Sunday, 21 December 2014

My book of the year by Imogen Robertson

Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas

Anyone still looking for Christmas gifts? Of course not, you are all far too well organised, but perhaps you still need something to read in front of the fire until the sun comes back. Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas was first published in 1971, so I know this is cheating, but I only read it this year and if any you, dear readers, haven’t read it yet, may I suggest you do so as soon as possible?  It is an absolutely stunning work rich and insightful and makes most other history books seems a little thin by comparison. 

Its subtitle is 'Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-century England' and that is as good a summary of the content as anything I could come up with. If you are interested in how people thought and felt four hundred years ago, you will be utterly transported. Every page is filled with the voices of people, anecdotes and story fragments that both intrigue a reader and come together to construct a portrait of the period that is both complex and comprehensible. 

It is a wise and human account of a time that I’ve found difficult to come to grips with in the past. The people of the 18th century feel familiar to me in their outlooks and beliefs - not completely perhaps, but I felt I was adapting my own attitudes when writing from over their shoulders as I do in the Westerman and Crowther series, not transforming them. When I read about the Civil War however and the religious maelstrom under the Tudors, I was rather at a loss. There was clearly such a profoundly different way of understanding life there, and I couldn’t get a grip on it. It felt slippery, impossible. Then I read Keith Thomas it was as if someone had broken a window and let the light in. I gained an understanding of how magic and the medieval church were intertwined, and how the unravelling of folk and establishment beliefs were uneasily accommodated within communities. 

I think I shall read it again over Christmas, by the fire and with a large glass of wine while the dark presses at the window and the witches and spirits have the lanes to themselves. 

Have a wonderful Christmas all.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Turn Again, Whittington by Ann Swinfen

Now we have reached the pantomime season, Dick Whittington will be striding the stage once again in the form of a girl in tights, but there was a great deal more to the real man than a cat and the sound of Bow Bells.
Derel Elroy and Summer Strallan in Dick Whittington and His Cat. Photograph by Manuel Harlan

Richard Whittington was born around 1354 in the village of Pauntley, Gloucestershire, in the Forest of Dean, although his family originally came from Kinver in Staffordshire. His birth thus fell very soon after the massive tragedy of the Great Pestilence or Black Death, when England was still reeling from the after-effects of that disaster. He would have been regarded at the time as belonging to the lesser gentry, for although his grandfather, Sir William de Whittington, held the rank of knight-at-arms, Richard was a younger son and so would not inherit his father’s estate.
"Sir" Richard Whittington and his Cat. Printed in New Wonderful Museum, Vol. III (1805). "from the original painting at Mercers’ Hall".

Professional Career

Like many a younger son at the time, he was despatched by his family to London, where a promising, hard-working young man would have the opportunity to learn a trade or go into business and thus make his own way in the world. Coming from a fairly well-off family, he was apprenticed to one of the more prosperous callings as a mercer, or cloth merchant. At this time, from the late fourteenth into the early fifteenth century, fine English woollen cloth, particularly broadcloth, was becoming highly valued throughout Europe. Broadcloth is so called because it is woven wider than its finished width and then goes through a milling process which beats the cloth until the fibres matt together, creating a dense, felt-like fabric which is warm and quite weatherproof. 

As well as exporting English cloth, the mercers also imported luxury cloth – silks, damask and velvet – which Whittington is known to have sold to the royal court and to King Richard II himself. It is recorded that in a short period Whittington sold cloth to the king to the value of £3,500, which corresponds to about £1.5 million in today’s money, the foundation of his great wealth. He continued to be an active and prosperous London merchant until his death. In addition, he loaned money to three kings – Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V.
Richard II

Political Career

In 1384 Whittington became a member of the Common Council of London, and from then until the end of his life he was one of the most senior and active political figures in London. Eight years later, in 1392, he was part of a delegation sent by the City of London to meet Richard II at Nottingham, when the king seized land belonging to the City. The delegation was unsuccessful in its negotiations with the king, but Whittington seems to have retained the king’s favour nonetheless.

The next year, 1393, marked a significant rise in Whittington’s fortunes. He became a full Member of the Mercers’ Company and also an alderman. The Lord Mayor, William Staundone, a grocer, appointed him as one of his two Sheriffs (or deputies) and he continued to hold this office under the next Mayor, John Hadley. In 1394, the Worshipful Company of Mercers was incorporated under a royal charter, with Whittington as one of its founders. (To this day it retains its position as the highest ranking of the Livery Companies of London.)
The Lord Mayor's Modern Regalia

In 1397, four years after Whittington’s appointment as Sheriff, Lord Mayor Adam Bamme, a goldsmith, died during his second term in office and King Richard immediately appointed Whittington in his place. His first action as Lord Mayor was to negotiate successfully with the king for the return of London’s lands and liberties seized illegally five years before, on payment to the king of £10,000. In recognition of this success, he was elected Lord Mayor for the following year. The mayoral elections took place at Michaelmas (29 September), but the new mayor only took up office halfway through November.

Henry V

Whittington was elected Lord Mayor again in 1406 and 1419, while during part of the former period in office he was also mayor of Calais, which then belonged to England. In 1416 he was elected a Member of Parliament. Perhaps his most eminent position was under King Henry V, who reigned from 1413 to 1422. During this period Whittington served on a number of Royal Commissions, collected import duties, sat as a judge, and was in charge of expenditure in completing the work on Westminster Abbey.


Although Whittington married in 1402, his wife died nine years later and the couple had no children. Instead, it could be said that the people of London, especially the poor, were his children and heirs. He undertook and paid for a great many public works during his lifetime, and left £7,000 in his will (about £3 million in today’s money) for charitable works after his death.

London was growing rapidly at the time, as the nation recovered from the Great Pestilence, and this led to problems with the city’s water supply and hygiene. Although the Great Conduit in Cheapside provided a major supply of water accessible to all Londoners, Whittington’s money provided new conduits at St Giles Cripplegate and Billingsgate. He also improved the sewers and drainage at Cripplegate and Billingsgate, and built public lavatories, the so-called ‘Long House’ with accommodation for 64, in the parish of St Martins Vintry, on the riverside between Billingsgate and Queenhithe. He even laid on a water supply to the prisons of Ludgate and Newgate.

The Guildhall of London

He financed the rebuilding of the Guildhall, created the Guildhall and Greyfriars libraries, and provided for the rebuilding of his own parish church, St Michael Paternoster Royal, where he was buried after his death in 1423. Other building works included the rebuilding of the great gate at Newgate, to provide accommodation for the Sheriffs and Recorder of London, and the adjacent Newgate Prison, a complex of buildings which was the forerunner of the modern Old Bailey.

Concerned about the dangerous working conditions of young apprentices, he passed laws to protect them from unhealthy practices which had frequently led to death. He was also interested in the welfare of the poor, providing a set of almshouses for the elderly and carrying out repairs to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which cared for the poor and needy of London. Across the river in Southwark was another hospital, St Thomas’s. Here Whittington established what must have been unique in the world – a lying-in ward for unmarried mothers. Southwark contained the recognised red-light district of Mediaeval and Tudor London, where the ‘Winchester geese’ plied their trade (so called because the Bishop of Winchester owned much of the land and a palace there). The need for such a ward was probably considerable, but its establishment is a timely reminder of what a generous and warm-hearted man Richard Whittington was. There the babies of such mothers could be born in safety for both mother and child, instead of the more common bungled and often fatal abortions practised in the district.
Vera Effigies or "True Portaicture" of Richard Whittington, engraving by Reginald Elstrack (1570 – after 1625). Original engraving depicted a skull under his palm, but printseller Peter Stent requested it changed to a cat, to meet popular expectations.

So – was there a cat? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It makes a good story. Pictures of Whittington were often doctored at a later date to include a cat. But whether or not Richard Whittington nearly went home until Bow Bells called him back again, Londoners then and now owe him an enormous debt. Even today there is the Charity of Sir Richard Whittington which provides help for those in need, year round, but especially at this Christmas tide.


I'm also to be found today (20th Dec. 2014) as part of a Christmas Party blog hop here . Lots of fascinating posts on historical festivities for the winter solstice.


Ann Swinfen's historical novels for adults have been set in the first and seventeenth centuries, and she is currently working on a series set in the late sixteenth century, The Chronicles of Christoval Alvarez.

Ann Swinfen's website . 

Friday, 19 December 2014

'Up in the Air' - the joys of research by Christina Koning

Already several chapters into the third book in a series set in the late 1920s and early 1930s - the first, Line of Sight, was published earlier this year, and the second is with the publishers - I’m struck by the thought that, where writing’s concerned, I like to make things difficult for myself. Or perhaps it’s the same for all writers of historical fiction? (Fellow History Girls please advise.) Not content with having to deal with the - surely challenging enough - business of character, dialogue, and setting, we like to complicate things still further, by setting our stories in the distant or relatively distant past; by having to deal with the complexities of language as regards our chosen period; and by choosing for our central characters, not contemporaries, but people whose lives and experience are far-removed from our own. 
It’s this which makes reading historical fiction so interesting, of course - the chance to immerse oneself in a time and place about which one knows little, or nothing; it’s also what makes researching a work such a pleasure for the writer. With the exception of my first novel, A Mild Suicide, which had a roughly contemporary setting, all my books have dealt with the past, in some shape of form - from the relatively recent 1950s, the background to my second novel, Undiscovered Country, to the undeniably distant 1780s, which provides the setting for my fifth book, Variable Stars.
As if this wasn’t enough to be getting on with, I seem compelled to set myself challenges above and beyond the obvious ones of familiarising myself with the language and behavioural traits of a given time (to say nothing of the clothes, houses, food and all the other essential details); I like to find out about something I didn't know about before. This might sound as if it should go without saying - after all, what else is research, if not that? - but in my case, the areas of ignorance are vast, encompassing, for example, almost the whole of science, mechanical engineering, aviation, the motor car, anything mathematical, sport, economics… anything, in fact, which failed to grab my interest when, at the tender age of eighteen or so, I decided that Art, and Literature were my ‘things’, and the rest wasn’t worth bothering about.
Well, I’m certainly making up for it now. In the past few years, I’ve had to familiarise myself with an eclectic range of topics, including ballistics, astro-physics, forensics, the workings of the telephone, card playing (I’ve never played cards) and, most recently, aviation. None of the aforementioned are subjects about which I had the slightest knowledge when I set out to write about them. I sometimes wonder if, for me, writing isn’t - at least in part- a way of compensating for my earlier indifference to Science and Maths, subjects I now find as thrilling as I once found the poetry of Keats, and the novels of Jane Austen (both of which I still find thrilling, I hasten to add).

In the New Year, I hope to put my new-found interest in aviation to the test by - literally - going up in the air. A friend who owns a vintage plane has offered to show me the rudiments of flying. For someone like myself, who can barely drive a car, this will be a challenge, to put it mildly. But one I hope I can rise to. Happy Christmas!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

King Arthur the Voyager - by Katherine Langrish

Perhaps you don't tend to think of Arthur as a voyager? Let me explain.

Some of the earliest mentions of Arthur come from ninth or tenth century Welsh literature – just glancing references, as if to someone already well-known. The earliest of all seems to be a couple of lines from the poem Y Gododdin, in which another warrior is compared with Arthur:

He fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress,
Though he was no Arthur.

This makes sense if the historical Arthur really was a fourth or fifth century British war leader fighting the Saxon invaders, his name perhaps a nickname or pseudonym: ‘the Bear’, suitable for a fighter who may have wished to maintain an air of terrifying mystery. Whoever the historical Arthur may have been, his name soon became associated with all kinds of older legends connected with supernatural figures from Celtic mythology, and such stories continued to be told about him in all parts of Celtic – that is British – Britain, and in Brittany, the region of France to which many British Celts migrated after the fall of Roman Britain.

Even in Sir Thomas Malory’s late 15th century ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ with its many courtly French additions and sources, plenty of Welsh and Celtic personages and motifs remain: the most obvious is Merlin himself, along with the Lady of the Lake who gives Arthur his sword Excalibur: and then there's Arthur’s shadowy relationship with his half-sisters, Morgause the mother of their son Mordred, and Morgan le Fay – Morgan the enchantress, whose name chimes with that of the Morrigan (‘great queen’ or ‘phantom queen’), the Irish Celtic goddess of battle and fertility. At any rate, Morgan is one of the queens who carry the wounded king away to the Isle of Avalon after the battle of Camlann.

And when they were at the water side, even fast by the bank hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them all was a queen, and all they had black hoods, and all they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur.

…‘Comfort thyself,’ said the king, ‘…for in me is no trust for to trust in, for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound, and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.’

But ever the queen and ladies shrieked, that it was pity to hear.

The keening women, companions of a powerful sorceress, the ship that carries the heroic king away to the island of the dead, the island of apples – it all seems familiar, doesn’t it?  It recalls stories from classical mythology: the golden apples of the Hesperides, and Jason's voyage to the land of the Golden Fleece and his meeting with Medea, Circe’s niece, a priestess of Hecate - who was the goddess of childbirth, death and necromancy, doorways and crossroads, magic, torches and dogs. Medea is an often ruthless figure of great power, who near the end of the Argonautika calls on the spirits of death, the hounds of Hades, to slay the bronze giant Talos. In other versions of her legend, she is the owner of a magical cauldron which can restore life to the dead. Jason's voyage, too, is clearly an Otherworld journey.

And it happens that there is an early, and highly cryptic, account of a voyage by Arthur to the Underworld. It’s the marvellous Welsh poem Prieddeu Annwfn, preserved in the single 14th century manuscript of The Book of Taliesin, but dated (cautiously) by internal linguistic evidence to around 900 AD. Here’s a link to the poem, with notes. It's an account of a raid led by Arthur, in his ship Prydwen, on Annwn, the Welsh underworld. But why?  What was he going there for? What prize did he hope to bring back?

In the poem Annwn is described by a number of different epithets. No one has a clue if these are simply varying descriptions/manifestations of the same place, or intended for different locations which Arthur and his men encounter along their way. It may not matter much, but the latter would fit in well with the island-hopping itinerary of Greek and Celtic heroes in ships - Jason, Ulysses,  Maelduin, even Saint Brendan - gradually approaching their Otherworld destination through a transformed and numinous sea-scape.

The Prieddeu Annwfn tells how Arthur and his men travel to Caer Sidi, ‘The Mound Fortress’; Caer Pedryuan, ‘the Four-Peaked Fortress’ – also described as Ynis Pybyrdor, ‘isle of the strong door’. They travel to Caer Vedwit, ‘the Fortress of Mead-Drunkenness’, Caer Rigor, ‘Fortress of Hardness’, Caer Wydyr, ‘Glass Fortress’, Caer Golud, ‘Fortress in the Bowels [of the Earth?]’, Caer Vandwy, ‘Fortress of God’s Peak’, and Caer Ochren, ‘Enclosed Fortress’. 

The aim of the expedition was to bring back a cauldron from the lord of Annwn.  We're not thinking blackened kitchen pots here: we're thinking inspirational, magical, perhaps sacred items like the 1st century BC Gundestrop cauldron, above.  One of the many scenes on its sides depicts a pony-tailed warrior dipping a man into another such cauldron headfirst, probably to restore him to life:

In my personal favourite among Alan Garner's children's books, 'Elidor', the children bring four treasures out of the Mound of Vandwy. corresponding to the Four Treasures of the Tuatha de Danaan:  a spear, a sword, a stone and a bowl: 'a cauldron, with pearls above the rim.  And as she walked, light splashed and ran through her fingers like water'. Taken into the workaday world of 1960's Manchester, the objects change appearance, and Helen finds she is carrying only 'an old cracked cup, with a beaded pattern moulded on the rim.' Once these treasures have been buried in the garden for safekeeping, however, all kinds of strange disturbances begin to occur, culminating in the eruption of the unicorn Findhorn onto the city streets.

Here’s the second stanza of the Prieddeu Annwfn:

I am honoured in praise. Song was heard
In the Four-Peaked Fortress, four times revolving.
My poetry, from the cauldron it was uttered.
By the breath of nine maidens it was kindled.
The cauldron of the chief of Annwfn: what its fashion?
A dark ridge around its border, and pearls.
It does not boil the food of a coward...

And before the door of hell lamps burned.
And when we went with Arthur in his splendid labour,
Except seven, none rose up from Caer Vedwit.

Most of the poem's eight stanzas end with a variation on the recurrent line: ‘Except seven, none returned’: by ordinary standards the expedition appears to have been disastrous, but this is no ordinary poem. Fateful and gloomy, mysterious as Arthur himself, all we can gather from it is some sense of a venture, by ship, by sea, into the Otherworld, and - perhaps – a description of a mound or island where a youth, Gweir, is imprisoned, lapped with a heavy blue-grey chain. Of a four-peaked fortress with a strong door, guarding a cauldron full of the magical life-giving mead of poetry, warmed by the breath of ‘nine maidens’.

In the medieval story of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion, Arthur sails to Ireland in his ship Prydwen to steal the cauldron of Diwwnach Wyddel: not just any old cauldron either, for it’s also listed in ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ as the cauldron of Dyrnwich the Giant, which will not boil the food of a coward. Clearly the same cauldron as that which Arthur went to find in Annwn, and doubtless the same also as the Irish Cauldron of the Dagda, from which 'no man ever went away unsatisfied'.  Lastly, also in the Mabinogion, the Welsh hero Bran is the keeper of yet another magical cauldron which restores the dead to life. And he too is the hero of a mystical voyage.

It seems as though the courtly queens who carry the medieval Arthur away to the Island of Apples are latest in a long line of goddesses who like Hecate presided over the doorways into death, and who could restore the dead to life. How old is this legend of magical, life-giving cauldrons?  As old as Medea's?  Older? Is hers the ultimate origin of the witches' cauldron that we find in 'Macbeth'? 

Tuesday, 16 December 2014


Just over a week ago, at a secret venue close by the Globe in London, the History Girls had a Famous High Tea. The setting was beautiful, the cakes delicious and the company delightfully chatty.  What with that, and meeting up with two writer friends earlier, I’d had an enjoyable day.

More was to come. I had a ticket for The Merchant of Venice that evening, not at The Globe nearby, but away past Angel at the Almeida Theatre, Islington.

Now, The Merchant and I have an odd history. Years ago, it was the play upon which my schoolgirl hopes were dashed. I was not chosen to play Portia, but cast as the clown Lancelot Gobbo, which may have damaged my dreams of allure ever since.
However, as this was the very first night, I truly wasn’t sure what kind of production I’d be seeing but “very different” was what I’d been told. 

Yes, this was certainly not the traditional Shakespeare performance. Presented Las Vegas style, the show blazed with colour, music and energy.

The stage was a glamorous blue and gold casino, and the cast, already on stage, were a whirl of gambling and gaming. Yet Antonio’s opening line – his melancholy sigh – perfectly caught the gambler's sense of ennui.
Played by Susannah Fielding, Portia was seemingly a drawling Southern heiress, much given to pouting and tossing her huge cascade of blonde curls, while those casket scenes were rounds of “Destiny”, a game of televised chance and "romance". The suitors were clearly there for the celebrity and the money: Morocco as a loud-mouthed boxer in gold pants, and Aragon as an ageing Latin lover with flounced sleeves, caring only for their own persona "on screen" - and the money.

The overblown, flashy glamour was, bit by bit, pierced by the asides and cruelties within this problematic play. Portia’s father had bound his daughter – and her most attractive fortune - to a game of chance that could be lost as well as won. Ian McDiarmid acted Shylock as a suave, ageing business man, his dull daughter only important as his stolen flesh, the injustice to be balanced against Antonio’s flesh. 

Slowly, the familiar plot of the Merchant unfolds – and the pound of flesh scene is chilling - but this version has no fairy tale ending. Despite the glitz, nobody comes out well. What does the play talk about but marriage as a way of making money? Of private feelings subsumed into an acceptable public face? Of gambling that is so foolish it could almost be a death wish? Of vanity, celebrity and self-importance? Of the relationship between men and men, and men and women? Or of cruel desperate vengeance and Christianity’s taunting hatred of the Jews?   

This raucous, sometime carnival of a play managed to carry every bitter theme from the past of history into present feelings. None of the players are noble and nobody reaches happy endings, not even the lovers. This Merchant of Venice was a production that I’m still thinking about and will for some time.
Originally produced by Rupert Goold at Stratford four years ago, this interpretation held two sweet surprises for me. One was how well Shakespeare’s lines fitted the South American rhetoric, especially in the vindictive trial scenes. When one thinks of the journey that the English language travelled, how could it otherwise?

And second was this casting of Lancelot Gobbo. He had become an overblown Elvis impersonator, singing his way through the show. The only one largely unharmed..  

Ah, maybe that was how I should have played him?


Knitting with Mary Quant

Catherine Johnson's recent post about Fair Isle knitting really opened a window into the past for me. I don't knit complicated patterns, like Catherine; my guiding principle has always been that for most of the time, I want to be able to knit without looking at what I'm doing. Obviously, you can't do this when you're shaping, and I'm prepared to make the occasional exception for a baby's jumper or the odd cable - but in general, I want to be able to read or watch television while I knit. It makes me feel peaceful to have my hands at work while my head's somewhere else. Once, many years ago, I even took some knitting into the cinema - but my friends did think this was a step too far and I only did it the once.

My mother was a great knitter and dressmaker. My sister and I were children in the fifties, and it was much cheaper then to make clothes than to buy them - it's not so now. So every year, we had a new dress each at the beginning of summer and another for winter, and cardigans for school and for best. There was one pattern with a multi-coloured crocheted edging, and embroidered flowers, and pompoms - mine was royal blue and Maggie's was cream. Then there was a dark green double breasted style - oh, and there was always a 'fawn' cardigan; no-one talks about 'fawn' any more, do they? I can't even think what you'd call it now - it was a sort of pale milky coffee colour, and its virtue was that it went with anything. And for summer, a white cardigan, to match your white shoes.

I don't remember the dress, but I do remember the boleros - white and fluffy!

Someone gave her a length of green linen, and we had square necked dresses trimmed with green and white seersucker. And there was a glazed cotton dress with a self-fabric covered belt and a flared skirt - but by that time I was heading into my teens and my beautifully made dresses were beginning to feel old-fashioned - it was the sixties, and things were changing. I started to make my own clothes. The library in Ilkeston had masses of pattern books, and I would pore over them, looking at the latest fashions from Paris as well as these interesting new designers from London, like Mary Quant, whose minimally packaged make up - black and white, with a daisy logo - we all bought from Redvers Smith in the market place.

She designed knitting patterns too. For this one, I learnt to crochet. I got the stitches, but I had trouble getting the tension right - I've a feeling I had to ask Maggie or Mum to do the collar and cuffs. (I didn't knit the socks. That would have been too ridiculous.) The jumper looked great, but I hardly ever wore it because it was too hot.

When I was looking for a picture of this pattern, I also found pictures of Mary Quant clothes I made. (Who would have thought? Isn't the internet marvellous? And notice the sizing - a 14 then was much smaller than a 14 now.) I remember deliberating long and hard over the colours for this dress. I chose chocolate cord, with the stripes in turquoise and, I think, a sort of ochre colour. And the suit! Now, that was a step too far. Mum had gone to tailoring classes and made each of us a beautiful suit. Maggie's was brown and white tweed with a curvy little jacket. Mine was an orangey tweed. The material was really beautiful, but orange? With my rosy cheeks? A match made in sartorial hell. So I decided to make my own. How hard could it be?

Well, very. Especially with contrasting trims, and a hipster skirt with a curved waistband. I made it, but it never looked right. Nice material, though - green tweed with a windowpane check, and a plain trim.

I did recently get out my sewing machine again, but it's so much cheaper to buy clothes and there's so much choice that it doesn't really seem worth the upheaval. But I still knit. Lots of friends' children are having babies now, so I knit hats for them. And I'm trying to create the perfect snood - or is it a cowl? You know, a joined-up scarf. The first was too stiff, the second not long enough. I'm on my third now, and getting closer.

I have an odd little memory. We were on holiday at Scarborough, and I was walking along the beach by myself. I suppose I was about ten. It was a cool, cloudy day. There was nothing special about it, but I thought: This is a moment, here and now, that I will always remember. Why? I've no idea, but I always have. And I was wearing a shawl-collared jumper made of tweedy wool, royal blue, flecked with primary colours. That's as much a part of the memory as the dark clouds and the wet pebbles.

Apologies - it's very self-indulgent to go galloping off down Memory Lane like this. But blame Catherine - she started it!

Monday, 15 December 2014

Changing Language

by Marie-Louise Jensen

When I'm researching and reading old books, I love to find and note all the ways language has altered over the centuries. Writing my first Georgian book, The Girl in the Mask, I had to write down a note for myself:

1) You keep your clothes in a closet.
2) Your wardrobe is your collection of clothing
3) Skirts are the part of a man's coat below the waist
4) Ladies skirts were referred to as petticoats or 'coats
5) A dress was a gown.

There were others, but those were the frequently used ones I was concerned about getting right (I did make one mistake in Smuggler's Kiss which slipped through).

When I ask school children today what ladies in the 1700s called their dresses, they struggle to get the right answer, instead guessing robe, frock, tunic etc. The word gown has been pretty much lost.

Incidentally, I remember my grandmother always talking about 'frocks'. With the arrogance of youth, we'd roll our eyes and sigh, but in fact the word has come back into fashion now in the phrase 'posh frock'. I secretly always rather liked it.

I had fun in Runaway with a few Georgian phrases. For example, I used the expression 'sick as a cushion'. I'd come across it in Georgette Heyer novels and always found it amusing, so I put it into some dialogue. But the copy-editor queried it. When I hunted for it in the OED, I couldn't find it, but I did find 'sick as a parrot', which I thought was equally amusing, if not more so - given that parrots can be green. In the end, lovely assistant editor tracked down 'sick as a cushion', so although I kept parrot, I've notched it up as a phrase to use in future. I have quite a store of them and I always love coming across them when I'm reading too.