Sunday, 30 June 2013

June Competition - double opportunity!

Competitions are open to UK residents only

Because Charles Palliser's new novel, Rustication, has been postponed till November, we are offering instead two signed copies of The Quincunx to the first commenters to answer this question correctly:

"He out-Dickenses Dickens" says former History Girl Essie Fox. What is the connection between John Huffam, the protagonist of The Quincunx, and Charles Dickens?

(The Quincunx is a long book, so two copies are roughly the equivalent of ten novels!)

And as a bonus, Linda Buckley-Archer is generously donating two sets of her Timequake trilogy, about Gideon (the Cutpurse). Her question is:

"In the context of eighteenth-century criminality, what was the difference between a highwayman and a cutpurse?"

You have till 7th July to enter. Winners will be announced on 8th July. Good luck!

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Charles Palliser interviewed by Linda Buckley-Archer

We are delighted to welcome our June guest, Charles Palliser, whose best-known book so far is The Quincunx. It is also a pleasure to welcome back Linda Buckley-Archer to the blog, who was one of our original History Girls. Sit back and enjoy a real treat!

The quintessentially English Charles Palliser was, in fact, born in the USA, in Massachusetts, near Boston. He arrived in England at the age of three and lives here still, in North London. A former academic, he read English at Oxford and taught nineteenth-and twentieth-century literature at Strathclyde University in Glasgow prior to becoming a writer. He is best known for The Quincunx, an epic work of gothic Victorian fiction which sold over a million copies worldwide and won him numerous accolades and legions of devoted fans. Publishers Weekly (US) commented that while “quintuple the length of the ordinary novel, this extraordinary tour de force also has five times the ordinary allotment of adventure, action and aplomb.” The Guardian dubbed him “our leading contemporary Victorian novelist.” Following on from The Sensationist, Betrayals and The Unburied (another densely plotted Victorian mystery), his fifth novel, Rustication will be published this November in the US and the UK by W. W. Norton & Company. In anticipation of this exciting event, Charles kindly agreed to talk about his work with erstwhile History Girl, Linda Buckley-Archer.

LBA: The news that you are about to publish a new novel after a break of over ten years, will delight your many fans. Could you give them a flavour of what to expect in terms of genre, story and setting?

CP: The novel is in the form of a diary written by Richard, a boy of seventeen, in late December and early January 1863-64 and so it covers just that month. He comes home in disgrace and finds his mother and older sister in crisis following the mysterious death of his father while he was at Cambridge. From a position of affluence as the family of a high-ranking Church dignitary, they have mysteriously become almost destitute. They are now living in a big but dilapidated old house in a remote village on the South Coast of England where they seem to be ostracised by their neighbours. Each of the three members of the family is lying to the others and concealing various things. They squabble with increasing bitterness as the winter closes in, trapping them in the house together.

Inserted into the diary is a series of obscene and threatening anonymous letters which are spreading terror in the isolated community and are accompanied by increasingly violent acts against livestock.

Suspicion falls on Richard and he is, indeed, a troubled young man. Tormented by sexual feelings he feels guilty about and by remorse for the offence which led to his suspension from University, he resorts to alcohol and drugs and his mental equilibrium is gradually destabilised.

He becomes obsessed by a succession of girls and women whom he stalks and terrifies. Meanwhile he sexually exploits his mother’s maid-servant of fourteen. All this time, as hints and fragments of evidence suggest, a cunning plan is being carried out to commit a murder and pin the blame on an innocent person.

LBA: Like The Quincunx, your latest novel has an intriguing title. For those of us who have not come across the word before, could you define ‘rustication’?

CP: The word “rustication” essentially means something like “being in the countryside”. It has long been used by Oxford and Cambridge Universities (as well as some of the older public-schools) to mean “suspension” from the institution. The origin of that is the idea that if one left Oxford or Cambridge one was, in theory, being sent into the countryside – even though one might be going to a big city. In the novel, my central character, Richard, is suspended/rusticated from Cambridge and returns to the house of his mother and sister which is in a very remote part of the country. So both meanings apply.

LBA: The world that you create is wholly convincing and I was interested to learn that certain aspects of the story have their roots in real-life events.

CP: Yes, there are two main real-life events behind the novel.

I grew up with a story told me by my grandmother and my mother. In the late 1930 my grandparents and mother were living in a remote village in North Wales when someone began sending vicious anonymous letters. The letters mainly accused people of sexual misconduct and my grandmother was particularly evasive about that. My mother thought that was because the letters possibly accused her father - my grandfather - of having an affair. She remembered elements of the story very differently from her mother, which was in itself fascinating. They both told me what a devastating effect the letters had on the community. Not only did nobody know who was writing them so that everybody was a suspect, but nobody knew what other people were being told about themselves. And, of course, the truth or otherwise of the accusations was known only to the victims.

The second is a notorious murder case about twenty-five years ago. The police became convinced that a certain man was the killer of a young woman and they managed to entice him into a lonely-hearts correspondence with a policewoman who, guided by a forensic psychologist, pretended to be turned on by sadistic fantasies and tried to lure him into boasting about violent acts he had committed. The hope was that he would confess to the murder. I read a book that quoted the correspondence and argued that it showed that the man was a psychopath. I formed the opposite opinion and thought he was trying very hard but completely unsuccessfully to imagine what it would be like to be sexually excited by sadistic acts. It turned out that I was right and the man was completely innocent. That episode gave me the idea of writing a novel that would put the reader in the position of reading two texts and trying to decide if the same individual had written both of them and if he was a man with violent and perverted impulses.

I have met Charles and this picture does not do him justice! - Mary Hoffman (ed)

LBA: The fiction of the Victorian era clearly exerts a powerful pull on you. What aspects of the historical period and its literature appeal to you most? If The Quincunx which – to quote the History Girls’ own Essie Fox – “out-Dickensed Dickens”, to what extent did you set out to reference Victorian mystery writers (such as Wilkie Collins) in Rustication?

CP: I’m so immersed in that literature that I don’t even do it consciously. But it seems to me that one of the best ways to keep a reader interested is to do what Wilkie Collins, in particular, does so brilliantly: tease and mislead so that as much as possible is put in doubt until the end.

LBA: To which author (living or dead) would you say you owe the greatest debt?

CP: There are too many. The list would begin with Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, George Eliot, Conrad, Faulkner, James.

LBA: Rustication is a relatively slim volume (certainly compared to The Quincunx), although the first draft, which I read, was substantially longer. How do you approach creating and editing your fiction? Is it a long, drawn-out affair or do you take a disciplined and methodical approach? Dickens and Collins both wrote their novels in instalments and to tight deadlines. Is this something that might have appealed to you?

CP: I wish I could write to a deadline but I seem to have to take a long time and write far more than I should and then in the final phase cut the whole thing in half – as I did with this novel. It’s a very wasteful way to work.

LBA: The ‘envelope’ structure of the novel presents to the reader a journal – the Journal of Richard Shenstone, 12th of December 1863 to 13th of January 1864 – sandwiched between a contemporary foreword and afterword which is penned by a certain ‘CP’. From the reader’s point of view, one of the many pleasures of Rustication is the skilful unravelling of the plot from a tightly restricted narrative viewpoint. How did you set about finding Richard Shenstone’s voice and was it a process you enjoyed?

CP: Keeping to Richard’s point of view was the challenge that made me want to write the book and almost prevented me from doing so. On the other hand, I think I found Richard’s voice fairly quickly but what was more difficult was making it modulate in response to the dramatic events of that single month. He begins the journal as a callow, boastful adolescent. By the end, that voice has changed greatly.

LBA: How did you keep track of the intricacies of the plot? Did you hold it in your head? Were there post-it notes pinned to your walls?

CP: I held the outline in my head but the details of the chronology had to be worked out very carefully on sheets of paper. There are many strands in the novel which had to be woven together in a way that made sense and yet kept crucial facts concealed. Achieving that was frustrating but absorbing.

LBA: You are always very generous in promoting other authors’ work, for example in the regular talks you host at the Stoke Newington bookshop. Is the process of being published something which you personally enjoy?

CP: It’s wonderful to be published but the greatest pleasure is in writing the book.

LBA: Finally, do you have any new projects in mind which you are prepared to share with us?

CP: I work on several novels simultaneously – a dreadful habit! – and one of them is going particularly well. It’s set in eastern Europe under the Nazi Occupation and I’m dealing with the question of how and whether decent values can survive in such conditions.

Many thanks for talking with us!

Friday, 28 June 2013

Want to know and need to know, by K. M. Grant

In the days before google maps provided answers (of a sort) to all essential pre-travel questions - how long? how far? how much? what way? - before, even, motor cars and motorways, you had to know your horse.  How far could you ride it in a day?  How often should you let it drink?  What does it need to eat?  How long does a pair of horseshoes last?  How do you tell if the creature is knackered or just idle?

You also needed a whole raft of other equine know-how, now restricted to very few.  How many people, for example, are needed to harness a coach and four? Does harnessing said coach and four take five minutes, fifteen minutes, an hour?  Does it matter which horse goes in which position?   If a man drives a curricle, is he better with a steady cob or a speedier half-breed?  What, indeed, is a half-breed? More technical questions are of equal importance:  which bit (the steel bar in the horse's mouth) works best when breaking a young horse to harness?  And for anybody who has ever read Black Beauty, the stand-out question:  is there is ever any good use for a bearing rein.

No historical novel ever reflects the hours of time our forefathers and mothers spent discussing these very important matters. All we get is the occasional 'never mind the carriage, take the gig!' when the doctor must be summoned quick quick quick, or men in a dudgeon high-tailing off at a hand gallop even when at such a pace the horse would blow up in a moment.

In many ways, this lack of reflection is unimportant.  Nobody wants meticulously reconstructed hours of horse-talk or any other kind of talk, except about lavatories.  Children, particularly, always want to know about loos.  You could write a thousand words on lavatories, completely unconnected to any conceivable plot, yet still hold a child's attention, since children are always delighted and deliciously revolted to contemplate medieval evacuations.  On any visit to any castle, it's the ancient stains from garderobes that children remember.

Equine knowledge, though more plodding ('scuse the pun), is still pretty essential to the historical novelist.   I've always felt lucky that horses - at least riding horses - are something about which I can write without much research.  I know, for example, that if a modern horse is fit and you ride well, that 100 miles in 24 hours is not out of the question, with neither horse nor rider suffering any ill effects.  I also know that medieval horses were not nearly as fit or well fed as their descendants.  Yet even in past times a horse could maintain a steady 8 miles an hour, though not for 24 hours.  Oh, and you need to calculate in rest time, and throw out of the window the ponyclub frowning on eating and drinking on the hoof.   As for horseshoes, a set can last up to six weeks if you don't do too much roadwork, and if you can't judge whether your horse is knackered or idle, you shouldn't be riding it in the first place.

I'm very lucky:  my knowledge of horses comes courtesy of my mother.  She had ridden all her life and, after a bout of cancer, took up long distance racing on a kill or cure basis.   (It cured her, for a while.)  In 1985, she and I raced our horse from Vienna to Budapest:  my mother rode, I was groom.  The Iron Curtain still drawn tight, we were always bumping into Russian troops who couldn't believe a horse so small (our little mare was only 14.2) could be so fit.

my mother and Miss Muffet, 150km down, 150km to go
Two hairy moments:  one when the horse mistook the border barrier between Austria and Hungary for an obstacle to jump.  She pricked her ears and prepared to leap.  Guns were raised.  She was most affronted.  The second moment was when she stepped gingerly onto a raft to cross the Danube.   Raft?  It was a few rotten planks lashed together.  She placed her feet with great care and kept her nose jammed into my mother's elbow.   The British stiff upper lip doesn't just apply to humans.  If horses trust you, they'll do anything for you.

receiving their prize - my mother and Miss Muffet came 2nd instead of 1st
because, in true British fashion,
my mother stopped to help a fellow competitor in distress
Riding is one thing, harnessing quite another.  Harnessing one horse - at home, we drove as well as rode - took hours.  And I'm a useless coachman.   The horse seems so far away and if it sets off faster than I intend, I slam my foot on an imaginary brake.   I guess, though, that it takes twenty to thirty minutes to harness a coach and four.  As for the bearing rein, well, it's had a bad press.  It's perfectly true that bearing reins stop a horse lowering its head beyond a certain point.  For Black Beauty and Ginger, it was used simply to make cabhorses look good, whilst making their actual job unforgivably hard.  The bearing rein certainly killed poor Ginger.  Sometimes, though, a bearing rein's a safety measure, stopping a horse from lowering its head so far that the bridle catches on the shafts - that really would have fearsome consequences.   Too much information!  Still, one day it might come in handy.

photographs:  copyright Katie Grant

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Help! by Louisa Young

Today it is quite simple. I have nothing to say, I want only to ask. 
Erudite ladies, do any of you know anything about this? 
Other than that it is lovely, and mediaeval, and French in some way? 
And seems to start with God, and go to Neptune, and something 'appelles en latin tritones' . . . is the next bit 'c'est a dire . . .'? 
But why is the white horse in a cave on an island in a marsh populated by mermaids with hunting horns, and the most enchanting piscine brass section including a turbot (who by the rule of all turbots is called Herbert) and a dogfish of some kind, with real dog's ears . . . But does the left-hand mermaid have two little legs growing out of her tail? And what is she wearing round her waist? Fur? And what is the blue cholla-type item out of which Neptune is emerging?

Look at the little bullrushes. Are they bullrushes? Or plantains? And the little irises - or are they tiny yellowish asphodels? 

Why are they serenading the horse? 
Is Neptune conducting? Or about to thwack?

Clearly this is symbolic as anything. But I don't recognise any of it. Help? 

Or just enjoy.


With strawberries and cream and summer here (?) and Wimbledon underway, I’m being a bit frivolous today. 

There was once a time when women practiced their forehand not in neon spandex, but wearing lace-up corsets, court-length skirts and ladylike slippers. Even in the 50’s I recall my mother going to her weekly tennis game in a very discreet knee-length white skirt and a white V-neck cable knitted sweater with a white shirt and tennis shoes that I’d had to ‘whiten’ by rubbing on some paste that dried to a glowing white. Even the balls were white and the racket was wooden strung with real gut. Somewhere in a basement I still have a relic of one.

Tennis wasn’t always played with a racket. In the earliest versions of the game, which originated out of France in the 12th century, the players hit the ball with their hands, as in palla or volleyball. It was called jeu de paume, initially spelled jeu de paulme, meaning ‘game of the palm’. In time, gloves replaced bare hands, then paddle-like bats and finally racquets became standard equipment for the game by the late 1600s.

It became popular in England and was played indoors where the ball could be hit off the wall. Royal interest began with Henry V but the monarch who made the biggest impact on the game was Henry VIII who played with gusto on a court specially built at Hampton Court in 1530 (although I can guarantee he wasn't playing topspin.) It’s believed Anne Boleyn was watching a game of tennis when she was arrested. During the reign of James I, London had 14 courts and his son, Henry the Crown Prince, was a keen player before his sudden death from typhoid. When he first became ill it was believed he’d caught a chill from playing tennis without a shirt.

The word tennis is thought to come from the anglo-norman word ‘tenez’ which means to receive or take. And then there is the peculiar scoring of 15, 30 and 40 which is said to follow the quarters of a clock – the 45 changed to 40 for ease of calling out ‘quinze’, ‘trente’, ‘quarante’. The origin of the word ‘deuce’ comes from 'a deux le jeu' meaning: to both the game, or they have equal scores.

Interestingly the game was so popular in the 1700’s that the Venetian painter, Tiepolo, included a tennis racket and three balls (right hand corner) to reconstruct the scene between Apollo and Hyacinth, in his painting, The Death of Hyacinth. It was based on the adaptation of Ovid’s original story which had to do with a game of discus.

I’ve gone off on a tangent when I meant to concentrate on fashion. So here are some bad hair days from the 70’s and 80’s. Can you guess the players? 

And finally a picture from the 80's of my son, Phillip, with ... ?

Tuesday, 25 June 2013


How do you See the past?  I don't mean the wigs and the crinolines.  I'm talking about whether there's a place in your head where you visualise passage of time.

I got to talking about this with a friend of mine who experiences synesthesia.  She 'sees' abstract concepts in colour (Monday is blue, Tuesday yellow etc).  Comparing notes, it turned out that we have two, very different, internal images of history.  After a lot of sign language and struggling for words,  we boiled them down to 'hosepipe' versus 'bucket of frogs'.
That led us on to wondering whether our different perceptions of the passage of time provide an explanation of why I liked history at school while she hated it.
Trying to put this stuff into words can drive you nuts.

I'm rather scared of writing about this.  I think I'm afraid that if I go into too much detail, I will lose access to the mental image which is one of the tools of my trade.  It's much more fragile than a picture.  My caution is rather like the feeling many of us  have when writing a book.  We don't want to discuss our work in progress - not because we think our ideas might be stolen, but because of a hunch that conversation may contaminate them or, worse still, turn them to dust. 
I've never been able to understand how some authors willingly share their ideas on on the internet and at writers' groups - even asking fellow members of online forums for advice on what to do next - but many do, and are clearly relaxed about it.  We're all different, as we should be.

Despite my fear, I'm going to risk trying to explain what I see in my head when I read, write, or talk about the past.  And I'll just have to hope that It won't have crumbled away in the morning.

What might happen to me if I tell all.
In my mind, there's a very definite physical positioning of the dates involved.  It's not a 3D picture, or anything as rigid as a text-book timeline, and there is no colour, but every date or era has its position.  If somebody mentions, say, 1832, I know where to go to get it.

Why I'm thinking about 1832.  I haven't read it yet.
Here's the best image I can think of to explain this - though it's not the actual image in my head.  It's rather like one of those garden hoses on a reel.  I'm the reel, and I stay in a fixed place.

 In this photo, the past is the hosepipe trailing off to the left, with the most recent dates closest to the reel.  the future is the pipe on the right  (much less distinct in my mind - even quite foggy at times).
But it's not quite as simple as that.  Though I know exactly where to go to find 1832, when I'm examining it closely, I reel it in much nearer, though never right up to me.  When I've finished, or if I break off to think about, say, 1955, it springs back to its original place. 
If I'm looking at events in minute detail, the span of hours or days takes up the whole of the original space back to 1832's original position.  But if I want 1832 again, It snaps back, and all the minute stuff concertinas to make room for it. 

That's roughly it for me.  Odd, but orderly.  For my friend, everything from the past is muddled up.  If you ask her to 'find' 1745, she has to plunge her hand into a bucket of dark slime, and root around for it.  Each date or event is like a rotting potato or a slithering frog: distinct, and unlinked to the other objects in the bucket, apart from sharing the stinky sludge.

Inside my dear friend's mind.
I won't go as far as to suggest that this says anything about the way we were taught at school (though she is younger than me, and I was a product of the era when History was, in the words of Alan Bennett 'One *%^%**$ thing after another').  I think our brains are probably just wired differently. But it must be difficult to think about the past if you can't get a handle on what happened when, and have absolutely no idea of cause and effect.
I can sympathise with that because my friend's problem with history parallels mine with geography.  I simply can't remember how the countries of the former Yugoslavia fit together, or picture where Brighton is in relation to Folkstone.  My husband tells me that part of my brain is missing - a part that is particularly well-developed in the humble pigeon - but that's another story.

Cleverer than me.  Maybe he's writing a book.
Anyway, it would be interesting to know what the past looks like in your heads.  Is history a hosepipe or bucket for you -- or perhaps a beautifully organised linen cupboard, a maze, a jewellery box or a helter skelter?

pigeon photo © Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Monday, 24 June 2013

WHEN I GROW UP: The authors that inspired my journey to publication by Elizabeth Chadwick

I was fifteen years old when I decided that I wanted to write historical fiction for a career.  I had always told myself stories out loud but until my teens had never written any of them down, and none of them were historical unless you count the occasional Western adventure.  Frequently they involved  horses, or fantasy worlds with dragons. Now and again episodes of Star Trek would inspire my bursts of verbal fan fiction and indeed, it was the medium of TV that set me on the path to becoming a writer of historical fiction rather than the written word. With adult hormones kicking in, I harboured a deep crush for the knight Thibaud in the programme Desert Crusader, a series dubbed from the French and shown on children's television by the BBC every Thursday at 5pm.  I was glued to every episode and while all my friends languished over Jackie magazine photos of David Cassidy and Donny Osmond, my own fantasies revolved around life in 12th century Outremer.  It was at that point that I put pen to purloined school exercise book and began writing what initially started as a work of fan fiction, but swiftly developed a life and story of its own.   I still have that first manuscript at home in my drawer - and that's where it needs to stay I can assure you!
In the original French! 

My appetite whetted, I began to read historical fiction, something I hadn't really done before. My reading tastes had always been wide-ranging, but historical fiction hadn't particularly featured.  However, as I became immersed in Thibaud's 12th century world, I began to seek out medieval and other period tales of romance and derring do.  If Desert Crusader was the spark to ignite my desire to write historical novels for a living, then the novels listed below (just a small sample) were the books that entertained me, became good friends, and taught me about the craft of writing during my years in the wilderness.  I wrote my first novel for my own pleasure when I was 15.  It took me another 17 years before I was eventually picked up by a leading London literary agent and obtained a mainstream publisher.

With my interest in all things Holy Land, I loved The Knights of Dark Renown by Graham Shelby. I loved his gritty, realistic take on the dying years of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Around this time I also discovered the works of Roberta Gellis.  Her protagonists were imaginary, but very firmly embroidered into the history of the period and she used primary sources as part of her research. The books straddled the line between historical romance and meatier historical fiction and I was captivated by her blend of romantic realism. She showed me that it was possible to write historical fiction with a love story and avoid making the characters modern types in fancy dress. These were living, breathing people of their time, so real that I swear they almost materialised in front of me. Forget the typical cheesy cover. I cite Roberta Gellis as one of the writers from whom I learned a great deal.

One author with whom I struggled was the late, great Dorothy Dunnett who has an MBE for her services to literature.  On a couple of occasions I would borrow her books from the library, give them a go, and struggle to find the magic.  But something made me persevere, and one day, (probably when I was grown up enough!)  I suddenly got it.  It was as if a key had turned in a lock and admitted me to a magic garden full of wonderful language and history unlike anything I had ever known.  I was hooked, and Francis Crawford of Lymond became one of my 'must have' heroes along with Ian de Vipont from Gellis' Alinor. Dorothy Dunnett remains in a league of her own. I particularly enjoyed her work for the creative and lyrical use of language.  She was a true painter with words, and she made me stop and think about choice of words and imagery.

If Roberta Gellis showed me that it was possible to write the romantic historical about imaginary protagonists, then Sharon Kay Penman taught me that it was also possible to write about real people and bring their stories to life, involving romance, but without warping the facts out of true. I had devoured her work on Richard III, The Sunne in Splendor, but her novel about the marriage of King John's daughter Joanna to Llewelyn Prince of North Wales was the one that really inspired me. The number of readers who love that book are legion; it's still one of my all time favourites.

Dunnett, Gellis and Penman all painted their novels in rich, bold colours, sumptuous and vibrant. Another favourite author of mine, Cecelia Holland, tended to use colours that were starker, more wintry, but nevertheless so gutsy and powerful that once again her characters walked off the page and into my room. I learned from her that everyone has an individual voice and that the writer must play to his or her own strengths. Cecelia Holland's novels are gritty and unconventional, and that's part of what makes them must reads. You end up caring about and being fascinated by people you would not expect to like in a million years.  The squat, ageing Mongol hero Psin in Until The Sun Falls, for example, or the grizzled old earl Fulke of Stafford, world-weary and harsh, struggling to stay alive in the Stephen-Matilda conflict in Hammer For Princes.  I became so involved in their lives and troubles that I didn't want to say goodbye at the end of the novel. Again, here is an author writing so vividly that the history lives and you want to be part of its fibre.

Readers often have comfort reads.  Books they turn to when they are in the reading blahs, books they have enjoyed so much that they will stand any number of re-reads.  I so wish that Grace Ingram had been more prolific.  She has less than a handful to her name.  As Grace Ingram she wrote Red Adam's Lady and Gilded Spurs.  As Doris Sutcliffe Adams she wrote No Man's Son, Power of Darkness and The Price of Blood.  The latter three all cost an arm and a leg on the second hard market and I haven't yet read them because of that.  Red Adam's Lady though is a small but wonderful historical novel, part mystery, part romance.  Witty, engaging, clever and thoroughly researched. It's also a deceptively easy read.  You don't have to work at it the way you have to work at Dunnett, and really there is no comparison because they are both shining examples of their place in the market.  This author's work deserves to be made available again. Any publishers reading this, take note!

Another of my influences was Ellis Peters who was a lot more prolific than Grace Ingram.  Under the name Edith Pargeter, she wrote meaty historical novels, such as the Brothers of Gwynedd quartet, The Heaven Tree trilogy, and stand alone novels such as the fabulous A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury. In the full light of the mainstream though, she is best known as Ellis Peters, author of the Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries.  I first came across these when I bought One Corpse Too many from a book club.  It was still early days, Cadfael was barely a speck on the horizon of reader awareness.  I loved this book from the start, although taking the whole into consideration, my particular interest was with young Hugh Berenger, Cadfael's sidekick, who became one of the crushes of my reading life.  I still have a soft spot for him today.  Again, it was the author's grasp of the history of the period, her descriptive skills and her vivid characterisation that made me a fan.  As with the others, I would sit down to try and analyse how she did it, and end up forgetting to do that and just reading the novel for itself. That's the mark of a skilled author.

To finish my run through of the books and novelists that inspired me before I was published and also brought me great joy as a reader, I have to mention two great ladies of the genre - Anya Seton and Norah Lofts. Already well known, Seton became a household name with one of the 'big' books of historical ficiton - Katherine, the story of royal mistress Katherine Swynford, who then became wife to John of Gaunt and an ancestor of the Tudor dynasty. I enjoyed Katherine, but have to say that my favourite Seton is Avalon, perhaps because it covers life in 11th century Scandinavia, and that makes it very different.  Once more, the vivid, descriptive story telling shines through.
Norah Lofts was  slightly more prolific than Seton, she was also often mentioned on the same page as Jean Plaidy, but in my opinion, she far outstrips Plaidy in the richness of her prose and her story telling ability.  My favourite of all her books is Madselin, the tale of an English wife, forced to come to terms with the Norman invaders and the knight who comes to take her former husband's lands.  I confess to using Norah Lofts as a yardstick against which to measure my own writing abilities before I was published.  If wanting to write like Dunnett was an impossible dream of touching the stars, then Norah Lofts was a slightly closer constellation only just beyond my fingertips. 
Certainly all the above inspired me, encouraged me to strive,  and one day I might just get there!

Elizabeth's latest novel The Summer Queen was published by LittleBrown in hard cover and e-book on the 20th of June.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Queen of the Castle, by Leslie Wilson

When I was a kid, we used to play out; we were free to roam the way the children are in the Nesbit stories, or in Swallows and Amazons, or - diving down the social scale - like the Family from One End Street. Our main hang-outs were the Back Lane or Queen Catherine Street and the dry bed of the canal that ran parallel to Aynam Road, where we lived; and sometimes the builder's yard where we trespassed till chased out and I fraternised with the huge bloodhound bitch (I think she was called Lena) who was possibly meant as a guard dog, but was delighted to see us.
Queen Catherine Street today, Castle Hill in background

I learned to ride my bike on Queen Catherine Street, where my father garaged his car; fell over and scraped my knees on the ridges of stone that lay under the gravel of the Back Lane; sniffed the curious smell of damp limewash and stone that came from the walls abutting the lane - they still smell just the same, and ivy-leafed toadflax still grows on them. My big brother and I yelled, giggled at rude words and chants, ran around, played Cowboys and Indians with our friends (I was a bit of a tomboy), and behaved like unleashed kids anywhere. 

Us on hillside beside Troutbeck,

I think free-playing kids are a bit like pigeons, who suddenly fly up and wheel around the sky, or maybe like roving flocks of starlings. Suddenly someone will yell: 'Come On!' and they'll take off and go somewhere. One of the places we headed off to was The Castle.
The Back Lane

You ran up the Back Lane and into genteel, dull Parr Street; across the bridge that crossed the Canal, up the hill and through the metal gate that let you onto the steep of The Castle's mound, where sheep often grazed and left their currants behind. You crossed the moat, where there were now only nettles, and got into the inner space. There was The Dungeon, where there were often cows, or cow-pats among the long grass, and where we pretended to lock each other in. At first I didn't dare climb along the ruinous wall that led to Queen Catherine's Tower, where was Queen Catherine's Toilet (giggles, we didn't quite believe that people had once gone to the toilet like that,  down into the moat) - my brother used to go straight there, though. When I was older I did climb up there, but it was still scary. 

I used to like to go to the ruins above The Dungeon, where I would perch in a window embrasure and look out to see the invading enemy coming up from Yorkshire. Sometimes this was part of a bigger game, and I had to alert the others; sometimes I would just go and sit there on my own, mentally block out the council houses, and imagine myself back into the past. I stared at the arrow-slots, imagining what it might be like to be besieged there, and pour boiling oil out onto the invaders - a thing we sometimes played at. 

Sometimes I did just shout: 'I'm the Queen of the Castle!'

Queen Catherine Parr was supposed to have been born there, though now David Starkey - who was at school with my brother, incidentally - says she wasn't, and that the Parrs lived in London at that time. Spoilsport. We felt it made our town, and our part of it important - and of course the streets were named after her. My parents had told us that she was the last wife of Henry the Eighth, the only one to survive him, which meant she was The Winner. And she belonged to us. 

Queen Catherine's Tower

Now, of course, there are metal bars across the bits where we once played, and notices warning us not to climb the walls, which are fragile, and doubtless we did our bit in helping them become so. There are information panels, so you can find out that The Dungeon was actually a storage cellar above the main hall - how disappointing! We knew, of course, about the toilet in the tower, and also had seen the fireplace there (Queen Catherine's Cooker, we called it.)

For information junkies, the castle was built in the late twelfth century by an early Baron of Kendal. It overlooked and defended the river Kent (which ran in front of our house, and twice came into our cellars). It began to fall down in the late fifteenth century, and was bought by the Council in 1896 (Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee) as an amenity for the people of the town.

Having a real castle for an adventure playground was a wonderful privilege - my brother and I took it for granted, as we did the wonderful fells and dales, the places that we could go out to at weekends, and the lovely silvery town of Kendal, - but we did appreciate it. We loved it, and still do. I'm sure that The Castle is part of the reason why I became a historical novelist, and am blogging on this site today. 

Colour photos by David Wilson: black and white by Frank Baker.

Saturday, 22 June 2013


I think it’s partly the mystery, the unknoweableness of the past that makes it so compelling - isn't it? And why is it that some objects from the past can seem so much more peculiarly intense than others? It’s as though along the way they’ve somehow absorbed tiny aspects of previous lives or previous contexts and concentrated something of those existences into an actual, physical potency. An object like this rare 17th-century English glass beadwork basket, currently on display at the Holburne Museum in Bath, certainly has that:

I was quite taken aback by its charisma – if an object could have such a thing – when I saw it last week, laid in its display case, where the museum has an urgent appeal for donations towards its purchase. At first glance it looks quite mild; pretty enough, a fine, colourful object made painstakingly with skill and quality materials. But look more closely and abruptly it seems crawling with verdant nature, almost disturbingly intense, like a vivid dream of a sampler or tapestry half-manifesting into an animate state. I’m not exaggerating – it really does have a spooky, hyperreal quality.

It’s made of small beads of glass, coral and wood that are threaded in sequence onto fine wires and sewn into place on the wire mesh frame of the tray-shaped basket. It depicts three figures standing beside a turreted castle. Tumultuous clouds, in twisting beady ribbons of blue and white like a Van Gogh painting, scud across a swirling, sunny sky above them. The pastoral scene is crowded with flowering and fruiting plants, dotted with creatures and cross-hatched with beadwork.
Catherine of Braganza by Jacob Huysmans
The figures are believed to represent King Charles II with his Queen, Catherine of Braganza, attended by a lady-in-waiting – and it’s likely to have been made in about 1665, in celebration of their marriage and the restoration of the monarchy. Catherine of Braganza was a long-suffering though loyal and loving wife. Daughter of the king of Portugal, she endured three miscarriages (never producing an heir to the throne), the famous Popish Plot led by Titus Oates, plus the ignominy of the existence of a string of the king’s mistresses.

Barbara Villiers by Henri Gascar
One such prominently favoured mistress was Barbara Palmer, nee Villiers. It would have been impossible for Catherine to ignore her presence, as Charles gave her the position of the queen’s Lady of the Bedchamber. (Barbara later gave birth to Charles’s illegitimate son and was made a duchess.) Could she possibly have a similarity of feature to the third figure in the bead tableau - she certainly caught the public imagination, is it inconceivable that she has a subtle mention in this beaded portrait too? 

The glass beads themselves are beautiful, still rich in colour (where a sampler of the same period would be faded to more muted colours). They were mostly likely imported from Venice and the Netherlands, and the head and hands of the King and Queen are of the finest quality lampwork.

It’s probable that whoever made this basket was little more than a child herself – young educated girls in the 17th century made samplers and were taught fine needlework as a matter of course – but this seems like a very special example. How did she learn to bead so ambitiously, with so much craftsmanship? How long did it take for her to finish the object, and what happened to it afterwards – was it a gift for an occasion, a wedding or christening perhaps? Tessa Murdoch of the V&A describes the basket as being, ‘…in astonishing condition and a remarkable testimony to the domestic needlework skills of women and teenage girls.’

It’s very satisfying to imagine the maker plotting her design, waiting for her order of beads to arrive, impatiently spilling them out of their packets, gloating over them and letting them run through her fingers like bright seeds or beans. It’s hard not to wonder where and in whose house was the finished thing proudly displayed – in front of a window, maybe, glinting in sunlight, or on a candlelit table for visitors to admire. And above all, who was she, the maker? Likely we’ll never know, but then sometimes the best thing about history is the mystery, and the sheer guessing-game nature of it.

So! Here’s where you could come in. The Holburne Museum in Bath is appealing to acquire this basket for its permanent collection. They need to raise £6,000 through public donations to match another £78,000 being sought through grants – and the clock is ticking as the deadline to raise the cash is July!

The DONATE program enables people to make contributions of £1 or more via smartphones, when and where they please. Click here to donate now. If the Holburne can secure enough money, it will be the only place nationally to have a beadwork basket on permanent display. (Otherwise, it’s very likely to leave the country…)

Friday, 21 June 2013

Halcyon Days - by Imogen Robertson

I am today in an exceptionally good mood, not in itself a revelation worthy of a blog post perhaps, but the reason I’m in such fine form is bound up with being a writer so I’m going to share it anyway. On Tuesday evening I pressed ‘send’ and off went my latest novel to my agent and editor. It’s another in the Westerman and Crowther series, set in 1785 and provisionally titled ‘Theft of Life’.

Now I think it’s right to say that we writers are a paranoid, self-doubting bunch which means sending baby out into the world can be quite a traumatic thing, so why am I just lolling about grinning to myself? To explain, and though I’m sure most of you know this already, here’s a quick rundown of how writing a book goes. 

1. Initial ideas and the research. 
This bit is fun. You have a rough idea of the prefect novel in your head, are fascinated about the bits you already know and excited about finding out more. There is at least one scene you can vaguely see in your mind’s eye, and you know when you write it, it’s going to be the best thing ever committed to paper. You order a lot of really interesting books. 

2. Refining ideas, trying to fit them together and getting deep into the research. 
A bit less fun. It becomes clear you’ll never know enough to write the book properly. Some of your ideas make no sense, some are terrible and while there are some which you think could be brilliant, they seem to shimmer and flick in and out of existence just as you are trying to get them down on paper. The world becomes a mess of notes, broken spines, long hours in the library, index cards with ‘thing happens in a place’ written on them or just doodles of question marks getting larger and larger. Occasionally there are flashes of delight as something fascinating turns up in the research or when, while staring blankly out of the window, you suddenly realise something fundamental about one of your characters which changes everything. 
Neither of these things happen as often as you would like.

3. Time to start writing. 
It turns out you are a rubbish writer with the typing skills of a rabbit and your prose is as exciting as the instructions for changing the filter on a washing machine. Inevitably at this point some one asks you to go to a library and talk about how clever you are. You do so, meet some charming people and try and ignore the chorus of demons laughing at you from the corners of the room. 

4. Still writing. 
There are some bits which are not entirely bad. Unfortunately there aren’t very many of them and they don’t fit together. 

5. Still writing. 
You have twenty emails to reply to, you don’t answer the phone anymore and your loved ones have started asking a little plaintively when you might be done. You start leaving notes around the place saying things like ‘wash’, and ‘remember to leave the house.’ If your parents ring and ask how the novel is going you actually growl. 

6. Still writing, but you can see light at the end of the tunnel.  
Some of the plot makes sense. There are scenes written which make you a touch tearful and others where you feel rather excited. You make your partner read the sad bit and punch the air when a single tear glides down his cheek. 
You now completely change your mind about the ending. The light recedes. 

7. End days. 
You go through the manuscript for the twentieth time, finding the bits where you changed character names because for some reason everyone in the book has the same initials, or you wrote x because you were mid-flow and couldn’t stop to look up a street name. Swear a lot at your initial research notes. Find a bunch of other notes you made about plot and characters early on and realise though you know the hand writing is yours you recognise nothing in them.

8. Enough already.
You write a short self-abasing email to agent and editor apologising for being late, attach the document and press SEND. Go out and get drunk immediately. Ideally with other writers who will understand why you are slightly hysterical with relief and will buy you drinks.

That’s me. I’ve slept, cleaned the desk and got past the hangover, but my agent and editor still haven’t had time to read the MS yet, so I’ve not got to the ‘they hate it and don’t want to tell me’ stage. Life is good. My husband is taking me away for the weekend to try and remember why he married me in the first place.

Now, you might note that there’s still another big hurdle to come. In a couple of weeks time I’ll get my editor’s notes. Some of these might be quite major issues that will involve a fair bit of rewriting, others will be polite reminders of where I forgot to replace an ‘x’ after all, so why am I so happy when I know all that work is in the offing? Because it means I can still make the book better. Nothing is set in stone. Not even all the clichés I’ll inevitably find when I reread. I can come back to the manuscript with fresh eyes and make it (theoretically) the book I want it to be, and do so with the notes of an expert reader and friend by my side. Once I’ve done the edits and sent it back, the opportunity to substantially improve the book will be gone. It will have to go out into the world and be judged. There will be Amazon reviews. That is just scary, but right now I can sit back and bask. I can also start thinking about what book I might write next, so halcyon days indeed. 
By the way, my normal lag time between sending off a manuscript and talking excitedly about a new idea is an hour and a half. Slightly less if someone has already poured me a drink.

Imogen Robertson has written five, no six, SIX novels. The latest one to be published is The Paris Winter and is set during the Belle Époque.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

'Keeping History Fresh' by A L Berridge

It sounds horrible to ‘keep history fresh’, as if it were a loaf of stale bread. To me it's particularly repulsive since learning that ‘50 years’ is the magic age for the Historical Novel Society - which means that I too fall under the definition of ‘history’ and need to start checking myself for incipient mould.

But memories fade, all things decay, and there are times history needs a bit of help. 
Archaeologists can rescue whole towns from the past, while restorers work wonders with paintings, sculptures, or a handful of pottery shards to teach us how our ancestors lived. From this one vessel we can learn about the Greeks’ art of painting and pottery, the way they stored wine, the gods they worshipped, the clothes they wore, and the equipment they used in battle.

Yet there’s a shameful part of me that isn’t as excited about this as I should be. Perhaps it’s because I already know these things, perhaps because Ancient Greece isn’t ‘my period’, or perhaps it’s just a failure of my imagination. To me, history being ‘fresh’ isn’t so much about facts I can learn, but about what it can make me feel.

I was reminded of that this weekend as we began a grubby little archaeological dig of our own – the Herculean task of clearing out our ceiling-cracking loft. Working inward from the ladder was like progressing through layers of history preserved in glacier ice. Back in time they went – old EastEnders scripts, my first television pass, teaching notes and old ‘Comprehension Tests’, love letters, signed programmes of school plays, and finally at the bottom just this:

Our loft is dry with insulation, and my sellotaped labels curled and floated with the limpness of cellophane, but the glue that fixed these crushed tissue flowers stayed firm. The paper insert was in place and intact, and although the pencilled words had faded with age I could still make out the words ‘To Louise – From Class 5 and Mrs Terry.’

I was in hospital with TB in my first term at infant school, and would have been just four years old. Too long ago to remember, but the sight of that card brought it back in an astonishing rush. The cartoons on the walls of the Children’s Ward at Addenbrooke’s, the taste of synthetic orange juice, the wonder of the first encounter with a ‘bendy straw’. The card was dusty, but I closed my eyes and felt my nose tingle with a familiar smell of disinfectant.

An artefact can do that if it’s kept ‘fresh’. Had the glue failed and the box yielded only a green card and a scattering of faded tissue, I might still have remembered what it was, but I would never have relived the story behind it. 

But the experience was my own, and history is only ‘fresh’ when it can speak to people who weren’t there, couldn’t know, and probably weren’t even born. To find those things I had to wade further into the jetsam of time and investigate the boxes of memorabilia from my parents’ house. Here were cracked photograph albums with white writing on thick black paper, wartime culinary implements for bashing recalcitrant vegetables into submission, and a filthy assortment of ornaments clearly retained for sentimental rather than financial value. One revolting black object revealed itself to be a plain wooden tankard of my grandfather’s, and considering it unusual enough to deserve exposure I brought it down into the daylight to ‘freshen it up’.

And hesitated. A year after my father died I showed my sister how I’d polished the ashtray that always sat by his desk, and still remember her disappointment when she saw how it had changed.
This shiny copper object bore little resemblance to the grimy thing my mother had difficulty wresting from my father’s clutching hands even for long enough to flick it with a duster. In this case, it was the dirt that was the history, and by ‘freshening it’, I’d destroyed it.

My sister isn't alone in thinking that way. Age has its own cachet, and cabinet-makers deliberately antique’ their furniture while clothes manufacturers ‘distress’ their jeans, but when it comes to history then antiquity is even more crucial. We need to know that what we’re looking at is old – which means we want it to look like it

Re-enactors are familiar with this dilemma. If we use a shining clean vessel visitors will mutter that it doesn’t look authentic – but if we use a dirty one we’re doing an injustice to history. Our ancestors may not have had our attitudes to personal hygiene, but they washed their clothes, they washed their pots and pans, and even the English word ‘clean’ derives from Anglo Saxon. People in previous centuries arguably took better care of their possessions than we do, because they were much less easy to replace - and we must be true to the historical mind as well as the historical props. 

Olivier Hofer of 'Hortus Bellicus' - a re-enactor who's got it RIGHT.
But my tankard isn’t going on public display, it’s probably less than a hundred years old, and I had no sentimental memory of it, so without more ado I set to work with beeswax and Brasso. And before antiquarians faint at the idea of modern and potentially damaging chemicals, I should mention that Brasso has been with us since 1905…

If I’d known I was going to blog about it I’d have taken a photo before I started, but I didn’t and I didn’t, and can only say that after an hour’s work the tankard finally looked like this:

It’s a lovely thing, but it was more than aesthetic pleasure that gave me the sudden little tingle of history. As long as I’d known it the tankard had been a dull object with a band of dark brown metal round the rim, but now I was seeing it just as my grandfather had done. Obviously he wouldn’t have deliberately purchased something ugly, but now I was seeing it through his eyes, and to do that I had in some way travelled through time. That - to me - is what freshness is all about.

Not my picture, but I think it's the same tree and tower
It can often be hard to achieve. No-one could fail to be moved by a visit to Auschwitz, for instance, and I remember the sick, clammy horror of it to this day, but it took over an hour before I was really able to ‘let it in’. We were in a first floor dormitory with a crowd of tourists and a rather ghoulish guide, and I let my gaze slide away from the bunks and out of the window. 

There was beautiful blue sky out there, leaves of trees big enough to have existed in 1945, then off to the right I saw the chilling structure of a guard tower and felt it like a jolt in the stomach. I’d seen them before, we’d already walked past two of them, but now they were terrifying and I understood why. I wasn’t looking ‘at’ Auschwitz any more, I was looking out from the inside – and seeing through the inmates’ eyes.   

But the real walls exist in our minds. There are lots of ways we can gain virtual first-hand knowledge of the past, but they won’t bring us any closer unless we can respond from inside the same age. This video, for instance, shows hair and headgear fashions of Edwardian girls, but we’re not thinking ‘How wonderful, how cutting-edge’, we’re giggling at the ridiculousness of the outmoded styles. We’re looking at, not looking with, and so remain firmly outside.

Which is (at last) where writers come in. When our imaginations take us inside our own characters, then we too are doing our bit to ‘restore’ the past – and it’s a frightening responsibility. It’s much harder to portray an accurate mindset than it is to show accurate clothes, but a writer who gets it wrong can do as spectacular damage as the well-meaning pensioner of Borja who famously turned a painting of Christ into something resembling a deformed monkey.

It’s still worth trying. I’m currently struggling with it in my latest Crimean novel, where a private soldier’s letter home leaves directions about the ‘china shepherdess from Brighton’. We all know the things, ghastly, simpering, mass-produced fairings, but this is 1855. The whole idea of owning something purely for the sake of ornament was new to the ‘working classes’ where every possession needed to have a purpose. The first cheap ornaments strived to do both – the china cow that was actually a ‘creamer’, the pig that was actually a money box, the coachman that was actually a jug – but to own something for no other reason than to stick it on a mantelpiece and admire it was to be like the gentry, the aristocracy, the Queen. To write this properly I had to see the naff shepherdess as somehow desirable and precious – as it would have been through my soldier’s eyes.

But I still have to communicate that to the reader. I can just tell him, of course, but emphasizing the differences between 1855 and 2013 doesn’t bring him closer to the age, it shoves him further away. There’s only one way to bring him ‘inside’, and it’s the simplest, most important tool in any writer’s box. I can make my characters as historically different as I like, as long as I also make them recognizable as people, and appeal to the universal humanity that binds us all.

It really is that simple, and it applies to every form of restoration in the world. The greatest impact of those reconstructions of Richard III’s face isn’t that we suddenly know what the king looked like – it’s that he has a face at all. He’s a bloke, someone we could know or speak to, someone just like ourselves.
Or again, among the many miraculous restorations at Pompeii, is there anything to touch the power of the resin casts of human remains? 

They’re people. People who lived and loved and felt pain just as we do, who lay down to hide their heads from the mass of burning lava that has given them this extraordinary immortality.

But it is immortality, and that’s at the heart of any attempt to keep history alive and fresh. We’re immortal too, part of the same human story that connects us to these long dead Pompeians, and will one day connect us to those yet to come. Tap into that stream, and we can see history as part of Wordsworth’s own ‘Intimations of Immortality’ – with all ‘the glory and the freshness of a dream.’