things that she saw.

She was a keen collector, and she used one room in her house as a museum for all the curiosities she ammassed. Its glass display cases are crammed with pewter mugs, pretty china, masses of exquisite shells - and model ships. Her grandfather had been a sailor, and her nephew, Sir Francis Chichester, was to become famous for being the first man to circumnavigate the world by himself. For her part, she expressed her interest in matters maritime by collecting the most beautiful models of ships of all kinds, and they are to be seen all over the house. This one is made out of spun glass: another was made by French prisoners of some war or other - the ropes are made of tightly woven human hair.

A conch - shades of 'Lord of the Flies'!

Pewter and china in the museum

More model ships

A scrapbook, with a page of jokes

The house, bright and comfortable, full of what some might call clutter, surely reflects its last owner's personality: lively, interested in everything, cheerful and creative. I suspect she would have been great company.

There's also a lovely little garden (which naturally needed to be walled because of all the animals), which at the time we were there was splashed with vivid pink and crimson azaleas. In the wider parkland there were lovely drifts of pale blue camassias.

The National Trust has its carriage museum there too - so if you ever want to know exactly what a brougham, a phaeton, a gig or a mail coach looked like, this is the place to go. The centrepiece of the collection, which is the only thing one is not allowed to photograph, is the Speaker's Coach, a vision in gold, extraordinarily ornate, straight out of a fairytale. The last speaker to have used it was George Thomas, later Lord Tonypandy - a lad from the Welsh valleys, who must surely have reflected, as he rode in it, how very unexpected and various life can turn out to be.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Facing the future by Fay Bound Alberti

This will be my last History Girls blogpost, at least for now.

I was recently awarded a UK Research and Innovation Fellowship to study the emotional and cultural history of face transplants - not yet a reality in the UK but since 2005 a method of surgically treating severe facial trauma in many countries. You can learn more about that news here.

Although most of the ethical and experimental groundwork had been carried out in the UK, France was the first country to undertake a face transplant - on Isabelle Dinoire, who had been savaged by her own dog. America, Spain, Mexico and China have all contributed to the “face race”, with varying degrees of success. 

From the vantage point of a historian of emotion, what is striking is the lack of coherent, psychological understanding of the global impact of face transplants. We have no long term data on their emotional effects, or the challenge they might post to the idea of the self.

And how much more problematic are questions of identity, appearance and emotional wellbeing in the age of the selfie, when looks seem to be everything?

Which is where my project comes in. I will be working with people living with disfigurement (as a legal term though not a comfortable one), surgeons, nurses, face transplant recipients and donor families. And thinking about what face transplants mean at a cultural level - working with artists, writers (including History Girls' own Louisa Young) - ethicists and philosophers.

This is a transformative opportunity for me, and a chance to make an impact in a complex but critical field. It's also a major time commitment, which is why I have to say farewell for now.

There is always a silver lining: taking my place will be the historian Susan Vincent. Sue was my PhD contemporary at the University of York, and she has written wonderful books on the histories of clothing, hair and fashion. I interviewed her for this blog back in November 2018.

Thanks for everything, fellow History Girls and readers! Keep in touch.