Thursday, 17 January 2019

ONCE UPON A RIVER by Diane Setterfield. Review by Penny Dolan.



The opening chapter of ONCE UPON A RIVER led me quietly and confidently into a long and satisfying story. I was not disappointed.  

Diane Setterfield’s third novel takes place in the late nineteenth century. She weaves a complex, gothic story that is set along the rural banks and meadows of the Thames between Cricklade and Oxford. At times, though the haunted landscape almost drips with mist and marshiness, the writer's well-researched descriptions of Victorian life make ONCE UPON A RIVER feel firmly plotted underfoot.

Setterfield lives in Oxfordshire and knows the area well. In real life, the ancient inn at the centre of the novel – The Swan - does stand close by Radcott Bridge; Brandy Island was the site of an old distillery, and the central character of Henry Daunt - with his glass plates and his travelling darkroom – is based on Henry Taunt, an Victorian photographer whose popular Thames tourist scenes can be found in Oxford archives. I found this is a wonderful novel, rich with intertwining events, places and characters: a tale to be read and enjoyed slowly.

Yet ONCE UPON A RIVER is more than that. Setterfield is a performative author:  her light, interested voice runs alongside the plot, reminding us that fiction springs from the deep human need for stories. In particular, she shows how we carry the stories of the missing and the lost inside ourselves, telling and retelling them in our effort to understand. Furthermore, this thread is skilfully highlighted by the way that Setterfield lets the occasional traditional storytelling trope glint out at us from behind her “everyday” Victorian world.

But how does the story begin?
It is night at the start of ONCE UPON A RIVER and The Swan is crowded with folk ready to listen to the inn’s famed storytellers. Some of the audience are wary because, as the author repeats and repeats, they have been sensing that
Something is about to happen.
All at once the door crashes open and a monster with a bloody face walks into the room, dripping water.
“In its arms the awful creature carried a large puppet,
with waxen face and limbs and sickly painted hair.”
As the intruder collapses among helping arms, the inn-keeper's son catches the falling puppet:  he is holding the body of a drowned four-year-old girl. Nobody knows the identity of the man or child for sure, but suppositions and stories start and are carried away home by the departing drinkers.

When all is peaceful, the midwife tends to the man’s broken nose and gash of a mouth. However, returning to the tiny corpse, she senses something strange: a faint pulse flickering where no pulse was before. As if by a miracle, the dead girl revives. The innkeeper’s son cries out in witness of the moment.
I kissed her and she woke up . . . . It is like Jesus.
The pale child starts to recover but she does not speak. The question grows more urgent. Where does she come from and who should she belong to?  

The novel offers three possible claimants - one more than for the judgement of Solomon - whose stories and thoughts are amplified  and cleverly intertwined within the telling.
- First, in the elegant house, with ample grounds and river frontage, live a married couple, each existing in separate agony, grieving for their infant daughter kidnapped two years before and never returned.
 - Next, there is a well-to-do farmer - the son of a gentleman and a black servant - and his pretty, reclusive wife who long to find the grandchild they have only just learned exists.
- Last of all, living in cottage among the rushes, is a simple-minded housekeeper, mourning her lost sister and fearing the return of a brutish, secret visitor.

To whom does the child belong? Or are there others who would choose to look after and love the small, silent girl? By twists and turns, the stream of the novel deepens. The plot grows, meanders, turns back on itself, flowing closer and closer towards the final great whirl of disaster, misunderstanding, tragedy and reconciliation.

Along the way, ONCE UPON A RIVER picks up many well-rounded characters of the period:  the travelling photographer, the convent-bred midwife, the innkeeper and his extensive family, the enigmatic medium, the kindly parson, the runaway son, the jilted girl, the accused maid and more. Within the novel's four-hundred-and-more pages, the reader is offered a whole throng of the riverside community, along with a couple of nasty villains, a beloved goat and a fortune-telling pig.

Furthermore, floating through the tale, comes  the spectral ferryman Quietly. If you fall into the water and your time has not yet come, says the local legend, Quietly will rescue you and bring back to safety. Of course, if your time has come, Quietly will carry you in his ferry-boat to the far. misty side of the river. For some in this novel, as in life, that time will arrive. 



ONCE UPON A RIVER is a memorable and haunting slow-burning novel, and is published in the UK by Doubleday this month. Diane Setterfield's two earlier novels are THE THIRTEENTH TALE and BELLMAN & BLACK.



Review by Penny Dolan

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

A memory trail, by Sue Purkiss

I've vaguely noticed on social media lately that there's been a lot of stuff about de-cluttering. This very morning, someone posted a picture of a smiling lady called Marie Kondo saying: "Ideally, keep less than 30 books." (Seriously? It must be a spoof, right?)


Well, the other day I discovered, lurking in the back of the bathroom cabinet, this bottle of eau de toilette. I looked at it thoughtfully. I know for a fact it's over fifty years old, and I know that I don't use it. Why keep it? Just clutter, surely. It must be off by now. Just to be sure, before it goes in the bin, I take the top off and spray it.

And there it is. The sweet, flowery scent of Nina Ricci's L'Air du Temps, just as fresh as it ever was. Perhaps it's kept so well because it's in a plastic container - embossed with flowers, doves and butterflies and finished with a golden bow - rather than in a glass bottle. My sister brought it back from France as a gift for my mother, when she went to France as a teenager on a school exchange. This was the sixties. We lived in an industrial town between Nottingham and Derby. We went on holiday every year to seaside towns - Skegness, Bridlington, Llandudno. 'Abroad' was out of reach for us as a family - it was the school which made it possible. My sister came back with talk of wine at every meal, with necklaces made of melon seeds and small tawny beads, and with this bottle of French perfume, which was so much cheaper than it would have been in the shops because it was from that exotic place, 'Duty Free'.

My mother, I'm sure, was thrilled. She never used it, just as she never used face cream or eye make-up. Occasionally she would dab on a little powder from her Max Factor compact, and a slick of red Coty lipstick: never anything more.


Here is a photograph of Mum which I found recently in a drawer (full, yes, of more clutter). I remember taking it. It was in our house at Kirk Hallam, so I would have been in my early teens. I'd bought a camera when I was about twelve. It was a Koroll 11, and it came from Boots in Nottingham. I think when I took this picture I'd just acquired a flashgun, and I wanted to try it out. (It had bulbs and everything!) So I posed Mum in front of the window, drawing the curtain to keep out the light. Looking at the picture, I'm reminded that the curtains were a pale green brocade, with silvery flocked flowers. Mum would have sewn them. She loved gardening, and so I put the bowl of roses beside her, and put a rose catalogue in front of her. The blouse was some silky stuff - green too, I think, with a cream pattern. She'd have made that, too. As you can see, there was nothing casual about this picture - films were costly, as was developing, and I had to pay for them out of my pocket money, so every frame counted.

The perfume was kept on her dressing table. There was always an embroidered or lace-edged cloth on the surface, and a cut-glass tray, and one or two framed pictures of us when we were small. And there were these, which I don't think she ever used - the brush is too soft to be practical - but nevertheless had pride of place. I have them now - more clutter, I suppose. I don't know where they came from, but I suspect from Auntie Ada (no actual relation) or Mrs Thorpe, two elderly ladies who were both clearly fond of Mum, as her own mother did not seem to be.


So. Bits of clutter perhaps, but clutter which brings with it a trail of memories. And, to be honest, some rather sad thoughts of a mother who seemed able to show her affection only obliquely - through what she made and what she cherished. I wish I could give her a hug. I wish she could have been a happier person. But I'm so very glad I never threw away any of these things which help me to remember her.

And the embroidered tablecloth? Yes, she made that too.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

The gardens of Castle Howard by Fay Bound Alberti

Castle Howard, North Yorkshire  

Over the festive period, my friends and I visited Castle Howard, a stately home in North Yorkshire. I am not a fan of country estates as a rule; I prefer finding out about the lives of the ordinary men and women who made aristocratic life possible. But it was a beautiful day and we were keen for some fresh air and green spaces.

Castle Howard fit the bill. A short drive from York, it is set in a thousand acres of parkland, with statues, lakes, temples and fountains. There are numerous artworks and world-renowned collections held at Castle Howard, though the house was unfortunately closed for the winter.

A view of John Vanbrugh's project for Castle Howard (1725)
Work began on the stately home in 1699, though it took over a century to complete. The architect was Sir John Vanbrugh (c. 1664 -1726), who was also responsible for Blenheim Palace, as well as a number of Restoration comedies (such as The Provoked Wife, 1697). Castle Howard was Vanbrugh's first foray into architecture, and he was assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor (c. 1661-1736), a pioneer of the English Baroque style. A Baroque building, Castle Howard has two symmetrical wings that project either side of a North-South axis. The characteristic dome was added to the design at a late stage.


Castle Howard as imagined in Brideshead Revisited (Granada TV)
Castle Howard has been the home of the Carlisle branch of the Howard family for over 300 years. It is perhaps best known for its role in Brideshead Revisited (1981). Castle Howard also featured as the Kremlin in The Spy with a Cold Nose (Galton and Simpson, 1966) and - for inside scenes - in the television series Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)


Castle Howard was opened to the public  in 1952, reflecting a world where stately home upkeep had become impossible for traditional aristocratic families. Many stately homes were demolished or sold off bit by bit, or redesigned as tourist attractions in the post-war era. Castle Howard is now owned by Castle Howard Estate Ltd and run by Nicholas and Victoria Howard. The grounds were excavated by Channel 4's Time Team in 2003, searching for evidence of a local village that had been demolished so that the estate could be landscaped. You can find the episode on YouTube.

The mausoleum 
In addition to the landscaped gardens to the front of the house, the park grounds contain a forested area and two major buildings: the Temple of the Four Winds and the Mausoleum. Built in 1729, the Mausoleum sits on a hill, and is raised on a terrace encircled with a stone wall. It looks rather like an observatory, and is encircled by Doric column and crowned with a dome. The burial vault lies below, and contains sixty three catacombs. The mausoleum was said to have cost over £10,000 when built, and it influenced their fashionable spread. Such a building, announced the English whig Horace Walpole, 'would tempt one to be buried alive'. More recently, the mausoleum and gardens featured in the Artic Monkeys' video Four out of Five



Still from the Artic Monkeys' Four out of Five, showing the mausoleum


The Temple of the Four Winds lies at the eastern end of Temple Terrace. It has four doors and four sets of stairs, each of which faces a cardinal point on the compass. The Temple was designed by Vanbrugh in 1724, and influenced by Andrea Palladio's Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, Italy. Originally named The Temple of Diana, it remained unfinished for ten years after Vanbrugh died in 1726. After it had deteriorated in the 1940s, George Howard restored the Temple in 1955. It was used as a place for refreshment and reading, with a cellar beneath that was used by servants.

The Temple of the Four Winds

We sat on the western side of the Temple to enjoy a packed lunch. From there we had views over the Howardian Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty located between the Yorkshire Wolds, the North York Moors National Park and the Vale of York. The Howardian Hills, as you might expect, take their name from the Howard family.

The walk from the Temple to the house is lined by statues; 18 lead figures can be found throughout the gardens as a whole. Aside from Hercules - who has a rear end that would put Kim Kardashian to shame - our  favourite was Meleager, one of the great heroes of Greek mythology. When his father Oeneus forgot to sacrifice to Artemis, the angry goddess sent a huge wild boar to ravage the country. Meleager gathered a band of heroes to hunt the board, and he finally killed it after a long battle. This lead statue is on the Temple Terrace, with an adoring hound at the hero's feet and a slain boar to the side. We didn't find the statue of the large boar that Meleager defeated, though that is also on the estate.


Meleaguer the hunter with hound, and the head of a newly slain boar.

The spectacular Atlas Fountain and pond crowns the gardens. Dating from 1850, it was exhibited at The Great Exhibition prior to installation at Castle Howard. The Fountain was designed by the English architect and artist, William Andrews Nesfield, and the figures carved in Portland stone by the sculptor John Thomas. who also worked on Buckingham Palace. The figures were transported from London by rail for installation at Castle Howard. 

A large bronze globe dominates the fountain, and is supported on the shoulders of Atlas. In Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan condemned to hold up the celestial heavens for eternity. The fountain has four recumbent Tritons blowing water through shells over Atlas, as he kneels in the centre. 

The fountain was empty when we visited, but is beautiful when filled, as you can see by this YouTube clip. The pond alone is vast - 27 metres in diameter. The shell and basin carvings were made by local craftsmen, and the water transported from a stream nearby, and brought up to the estate reservoir by steam engine. The fountain was turned on for the first time in October 1853. 

The Atlas Fountain
You can find out more about Castle Howard from its website, where you can also find videos of the house and gardens. It's definitely worth a visit if you're in the area. We will be going back in the summer when the house is open. 

A belated happy new year to you all!

Monday, 14 January 2019

The Dawn Comes Up Like Thunder - by Lesley Downer

Dawn over the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) at Mandalay
'What will our descendants think of us when they read that the British banished the King of Burma, annexed his country, and proceeded to govern it by officials of their own race? Historians will add that we saw no harm in this, though we always resisted such a fate to the death when it threatened our own land.' - Maurice Collis, The Journey Outward, 1952

King Thibaw, Queen Supayalat
and her sister Princess Supayalay
In 1885 King Thibaw of the Konbaung dynasty was governing Upper Burma from his palace in Mandalay. He was 26 years old and had succeeded to the throne after his father, King Mindon, died suddenly in 1878. Following Mindon’s death, seventy nine of the king’s relatives who were potentially Thibaw’s rivals were murdered in a plot hatched by Thibaw’s implacable mother-in-law to make sure that he took over the throne.

Thibaw was convinced that his father’s apartments in the palace were haunted by Mindon’s ghost. He had them moved out of the palace grounds and rebuilt as a monastery. It’s a gorgeous building made of teak and covered in intricate and delicate carvings depicting the Jatakas, the Buddhist scriptures. You can still see King Thibaw’s meditation couch there. As it transpired the vast palace complex which forms the heart of Mandalay was destroyed in World War II. King Mindon’s apartments were the only part of the palace to survive. 

Thibaw set about reforming the administrative structure of his kingdom, Upper Burma. His government was one of the best educated the country had ever seen, including many scholars who had returned from Europe and were fluent in the Burmese classics as well as English and French. 
King Mindon's palatial apartments,
now the Shwenandaw Kyaung, Mandalay

The British had annexed western Burma in the First Burmese War of 1824 and had ruled Lower Burma for thirty years, since the Second Burmese War of 1853. Jane Austen’s brother, in fact, Rear Admiral Charles Austen, commanded the British Expedition of 1853 and died in Burma of cholera. 

The king was determined to win back his kingdom and started making moves to align more closely with the French, signing a Franco-Burmese commercial treaty which both he and the French swore had no military or political clauses. But the British were not convinced. There was also the Great Shoe Question. Visiting British dignitaries refused to remove their shoes on entering Thibaw’s palace, causing deep offence. 

Old capital at Sagaing, outside Mandalay
In 1885 Thibaw issued a proclamation calling on his countrymen to liberate Lower Burma, thus providing the pretext the British were looking for. Declaring that the king was conspiring with France, they denounced him as a tyrant who reneged on his treaties and sent an invasion force of 11,000 men in a fleet of flat bottomed boats and elephant batteries. Great paddle steamers crowded with troops thrashed up the broad Ayeyarwady - the Irrawaddy, as the British called it.

Mandalay fell almost immediately. The next day the British escorted the king and his wife away on a bullock cart. It was said that Thibaw begged for his life but his proud queen refused to bow her head. They were exiled to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, in India, where they lived out their days. Thibaw’s kingdom was officially annexed by Britain on January 1st 1886.

Stupa at Bagan
To crush any residual support for the monarchy, the British painted Thibaw as an ogre, despot and drunkard, uniquely weak, not up to the task of government, all of which was taken until recently as gospel.

British rule was hated. Resistance by fighters whom the British derided as dacoits or bandits continued for many years and for the colonialists Burma was a hardship posting.

Four years after Thibaw’s fall, in March 1889, a little-known 23-year-old journalist called Rudyard Kipling passed through Burma. He was there for just 3 days, in Rangoon and Moulmein. In his famous poem, Mandalay, he conjures up the magic of Burma and the siren call of the east:

‘ ... “If you’ve ’eard the East a callin’, you won’t never ’eed naught else.” ...’

When Boris Johnson quoted Mandalay when he visited the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon in 2017, he was lambasted on the basis that Kipling was a racist and a colonialist. But when the poem was first published in 1890 what annoyed everyone was the line, ‘An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China crost the Bay’, China of course being not across the Bay of Bengal at all but a long way north and east.

Sunset over the stupas of Bagan
Thirty years later, starting in 1922, another young Englishman called Eric Blair spent five years serving in the Indian Imperial Police in Moulmein. I spent much of our own trip along the road to Mandalay reading George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, published in 1934. It’s a savage indictment of colonialism. But it’s also a paean to the extraordinary spell the east can cast, evoking Burma’s maddening heat, drenching monsoon rains, dark tangled forests and mesmerising culture in glorious prose.







Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale based on a true story, set in nineteenth century Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration. It’s out now in paperback. 

For more see www.lesleydowner.com

The picture of King Thibaw, Queen Supayalat and her sister Princess Supayalay in late November 1885 is made from a negative found in the Royal Palace, Mandalay, and is by an unknown photographer; in the collection of Willoughby Wallace Hooper, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

The other pictures are mine.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Plight of the Moriscos in 17th Century Spain

by Deborah Swift

Seventeenth Century Persecution in Spain

The Spanish Inquisition is associated with the persecution of the Jews but it is not common knowledge that Muslims were also tried and tortured by this institution. When researching A Divided Inheritance I took a trip to Seville and visited the remains of the San Jorge Castle, the place of imprisonment for victims of the regime. There I saw chilling evidence of this persecution, which the Inquisition applied not only to rival faiths to Catholicism but also to mystics of their own faith.

What made this climate interesting for my novel was that in seventeenth century England Catholicism was repressed, whereas in Spain Catholics were the ruling majority. To understand the climate of oppression for religious minorities in Spain in 1609, one must look back a few centuries to 1248, when Seville, formerly a Moorish city, fell to Christian armies.

Moorish tiles from the Alhambra
.
Symbols of Lost Culture
During the following centuries after moorish Spain was conquered, Christians were determined to expand their dominion over Spain, and in 1492 Muslim Granada fell - a momentous day for Christian Europe, a day of rejoicing, but for Muslims it became a day of eternal sorrow. Precious buildings were sacked and destroyed, atrefacts such as ceramics with islamnic designs smashed. 

Just as the day is marked by celebrations in Spain, in Morocco black flags are hung out to indicate loss and mourning. Some descendants of those expelled still retain the original 15th century keys of their Andalusian homes as a symbol of their lost culture.

After the conquest of Granada by Christians, the Jewish population was driven out, whilst tolerance was promised to its Moorish citizens. So by the seventeenth century the Moors had become indelibly Spanish. Some were genuine Christian converts, and many, like Sancho Panza’s neighbour Ricote (in Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote), and Luisa in my novel 'A Divided Inheritance', thought of themselves as ‘más cristiano que moro’ (More Christian than Moor).

The Burning of Books
A short period of relatively peaceful co-existence between the Muslims and Christians was shattered when the Archbishop of Granada, Hernando de Talavera, was replaced by the fanatic Cardinal Cisneros, and Muslim religious leaders were persuaded to hand over more than 5,000 priceless books with ornamental bindings, which were then consigned to bonfires. Only a few books on medicine were spared the flames. Unsurprisingly, this event led to an armed response from Muslims in the First Rebellion of the Alpujarras in 1499. By 1502 the monarchy had rescinded the treaty of tolerance and Muslims in Andalusia were forced to convert or leave. Those who converted were called Moriscos, which means “little Moors”. 

The Expulsion of the Moors from Denia - Painting by Viincente Mostre

A Secret Religion
Many Moriscos professed their allegiance to Christianity while practicing Islam in secret. Every aspect of the Islamic way of life, including the Arabic language, dress and social customs – was condemned as uncivilised and pagan. A person who refused to drink wine or eat pork, or who cooked meat on a Friday might be denounced as a Muslim to the Inquisition. Even practices such as buying couscous, using henna, throwing sweets at a wedding or dancing to the sound of Berber music were un-Christian activities for which a person might be reported to the Inquisition by his neighbour, and obliged to do penance.

Rebellion

Further repression of the Moriscos resulted in a second Rebellion. Fearing the rebels were conspiring with the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, the uprising was brutally suppressed by Don John of Austria. In a spate of atrocities the town of Galera, to the east of Granada, was razed to the ground and sprinkled with salt, after the slaughter of 2,500 people including 400 women and children. Some 80,000 Moriscos in Granada were forcibly dispersed to other parts of Spain, including Seville. Christians from northern Spain were settled on their empty lands. Ayamena and Nicoloao in my story were displaced from Granada before settling in Seville.

As early as the 16th century The Council of State proposed expulsion as a solution to the on-going Morisco 'problem', for which the previous expulsion of the Jews provided a legal precedent. However, the action was delayed because of Spain’s pressing political concerns abroad and because of the drawbacks of losing so many skilled Muslim labourers from the Spanish working population. Muslim labourers and artisans were responsible for much of the beautiful spanish architecture we admire so much today.

Final Expulsion of 400,000 people

Juan de Ribera, the ageing Archbishop of Valencia, who had initially been a firm believer in missionary work, and the conversion of the Moorish population to Christianity, became in his declining years the chief partisan of expulsion. In a sermon preached on September 27th, 1609, he said that Spanish land would never become fertile again until these heretics (the Moriscos) were expelled. The Duke of Lerma, the corrupt chief minister agreed with him. The new king, Felipe III, known as Phillip the Pious for his supposed religious zeal, finally acquiesced to political pressure and in the expulsions began. 

The embarkation order was read out in Seville on January 10th 1610. The entire Muslim population, along with anyone who had converted from Islam to Christianity, was ordered to leave Spain on threat of death. By 1613 it is estimated 400,000 people had been forcibly removed in this mass expulsion from Spanish territory.

This little-known part of seventeenth century forms one of the threads of the narrative in my novel,' A Divided Inheritance'. Read more in this excellent article by Roger Boase in History Today


Saturday, 12 January 2019

Extreme fasting - St Simeon the Stylite

by Antonia Senior

I am hungry. Really, really hungry. Yup, it's January diet time. Like countless other podgy, Mum-tummed dipsos I've started fasting. Christmas, and the evil trinity of craft beer, crisps and mince pies, pushed me, and my straining waist-band, over the edge.

Fasting is nothing new. Researching a book some years ago, (the one in the drawer), I became fascinated by early Christian ascetics. Pre-enlightenment Christian mind-sets are staggeringly weird to modern brains, but the bonkers brigade of fasters and scourgers seem particularly alien.

My favourite early Christian nutjob is St Simeon the Stylite. His life is well documented for the time. He was famous throughout the Christian world and beyond, and we have a contemporaneous account of his life from Theodoret's History of the Monks of Syria. Written in about 440AD, Theodoret of Cyrus writes profiles of some thirty holy men, who all practised some form of asceticism. 

Theodoret of Cyrus



The path to God was a troublesome, painful, hungry one. Theodoret's account is wonderful - full of detail and replete with anecdotes of his own meetings with many of the monks. Take Eusebius, who ate 15 dried figs over seven weeks and whose belt kept falling down over his skinny buttocks, forcing him to sew it to his tunic. Eusebius, not wanting his vision of God to be disturbed, rolled a stone over the entrance to his cave. Theodoret talked to him through a small hole, listening to his "sweet voice, dear to God". Theodoret tries to leave, but the starving, solitary monk won't let him go - talking relentlessly through the hole about heaven.

The demands of worship in this tradition all involve physical discomfort. The body must suffer to free the mind, turning it to God's vision. Maricanus and Bardatus, for example, lived in mountain huts which were too small for a man to stand or lie down - and they were entirely open to the elements.

This ascetic fanaticism was much admired in early Christendom - and it spread far. The Celtic Church, thousands of miles from arid Syria, developed its own tradition. The Culdees - medieval monks - lived in complete seclusion and sought God in silence and hardship.

The ascetic tradition is dominated by the story of Simeon, however. He was born in the late fourth century, and became deeply religious in his teens. As a young man, according to Theodoret, he heard the "gospel utterance which declares blessed those who weep and mourn, calls wretched those who laugh, terms enviable those who possess a pure soul.."

Simeon decided to join a community translated by RM Davis as an "ascetic wrestling school" where he spent ten years contending as a "contestant of piety". He annoyed everybody by being brilliant at piety - consistently going one week rather than a couple of days without any food. He tied a rough, palm cord about his waist and started to bleed from the copious chafing, refusing to take it off or tend to the lacerated wound. At this point, he was kicked out of the pious wrestling school in case weaker students tried to copy his mad feats of penance.

He left in a huff, heading for the mountains. He lowered himself into a cistern, where he stayed without eating or drinking for five days, before eventually being hauled out by some shepherds. He then decided to go 40 days without food, and had himself sealed into a cottage with a jug of water. When, at last, the sealed door was cracked open he was found barely alive. He was revived with a bit of lettuce.

The Godly flocked to the miracle man. People came from as far as Britain to see him, hear him, touch him. Eventually, fed up of being jostled by his admirers, he climbed up a pillar. And stayed there. And stayed. He ordered the pillar to be made higher, and higher - closer to heaven.

A sixth century icon of Simeon on his pillar


He stayed at the top of the pillar for thirty-seven years. Every so often, local boys would shimmy up to deliver food. Once a year, he would fast for forty days, lashing himself to a beam attached to the pillar when the weakness was too much to bear.

Some modern scholars believe that Simeon was following a local pagan tradition; On the Syrian Goddess, a treatise written in the second century AD by Lucian, refers to pillar-dwellers as part of the cult of the local Goddess. Regardless, Simeon's insane piety was a propaganda bombshell for the early church. Theodoret writes of hordes of converting Ishamaelites converging on Simeon's pillar, rejecting their ancestral Gods in the face of such superhuman feats. Indeed, our reporter from the Fifth century nearly gets crushed to death by a crowd of over-eager worshippers.

Simeon spent most of his time standing; to the point where he had a pus-oozing ulcer on his left foot. Theodoret adds the detail that he could bend over to touch his forehead to his toes, so empty was his stomach (I'd settle to being able to touch my toes with my hands).

Simeon had many copycats, but he was the first and the most famous stylite. A church was built around his pillar, almost as big as Hagia Sophia, and his pillar stood for more than fifteen hundred years - smaller each year as successive pilgrims chipped off slivers of stone as souvenirs. Sadly, in 2016, a stray missile caused extensive damage to the church and the pillar, according to a report in The Telegraph.


The remains of the pillar before the Syrian civil war


An extraordinary, barmy life. Simeon couldn't bear to give up his piety contest, even at the last. According to the awe-struck Theodoret, when his soul departed to heaven, his body remained standing upright, 'like an unbeaten athlete who strives with no part of his limbs to touch the ground'.


Friday, 11 January 2019

Bathsheba Ghost: Convict Hospital Matron







 
There were opportunities in the penal colony of New South Wales for a smart woman to overcome her convict past, forge a new career and become one of the most highly paid women in the colony. Bathsheba Ghost managed to do all that in her twenty-two years at the Sydney Infirmary, first as a nurse and then as matron. And when she died she was able to leave a substantial bequest to her beloved hospital.
On 19 May 1838, in the Central Criminal Court of the Old Bailey, twenty-eight-year-old Bathsheba Ghost, former ladies’ nursery maid (I like to think of her looking like the nursery maid above), was found guilty of receiving stolen property and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation to the colony of New South Wales. 

At the time she was living at 338 Oxford Street in London (now the site of Debenhams flagship department store) with her husband and three-year old son. See: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=def2-1309-18380514&div=t18380514-1309#highlight
for an account of her trial at the Old Bailey.

She left husband and son both behind in London; her husband had publicly distanced himself from her, despite some evidence of his own involvement in the crime.

And so Bathsheba, together with 170 other female convicts, departed England in 1838 on the Planter, a ship similar to the Buffalo (above).


After four months at sea, she arrived at Port Jackson in March 1839 and was assigned work as a domestic servant. 

Her nursing career began when she was granted her ticket of leave in 1844 and began work as a paid nurse at the General Hospital. Two years later, she was granted a conditional pardon; effectively she was free, but it stipulated that she could not return to Britain. So she continued to nurse at what was now the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary. 

By 1852 she had so impressed the Infirmary Board that they offered her the position of Hospital Matron, a post she was to occupy for the next fourteen years. 


Her salary of £80, with board and lodging provided, was considerably higher than that given to her predecessor. By 1854, her salary had been increased to £100. In recommending the increase, the board stated: ‘It is sufficient to say that the order and cleanliness which reflect so much credit upon our institution are mainly owing to her unwearied personal exertions’.

Eventually, Bathsheba was earning £120 per annum, which was one of the highest salaries for a woman in New South Wales at the time.

During Bathsheba’s 14 years as matron, there were major changes in medical practice, including the first use of anaesthetics. Apparently she took these in her stride, as the Infirmary’s annual reports regularly praised its matron for the order and cleanliness of the hospital, and for taking a leading role in training nurses under her care. In 1864, the board arranged for her ‘small and unsuitable apartments’ to be upgraded to allow her ‘accommodation due to her position and long and faithful service’. 


Not only the board was impressed by Bathsheba. Maria Rye, a friend of Florence Nightingale, visited Sydney in 1865. Although she generally condemned colonial hospitals, in a letter to Miss Nightingale she wrote that the Sydney Infirmary was ‘a wonderful exception as good as any Hospital in London’.

Bathsheba never remarried but, towards the end of her life, her son Thomas migrated to the colony of New South Wales and she came to know her granddaughter Eliza. 


Sadly, her final years were marred by a painful and lingering illness of the uterus. In a time of limited pain relief she turned to opium and alcohol, and despite Bathsheba’s much praised efforts to maintain order and cleanliness at the hospital, matters deteriorated during her last illness. (See the cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald of 1869). 

Despite her illness she continued her duties as matron and opposed any idea of change in the running of the institution until her death in August 1866. 

In August 1866, Bathsheba Ghost died at the hospital where she had worked for 22 years. Her death was noted by the board with ‘much regret’. She left a bequest of £100 to her beloved Sydney Infirmary in her will
 – a substantial amount at the time – and her passing was noted with ‘much regret’ by the board. 

In her will she left the Infirmary a bequest of £100 – a substantial amount at the time – and her passing was noted with ‘much regret’ by the board.

In 1953, a memorial to her was unveiled in the Camperdown Cemetery, in a ceremony presided over by Elsie Pidgeon, the then matron of Sydney Hospital.


Given her high regard at the time of her death, it is surprising that a century later, in a 1970 book about the Nightingale nurses, Bathsheba Ghost should be referred to as ‘a Sarah Gamp of the Southern Hemisphere … in the habit of fortifying herself against minor discomforts with a judicious choice of alcohol’.
The Bathsheba Ghost Memorial
Her name does have a Dickensian quality about it, but it is both ironic and sad that Bathsheba’s character and place in history should have become entwined with that the speech-mangling, cucumber-guzzling, gin-tippling, patient-brutalising nurse presented by Charles Dickens in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit.

[The above is taken from my book: An Illustrated History of Nursing in Australia (National Library of Australia). To be published 2018.]