Wednesday 31 October 2012

October competition

We have five copies of Rome's Executioner by our guest Robert Fabbri to give away to the authors of the best answers to this question:

"Vespasian aside, which Roman Emperor interests you the most and why?"

Closing date 7th November.
STOP PRESS - extended till 14th November! Get in and comment!

We are sorry but all our competitions are open only to readers from the UK

Tuesday 30 October 2012

A historical character you might not know by Elizabeth Laird

This is a variant on our occasional series of "Historical characters we just don't get" by sundry History Girls and a wonderful opportunity to introduce you to Elizabeth Laird, who has just joined us as a Reserve HG. (You can read all about her on the About Us Page).

Photo by A Mortensen

                                            Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia 

Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia
If you've never heard of Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia, I feel quite proud to introduce him to you. He's gripped my imagination for many years, and I hope he'll touch your heart, too. A poignant, romantic figure during his short life, Alemayehu's story just won't go away.

The scene of his childhood was the mountain fastness of Magdala, the seat of his father, the Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia). A man of great vision, intelligence, drive and erratic temper, Tewodros had muscled his way to the throne, subdued his enemies and united Abyssinia under his strong rule. But he wanted, more than anything else, to make alliances with the European powers who were increasingly influential in the lands and seas bordering the Highlands of Abyssinia in the 1860s.

Emperor Tewodros's capital at Magdala
To this end, he wrote letters to Queen Victoria. They were in Amharic, the ancient, beautiful script of his mother tongue. No one in the Foreign Office could read them, and no one thought they were important. They were put into a drawer and forgotten.

Tewodros waited impatiently for an answer. He grew increasingly frustrated, and at last, irritated by what he perceived to be the arrogance of the few Europeans who had made their way to his capital, he threw them into prison and clapped iron chains round their ankles. They included the British consul.

The Emperor Tewodros
It took years for the British to respond, but when at last they did, their reaction was extreme. They assembled a huge army consisting of British and Indian troops along with their horses, elephants, rapid assembly guns, a build- yourself-a-railway kit, and, most important of all, the new weapon of choice for an imperial army – the Snider rifle. Journalists accompanied the army, and artists sent back their depictions of the country and the people by means of the newly established telegraph system.
It took this extraordinary expeditionary force months to sail to the port of Zulla on the Red Sea, unroll their railway across the desert (one of the hottest places on earth), and ascend the narrow, treacherous paths that led hundreds of miles up into the Highlands where Tewodros was waiting, filled with excitement at the thought of seeing a modern European army in action.

The British Expeditionary Force on its way to Magdala
The outcome, of course, was never really in doubt. In spite of the incredible courage of the Abyssinian soldiers, the Snider rifles were invincible. A short, sharp battle soon gave the British control of Magdala, which would be immortalised by the triumphalist British in the name of many a Victorian street and pub. Tewodros, having fought to the very end, until he was almost the last man standing, saw that the game was up, and shot himself.

He left one legitimate son, the seven year old Prince Alemayehu, and a young queen, Tiruwork. Before he died, the Emperor is said to have instructed Tiruwork to entrust Alemayehu to the care of General Napier, who was in command of the British forces (and whose statue glares into Hyde Park from the top end of Exhibition Road). He probably guessed that in the power vacuum that would ensue after his death, the boy's life would be in danger. He also wanted his son to learn what the west could teach him, to become a new, modern kind of ruler.

General Sir Robert Napier
In the aftermath of the battle, the British shamelessly looted the imperial treasury. Tewodros had amassed in Magdala a huge hoard of works of art, exquisitely painted manuscripts, gold crosses, church vestments and icons. Ethiopia is the oldest Christian country in the world, and its artworks are unique and of enormous value. These treasures were picked over by an expert sent especially for the purpose from the British Museum (they're still there), and the rest was auctioned off to the troops.
When the conquering army had reduced Magdala to a smoking ruin, they set off down the mountain paths for home. Alemayehu and his mother went with them.

Queen Tiruwork was already ill, and after a few days of being bumped along in her litter, she died, probably of TB. Little Alemayehu, who had already lost his father, his home and the world he had grown up in, was now entirely alone.

General Napier put the little boy into the care of Captain Speedy, one of those wildly romantic Victorian soldier adventurer figures, who had learned Amharic in an earlier expedition to Abyssinia. Over six feet tall, with red hair and masses of whiskers, Speedy and the little boy formed a deep and unlikely friendship.

Captain Charles Speedy in Abyssinian dress by Julia Margaret Cameron
Back in Britain, little Alemayehu was taken at once to meet Queen Victoria, who adored children and rather fell in love with him. She saw that Alemayehu was comfortable with Speedy, and arranged for him to be paid to foster the little prince. When Speedy married, shortly afterwards, he and his new wife became loving surrogate parents.

Speedy, a career soldier, was posted to India are year or so after returning to Britain, and Alemayehu went too. He seems to have been happy enough in the cantonment, playing with the other children, but it was not to last. The Chancellor, Robert Lowe, insisted that he be brought back to Britain and sent to a proper English public school. After all, thought the good Chancellor, he would only be morally corrupted by associating with Indian children.

So Alemayehu was put into the charge of the headmaster of Cheltenham School, Dr Jex-Blake, who had nine daughters and a cold wife. When Jex-Blake transferred to Rugby School, Alemayehu went with him.
The Entrance to Rugby School
It has to be said that Alemayehu did not shine at school, at least not in his academic work. He came bottom of every class. But he loved sport, especially Rugby football, and was popular with his classmates. His holidays must have been rather bleak. No one knew what to do with him. He was shunted round between the families of courtiers and government officials, and often taken to see the Queen at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, or Balmoral.

Prince Alemayehu as a schoolboy at Rugby
The army seemed to be the obvious destination for Alemayehu. He duly started officer training at Sandhurst, but he was very unhappy there, and Victorian racism meant that everyone assumed that a black officer could not possibly be put in command of white troops.

Before any further decisions could be made, Alemayehu developed pleurisy while staying with his tutor Cyril Ransome (the father of Arthur Ransome) in Leeds. After a short illness, he died. He was nineteen years old.

Queen Victoria was very upset to hear about the death of "dear, good Alemayehu". "It is too sad!" she wrote in her journal. "All alone in a strange country, without a single person or relative belonging to him... His was no happy life".

She arranged for him to be buried in the Royal Chapel at Windsor. There is a plaque to his memory by the west door.

The story doesn't end there, however. British historians, writing from the point of view of conquerors needing to justify their vastly expensive military adventure, wrote off the Emperor Tewodros as a blood thirsty madman. Modern Ethiopian historians have revised this view. Violent and erratic he may have been, but Tewodros is now widely admired as a social innovator, powerful soldier and clever politician.

A (rather fanciful) depiction of the Emperor Tewodros giving audience accompanied by his lions

There is, and always has been, widespread indignation in Ethiopia at the looting of the national treasury, and increasingly urgent calls for it to be returned. There is a move, also, to have the mortal remains of Prince Alemayehu removed from the Royal Chapel at Windsor, and reburied alongside later emperors in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa.

I have always been fascinated by the "Abyssinian campaign" (as the Victorians called their imperial adventure. I gave in to inner urgings at last, and wrote a novel about Prince Alemayehu. It's called The Prince Who Walked with Lions, and it was published earlier this year by Macmillan.

We're destined to hear more about this tragic young prince. The poet Lemn Sissay (himself an Ethiopian) has chosen him as the subject of his Great Lives broadcast with Matthew Parris, coming soon on Radio 4.

(All photos Creative Commons or out of copyright)

Monday 29 October 2012

Finding Vespasian by Robert Fabbri

Photo copyright © James Potter
Our guest this month is Robert Fabbri and we are very excited to have him here. His Vespasian novels have been creating quite a stir in the book world. Here's something about him:

Robert Fabbri read Drama and Theatre at London University and has worked in the film and TV industry for 25 years. He is an assistant director and has worked on productions such as Hornblower, Hellraiser, Patriot Games and Billy Elliot. His life-long study and passion for ancient history, especially for that of the Roman Empire, drew him to write the bestselling Vespasian series – the first of which, Vespasian: Tribune of Rome, put him in the Top Ten Hardback Fiction debuts for the whole of 2011. He lives in London and Berlin.  

Vespasian crept up on me slowly as – eight or so years ago – I was looking around for a subject to base a series of books upon. I had been inspired by the sleeve notes on Simon Scarrow’s first book, Under the Eagle; it said: he (Simon) decided to write the book that he wanted to read. Having never thought of writing before in those terms, the phrase stuck in my head and the desire to “try to do a Scarrow” grew over the next couple of years. Simon’s books take two fictional characters and weave them into history, so, not wanting to follow the same route, I decided to look for an historical character.

My favourite historical eras are Alexander the Great and the wars of the Successor States and the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Imperial Rome. It’s the scale of these times that always impresses me; no endeavour is too large to be discounted as impossible. I only have to look at Caesar bridging the Rhine in ten days, or his siege-works at Alesia facing in against the town and out against the relieving army; or at Alexander’s siege of Tyre, to see examples of massive feats of engineering. To just think about the logistics involved in those endeavours or the Roman invasion of Britain or Alexander’s crossing of the Hellespont makes me reel with a surfeit of arithmetic as I try and calculate roughly how much food and fodder was required to keep every man and beast fed for just one day.

So it was into these grand periods that I delved to find a hero that could sustain at least a trilogy. I had three criteria: a varied and exciting life, an interesting family and set of acquaintances, and a sense of humour. Just thinking about all the usual suspects I realised that so many have been covered by excellent authors. Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series is, to my mind, the final word on Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Anthony and Octavian; that series and Margaret Georges’ The Memoires of Cleopatra pretty much cover that particular queen and her relationship with the last three of those great men. Rome’s story is then taken up by one of the masters of Historical Fiction, Robert Graves, in I Claudius and Claudius the God, and further punctuated by Allan Massie’s series on the Emperors – no room for me there then. Mary Renault’s matchless Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy – favourites from my youth – told Alexander’s story in a way that I think cannot be beaten – although I look forward to reading Christian Cameron’s The God of War. So that left the Successors or a more obscure Roman.

Vespasianus. Plaster cast in Pushkin museum after original in Louvre. •

In my younger days I had always been aware of Vespasian because of the three main things that he’s remembered for: the Coliseum, his part in the invasion of Britain and, of course, taxing urine – hence a urinal being called a Vespasiano in Italy or a Vespasienne in France; however, I did not really know much more than that about him. But then through reading Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus and Cassius Dio I became more acquainted with this New Man who, despite his background, managed to scrape his way to the top of the Roman heap and I realised the blindingly obvious: to do that he had to survive the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, a feat at which many Romans from greater families failed dismally. If I told Vespasian’s story it would be to the backdrop of these eccentric, to say the least, reigns. Further research, which included reading and re-reading Barbara Levick’s excellent biography Vespasian, convinced me that I had found a character whose life could sustain not just a trilogy but a series of seven books.

Here was a man who had served almost everywhere in the empire: he had been a military tribune in Thrace at around the time of the Thracian revolt; he then became one of the vigintivirii – the twenty junior magistrates – in Rome, possibly in charge of executions at the time of Sejanus’ downfall. After that he served as a quaestor in the combined province of Crete and Cyrene – modern day Libya; he then went back to Rome and served first as the aedile for roads and then as a praetor during Caligula’s reign when he distinguished himself with a very sycophantic speech in the Senate thanking the emperor for inviting him to dinner – an excellent clue as to how he survived Caligula’s reign. Under Claudius he served as the Legate for the Second Augusta Legion in the invasion of Britain for four years and is credited by Suetonius as the subjugator of two tribes, fighting thirty battles and capturing twenty hill-forts as well as conquering the Isle of Wight! He returned to Rome in time for the downfall of Messalina and the rise of Agrippina the Younger and was made consul for the last two months of AD 51.

Temple of Vespasian in the Roman Forum**

And then he goes quiet for twelve years, having probably fallen foul of Agrippina, until he becomes the governor of Africa in AD 63, after her death. The following year he joined Nero’s progress around Greece, falling asleep in one of the artistic emperor’s many interminable recitals. Eventually he was forgiven and in AD 66 was put in charge of suppressing the Jewish revolt where he remained until AD 69, the Year of the Four Emperors, when he emerged as the final victor and Emperor of Rome.

So his life certainly fulfilled the first criterion I had set; what of his family and acquaintances?
His mother, Vespasia Polla, is the person whom we have to thank for pushing Vespasian on his path to the purple; without her he would have probably remained on his family estate farming mules for the army all his life. According to Suetonius he was less than keen in following his brother, Sabinus, up the cursus honorum, the career path in Rome, causing his mother to refer to him sarcastically as “his brother’s client”, which seemed to do the trick.

In Rome he somehow, probably through his uncle, Vespasius Pollo, got the patronage of a most formidable woman, Antonia Minor, daughter of Mark Antony, sister-in-law to Tiberius, mother to Claudius and grandmother to Caligula. I could see that her connections in the highest strata of Roman society would make her a perfect engine for the political intrigue sections of the books and what is Roman Historical Fiction without intrigue?

Through Antonia, Vespasian met the love of his life, Caenis. She was Antonia’s slave and secretary and was reputed to have a photographic memory – or whatever the expression would have been in those days. Even once she was freed on Antonia’s death, Caenis and Vespasian could never marry because of a law forbidding the union of senators and freedwomen; however, she must have stuck by him because after the death of his wife, before he became emperor, Caenis stayed with him for the rest of her days.

This fact would give me ample scope for a love affair that could never be fully realised and heart-breaking sacrifices that the two of them – but mainly Caenis – would have to make.
And then, of course, there was his wife, Flavia Domitilla; how would she fit into this? We do not know much about her other than she was the mistress of a wealthy businessman from Africa before Vespasian married her in around AD 38. What were her motivations to make her enter into a marriage and bear three children to a man who had already found his lifetime’s partner? For me it was perfect and it sealed the second of the criteria.

As to the final criterion, a sense of humour, I need only point to Vespasian’s dying words: in those days of deified emperors he departed life saying, “I think I’m turning into a god”.

 The paperback of Rome's Executioner will be out on 1st November.

• Image of Vespasian's bust cropped and colour-adjusted by Wikipedia user Shakko, reproduced under the Creative Commons agreement.

** Photo by Wikipedia user Alago, reproduced under the Creative Commons agreement

Sunday 28 October 2012

Books of Stuff, by K. M. Grant

Social networking is here to stay.  Yet neither blogs nor tweets can take the place of the old-fashioned commonplace book on whose pages the owner jotted down thoughts, observations and quotations that happened, at a particular moment, to seem important or interesting.  We still scribble down thoughts, observations and quotations:  they're the lifeblood of Facebook and Twitter.  But it's not the same.  For a start, electronic jottings are all typed, and one of the wonders of the real commonplace book was the handwriting, usually beautifully neat to begin with, then turning more and more scribbly as the entries proliferated amid cigar ash and spilled coffee.    This is George Lyttleton's handwriting, taken from his 'large, blue, hardback' commonplace book.

George Lyttleton's handwriting
Some people think that commonplace books are the same as scrap books:  I don't agree.  To me, scrapbooks are blank books into which you stuff things:  recipes torn from newspapers, cards from people you once knew, old letters not important enough to go into the special old letter box, old leaves picked up somewhere or other, old invitations, old almost anything flat and papery.  The blank leaves of a scrapbook are seldom written on:  they just serve as a binding for everything else.

Commonplace books are not bundles of stuff.  They bear the actual imprint of the owner.  And they're mis-named.  As George Lyttleton asked of his friend Rupert Hart-Davis, 'why is it called a commonplace book when practically nothing in it is commonplace?' (GWL, 2002).   In his own commonplace book, he noted the breeding habits of rabbits (p.29) and a Japanese student's interpretation of the instruction 'stand on your own feet' as 'I must float on my own bladder' (p.58).   Does anybody out there still keep a commonplace book?  I do hope so.

Another type of book long out of fashion is the visitors' book.  Our visitors' book is, after the husband, children, dogs and budgie (the budgie? who am I kidding) the thing I'd want to rescue from a fire.   My husband and I have kept it from the day we were married.  Nobody has to write a remark - I hate doing that myself - only a signature from each person - none of this signing for the whole family - and the dates of visitors' arrival and departure.  Apart from being a highly effective weapon when arguing over the last time we saw so and so, our book follows the trajectory of our lives through the signing of names:  my late parents-in-law and mother;  my father; nieces and nephews from faltering splodge to elegant scrawl; friends from afar; whole pages for christenings, weddings, funerals.  We also have three memorable pages from three memorable visits, filled with the outpourings of Russian pianist Alexander Kobrin. He came, alone, aged 17, to stay for the Scottish Piano Competition.  It was his first adult victory (he was the youngest competitor), and he went on to win a string of other competitions, culminating in the Van Cliburn.  I'm glad he ignored the 'name only' rule.  His pages brim with him.

Alexander Kobrin's entry in our visitors book

And what opportunities for raising danders visitors' books supply!  The rule in our house (as in my parents') has always been that once you marry, if you return to the parental home, you sign the visitors' book.  Our older daughter, married last year, didn't turn a hair.  Friends turned several hairs on her behalf.  'Bloody hell, Katie!  She has to sign to visitors' book in her own home?  That's awful!'  My rather weak protestation that she now has her own home did not placate.  In some eyes, I'm now an Officially Awful Mother.

People who stayed for Eliza's 21st
Anyhow, in our love-affair with electronic media, let's not forget the books in which we scribble.   Facebook and Twitter are all very well, but who wants their thoughts, observations or quotations archived in some impersonal whirring computer barn across the Atlantic rather than lodged in a bookcase, or even stuffed in a drawer?   And if you don't want to forget your visitors, get them signing.  We keep our visitors' book by the front door. If nothing else, it provides something amusing, moving and occasionally perplexing (who WERE those people?) to flick through whilst waiting for a taxi.

Lyttleton, G. (2002) The Commonplace Book of George Lyttleton, York, Stone Trough Books

Saturday 27 October 2012

Who is this man? by Louisa Young

Black History Month, and Halloween coming up? 
Ooh, I know.

This is Papa Lazarou. He is a terrifying and to some hideously amusing character from the TV show League of Gentlemen, who goes around stealing wives (played by men in drag), purloining their wedding rings, talking gibberish and calling them all Dave. Apparently he is based on a former landlord of the League of Gentlemen fellows, a Greek with the surname Papalazarou, and I dare say that's true.

However, I recently saw a clip of an interview with Steve Pemberton of League of Gentlemen, who expressed his initial surprise at the character's popularity, and went on to say: 'when you see something so fully formed and yet so out of your imagination, I think that's what people are responding to."

Out of your imagination?  Well, it all depends on where you imagination has been . . . nothing comes of nothing, as all historians know. And when you have the top hat, the black face, the overtones of evil, the wife-stealing, the Frenchified title with echoes of raising the dead, there's only place to go. And many have been there before:

Here is Baron Samedi, the HaitianVoodoo Loa of the Dead, aka Baron Cimetiere, Baron Kriminel and Baron la Croix, in his top hat and black tux (he doesn't seem to be wearing his dark glasses, and funeral cotton plugs in the nostrils today). The Baron is noted for disruption, obscenity, debauchery,dirty jokes, swearing, chasing mortal women (though he is married, to Maman Brigitte)  drinking and smoking, sex and death and resurrection. He is the one who welcomes you to the world of the dead.

Here is Baron Samedi, a James Bond villain, from Live and Let Die.
(He didn't die. They killed him twice, I think, but he raced away on the front of a train, laughing demoniacally.)

Here is Doctor Facilier, a Disney villain.

Here is Skulduggery Pleasant, a skeleton detective. The topper has evolved into a fedora, to denote detective (see Humphrey Bogart, etc etc)

 and here is my favourite, the Funnybones Dad. The topper is red, because red is nice and cheerful, like Tommy Cooper's fez.

Not neglecting, on the sex and drugs and rock'n'roll side, Jimi Hendrix

Alice Cooper, and Slash, of Guns'n'Roses

Last time I saw the Baron was in Accra, Ghana, in one of his benevolent roles: 
he was funeral director at my mother-in-law's funeral. 

which is only appropriate, given the West African origins of Voodoo. 

Though Grandma, a devout Christian of the best kind, would not care to be reminded. 
God Bless you, Elizabeth Adomakoh. RIP

The Baron doesn't seem to be a woman ever, but Tia Dalma from 
Pirates of the Caribbean is quite a Baron Samedi kind of girl.

Friday 26 October 2012


Why give Indiana Jones a leather jacket to wear in a hot climate? And why a whip? What makes the audience accept this as the proper attire for his character? The leather bullwhip is one of the oldest and most brutal of weapons in human history. Normally used to motivate cattle or slaves.  Yet the clothes he wears have become irrevocably linked to his character.

And here we have Ennis Del Mar
Not yet twenty, but nonetheless compelling, not light or frivolous in disposition, appearance or manner, uncommonly quick reflexes… a high school drop-out country boy with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life. He has outgrown his faded denim cowboy shirt, his wrists stick out of the sleeves and the buttons…

Clear vision of character. It could have been written by Annie Proulx herself while she was mapping out her story for Brokeback Mountain, but in fact it’s from the screenplay adapted from her book.

In Fight Club, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) aggressive and destructive, creates a club where people can do the most primal and aggressive thing, where everything is unleashed. He wears a red leather jacket the colour of blood and loud shirts in direct contrast to his alter ego, played by Edward Norton dressed in grey…  quiet, unassuming, and obedient.

It’s the people, the characters in the stories, who hold our attention. The people are the emotional core of every story whether movie or book and it’s their story that moves us. In film, the costume designer must know 'who' a character is before they can design their costume, in the same way that a novelist must clothe his character. No matter the era that the story takes place in, the audience or reader is asked to believe that the character is real and that they had a life prior to the start of the story.

The V&A is currently showing ‘Hollywood Costume’. It’s a major costume exhibition, not based on the spectacle of artefacts and glittering glamour but on the contribution of costume designers to unforgettable story. Deborah Nadoolman Landis (costume designer from iconic movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and An American Werewolf in London) has created an exhibition that brings to the fore the character seen from the inside out. She’s quoted as saying: ‘The best compliment for any costume designer is for the audience to love the film and not notice the clothes. Films require actors to disappear into the character and the audience must be invested in the outcome of every story. Perfect costume design is perfectly invisible.’

Wouldn’t that be the same for any novel whether historical or modern? Characters that seem right... as if the novelist has hardly had to think about them. They just are. It’s the characters in the stories, who hold our attention and who are of endless fascination to the reader or audience. We join our character at a single moment in their life. Everything about them must resonate true, including their clothes.

The exhibition is a ‘must’ for anyone interested in story whether historical or modern. Landis has dissected character in screenplay and carries it through to dialogue between directors (Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Tim Burton) and costume designers (Edith Head, Ann Roth and many others) and the actors themselves with Meryl Streep and Robert de Nero in ‘conversation’ on characters they’ve played and costumes they’ve worn.

Who could forget the cream suits and hats, worn by Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa or that shot of Streep in the cloak in the French Lieutenant’s Woman. All this is brought alive in the exhibition with film clips, swatches of fabric (that chartreuse green worn by Tippi Hedren in The Birds) and with brilliantly planned, ever-changing montages projected on digital tables. Instead of being a viewer you feel you are part of the discussion and decision-making process.
The final room is a cavalcade of iconic costume but even here brought alive by projections of the actors’ faces above every costume. 

Wait for this exhibition to settle a bit. At the moment it’s very booked up and full. But go with a notebook… no camera’s allowed… and soak it all in. I went twice in one week and for me one of the most interesting of costumes was one that could almost have been overlooked... it wasn’t Holly Golightly's black Givenchy dress from Breakfast at Tiffany's, or the green gown worn by Keira Knightley as Cecilia Tallis in Atonement, but a medieval wedding dress made of wool spiderwebs seeded not with pearls but the nacre of minute turban shells and train hung with bleached pumpkin pips (worn by Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot – thank you to Sue Bursztynski for directing me to this image... note the pumpkin pips)

Thursday 25 October 2012

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE... by Eleanor Updale

I love downloading free books from the Internet.  My ipad is filling up with all sorts of texts I've always meant to read.  The trouble is that, as with my TV recorder, too often I expect the machine to finish the job for me, and to read the books itself. My virtual bookshelf is becoming just as shaming as my real one.  The other day, on an unexpected train journey, and feeling appropriately low in spirits, I finally got round to having a look at Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melacholy - the runaway best seller of the early seventeenth century.

What it is, with all the kinds, causes, symptoms, prognostics, and several cures of it (1638)

I wish I had read it before.  It was a revelation - not at all the dreary tome I was expecting - and far more than an analysis of the nature, causes and treatment of depression.  On that subject it is astonishingly 'modern', especially in its recommendations about diet and exercise, which could have come from a twenty-first century magazine or website (were it not for the profusion of Latin quotations).

And in Burton's day, as now, depression was everywhere.

My purpose and endeavour is, in the following discourse to anatomise this humour of melancholy, through all its parts and species, as it is an habit, or an ordinary disease, and that philosophically, medicinally, to show the causes, symptoms, and  several cures of it, that it may be the better avoided... I know not wherein to do a more general service, and spend my time better, than to prescribe means how to prevent and cure so universal a malady, an epidemical disease, that so often, so much crucifies the body and mind.

Although most of the book is about melancholy, there are hundreds of reflections on other things, and time after time one stumbles across startling parallels with the present day.  Here, for example is Burton's prescription for rescuing an economy.  As usual, he brings in multiple classical examples:

They had wont in former times to disburden themselves, by sending out colonies, or by wars, as those old Romans; or by employing them at home about some public buildings, as bridges, roadways, for which those Romans were famous in this island; as Augustus Caesar did in Rome, the Spaniards in their Indian mines, as at Potosi in Peru, where some 30,000 men are still at work, 6000 furnaces ever boiling, &c. aqueducts, bridges, havens, those stupend works of Trajan, Claudius, at Ostium, Dioclesiani Therma, Fucinus Lacus, that Piraeum in Athens, made by Themistocles, ampitheatrums of curious marble, as at Verona, Civitas Philippi, and Heraclea in Thrace, those Appian and Flaminian ways, prodigious works all may witness; and rather than they should be idle [the pharaohs tasked] their subjects to build unnecessary pyramids, obelisks, abyrinths, channels, lakes, gigantic works all, to divert them from rebellion, riot, drinkenness...

Has George Osborne read this book? Perhaps he should.

Burton is keen to distinguish melancholy from madness - which is, nevertheless, all around us:

Fabatus, an Italian, holds seafaring men all mad; "the ship is mad, for it never stands still; the mariners are mad, to expose themselves to such imminent dangers: the waters are raging mad, in perpetual motion: the winds are as mad as the rest, they know not whence they come, whither they would go: and those men are maddest of all that go to sea; for one fool at home, they find forty abroad." He was a madman that said it, and thou peradventure as mad to read it.  Felix Platerus is of opinion all alchemists are mad, out of their wits; Atheneus saith as much of fiddlers... in comes music at one ear, out goes wit at another. Proud and vainglorious persons are certainly mad; and so are lascivious; I can feel their pulses beat hither; horn-mad some of them, to let others lie with their wives, and wink at it.

When it comes to the book world, it's almost comic how closely Burton's anxiety about the dumbing-down effect of the spread of reading mirrors twenty-first century alarm at the rise of the Internet:

Heretofore learning was graced by judicious scholars, but now noble sciences are vilified by base and illiterate scribblers," that either write for vainglory, need, to get money, or as Parasites to flatter and collogue with some great men... Amongst so many thousand authors you shall scarce find one, by reading of whom you shall be any whit better.

An early printing press - on an ipad

Burton rails against the populist marketeering of publishers:

It is a kind of policy in these days, to prefix a fantastical title to a book which is to be sold; for, as larks come down to a day-net, many vain readers will tarry and stand gazing like silly passengers at an antic picture in a painter's shop, that will not look at a judicious piece...It was not mine intent to prostitute my muse in English, or to divulge secreta Minervae, but to have exposed this more contract in Latin, if I could have got it printed. Any scurrile pamphlet is welcome to our mercenary stationers in English; they print all...but in Latin they will not deal.

And, while sharing the pains of today's writers (not enough time to check the proofs properly / anticipation of harsh criticism) he has wise words for us all on how to deal with readers and critics alike:

Our writings are as so many dishes, our readers guests, our books like beauty, that which one admires another rejects; so are we approved as men's fancies are inclined.


I resolve, if you like not my writing, go read something else.

In a melancholy world it's rather cheering to find that, for writers at least, little has changed over the past 400 years.  Burton's book turned out to be an antidote to my own gloom in an unexpected way.

Wednesday 24 October 2012



John Ruskin (1819-1900)

Following on from my previous post, I'm returning this month with more gossip regarding the personal affairs of John Ruskin - the celebrated artist, writer and critic whose ardent support for the Pre-Raphaelites helped to establish their good reputation, achieving the fame they so desperately sought.

But the passion expressed for the world of art was not transferred to the marriage bed, even when Ruskin came to wed Effie Gray - the attractive and lively young woman whose charms had inspired several offers of marriage, and led to more than one broken heart.

The couple first met when Effie was a child, their parents being acquainted and often sharing each other's company. Ruskin, who was older, soon became very fond of the little girl, so much so that when he was was twenty-one and Effie only twelve years old, she inspired him to write a fairytale. The King of Golden River was published in 1851 and became a Victorian classic.

John Ruskin as a child

However, there is some evidence that much like his friend Lewis Carroll, Ruskin felt far more at ease in the innocent company of the young, perhaps reliving through imagination his own happy childhood memories.

 Ruskin's portrait of Rose la Touche

Following the annulment of his marriage to the needy and womanly Effie, it was a girl called Rose La Touche who eventually won John Ruskin's heart. They met when she was nine years old, when her family engaged him to tutor the girl - about which Ruskin was to write, " the eventful year of 1858, a lady wrote to me from - somewhere near Green Street, W., - saying, as people sometimes did, in those days, that she saw I was the only sound teacher in Art...that she wanted her children - two boys and a girl - taught the beginnings of Art rightly; especially the younger girl, in whom she thought I might find some power worth developing."

Ruskin and Rose became very close. When not together they often wrote, her letters addressed to St Crumpet. He proposed in 1868, by which time he was almost fifty years old and Rose was just eighteen. But her family were greatly concerned regarding Rose's happiness, so much so that they wrote to Effie (now the respectable wife of Millais) to enquire about what had really occurred surrounding the scandal of her divorce.

Effie's response was to suggest that a marriage to Ruskin should not go ahead and, whether it was this influence or other religious differences, Rose la Touche turned her suitor down.

Rose la Touche on her deathbed by Ruskin

The result was enormous unhappiness. Rose died when twenty-seven years old, by then being placed in a nursing home when her parents feared their daughter mad. The tragedy of her premature death led to Ruskin's great despair, employing spiritualist mediums to try and contact Rose's soul, and then becoming quite convinced that the Renaissance artist, Carpaccio, had included Rose's portrait in his paintings of Saint Ursula. 

Whatever the misery and pain that had been suffered by Effie Gray during her marriage to Ruskin, it would seem that he paid the heaviest price. Effie's revenge was a dish served cold - but a dish of the utmost potency.

Essie Fox new novel, Elijah's Mermaid, is a Victorian psychological drama concerning an artist's doomed affairs, and the tragic results for the women who are chosen to be his muse. 

Tuesday 23 October 2012

They Dog Our Footsteps, by Leslie Wilson

When I was in Florence recently - oh, the bliss! and doing the gallery-crawl, as you do! I bought a lovely little book called Dogs In Galleries. I think what sold it to me was the humour of the jacket  - but it did get me looking at representations of dogs in art. The day after I bought the book, I took my husband to Pisa, to see the Campo dei Miracoli, because as far as I am concerned, the Baptistery there is the most beautiful building in the world. But there, as well as a sublime simplicity and beauty of proportion that goes straight to my heart -

I found dogs. More than I expected, too, There was one in a stained-glass window in the Baptistery - here it is -
and even before we had entered the Baptistery, we had found dogs acting as gutter-spouts on the outside of the Cathedral. In the course of the day, we found rather a lot of dogs, and not just hunting dogs, either, as you might expect, but also dogs living indoors with sculpted families, and little lap-dogs too.

This dog - in the cloister - is beneath the table where Tobias, I think, from the Book of Tobit, is restoring his sight to his aged father. There was no label on the bas-relief, but I'm sure I'm right.  There's the Angel on the right. Beneath a table is just where the dog would be, hoping, no doubt, that someone would shortly put something out to eat, and then a bit of it might drop down. People will sometimes tell you that dogs always used to live in kennels outside, but in medieval times,  I was taught at school, they were there, waiting to get the bones people threw down after they'd finished gnawing them for themselves. In other words, they were waste disposal operatives, just as my own dog is, and very useful when there is spilled food to mop up, or when my twin grandsons are eating finger food in their high chairs.
But look at this dog, on one of the doors of Pisa Cathedral. 

It's a scene of the Adoration of the Magi and the dog is looking straight at Jesus, as if the artist, in contradiction to the official doctrine of the Church, had given him a soul. The dog knows that this baby is special, quite different from any other baby, and is gazing at him with joy. I'm not being sentimental here, just considering the import of that fixed canine gaze.

After all, dogs have evolved into a special relationship with us that is perhaps unparalleled in the natural world. They are descendants of wolves, and share, I think 98% of their genetic material with the wolf - but they aren't wolves. 

A wolf may be raised by humans, it may even  become very friendly with humans, but it won't have that instinctive desire to please humans that a puppy has. It remains a wild animal. I recently read a very interesting book by John Bradshaw called In Defence of Dogs. I discovered that studies have been done of feral dog populations that show that dog behaviour is essentially different from wolf behaviour, even if the dogs don't live with humans. The wolves who became dogs, even, Bradshaw says, were probably different from today's wolves, who bitter experience has taught to be extremely shy of human beings. But at some stage - no-one knows exactly when - somewhere - grey wolves approached human camp fires and became hangers-on of the human race.

I watched a television programme once that suggested the socialisation was initially done by children. Having raised one puppy with kids at home, and the second one, our current dog, without resident young of our own, I think this is extremely likely. It is much harder work to bring a puppy up if you don't have children around to help. Admittedly, my young, when the first dog came among us, were over ten, not tinies. However, our current dog, Matilda, adores our young grandsons, and is staggeringly tolerant of crawling babies doing things to her that she would object to, strongly, from adults. We have to keep a sharp eye out, not so that she doesn't hurt the babies (they are twins, a double hazard!) but so that the twins don't hurt her.

But leaving the personal anecdotes aside; dogs must have revolutionised human society, in their many helpful roles as herders, hunting dogs, and guard dogs. If the agricultural revolution led to population explosions, what was the contribution to our ability to feed ourselves of dogs who applied their lupine skills to helping the hunt, and guarded sheep, cows, and goats from their wild cousins? 

When I walk with my own dog, Matilda, I often have the feeling that I have been walking thus, with a dog companion, for thousands of years. There is an antiquity in the relationship that is no sentimentality. And those of us who feel more truly themselves with a dog friend, are surely inheritors of a symbiotic relationship that is part of our humanity. Even those who don't want to have dogs - like my mother-in-law - have china dog ornaments or pictures of dogs on their walls.

Dogs have been buried with their masters and mistresses, mummified - in the Museum in Cairo I saw a mummified Saluki dog, quite recognisable as the kind that run round in the streets of Cairo nowadays. A beloved and skilled hunting dog, maybe. It's amazing to see it.

I leave you with another image from Pisa, of a spaniel doing what spaniels do, wriggling into the undergrowth to come out, covered in grass-seeds, bits of twig and goose-grass no doubt, to flush the game for its master. The posture and activity are so accurately-observed, you can almost hear the dog panting and barking, maybe, and see the tail furiously wagging, because for this animal, business and pleasure are one and the same thing.

All photos by Leslie or David Wilson.