Monday, 30 November 2015

November Competition

If you read Anne Rooney's fascinating post yesterday about researching for historical non-fiction and fiction, you'll want to enter our competition with a chance to win one of five copies of The Story of Maps. Just answer the following question:

"Is there a map or atlas that has meant a lot to you, led you astray, or inspired you? Describe it and its impact in the comments below."

Then copy your answer to so you can be contacted if you win.

Closing date 7th December

Our competitions are open to UK Followers only.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Filling the cracks with gold

Our November guest is Anne Rooney, appropriately enough since this has been Non-fiction month - did you know? - and Anne has written around 200 books, many of them non-fiction for both adults and younger readers. 

In fact "guest" is a bit misleading, since Anne is here all the time. She is "tech support" for The History Girls and if you have ever seen a post that looked a bit peculiar and checked back later to find it perfect, it's because Anne has been working behind the scenes. We are very glad to have her as a "back room History Girl" and so we welcome her as perhaps a house guest for November.

Photo credit: Luki Sumner-Rooney
Anne began her working life as a medievalist but turned to writing after deciding the academic life was not really for her. She has been writing children’s books for about 15 years, though still makes occasional forays into adult writing, mostly in the area of the history and philosophy of science.  Much of her non-fiction has historical content. She has written fiction with a contemporary setting but featuring historical figures who have endured beyond their sell-by date (did you know that Louis Pasteur, Joseph Guillotin and Elvis Presley were all vampires?) and has specifically historical fiction in the pipeline (Forever, forthcoming 2016).

Anne is a contributor to the History Girls' anthology Daughters of Time. She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge

Welcome to Anne, polymath and workaholic.

The cracks are fertile!
Like spies, terrorists and moss, writers of historical fiction occupy the cracks.

It's easy to assume that as we make things up fiction-writers do less rigorous research than writers of historical fact. Why would we spend as much effort as a historian finding out what actually happened and what life was really like, if we're going to write about what didn't happen and what we imagine life was like?

The best historical fiction wears its learning lightly, so it's not surprising readers imagine there's little research. The historian will say, 'look, this is what a Victorian baby-bottle looked like, this is how it was used, this is what the mother put into the bottle to make the baby sleep.' The research is all there, in the foreground. The historical novelist will mention the baby-farmer removing the twist of rag from the neck of the bottle and pouring in a glug of the evil Godfrey's cordial (opium and treacle), but as a reader you won't be thinking, 'ah, that's how a baby was fed when there was no lactating mother.' You'll be waiting to see what happens next. You don't notice the research - it slips down as easily as Godfrey's cordial.

Indeed, much of the research that goes into historical fiction never reaches the page. It informs the writing, but a lot of it is preventing mistakes rather than making a positive appearance. The reader's willing suspension of disbelief will be curtailed pretty quickly if a 13th-century feast includes potatoes, or a lady from the 1700s wears a mauve dress. Research keeps potatoes out of novels set in the Middle Ages. Or sometimes half a day's research will contribute a single word to the book - perhaps one dish in a meal, the colour of a flag or the price paid for a suitable drink.

I write some historical fiction and a lot of historical fact. The research for both starts in the same way, with a broad sweep, picking up all the main events, trends, issues and characters. Then it homes in on the most important areas. Many of the sources are the same: academic and popular history books and articles; museums; archives; talking to experts.

Booth's map, colour coded to show levels of
prosperity and poverty in Victorian London
I’ve been working (slowly) on a story set in Victorian London. My research has been about everyday life, particularly the living conditions of the London poor. The most important primary sources have been Charles Booth’s poor map and Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851). Beyond the textual sources, I've been to the Museum of Childhood to look at baby-bottles, the Museum of London to see contemporary photographs of street life, and the London Aquarium to look at objects found in the mud of the Thames.

Some sources I probably wouldn't have used for historical fact: the novels of Dickens; paintings, newspaper sketches and cartoons; the dolls' houses in the Museum of London which are exact replicas of real homes; films (for atmosphere); and I’ve visited the places, though they are much changed, and walked the routes my characters walk, felt the mud, and watched the tides of the Thames (thanks to History Girl Michelle Lovric for letting me stand on her balcony above the Thames for that!)

It's not just a matter of using additional sources, though. The historian and the fiction-writer look for different things. The historian looks for a coherent narrative in the chaotic remnants of the past -  threads that link events and people, one thing leading to another, explaining another, preventing another. The writer of fiction, as often as not, is looking for the gaps. The historian wants to answer questions; the novelist wants to ask questions. The historian uses the minutiae of lives lived to illuminate the bigger picture, while the writer of fiction explores what it was like living those lives against the background of the bigger picture.

Good historians know that history only comes to life when we see how it was lived. The details of lives and personalities offer the best way into imagining and engaging with the past. Social histories such as Sarah Wise's The Blackest Streets (2009) about the Old Nichol (a desperately squalid slum in Victorian London) are distilled from reports and personal narratives. They are ripe for plundering. As fiction writers, we can take a nugget of true narrative and spin a whole life-story from it. It’s like taking a spoonful of sugar and spinning it into candyfloss. The sugar tastes different when mixed with the air and the truth tastes different when expanded with imagination – the story adds texture and volume and specialness to the spoonful of truth.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), before
the nose incident
Take Tycho Brahe's moose. Tycho Brahe was the last great naked-eye astronomer and the first to contradict Aristotle's (and the Bible's) notion that the heavens are fixed and there can be no new starts. So he has his place in the history of astronomy. But he is far more interesting than that. He ruled autocratically over the island of Hven off the coast of Sweden where he had his observatory. The more famous astronomer Kepler worked as his assistant for many years. Brahe wore a prosthetic metal nose, having lost part of his real nose in a duel over a mathematical formula. He died of politeness - refusing to leave a feast to urinate, he suffered a burst bladder. And he had a pet moose, which died after drinking too much beer at a feast and falling down the stairs. None of Brahe's eccentricity has much bearing on the history of astronomy, but it is exactly the kind of gift a fiction-writer is delighted to find in the historical record.

If you were to set out to write a history of Brahe and his moose, you'd find scant material. Its existence and death are recorded in Brahe's correspondence, but only briefly. For the historian, that's frustrating; gaps in the historical record make the job harder. Historians are not allowed just to make up something to fill the gap. They must work from the evidence around the gap and try to fill it, seamlessly, by extending from the edges. If the task goes well, the evidence criss-crosses the space representing our ignorance and supports a plausible structure of conjecture. It’s like detective work. It’s challenging, inspiring and sometimes frustrating.

Fictional historical writing, on the other hand, flourishes in the gaps in history. The fiction-writer can weigh up the evidence, choose a plausible narrative and treat is as though it were the truth without excuse, apology or accommodation. It's where we don't know what happened that we can let 'what if' run free. Like parenting, fictional history has to be good enough rather than perfect. It must be consistent with the facts – or honest about where it is not consistent – but can go beyond them without having to defend its choices. In parenting, if everyone is alive and intact at bedtime, it’s a good day. In historical fiction, if the dead are still dead and no worlds were destroyed – well, it’s a pretty good start.

Writing historical fiction, we focus on creating the world as experienced by the people we are writing about. What did they eat for breakfast? What’s it like to walk through streets full of horse manure and dog poo? How do you occupy yourself when it gets dark at 4 pm but you can’t afford lights? What is your attitude towards food if you eat tasteless gruel every day? How far will you go trying to keep warm in the winter? Do you believe in ghosts? Are dogs frightening? Is a baby more a burden than a treasure? These are rarely the questions asked by factual histories. The answers come from the exercise of empathy on the stuff of research. We share the same minds and bodies as people of the past, so we can put ourselves into their shoes – or bare feet – and imagine how they experienced life. The historian benefits from empathy, but must leave the larger part of imagination at the study door.

More has been lost from the historical record than has been preserved, and the further back you go, or the deeper into any particular area, the less there is. It’s often a frustration for the historian, but a gift for the fiction-writer. The unknown is where imagination has always played - 'here be monsters'.

Perhaps one of the differences between what a historian does and what a writer of fiction does with the slabs of research and the gaps between them is best illustrated by two approaches to mending broken things. If we think of the historical record as the broken fragments of the past, the historian is aiming for this:

This is one of three Qing dynasty vases accidentally broken by a visitor falling down the stairs of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2006. After weeks of careful conservation work, the joins are invisible to the naked eye. You can see the process of reconstruction here.

The writer of historical fiction is aiming for this:

Hey Rosetta! album cover for Second Sight,
using Japanese Kintsugi bowl

The ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi aims to make something beautiful from broken objects by highlighting the breaks. The admirer is not asked to ignore the fractures but celebrate them. The cracks are often filled with resin enriched with gold. I think that’s what we are doing as we write historical fiction – filling the cracks in reality with gold.

Anne Rooney's latest non-fiction book is The Story of Maps:

Look out for the competition tomorrow to win a copy.

And thanks for visiting, Anne, and sharing your immense experience of the different uses of research.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Hitler and Marigolds by Julie Summers

Edith Jones' diary
May 1945
There is nothing more delicious than discovering a private diary, written moons ago, that was never intended for publication. It has been my great good fortune to find several in the course of my work on the Second World War but the jewel in the crown for me were the diaries of Edith Jones, which form the golden thread through my book about the Women's Institute, Jambusters. When I tell people I have worked on the WI for over six years I get mixed reactions. Some pity, some incredulity that a women's organisation with a reputation for jam and Jerusalem would be of any interest to an author and sometimes, just sometimes, a nod of acknowledgement that this is a great topic. Well, let me reassure you that those in the third category are right.

As this is my first blog for the History Girls I thought I would kick off with the WI. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Women's Institute of England and Wales. Scotland has its own Scottish Rural WI. Born in Llanfairpwll on Anglesey in 1915, it was founded in part to help with food production during the First World War. However, its main aim was, and remains, to educate its membership. The full story of the WI is told in a new book Women's Century: an illustrated history of the Women's Institute by Val Horsler and Ian Denning.

It is a handsome publication that fulfills its promise by charting the 100 years in a gallery of mainly black and white images. Some are hilarious but the majority tell a tale of versatility, determination and good humour. The authors thread the story neatly through the book, focusing on the WI's key activities: education, campaigning and public affairs.
Wartime WI meeting
We all know about the Calendar Girls, and yes, they are there. As is the Queen, a member since 1943. But the more unexpected aspects of the WI's work is also celebrated. When do you imagine the WI resolved to get a ban on smoking in public places? 1964. They were 15 years ahead of the UK Green Party in lobbying the government to do more about recycling and researching renewable energy. And the Terrence Higgins Trust paid them a great compliment in 1987 when they campaigned for the use of condoms for safe sex: 'The WI does not flinch from the more difficult issues.' Indeed it does not. And it certainly did not flinch during the Second World War.

My brother, Tim, is responsible for the title Jambusters but he could have no idea how accurate a title it is for the WI's wartime activities. At a fundamental level the WI bust bureaucratic logjams and kept the countryside ticking. Their general secretary, Frances Farrer, had a reputation for phoning government ministers before breakfast so she could be sure to get their attention. She ordered 430 tons of sugar on 6 September 1939 in response to calls from members all over the country worrying about the bumper harvest going to waste in gardens and orchards that had been evacuated. Result: 1740 tons of jam by October. Over the course of the war the WI made jam for the Ministry of Food, it collected herbs for the pharmaceutical industry, it advised the government on housing, sanitation and education and much more besides. But it also kept its membership entertained, informed and in touch.

Dame Frances Farrer
Gen. Sec of WI 1929-59

When I was writing Jambusters my biggest problem was too much information. The WI archives at national, county and village level offer minute and fascinating detail about anything and everything they have ever been involved in. But it is all impersonal, in the form of minutes, records and letters. Occasionally there is a hint of fury in Miss Farrer's letters to the Ministry of Mines about petrol rationing but by and large it is factual detail. Yet the WI is an organisation full of personalities and I needed to get into someone's head. This is where Edith Jones' diaries came in. She was WI to the core and embraced the organisation from the moment it started in her remote village on the English/Welsh border in 1931.

Christine Downes with her
great-aunt Edith's diaries

She was a tenant farmer's wife and had little opportunity to broaden her horizons or go beyond the market town of Shrewsbury until the WI arrived. This gave her the chance to travel - she went to London in 1938 to attend the National Federation's AGM - and to meet women from other WIs in Shropshire. She recorded her everyday life in brief but delicious detail in diaries given to her by the Electricity Supply Company. That was an irony: Red House Farm, where she lived, did not get electricity until 12 years after Edith retired and moved away. Some of the juxtapositions are delightful. In September 1943 she wrote: 'Italy surrenders. I put new flower in hat.' On another occasion her puppy had fleas. On that day, 20 July 1944, she recorded the following: 'Hitler's life threatened by bomb. Puppy is very lousy, so Margaret is sorry for him & gives him a sound bathing and dressing.' How extraordinary that she heard about the failed Stauffenberg plot on the day it happened.

Edith Jones with Leonard 1937
All during the war there was a running thread of anxiety in the diaries for the safety of her nephew, Leonard, who had lived with her since he was a boy of six. He survived the war, returning from Africa in 1945. So although Edith saw no action she was aware of the constant threat to her family life. Five days before the war ended she read about Hitler's suicide. That day she recorded simply: 'Hitler confirmed dead. Jack sows marigolds.' I found that extraordinarily poignant when I first read it. The madness of the war was over and her husband, Jack, planted marigolds to keep flies off her flowers and vegetables. And what did Edith Jones do the day after the war ended? She went to her WI meeting where they discussed bringing electricity to the village: 'no agreement' she wrote. She carried on going to WI meetings until shortly before her death. For her the WI was a way of life and the war represented merely an episode in that long life.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Christmas cards by Janie Hampton

Over the years I have collected interesting cards from old scrapbooks and jumble sales.
As now is the time for sending out Christmas cards, I shall share some with The History Girls. 

Christmas card sent as World War One began, in 1914. 

 A pretty girl in the 1920s. 

Approaching Christmas 1938, a British man called W.J. Bassett-Lowke sent out a card with a political, rather than religious, message which seems especially relevant now. Only weeks after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in a British Airways aeroplane, his announcement of ‘Peace for our time’ was already being misquoted as ‘Peace in Our Time’ from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. ‘The desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again,’ said the Anglo-German Declaration signed on 30 September 1938 by Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler.

While most of Britain was celebrating this victory of peace over war, Mr Bassett-Lowke was less convinced. His cartoon Christmas card makes the point that Britain was already involved in fighting, in both Palestine and India. Below Chamberlain is a scowling portrait of Hitler, about to invade Czechoslovakia, saying ‘I am always prepared for peace.’ Then beside an air raid over Spain and an Italian soldier attacking an Abyssinian, Mussolini says ‘Fascism marks the beginning of real peace for everyone.’ Next in line is the grimacing French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier saying, ‘ France will respond to a man to defend the peace’. Having failed to ratify the 1936 Franco-Syrian Treaty of Independence, a French soldier is depicted firing a machine gun at a Syrian, while another French soldier marches with a flag announcing ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ And finally a jolly US President Franklin D. Roosevelt exporting munitions ‘To the Far East’ saying, ‘We must do our part to make the world safe for peace and democracy.’    Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose…
“ ‘May they practice [sic] what they preach in the New Year’ is the earnest Christmas wish from W.J. Basett-Lowke Northampton”. So who was he?
 Wenman Joseph is the small chap in a frock, Northampton 1880s.
Wenman Joseph Basett-Lowke (1877-1953) may have misspelt ‘Practice’ but then he did leave school at 13. Bassett-Lowke’s grandfather and father were engineers and boiler-makers and he used their skills and equipment to produce high-quality model trains.

With advertisements in The Model Engineer and mail-order catalogues, the company expanded, with strong links to Germany. His ‘Gauge 0’ train sets, models of ships and engineering equipment were perfect replicas. Among the model figures of passengers waiting for trains were Charlie Chaplin and Bassett-Lowke’s friend George Bernard Shaw. He depicted himself as ‘A Model Manufacturer’, with briefcase in hand, striding purposefully down the platform. The company also made ride-on garden railways and even a solid silver dining-table train set for an Indian Maharajah.
Bassett-Lowke was an ardent supporter of Modern Design and in 1916 he commissioned Charles Rennie Mackintosh to redesign the interior of his terrace house in Northampton, using the latest plastics to decorate the furniture. Ten years later, he commissioned the German architect Peter Behrens to build a house in Northampton. ‘New Ways’ was possibly the first modernist home, in white concrete with a flat roof, reminiscent of an industrial factory. Basett-Lowke was a Fabian socialist and supported the German-Jewish Bing family, also model train makers, when they fled to Britain in 1933. He was proud of Northampton and founded the Northampton Repertory Theatre, was a Town Councillor and an alderman. His Mackintosh home, 78 Derngate, Northampton, is open to the public as a gallery. In 2013 a steel sculpture to commemorate Bassett-Lowke, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the poet John Clare were placed by the River Nene in Northampton.
I don’t know who drew his Christmas card but Bassett-Lowke employed the best draftsmen for his mail-order catalogues and in the 1940s wrote illustrated Puffin books on Locomotives and Marvellous Models.

 Back to Christmas cards.

Here is a more traditional three-dimensional Nativity scene from the late 1940s. 

Happy Christmas to all The History Girls and our readers. May 2016 bring us all world peace…

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Wings of Hope - Paris, November 2015, by Carol Drinkwater

                                                                         PEACE FOR PARIS. 
                                                                  I believe the artist is Jean Julien. @jean_julien

I have written and thrown out several posts for today, turning over in my mind what more could be said on the subject of the recent abominations that took place on Friday 13th in the City of Lights. An evening of darkness that has touched the world, preceded and followed by murderous atrocities in Beirut, Kenya and Mali, not to mention the lockdown of Brussels.

France Magazine is a monthly journal I have been writing a column for for close to six years. It is the bestselling and probably most comprehensive, English-language guide to all things French. It also offers excellent and well-researched articles on almost every rocky outcrop or blade of grass growing in this diverse country. As a tribute, Carolyn Boyd, the editor, has decided to dedicate the upcoming January issue to all who lost their lives or were injured in Paris during and after the atrocities of that evening of 13 November.

From a rich pool of writers and illustrators, Carolyn invited brief contributions on the subject of To Paris With Love. I was keen to be included and began to think about Paris and how it has penetrated and coloured my work. I have lived here in France, sharing my time between the capital and the south, for thirty years, a greater span of life than I spent in either of my mother countries, Ireland and England. One of the hardest calls for me is when France and Ireland play one another at football or rugby – not that these are sports I follow ardently – but who do I shout for on such occasions?

Most inhabitants of a metropolis have special corners and hangouts within their cities: the street where they live, where they work, local cinemas or meet up with friends. The murders and bombings were carried out in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, which is to say the upper east side; north of the Seine, on the eastern flanks of the city. 

                                                   Siege of La Bastille, by Claude Cholat

La Bastille sits at the heart of 11th arrondissement. Although I have never lived in the quartier, my husband, Michel, has had editing suites and offices there on and off for almost the entire time I have known him. When I first began to discover the streets and many tucked-away alleys that fan out like a star from La Place de la Bastille it was still rather scruffy, the real estate was cheap and the magnificent Bastille Opera House had not yet been built to commemorate the bicentenary of the French Revolution. I knew the little cafés where the artists hung out, where some of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and illustrators would decamp for coffee, long discussions, and many Gauloises smoked. A few filmmakers haunted this area – such as Michel – because the rent was affordable. The neighbourhood of La Bastille was cutting edge. Before my time, during the 60s and 70s, it might have been described as the Soho of Paris. I caught its flavour, I picked up on its vibrant vibe, its populaire and revolutionary spirit.

                                                                East view of La Bastille

La Place de la Bastille takes its name from the fortress that stood upon the site of this capacious square. The fortress, later a state prison, was built to protect this eastern side of the capital against the invading British during the Hundred Years War.

14 July 1789, the date that marks the beginning of the French Revolution, was when the Bastille prison was stormed by revolutionaries. By November of that same year, the mighty fortress was more or less demolished. The work of dismantling a structure that all had believed impenetrable was headed up by Pierre-Francois Palloy. The vast empty square that remained was cluttered with displays of bits and pieces of ironwork, excavated bones and stone remnants hauled from the interior of the prison. Palloy began a thriving business in Bastille memorabilia. Items were shipped all over France. 

                                             One stone carved as a model of the Bastille prison.

Models of the Bastille carved from its stones were sent by Palloy to many départements as a means of spreading the revolutionary message. In 1790, a grand ball was held in the square to celebrate the first anniversary of 14 July. 
A foundation stone was laid on 14 July 1792. It was to have been the first phase of the erection of a column to commemorate the Fall of the Bastille, but the project never advanced. In 1804, in rode Napoleon and established France’s First Empire. Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte envisaged a fountain in the Bastille square with a bronze elephant at its centre.
     The Arc de Triomphe, built during the First Empire commissioned by Napoléon Bonaparte
                                  This he did manage to realise, but not his Bastille Fountain

The First Empire Bastille Fountain only reached preliminary stage; a stucco elephant was planted there but the bronze was never commissioned due to lack of funds. However, its plinth proved useful for what was yet to come: the July Column. La Colonne de Juillet is the structure that towers over the entire Bastille neighbourhood today. 

                                                     La Colonne de Juillet - July Column

47 metres high, the monumental column, built between 1835 and 1840, is both elegant and impressive. I walk past it almost on a daily basis when I am in Paris and never fail to pause and admire it, most especially the gold-leafed bronze statue that stands atop the capitol, perched on a golden globe balanced on one leg as though about to take flight. It is a winged figure with outstretched arms. He holds in one hand a flaming torch and in the other a broken length of chain. Auguste Dumont’s iconic figure was christened Génie de la Liberté or Spirit of Freedom.

                                                              The Spirit of Freedom

Ironically, he was commissioned as a monument to another, later revolution that took place over three days at the end of July 1830. Even so, the winged angel flying high over all eastern Paris is indubitably the spirit of every step of the French Revolution, of shackles broken, every stage that led to the French Republic. He represents empowerment, a visual reminder of what France’s citizens hold dearer than anything else: the freedom of the individual.

I have been asking myself on a daily basis whether the attacks were deliberately situated around this quartier of the city, or whether the target choices were random. The neighbouring Stade de France, of course, if the suicide bombers had succeeded in penetrating the stadium, would have been a target of unthinkable proportions and would have included our President. Were the nearby bars and restaurants chosen for no reason in particular or were these murderous assassins actually making a statement against the philosophy that runs deep within the soul of every French citizen? The Bible by which we live: Liberté, egalité and fraternité. The motto that first appeared during the early days of the French Revolution. 

DAESH - I refuse to dignify that fundamentalist mob with the nomenclature, ISIS. Here is an excellent link to the understanding of the name: - DAESH despises music, dancing, laughter, alcohol, women’s suffrage and liberty, sexual liberty, artistic freedom, culture; everything our modern lives celebrate. Still, any and all of these could have been punished by hitting any and every bar or restaurant around the city.

So why this neighbourhood? I don’t know, but I do know that in these days that have succeeded the horrors, there has been a veritable upsurge in the vision that is French, in what the French citizens and their notion of society represents. The winged angel, the Spirit of Freedom, still perches on his golden globe, ready to take flight. He is at the heart of this eastern quarter, at the heart of what will survive and flourish here in France. Freedom of spirit, freedom of the being. Our right to live and believe according to our own mores, while respecting our differences and our multiculturalism.

My new novel, The Forgotten Summer, to be published on 25 February 2016 by Penguin has been partially inspired by Paris.

Je Suis Charlie. Je Suis Paris  Paris, Je T'aime

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Finding George Haydon by Miranda Miller

This is my first blog for the History Girls and I'm thrilled that Mary has invited me to join you.

I've been thinking about the difference between writing about imaginary people and real ones. Are the people we invent less - or more - vivid than the historical characters we carefully research? I've just finished writing a novel called King of the Vast, which is the third volume of my Bedlam Trilogy. In the first, Nina in Utopia, a young Victorian woman finds herself in 21st century London.

When Nina returns to her own time, and talks about the wonderful future she believes she has seen, her husband, Charles, understandably thinks she is mad and has her confined to the Royal Bethlem Hospital, or Bedlam (where the Imperial War Museum is now). At this point my invented characters began to meet real people: Dr (later Sir)William Charles Hood, the humane reformer who was resident physician in the hospital in the 1850s and his friend, the Steward, George Henry Haydon. I then discovered that Richard Dadd, an artist I've always admired, would have been in the hospital at the same time as my imaginary heroine, Nina. Dadd became a minor character in the first novel and the main character in the second volume of the trilogy, The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd.

I spent many enthralling hours doing my initial research in the archives of the Bethlem Hospital in Beckenham, in Kent, where there was also a small museum displaying the paintings and drawings of former inmates. This year it was reinvented from a prefab building to the beautiful Museum of the Mind, which is well worth visiting.

In 2011 at Tate Britain I saw a fascinating exhibition called John Martin:Apocalypse which made me decide to write a third volume about the successful Regency and early Victorian painter John Martin. This is a doppelgänger novel about his complex relationship with his brother Jonathan, who set fire to York minster because God told him to.

All three novels are set in nineteenth century London and are an attempt to explore art and madness. Each of the three is self contained, but linked by various common themes, including the hospital itself, art and time travel. I really struggled to finish King of the Vast, the final volume. I always find endings very difficult to write and the end of a trilogy poses huge problems because you have to give your readers some sense of closure, to tie the three together without being too slick about it. Jonathan Martin was an inmate in the Royal Bethlem Hospital in the 1830s and his niece Izzie visits the hospital, in my last chapter, in 1878.

The only character who spanned most of this period was the Steward, George Haydon. He had remained a shadowy character until I discovered on the internet a PhD about him by his descendant, Katherine Haydon. From this I learned that he had been to Australia, that he was married with children and lived with his family in the hospital, was interested in art and did some cartoons for Punch. In my first two novels he is an important and sympathetic character. Richard Dadd gave him his masterpiece, The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke, and in my novel Dadd, who is gay, has an unrequited crush on the Steward, who remained in the hospital from 1853-89. I wondered why such a charming and gifted man would have remained so long in the same rather dead end job.

Then, on the Bethlem Hospital website, I discovered that Haydon had a sister, Anna Maria, who was an inmate in the hospital for many years. This fact energised my fiction and also prompted a meditation on the very mysterious connections between real and imagined characters. In my head, I find, they occupy the same compartment. I'd love to know what the rest of you think about this.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

THE 'ELEANOR VASE' by Elizabeth Chadwick

Here's an interesting item that once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Rather like Eleanor herself, it has been embellished by others, changing the original item into something interesting but different.
The item in question is known as the 'Eleanor Vase' - although it's probably not  a vase at all, and once more contributes to the fact that with Eleanor of Aquitaine, nothing is as it seems on first glance.

It is thought that the container began its life some time between the 6th and 10th century as a piece of carved rock crystal, very possibly a drinking cup of Muslim origin.  There are references to rock crystal drinking cups from Moorish love poetry and  perhaps it was one of these. Certainly by the early 12th century it was in the possession of the Emir Imad-al-dawla of Sarragossa. 

The original object was a pear-shaped vessel with a neck two centimetres long.  The rock crystal was carved in a 'honeycomb' pattern of about 22 rows of small, hollowed-out hexagons.  These sort of containers have existed from Antiquity and were known throughout the Middle East and the Roman Empire.  What is interesting about the 'Eleanor vase' is that examples of honeycomb carving are all rendered in glass. Currently the 'Eleanor vase' is the only specimen in existence of this technique in rock crystal.

According to the medieval writer and crafstman Theophilus who wrote an instruction manual in the twelfth century on various artistic techniques including how to polish gemstones,  rock crystal, to the medieval man was fossilised ice, just as amber was fossilised tree resin, and was a highly valued commodity.
How did this little drinking cup/vessel come into the hands of Eleanor of Aquitaine?   It was given as a gift by the above mentioned Amir of Saragossa to Eleanor's grandfather William IX Duke of Aquitaine during a battle campaign.  Duke William brought it back to his household and in due course it became part of Eleanor's inheritance.  Eleanor herself gave it to her husband the soon to be Louis VII of France on the occasion of her wedding when she was 13 years old and he was 17.  

The rock crystal 'vase' with the embellishments cropped off
Louis, in his turn, presented it to Abbot Suger one of his close confidantes and his spiritual advisers as a gift at the time of the consecration of the new church of St Denis, which was to be a mausoleum for the French royal house.  At the time Eleanor and Louis were childless and it is thought that they gave the vase both as a gift to commemorate the dedication of St Denis and also as a sweetener to an intercession plea that God grant them an heir.  If so, it appears to have been successful for 9 months later Eleanor bore a daughter, Marie.  If not the son that Louis desired, it was a start.  Some historians and novelists have seen Louis' donation of the vase as a sign that all was not well in the royal marriage - that he would give away his wedding present - but that is to misunderstand the medieval viewpoint on patronage and gift giving. To present a rare and fabulous object to the Church was to elevate one's status and store up kudos in Heaven.  Eleanor was more likely to have approved of the gift donation of the vase than to  have felt slighted. 

The ornate jewel-encrusted mountings that we see now on the vast were a later addition made by Suger to glorify his new possession which he used as a communion vessel.  The abbot was very keen on adorning material objects in order to serve God with their beauty and had a fine collection of containers, vases and ewers already.  To make this small, engraved cup worthy of joining his other pieces he had a base and neck fashioned for it from gilded silver.  On the base he had an inscription written in niello, then a layer of filigree set with gemstones and decorated with more filigree work and fleurons.  The same on the neck.  Around the base he had an inscription written - which is how we know its provenance. It reads in translation. "As a bride, Eleanor gave this vase to King Louis, Mitadolus to her grandfather, the King to me, and Suger to the saints.'

He had a base and a neck fashioned for the vase from gilded silver.  On the basse he put an inscription in niello, then a layer of filigree set with gemstones and decorated with more filigree work and fleurons.  He had the neck of the vase similarly adorned.  The inscription around the base reads: As a bride, Eleanor gave this vase to King Louis, Mitadolus to her grandfather, the King to me, and Suger to the saints.'

Having survived the centuries, the vase now resides in the Louvre, one of the precious few objects personal to Eleanor of Aquitaine, even if she did not originally own it in the form we see today.  And what a fabulous object it is, created initially fifteen hundred years ago by the hand of a skilled craftsman and valued and embellished ever since then.

You can read an excellent article about the vase in the book Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady edited by Bonnie Wheeler and John C. Parsons.  The article is titled The Eleanor of Aquitaine Vase and it's by George T. Beech.

Photo courtesy of John Phillips. 

Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of 22 historical novels.  She is working on a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine. The first novel THE SUMMER QUEEN involves the Eleanor Vase now in the Cabinet of Curiosities. The second novel in the trilogy, THE WINTER CROWN is published in paperback in the UK on November 17th.