Wednesday, 30 November 2011

November Competition

It's the last day of November and competition time! We have a number of titles by History Girls to give away and all you have to do to win one is put your name and email address in the comments below. It must be nearly Christmas.

UK entries only, we're afraid.

Closing date 7th December.

Good luck!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

An insistent ghost by Fiona Dunbar

Our guest blogger this month is Fiona Dunbar, who is not actually a writer of historical fiction! But here she describes what happened when she became obsessed with an unlikely historical figure, who ended up appearing as a ghost in one of her Kitty Slade books. 

Fiona is a children's author and illustrator based in the United Kingdom. She was born in 1961 in Hemel Hempstead. She is the author of the Silk Sisters trilogies and Toon-Head. Her Lulu Baker trilogy was adapted to become a children's TV series called Jinx by Kindle Entertainment starring Amber Beattie; Jinx was first screened on CBBC in Autumn 2009.

Divine Freaks, the first of her new series featuring the character Kitty Slade was published in May 2011 and the second, Fire & Roses, was published in September 2011.

Welcome to the History Girls, Fiona!

Fiona Dunbar
How do you feel about putting words into the mouths of real historical figures? Do you find it harder than with made-up characters, or not really?

I ask because I was surprised to find myself doing this recently, when writing the second of my Kitty Slade books, Fire & Roses. I didn’t plan it, it just sort of happened, because in the course of my research I became fixated on one particular historical figure. Note that I do not use the term ‘falling in love’, in the way that Linda Buckley-Archer did when she blogged recently about preoccupation with a certain historical time or place.

Love this person? No way!

Like, even? Er, no.

Fascinated by him? Yup: definitely.

Utterly captivated. To the point where I teetered on the brink of writing a whole full-length adult novel, featuring him at the centre of it. Given that what I do is write 40,000-word books for children, featuring things like chameleon girls and magic recipe books, this might have brought a stony silence from my agent. You did what? Why?

So I had to, you know, rein it in a bit. Remember who I was writing for. Most 12-year-old girls don’t want to read about 18th Century politics – however stuffed with scandal and outrageous behaviour. And to be honest, I’m more than happy to leave the job of writing sophisticated historical novels to those who do it best. But…well, I was quite swept away, all the same.

So who was it that had this effect on me, and why?

John Wilkes, radical journalist and politician, twice Lord Mayor of London, wit, Hellfire Club member and sometime jailbird, referred to by King George III as ‘that devil Wilkes’.

It was my interest in the Hellfire Club that set me off down this route – an interest that goes back a long way (see my blog post here. Originally called The Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, the group was started in1748 by Buckinghamshire aristocrat Sir Francis Dashwood.
Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood by Hogarth
It was not a Satanist group – that was a myth started up in the 19th Century – but a collection of politicians, poets and intellectuals, plus one artist (William Hogarth) with a taste for irreverent and licentious behaviour. Rabelais was their inspiration, and the Catholic Church was mercilessly mocked. The women who chose to attend did so anonymously; it is still not known who any of them were. All involved were sworn to secrecy as to the nature of the activities during the meetings, but one thing is clear: a lot of sex happened. Ahem. Well, since my typical reader is about twelve – and plenty are younger than that – I kind of skirt around that one. As it were.

Anyway: Wilkes. My initial interest in him specifically was sparked during a research visit to the Hellfire Caves in West Wycombe. More tunnels than caves, they were hollowed out to produce chalk for road-building; once excavation was completed, Dashwood hit on the idea of using the subterranean labyrinth as a party venue. The ‘infernal’ aspect was bigged up, and what you see now is a wonderfully eccentric and rather camp attraction, complete with Classical-era style statues, fake stalagmites and stalactites, and its own mini River Styx. Here and there are caverns peopled by dusty models of Hellfire members and their friends. I love it for its silliness, and its whiff of Hammer Horror (trivia! The Dashwood Mausoleum, on the hill above, did actually feature in one: To The Devil, A Daughter).

Wilkes is represented in a part of the caves called the Inner Temple. Models of him, Dashwood and others are gathered as if for a Hellfire Club shindig. A placard and a voiceover both tell the story of an incident in which Wilkes had dressed up a live baboon in devilish garb, and hid the poor creature in a cabinet. Quite how it was kept quiet in there I have no idea, but Wilkes is reputed to have released the baboon at one point during the evening, by way of concealed wiring connected to a spring-loaded device. The baboon leapt out of the cabinet and onto the shoulders of another member, Lord Sandwich. Sandwich, convinced that he was experiencing some sort of actual devilish manifestation, frantically repented of all his sins – much to the hilarity of Wilkes and the others.

There is some doubt as to the historical accuracy of this story, but no matter – I was hooked. I then read The Dashwoods of West Wycombe by Sir Francis Dashwood – a descendent of the 18th Century one. That gave me a useful overview of the Hellfire Club. It ought to have been enough for my purposes, but the more I found out, the more I wanted to know.

I researched further, on the Internet.

Will Self said that writers who use the Internet to research their subjects are idiots: while I understand what he means, I think this is a snobbish remark that ignores the fact that real treasures can be found there. Notorious though Wikipedia might be for its inaccuracies, it is nevertheless a fantastic starting point – you then go on and check your facts elsewhere. And IF I had been writing a detailed account of Wilkes’ life, for example, what better material could I have consulted than actual facsimiles of his political pamphlet, The North Briton?

It’s there, you can find it!

I became engrossed in the reasons for the ultimate breakup of the Hellfire Club – and Wilkes and The North Briton were at the centre of that. His pamphlet was massively supportive of William Pitt – who, much to Wilkes’ dismay, had recently resigned – while also subtly lobbing defamatory insinuations in the direction of Pitt’s replacement, Lord Bute, other prominent Scots, and the Scots in general (and I’ve always been interested in the Jacobite rebellions, so that was another cue for me to get totally sidetracked …)

Clearly, Wilkes wound a lot of people up – not least my idol, William Hogarth. But what precisely caused Hogarth to publish a portrait of him like this?

Wilkes was as famed for his odd appearance as he was for his wit and charm: ‘It takes just half an hour for me to talk away my face’, he would say. Still, this depiction is clearly an exaggeration: the squinting eyes and heavy jaw, the leering grin…and the wig fashioned into devilish horns.

Why did Hogarth hate him so much?

To find out, I bought a copy of Jenny Uglow’s biography, Hogarth (a cracking read, by the way, and indispensable for any fan of the man’s work). Yes, I was really overdoing it now; no, I couldn’t help it.

The portrait was preceded by some considerable provocation on both sides. As Uglow says, “Wilkes, who so enjoyed fighting, was a dangerous person to annoy. Few would willingly enter the ring against him.” And yet Hogarth, who was pro-Bute, did a brave but probably foolhardy thing: he published his print The Times, Plate 1 (1762):

There’s an awful lot going on here, but the relevant parts to note are the flaming globe on the right, fanned by Pitt on stilts, while a fireman figure representing the king attempts to put the fire out. Two figures on the top floor of the ‘Temple Coffee House’ direct their jets at the king instead of the fire: these were known to represent Wilkes and his friend, poet Charles Churchill.

Well, Wilkes lashed out: the whole of the next edition of The North Briton was devoted to attacking Hogarth. This could have looked like nothing more than spite, but as Uglow tells us: ‘there was enough truth here to hurt, and hurt badly.’

And so it went on, with Hogarth producing another print featuring Wilkes in an unflattering way. Wilkes fought back, etc, etc… Eventually, Wilkes was imprisoned in the Tower for ‘seditious libel’ in his North Briton tirades. He was hugely popular, however, having become something of a free speech hero; he was soon freed. Hogarth wasn’t impressed, though: his portrait of Wilkes appeared the following year.

I was fascinated. Every time I told myself I really had to get on and write that children’s book, I managed to sneak in just one more peak at a page about the Seven Years’ War, or Wilkes’ notorious annotated Essay on Woman, a parody of Pope’s Essay on Man, or his assorted other rivalries…

In the end, I had to step back, take stock, boil everything down to the barest essentials. So, what did I end up with?

I had thought I might involve Hogarth in my story, but then decided that would be too complicated. I did still need an adversary for Wilkes, though. Who should it be? God knows, there were enough of them. But in the end, I made up my own. I took elements of Lord Sandwich and William Hogarth, put them together and created Sir Ambrose Vyner. I should explain that Vyner and Wilkes appear in my story in ghost form – the story is set in the present day. Wilkes is unique among the ghosts in my series so far, not only in that he’s a real historical figure, but also because he doesn’t exactly have unfinished business; he just likes to make mischief.

Vyner’s unfinished business was to get even with Wilkes, but he doesn’t actually feature much in the story; it is Wilkes that takes centre stage. And putting words into the mouth of an historical character felt like an audacious thing to do, for an inexperienced historian like me. I think – I hope – I have come up with a plausible voice. I certainly had fun writing him.

Two things I learned: I couldn’t have Wilkes refer to ‘the Prime Minister’, because that moniker had yet to be bestowed on the head of the government. The history books refer to Prime Ministers going back to Walpole, but it is a retrospective term. No doubt you all knew that, but I didn’t. Secondly, when Sir Ambrose finally appears, he denounces Wilkes for being, as we might put it today, full of shit. The word ‘piffle’ sprang to mind – no doubt influenced by the sort of language Boris Johnson uses (‘an inverted pyramid of piffle’ is a favourite of mine). But Sir Ambrose died in 1769, and the earliest recorded use of the word ‘piffle’ as a noun dates from 1890. Even the verb goes no further back than 1847. This rather surprised me; I thought it sounded quite Shakespearean. So, no piffle. Instead I have Sir Ambrose say the Wilkes is ‘all bluster and perfidious trifle.’ I hope there aren’t any overlooked anachronisms; if so, I’ll trust the History Girls to let me know.

Will I write another historical figure into one of my stories? No plans to at the moment. But if one sneaks up on me, I might not be able to hold back!

Many thanks for this post and I think Fiona might just have suggested another theme for the History Girls. How about more ghosts in December?

Monday, 28 November 2011

So, Charles, what did you do on your holidays? by K. M. Grant

I'm highly indebted to Eve Edwards for including in the list of accepted but erroneous beliefs (3rd November), that ‘Napoleon was short’. It reminded me that interestingly, whatever height Napoleon actually was, the perception that he was short was contemporary to him - belittling propaganda, perhaps - rather than something foisted on him by posterity. A nosey ancestor visiting Napoleon on the island of Elba certainly describes the great man as on the small side, although who knows whether that was because he felt it politic to do so.

This nosey chap was Charles Standish. On the Grand Tour with friends in early 1815 and bored with marble heroes – he didn’t think much of Canova’s Three Graces either – he decided to inspect a human villain instead. Napoleon saw him coming. Believing Boney to be ‘history’, Standish answered every question Napoleon asked. What a noodle! Charles didn’t realise that all the questions were loaded and that Napoleon was milking him for information which would then be used to effect a successful escape.*

Knocking about in a drawer, my father had the letter Charles Standish wrote to his cousin Peregrine Towneley of Towneley, Burnley, about this visit. I transcribed the letter, occasionally berating my dead relation for his poor handwriting. I don't have a picture of Charles, but here's a picture of Peregrine in later life, and one of Towneley.

Standish begins with the usual salutations. Omissions are marked with … and I’ve offered, in italics, a few explanatory remarks and notes:

‘We embarked in a small boat for Porto Torreno where we arrived with tolerably prosperous gales in about four hours (18 miles) … His palace, for it is by courtesy called so, is a small house two stories high, built on the top of a rock and overlooking the town on one side and the sea on the other. The strictest possible system of police is established in the island …

He [Napoleon] had us one by one. The first room I was shown into was a small ante-room, where there were two aides-de-camp in waiting, and one or two other officers, all of whom appeared sullen, downcast and most shabby in their accoutrements. It is a fact, by the by, that does not much redound to the honour of France, that Napoleon has not as yet received one sous of the stipend that was guaranteed to him by the Treaty of Paris [signed on 30th May 1814, this restored Louis XVIII to the throne and set out how Napoleon and his family were to be treated]. In consequence of which, he has been obliged to reduce half his establishment and to curtail all the salaries of the people about him, and is now selling all the ordnance on the walls to Tuscany to get a little ready [cash]. He complains of it bitterly but says he will never apply for it.

He received me standing with his back to the fire, draped in a shabby green uniform with the Legion of Honour’s Grand Cross, Iron Crown and several other orders, a very small cocked hat under his arm and a snuff box in his hand, and ever and anon he put it to his nose and took it away again but seemed to make little use of its contents.

I was never more deceived in the idea I had formed of what were a man’s looks. That he is very low in stature and grown extremely lusty, we knew from most recent reports. But his physiognomy I expected to find most markedly striking. On the contrary, it is quite an inanimate face with a light grey eye and fat chops. Altogether those sorts of features that in a crowd would be passed by unnoticed. But I must not forget to say that when animated, he lights up in an extraordinary manner and becomes quite a different man, all fire and animation.’

Standish and Napoleon then spoke about the rumour that when Napoleon had been in Egypt, he had become a Muslim. Napoleon raised an eyebrow. He had certainly tried to court Muslim good opinion, and had even asked how to become a good Muslim. He was pleased, though, to tell Standish how he wriggled out of what might have been a rather uncomfortable conversion.

‘They [the Muslims] told me that I must first leave off the use of wine, and be circumcised. ‘As for wine,’ I replied, ‘I am a soldier and it is necessary for my wellbeing. As for being circumcised, not having much to circumcise, this would be impossible … these parts are not toys with which to amuse children.’

Standish was a Catholic, and as such was barred from serving in the army or navy. This gave Napoleon the opportunity to be rude about the stupidity of the British, and sneakily to add:

‘But the Princess of Wales, she is pretty lively is she not? At least that is what people say. However, there is something not quite right about her. She is not young, eh? But you love the older woman, you funny old English, don’t you.’

With disarming, self-deprecatory charm, Napoleon then asked ‘what do they say about me in France?’ Being a polite kind of chap, Standish answered in a polite kind of way that Napoleon had lots of friends, particularly in the army, and writes ‘This seemed to delight him and he betrayed it by a sort of vulgar wriggling of his whole person as an old woman does who is delighted with a scandalous story.’ Reading this, I sensed a distinctly pricklish Charles getting his own back for Napoleon’s rudery about the British.

There is, of course, lots more of this letter**, but you have the flavour. One of its delights is that it was written entirely unselfconsciously, i.e. not for posterity but for ‘my dear Peregrine’, a cousin of whom Charles Standish was extremely fond. Standish jokes about the inordinate length of the letter and promises ‘sternest silence till we next meet’. He signs off in the rather pretentious manner typical of the Grand Tourist, and if you’ll forgive me, I’ll do the same.

Affettuosamente tuo,
Katie Grant
November 28th

* Charles Standish’s letter is dated January 17th. Napoleon escaped from Elba on February 26th.
* *More of the letter was printed in a piece I wrote about it for the Daily Telegraph of Saturday 24h April 1999, and in the Quarterly Journal of Military History, Autumn 1999, Volume 12, No. 1, Primedia, USA.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

What we know; what we don't, what we lose. By Louisa Young

The house I live in was built in the 1880s. I know the development was called the Orchard Estate, because it was built in an orchard. The bluebells which sprout in all our gardens are no doubt remnants of a bucolic past. I know the plaster was mixed with horsehair, because I found it when we took a wall down. I know the man who used to live here had one arm, and fought in the Second World War. That's not where he lost his arm though: he lost it to a fishing accident. After the war, he was using hand-grenades - stolen? Black market? - to blow fish out of the water, and blew his own arm off. He died, twenty years ago, in my kitchen.

My father's father, Hilton Young, had one arm. He lost his during the raid on Zeebrugge. When he was fixed up, he reported to the Admiralty and they said no, no, you've done enough, whereupon he looked out the window towards Trafalgar Square and said: 'I can see a chap, from here, who served the Navy well enough with one arm' - or words to that effect. So they took him back, and he commanded an armoured train across Russia.

I never quite believe these stories about my ancestors. How can they be true? My relatives (including me) are all terrible story-tellers and after-dinner exaggerators, bemusers of small children with tales of newts in the sink, seals in the sidecar, conductors in tutus dancing on the piano. According to them, Great Uncle Geoffrey (below) - brother of the lost arm (above) - had climbed the Matterhorn with a wooden leg, and carried a spare with him - his best - for a photo at the top.

So I was reading Wade Davis's very interesting book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest. There on page one is Geoffrey Winthrop Young - and it's all true. While at Cambridge, he did write 'The Roofclimber's Guide to Trinity', about how to negotiate the rooves and turrets of the university. He did climb the Matterhorn, with his one leg. His prosthetic leg, it turns out, was of his own design. No mention is made of the spare, but I learned how he lost his own flesh-and-blood leg. Too old for active service, having been a reporter on the Western Front since the first days of the war, in 1915 'he abandoned journalism to serve in an ambulance unit of his own creation. First in Flanders, and later in Italy, Young and his colleagues would rescue more than 100,000 wounded soldiers, before he was himself cut down.'

I hadn't known that. I knew his widow: her name was Len. Other people thought it funny to have an aunt called Len. I didn't know Len was a man's name. At university I met a boy who also had an aunt called Len. We were enchanted by the co-incidence, even before we found out it was the same Len.

There was a story about the three Young brothers: that Hilton lost his arm; Geoffrey his leg, and Georis his head - he came home a Communist.

They all wrote books, pamphlets and poems, and had full and interesting lives after the war.

I can write, on a good day, in my horsehair house, built around the time they were born. But I don't know when I am going to help save 100,000 lives. Or take charge of an armoured train, or be brave enough to come back Communist. Or climb the Matterhorn. Even with two legs. I don't know how on earth I can live up to these forefathers. I wish I could tell them how much I love and honour them, and that my only inclination towards religion would come from the possibility of meeting them.

Saturday, 26 November 2011


This is an exposure of what the History Girls get up to when they’re not writing! Yesterday about eleven of us stepped through the front door into the marvellous space, texture and light of No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London like welcome guests at someone’s private home. Later in the day we were REAL guests in a home equally filled with the most marvellous space, texture and light… but a 21st century one.

A 'proper' version of our visit to the John Soane Museum will be written up by Linda Buckley-Archer in her post on the 2nd Dec. But herewith is a 'graphic' account of the rest of the day. We met at Michelle Lovric’s wonderful Thames-side home for what can only be described as a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach... and a ‘posh’ jumble sale… all proceeds to go to an orphanage in Kenya that looks after AIDS orphans with disabilities called, By Grace.

a quick ride across town.

Kath opening the bubbly

Michelle giving it a quick stir

clothes to browse
Nicky finds a Max Mara dress
(I didn't catch her in her werewolf leather jeans!)
Kath still looking

Celia and Mary happy with their purchases
Adele and Mary
Linda, Barbara and Kath

Mary and Celia

Louisa, Emma and Barbara
Congratulations to Louisa for making the short-list on the Costa for her novel My Dear I Wanted to Tell You and to Barbara for being on the long-list for the Carnegie with her novel Run, Rabbit, Run.
la dolce vita - mille grazie Michelle!

Friday, 25 November 2011

Fiction as an Historical Source - by Eleanor Updale

It's not just the official sources that tell us about the past

Like most writers of historical fiction, I love the research phase of creating a new book. I adore unfolding original letters, feeling old fabrics, and trying to recreate in my own mind the reality of past times. But there is one other source that I have only recently come to value: the fiction written in the era one is trying to depict.

I’m not suggesting that fiction always gives a true portrayal of the society it serves. If that were true, future historians would look back at our world as one where we all believed in dragons and wizards, where families were hotbeds of homicidal hatred, and where most people lived lives of emotional complexity without ever having to go to work. The real gift fiction writers deliver lies in things they may not realise they are saying: the underlying assumptions and tiny details about how their world works, on which the intricacies of their plots depend.

This thought came to me when I was asked to contribute an introduction to a new edition of Curtain Up, written by Noel Streatfeild during the Second World War, and first published in 1944. It’s part of the Ballet Shoes series, and indeed the new edition has been given the American Title Theatre Shoes to bring home that point. Streatfeild’s original publisher had allowed the work to go out of print, and it’s been rescued by Jane Nissen Books ( a company which specialises in bringing back lost gems.

The action takes place in wartime London, but not through some literary artifice. It’s set then because that was when Streatfield was writing, and when her first readers were reading. She is not making any extended points about war or wartime life. That just happens to be the backdrop to a story of adolescent aspiration, rivalry, family squabbles and timeless truths about growing up.

So the war throbs on in the background, and the little details that emerge, almost accidentally, are the more enlightening for that. Any of us writing the story now would probably adorn it with all sorts of well-researched titbits about sirens, shelters, blackouts, loss and the spectre of death. Streatfeild doesn’t labour points about rationing or dried egg. If an elegant London square has been allowed to become overgrown, that’s simply an unsurprising fact. A modern historian might not even wonder whether the escalators at London tube stations kept running during the war. If he tried to find out, it might take hours of wading through documents at the London Transport archives. Streatfeild doesn’t go out of her way to tell us that precious power was used to keep the escalators moving – we just find her characters using one, and now we know. Streatfeild is not educating or making a huge revelations, she’s getting people from A to B. To today’s eye, her book is as interesting for what she doesn’t feel it necessary to say as for what she does.

Theatre Shoes contains very few overt reflections on the nature of war, and the changes it brings to people’s lives. How interesting, then, that one of those musings is rather positive: The grandmother in the story has fallen on hard times. She is forced to sell off family heirlooms. The old lady is lucky, says Streatfeild, to face poverty at a time when everyone else is forced into frugality, so her shame doesn’t show. How many modern writers, setting a tale in the 1940s, would come up with that angle?

This is just one book, and of course there are thousands of others, from all times, that give us unintended insights on past societies. Little bits of business (a 19th century heroine curling her hair with twists of paper; a 20th century character taking a phone call at a special table in the hall, or straightening the seams in her stockings) might have been put in for reasons of rhythm or incidental colour, but can tell us more than the author could have dreamed of. Of course we have to be careful not to take the literary cliches of the time as a true reflection of everyday life, but fiction can show things that official documents and sanitised histories never touch upon.

So what are we building into our own books for 22nd century writers to mine? Will they be struck by our pathetic attempts to save the planet by recycling a bizarre assortment of household rubbish? Will they laugh at our ferocious striving for uniformity, while portraying ourselves as free spirits? Or will it be titbits such as how often we wash our underwear or the complexity of our car parking regulations that give them a key to understanding our world?

Whatever it is, let’s hope they don’t end up thinking that we all live like characters in soap operas: inhabiting spotless kitchens as we battle against everything from psychopathic neighbours to terminal illness --passing the time with a little light adultery or incest, while we wait for a boy on a broomstick to come and save us all from You Know Who.

But maybe that is how you live? If so, get writing now.

Thursday, 24 November 2011


By Essie Fox

Fred Vokes 1846-1888

With it being almost December, we are fast approaching the height of the pantomime season - a tradition almost as popular today as it was in the nineteenth century when true spectaculars were produced. 

One of the enduring thrills for a Victorian theatre audience would be the pantomime dancing acts - the chance for some mild titillation when viewing a shapely female leg where the glance of an ankle in everyday life might well  be considered outrageous. But such 'artistic' stage antics were not limited to the female of the species and, year after year in the Drury Lane theatre, where pantomimes drew in enormous crowds, the star was Fred Vokes and his Legmania.

Fred is on the far right of this picture

Fred was born into a theatrical family, very famous in the 1870’s as a dancing, acting, singing troup that comprised of three sisters, one brother, and various 'adoptees' who joined and then took on the family name. Fred was by no means the most talented, but he did excel in achieving great feats of contortionist dancing and so very impressive were his moves when appearing in Humpty Dumpty that a Daily Telegraph critic wrote that he -

 ‘...dances as few men in this world probably could dance or would wish to dance. The extraordinary contortions of limb in which his dancing abounds – contortions which in Mr Vokes’ hands – or rather legs – are not lacking in grace – are highly suggestive of the impossibility of his suffering at any time from such accidents as dislocations.’  

View Fred in the bottom right of this poster and you might imagine how the journalist from The Telegraph was concerned about dislocated bones.

A review in The Times in 1871 that followed a visit to Tom Thumb; or, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table was particularly enthusiastic and gives a good sense of the ‘mania’ that was then abounding for Fred and his versatile lower limbs -

‘The manner in which first the crown and then the wig of Mr Fred Vokes as King Arthur persisted in tumbling off while that monarch indulged in unusual gyrations excited tumultuous laughter, and if there could be anything funnier than Mr Fred Vokes’ ‘split’ dance it was his step dance, Lancashire clogs, Cornish reels, transatlantic walk-rounds, cellar flaps and breakdowns, college hornpipes and Irish jigs. Nothing in the way of dances came amiss to the airy monarch whose legs and arms seemed to spin round on pivots and who seemed at once to stimulate the actions of the cockchafer and the grasshopper.

He was well assisted by Mr Fawdon Vokes as the court fool who had apparently danced himself out of his mind in his infancy and had lived on tarantula spiders ever since. All the Misses Vokes (Victoria, Jessie and Rosina), fasincated in their attire, ravishing as to their back hair and amazing in their agility, were fully equal to the occasion. When they didn’t dance they sang and danced simultaneously and then all the Vokeses jumped on one anothers backs and careered – so it seemed  - into immeasurable space.’

Goodness, that reporter was impressed! But all good things must come to an end, as did the Vokes' run of success when the Drury Lane theatre changed management and even though Mr Augustus Harris' new pantomime productions were bigger and better than ever before he regarded the Vokes family as being unruly, too demanding and powerful by far. In return they considered his management style to be tyrannical, and so the family business moved on, continuing to perform in theatres elsewhere although several of them, including Fred, died while really still very young.

But, as we all know, the play - or in this case the dancing - must go on. Fred might have mastered the step toe and clog dance but as the century progressed others diversified yet more, as in the case of Miss Elsie whose routine had the added benefit of being performed on a snare drum. The picture below is taken from the Victoria and Albert museum's archives and is dated as being late 19th century. Even so it looks particularly modern, immediate and full of life; somehow more reminiscent of jazz clubs in the 1920's.

Just as popular were the lady 'skirt dancers' whose dances were performed by gracefully manipulating several yards of fabric. And as less expertise was involved in the 'art' it soon became a domestic hobby, performed by female family members in many a private drawing room. There were even instructions printed up the press - such as these from The Daily Graphic in 1892 -

Miss Topsy Sinden was particularly alluring. And when Miss Letty Lind took her dancing act to America in 1888 the audiences were astounded to witness such demure performances - not an inch of bare leg or bosom exposed. 

Miss Topsy Sinden

Miss Letty Lind's Skirt Dance - 'Going...Going...Gone!'

Such slow and quiet acts may have appealed for a little while but an audience loves variety - and an audience loves excitement - and what more sensational form of dance than the one that evolved from the skirt dancing form when Lottie Collins achieved great fame performing her 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay', a routine that began traditionally with muted strains of music and the gentle swishing of fabric, until the first chorus had come to an end when Lottie would pause, place one hand on her hip, and then lift her skirts and lace petticoats high, commencing to kick the 'can-can' - a dance that is still performed to this very day, and one of which I feel quite sure Fred Vokes would warmly approve.

Essie Fox's novel, 'The Somnambulist', features scenes in a Victorian music hall - though, regretfully, nothing quite as daring as the performance of Mr Fred Vokes.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011


When you're writing historical fiction, there are many stories you have to reluctantly edit out, because they might distort or clutter the plot. This is particularly the case when economy is crucial, as it is in Young Adult Fiction. One story I did really want to include in 'Saving Rafael' but couldn't, is the story of the German women who demonstrated in Rosenstrasse, Berlin, for the return of their Jewish husbands.

This happened in February -March, 1943, when the remainder of Berlin's Jewish population were being taken away to the extermination and concentration camps in Poland - to give Hitler a birthday present of a 'Jew-free Berlin'.

It was called the 'Fabrikaktion,' the Factory Action. The Jews, who'd been working in munitions, textile work, refuse disposal, and other industries, were to be replaced with slave labourers from the occupied territories. The 'Final Solution', which had always been Hitler's aim, could now be properly implemented.

Jews from 'mixed marriages' and some children of these marriages who were over fourteen and thus working in forced labour, were also caught up by the Factory Action and held in Jewish synagogue offices in Rosenstrasse (which means Rose Street). Most of these were men, since, during the Twenties - before the Nuremberg Laws put a stop to marriages between 'Aryans' and Jews - a quarter of all the Jewish men who married married non-Jewish women.

What happened next was the astonishing thing, and I want to use the words of one of the courageous wives, Charlotte Freudenthal. The translation is mine.

'When he (her husband Julius) hadn't come home and it was hours already, I went to the police station and asked what was wrong. One of the policemen told me: 'Go to Rosenstrasse.' I had no idea where that was, but he told me the way.

I saw many people in Rosenstrasse. Most of them were women. SS men were standing in front of the building.. naturally they didn't let anyone in. They told us to go home. We didn't do that. Only later we went, because it was cold. But we agreed: 'We'll come back.' The next day.

On the next day there were more people in Rosenstrasse. We kept crying out, over and over again, every day: 'We want our husbands back!' We knew what would happen to them if we didn't get them out… We handed things into the building.. clean clothes.

We weren't afraid. Well, maybe some were afraid. It goes without saying.

Then.. they set up machine guns. They said: 'If you don't go home, we'll shoot! Just a few people ran away. Well, you could hardly expect everyone to stay.. but the rest of us called out.. 'Don't go away! Don't go away!'

I was pushed forwards. I was standing right in front of one of the machine guns. I saw the belts in the machine gun. I'd had no idea what they looked like till then. They screamed something at us, but we screamed louder: 'Murderers! Cowards!' Then I wondered what would happen if I was shot. I thought mainly about my husband. 'I won't be able to save him,' I thought. 'It's all finished.' It was terrifying how loud it was, and how loudly we shouted. Then an SS man shouted something I didn't understand. And then - they withdrew. They took the machine guns away. Then it went really quiet, everything was quiet.'

And they succeeded. The men were released, and throughout Germany, the lives of the Jewish partners in mixed marriages were spared. A small gleam of light in the darkness of Nazi Germany. A pity, only, that more Germans didn't stand up and protect their friends, their relations, their work colleages.

There were other people in Germany who saved Jews who weren't their spouses or their children - so maybe you could say their actions were more praiseworthy. But the women who demonstrated in the Rosenstrasse came out in public and faced up, publicly, to a brutal regime. And faced it down. It's been pointed out that the massacre of a lot of German women would have been a stunning own goal for the regime - and it would have got out, no doubt about that. Maybe the machine guns were never intended to be used. The women didn't know that, though.

They'd already put in years of quiet heroism. There was enormous pressure on 'Aryan' spouses to divorce their Jewish partners. Many did. Those who refused had to share the misery of the Jewish population; miserly food rations, no clothing coupons - they had to buy second-hand clothes, or nothing - no radios, no pets, no pictures on the walls, even, no soap or razors for shaving. Maybe their love and obstinacy toughened them up for those days and hours in the cold of Rosenstrasse.

There's a wonderful film, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, called just 'Rosenstrasse.' Unfortunately, the English-subtitled version is only available as a Region 1 dvd - I've checked it up. It's really powerful and moving, well worth viewing if you can.

Though I didn't include the Rosenstrasse protest in 'Saving Rafael,' it was nevertheless part of the inspiration for the book, which is also about faithfulness - to love, not just between a boy and a girl, but between friends and neighbours.

I guess it also means a lot to me because I am the child of a 'mixed marriage', not confessionally mixed, but between members of two nations who'd only just been at war. I was called a 'mongrel' when I was a child; British people disapproved of my father marrying my mother, and in Graz, where my parents met, the local Nazis sent my mother threatening letters and wanted to shave her head, or worse, for 'prostituting herself with the enemy.' Of course neither of my parents was threatened with murder in a concentration camp, but their love did require a lot of fortitude and loyalty from them. The still greater strength and courage of the Rosenstrasse women gets to me, moves me immeasurably.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

CAUTION, NOVELISTS: historians at work - Emma Darwin

The other day I was talking to a writer friend about my current project, and she urged me to read a particular novel set in the same period, centred on the same sort of people. I made a polite but non-committal answer, because I can't tell you how certain I was that I'd do nothing of the kind.

The thing is, someone else's historical novel is their re-visioning and re-imagining of that time. How the novel is structured, how it's voiced, what historical material it uses, what it writes on the spaces between the facts, what it elaborates in the gaps in the record... all of those are the product of that writer's self. Their consciousness, their nature as a storyteller, is the creative engine and the organising principle, not mine. It's not just a question of not wanting to plagiarise unconsciously (and Heyer spotted Cartland's plagiarism in Cartland's taking things Heyer had invented as historical material). It's much more that while all writers of historical fiction are at one remove from the world they're trying to evoke, I don't want mine to be a third-hand world.

Charles Dickens' French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities is not the same as Hilary Mantel's in A Place of Greater Safety, or Marge Piercy's contemporaneous City of Darkness, City of Light. Georgette Heyer's Waterloo is not Thackeray's (she was shocked by how wrong many of his facts are!), and I avoided both when I was writing The Mathematics of Love. From the moment when I realise I want to write about a period, I stop reading historical fiction set in it.

What's less obvious is that a similar problem exists with the history books. What a historian writes is also - to an extent that historians haven't always been willing to acknowledge - filtered through that historian's consciousness: not just their personality but the biases and discourses of their time. Carlyle's French Revolution is not the same as Simon Schama's, and both will leave things out - different things - that I need to know about.

Mind you, History, as a discipline, has changed. J H Elliott's classic short study, Imperial Spain, was first published in 1963, and has been on syllabuses and reading lists ever since. For the second, revised edition, which came out in 2002, he points out that a book of this kind written now would never have so little to say about the experience of women. In the meantime, Women's History has brought us treasure troves such as Marilyn Yalom's History of the Wife. As someone who writes battles and politics, but also childbirth and cooking, that's not the only kind of book I need, but it helps a lot.

But there's a more fundamental problem. History, as a discipline, is about finding the larger patterns and forces which shaped lives in the past. An honest historian may acknowledge some evidence which exists but has yet to be fitted in. But still, the project will be to synthesise things to explain the whole picture. And yet always, as a novelist, I'm aware that the opposite was probably also true. You know that plan of a medieval village you copied into your exercise book, aged around ten? No one village looks like that because they all have their quirks, but that plan is more true as History, beause it presents the essence of the matter. If you think round your friends I'd put money on every single one of them having several characteristics which don't fit the norm for their job/background/class/ethnicity/gender/nationality. The essence of gender history is that husbands batter wives, but that doesn't mean that no wife has ever battered her husband, and my characters are individuals, not essences. If I want to put a battered husband in my novel, I shall. I'll have to work harder to convince the reader, but that's never a bad thing for me as a writer, or for my reader. As I was talking about on my own blog a while ago, the expected thing slips past the reader too easily: it's the surprising, the off-beat, the taking-aback thing, done properly, which catches the reader and holds them long enough for the story to come alive.

Of course ordinary, individual lives aren't ignored by historians: history "from below" is big business. We've got more sophisticated, too: a book such as Judith Flanders' The Victorian House starts with the evidence of books about etiquette and household management, but then the much more complex and slippery reality needs a different kind of teasing out. Even the absence of evidence can now have shrewd insights read into it, which is something at which novelists might be able to teach historians a thing or two: apparently Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is on several undergraduate History syllabuses, not because it should be read as History, but as an example of the kind of imaginative effort that should be part of any historian's practice.

And you can go back to original sources. If you're trying to bring to life a real, historical character then with luck there will be plenty of those - though again, you have to be wary of the biases and discourses forming anything with more creative input than an account book or a warrant of execution. As Alison Weir describes, Eleanor of Aquitaine's contemporaries didn't find her day-to-day presence, ruling the kingdom for Henry II, worthy of record: women were only good for sex and procreation, so that's what was written down about Eleanor, and you need to go back to charters and Privy Council records to discover otherwise. Yet (as I found, similarly, when researching Elizabeth Woodville for A Secret Alchemy), later historians still didn't examine, let alone challenge, the version of the Queen that was handed down from her own time: the discourse of their times wasn't so different. What we think of as History is, much of the time, just someone else's version of it.

So original sources are no guarantee that your apprehension of your period hasn't been pre-sifted, limited, interfered with, and that's always supposing that you can find the sources. If your novel's about a fishwife in 12th century Cumberland, the original sources will all be in Welsh, except when they're in Norman French, and they're extremely unlikely to be in any such woman's own hand or voice (the same is true for, say, accounts of ordinary soldiers before the 19th century.) What's more, one particular, real fishwife's experience may not be at all what you want or can use, because your novel isn't about her, it's about someone else. So you might well be better off with more general accounts: a History of the Wife, and a History of the Medieval Cumbrian Fishing Industry, and any number of other histories of religion, food, textiles, architecture, transport, politics. And then you do the maths - the listening - the imagining - the dreaming - in the spaces between all that history. Historians are in the business of synthesising a general picture from particular experience. Novelists do it the other way round.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Luck by Imogen Robertson

Perhaps it is the uncertain economic situation, (actually it’s not really uncertain, is it? It is certainly bad), or perhaps it is the fact good fortune seems to play a great role in every writer’s career, but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about luck and the talismans people use to draw it to them or keep it, both now and in the past.

I’m a superstitious rationalist. That means although I don’t really believe it makes any difference to my fortunes, I still find myself bowing to magpies, that I avoid seeing the new moon through glass, and that my desk is covered in joyful Buddhas. I suspect I am not alone and can tell you that all of us who are secretly delighted when finding a four-leaf clover will enjoy browsing Steve Roud’s book The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. It’s a wonderful piece of scholarship, and I have made much use of it over the last couple of years. Handle with care though, if you are superstitious by nature it can have the same effect as a hypochondriac reading a medical dictionary. Did you know, for instance, that you should be very careful of parsley? Transplanting it, or the giving or receiving of a plant is terribly dangerous. You have been warned.

It’s particularly interesting though how many of the talismans mentioned in the book are about warding off witches and / or bad luck, rather than, like my cheerful Buddahs, attracting the good. Reading the book gives the impression of a very worried nation constantly fingering their holed stones, and pouncing on horseshoes to keep off witches and their influence, while taking the occasional break to try and work out who they are going to marry. My current theory is that this emphasis on avoiding bad luck in the past, by which I mean anything up to the mid-twentieth century really, shows us an important difference between then and now. Imagine you live in a time when a minor accident could kill you, or prevent you from working, when a fever could be fatal or a bad harvest could leave your family hungry. I guess in those circumstances it is the bad luck you think about. You would be watchful against it, and take whatever precautions you could. Now imagine you are relatively comfortable, by which I mean you have access to modern healthcare and social services. Perhaps you start thinking how it would be nice to have more, you know, stuff, and you start looking about for it, and therefore buying little happy buddhas to usher it in. Now, I’m not saying that everyone up to 1946 was living in a constant state of fear, human being have always known how to have a good time when they can, but looking at these protective walls people tried to build around themselves is a reminder that it was a more dangerous world. Castles might look beautiful, but they mean you are standing on a battlefield.

Then there are the gentry level ways of warding off ill luck or preserving the good. Here we are often speaking of rare or very old items around which legends have been built. In Island of Bones I invented a talisman for the town of Keswick called the Luck of Gutherscale Hall, but though that particular item exists only in my imagination, I based its history on a number of local relics. The Luck of Eden Hall can be seen at the V & A, there’s an excellent article about its legend here. Supposedly a gift from the Fair Folk, it seems to have been made in Syria in the 13th century. Equally in Justin Pollard’s book, Secret Britain, which would make a great Christmas gift for History Girls and Boys everywhere by the way, you can read about the Fairy Flag of Dunvegan, fragments of which were carried by MacLeod pilots in WWII for protection. Now when is the best time to look for four-leaved clovers again?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

'Living With History' by A L Berridge

I hope I’ll be forgiven a rather longer and more personal post this month. For most of the year I seem to have been moaning about the difficulties of being a historical writer, and as the family time of Christmas looms closer it occurs to me there’s something even worse.

Living with one.

My own husband, Paul, is a hero for doing it. When he found me wandering about with a rucksack of rocks on my back and I explained I wanted to know what a 17th century hunchback felt like, he only said ‘Uh-huh,’ and went to make the tea. When he caught me crying over my computer because a young sergeant had died in the Charge of the Light Brigade, he gave me a hug. When I was trying to master 17th century rapier work and made a hole in the ceiling, he just fetched a ladder and started to mend it.

He’s not perfect. He used to help me work out fencing movements, but stopped when I was writing ‘Honour and the Sword’ and asked him to stand a little lower so I could see if I could feasibly knee him in the balls. But I’d still say he’s a hero for putting up with me, and would guess there are many others making similar sacrifices every day. 

The hardest thing, I think, is having to deal with the disengagement. The reality of cohabiting with a historical writer is that you’re living with someone who’s only half in the same world.

Here’s an example of such a writer, a diary entry from a Cambridge historian who was working on a book called ‘The Parting of Friends’, about the Wilberforces and Henry Manning:

"I was so absorbed in my work this morning that I forgot my name! When I went to the parlour for coffee, I looked at the list to tick off my name and was puzzled that I could not find it. I was looking for ‘Wilberforce’!"

I can identify with this, but I also know how irritating it is to live with. I know, because the historian’s name was David Newsome, and he was my father.

First page of the diary he kept until his death in 2004
 It is a strange thing to read your own father’s diaries, but I’m his Literary Executor and it’s part of my job. My sister Janet and I have just published some of his early lectures and articles, and the process was strangely humbling. I’d read his books, of course, but he was still 'my dad', and I’d never quite taken in what a giant he was in his own world. Academic histories don’t attract big sales figures, and although he won the Whitbread Best Biography in 1980, I hadn’t fully appreciated what that meant.

It was only when I read the quotation from A.N. Wilson we chose for our back cover that I had my first real glimpse of the truth: ‘The most engagingly readable, the most sympathetic, the most intelligent historian of the nineteenth century’.

I’d kill for a review like that.

But at the time I often found his absorption with history an irritation. We had a father who knew Cardinal Newman died on the 11th of August, but struggled to remember our birthdays. And he had always been like that. When he was doing an Officer Initiative Test on National Service, the sergeant-major apparently caught him deep in conversation about some abstruse mediaeval philosophy, said just ‘Gawd!’, and passed on. My father used to relate this anecdote with great delight, but I confess my sympathies were often with the sergeant-major.

And perhaps I was wrong.

In one of the essays we’ve reprinted in 'Historical Vignettes', he wrote of historians:

‘In order to understand the past, they must do their utmost to obliterate all thoughts about the present. They have to shed their contemporary outlook in order to immerse themselves in a relatively alien world.’

I’d bet I’m not the only one feeling a pang of recognition at that. When I was struggling with a passage on 17th century torture and a telephone caller identified himself as ‘British Gas’, I can still remember the agonizing seconds of silence while my brain was thinking ‘What???’ I was in a world where there was no such thing, no such concept, no such reality at all.

It doesn’t mean we don’t care about this world, only that at times the other is just as real. I was oddly reassured as a daughter to read this rather sad little passage in my father’s diary when my mother had taken us away for a few days:

“In the course of a dull and lonely day did 17 pages. But felt strangely depressed at times, recovered by the evening and the thought of my family returning. Had the oddest supper of cornflakes and hot milk and pork pie...”

What we want, of course, is to have both, and sometimes we try to take our families with us into the other world. I doubt I’m the only one who’s dragged her husband off the beach to plunge into a dark museum, with promises of ‘Honestly, you’ll enjoy it when you get there’. My dad did it too, but more subtly. Part of his love of history was almost nostalgic, especially for the Edwardian age, and he shared it with us all:

David Newsome, aka 'my dad

 “Afterwards we cleared the lounge so that I could dance with the children to Harry Davidson’s ‘Those were the Days!’ A superb evening with the ‘Circus Girl’ and ‘Arcadians’ and ‘Count of Luxemburg’; also ‘Hello, Hello, who’s your lady friend?’ Why do I love these things so? Part of a world that is quite gone.” (October 31st 1964)

In case it isn’t screamingly obvious, by the way, I absolutely adored my father.

 But there’s a danger in it. When we live in the hinterland, there is always a risk of the boundaries between worlds becoming blurred. Domestic priorities rub shoulders with historical ones, and we see nothing wrong in the juxtaposition of the two. One of my dad’s diary entries devotes as much space to the day’s discussions with his students (one on Hildebrand, one on Plato) as it does to the domestic upheaval accompanying my own birth.

And why not? It could go just as easily the other way, and when confronted by an incident of interest to the historians of tomorrow, my father’s attention was just as clearly fixed on the domestic:
“A most eventful day.  a) Lotty had her litter.  She escaped during the night, had the kittens in the pram! b) The Queen’s visit....she was very easy to talk with.  Talked about the fashion of beard growing...also said the Shah of Persia was a “very serious man”. She was dressed in pink.” (May 8th 1959) 

It’s only a problem when the two worlds overlap in our minds, and a) and b) lose their distinction. It’s at night we’re most vulnerable. We’re thinking over our current writing, but the real world intervenes to create a surreal blend of the two. My dad had long been mulling over the relative merits of Cardinals Newman and Manning, and when he was a Cambridge don this manifested itself in a dream in which Newman scored a First Class degree and Manning a lowly Third.
I’ve had similar experiences. When I was writing ‘In the Name of the King’ I was wrestling with the story question of how my hero could track down the villain who had ruined and humiliated him, and somewhere in my sleep I rejoiced to find the answer. It was only when I woke that it occurred to me it was unlikely a 17th century nobleman would have had access to Google Search.

I’ll never be in my father’s league as a writer, but I’ve inherited the irritating bits and at last I understand them. A historical writer stands with a foot in each of two worlds – and is always in imminent danger of doing the splits. I was never sufficiently sympathetic to my father, who died long before I published my own first book, but I wish I could go back now and tell him I understand. I am so very grateful that my husband does.

Which is why finally this post isn’t dedicated to my dad, but to Paul and all his fellow sufferers. To the poor partners, siblings and children of other History Girls, to the History-Widowers and History-Orphans who have to live with someone who spends half their time in a different century. We’ll all have our own stories about this, and I do hope some of the other History Girls will share theirs.

All I can say for myself to all of these victims is – Salut. You are the real heroes, and our only justification is that you must be as mad as we are to put up with it...