Friday, 20 November 2020

Pandemic then and now (part 2)...

My current series of historical novels is set in the middle of the 14th century, a period (in)famous for its devastating plague. The events of the first novel occur just after the Black Death has passed on, and so don’t concern the plague itself but rather its consequences for a community that lost so many of its members. But I have recently published the fourth novel in the series, which, sadly, is at least partly “about” plague, which returned to England in 1361 (and many times thereafter).

I was still writing this fourth novel when the world was plunged into chaos by the arrival of COVID-19. Although it was unsettling writing about a pandemic when we were in the midst of one, it did give me food for thought, comparing the two events.

My last post on The History Girls blog, in May, related something of medieval people’s understanding of the reasons for the plague, focussing on the idea that “lewd” fashion, and indeed lewdness in general, might be responsible.

In today’s post, though, for what I think may be my last on The History Girls concerning plague, I thought I’d talk a little more about how medieval people responded to plague. It’s particularly interesting because there are a few fascinating parallels with our own responses to the 2020 pandemic.

In the 14th century, people had some curious (to us) notions about the causes of the disease. Death was of course everyday – accidents were commonplace, illnesses mostly incurable, and even untreatable, life generally subject to manifold risk. Medieval people had a tendency to credit adversity of any kind, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, to God’s will or the Devil’s work.

Part of a mural in a church in Hrastovlje, Slovenia, painted at the end of the 15th century,
showing people of every rank and station being led by grinning skeletons towards a grave. 
National Gallery of Slovenia. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We know well enough the medieval notion that the coming of the Black Death, or indeed any disaster, was the result of mankind’s sin. That was what the Church promulgated. However, even if this was the generally accepted view, ther were scientific explanations too. Various complicated theories about the movements of the planets were proposed, and also ideas that miasma, or foul air, was to blame. Foul air was thought to be a cause of disease in general, and plague was no different.

But, if medieval people had some notions of the cause of the disease (even if they were wrong), I imagine it was far trickier for them to work out how to deal with it.

Isolation, keeping oneself to oneself generally, was certainly understood. The value of social distancing, as we now call it, was recognised. The premise for Boccaccio’s Decameron (completed in 1353) is the isolation of a group of young people who flee Florence to escape the plague. And a 14th century French physician, Jean Jacmé, wrote in a treatise on the plague:

In pestilence time nobody should stand in a great press of people because some man among them may be infected” *

So close contact with a victim was to be avoided. People did go into “lockdown”, confining themselves and their families to their homes, only going out “if absolutely necessary”, presumably to fetch water, buy food, tend to their animals or manage their land.

But Doctor Jacmé had some other familiar-sounding advice. He advocated the washing of hands “oft times in the day”*, though he recommended using water and vinegar, rather than soap.

Touch, then, was certainly to be avoided, but another physician posited that looking into a plague victim’s eyes was also risky, on the grounds that disease could be transmitted via the “airy spirit leaving the eyes of the sick man”*, which does seem somewhat less than plausible. But something much more familiar is avoiding a victim’s “foul air” – the emissions resulting from coughing or even breathing. The “plague doctor” bird beak masks of later centuries hadn’t yet been invented, but I can well imagine that those who attended victims might have covered their nose and mouth.

The 17th century equivalent of a “hazmat” suit?

Though these sorts of beak masks weren’t used in the 14th century.

(Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (Dr. Beak), a plague doctor in 17th century Rome.

Published by Paul Fürst (1608–1666) who was perhaps also the engraver. Public domain.)

What medieval people didn’t seem to know about, for I have seen no reference to it in the sources I have been reading, was the role of rats and fleas. Rats have long been implicated in the spread of plague, though some scientists now think the speed of spread was, in practice, too rapid and too far for transmission by rat flea alone to be viable. Others have it that the rat fleas jumped host to people, and then human fleas and body lice were infected, making it easier for rapid people-to-people transmission. Yet the situation is unclear. The World Health Organisation, speaking of the present time, says, “human to human transmission of bubonic plague is rare”. Yet, the 1361 outbreak was in the summer months, in which bubonic, as opposed to pneumonic, plague, was in principle more common. Whichever it was, it spread very quickly, and was undoubtedly hideous and terrifying.

Perhaps not quite the culprit he’s been made out to be? But not this cute either!
(Etching by W. S. Howitt, 1808. Wellcome Library, London. Public domain.)

And of course doctors in the 14th century really didn’t know how to treat the disease, though some undoubtedly thought they did. Some would probably have tried their favourite cure-all, blood-letting, or applied a variety of substances to the suffering body, from herbs and vinegar, to urine and excrement, none of which were beneficial. In my novel, I have a barber-surgeon lancing the buboes, a practice that wasn’t necessarily carried out in the 1300s, though it was a couple of centuries later. But I can imagine eager medieval surgeons trying various methods to save their patients, just as the university-trained physicians ceaselessly sought answers in the heavens. And, even in the 14th century, catching plague wasn’t absolutely a death sentence, for some people clearly did survive it – even people who had been close to, or even nursed, victims.

It’s been a strange year for all of us, and of course it’s not over yet. When I embarked upon writing the fourth novel, back in 2019, I could never have imagined how close to home the events I wrote about might seem. As the 2020 pandemic took off, I recoiled a little at that “closeness”. Yet, since then, I have welcomed the opportunity once more to compare experiences then and now, finding, as so often, that, despite the centuries between us, there is much that we share.

* Quotes are from The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox. If you’d like to read more about plague in the 14th century, I really do recommend it, for it has a wealth of fascinating detail, and uses contemporary texts to reveal the thinking of the time.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Fabulous Roman Facts By L.J. Trafford

Back in 2018, a very different world to the one we are living in now, a publisher asked me whether I would like to write a non-fiction survival manual about living in Ancient Rome. Part travel guide, part self-help book How to Survive in Ancient Rome was to feature 14 separate topics covering just about every aspect of ancient Roman life. 
I was charged with being ‘engaging’ and writing a book that was ‘lively’.

After pondering for a good 27 minutes, I accepted this challenge and set forth to find as many interesting facts about ancient Rome as I could possibly squeeze into a lean 50k words.  
I thought for my History Girls piece this month I would share a few of the gems I discovered whilst doing my research, because they are just too good to keep to myself.

Eating cabbage before knocking back the vino will prevent intoxication.

So, Pliny the Elder tells us. Cabbage for Pliny is an all-round wonder drug, as he himself says, “It would be a lengthy task to list the good points of the cabbage.”
To summarise, cabbage is good for headaches, impaired vision, spots before the eyes, the spleen and the stomach. An application of pounded cabbage also helps heal wounds.
Oh and it is a cure for hypochondria as well, presumably for the reassurance that it can miraculously cure whatever ailment you think you have.

Pet eels were all the rage.

An unadorned eel

The politician Marcus Licinius Crassus trained his eel to come when called & take food from his hand. He also adorned his beloved pet with earrings & necklaces like a 'lovely maiden'
Crassus was far from alone in being a lover of our aquatic friends. Fish ponds were all the rage and Romans could become excessively devoted to showing them off. Something that Cicero, who has clearly sat through one too many dinner party discussions on eel training, is most scornful of, calling them ‘fish fanciers’.
A term literally applied by Crassus to his lovely maiden eel.

Rome's first king and founder, Romulus vanished into thin air. 
Romulus in happier days with his brother Remus.
Wellcome Collection.

Yes, King Romulus had been going about his kingly business when a mist descended and enveloped him. When the mist rose, he was nowhere to be found.
His close aides, who were with him at this time, came to rapid conclusion that he must have been spirited away by the gods. One even claimed that he had spoken to the ghost of Romulus who had told him he was fine and happy hanging out with the gods and that Rome should just get on with being fabulous without him.

Historian Livy raises the far more likely explanation that the close aides had killed the king, disposed of his body and come up with this ludicrously rubbish cover story to hide their actions.

The length of a Roman hour changed depending on the season

The Roman day was divided into 12 hours that started at sunrise and ended at sunset. Only, even the Romans couldn’t fail to notice that in winter the time between sun up and sun down was shorter than that during the summer. What to do?

Change the length of an hour depending on the season of course! In summer a Roman hour was around 30 minutes longer than an hour in winter. 
Globe identified as a sundial on a Pompeii Fresco
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Keeping on to a theme of measuring time.....

In the 263 BCE Rome was gifted its first ever public sundial by Sicily. This was proudly installed in the Forum. It took 95 years before anyone noticed the calibration was off and it had been telling the wrong time for nearly a century.

Which tells you exactly how little Romans were concerned with being places on time.

To inject more impact into their eloquence, lawyers would hire an audience for their trials. 3 denarii per head would buy you a mob to applaud your finest points and shout 'bravo' at key moments.

Lawyers were not alone in hiring an encouraging mob, the Emperor Nero was at it too. He put together a team of 5,000 youths who accompanied him during his artistic endeavours and made sure he received his rightful adulation.
They had three different types of clap: the bees, the roof tiles and the bricks.
The roof tiles was produced by clapping with hands rounded like roof tiles and the bricks by clapping with flat hands (because bricks unlike roof tiles are flat). And the bees clap? Maybe it sounded like humming, maybe it was produced by a rapid clapping of the hands like the wings of that flying insect, maybe it was a clap with a sting in it’s tale. In short, we have no idea.
Photo by John Severns.

It was the fashion to drink perfume.

Perfume was extremely expensive in ancient Rome and so using liberal amounts of it was to demonstrate your extreme wealth. The Emperor Otho was said to have dabbed perfume on the soles of his feet, Caligula had his bathtub smeared with perfume before he would get into it and Nero's famous golden house squirted perfume from the walls onto his guests.
But the most ludicrous use of scent was those people who mixed it in a drink, so that their insides would smell as sweet as their outside.
Perfume bottle 1st Century CE.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

There were penalties for not being married.

The Emperor Augustus brought in a set of laws designed to improve the moral structure of Rome, as well as increasing the birth rate. He offered a bonus for producing three children,
Alongside the carrot came the stick, you could expect to be fined if you were not married by the age of 20 for women and 25 for men. 

One man morality machine, Augustus
Wellcome Collection

Slaves could be ludicrously expensive.

There are plenty of examples of Romans spending silly money on particular slaves. A man named Calvisius Sabinus spent 100,000 sesterces on a slave that could quote the entirety of Homer from memory. Which is mere horse fodder when compared to the slave that Sejanus, heard of the Imperial guard in the 1st century CE, sold. The eunuch, named Paezon (meaning 'boy toy') was sold by Sejanus for an alleged 50 million sesterces!  
This sum is so ludicrous that we have to suspect that the purchaser of Paezon had been menaced into it  by Sejanus. Or alternatively was very keen to buy Sejanus' influence.....

For more fabulous Roman facts check out my new book How to Survive in Ancient Rome

L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors series of novels which cover the fall of Nero and the tumultuous year that followed when four emperors attempted to rule Rome.
They are available on Amazon and other sites.

Friday, 6 November 2020

Food, Glorious Food! - Celia Rees

 My last post magically coincided with the publication of my first adult novel, Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook. That novel began with this cookery book. The kernel of the idea was sown when I found the book among my mother's effects. The book was stained, faded and falling apart. I could have thrown it out but I stayed my hand. 

 It had an interest of its own as a historical document. A book given away with gas cookers - does anyone talk about regulos now, or even know what they are? There's a section on Invalid Cookery, Barley Water, Beef Tea, Calf's Foot Jelly and it gives a taste (literally) of what people ate in the mid Twentieth Century that we tend not to eat any more. Recipes for Heart (Baked), Sheep's Head, Calf's Head, Brain Sauce. 

It is also a kind of time capsule. When I opened it, I found all kinds of recipes that had been clipped from newspapers and magazines, many of them from the Second World War. I spent a long time poring over these, fascinated.  This was a little treasure trove, a tiny historical archive that brought a particular time to vivid life. These were not facsimiles. They were of that time, faded and folded, carefully clipped from long gone newspapers: The Daily Herald, Daily News and Westminster Gazette and magazines that had disappeared decades ago. There were leaflets and pamphlets issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Ministry of Food, '"New Wartime Recipes" price 7/12d, post free'. DIG FOR VICTORY LEAFLET No. 10'.

They spoke directly of a time of rationing, scarcity, government departments devoted to managing food production and distribution and of the ingenuity of the individual householder in managing  the family, the ration, doing his or her bit to improvise, to add to the basic ration by growing as much food as possible, digging up the garden, tending the allotment. On a macro level, they illustrate the far sightedness of the British Government in protecting food supply and distribution in a country heavily dependent on food imports which were likely to be curtailed, even cut off by enemy blockading. The simple strategy of encouraging more home production while safeguarding fair distribution and coming down hard on hoarding and black market trading were important strategies in maintaining a healthy working population and adequate supplies for the fighting troops. 

Dig For Victory was no idle instruction.  

I found all this fascinating, but the most valuable finds were the hand written recipes slotted into the pages, on different stationery, in different writing. These were from the people who had handled and used this cookery book, swapping recipes as women did then and still do. Now, it might be a link to a page or a computer print out but the desire to share a favourite recipe is common to cooks. These recipes, swapped between my grandmother, aunt and my mother, were the only written connection that I had found between them. There was something here that I knew I had to write about. I carefully saved the book. It was now  a 'found' document of special significance. 

It was years before I discovered the key that would link to that initial idea and provide the inspiration for  Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook. The Radiation Cookery Book remained central to the writing of the novel. Hand written recipes, swapped between women, morphed into coded messages; the recipes in the Radiation Cookery Book providing the key to the code. I also found a use for all those newspaper and magazine clippings. My main character, Edith Graham, is a school teacher but she has an alter ego, the rather dashing cookery writer,  Stella Snelling. This allows her to lead a hidden life and I've  always loved hidden lives...

Celia Rees

Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook HarperCollins

Friday, 30 October 2020

Mr KEYNES REVOLUTION, a novel by E.J.Barnes. Interview by Penny Dolan

Mr Keynes’ Revolution

I am delighted to welcome Emma Barnes, aka E.J. Barnes, the author of MR KEYNES REVOLUTION, to the History Girls blog today. 

Emma's newly published historical novel, which I very much enjoyed, is about the intriguing relationship between the economist John Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova, the talented ballerina who had danced with Diaghilev. Keynes met Lydia in London, in 1921, while she was appearing as the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty.

As someone who is lightly fascinated by the Bloomsbury Group, I admit I experienced a slightly wicked pleasure in observing, through Emma's writing, how much this romance ruffled the feathers of Keynes family of friends.  The two sisters at the heart of the Bloomsbury circle - the artist Vanessa Bell and the author Virginia Woolf -  were irritated by Lydia's forthright style and direct manners, and considered her a vulgar foreigner who danced professionally for money.

Keynes' love affairs had previously been with young men, so most of the Bloomsbury set, both male and female, hoped his new passion would fade, leaving their elite aesthetic circle unchanged, as well as still supported by Keynes quiet financial generosity.  In the novel, Lydia, who knows about hardship and poverty, wisely comments: "You mean your friends, the ones they call Bloomsbury, if they don't care for money, that's because they have plenty of it."

A particular strength of this novel is that, alongside the warm but unusual romance, a more political drama is unfolding. Emma Barnes shows Keynes - writer, academic, art lover and investor - struggling to make goverment ministers and bankers appreciate the consequences of their financial decisions. Although not a knight on a white charger,  Keynes' continuing battle against poor postwar economic choices does read quite heroically, and feels more than relevant to the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Emma, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed about your first historical novel: I'd like to ask you a few questions. 

 (Image of the artist Duncan Grant on the left, and the economist Maynard Keynes on right. Wikipedia) 

 Q. Why did you choose Keynes? What is it about his character that interested you and inspired you?

A. I'd known about Keynes' work since studying economics, first at school, and then at Cambridge University. where he still loomed very large in the landscape. But I didn't know anything about his life until I read a book called Mrs Woolf and the Servants, which rather circuitously led me to Keynes via the Bloomsbury Group. I was amazed to learn of Keynes' many gay love affairs, and sudden passion for a ballerina. I was also fascinated by his involvement in so many worlds: high finance, government, journalism, academia, the arts and Bohemia.

Above all, I felt his struggles spoke to ours. He lived in a time in which complacency about politics and economics was overtaken by crisis and extremism. Civilisation itself was under threat. His mission was a heroic one: to find a humane capitalism that could serve as an underpinning for a democratic, civilised, peaceful society. Maybe there are some pointers for us now.

 Q. Why did you choose the 1918 Paris Peace conference as the opening point of your novel? 

A: Originally I wrote a quieter start, but I loved the drama of the Paris Peace Conference: Maynard Keynes, who has been so successfully negotiating the corridors of power, suddenly has had enough. He see the politicians are failing everyone and walks out. It sets up the themes of the book: a complacent and callous establishment, and the dilemma of someone who both belongs and does not belong, but can never just walk away. 

Q. Two of the central locations of the novel - Kings College, Cambridge and  Charleston, the Bloomsbury's Sussex retreat - are beautifully described. Were you able to visit these settings specifically for your novel Mr Keynes Revolution?

A. Yes, I've stayed at Kings, and I was lucky enough to see the paintings that Duncan Grant and Vaness Bell produced for Maynard Keynes rooms. At Charleston, I fondly remember the scones in the heavenly gardens. Charleston is a work of art in itself: you can see why it was sucha haven for the metropolitan and vastly overworked Maynard Keynes.

 Cambridge - Wikipedia

Q. Much has been written in admiration of the Bloomsbury movement but I felt that your novel offers a gently humorous sideways view of the group. Vanessa, on occasions, is shown as intellectually snobbish, waspish and possessive, despite Bloomsbury's belief in liberty and sexual freedom. She is a complete contrast to Lydia, the practical "little pony" of a ballerina, comfortable in her all-too-visible skin, and at ease with both the servants and the need to make money. How did you develop your ideas about Lydia?

A. Bloomsbury were never at their best in their dealings with Lydia. In fairness, Maynard did rather hurl her into the group with little regard for how they might respond. But their response was not generous. Bloomsbury did give Maynard a  great deal though - not least, a lasting ideal of art and friendship that inspired him throughout his life.

Lydia Lopokova - Wikipedia

Lydia herself is an astonishing character. She had an amazingly colourful life, from a childhood in Tsarist Russia to stardom on Broadway and with the Ballets Russes, to love affairs, to acting Shakespeare and Ibse, to a long and eccentric old age. More than this, her spirit and originality were noted by everyone and emerge strongly in her letters.

 For those who want to read about her life I would recommend Judith Mackrell's biography, Bloomsbury Ballerina, and the published letters, Lydia and Maynard. Writing the novel, it was a challenge not to portray Lydia in a way that felt over the top. In many ways, she was larger than life, although I think the extrovert persona also disguised a degree of personal tragedy, and so I was concerned that the fictional version might appear to be a caricature. I've tried to convey her vulnerability and her courage.


Q. In your novel, Keynes romance and some of its complications are very much rounded out by the chapters written from the servants point of view. Where did this strand come from?

A. I've long  been interested in servants - my own great-grandmother was a maid. Domestic service was the biggest employer in the early twentieth century but it's a very hidden world. I've always been interested in the memoirs of servants, and also enjoyed Lucy Lethbridge's Servants. The most direct source was Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants which explores the lives of several Bloomsbury servants in detail. The character of Lottie is particularly influenced by that book. Gates alone is entirely my invention although his storyline is still inspired by historical events. 

 The relationship of servants and their employers is fascinating: intimate, sometimes affectionate but also often exploitative and filled with unexpressed resentments. For employers like Bloomsbury - trying to overturn social conventions, attempting to be progressive, yet undeniably part of a privileged elite - the relationship creates particular tensions.

Mrs Woolf and the Servants - Alison Light

Q, You mentioned writing this as a screenplay. Did that format help you when it came to writing and pacing this as a historical novel?

A. Yes and no. It meant I was familiar with the material but a novel is a very different form and written straight from a screen play would be "choppy." There's more space for introsepction, and I also had to think of historical accuracy all over again - with a screenplay, it's impossible to be completely accurate within the constraints of a two-hour script. With a novel, there's more flexibility so you need to think exactly what you are trying to achieve. A novel is usually more intimate which actually means it has covered a shorter span of time, but in more detail, than a screenplay.

Q. Which was the hardest scene to write? And your favourite scene to write?

A. The opening chapter, at the Paris Peace Conference, was a hard one in terms of it being a big historical event with a lot of detail to get right. Some of the economic discussions are also tricky because you are trying to convey quite difficult subject matter, without overwhelming the reader or losing dramatic tension. At the end of the day, economics is at the heart of what Keynes was about but economic theory rarely crops up in novels so that was a challenge!

My favourite scene is Lydia and Maynard on the Sussex Downs after the ill-fated Charleston party.(Seconded here, by the way!)

File:Charleston farmhouse - - 291473.jpg ...

Q Emma, I became very involved with your main characters and their worlds as I read on through Mr Keynes Revolution. Do you have any future plans for these characters? 

A. Yes. This novel finishes in 1925. I am working on a sequel which contains many momentous challenges for Maynard and Lydia, including a trip to Bolshevik Russia and the Great Depression. I'm enjoying it!

Emma - E.J. Barnes! - thank you for answering all my questions here on History Girls. Good wishes on this novel - and on the next.



Interview by Penny Dolan

MR KEYNES REVOLUTION by E.J.BARNES. Longlisted for The Peggy Chapman-Andrews First Novel Award . Greyfire Publishing ISBN 9780993515835 .


Friday, 23 October 2020

Brunel and his family - by Sue Purkiss

I've mentioned before that I volunteer on the SS Great Britain, which sits in the dry dock where it was originally built on Bristol Harbourside. (I've also written a children's book set on the ship, Emily's Surprising Voyage.) I was there the other day, and spent part of the afternoon in one of my favourite places there, in the new museum called Being Brunel, which is about the man himself and all the other projects he worked on apart from the beautiful ship.

Part of the Duke Street Office

I was in the replica of Brunel's office in Duke Street, London - he lived in London, though he had a close association with Bristol since he came to recuperate there after a serious accident in the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which he and his father Marc were constructing beneath the Thames. Never one to be idle, he became aware of a competition to design a suspension bridge to cross the Avon Gorge - and then later, decided to tender for the new railway line to be built from London to Bristol. Then after that, he decided, with typical panache, that the next step was a passenger ship to cross the Atlantic, so that people could travel from London all the way through to New York. So he built first the Great Western, a paddle steamer - and then the immensely innovative Great Britain, noted for being built of iron, for running on steam as well as sail, for being driven by a propellor rather than a paddle wheel - and of course for its size.

The Duke Street office is a large and pleasant room. The window looks out on St James's Park. It is lined with wooden panelling, and there are, from memory, two large desks. On one of them Brunel's cigar sits ready for him to pick it up - he was an inveterate smoker, getting through more than forty a day. Letters and other papers are scattered over the desk. In one corner is a comfortable armchair, with a glass of sherry on the table beside it. On a shelf is a model of a machine which his father, another engineer, had designed to facilitate the production of the wooden blocks required to operate sails. Family was very important to Brunel, and his father was a great influence.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

It feels as if he has just gone out of the room, and might wander back in at any minute. He feels very close. Mind you, if he did appear, it could well be very disconcerting (apart from for the obvious reasons). He was an impatient man who could be irascible: one of my favourite quotes is something he wrote to an associate whose work he deemed to be inadequate: "You have wasted more of my time than your whole life is worth!" He drove himself mercilessly, and he expected similar dedication from others. Probably he sensed, towards the end of his life, that his time was unusually limited: he died when he was only fifty three.

I'm very interested in the extent to which history is affected by charismatic individuals. That was partly why I was drawn to King Alfred, about whom I also wrote a book, Warrior King. Certainly, if Brunel had not had the character he did, the Great Britain would not have been built in the way that it was. The fact that it was successfully constructed from steel meant, counterintuitively, that ships could be bigger: there is a line that directly connects the vessels which carry goods around the world today with Brunel's ship. It meant that that they could carry sufficient coal to power steam engines, which would carry them further and faster. (Though at this point in time, as we slowly begin to realise what we are doing to the environment, we may wonder about whether this was or was not 'a good thing'...)

Marc Brunel

But as I chatted to visitors about Sir Marc's machine, and about how different in character the two of them - both brilliant engineers - were, I realised that my interest in the Brunels is not just down to their engineering achievements. I'm interested in the family, and I'd like to know more about it. In his portraits, Sir Marc looks like a much more genial character than his son was; there's a glint of humour in his eyes. He was French, but was on the wrong side of the Revolution and so had to leave his country, spending some time in America before eventually arriving in Britain, where he was reunited with an English girl, Sophia, whom he had met in France during those turbulent years. Their marriage was evidently a long and very happy one.

Colleagues at the ship, who know far more about engineering than I do (not difficult), think that Marc was actually the more innovative, creative engineer of the two. But he seems to have lacked the drive of his restless son; he had brilliant ideas, but he didn't have a sure hand when it came to making money - and was indeed in a debtors' prison at one stage, where his loyal Sophia joined him.

Sophia Hawes

He was a devoted father. There are letters and diary entries that show this. There's one from his daughter Sophia, where she fondly remembers how her father would take the children for walks and teach them to observe nature, and then go back home and draw it: there's a lovely drawing of a horse which Isambard did at at the age of six. Sophia says wistfully something to the effect that of course Isambard, being a boy, was able to pursue his studies seriously: she, a girl, could only do so up to a point.

Also in Being Brunel there is a replica of Brunel's dining room, where there are three talking portraits. One is of Sophia. She speaks fondly of her brother, to whom she was evidently very close - he spent a great deal of time at the home she shared with her husband, Sir Benjamin Hawes.

I'm intrigued by Sophia, but there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of information available about her. There's even less about the middle child, Emma: and very little about Brunel's wife, Mary. Hm... I wonder...

Friday, 16 October 2020

Nostalgia, or, Be careful what you wish for

by Susan Vincent

I often find myself yearning for the past. Not for a time of personal recollection and experience, but for The Past, a lost time of history.

As a child I read voraciously, historical novels a speciality. My favourites were those where the protagonist slipped through the boundary between then and now, and pitched up in another time. Compared to the past, the here and now can seem so unsatisfactory, so rushed and uncertain, so disappointing.

On all sides I am assailed by a sense of loss, the ‘now’ falling short from the pre-lapsarian ‘once-was’: fewer birds and animals, the ice caps in retreat, even a dwindling of the darkness, harried into the few remaining parts of the planet as yet unlit. I am even thinking nostalgically of the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’. The reaping and sowing, the building up and breaking down seem now to have been replaced by a solitary time of unending consumption.

Compared to this, the past looks measured and well-run, with predictable, proper seasons, a clear social order, and vintage homewares like those sold in National Trust shops.


Frequently I feel as though I don’t fit in the now; I was born out of my time. And if you’re reading a blog about History, chances are you feel that too.


Maybe we all have a period that we yearn for more than any other. The one that captures my imagination and nostalgia – the one that I long to experience – are the interwar years. Basically, I want to go on holiday in the 1920s and 1930s.

This might seem like an odd period to pitch up into, but just look at its advantages. As a dress historian, I’ll start with the clothes: chic but simple; a new look but without the nauseating turnover of fast fashion; body adaptable but not skimpy. Thanks to the new fashion of the bob a woman could have short hair, and if she were daring enough, could even wear trousers.

But there were other things possible for a woman in this period too. She could go to school and even university. She could vote (full suffrage in 1928), divorce on equal grounds (1923 Matrimonial Causes Act), and thanks to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, earn her living in the professions. And since I’m also a bit of a Golden Age detection junkie, we may as well add that she could become an all-time best-selling crime author. (Thank you Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey…)


There were also aspirins, luxury ocean liners, English villages straight off a chocolate box, and sensible brogues for country walking.





But this is all rubbish of course. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nostalgia - that desperate, sweet longing for an unattainable place or time – was considered to be a disease. In the twentieth century we turned it into a marketing opportunity. It is a longing that we now both assuage and nurture with heritage visits and retail therapy. But as yearningly pleasurable as nostalgia is, I think there is something to be said for its earlier pathologizing.

Obviously, having your eyes fixed on a distant horizon means you’re blind to the here and now – including to all its advantages and joys and beauty.

But it is also bad history, for the yearning gaze sees only what it wants to. Let’s face it, if I were magically transported back I would not cruise the Atlantic, look fashion-plate perfect, or live what I consider to be an emancipated life. I would have fewer opportunities, miss modern dentistry, and be bereft without trainers. There may have been corncrakes in every field, but the cities were also clogged with choking smoke. My view of the interwar years conveniently starts up after the Spanish flu, pans quickly over the maimed WWI servicemen begging on the streets, ignores the Depression, and very handily stops short of the next war. I am blind to incalculable loss and past trauma.

And perhaps the most important thing that I need to remember is that while I look to a golden past, so did that very past look back and itself yearn for an earlier time. Where I see certainty and a wonderful retro-design aesthetic, the interwar years were experienced very differently by those who lived them. This was a time of self-conscious newness, jagged and uncompromising. The First World War had shorn the world from the past and in its place was modernity: angular, fast, and utterly different from old fuddy-duddy bewhiskered Victorianism. And where I see a rural, unchanging paradise, contemporaries experienced a swamping tide of technology and suburban expansion.

Take electricity for instance. When Stanley Baldwin announced plans for the National Grid in 1926, it released the slow march of pylons. This was bitterly contested, especially in areas of the countryside renowned for their beauty. In a letter to The Times in 1929, W.H. Cormack of Mungrisdale Vicarage called the pylons a ‘hideous disfigurement’ on the Lakeland scenery. Electricity, he said, was not even needed: ‘in the country we get on very well with oil’ (The Times, 6 July 1929).

The following year, 1930, a correspondent from Kent deplored plans that would leave ‘all lovers of our beautiful country, all lovers of history and tradition’ mourning a landscape that ‘will be utterly ruined’. He suggested siting the proposed pylons next to the London to Folkestone road, which had already sprouted ‘the usual crop of bungalows, petrol pumps, tea shops, and advertisements for Continental watering places’ (The Times, 16 January 1930). Where I look back on quaintness and romance, all Lewis Biggs of Treetops in Wrotham could see was nasty new-builds, brutal modernity, and ugly commerce. 

So what’s the moral?

One. I need to remember that in time, others will come to see my crippling present – even with a global pandemic – as their nostalgic place of safety.

Two. Nostalgia makes for very bad history. 

And three. Be careful what you wish for.