Sunday, 30 September 2012

September competition

With yesterday's post fresh in your minds, all you have to do is answer the question below, to win one of five copies of Viking Boy:

‘Was there a historical novel you read as a child that still influences you today, and if so, what was it?’

Closing date: 7th October

Competitions open only to UK residents - sorry!

Saturday, 29 September 2012

A South London Viking Boy - Tony Bradman

Our guest post this month comes from a very old friend, Tony Bradman. I (Mary Hoffman speaking) have known Tony for so long that I can't even remember when or where we first met. We've been on committees together, argued over the merits of books, sometimes agreed, campaigned for justice in both global and individual causes. So I know he is an all round good bloke, with his heart in the right place. I am not much of a one for weapons of war but if it ever came to any other kind of  fight, I'd certainly want him as my wingman.

Here's what our guest says about himself:

Tony Bradman has been involved in the world of children’s books as a writer, reviewer and anthologist for over 30 years. He has been a member or chair of various committees and a judge of several major book awards. And yet strangely he is still not rich or famous enough to retire...

Photo courtesy of Speaking of Books

This autumn sees the publication of my first standalone novel, Viking Boy, and I’m very honoured (as a mere male) to be invited by the History Girls to explain how I came to write it. I feel that I’m in exalted company, and in particular I’m delighted to be following in the footsteps of Kevin Crossley-Holland, a writer I admire enormously. His own recent novels Bracelet of Bones and Scramasax set the bar for fiction with a Viking background high indeed!

I have a very clear memory of the moment when my passion for all things Viking began. It would have been on a Saturday morning, probably in 1965 or maybe 1966. My parents had been divorced for a couple of years, and my Dad’s access visits generally involved him taking me out on Saturdays. We went to all sorts of places in London – occasionally somewhere special like the British Museum or the Tower of London, more often to see a film – but on the way home my Dad always gave me some money to spend in a shop of my choosing.

For a while that had usually been a toyshop where I could buy an Airfix model. But by the age of eleven or 12 I had become a bookish boy, and had discovered that my Dad could be persuaded to buy me a book. He was a reader too, and Puffins at that time were very reasonably priced – a children’s novel could be had for three shillings and sixpence in old money, which is only 17 and a half pence today (this all sounds incredibly historical, but then it is nearly 50 years ago!) – and the place to find them was the nearest branch of W.H. Smith.

So there I was, browsing through the shelves, when I came upon a title that caught my interest – Horned Helmet by Henry Treece, an author I hadn’t come across before. I pulled the book out and was instantly captivated by the striking image on the cover. It showed a bearded Viking warrior in a horned helmet who was also holding a sword and shield. Behind him were two more Vikings, and the billowing sail of a Viking ship. Of course, at the time I didn’t know that the cover and brilliant black and white pictures inside the book were by the legendary illustrator Charles Keeping. But there was something about those characters – their wildness, their sheer toughness – that I responded to.

Horned Helmet is the story of Beorn, a fugitive Icelandic boy who falls in with a group of Vikings led by Starkad, the warrior on the cover. It’s a short book (128 pages) written in a very spare, even stark style which I realised later is Treece’s attempt to reproduce the clipped, bare language of the original sagas. At the time I read it one gulp, and loved everything about the world it depicted – the chainmail and swords and spears and axes, the menace of these men, their easy banter and the sheer practicality they relied on in dealing with the harsh northern world they lived in. It’s not a word I would have used then, but it’s the only one that really sums up how I felt then – Vikings were just very cool. For a boy living with his mum and sister in grotty rented flat in south London they were like a bracing blast of chill northern air, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

After that I went through the rest of Henry Treece’s books like a dose of salts, and loved his Viking Trilogy. I moved on to Rosemary Sutcliff (some of whose books Charles Keeping also illustrated), although she wrote far less about the Vikings than the Celts and Romans – but she did produce two of my all-time favourite Viking novels, Blood Feud and The Shield Ring, her story of the long resistance of the Cumbrian Vikings to the Norman yoke. Reading fiction about the Vikings also led me to reading some proper history, and that helped me to fill my mental picture of the Viking world with a great deal more detail.

I should mention one last influence. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a lot of my internal visual image of the Viking world is taken from one of the greatest movies of all time (I can never understand why it isn’t number one in the Sight and Sound list of great movies), The Vikings. Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Viking ships, Kirk Douglas throwing battle-axes at a castle gate so he can use them to climb up it, lots of quaffing ale from cow horns, rampant sexism, Ernest Borgnine leaping to his death in a snake-filled pit with a Viking war cry – I mean, what’s not to like? I probably saw it on TV at about the same time I read Horned Helmet, and not long after that my Dad took me to see another Viking epic, The Long Ships starring Richard Widmark as a Viking adventurer and Sidney Poitier as his deadly enemy, a north African corsair.

Let’s fast forward a few years now, to my early days as a writer of children’s books. I remember talking to an editor in the 80s – I started out as a writer of poetry and picture book texts, but wanted to write historical fiction. The editor warned me off, saying that ‘nobody was interested in historical fiction any more’, so I put that particular ambition on hold and concentrated on shorter books. I had a fair amount of success in that area and made a decent living out of it, so by the time historical fiction was back in fashion (as it has been recently) I was locked into other kinds of books. I still wanted to write longer fiction, but I wasn’t sure I could afford to. I’m a slow writer, and I knew a novel would take me far more time than the average advance for one would buy.

Enter a certain Mr David Fickling, or to be more precise, his comic project, known at the time as The DFB and subsequently transmuted into The Phoenix. I’ve known (and admired) David for a long time – he’s a great publisher. He asked me if I had any ideas for a story strip, and I came up with an outline for a story about a Viking boy whose home is raided and his father killed. At around that time I’d written a short book for Barrington Stoke about Harald Hardrada, the Norwegian king and Viking adventurer killed at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 (my book is called Harald Hardnut, which is pretty much what hardrada means in Old Norse). My interest in the Vikings had never died, but the research I’d done for that book had brought it to the front of my mind.

It didn’t work out with The DFB, but not long after that I had a conversation with another editor I’ve known for a long time, Gill Evans of Walker. Gill told me they were going to be publishing some graphic novels, so I showed her my outline for Viking Boy, as it had become by then. Gill liked it, but as we were talking about it I suddenly realised that I wanted to write it as a novel. I was lucky enough to be commissioned, and set about working on it.

This involved doing a lot of research. I read about the Viking period, of course, but I also read the Viking sagas to get a feel for the kind of people they were – the sagas are amazing stories, full of incident and insight into human nature, with fully rounded characters who leap off the page. I studied some Old Norse so I could read the Havamal, the brilliant collection of Viking proverbs and practical wisdom. I visited Norway and Denmark to do some on-the-spot research at the Viking Ship Museums in Oslo and Roskilde. The latter has a shipyard where you can go for a ride in a reproduction of a small Viking ship, which I did, of course. Inside the Roskilde museum there’s also an area where you can dress up as a Viking. There were few people around the day I was there, so of course I did what I would have done as a Viking-mad 11-year-old...

The writing itself took quite a long time. I’ve spent most of my career writing fiction of less than a few thousand words, so to begin with I felt I just wasn’t writing enough. That led to a first draft of 60,000 words, but Walker wanted a junior novel of not much more than 30,000. The prospect of cutting my draft by half was daunting, but I got it down to 42,000. Then came the copy edit, and although I was asked to change very little, when I re-read the story I had that sinking feeling we all get sometimes when we realise that what we have written could be a lot better. It was just too long-winded in parts – it needed to be as sparse and stark and cool as I could make it. In recent years I’ve been working with my son Tom – we’ve written quite a few books together now – and he gave me some advice that really helped. So I settled down for a six-week burst of cutting and re-writing, and the final version is 32,000 words. And though I say so myself, I think it’s a much better book – a proper Viking book.

That was the point for me. I wanted to pack into it everything I liked about the Vikings. There had to be a boy on quest for his father, mostly because as someone whose Dad wasn’t around much in my childhood the theme of fathers and sons has a lot of resonance for me – so my young hero Gunnar decides to go to Valhalla to get his Dad back. There had to be a special sword with a name, and a beautiful Viking longship. There had to be a fantasy element – Odin makes an appearance, as do his Valkyries (women warriors who ride giant flying wolves in the original tales!). There had to be lots of tough Viking warriors (one of them is called Starkad!) and some great fight scenes which were exciting but which would still leave the reader in no doubt that violence is terrifying, especially when it affects those we love. Last but not least there had to be a great plot, one with the kind of twist that’s a real surprise, and as we all know, the dark art of creating a great plot is not easy.

Walker have done me proud in terms of production – Viking Boy is a very handsome paperback with a great cover and black and white illustrations by a young French illustrator called Pierre-Denis Goux. It was a very long journey from that moment when I became a fan of the Vikings, but I love the idea that it started with a book and ended with one too. Whether or not I’ve succeeded in writing a good story is something only readers can tell, but I have a strong feeling that if a certain 11-year-old south London boy had picked it up in W.H. Smiths in 1965 he would have read it at a gulp. I hope so, anyway.

Let's hope the journey hasn't ended yet, Tony! And, blog readers, look out for a giveaway of copies of Viking Boy tomorrow.  I'm only disappointed we didn't get a photo of Tony dressed up as  Viking!

Friday, 28 September 2012

Interesting Times, by K. M. Grant

Martin Amis has said that if September 11 2001 had to happen, he was not sorry it happened in his lifetime.   I'm sure I needn't press the point that he was not, in any way, suggesting that 9/11 was a good thing.  He was just saying that if it had to happen, this paradigmatic shift in the notions of war and peace, of safety and danger, of power and submission, then he wanted to see, to experience, to watch the unfolding aftermath in all its fascination and confusion.  In The Second Plane, a compilation of journalism and short stories, we can follow him following it.

There have been many paradigmatic shifts in history, some acknowledged at the time, some only recognised much later.  A later recognition was the Battle of Poitiers in 732, during which Charles Martel beat the army of the Umayyad Caliphate and halted the Muslim takeover of Europe.  Had Charles Martel lost, it's possible I wouldn't be writing this:  we might be living under a Taliban theocracy.  Closer to our own time, contemporaries knew the defeat of Hitler marked some kind of turning point.  I'm always sorry for those who died not knowing who'd won the war.  Such an important thing to know.  The tearing down of the Berlin Wall was another turning point.  High on the 'non-recognition at the time' list, however, must be the Norman Conquest.  'Not much happened this year' wrote one monk in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the 1066 page, or words to that effect.  Well, he kens the noo, as Scots like to say.

For obvious reasons, historical novelists are drawn to 'interesting times'.  We place fictional characters amid the action of real events for the very good reason that people like to imagine, or have imagined for them, what it must have been like to be part of something huge.  Equally, the individual experience of the great event can bring the great event to life.  Reading historical novels also an easy, though untrustworthy, way of learning stuff.  And this brings me to a great book I almost missed because it's not on a 'books set around a great event' list.

If you have an iPod, can I recommend downloading E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, narrated by the author himself?   Many readers may know the book already.  If you don't and you care to read it or listen to it, you'll experience America at the turn of the 20th century as you've never experienced it before.   Through its interweaving of lives, both real and fictional, I know Harry Houdini and like him, though his mourning for his mother is vaguely unhinged.  I know J. P. Morgan - spookily dislikable, and Henry Ford.   But most of all, I understand 'the value of the duplicable event' to use Mr. Doctorow's description of the mechanisation of production, and how this changed our perception of everything.

Pace Martin Amis, after listening to Ragtime I'm with Logan Pearsall Smith:  'People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading'.   Now that I'm so hooked on audio books I may never go anywhere again.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Herschel Greenszpan by Louisa Young

I write this really only because I want to put up this picture. This is Herschel Greenszpan.

Herschel was an eastern boy, seventeen years old. He had been born in Hanover in '21; his father was a Polish tailor with three children dead already out of six. Hershel was clever; he was lazy, he had a good memory and a hot temper. He was dark, sickly, religious, proud. 

On the Sunday, November 6,  he’d had a big fight with his uncle Abraham, known as Albert, of Maison Albert on the rue des Petites Epicuries. Herschel’s papers had expired. Papers were essential but no-one would provide them. He wasn’t German, though he had been born in Germany, and he wasn’t allowed to be Polish though his parents were, and though he was living in Paris he couldn’t be French because France wouldn’t have him. Without papers he had to leave but nowhere - including where he’d come from - would let him in. Also, he needed money: he was forbidden to leave France with it, or to arrive anywhere else without it. But even if anyone had any to send him, it couldn’t be brought in. He could not do this without that being in place, but that was banned to his kind.

He had been staying in the chambre de bonne of the flat that Abraham had left because it wasn’t safe for the family to stay there unless they threw the boy out  - and they couldn’t do that - why not?  Well, look at him, 100lbs if that, vulnerable and furious, with his eyelashes and his ulcer and his won’t-work-on-the-Sabbath and his four-days-to-leave-France. It would be a hard-hearted uncle who could bring himself to throw a boy like that out. 

A postcard had come from a cousin, Bertha, at Zbaszyn on the Polish border: Herschel’s family - his mother, father and the remaining siblings - in Hanover had been grabbed from their home with nothing and dumped in the woods  - thousands of people dumped there, foisted on the Poles before the law could be changed - nothing to eat and what cash they had been able to bring taken from them at the border. They had been there two weeks and did not know what was going to happen, or indeed what had happened. Bertha had crossed out where she had written could they send money. She knew they couldn’t send money.  

In the course of the row Herschel had stormed off. His friend Nathan went after him to calm him down, and they spent the day together till Nathan had to go home. Herschel went to the Tout Va Bien for something to eat. Uncle Abraham and his brother went there looking for him, later, but the waiter said he’d left an hour before. He had gone to a little hotel in the boulevard Strasbourg. The staff remembered him, so young. They noticed his lamp on, late into the night in the little room.

On the Monday, which was rainy, he drank black coffee and smoked and went to a small shop he had passed the night before, where he bought the gun. When he arrived at the German Embassy, the clerk told him he was in the wrong place, to go to the consulate. Herschel was so used to being in the wrong place, so used to perfectly good places becoming the wrong place by virtue of his presence in them, that he declined the advice and insisted on being seen. The clerk in the end sent him up to see Ernst vom Rath, let him deal with the boy. 

Herschel shot vom Rath, five times. He said later that he didn't know whether he was going to shoot himself, the diplomat, or the picture of Hitler on the wall.

Vom Rath died two days after the shooting, on the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Nazi Party. Many dinners and celebrations were being held across Nazi territories, and so, when the news broke, it was simple for the Nazi leaders all to ring each other up and unleash a spontaneous patriotic response, a firestorm of riot, theft, murder and kidnapping which came to be known as Krystallnacht. ‘The Jews’, according to the logic, had brought it on themselves. 

There is much more to Herschel's story. It's even more depressing. One thing touched me: a journalist in New York, when setting up a fund to finance Herschel's defence, would not let Jews contribute. She said, if there are no Jews contributing, the Nazis can't say the fund is a cabal, a Jewish plot. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Mission Impossible? - Dianne Hofmeyr



I saw the Hagia Sophia for the first time through prison bars at dawn. It hovered on the horizon, the colour of a blood orange or the inside of a split fig. How tantalising it must have been for inmates of this converted prison where I was staying. 

Mission Impossible is how my guide, Tulay Zeybek Özcan, who grew up in the streets around the Hagia Sophia, describes it. In 537 AD a dome this scale was unprecedented. Under the rule of the Emperor Justinian, Anthemius, his architect, found himself in a geometric fix. How to place a dome the size he envisaged on a square? He solved it by building four massive columns at each corner of the square and on top of these columns he built arches and then filled the arches in with masonry to make curved triangles (pendentives) which spread the weight. The dome was built in the record time of 5 yrs, 10 mths and 4 days by 10 000 workers and with the 40 windows (I counted) between its ribs gives the impression of floating. 

It’s equally a mission impossible in a single History blog, to begin to describe the events that turned this site, which was preceded by two pagan temples, into a Christian church damaged by an earthquake 20 years later, repaired again, and then with the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, turned into a Mosque with all its mosaics plastered and painted over, into finally what it is today – a museum celebrating Byzantine art. 

From high up in the gallery, I’m a novice looking out at an ancient world. I can’t read Greek, or Latin (apart from a few words left over from school days), or the Arabesque script, nor even modern-day Turkish. I see the Hagia Sophia through a veil of ignorance but every now and then I catch a glimpse from the corner of my eye that is startling in its clarity and then it fades again before I can hold on to what I’ve discovered.
my view from the gallery                      
a curved triangular pendentive
layers of candle smoke adding their own patina 
mosaics from 6th century just visible in the arches
a cleaned Corinthian capital 
a cross no bigger than a handprint in a marble wall
fine detail in the mosaics

 marks of the tomb of Anthemius in the marble floor
the floating dome that is no longer a perfect circle

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

all photographs are the copyright of Dianne Hofmeyr. Please do not use without permission. 

Tuesday, 25 September 2012


For any writer of history, one of the most crucial (and sometimes most difficult) tasks is getting the values right.  I don’t just mean cash values, though they can be remarkably tricky to determine. 
For the period in which I specialised as a student - the bridge between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - there’s a very rough, but easy, rule of thumb: multiply by one hundred to find out how much something would be worth today.
On a superficial level, it can sometimes appear to work.  For example, on 20 July 1700, Godfrey Copley (one of the main characters in my PhD) wrote one of the first slips of paper recognisable as a precursor of our modern cheques.
It was made out to transfer £30 'unto Sir Godfrey Kneller in Covent Garden for a half length Picture' (payment is acknowledged by Kneller on the back)
As it happens, it is probably possible to hire a modern painter for around one hundred times that sum. However, you would be lucky to get a Kneller today for less than £50,000 - more than sixteen hundred times as much. The reason is obvious. The object has acquired a different kind of value due to its age and scarcity, and to our different outlook on such things.


 In 1700, no one would have paid anything like that sum - or, in most cases, any money at all - for an object that was three hundred years old.

On the face of it, it’s interesting to find out from Celia Fiennes’ diary that '2 good shoulders of Veale' cost 9 pence in Ripon in 1697, but applying the simple x100 method to get a sense of its value now is useless. Adjusting for decimal coinage, the sum comes out at £3.75, but the place of veal in our lives is so profoundly different that the computation is meaningless. With chicken, for example, using a multiplier doesn’t even work within our lifetimes.  Some of us can remember a time, before intensive rearing, when it was a luxury food.  Comparing the price of a bird in 1962 and 2012 tells us nothing of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the economy then and now because we are not comparing like with like. The slippage can go the other way, of course.  Oysters (the poor man’s protein in Victorian times) still taste of snot, but they are now snotty in a different sense, and so can be on a restaurant menu for £3 each. 

Unless we know the social value of things, it’s impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from what may appear to be treasure troves of information.  Financial records are, on the face of it, a boon for the historian - money transactions tended to be noted, and those documents were preserved - but unless we know (for instance) that the place in which Copley often dined (Pontack’s) was one of the most expensive in London (thanks to its exclusive supply of fine French wines) seeing a bill for his dinner doesn’t tell us much about him or his times.  We even need to know that 'dinner' was a mid-day meal.  More than one historian has jumped to the conclusion that seventeenth century Londoners were given to extensive late-night socialising by assuming that diary entries stating “Dined at home, then to my Lord Derby’s and thence to...” referred to events taking place in the evening.

But back to values, and the kind that are nothing to do with money. Here I’m referring to everything from superficial matters of etiquette to assumptions so deep and automatic that they passed largely unnoticed by commentators at the time.  You may have to read between the lines of diaries and letters to detect these, but they a not too hard to find (and they don’t always match the stereotypes we learned about at school).

I sense that current habits in historical writing risk us losing an accurate appreciation of, or even developing A contempt for, the mindset of people in past times.  One of the most worrying trends is a timidity about endowing leading characters with those attitudes and behaviour patterns that we may find reprehensible, but which were nevertheless standard at the time when the plot is set. 

The casual racism and anti-semitism found in books such as Miss Pettigrew Lives For a day (1938) is unlikely to be shown in a modern novel set at that time (and indeed doesn’t appear in my own Johnny Swanson, set in 1929).  Even if it did, it’s likely that it would be put into the mouth of one of the less attractive characters. 
Are we developing a new cliche within historical fiction, whereby our heroes and heroines have to hold only slightly diluted twentyfirst century attitudes? Is it harder to write a book where a downtrodden servant accepts his or her place in the world (as many have down the ages) than to create a fighter challenging that view of the world?   

When did you last read a book where a someone the author wants the reader to admire and understand was compliantly operating within the social bounds of an ’honour’ driven society? Such societies are depicted in fiction - but usually though the eyes of someone who is challenging their norms, often in a way that would have been most unlikely at the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I can see why that is so - especially in books written for young people. These days you can’t assume that readers know the first thing about a historical period, and conflict is a useful brush for painting the scenery in an engaging way, but giving the protagonist anachronistic attitudes is too easy a way to do it.  When that is accompanied by a subtext implying that the modern attitude is “right” and the old one “wrong” we run the risk of engaging in, and disseminating, a form of historical cultural imperialism. We also reduce the range of our characters.  How much more interesting for example, to get under the skin of someone who truly believed that tearing down the Georgian terraces of 1960s London was a good idea, than to invent a person with a passion for conservation long before the word was in use.

I will brace myself now for the usual onslaught from the thought police, but one area where I think the new norm in publishing is hopelessly sloppy is in the depiction of women in the past.  They tend to be portrayed either as feeble dolts, unaware of their oppression by an unfair world, or as brave warriors lashing out at glass ceilings, and behaving in ways they simply would not have contemplated at the time.  This horribly misrepresents the richness of women’s lives over the centuries, and fails to acknowledge the many ways in which they have employed their intellect and exercised power within the conventions of their own eras - just as modern women, with all the ’advantages’ we value, are operating within conventions of our own.

I am not saying that repression of women is good, that servants should know their place, or that life was “better” when people routinely viewed other races and creeds in ways that we find abhorrent today.  What I am suggesting is that we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that people’s core values and outlooks were different in the past, and that there will come a time when our own assumptions will seem dated, comic, outrageous, or just wrong.

Of course some aspects of human nature transcend all this, which is the reason that historical fiction works at all, but we must avoid creating characters who are more like time travellers from our own world than rounded representatives of theirs. Perhaps the trend began with that awful era of history teaching (20 years ago or so) when pupils were constantly asked “How would you have felt if you were a parlourmaid/Viking/highwayman?”  Those children are now adults, and some of them are working in our industry. I sense that some publishers are getting into the habit of demanding the 'time traveller’ model for, or within, novels set in the past.  Done well, it works, but as a lazy cliche it could send historical fiction back to the doldrums from which it has so recently emerged. 

Monday, 24 September 2012



Autumn Leaves by Millais

A few days ago, I went to Tate Britain to view the latest 'blockbuster' exhibition: Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-garde.

Today, I'm still musing on my reaction to the show, which was more muted than I would have expected, considering my love for the era and art. I found many paintings to be somewhat insipid, even to the point of twee. I found that in life, just as in reproduction, the busy and florid canvasses produced by Holman Hunt are likely to fill me with stark irritation, hardly able to look at one more of his pompous, overblown scenes by the time I'd reached the exit door.

But, what is without doubt in my mind is the fact that, of this group of artists, there are some who really shine for me, and of these my favourites have to be Millais, Burne-Jones and Rossetti; every one of them standing out as great masters above the general throng. And as fascinating as the art are the stories that lie behind their scenes - stories that are, more often than not, linked with the women who they loved; who acted as muses for their art.

Effie Gray in her youth - painted by Thomas Richmond

Many of Millais' paintings are modelled on the figure of Effie Gray, the woman who became his wife but who, at the start of his career, was married to John Ruskin, the influential critic and patron without whose support the Pre-Raphaelites may never have achieved quite the same success.

Millais' portrait of Ruskin, produced while he shared a holiday in Scotland with his patron

Millais was often invited to spend time with his patron and admirer. While on a visit to Scotland, both Mr and Mrs Ruskin posed as models for his work. By day the young artist painted. By night he lay in a room in a lodge, only separated from his hosts by a thin partition wall. He could hear every movement and breath of the woman with whom he'd become obsessed - and no doubt he also realised the lack of physical intimacy occurring in the marital bed.

The Order of Release by Millais, with Effie Ruskin modelling as the wife - currently on show at Tate Britain.

Millais' passion for Ruskin's wife led to the three of them being involved in one of Victorian England's most celebrated scandals. Very soon after that holiday Effie left her husband and faced public disgrace when petitioning for a divorce. During the ensuing court case Ruskin was shown to be a man who was cold and detached from reality, who rejected his young wife's amorous requests and left her plagued by nervous distress - the fact of which was illustrated in this letter to her father:

"He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason...that he imagined that women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person..."

Much speculation was to arise when these facts were presented in the court as to whether Ruskin's disgust had been at the sight of female public hair or a woman's menstruation. But the fire of gossip was eventually doused. Effie was granted her divorce on the grounds of non-consummation - although only after medical examinations that proved she was a virgin still - after which she and Millais were free to wed. Society re-embraced them and they lived a fulfilled domestic life, during which period Millais produced many more great paintings.

One such painting is Autumn Leaves - an apt image for this time of year when the leaves are beginning to fall from trees and the air will soon be fogged and tinged with nostalgic scents of bonfire smoke. In this scene his wife's younger sister, Sophie, is posed as the girl who is just about to throw more leaves onto the burning pyre. The picture is full of symbolism. The fires of passion about to light in this prepubescent girl. The death of youth and innocence. And what is that questioning in Sophie's eyes as they stare right out of the painting's frame? By contrast, the other girls' expressions seem to be very much 'simpler'. All are engrossed in the pile of leaves rather than who might be watching them.

Effie in middle age

Could there have been yet another love triangle affecting Effie's marital life - Effie, who by now had grown older and been worn down by regular childbirths, whose husband was increasingly drawn to paint his younger sister-in-law?

Portrait for a girl (Sophie Gray)

Through other canvasses produced, the viewer is able to view Sophie's transition from a child on the cusp of adulthood to the alluring vision of sensuality where the flushed face is all too knowing, where the red of the lips simply begs to be kissed, and the heart on the front of the model's gown is a blatant statement of growing affection between the artist and his muse.

Whatever happened, or did not, there was talk of Effie being upset and arguments breaking out in the house. The result was that Sophie was asked to leave and, at the age of twenty-four, she suffered a nervous breakdown, going on to exhibit all the signs of what we now call anorexia.

Was that condition caused by Sophie's broken heart? Did the young woman simply wish to retain the form that beguiled her brother-in-law? We shall never know the truth. This affair did not reach the law courts and its intimate details were never exposed as in the case of Ruskin v Gray.

For more on Essie Fox, please see

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Second-generation trauma, by Leslie Wilson

mural at Savignyplatz S-bahn station, Berlin.
Photo: David Wilson
When I was a child, in the Fifties and early Sixties, industry still used sirens - maybe they were even old air-raid sirens, because it would have been a shame to waste them. They sounded like air-raid sirens to me, and every time the siren went at the quarry on the other side of Kendal, I would be completely terrified. My heart would race and I'd listen anxiously to hear if there were any planes coming.

My mother, my brother, and me, 50s

Years later, when I was researching Nazi Germany, I discovered that the people who lived through the war and endured air-raids, blocking out their terror, often began to relive it years later, going through post-traumatic stress disorder. I mentioned this to my mother who said, quite casually. 'Oh, yes. I went through that when I was expecting you.'

Recently, research has been done into the offspring of mothers who have lived in war zones when they were pregnant, or went through trauma, such as 9/11, and it has been found that the children have raised cortisol levels. I think I've got the terminology right. They go through life with that extra level of stress, and this isn't completely pointless and stupid, because if you're an animal living under stressful circumstances, it’s not a bad idea to have offspring whose reactions are a bit quicker and can get themselves out of nasty situations.

In any case, I can imagine that if, every time my mother heard a siren, or fireworks, or thunder, her heart rate sped up, thus constricting the oxygen flow to me, I would learn to be afraid of the same sounds - and I do still find fireworks an unpleasant noise, though I've learned to tolerate them, and also not to be afraid of thunder.

I used to hear my grandmother talking about her family, who were expelled from their homes in Silesia 'in the snow, just with the things they stood up in,' or talking - endlessly, my brother, who was older at the time, tells me - about the Nazis and concentration camps, and about what my grandfather went through when he was persecuted for being a leftist in 1933, and about her own fear of being 'picked out' for looking Jewish (she had auburn hair). What I took in was fear, dread, shuddering, associated with certain names. 'Hitler' was the chief of these, because my grandmother - not unreasonably - believed he was Antichrist, something that wasn't a healthy thing to believe during the Third Reich, especially not if you screamed it aloud, as she did, when you were taken into psychiatric hospital because you had a nervous breakdown. I knew Hitler was dreadfully evil before I ever knew the details of what he had done.
When I was somewhere between eight and ten - it's hard to remember the exact age things happened in childhood - my mother started to talk about the time the Russians captured her. She was a teenager in Austria, and they wanted to rape her. She managed to get away and escape the soldiers' pursuit, but was too terrified to go back to Graz, so she escaped into the mountains - this was in April - where she had virtually nothing to eat - she was eating tree-bark - and finally came down into Carinthia, where she collapsed on the first road she came to, was picked up by a British Army patrol, and taken to hospital in Velden. If she hadn't got so far, she would very likely have died up there, and maybe nobody would ever have known what had become of her.

She talked to me about these things, because she had nobody else to talk to, and I tried as best I could to comfort her. She told me about children as young as twelve being raped to death by Russian soldiers (I used to lie awake, brooding on those raped children) and how, when the Russian officer shut her into the room where he intended to have first go, she could hear a woman screaming upstairs, and knew what was happening to her.

But my mother would always end by assuring me that my brother and I were secure - that was the word she used. In my childhood, there was the Atom Bomb and the Cuban missile crisis, but I didn't live in a war zone. Very true. Later, too, when I began to want to write about Nazi Germany, she was angry with me, saying none of this was anything to do with me. Other people have asked me why I write about these things, and the same implication is there, that it was not my issue, because I was born in England with an English father, and didn't experience it.

Of course, fiction would be pretty impoverished if we all only wrote about what we've experienced, as my co-authors in this blog and their many readers know well. But actually, I did feel as if I had experienced these things, and the research and reading I have done, as well as the fiction grounded in that research, are the result of a deep compulsion to give a shape to inchoate horrors in my own psyche, to find out what these internalised terrors represented. What was behind my grandfather's temper, for example, his shoutings and rigidities, and my grandmother's shudder when she said 'concentration camp.'

photo: David Wilson
Since then, I've talked to other people whose parents had experienced the traumas of World War 2, and it has been a tremendous relief to me, and, I think, to them, to realise that we were not alone. Second generation trauma is a very real thing. A rabbi said to me once, about the Holocaust: 'What one generation can't cope with, they hand down to the next generation to deal with as best they can.' And I read, somewhere, about children whose parents had been partisans during the war, in Yugoslavia. They had never been told about this, and the parents were staggered - and probably appalled - to find their children disappearing into the woods and playing games that recreated their own lives and experiences as partisans.

It's odd, really, that many people find it so hard to comprehend how profoundly the next generation can be affected by the things their parents went through. Perhaps it's just too unsettling a concept. As far as my mother was concerned, I think she wanted to achieve for us what she had never had for herself, a safe, whole world to grow up in, and with her own anguish and trauma so vividly alive - till the end of her life she had nightmares of hiding in the undergrowth while the Russians searched for her, poking among the bushes with a stick, which at one moment came within inches of her face - she couldn't cope with our pain and anxieties - and I can see how they must have felt insubstantial to her.

I'm writing about this, not in any spirit of complaint or because I feel unfortunate - I don't, and neither did my mother; she knew she'd been lucky compared to many - but because I do think it is important to understand the phenomenon. Not least because that passed-on trauma is surely an ingredient in the long-standing, protectively-nursed hatreds that send nationalities and ethnic groups to war with each other; the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.

It's like the gut bacteria that are passed on to the infant from the mother via the birth canal, which science is discovering are far more significant to us than has ever been guessed; we are habitats, actually, populated by ideas, impressions, emotions from the past. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good reason for writing historical fiction.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

WASHING LINEN IN PUBLIC: early modern laundry in a small household, by Jane Borodale

From 'Splendor Solis', 1531

For the last few days I’ve been preoccupied with the state of the weather. Any cloud scudding over the horizon, abruptly enfeebled sunshine or a bluster of wind could herald RAIN. We’ve run out of oil here at home, and this means that our stove is out of action and I’m missing it badly. It’s not so much the difficulty of being unable to cook (cup-a-soups were invented for moments like these, and Sunday lunch can be cooked on a fire outside). It’s not that the house is developing a dampish, bone-creeping kind of chill that reminds me of visiting decommissioned rural churches in winter, or caves… No. It’s that I can’t dry the darned washing unless conditions outside are exactly favourable.

So of course I’ve been thinking about the difficulties faced by women trying to maintain a supply of clean family linen in the past, and with a renewed respect for the vastly effortful nature of it. Laundry gets but a passing mention on the whole in contemporary accounts, for obvious reasons, but here’s a rag-bag of laundry thoughts gleaned from random corners. Some of the most ordinary domestic tasks in history seem shrouded in mystery, and laundry is no exception. But it now seems generally accepted that all but the very poorest kept the undergarments close to their bodies clean and freshly changed – the shirts and shifts and smocks and chemises known as small linen. It was the outer garments that were less frequently, if ever, washed. Brushed sometimes, shaken, sprinkled with a variety of powders and herbal mixtures, dabbed at with concoctions and remedies for stains (not enough space here today for talk of outerwear, nor bleaching, starch or indigo; maybe another time). But clean linen though, that was the sure and outward sign of a respectable housewife. Not everyone approved. Defoe complains that where ‘our grandfathers were content with shifting their linen perhaps twice a week, our nicer gentlemen have brought it to two clean shirts a day.’

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin
Gervase Markham advises in The English Housewife (1615), ‘Let the housewife’s garments be comely, cleanly and strong’. In the kitchen ‘she must be cleanly both in body and garments’. And household linen such as bedsheets, napkins, towels and tablecloths were also to be spotless. William Harrison (1535-1593) comments in his ‘The Description of England’: ‘Our inns are very well furnished with napery, bedding and tapestry, especially with napery; for beside the linen used at the tables, which is commonly washed daily, is such and so much as belongeth unto the estate and calling of the guest. Each comer is sure to lie in clean sheets, wherein no man hath been lodged since they came from the laundress or out of the water wherein they were last washed.’

Jean-Francois Millet
How did they do it? Bucking with lye was done first. (Lye being of course an alkaline solution made from ash and water.) Dirty linen was loosely folded into tubs or troughs and the lye poured over, soaking the cloth, then emptied, sometimes repeatedly until the liquor ran clear. (Bucking tubs were often on a stand, and had a spigot near the bottom for draining easily into a low vessel underneath.) Then, linen was rinsed in fresh water and beaten with washing bats known as beetles or battledores (which look like modern cricket or ping-pong bats) to loosen the dirt, or paddled with feet. Soap wasn’t always used - for example William Harrison mentions in his ‘Descriptions’ how ‘in some places women do scour and wet their clothes with [swine’s] dung, as others do with hemlocks and nettles, but such is the savor of the clothes touched withal that I cannot abide to wear them on my body, more than such as are scoured with the refuse soap.’ No kidding.

From WH Payne's 'Microcosm', 1806
In England we were quite backward on the soap front – Spain and Italy were making fine soaps centuries before we’d even started basic commercial soapboiling. The cheapest sort here, unless you made it yourself, was soft and harsh ‘black soap’, stored in barrels and bought by the pound. Crown soap was a better quality of soft all-purpose soap – Benjamin Franklin has a recipe from his sister in England that sounds a bit too challenging and costly to be readily homemade: ‘eighteen bushels of ashes, one bushel of stone lime, three pounds of tallow, fifteen pounds of the purest Barbary wax of a lovely green colour and a peck of salt.’

Jean-Francois Millet, 'Les Lavandieres'
Once thoroughly cleaned by being beaten with beetles on rocks or boards at the tub in the yard or washhouse or river’s edge, linen was squeezed or wrung out, sometimes on posts, and then set to dry – usually on the open grass, or draped across bushes or hedges, or poles. Sometimes (particularly when inside or in great-house laundries), clothes horses were used, called variously wooden maids or maidens, washing horses or more poetically ‘winter hedges’. Pegs, apparently, didn’t appear till later, so windy gusts must have added a bit of frisson to drying days.

Skimming through rural, low-to-middling-status probate inventories on the shelf doesn’t provide much of a clue about predominant practice in individual households – whether they washed at home or in local rivers. I can see occasional appearances of wash-related things such as ‘one lie trowe [lye trough] praysed at 3s’ belonging to one John Weblie, husbandman, in 1639. There are a few other references, especially in inns, to large bucking tubs, bucking pots, baskets or closebucks (a bucket being a small bucking tub, funny how only the diminutive has stuck). In the inventory of the more well-to-do Samuel Codrington Esquire, 1709, ‘three washing tubbs’ appear in the barn, maybe not surprising, considering the quantity of ‘Linnen: two dozen and nine damask Napkins, two dozen of diaper Napkins, one dozen and tenn Huckaback napkins, five dozen and eleaven Flax napkins, eight tablecloths of the same, some old diaper napkins, eleaven diaper and damask tablecloths, two Holland Sideboard Cloths, three pairs and one sheet of Holland, four pair and one of Dowlas Sheet, seaven pair and one sheet of Flax, three coarse pair of Canvas sheets, five Canvas Bolster-Cases, two long Towells, eight pillow Cases and one large Callico Window Curtain…’

Paddling with feet etc - 17th century

The 18th-century inventories sometimes list an ‘Ironing Box with clamps’, which took a slug of heated-up metal inside a cavity for smoothing linen under its base. (Other more primitive ironing tools still in use included sleeker stones or smoothers, which were round or mushroom-shaped handheld objects for polishing cloth, sometimes used in conjunction with wax.)

Daniel Ridgeway Knight, 'Washerwomen'
I can’t see a single reference in these inventories to washing beetles, paddles or bats, because low value items wouldn’t have warranted an individual entry, they were costed in a lump together at the end e.g. ‘the rest of the goodes left unpraysed’, or ‘all other Impellments of the house within and without’. Overall it’s hard to tell whether these are households that actually possessed designated washing equipment such as tubs with which they washed at home, or whether they had to walk (sometimes considerable distance) to running water where they could wash on the banks of streams, brooks or rivers, beating the clothes on rocks or boards, then lugging them, wet and heavy, all the way home again…

NB. Apologies for the inclusion of 19th-century pictures: it’s just that they illustrate the basic equipment in action so clearly.

Jahn Ekenaes, 'Women doing laundry' 1891

And likewise this one, of women washing through holes in the ice, surely demonstrates near-heroic housewifely efforts necessary in the past. Even in a long winter, the need for clean small linen and bedsheets didn’t go away…

Which reminds me – it was the first frost here last night and there’s a definite turn of the year towards winter. Is that a black cloud banking threateningly behind those trees? It is? Ok I’m off – I’ve got linen to rescue.