Thursday 28 February 2013

End? What end? by K. M. Grant

Writers are often asked how we feel when we've finished writing a book.  Is there a sense of relief?  Are we sad?  Do we actually type 'The End'?

Having answered this question in schools many times, it only struck me the other day, roughly a decade since my first book was published, that I never feel I've got to the end.  I finish the book, certainly.  I write the final line.  But the book never feels quite finished, not because I don't type The End (does anybody?) but because every time I open the book, even when printed, I feel I could make a change: a sentence more precisely written;  a better word chosen; a comma that's begun to irritate.   Worse, and particularly with a historical novel, I absolutely dread finding something new about the period, something that would have been transformatory to include.  As a defence, once a novel is finished, I studiously avoid any dangerous reference books or articles.  Despite this, facts I didn't know contrive to slip into publications or conversations about something completely different - some snippet on armour in a piece ostensibly about garden hoses;  an observation about sailing ships in a romance;  a desert colour in a fashion shoot.

These little facts lurk with the sole purpose of leaping out to slap me in the face.  'Oh crikey!' I think more often than any reader imagines, 'I want my manuscript back'.  Naturally, I contrive to forget the fact as soon as possible.  It's the only way to get a decent night's sleep.  But though I occasionally forget my dogs' names, reducing them to 'hey, dog', and almost always forget to empty the washing machine, those pesky unwanted facts stick.  If I can't include them, my book seems more incomplete than ever.

Do other authors experience the same agitations and alarms?  Even after proofs and copy-editors, more proofs and the application of the pedant's toothcomb, even, indeed, many years after publication, do other authors still feel their work is still wanting a final something?

My hunch is 'yes'.  If you listen carefully to authors giving a public reading, you'll often find they don't read exactly what's written in the book.  They 'improve' it.  And why not?  It's the author's work.  I've seen authors take a pen and rewrite on the hoof.  I do it myself.  It seems that writers must learn to cope with never truly finishing until they're dead and buried, and even then I'm not sure they rest easy.

Despite the above, finishing writing a book, even if one never really feels it to be 'the end', is a moment to mark.   I'm marking such a moment now.  My first foray into the adult world of fiction, the novel for which I, like my characters, have been learning the Goldberg Variations, is finished and, to my great joy, has been bought by Virago.  'Sedition' will be published in summer 2014.   Then begins something new - the long road to the reader.

I've marked the ending of this stage in Sedition's journey as I mark all similar endings:  by grabbing a saw.  Hacking away at my manuscript is swiftly followed by a cathartic hacking away at unruly bits of the garden.  The dogs look on with some concern.  What will happen when the garden can be pruned no more?  They watch me for a while, then creep back inside, counting their legs.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

The Names of the Ladies of the Roses, by Louisa Young

'I should like to know the true identity of this Madame Lauriol du Barny who gave her 
name to such a sumptuous flower. I assume she must have belonged to the haute cocotterie 
of Paris. Or perhaps I am completely wrong and she was a perfectly respectable woman, 
the wife of a rose-grower from Lyons ….'
Vita Sackville West

I've been wondering myself ever since I planted my own first rosebushes, years ago - Madame Gregoire Staechelin, Madame Albert Carriere, and Sarah van Fleet. Who were they? What did they do to deserve it? Why the men's names? 

Who was Ghislaine de Feligonde? Who were Madame Isaac Péreire, Madame Plantier, Felicite Parmentier and Fanny Elssler and Zephirine Drouhin? Who were Bessie Johnson and Ena Harkness, Penelope and Albertine, La Belle Sultane, and Josephine? Was Dorothy Perkins named after Dorothy Perkins, or vice versa? Who were all those Duchesses, Montebello and Buccleugh and du Berry? And who inspired the Rosa Mundi?

So I found out. Well, I found out some. Let us start with Madame Isaac Péreire

1) The Rose

Origin Garçon, France
Flower size  9cm
Scent Strong and sweet, nectarines and raspberries
Flowering Remontant in flushes
Height 2.5m
Spread 2m

Madame Isaac is opulent of flower - very double - but scraggy, long limbed and prone to blackspot. Its colour has been described as 'rich pale crimson fading to lilac or silver at the edges'; bright fuchsia, raspberry, purplish rose madder, and 'strident pink … fights a losing battle against the inroads of magenta' (Jack Harkness). It is thorny with little buds, in clusters of up to five, and smells as fine as any rose you ever smelt.

2) The Lady

Her name was Mademoiselle Fanny Péreire, and she was born in 1824. How she managed to be Mademoiselle and then Madame of the same name came about like this.

The Péreire brothers, Émile (1800–1875, left) and Isaac (1806-1880, right), were bankers from Bordeaux, of Sephardi Jewish Portuguese descent, though converted now and devoted followers of St Simonism. St Simon believed that the sole purpose of Royalty was to protect a nation's poor from its rich, so he was an admirable choice of saint for such phenomenally rich people. 

Their grandfather was Jacob Rodrigues Pereira, one of the inventors of sign language for the deaf, who left Portugal and became an interpreter for Louis XV. The brothers made their fortune during the Second Empire by developing the railway in north-east France, by building, finance and tourism. In 1852 they founded Credit Mobilier, and they were closely involved with Haussman, in financing the reconstruction of Paris with its grands boulevards. It went bust, but they were protected by their empire of art and vineyards, hotels and tourism, baths, La Compagnie Generale Transatlantique; and their many overseas interests. Though their name is no longer very well-known, much that they founded still exists, and though Place Péreire in Paris has been officially debaptised, the metro station Pereire survives (Line 3, between Wagram and Louise Michel). In their heyday they were well-known as rivals - and neighbours - of the Rothschilds.

The brothers worked closely together, had neighbouring offices, and lived together in Paris. Closeness of family and, once they had made their fortune, closeness of its maintenance, was all to them. This was not unusual among Jewish families at the time: having been chased from pillar to post, they liked to keep things compact.  At 24  Émile married a cousin, Rachel Rodrigues. Isaac married first Laurence Fonseca, who died in 1837, leaving two children, Eugene and George. Then in 1840, aged 34, he remarried - to his brother  Émile's eldest daughter, his neice Fanny, then aged 16. 

Isaac was, it is reported by his biographer, 'imposant mais non denue de charme . . . austere et sage' (imposing but not without charm . . . austere and wise). Fanny, apparently, was not unwilling. But the Code Napoleon forbade actually consanguineous marriages, so they had to apply to Napoleon III himself for special permission. They got it, only for  Émile, who had previously given his blessing, to have second thoughts. In the end his brother and his daughter re-persuaded him. 

The marriage was a great success. Fanny bore Isaac three more children, Isaac and Émile continued to work together, and they all lived together in the truly splendid Hotel Péreire, at 35 rue de faubourg Saint-Honore - currently the British Embassy. They also built together and shared a couple of country retreats:  a huge seaside chalet at Arcachon, from 1862, and a massive chateau at Armainvilliers, with a wing for each family and a grand communal salon. In the hall of the chateau the Péreires installed, if you please, a ship and a locomotive, to remind them where their money came from. Their taste and their wealth also ran to works by Rembrandt, Murillo, Franz Hals, Rubens, Vermeer and Ingres. A contemporary cartoon shows people bowing and scraping before a man who  'est lie avec l'oncle de la soeur du filleul de M Pereyre' (is linked with the uncle of the sister of M. Pereyre's youngest - which I think works out as the other M Péreire). Queues for their entertainments in Paris would reach three deep as far as the Madeleine. 

The Rothschilds were neighbours in Paris and in the country - though the Péreire country estate alone was 4,000 hectares, so they weren't exactly banging knees. In Paris on one occasion when the Rothschilds next door were holding a soiree, the Péreire children let loose rabbits into their garden. Hauled up, they explained that they were 'nuisibles' - a nuisance. History does not relate whether this was seen as a good reason for letting them out. 

The Péreire wealth was not only for ostentation: they were a very charitable family, and held to the Simonistic beliefs. After her very sick daughter was saved by a doctor in Gretz Armainvilliers in 1878, Fanny donated a hospital to the neighbourhood. The chateau was demolished in 1950; the park which is there now is called Parc Péreire

After the deaths of Émile and Isaac, Fanny looked after both families. In her picture she looks opulent and benevolent, and true wealthy wife and Second Empire Madame, with white shoulders at the fashionable slope of the time, lace, drapes, centre parting and a resigned expression.

In 1880, the year of Isaac's death, Jacques Julien Margottin, rose grower from Bourg-la-Reine, near Paris, spotted the rose in the nursery of a grower called Garçon. Garçon had already registered it as Bienheureux de la Salle, in honour of St Jean Baptiste de la Salle. Margottin acquired the patronnnage of Madame Isaac to pay for the rights, and distributed the rose under her name in 1881. He seemed to have forgotten to mention Garçon.

In 1909 Mme Isaac's great granddaughter Noémie married a Rothschild. It seems somehow right. 

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Stories that Float from Afar – Dianne Hofmeyr

Slipstreaming Celia’s wonderful blog Shadows in the Cave, I’ve kept to the realm of the cave with Stories that Float from Afar. 

An entrance into a coastal cave in the Robberg Peninsula in South Africa 
a cave entrance into the Pyrenees evokes a passage in another world
The concept of the rock face as a veil separating man from the spiritual world is evidenced in the paintings often being found in the deepest, darkest, almost inaccessible places, with animals often painted disappearing or reappearing from a crack in the rock surface. The artist seems suspended between two worlds and the animals are embodiments of power. They bring rain, they transform, they bring ill fortune, also luck and are often seen walking along a thread of light, probably a symbol of energy, that in modern times might be seen as a current of energy.

The paintings have been linked to ritual moments that induce an almost hypnotic state of trance. One can imagine as Celia mentions in her blog the flickering shadows cast on the rocks from burning tallow, creating atmospheric affects. The animals must have appeared to come alive. The lighting, together with the music, drumming and dancing that accompanied the ritual, must have created what can now be seen almost as the first audio-visual representation of storytelling. In fact it has all the essentials of modern film… all very real.

Quoting from The Shaman of Prehistory –Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves by David Lewis-Williams retired Professor of Cognitive Archaeology and Jean Clottes, the renowned French expert on Rock Art:

Shamans from many parts of the world, acquire an association with a spirit-animal and the supernatural potency that it bestows. It is this potency that empowers them to heal the sick, control the movements of animals, change the weather and preform other shamanic tasks. 

The eland - a southern African antelope has long been associated with potency
sketch of above shows clearly shaman with same crossed-leg posture - his head transformed an eland

I tried to capture a moment of transformation in my novel, Fish Notes and Star Songs where two teenagers are given shamanic powers:

The rock was starting to gleam. Layer upon layer of men and animals came floating up towards us. Surrounding us. Dancing and chanting. The cave wall had grown vaporous. I reached out to touch it. There was nothing there… only music filling the space.
Music… and the feeling of my body changing. Out of the darkness a cheetah stared back at me. Eyes reflecting amber. Sleek shoulders spotted with black and gold. High, honeyed cheekbones ridged with black. 
‘Come!’ The word was more a pant than a word. 
I stepped forward. Felt the strange weight of my flanks. Felt the heaviness of horns on my head. I flicked my head from side to side. Snorted the dust from my nostrils. The earth seemed to reel. 

Much of what we know of rock art and shamanistic belief has come from discovering the stories of the San through the voice of a man called //Kabbo in the Lloyd and Bleek manuscripts. In the 1860’s – 1870’s //Kabbo was truly suspended between two worlds… captured for so-called sheep stealing from his home deep in the interior of Southern Africa, he was brought to Cape Town and committed to hard-labour building the new Victoria breakwater. His name //Kabbo means ‘dream’ and through him and the painstaking work of William Bleek and his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, the first people to find a way of transposing the San spoken word into written English, he was able to tell of the beliefs of the early rock artists.

And in the words of //Kabbo explaining our place on earth:
Therefore we are stars –we must walk the sky because we are heaven’s things.
And explaining the concept of story, or kukummi, as his people called it:
Story is like the wind, it floats from afar’. 

tools of the trade - oyster shells and ochre, quills and feathers

Monday 25 February 2013

WHAT IS THIS? by Eleanor Updale

All the fuss about the discovery of Richard III's remains has set me off thinking about the treasures that lie beneath our feet.  To be a treasure, the find doesn't have to be grand.   I once stayed in a house where it was impossible to do even the smallest gardening task without finding parts of those white clay pipes people used to smoke.

I never found one in as good shape as this
Even though the discoveries became routine, I never ceased to be excited by them, imagining some old bloke puffing away in the past.

Now I want your help in identifying an object that has come my way.  It was found by an enthusiast with a metal detector.  I don't know where, and I don't know when.

I'ts a  little container.  I've photographed it alongside a 3-pin plug, to give you an idea of its size.

It's not very deep.

It's heavier than it looks (6oz/150gms) and not magnetic.  Its weight, and shiny bits on the bottom and the underside of the lid, suggest it might be made of lead, but the greenish patina makes me wonder whether it could be a lead-copper alloy.

The underside of the lid (above), and the bottom of the box (below)

I have made no attempt to clean the box up, because I like its tarnished look - but even so, you can see that some of the decoration on it is quite fine.  
Although heavily marked by age, the box seems to be very well-made.  The lid fits perfectly onto the base whichever wayy you turn it. The metal on the lid is cut out to make a pattern of leaves and roses, with a large central flower.

I wonder whether the openwork lid indicates that the box was intended to store something fragrant.

The floral design is repeated almost exactly on the inside of the base.  The differences in that image are sufficient to suggest that it was not  stamped or cut by the same machine, or cast in the same mould as the lid. Might the decoration be hand worked?

This interior detail would, of course, be seen only by the owner of the box, which implies that it might have been something special, intimate, and not just for show.

There are more roses and leaves around the edge of the base.

Have any of you seen something like this before?  Do you have any idea how old it might be?  
I keep earrings in it.  What do you think the original owner used it for?
I love this little box.  But is it ancient, a little bit old, or is it something I could have bought in a poundshop last week?

I bet one of you History Girls will know.

Sunday 24 February 2013



Sadly, I'm going to have to leave The History Girls, for a while at least. The reason for this is that I need to write a new novel by June of this year - and as that novel is now consuming my every waking (and sleeping) hour it seems appropriate to use this final blogpost to talk about one of that book's inspirations.

Here he is - and how beautiful! This is the Maharajah Duleep Singh who became the Sikh ruler of the Punjab when he was no more than a child. But with family intrigues and treachery never being far behind (not to mention the fact that the Punjab was such a valuable territory, dividing India from Afghanistan - the passage through which the Russians might threaten to enter India and therefore endanger the British rule) in due course the Punjab was annexed at the end of the second Anglo Sikh war. 

In 1849, when that short war ended, the boy maharajah gave up this throne to be raised by a British army officer, in whose care he eventually converted to Christianity - after which he was sent to England and raised as a gentleman aristocrat, well away from those who might have sought to use him as a political pawn. 

He became a very great favourite of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The portrait of Duleep above was painted by Victoria who called the prince her 'beautiful boy' and who often had him accompany her own family on holidays spent in the Isle of Wight.

This glorious painting by Winterhalter, one of Victoria's favourite artists, shows Duleep in all his princely robes with a backdrop of a palace in Lahore. 

But, something else was brought from Lahore when Duleep was to lose his throne - and that is shown above in the illustration by Tavernier - the precious diamond, the Koh-i-nor, which was taken from Duleep as ransom, with all too little consideration that the stone was not only the Punjab's sovereign symbol but also that it was  revered as being a sacred Indian stone.

The diamond was exhibited in 1851 at The Great Exhibition in London after which it was cut down from what had been its original size to be made into a brooch - commissioned by Prince Albert and then presented to his wife. 

However, at the time when Duleep was posing for Winterhalter in the White Room at Buckingham Palace, the Queen - perhaps in a moment of guilt, or perhaps as a test of his loyalty - presented the seventeen year old boy with the diamond that he had once owned. It has been documented by those who were present at the time that Duleep appeared to be confused, but then perhaps he realised that this was a test that he must pass, after which he offered it back to the Queen and said, 'It is to me, Ma'am, the greatest pleasure thus to have the opportunity, as a loyal subject, of myself tendering to my sovereign, the Koh-i-nor.'

Duleep went on to grow up in England and lived in great splendour at Elvedon Hall. When he married  ( a girl met in Egypt) the couple had several children and Prince Victor, the second, but first to live, was christened at Windsor Castle, with the Queen standing as god-mother, after which she wrote in her diaries,  'I never beheld a lovelier child, a plump little darling with the most splendid dark eyes, but not very dark skin.'

But, his father's skin remained dark and beneath it his soul remained Indian. In later years Duleep was to be influenced by Russian and Irish dissidents. Reminded of all that he had lost, the prince was increasingly dissatisfied, often writing to Victoria and requesting the return of the Koh-i-nor, complaining that the East India Company failed to make sufficient recompense for the loss of his wealth and sovereignty. In time he renounced his Christian faith, re-embracing his native Sikh beliefs. He plotted a 'holy rebellion', intending to lead an army into India by route of Russia and Afghanistan.

However, all such efforts were doomed to nothing but failure. Duleep's intentions were exposed resulting in his exile from the shores of England, and India. With his wife and their children remaining in England, the prince and his London mistress lived upon the continent - where they suffered levels of poverty that Duleep had never known before.

But, before his premature death from a stroke at the age of fifty-six, he met with Victoria again when she visited the French town of Grasse. There, and quite against the wishes of her advisers, she privately pardoned the bloated bald prince who had once been her cherished beautiful boy. And soon after that, when she heard of his death, she had his remains brought back 'home' where she gave him a Christian burial. In death, she reclaimed her prodigal son.

And, as to the Koh-i-nor, to this day the diamond remains among the crown jewels in the Tower of London. But there are many stories told about its mystical properties - and some even say that it is cursed.

Queen Alexandra wearing the Koh-i-nor in her coronation crown

One myth surrounding the stone was that if it was ever returned to its homeland all foreign invaders would be cast out - which was why Duleep wanted to have it back when plotting to reclaim his throne. Another says that only a queen may ever safely hold the stone. And that is somewhat ironic, for, having placed the diamond directly into Duleep's hands, it is almost as if Victoria ensured the fate of the prophecy, that any man who touches it will be doomed to see his family line 'disappear from the light'. Despite Duleep fathering several children, every one of them died without progeny.

And as to the legend that any queen who possessed diamond would rule the world, it was certainly true for Victoria - the queen who commanded an Empire and was later crowned Empress of India.

Essie Fox writes Victorian gothic novels. There are extracts, images and information on her website:

Saturday 23 February 2013


I was given a copy of the 1899-1890 Girls' Own Annual when I was a teenager, by an old family friend; I don't know where she got it from: maybe it came from her mother, but she is dead now and I cannot ask her. It's a shame that we often don't ask people things until it is too late. It wasn't the kind of 'Christmas Special' that annuals were in my childhood, just the bound-up numbers of that year. I read them with great interest; the serials - 'Work, Wait, Win'; 'Kathleen's 'Handful,'' Elsie's Victory,' and the truly revolting 'Story of a Summer,' whose heroine, Winifred, gave up the man she loved and who loved her, so that her cousin could have him.

Kathleen's 'Handful.'

A high-risk strategy, if you ask me, but in the story the man obligingly did fall in love with the beautiful but emotionally-constipated Eva (Eva loved him, and Winifred 'knew' that Eva would only love once. Odd, that Victorian superstition. ) Winifred ended up devoting herself to her mother, a tyrannical invalid, and became the Angel in the House, though at the time I didn't know about that image. In the other stories, the heroines, especially Kathleen, were luckily less door-mattish, or I might have ended up binning the volume, and that would have been a pity.I read the advice from 'Medicus' - largely common-sensical - the historical articles, which amused me because I had travelled into history to look back at history. I made some of the 'home-made sweetmeats' toffee, and cocoa-nut tablet. They were good.

The book sat neglected, through my adult life after that - till I began to write about Victorian times, and then I remembered it, feared I had got rid of it, and whooped with pleasure when I found it. It is a mine of things that authors want to ask. I set my novel The Mountain of Immoderate Desires in 1899, just because I had such a wealth of material to hand in that volume. And I made Lily, the heroine of The Mountain, possess some copies of the paper, and use its words - usually in ways that would have horrified the virtuous Christian publisher - for guidance.
How useful I found: 'Dress: In Season and In Reason,' by the 'Lady Dressmaker', when I wanted to envisage the fashions of that era.
I think the lady on the left, particularly, looks as if she would run on wheels. See my post-it in the top corner.
There was a wonderful series of articles called: 'On the Purchase of Outfits for India and the Colonies.' From it I learned that each passenger on the P&O steamers (such as went to Hong Kong) was allowed a whacking 336lbs of luggage and that travellers to the East needed 'the tin boxes with plain pine covers, which are made for the purpose, for, owing to the climate and the insects, everything must be kept in tin, or else it will be spoilt.' Having lived in Hong Kong, I was familiar with the mould-inducing damp and the depredations of cockroaches that made this precaution necessary; and we too kept food in insect-proof containers and tins, if they weren't in the fridge. I also learned that woollen underwear was considered best for really hot climates, something I thought hilarious, till someone told me that really fine wool is excellent for wicking perspiration away from the skin. That was, of course, after I had made fun of my hero Samuel's woollen underwear in the novel, and it had been published. Oh, well..

Later, I found another volume in a second-hand bookshop, for 1899, and I bought that, just for interest. However, I do recommend the GOP for anyone wanting advice on the small domestic details of Victorian life. It was from the 'Answers to Correspondants' column that I discovered that ladies in 1889 were already learning how to operate a type-writer. The 'Girls' Own' title is misleading; the paper was intended not only for teenage girls but for young women setting up as housekeepers and others who wanted to train for a career. So it is a mine of information if you want to find out about Victorian women's work. I'm sure copies can be located nowadays on the web.

The 1899 volume has a set of chatty articles called: 'Three Girl-Chums, and their life in London rooms.' 'Ada is a type-writer in a very good office in the City. She has got on so well that she is earning £100 a year. Jane is a cookery teacher in a distant parish,' and Ada's sister. Marion Thomas lives with them and does the house-keeping for them, but she is working up 'a connection of music pupils.' What may be particularly useful to writers - perhaps to me, some day, is the detailing of the money they spent on their household items - two small enamel saucepans at eightpence-halfpenny and sixpence-halfpenny, a rolling pin at a shilling, weights and scales at fourteen shillings and sixpence - that's an expensive item, but we have upstairs a set of weights and scales perhaps of similar vintage, which my mother-in-law used till her death.

These kinds of minute details might be useful if you wanted to have your characters take a trip to Paris at the period. You could go for six pounds, if you were careful, and the article shows you exactly how. As well as the Louvre, Notre Dame, Chateau de Vincennes, etc, on the list of must-sees is the Morgue, where unidentified corpses were exhibited - supposedly for relatives to find missing loved ones, but in practice it became a ghoulish reality-show. Clearly 'our girls' had strong stomachs.

There's also a series called 'In Mine House,' by Lina Orman Cooper (author of 'The King's Daughter, etc.' Not 'authoress', I noticed with satisfaction.) Miss or Mrs Cooper can tell you just how jam was made in the nineteenth century and of her 'old lady's' (her mother's?) preference for not covering her jam-pots. 'If well boiled and made of fresh sound fruit, it should jell enough to keep without excluding air. A sheet of newspaper laid over the rows of pots' is all that is needed. But your jam-cupboard must be well ventilated. Lina knows how to do DIY, too. 'How well it is when the mistress of a house can wield hammer and gimlet and screwdriver' she tells us, thus driving another nail into the coffin of preconceptions about Victorian womanhood. You may find out, too, what was recommended for the Victorian medicine cupboard: 'some sweet nitre for feverishness, and some pilules of aconite; spirits of camphor for a cold, and a screw of lump sugar;' and many more.
Then there are the above-mentioned 'Answers to Correspondants.' The GOP's answerers supplied quotations the 'girls' wanted, told them how to deal with illness in their children, or 'a wild, unmanageable, girl' (send the clergyman to admonish her first, if all else fails, send her to a Home); opined on their handwriting (often severely), or the poetic offerings they sent up 'quite the usual thing we receive,' one poor girl was brutally told, 'not at all worth printing.' The GOP was often rude or at least forthright. 'The lady always speaks first, not the gentleman, so you were in the wrong, of course'. There is advice about how to train as a nurse, and as a teacher of the deaf; information about a Pension for Protestants on the Normandy coast (why did Protestants need a special Pension of their own? Maybe so that they wouldn't meet Marcel Proust),encouragement for a correspondant wrestling with 'bad tempers and evil thoughts', and a 'regret that we cannot recommend any depilatory.' Just as well; depilatories of the time probably removed your skin into the bargain. There is also advice on how to make a wrist support (perhaps as a result of too many hours at the type-writer?)
My favourite Answer to a Correspondant, however, is the one written to the enterprising young E.M.R.C.  'You ought to be ashamed of yourself. To receive clandestine love-letters, when you owe filial confidence to your mother and submission to her will and judgement, is most ungrateful as well as undutiful. But to take in letters of two men continually, through the blinds of your bedroom window, encouraging them both at the same time, is simply disgusting! 'How shall I squash them?' is a heartless question after so much encouragement. It would be well if your mother were informed of your unseemly conduct and would effectually 'squash' you.'
So who said teenagerdom was a post-war phenomenon?

Friday 22 February 2013

WHAT'S FOR SUPPER? by Jane Borodale

The horsemeat contamination debacle has thrown up familiar discussions in our household as elsewhere; about the convoluted nature of our modern food chain and how vulnerable it leaves us, and how passive our consumption is. 

Grimani Breviary: February (Flemish), c1490
But how easy was it to feed your household in February in the past, when production could be (largely) in your own hands or at least in the hands of those working nearby? What was available and what was being prepared for future months? What tasks out there in the yard or garden would I have to be busy with right now if I couldn’t open the fridge-freezer or nip to Tesco?

I’d rather vaguely assumed that there was very little around to eat in February, that the diet must be dull and barrel-scraping, relentlessly salty and lacking in variety – especially once the restrictions of Lent kicked in: an added challenge for both housewife and husbandman. And since pancake day I’ve been wondering whether there were ever years in the past when the hens hadn’t even started laying by Shrove Tuesday for this very egg-orientated feast (can any historian-chickenkeepers out there enlighten me, please?).

Les Tres Riches Heures du duc
de Berry: (February, detail)
Limbourg brothers,  c1412
The Anglo Saxons apparently called February solmonath, or ‘mud month.’ I don’t know whether the seasons were more advanced on the Continent – but the Dutch called February Spokkelmaand, or ‘vegetation month’ which, looking out of my window (there are actual icicles today), seems very optimistic.

A glance at February entries in the diary of the Somerset parson, William Holland, shows his household busy even in this cold month of 1806:

Feb 8 – John finished spreading the dung in the Paddock.
Feb 11 – Sent John into the garden to prepare ground for potatoes. Turned the great horse into the churchyard to stretch his limbs. Walked to Court House and got some seeds from Furse, he had pease and beans very fine, and Early Peep potatoes. Rain came on after dinner so we could not plant any.
Feb 12 – A fine pleasant day. I put down my Early Peep potatoes and John planted carrots and onions.
Feb 19 – This evening sat by a good fire and with my family compared the Four Evangelists on the Resurrection. (It would have been Ash Wednesday.)
Feb 20 – John went on still very well in the garden but he was called off rather soon to go with our little sow to the boar to Strinxon, Farmer Landsey went with him.

Plucking examples at random: 16th-century household accounts at high-status Wollaton Hall show salt fish eaten in great quantities during Lent, such as cod, eel, ling, pollack and lobbe. Salted and dried, or salted and packed in barrels, which was called green fish. There was also stockfish, which was air-dried, and preserved herring. And there was fresh fish available in Lent from local suppliers and inland markets – historian Mark Dawson in Plenti and Grase mentions a great variety of fresh sea-fish and freshwater fish, including cod, skate, turbot and thornback. Big households also had the advantage of fishponds on their estates, for more readily caught bream, pickerel, pike, tench and by the end of the century, carp.

For those that could afford it, dried fruit was a part of the Lenten diet too – figs, prunes, currants, almonds, and there were always spices and other flavourings to ring the changes.

Giles Moore of Sussex records various purchases on the 17th and 18th Feb 1663 for ‘an entertainment’, including a Quart Bottel of Sack, 3 pecks of barley malt, Pullet, three nayle of Beef, halfe a pound of sugar, spice, bread, butter, rosewater. A few days before, he’d bought a gallypot of greene Ginger. (Though I should say it wasn’t quite Lent yet, as a quick check in Cheney’s ‘Handbook of Dates’ shows that Easter was 19th April this year.)

Spinacia oleracea,
Otto Wilhelm Thome,
Flora von Deutschland, 1885
There was greenery too, if you planned ahead: 16th-century gardener Thomas Hill talks about the importance of planting with Lent in mind. He says that spinach is the ‘plant aptest for Lent … the first Pot-herb which is found in gardens about [this] time. This plant very well endureth … cold, frosts and snow.’ He goes on to point out the merits of the ‘Carot and Parsnep .. sown in harvest time to enjoy them all the Lent.’ And there were other roots that would keep well until now – dried peas and beans, and stored keeping apples and pears of very many kinds.

17th-century Hannah Woolley gives us a Bill of Fare suitable for every Month in the Year, and suggests for February:
A Chine of roast-Pork, Veal or Beef roasted, A Lamb-Pye, and Mince-Pyes, a couple of wild Ducks, a couple of Rabbits, fried Oysters, a Skirret-Pye. And for the second course: A whole Lamb roasted, three Widgeons, a Pippin-Pye, a Jole of Sturgeon, a cold Turkey-Pye.

By far the largest section in 18th-century Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery is devoted to recipes for fasting food – from Crawfish Soop to Buttered-wheat and Chesnut Pudding. She lists foods available at this time of year, including: ‘many sorts of cabbage and savoy, small herbs on the hot beds (i.e. hot with dung) also mint, tarragon preserved under glass, chervil, sallary, marigold flowers and mint dried, beet-leaves, sorrel…

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic, but my overall feeling, having glanced over these February choices from the past, is that although we pride ourselves on the range of year-round food drawn from all over the world available to us - in the past (for those who could afford it), there was quite a startling array of fresh or readily-available food.

I don’t really approve of hankering after the past per se, and am grateful not to have to be taking my sow to the boar today in order to ensure a supply of pork for the months ahead – but right now I’m thinking that it might be interesting to try a nice fresh pickerel served with colliflower and followed by a dessert of Golden-pippin or Winter Pepperning, or a Dagobent Pear… Anyone care to join me?

Thursday 21 February 2013

Diamond thieves in Paris by Imogen Robertson

Paris Café by Ilya Repin

One of the many things I love about this blog is the opportunity to offer up bits of research that haven’t made it in to my novels or have done so in such a heavily fictionalised form their origins are lost. The robbery yesterday of £30 million in diamonds reminded me of two stories of 19th century jewel heists I read during my research for The Paris Winter (available for pre-order now, since you ask). 
The first I like because of its elaborate set-up and was reported in the Bradford Observer April 29 1875. A couple, claiming to be English and accompanied by a servant, took a very nice apartment in Avenue d’Eylan for two months and paid in advance. They made themselves conspicuous by their lavish spending, particularly at the jewellers where they managed to spend six thousand francs in a week. The apartment was six hundred and fifty a month by comparison. They paid in cash and were, unsurprisingly, well liked. At some point the husband began negotiations to buy a set of diamonds for his wife costing 112 thousand francs. He and the jeweller agreed on the bargain price of 106 thousand and the jeweller was then invited to bring the diamonds up to the apartment and receive payment. Up he went into the fashionable sitting room and was invited to wait while the husband took the diamonds into the bedroom to show his wife. She was unwell, you see. 
The jeweller saw signs of the wife’s presence in the apartment; her sewing box, her shawl, and there was also the comforting sight of bundles of bank notes on the side-table ready to pay him. He made himself comfortable and began to read the paper. It took him some three-quarters of an hour before he became suspicious. He found that he had been locked into the room and the bundles of bank notes were in fact ‘prospectuses’. He tried to ring the bell (this is my favourite bit) but the bell pull came away in his hand. It was another three-quarters of an hour before he could get any help as the concierge had been sent away on a complicated errand by the ‘servant’ of his customers. By the time anyone could work out what had happened the thieves had a two hour head start which was, apparently, all that they needed. They had left no clues, even removing any maker’s mark from a hat left in a cupboard, though they did leave a set of false whiskers behind them.

The second case involved some of the French Crown Jewels, most of which were sold off by the state in 1887. M. Lepée in Rue de Madeleine bought some of them which he displayed in the window of his shop. One morning the following year the managers niece came to open the shop and found the ten thousand pounds worth of diamonds were missing and the shop was full of the robbers tools, including a crowbar and a dark lantern. The shop would have lost a lot more, the thieves were obviously planning to open the safe, but it seems they were alarmed by some noise and fled. Not before they had paused for a snack though. It seems from the report they paused mid-robbery to have some ham. This proved to be a bad idea not just because they didn’t have time to open the safe, but because the police saw the name of the butcher on the meat wrapping and went to ask him if he’d sold ham to anyone suspicious recently. He had and was able to give a description of two men with foreign accents, a description that matched the one the concierge gave of two men who had been enquiring about the empty flat above the shop.
I didn’t find any room in the novel for ham loving criminals or doctored bell-pulls, though there are diamonds, betrayal and cruelty enough. I did find myself thinking though as I read these stories, why are we often so fond of jewel thieves from Raffles to Ocean’s 11? Is there something about people wearing jewels that cost more than most houses that means when they are stolen our moral sense is less offended than by other crimes, other robberies? Not that there is anything noble, roguish or charming about the diamond thieves in my book, but it is a trope, isn’t it? I’d be interested to know what you think.