Friday, 30 November 2012

November competition

We have five hardback copies of Sarah Gristwood's Blood Sisters to give away to those who best answer this question:

"Who is the woman that you think History has most neglected, and why?"

Answers in the Comments section below.

Open to UK residents only.

Closing date 7th December

Thursday, 29 November 2012

"The Women who won the Wars of the Roses" by Sarah Gristwood

Our guest for this month is Sarah Gristwood, whose latest book, Blood Sisters we reviewed here on 1st October.

Sarah Gristwood is the author of a number of books including the Sunday Times best-seller Arbella: England’s Lost Queen, Elizabeth and Leicester and the novel The Girl in the Mirror. She was born in Kent and read English at St Anne’s College, Oxford University. She is married to film critic Derek Malcolm and lives in London and Kent.

Over to Sarah:

Who’d have guessed it? – same as buses, really. You wait for a news story on the women behind the Wars of the Roses, and then two come along at once. First was the news that the BBC, with its eyes firmly fixed on the market that gobbled up The Tudors, are filming Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Cousins’ War. Then there is the ongoing saga of the bones unearthed in the Leicester car park, hoped to be those of Richard III. If the hope turns out to be a certainty, then it will be thanks to the distaff side of fifteenth century history - through a descendent who shares with Richard his mother’s DNA.

The mitochondrial DNA which may make the identification is passed only through the female line; from Richard’s mother Cecily Neville to her eldest daughter Anne, and on through seventeen generations to descendents living today. I wrote about seven women in my book Blood Sisters, but Cecily is the one who most fascinated me – the one who best illustrates both the pleasures and the pains of writing about the late fifteenth century.

Image in public domain

We know Cecily Neville lavished a fortune on clothes, and ordered a specially padded loo seat. We know that in youth, stories said she had an affair with a common archer, and that in old age she lived a life of extraordinary piety. But the questions that remain are extraordinary. Where did she stand when her son Richard took over the country, amid rumours he had murdered his nephews, her grandsons, the ‘Princes in the Tower’? Or when her eldest son Edward ordered the death of his next brother Clarence (in the famous butt of Malmsey according to Shakespeare)?

When Richard III died on Bosworth Field Cecily had lost all the sons she’d seen into adulthood; and, out of the four, only one had died naturally. As lives go, this is the stuff of writer’s fantasy. Yet all most us know of her, as of the other women behind the Wars of the Roses, are the stories Shakespeare set down, and that was four centuries ago – never mind any questions of historical accuracy. Perhaps The White Queen will help to change that, but it has been a long wait from William Shakespeare to Philippa Gregory.

Anne Neville - image in public domain
The era is rich in dramatic female stories. Take Richard III’s wife Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’; queen to a Yorkist king and Cecily’s great-niece as well as her daughter in law. But before Richard married Anne (snatching her from Clarence, who was said to have kept her disguised as a kitchen maid for fear her huge fortune might escape his hands), she had been married off by her father to the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, to cement an unlikely alliance with Henry VI’s queen Margaret of Anjou. Even if there is no truth in suggestions Richard caused Anne’s early death, either by poison or a campaign of psychological warfare, she had been passed from one side to another in the wars as though she were as insentient as any other piece of property. Shakespeare telescoped events to make her his ‘Lady Anne’, but the truth is even more poignant.

Cecily bore daughters as well as sons – three girls who survived into maturity. The eldest died early, though it is her descendents who have given the Leicester archaeologists their DNA. The second, Elizabeth, had to see her de la Pole sons fall foul of the new Tudor dynasty. The youngest, Margaret, became Duchess of Burgundy. In a sense, she was the Plantagenet who had got away (got away to Bruges, where they are filming The White Queen today). But that didn’t stop her sending the pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck to plague the Tudor who had taken her brothers’ throne. Tudor chroniclers used a gendered language to lambast Margaret of Burgundy as having ‘the spirit of a man and the malice of a woman’ but I rather warmed to the doughty duchess who refused to be sequestered into ladylike domesticity.

Charles the Bold, Margaret of Burgundy's husband 1460 by Roger van der Weyden. Image in public domain. For Margaret's portrait, see book jacket below.
The question of a royal woman’s role – the exercise of power vs. the constraints of femininity – is the subtext to this story. The nature of the ways in which a woman can most influence history . . . Cecily Neville was the matriarch of the Yorkist dynasty. In the early days of her son Edward’s reign, it was said she could rule him as she pleased, and when that influence began to wane, she did not surrender it happily. But in that age one of the main imperatives was dynastic – genetic, if you like – and Cecily might have been consoled to know that her bloodline runs through every monarch from Henry VIII to the present royal family. If these women were playing a game of thrones, their descendents were the most popular currency. It was the marriage deal brokered by Elizabeth of York’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor which cemented the peace which followed Bosworth, and give birth to the Tudor dynasty.

But I like also to trace another, a spiritual, line of descent. It starts with women like Cecily’s daughter Margaret of Burgundy; like that formidable schemer Margaret Beaufort; and like Margaret of Anjou, the ‘great and strong-laboured woman’ who dared to break all the rules by seeking power openly. It runs through the Tudor queens, Elizabeth and Mary, who ruled in their own right, and it can still be seen in where we are today.

My book was almost subtitled ‘The Women Who Won the Wars of the Roses’. We thought better of that, of course - on the one hand, it hardly seemed to fit those of the women whose children predeceased them and whose lives ended in misery; and on the other, too many men were taking it for military history. But maybe we shouldn’t have thrown the idea away so readily. Maybe, just maybe -whether or not their lives were easy, or they left children to carry on their bloodline - all these women were winners in a way.

Sarah Gristwood is the author of Blood Sisters: the Hidden Lives of the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, published by Harper Press

Thank you, Sarah!

Watch out for the November competition tomorrow, when we'll have five copies of Blood Sisters to give away.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Keeping souls happy, by K. M. Grant

Every All Souls Day, my family gathers together and prays for all the dead relations.  We're Catholic, so that's a lot of relations.  Mass is said in the chapel at Towneley Hall, our family home until 1902, when a dearth of male descendants caused my great great aunt to upsticks and sell the place for a song.  When my family gathered itself together again, since they couldn't live at Towneley they chose to live in the house previously allotted to the agent who looked after the estate.  Where the agent went, I don't know, but I doubt he was particularly sorry to move from a house memorably, if unkindly, described by my grandmother as a 'suburban villa on a bleak hillside'.  Certainly, the ancient peculiarities of house in which I was brought up hardly make it an Ideal Home - when we were little, more water came through the ceilings than out of the taps.  Thanks to my father, though, it does have a wonderful garden coaxed from from the surrounding fields.  Anyhow, the Burnley Corporation (as it then was) who bought Towneley and turned into a museum and art gallery, eventually allowed us to hear Mass there once a year.
the altar at Towneley, ready for our All Souls Mass

To non-Catholics, Catholics' obsession with the dead seems gloomy and macabre.   But preoccupation with the condition of the dead predates Catholicism by many thousands of years.   Why else did the Neanderthals bury their dead with tools and animal bones, if not to assist them on their way?  Praying for the dead is similar assistance, although for the soul rather than the body, and it's been Catholic practice to have Mass said for the souls of the faithful departed since at least the 8th century.

Catholics are keen on souls.  They're also keen on reparation for sin, hence the doctrine of Purgatory, formally defined in 1274, but connected to the ancient Jewish belief of purification after death.  Purgatory is the place where, unless you've been ludicrously good all your life, you atone for your sins before slipping gratefully into Heaven.

What a load of nonsense, you might say.  You may be right.  But understanding even the most apparently nonsensical religious practices (and this isn't nearly the most nonsensical, if you're on the lookout for nonsense) is vital to understanding how we are all shaped.  Historical novelists need to be careful.  It's fine to show that, for example, people in 14th century Europe disliked religion in the form of priests and bishops, but it would be wrong to remove their healthy respect for God, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.   It wasn't tradition that had them pray for the dead or build chantry chapels for perpetual intercession:   the driving force was the need to get the relations into Heaven asap and by doing so to ensure your own swift passage in due course.   Call them silly if you want. Call them superstitious if you must.  But Catholics' care for the dead was neither silly nor superstitious; they believed, and still believe profoundly, that the dead need us and we need them.

I am not a good Catholic.  In many ways, I'm barely a Catholic at all - it goes in phases and I'm currently in a 'no' phase.  Nevertheless, when I see the Whalley vestments, brought to Towneley during the dissolution of the monasteries;  when I pass through the oak door bearing the initials of John and Mary Towneley, married in 1556;  and when I kneel in front of the sixteenth century altar in the house of my ancestors, I feel challenged.  Do I really know better than them?  And so what if I do?  Isn't praying for the dead better than not praying for them?

After we've done the Dead, we have breakfast in the servants' dining room.  That, far more than the continuation of the All Souls Mass, would cause surprise.  'Good Heavens!' the spectral relations might well exclaim.  'The servants' dining room?  What the hell are you doing in there?'

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Debora, by Louisa Young

On Remembrance weekend I was in northern France, where even the railway timetables shriek of poppies and blood.

I was staying at Cambrai, at a nice hotel, the Beatus,  run by a M Philippe Gorcsynski. He has surrounded the hotel, which he inherited from his mother, with maple trees, for the many Canadians who visit. 

Inside, he has a small room off the foyer dedicated to a tank, 
containing tank models, press cuttings and so on. 

A few miles away, he has a real tank. She is British. Her name is Debora. 

I was humming the Pulp song all weekend.

Tanks often had nicknames. There was one called Peak Freans, after the tinned pie company. Which is a bit bloody bleak. 

M Gorczinski is a local man, and thus grew up immersed - literally, when it rained - in the detritus of the Great War. His town - small, pleasant, with two Moorish giants (Martin and Martine) on the clocktower - had its own famous battle, in October 1918. It is mostly famous for the use of tanks, a new thing. Here are the grandfathers and uncles of the Canadian visitors.

The tanks were developments of the same technology that Captain Scott had tested in the Antarctic seven years before, in the form of motorised sledges.

M Gorczinski knew that a British tank had been shot up and captured at a nearby village, Flesquieres. An old lady told him she had seen it being buried when she was small - this wasn't unusual, tanks made good extra strength for trenches. M Gorczinski looked for the tank for years. He located the spot. He used aerial photography and metal detectors and infra-red. He dug. And dug. And found it. And dug it out. And got a crane. And hauled it up. And cleaned it out, 

and put it in a barn.

I was in France to take part in a talk at the Musee de la Grande Guerre at Meaux, about facial reconstructive surgery during WW1, which as some of you know is my thing. The French facially wounded soldiers called themselves the Geules Cassees - the Broken Mugs, if you like. They have their own fondation and are well respected as a distinct group to this day, with modern sufferers of similar damage taking the place of the WW1 poilus. Debora is known as a geule cassee. You will see why from the pictures above (from the left, amidships) and below (right, front on). 

It is unbelievably cramped inside. You can't imagine that five men and an engine could fit in there.

This is the kind of anti-tank gun that destroyed her. It is next to her in the barn.

The walls of the barn are streaked with bullet holes - quite possibly made by Debora as she came through the village, a giant Dalek, on her way to her fate. 

(I shouldn't call her a Dalek. Daleks look much more like German tanks. Their designer, Ray Cusick, served in the army in Palestine. I thought about looking into whether there was a connection, but there is rather more information on Dalek design on the web than I dare approach.)

Debora's entire crew died. Their portraits are propped up, above the wreaths.

Here are M Gorczinski, my publisher Cynthia Leibow, and I, feeling respectful and sober.

Here is an emblematic hat

And here is an old WW2 photo of Martin and Martine, standing in front of a tank called Black Prince. The Nazis had taken them down from the bell tower and sent them by train to Belgium to be melted down. Someone took them off and sent them back.

Their legend is that in mediaeval times a Moorish couple lived at Cambrai, and when the town was under attack they came out with hammers and chased away the enemy. 
Now they get to strike the clock.

Here is their clock tower. You can't really make them out (they are not the odalisques lounging on the pediment). It was, as so often, a rainy day in Flanders. 

M Gorczinski is trying to raise funds for a smart new museum for Debora, half a mile away near the spotless War Cemetery, where Debora was destroyed. The building still stands behind which the guns were concealed; the road leads peacefully through where the ambush happened. The dead are buried in that cemetery. While I respect this plan, and dare say it will come about, I like where she is now. I like that she is in an open-sided barn, with rain and rust and dandelions and her own bullet scars on the old bricks, and some boxes of dusty helmets and bottles and old shellcases, and M Gorczinski's remarkable story. I like museums to be old too, and to look it. 

Monday, 26 November 2012

THE HAREM - Dianne Hofmeyr

Early Orientalist paintings seduce us with their sumptuousness. Women turbaned and bejewelled, lush garments, rooms that glitter with latticed screens filtering the light, stained glass windows casting coloured lozenges across marble floors, fountains, richly patterned Persian carpets, a tame fawn, all suggest the sensuousness of life in the women’s quarters in the Tulip Age.

In the vibrant painting by Jean Baptiste Vanwouw below, depicting a woman’s ‘lying-in’ after the birth of her baby, there’s a sense of sisterhood. A girl prepares a sherbet, another makes coffee, two others pass around incense and rosewater and the woman herself is wrapped in luxurious cloth while others are preparing the baby’s cradle.

But are the paintings a true reflection of life in the harem?

At any given time, Topkapi might have had up to 400 women and children living in its the harem. It was segregated from the rest of the palace by corridors and courtyards and even the girls were segregated by a pecking order. It was presided over by the sultan’s mother – valide sultana – then came the sultan’s sisters, then the four kadins, the official wives, then the girls who had recently caught the sultan’s eye and then the girls he had already slept with. Most famous of these was Roxelana who rose from being a concubine to Sūleyman the Magnificent’s first wife and who managed to persuade her husband to have his oldest son and heir murdered, so that her own son could take the throne.

It couldn’t have been easy to live in harmony. Girls from all parts of the world, with different languages, different customs, dress and eating habits were thrown together, often without the luxury of being able to converse with one another. Some were incredibly young and the large rooms with their stained glass windows and latticed shutters filtering the light must have seemed more like prisons.

As I strolled through the harem rooms at the Topkapi Palace, I tried to imagine their lives. In the screened, light-filtered rooms with their shimmer of mother of pearl I was looking for ghosts. I imagined how, when they gathered outside in the sunshine in their enclosed courtyards, and caught a glimpse of the Bosphorus, they might have longed to return home to Russia, or Greece or North Africa or wherever.  

And in the quiet, harem rooms at the magnificent palace of the Khans in Bakhisaray which was the Khanate of the Tatars from the 16th century and shows a strong Tatar, Mongolian influence in the architecture, I was looking for ghosts too. Here tucked away in a deep valley between the mountains of the Crimea where winters are snow-filled and bitter, the quiet and beautiful rooms with fountains and inner courtyards filtered by intricate panes of coloured glass, seemed even more isolated, shut off and lonely.

Sunday, 25 November 2012


Interesting, but uncomfortable

I've developed an eye problem that makes reading difficult, and it's set me off wondering about the mechanics of handling books.  As I labour to make out words which look to me (and me alone) as if they have been produced on a printer running low on ink, I can’t help but admire the generations who slaved over early texts in dimly-lit libraries, devoured Dickens by candlelight, or even coped with early postwar paperbacks in the glow of a 40 watt bulb.
Reading is not just an ocular occupation, though.  It takes a lot of muscular co ordination in the hands, arms, back and neck. It requires a reasonable ability to balance. Am I the only person who has reached an advanced age without finding a really comfortable way of reading in bed?
One way of doing it
and another

Reading on a high-speed train is hard enough, but can you imagine succeeding in an unlit horse-drawn carriage, bumping across ruts in the road?  And What must it have been like for eighteenth and nineteenth century ladies, perched on hard settees with closely-printed books?

How did they do it?

 Perhaps I should risk a confession here.  I have never dared say this before - and for an author it may be a fatal revelation - but what the heck. Here it is:
Though I have always loved stories and research, and adore books and manuscripts as objects, even when my eyes were working properly, I never much liked reading as a physical occupation. For me, it has always been a rather uncomfortable means to an end.
When children tell me they don't like reading, I encourage then to persevere, and wax lyrical about how books will open doors for them (which is true) but secretly I sympathise.  I have never cracked how and where to sit. Does anyone else find some books just difficult to hold? No wonder the gentlemen's clubs of yesteryear commissioned all sorts of reading stands to attach to those wonderful winged armchairs. a friend of mine reads in the bath.  I'm too shy to ask to see how she does it.  my books just get wet.

It's not just the fatal mix of fat books and small hands. These days paper-saving narrow margins and tight gutters can make it a struggle to catch the beginnings and ends of lines. Bindings can be too tight, or too cheap and weak.  A couple of months ago I was sent a brand new book by an author I was to interview at a festival.  As soon as I opened it, all the pages fell onto the floor.  A few days later, I was looking at a 300 year-old text almost as tightly sewn and robust as the day it was bound.
St  Jerome doesn't seem to be having much fun
Alas, I may be reading less in future. It's simply not much fun any more. But I'm lucky to have my eye trouble now.  There have never been more electronic and mechanical aids to reading (and writing), not to mention the glory of audiobooks (and here I must recommend Dan Stevens' wonderful reading of My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, by History Girl Louisa Young ). Even if my sight doesn't improve, thanks to modern science it will be a while before I can't read at all, and that may never happen. In the meantime, does anyone out there know of studies of how people read in the past: of where and how they sat, how/whether they held or balanced their books, of reading machines, and so on?  Did anyone grumble about the sheer physical awkwardness of reading?  Or is it just me? I would love to know.
pictures from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, 24 November 2012



Charles Dickens working at his desk

The past is foreign country: they do things differently there.” So reads the opening lines of L.P Hartley’s The Go Between.

Any writer of historical fiction almost needs to become a time-traveller, to ‘go native’ and familiarise themselves with the cultural workings of the place in which their story will be set - to draw their reader into that world without qualms as to authenticity regarding the characters, settings or themes that, if placed in a contemporary tale, might seem entirely alien.

A good starting point for this cultural immersion is to read the work of established authors; those from the nineteenth century, and the best of the Neo-Victorians now. That way an author’s ear can attune to the nuances, rhythm and tone of the ‘foreign’ language used back then. My Victorian favourites are Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, and Thomas Hardy; each one offering a unique style to define the age they represent.

However, of all Victorian writers Charles Dickens is widely considered the master, his work rising above mere plot and offering social commentary on almost every aspect of the world that he inhabited. But here, a word of warning: attempts to emulate his work may result in clichéd parody. A writer should never be afraid to develop their own personal style, even when following the ‘rules’ or restrictions within the chosen genre. 

Not all nineteenth century literature adhered to Dickens' formal tone. Moby Dick, written in 1851, begins with these strikingly ‘modern’ lines – “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation…especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off…”

We still have the formal Victorian phrasing to anchor us in the era, as exhibited in the phrase: ‘requires a high moral principle’. But, at the same time, Melville creates a very strong vernacular; a tone entirely original; a real, living character’s voice, who could belong to any age, who draws us straight into his world.

However, it must be admitted that Melville was American. Many writers prefer to emulate the more English tradition of ‘Victoriana’ – that which has been so well observed by the modern-day author Charles Palliser whose The Quincunx, according to many reviews, out Dickensed’ Dickens himself.  Most ‘Sensation’ themes are covered, with lost or stolen inheritances, laudanum-addicted governesses, dens of thieves, and asylums, along with doomed affairs of the heart. The narrator is called John Huffam, the middle names of Charles Dickens. An audacious decision, but justified, because Palliser’s writing is superb.
Sarah Waters, who also excels in the genre, uses a spare and lyrical prose, rarely florid or overblown, as illustrated in these lines taken from the start of Fingersmith – “My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me.”
The reader is immediately told that the narrator has been orphaned – a common Victorian theme around which secrets and mysteries can be woven into complex plots. Similarly, clues are laid in The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox, another stunning ‘Victorian’ novel which begins – “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper. It had been surprisingly – almost laughably – easy. I had followed him for some distance, after first observing him in Threadneedle-street. I cannot say why I decided it should be him, and not one of the others on whom my searching eye had alighted that evening.”
Oyster Shop by Boz
The novel is ‘placed’ immediately by the archaic use of ‘Threadneedle-street’ – and the fact of the oyster supper: a common meal in Victorian times and not the luxury food of today. The language has a formality with words such as ‘had alighted’, all of which leaves the reader in no doubt that the genre is Victorian.

The writer of historical fiction must also ensure accurate scene descriptions, considering the houses, shops, theatres and bars from which many settings can be derived, not to mention the streets through which their characters walk or drive. There would be the creaking of carriages, the jangling of reins, the clopping of hooves. And then, there would be the railways with the rhythmic chugging beat of the trains exuding their clouds of steam. 

The expansion of the railways was of huge significance. For the very first time this transport means enabled a mass mobility, even though, as depicted in one of my novels, the less adventurous came to fear that “the motion and velocity might cause such a pressure inside our brains as to risk a fatal injury – a nose bleed at the very least.” Still, many did travel to London which, to this very day, has a wealth of preserved Victorian settings.

18 Stafford Terrace in Kensington remains just as it would have been with Chinese ceramics and Turkey rugs, Morris wallpapers and stained glass windows – not to mention the letters, the diaries and bills that provide an accurate insight into the running of the house. For those unable to visit, there are countless images in books, or via a search on the Internet. The nineteenth century saw the dawn of the science of photography and that is why Victorian scholars have a distinct advantage over those of earlier centuries. What better way to get a sense of interior or exterior scenes, or to study the fashions that were worn, or to catch the glint of life in an eye than by looking at a photograph. I can only agree with Henry Fox Talbot, one of the pioneers of the art, who described the photographic art as ‘the genius of Alladin’s Lamp…a little bit of magic realised.’

As to the day to day running of any Victorian residence, the relentless slog of housework would have lacked any magic at all. But do not take my word for it. Why not read Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House, or go to an original source in Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. In fact, Mrs Beeton offers advice on almost any subject, from cooking, to fashion, to medicine - and her words occur in The Somnambulist; my fiction being melded with fact when the narrator quotes the book as a means of objecting to the clothes she wears – 

I was looking through Mrs Beeton’s book, and she wrote several chapter on fashion, and with regard to a young woman’s dress her advice is very specific indeed. She says that” – and I had this memorized for such a moment of revolt – “its colour harmonise with her complexion, and its size and pattern with her figure, that its tint allow of its being worn with the other garments she possesses.”

Other contemporary factual works are still available today. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is surprisingly readable while giving a detailed insight into grim social realities. Very useful indeed when researching the Victorian demi-monde was My Secret Life by Walter - Walter being the most shocking libertine whose pursuit of physical gratification led to many a melodramatic encounter, and the exploration of a world that could not be any more different to what is generally perceived as a moral, upstanding society. 

I feel quite sure that Walter would have visited Wilton’s (a music hall setting in both of my novels) with all of its night-time clatter and bang, where prostitutes called from the balcony to those who sat at tables below, with the glisten of the lime lights glancing off the brass of the barley twists posts around. No doubt he would have loved Cremorne – the Chelsea pleasure gardens described in Elijah's Mermaid; that resort finally being closed down for ‘lewd and raucous behaviour’, of which nothing now remains intact but a pair of ornate iron gates.

The  Dancing Platform at Cremorne by Phoebus Levin 1864

Unable to visit the actual place I read articles in Victorian newspapers (the archives available online). I looked at paintings and adverts to gradually built a vivid scene of lush lawns with statues and fountains, a banqueting hall, and a hot air balloon, and regular theatrical displays – such as the infamous Beckwith Frog who, along with several fish, performed in a great glass aquarium. Freak shows were a popular, if not sordid, entertainment form - though the mermaid display in my novel is purely the product of imagination. Even so, that image was inspired when reading about Feejee Mermaids; the hideous monstrosities created by grafting a monkey’s remains onto the body of a fish. Imagine the smell of that! 

And thinking about aromas, here is another writing prop to create a complete Victorian world; albeit one invisible. It may well be a cliché when describing nineteenth century scenes to allude to the stench of filthy streets. But it would be wrong to ignore the fact of the constant odour of rotting food, or the effluence from horses who drew the carriages and carts, or the noxious stink from factories exuding acrid yellow smoke. A skilful writer might convey the intensity of common smells without a descent into parody, but also to think ‘outside the box’, revealing less obvious fragrances, which, in the case of The Somnambulist, happened to be a perfume that came to have great significance within the novel’s plot. For this I employed the Internet, seeking out aromas that a Victorian gentleman might use and finding Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, first produced in 1872, and described by the manufacturers as ‘animalic and golden…warm and mature, redolent of old books, powdered resins and ancient rooms. At its heart is the dusky Turkish rose, with jasmine, woods, musk and powdery orris.’

Quite a vivid description I’m sure you’ll agree. And quite a serendipity, because, after the book’s publication I realised that Hammam Bouquet is still in production today. I couldn’t wait to buy some, to lift out the bottle’s stopper and breathe in the vivid scent that, until then, I had only thought about – to close my eyes and step right back into a lost Victorian world. 

This article was originally published in Writing Magazine to coincide with the publication of Essie Fox's new novel, Elijah's Mermaid.