Tuesday 30 April 2013

A Day Out In History by Susan Price

The Black Country Museum from the Chapel steps
I visited the Black Country Museum the other day.
          It’s an open air museum, dedicated to the industrial history of the Black Country, with many reconstructed buildings, illustrating what life was like in the area from the late 1700s to the 1930s.
          We chanced on a day  when many steam engines were chuntering around the site, and as we stepped from the entrance building, we breathed in coal-smoke, and and ash.  I hadn’t smelled in many a long year, but immediately remembered it - the smell of my childhood, a part of my personal history. (Davy, a Scot and country boy, started coughing immediately, and said that he wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in Ye Olde Blacke Countrie.  My family lasted, but it’s true that we have generations of bronchitis, severe coughs, sinus trouble and catarrh behind us.)
          We saw the ‘nodding donkey’ Newcomen engine steaming away.  It’s one of the oldest surviving engines, dating from 1712, and originally built to pump water from Lord Dudley’s mines, only a couple of miles from where it stands now.
          From there we visited the mine.  It’s a ‘fake’ mine, but within the constraints of not actually injuring or killing visitors, an effective one.  As you go round, tableau are illuminated, and a recorded voice – supposedly that of an old miner – tells you about the work done by the miners in the 19th century. What the voice tells you is interesting, but the accent and dialect could have been made more consistent and accurate.  There are many Chaucerian, Middle English words in the dialect (such as fowd, gleed and malkin), and Shakespeare probably spoke something like it.  There's more to it than simply pronouncing 'you' as 'yow'!
          The low, narrow, dimly lit tunnels give a very real sense of the claustrophobic, awful conditions: and the mock ‘blasts’ and roof-falls are scary.  We emerged into the daylight profoundly grateful, yet again, for having been born in the 20th Century, and not having spent a childhood crouching in total darkness, to open air-doors.
          The mine also provides a vivid impression of the dangers of the Black Country’s famous ‘thirty-foot seam’ (9 metre seam) – the only place in the world where you climbed a tall ladder to cut coal.  Undercutting the thirty-foot, and then 'bringing the roof down' was a dangerous undertaking.
'The Ghost Wife' ebook by Susan Price - Art by Andrew Price
          Walking around above ground, I pointed out the dark ‘Staffordshire Blue’ bricks that topped most of the walls, and made the pavements and roadways.  I realised that the red and blue brick, the grey smoke and the greenery in the black and grey earth of the gardens made up the colour palette of my childhood – as my brother has so well captured in his cover for my next ebook, ‘The Ghost Wife’, which is set in the Black Country.  I hadn’t realised that until I visited the museum.
          We joined a lesson in the school, chanted our times tables, and practiced our handwriting on the slates, and we toured the 1920’s fairground with its helter-skelter and swingboats.  We went into the cinema, which had a sacking curtain for a door, and hard benches inside.  I remember my parents telling me about a similar cinema that they remembered from their childhood.  It had been nicknamed 'The Ranch-house' and they said you had to fight the rats for a seat, and then defend your sweets from them. (But I take this with some salt.)
          Davy and I didn't have to fight any rats.  We watched a showing of Chaplin’s ‘Getting Acquainted’Davy chuckled, but I have to admit I found it completely incomprehensible.  It seemed to consist of people running around, falling over and hitting each other for no reason at all.  I suspect that some captions were missing.   
          One caption at the start of the film asked people not to read aloud as it annoyed other patrons - which reminded me of my Dad saying that, in his childhood, cinemas were murmurous with those who could read whispering the captions to those who couldn't.
The Dudley canal tunnel
          What Davy really wanted to do was go through the canal tunnels under Dudley’s hill.  So we joined the narrow boat and were taken into the dark, dripping tunnels that have been there since 1792.  It’s not very comforting, when you have a whole hill hanging above you, to think that the boat battered brickwork around you, seeped through with calcite from the limestone, is 220 years old.
          It’s a memorable – if wet – experience, as your boat passes the sinister openings of old limestone mines, or floats from darkness into a brilliantly lit, green basin, its sides hung with bushes and flowers, open to the sky and birdsong.  In many places the walls of the tunnel are hung with beautiful calcite ‘curtains’ of crystals in glittering lacy folds.
          After the boat-trip, we visited the ‘Bottle and Glass’ Inn, where they will serve you a pint of old ale – but the place was grimly comfortless compared to a modern pub, even in the saloon bar (and no respectable woman would have crossed the threshold).  My foremothers would probably have a very poor opinion of me, if they could see me, frequenting pubs as I do, and drinking single malt.
            Opposite the pub, of course, was the Methodist Chapel, which is used for carol services at Christmas.  It had to be a Methodist Chapel, as the Methodists were important to the Black Country.  They had more fire in their bellies than CoE, and were behind a lot of early Unions, Friendly Societies and Workers' Educational Societies.
          There are several shops, of different dates.  Davy liked the one displaying old motorbikes, and the cake and sweet shop were doing good business.  The grocery shop was being swept out by a woman in Victorian dress.  A visitor called out to her, mockingly, “I’ll have ten pounds wuth of grey pays!”
          The shop-keeper replied, tartly, “I doubt yo’ve got ten pounds to yer nairm, madam – look at the sight on yer – wearing a mon’s trousers, and on a Sabbath!  Yo should be ashairmed!  Out on it – goo on!”  The visitor was laughing too much to think of asking why the shop was, disgracefully, open on the Sabbath.  (I used to be told a tale, by my uncle, of a fiercely religious old couple who kept the corner shop of his childhood. Their shop was open on Sunday, but you had to pay them by putting the money on a shovel - so that they didn't touch the filthy stuff on the Lord's Day.)
A Black Country pike
          I was sorry to miss the magnificent shire horses which are sometimes to be found on site (at other times they’re at the Sandwell ValleyFarm) but there were a couple of very happy Gloucester Old Spot pigs grubbing around in a cottage garden; and the stretch of canal down by the old lime kilns has become something of a nature reserve.  Davy, a fisherman, was much impressed by the clarity of the water and the big fish (including a small pike) – and I liked the moorhen and chicks.  This isn't so out of keeping with the old Black Country - it was dirty and smoky, yes, but the countryside was never far away, and my grandmother kept chickens and ducks for the eggs.  Many people kept pigs in their yards too - one aunt had a house-pig, the runt of a litter which became a pet.  In my grandparents' time, in the early 1900s, there were several farms stranded in the middle of the factories and brickyards
Happy pigs
          All in all, the Museum provides a good day out and if great lumps of imagination are used, it can give you a glimpse of the old Black Country.  The real thing, it needs to be pointed out, was much grimmer, dirtier, noisier and far more cruel.  The men who worked those lime-kilns, for instance, were blinded by the caustic dust: miners were killed reguarly, and medical care was expensive.
          One story that's come down to me from my grandfather tells how one of the brothers he shared his bed on the floor with 'went funny'.  My grandfather went and told his father, who came, looked at the boy, and said, 'He's dead.'  He then pulled the body into a corner of the room, told the other children to go back to sleep, and went back to bed himself.  "Well," said my own father, when I was apalled at this, "he had to go work himself in the morning - he was a miner.  There was nothing he could do, was there? - the kid was dead."  Doctors cost half-a-crown (15p) for a vist.  That was more than they could afford.


          What do those Black Country words mean?  A fowd is a yard or path - women were always  'sweeping the fowd.'  A gleed is a small piece of burned out coal.  In Chaucer you find hot-tempered characters being called 'gleedy'.  And a malkin - pronounced 'mawkin' is a simpleton.  As is a sawney-pump and a noggin-yed.

          Susan Price is the Carnegie Medal winning author of The Ghost Drum and The Sterkarm Handshake.
          She blogs here.
          And her website is here.
          She is also an Author Electric.

Monday 29 April 2013

GUEST - Ian Mortimer interviewed by Katherine Roberts

Ian Mortimer (aka James Forrester)

Today's guest is Dr Ian Mortimer, historian and (as of this month) TV presenter. As James Forrester he is the author of a trilogy of historical novels set in the 1560s. He talks to Katherine Roberts about his books and his passion for history.

KR: You are probably best known for your Time Traveller’s Guides, which seem to approach history with a novelist’s eye covering details that are often overlooked by other books, such as how history would have smelled and tasted… how did you get the idea, and where did the (absolutely brilliant!) title come from?

Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

Ian M: It is not really one idea but a heap of ideas that have been growing since childhood. I’ve written several times about how I was taken to Grosmont Castle at about the age of ten, and, in my excitement to see the place where the first duke of Lancaster was born – with the fire burning on a central hearth in the hall and the walls all painted with red lines marking the stones, and servants coming in with firewood etc – forgetting it was a ruin. I was very disappointed by its open-to-the-sky, broken-tooth state. I stood there listening the wind in the nearby trees that day thinking that the people who lived here were described as dead, like so many butterflies pinned out in a museum case. But the best way to see butterflies is flying about – alive. So too are people. If you want to know what someone was like, you don’t think of them as dead.

The ideas have grown from there. I had a contract to write the book in 1999 but ripped it up as the contract and publisher were not quite right. I wrote "The Greatest Traitor" instead. It really helped that I got to grips with the postmodernist critique of history before starting work on the eventual text, so I had an intellectual platform on which to define and justify what I was doing. One of the best lessons I have learnt from history was a lecturer asking me: ‘would the Reformation have happened if Luther had not personally undergone his own reformation beforehand?’ To which the answer has to be – ‘if the Reformation had still happened, it would not have been because of Luther.’ So a lot of personal and intellectual preparation went into the book, which hopefully does not show. It appears instead in a long academic article written at the same time as the book, called ‘What isn’t history?’ (It is freely available on my website and will be for a few months yet.)

Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England

The working title in the very early days of thinking it through, in 1994, was ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to History’ as I thoroughly enjoyed the Douglas Adams books. That original scheme was a guidebook to the parts of the past that you should really try to avoid, due to the punishments or diseases etc.

An important idea hit me driving home from Exeter one night after watching the film Atonement. I was writing chapter 7 or 8 at the time. I asked myself: ‘if a novelist can create an emotional impact when writing about the past, why can’t historians, especially when they are presenting their work as the truth?’ That thought led to the Envoi at the end of the book, which I sketched out as soon as I got home.

KR: You’ve also written biographies of historical figures, including your namesake Sir Roger Mortimer in "The Greatest Traitor"… I’m fascinated to know if he was an ancestor of yours?! 

The Greatest Traitor

Ian M: My father told me the medieval Mortimers of Wigmore were our ancestors, and took me to Wigmore Castle as a child. I love the place, and am now one of the Hon Presidents of the Mortimer History Society. However, the descendants of the man you mention, the first earl of March (1287-1330), died out in the male line in 1425. There are still Mortimers descended from his uncle, Roger Mortimer, Lord Mortimer of Chirk (1256-1326); I don’t imagine I am one of them, however. My ancestors on my father’s side are all from Devon.

Having said that, at the end of my biography of Edward III, "The Perfect King", I show how that king is a common ancestor of the English people now. The first earl of March had even more descendants by 1500, because he had eight daughters and seven of them married: so you and I and probably everyone of English descent is descended from him!

KR: I’m very much enjoying "Sacred Treason" at the moment, a novel you wrote under the pseudonym James Forrester. Whose decision was it to use a pseudonym for fiction, and is James planning to write any more novels?

Ian M: Thank you for your kind words. ‘James’ and ‘Forrester’ are my middle names. I did not want to use a pseudonym but I really did not want to write fiction under the name Ian Mortimer. In one strand of my work I argue that we can prove things about the past (a very contentious debate in professional circles). It would have been very unwise at the time to say we can prove historical details and then go and publish a book in which I simply made them up. "Sacred Treason" was followed by the "Roots of Betrayal" in 2011 and the last volume of the trilogy, "The Final Sacrament" in 2012.

Sacred Treason

KR: Sacred Treason is set against a background of Catholic persecution by a Protestant monarch. How important is faith in your work, and are you drawn to any particular period of history because of this?

Ian M: Wow. What a question. Okay, let me start with the easy bit. I am drawn to all periods of history, and religion is just one of many factors, so the answer to the second part of your question is a simple ‘no’. Apart from the fact that religion was more important an issue in the 16th century than probably any time before or since, and so it leads to some pretty fundamental discussions between my characters.

The important thing to know in this respect is that my historical fiction is not primarily about the past. It is about my concerns: a modern day story set in the 1560s. The reason I set my story in the past is because so many aspects of life are much more consequential in that time period than they are in the modern world.

"Sacred Treason", for example, is about loyalty – to one’s spouse, to one’s state, and to one’s religion. All these things mattered much more in the 1560s than today. Today no one really cares that much if a husband or a wife has a fling (except the parties themselves); in the 16th century you could be flogged and publicly humiliated just on suspicion of adultery. Disloyalty to the state – treason - would normally end in hanging, drawing and quartering. Disloyalty to the word of God – heresy – could result in being burnt at the stake. Therefore you can use the past as a magnifying glass to say things about humanity in all times – and to highlight the drama and importance of certain aspects of life.

I am not religious myself, in the sense that I don’t go to church and I don’t believe in God or a godly consciousness. But as a historian I can say that the Church has been the principal force for learning for all but 100 of the last 1500 years. At times it was the only agency working for peace in the western world. As an individual I am intrigued by the existence of life on Earth and its evolution, and this interest gives me something in common with many serious religious people. I find the spiritual quest uplifting; religious art, music and architecture are among the most beautiful creations I know, and I don’t think you need to define what it is you seek in order to engage in that spiritual quest. An atheist can quite happily be engaged on a spiritual quest.

My main character, Clarenceux, has no doubts about his faith but he does doubt his interpretation of God’s direction. He is a fervent upholder of the Catholic cause – but not at the cost of killing other Christians. He is very much a man of his time, and I say this (having said my novels are about me and the modern world) because only through a man of his time – a religious man, someone passionately concerned about matters of life, death and spiritual value – could I express what I think about these things. In the second book in the trilogy, "The Roots of Betrayal" Clarenceux comes up hard against an atheistic pirate, Raw Carew. I really did enjoy writing the argument about religion between them, and expressing Clarenceux’s shock that ungodly men might do godly things too.

KR: Being the proud owner of a Kindle, I noticed an abridged version of the Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England published as an ebook. How do sales compare with the original hardcover/paperback Guides, and do you think history-lovers in general enjoy traditional books rather than ebooks?

Ian M: Don’t buy the abridged version, the ‘brainshot’. It is only 10% of the book, and people feel ripped off by it (judging from their comments on the waterstones and amazon sites). You can buy the ebook as a whole, which is the same text. As for sales, most history readers want the hardcopy, the paperback. Ebooks (whole ones) account for about 20% of my UK sales of history books.

KR: I saw you interviewed on TV the other week wearing your very distinctive black hat! Are you planning to do any more TV work, and do you enjoy it?

Ian M: I am presenting a 3-part series for BBC2, based on my "Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England". It will be broadcast later in the spring. The black hat you saw has been retired. But I do use a different black hat with a leather band – very similar to the old one – in the series. I like working with people, so the odd bit of TV is good fun. Would not want to do it all the time, though.

KR: Finally, this blog was set up for History Girls… what would be your female pseudonym, and what sort of books do you think “she” would write?

Ian M: My father, who had two sisters, desperately wanted a daughter and decided before I was born that I was to be called Catherine Elizabeth Forrester Mortimer. So, I guess that if I had been a girl, then I’d have written history books as Dr Catherine Mortimer and fiction as Elizabeth Forrester. As a professional historian, I have met many women whose intellectual prowess fills me with admiration, and I like to think that if I were a woman I would be like them. In other words my history books would be much the same as they are – perhaps with a little less blood and thunder in the medieval biographies. The Time Traveller’s Guides would be more or less the same because they were slightly biased towards representing women’s lives (as men tend to dominate my biographies). My fiction too would not be that different, as I do like a strong female character – one who can speak her mind and stand up for what she believes in, even though the law and social prejudices might be against her. Hey, perhaps I should try writing as Elizabeth Forrester one day!

KR: Thank you very much, Ian!

Ian M: The pleasure’s all been mine. Thanks for asking me.


Ian James Forrester Mortimer is a historian and historical writer. He has four degrees: BA, MA, PhD (medical and nursing assistance to the dying in the 17th century), DLitt, and has published numerous research articles. In 2004 he won the Royal Historical Society's Alexander Prize for his work on the social history of medicine. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society since 1998, and a full-time writer since 2001. A firm believer in the public good of history, he sits on various public bodies, including the Lord Chancellor's Forum on Historical Manuscripts and Academic Research, the Fabric Advisory Committee for Exeter Cathedral, and Dartmoor National Park Authority. Spare time is spent walking, writing songs and poetry, and playing the guitar. He lives in Moretonhampstead, on the edge of Dartmoor, with his wife and their three children.

Ian's history books: http://www.ianmortimer.com/books.htm
Novels: http://www.jamesforrester.co.uk/home.html
Complete bibliography: http://www.ianmortimer.com/bibliog.htm

Sunday 28 April 2013

The Edit, or How the Delete Button Takes Over Your Life, by K. M. Grant

So, here I am, sitting with my novel after a first meeting with my new editor.  There are revisions to make and things to think about.  I am delighted to do both.  I've been exceptionally fortunate in my book editors.  They do their job:  spotting authorly digressions, catching phrases that shriek 'I'm a writer', plot malfunctions.  I do my job:  imagine a person, a situation, a world and try get everything down intact.

I've occasionally been less lucky with newspaper editors.  Well, to be fair, not editors so much as sub-editors, who are rather different beasts and may, in the great internet revolution, be disappearing.  Many journalists wouldn't miss them.  Sub-editors are supposed to improve copy, correct solecisms, iron out silly mistakes.  Ho hum.  I once wrote a piece in which the age-old conundrum pitching freedom against determinism made an entry.  The sub changed it to freedom and determination.    I was mortified.  My name was on the piece, not the sub's. I did get an apology from the real editor but never discovered whether the sub understood his mistake.

In books, editing is an art.  It's the eye that sees what the author doesn't see.  A good one can make your book, a bad one can ruin it.  It's an arduous job, since some manuscripts need major corrections.    Rather like Canute's ship, an author may, in the end, ask rather despairingly, when does it stop being mine and turn into somebody else's?  But it's the author's book, of course, since the author had the idea and put in the hours.  However, a good editor certainly deserves more than a mention in despatches:  a good editor deserves a sustained round of applause.

My novel needs a small re-ordering.  Yet even the smallest re-order has large reverberations.  You have to unstitch your book, lay out the pieces, move what needs to be moved, then restitch, amending and recalibrating seams which are now out of kilter.  I do it through total immersion.   From the moment I take out the first stitch, I don't leave my manuscript - at least not mentally - until I've got the whole thing  tacked back together.

I use two screens: one for the original text, one for the rejigged text, and I have a working copy which, were it paper, I'd attack with scissors and sellotape, much as, when I worked at Westminster, I used to attack lists of amendments to parliamentary bills.  Marshalling amendments, we called it.  Now I marshall my own text.

When editing, you realise your best friend is the delete button.  Oh, how hideous it is, selecting words, phrases or whole paragraphs over which you've slaved so assiduously, then clicking them into oblivion.  But oh, how much better the text is without them.  When I tell people that before I send a manuscript to my agent I've often deleted 20,000 words, I think they think I'm either lunatic or hopeless.  It's hard to explain to non-authors that quite apart from being lunatic and hopeless (I'm often guilty as charged), sometimes these words act like scaffolding: you need to write them even if you're going to get rid of them.

As I'm busy deleting, re-ordering, re-writing, I think of Victorian writers like Thackeray or George Eliot.  It's enough of a pain moving chunks of text through the computer's copy and paste function.  What on earth was it like when done by hand?  Writing rooms must have been carpeted in novel - a whole house crackling with Middlemarch, a whole street paved with Vanity Fair.  My  editing is confined to my desk and despite my love/hate affair with the delete button, I've no wish to return to the days of tearing up and tossing on the fire.  Editing is hell.  No need to make it look like hell as well.

Saturday 27 April 2013

La Belle Sultane by Louisa Young

La Belle Sultane: Aimée Dubucq de Rivery

The Rose:

Gallica, Aka: Violacea
Origin: France, early 1800s
Size of flower: 6cm
Scent: Light
Flowerings: Once only
Height: 1.75m
Spread: 1.5m

La Belle Sultane is a gallica rose, single, with a few extra petals when well grown. The centre and backs of the petals are crimson, darkening almost to black around the edges. Long, vivid gold stamens emerge from a white centre patch, which occasionally sends little streaks of white into the dark petals. The effect is rather brilliant. The bush is wiry and economic; the leaves small and dark with a purple outline, the stems slender and thornless. They have instead dark bristles, which smell of resin if you rub them off, rather like the moss of a moss rose.

La Belle Sultane: Aimée Dubucq de Rivery

The Lady:

Aimée Dubucq de Rivery was a character you could not invent, so fraught is she with bodice-ripping romance, oriental cliché and cultural imperialism. She was born in 1763, at Pointe Royale in Martinique, to an old French Creole family. Within six years she was an orphan, but her family was large and well-established: she was adopted by Monsieur Dubucq de Sainte Preuve and raised by a loving mulatto, as they called it then, nurse. Nearby lived her cousins the Tascher de la Pagerie family. One was much of an age with her: Marie-Josephe Rose, known as Josephine.

A semi-documented legend tells how the two young girls decided to visit a fortune teller who lived in a shack near Trois Islets, fifteen miles from Pointe Royale. The woman, Eufemia David, told Josephine that she would marry twice, have two children, survive a revolution, be widowed; that her second husband though apparently insignificant would turn out to be a mighty conqueror before whom nations bowed, that she would be a queen but would die unhappy and rejected.

To Aimée (according to Josephine's friend, the famous fortune-teller Mlle Lenormand) she said: 'You will be sent to Europe to complete your schooling. Your ship will be seized by Corsairs. You will be taken captive and placed in a Seraglio. There you will give birth to a son. This son will reign gloriously, but the steps of his throne will be stained with the blood of his predecessor… you will never taste the outward honours of court, but you will live in a great and splendid palace where you will reign supreme. At the very hour when you know your happiness is won, that happiness will fade like a dream, and a lingering illness will carry you to the tomb.'

And so, in the traditonal way of prophecies viewed with hindsight, it came to pass. Josephine became Napoleon's Empress - but hers is another story. Aimée is our subject here.

In 1776, at the age of 13, she set sail for France, for the convent of the Dames de la Visitation at Nantes, to receive a proper French Catholic girl's education. The war between France and England, which broke out in 1778, kept her there much longer than was initially planned, and it was not until she was 21, in 1784, that she was able to leave Nantes to return to Martinique.

A few days out, in the Bay of Biscay, a terrific storm blew up. Aimée's ship was not as strong as it should have been, and was listing and ready to sink by the time a Spanish trader, heading for the Balearics, appeared to rescue the fearful, sodden crew and passengers. Grateful for the safety, Aimée was carried towards Palma de Majorca. They were in sight of its spires when the Spanish rescuers were borne down upon by another peril of the sea - Algerian corsairs. The pirates took the ship easily - that year their leader, Baba Mohammed ben Osman, had defeated a fleet of 300 Spanish men-o'-war with his pirate flotilla. It was to Baba Mohammed, in Algiers, that Aimée was taken. In the five minutes it took them to capture her, she had ceased to be a young woman returning home, and been rendered nothing more or less than rare, prize booty. The daughter of a slave-owner, she was now a slave.

The pirates knew the value of this wellbred and beautiful European virgin. Baba Mohammed locked her up out of harm's way, treated her with respect, draped her head to foot in jewels and veils and shipped her to Constantinople as a luxurious gift for the Caliph of the Faithful, Padishar of the Barbary States, Shadow of the Prophet upon the Earth, the Sultan Abdul Hamid the First of the mighty Turkish Empire. His Royal Palace on the Bosphorous already held 20,000 slaves and soldiers, politicians and concubines, stable boys and torturers, nightingale-keepers and circumcisers, dwarves and clowns, turban-winders and astronomers, gardeners and cooks, imams and prisoners, eunuchs and envoys and the Keeper of the Pedigree of the Prophet's Descendents…. she was just one more.

Aimée entered through the Gate of Felicity, and was greeted by Son Altesse Noir, the Chief Black Eunuch, the Kizlar Aga. Apparently she fainted. But how can we know? Only glimpses of her life behind the veil, within the harem, emerge. What is well known is the nature of the court itself - the luxuriance and corruption, the jealousies and violence, the beauty and the intrigues.

All the concubines had to attend the Academie d l'Amour, and candidates for the Imperial Alcove had to pass an exam in voluptuary skills, which was presided over by the Sultan's mother, the Sultan Valideh, Crown of the Veiled Heads of the Empire, a woman of great power and honour. Among the women there were three levels of preferred concubine: the Guzdehs (who had caught the Sultan's eye); the Ikbals (who had enjoyed his attentions) and the Kadines (the mothers of his children). The Kadines spent most of their time, traditionally, trying to to murder each other's sons (and prevent their own sons being murdered), so that they in turn could become Sultan Valideh.

Even among all these specially trained and selected love slaves, Aimée was given the name Naksh - the Beautiful One. She was singled out for being a Giaour (a northerner), for her fairness, her education, her lateness in arrival at the grand age of 21. It was not long before she became an object of plotting and intrigue, between on the one hand the Janissaries - a reactionary and peculiar band of soldiers, kidnapped as Christian children and converted to Islam, who took their titles from the names of kitchen servants and banged on kettles when fomenting insurrection - and on the other the reformist factions, who looked to western Europe for civilisation, and claimed her as their own.

She did little to avoid being singled out. A description of her came through: fair hair to her waist, strung with diamonds on invisible golden chains, dressed a la Turque with many layers and jewels, hennaed hands and feet, and a little jewelled pillbox hat. When her turn came - as it soon did - to be led along the Golden Path, down which each night's chosen odalisque would be taken to the Sultan's chamber, she resisted, yelling and screaming and trying to run away. It was unheard of. Everyone thought she was mad to object to such an honour.

The woman who talked her through it was the Circassian Kadine, mother of Selim, Abdul Hamid's young nephew and current heir to the throne. She spoke of reform, of safety in alliances, of the impossibility of escape, and the need for a new Favourite to take the place of the mother of the Sultan's son Mustapha. Aimée took heed, and became ally to the Circassian Kadine, true friend to Selim, and Abdul Hamid's new Favourite.

Her son Mahmoud was born July 1785 - only the Sultan's second son despite his five hundred wives - and Aimée became a Kadine. A pavilion of spun sugar was built to celebrate, and a tulip festival arranged, with the flowers shown off in illuminated booths, among glass globes of coloured water and coloured lights.

Aimée spoke French to Mahmoud, and raised him with French influences alongside his Turkish duty. (One rumour says she converted the Sultan to Catholicism, which is very unlikely.) She encouraged Selim, who was of an age with her, to love the baby, and he did. In 1786, when Aimée had been two years in the Seraglio, Selim wrote a letter to Louis XVI. This was astonishing - there had never been any regular diplomatic relations between France and Turkey, there was no Turkish ambassador in Paris. Selim expressed friendly intent towards France. The French were too astounded to respond significantly. (The same messenger carried a letter to Aimée's uncle - there is no record of any response from him at all. Or any of her family. Ever.) This was the first of many pro-French moves made by Turkish rulers close to Aimée, a manifestation of her influence over the princes and of her yearning for her country, which in the end was to turn dramatically sour.

In 1789, that important year, Sultan Abdul Hamid died and the mild and elegant Selim succeeded him, age 27. He set about creating a new army, along French lines, employed French engineers and officers for training, and sanctioned a French newspaper to be published in Constantinople. To please Aimée he acquired a Montgolfier balloon and himself went up in it, to the shock and pandemonium of his loyal subjects. By 1797 there was a permanent Turkish ambassador to France.

The Janissaries hated all this for rotten reformist anti-Turkish conniving, and plotted.

Turkey's relationship with Napoleon was not easy. In 1798, Napoleon took an army of 30,000 to Egypt, then part of Turkey's empire. In 1801 a brief peace emerged with Napoleon acknowledging that Egypt was Turkey's, and Turkey agreeing to favour French interests. When in 1805 the Circassian Kadine, Selim's mother, died, Napoleon sent the dashing Sebastiani (known as 'le Cupidon de l'Empire', because he had 'the kind of allure that causes insurrection in salons and boudoirs'), as a special envoy to support Selim. Mustapha, Selim's heir, was enraged by all this French support. Within a month of Sebastiani leaving Turkey, after the sudden death of his beloved wife Fanny, the Janissaries launched their attack on Selim and deposed him. They put Mustapha in Selim's place, leaving Aimée unprotected and Selim and Mahmoud imprisoned in the Princes' Cage.

Napoleon and Alexander of Russia each privately decided they would take advantage of the situation to conquer Turkey and wrest its Empire from the Sultan's hands. Baraiktar, Pasha of Rustchuk, a Bulgarian satrap of the rank of Three-Tailed Bashaw, may have been a lesser power but he was dutiful, and felt obliged to go to Selim's rescue. Mustapha's mother was still trying to kill Selim and Mahmoud, and Baraiktar was only partly in time: Selim was killed saving Mahmoud, who escaped up a chimney.

So Aimée's son, now in his early twenties, finally became Sultan, and Aimée thus Sultan Valideh. Mahmoud was even more Frenchified than Selim had been - he learnt counterpoint from Donizetti's brother, and used a knife and fork, and introduced a western tax system, and quarantine. Aimée had a Louis XVI salon, with toile de jouy and swagged mirrors - out of date, but how would she know? She had a beautiful kiosk on the Bosphorus, she planned gardens, enjoyed music, continued to protect her son and promote western ideas. She still drank champagne, as did her son. (After Mahmoud's death, his widow threw his entire cellar into the Bosphorus, like unfaithful odalisques - thousands of bottles of the best French wines.)

There is no record whether even now in her glory days Aimée and Josephine ever corresponded - but Aimée sent presents to her cousin the Empress: diamond aigrettes, pearls and 100 cachemires. And when, on December 16 1809 Napoleon rejected Josephine in order to marry Marie Louise (qv), overnight Mahmoud in turn rejected Napoleon. By 1811 a Foreign Office despatch read: 'The CREDIT of the French at Constantinople absolutely GONE.' A month after Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, trusting to the Turkish army to keep half the Russian army occupied in the south, Mahmoud suddenly made peace, liberating the Russian army to concentrate on - and ultimately defeat - Napoleon. Was this another gift from Aimée to Josephine? Vengeance for her spurned cousin? Who knows?

La Belle Sultane died in 1817, three years after Josephine, and seven years after the rose which bears her name was recorded. It's not clear how the rose became associated with Aimée, but who could resist the idea that Josephine herself, the great rose-lover, gave the name as a token for the cousin she had not seen since childhood, echoes of whose loyalty shimmered out every now and again from behind the jewelled veil of the Seraglio? Only a churl.

At least three novels have been written about Aimée, including Sultana, by Prince Michael of Greece. This was adapted for the screen in 1989 under the title The Favourite, and retitled Intimate Power a year later. The tagline was 'He stole her innocence. She stole his heart… and his empire!' It starred Amber O'Shea and F Murray Abraham and does not seem to have been very good.

The liveliest account of her life is definitely that in The Wilder Shores of Love, Lesley Blanche's fabulously grandiloquent multi-biography of four European women who in various ways ended up as romantic queens of the Orient.

Friday 26 April 2013

THE LURE OF THE MINIATURE – curl and pearl and innocent eyes – Dianne Hofmeyr

An Unknown Woman in Masque Costume 
Isaac Oliver 
England, 1609 
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

How was a girl to get her face out there and find a suitor and kindle the flame of passion without Facebook or Social Media? Or a King for that matter… how was he to show his face to the world and be known for his greatness?

With no click of the button, the answer might have been a Grande Tour to the courts of Europe. But this was unthinkable in the 16th and 17th century for someone of importance, when travel was still unsafe. Even Prince Regents had stooges of approximately the same age who would stand in like stunt artists and travel in place of them and bring back detailed reports, so they would know how affairs were conducted in the Spanish or French courts.

The answer to the lack of Social Media in the 16th and 17th century was in the miniature –painted and placed in the hands of a clever ambassador to be taken around the foreign courts.

In England the art was called limning coming from the Latin word luminare to illuminate or give light. The word miniature was later adopted from the Latin word miniare to colour with red lead, which became the Italian noun miniatura and then anglicised. As early as 1524 Henry VIII saw the advantage of having himself painted and Holbein became his favourite painter. Catherine Parr and Elizabeth I were both early adopters and by the time James I came to the throne, the miniature was in its heyday as a lover’s token in Court intended to kindle the flames of passion, or be given as a gift to show favour or loyalty.

What was its uniqueness?

- It had true intimacy. It had to be picked up and held close to see it, unlike a painting viewed from further away.

- It could be hidden in a pouch or worn either in a locket or on a cord around the waist or neck and kept close to the heart.

- It was often round or oval and so fitted comfortably in the hand, which made it tactile and again gave intimacy.

- Sometimes it was inscribed with tiny, almost indecipherable lettering that seemed to make the message more secretive

- The background often showed curtains, which suggested playful furtiveness.

- It was often enclosed by a lid that made it all the more enticing.

But the true art of the miniature was in the fineness of its brushstrokes and techniques. These were no ordinary paintings. They were not painted in oils but coloured pigment mixed with gum Arabic or egg white (glair). The technique was more spontaneous as the pigments dried quickly. Colour was laid down in layers. Often to illuminate the colours, silver was painted beneath the resins especially to enhance jewels. Backgrounds were often celestial blue or black to show steadfastness and to make the face stand out. I notice an absence of the colour green.

Some painters such as Nicholas Hilliard, but not Holbein, painted with the sitter in front of them. Hilliard recommended trying to catch a fleeting moment, such as a smile. Elizabeth I sat for him and engaged in long conversations about the art of painting. The two most important miniaturists of the Jacobean court were Isaac Oliver and Hilliard. Hilliard was the son of a goldsmith and was made King’s Limner. But James I hated having his portrait painted, so unlike the miniatures of Elizabeth I with her varying expressions even showing her in one by Hilliard, as the moon goddess, we get endless copies of his unchanging face.

For a fascinating insight into the technique click this video from the V&A exhibition Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars which is on until the 14th July.

One of the most fascinating of miniatures at the exhibition must be the Drake Jewel. It is depicted in a large painting with Sir Francis Drake wearing it tied around his waist and then the actual Drake Jewel itself is shown in a case alongside this painting. On the front it has a dark African face carved in onyx in profile with a pale lady in profile immediately behind... apparently quite common as onyx has layers of light and dark. It opens downwards to reveal a painted miniature of Elizabeth I and her phoenix symbol on the inside of the lid.

Magnifying glasses are provided in the exhibition for a closer view but I still wanted to hold one of the miniatures in my hand right up close and examine the minute and lovely details of curl and pearl and innocent eyes!


Thursday 25 April 2013

FAKING IT by Eleanor Updale

 Thirty years ago yesterday, the Sunday Times published what it thought was a magnificent scoop: they had bought from the German magazine Stern the rights to serialise Hitler's newly-discovered diaries. 
Thirty years ago today, they began climbing down. In no time, after some straightforward checks, the diaries were exposed as fakes, and a once-great newspaper was made to look very stupid.


Those of us who were around at the time will remember excitement that greeted their publication, and the unrestrained joy of the rest of the British press when the 62 handwritten volumes were revealed to be forgeries: written in modern ink on paper that would not have been available in Hitler's lifetime, and sometimes using figures of speech that simply weren’t current in Hitler’s day.

Though the Sunday Times will be forever tainted by its mistake, the main casualty affair was the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (by then Lord Dacre), who had been sent by the Sunday Times to authenticate the diaries.  Trevor-Roper, son-in-law of Field-Marshal Earl Haig, was the former Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and, at the time of the diary debacle, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge. 

Trevor-Roper already had enemies in the historical establishment.  He was one of the last mainstream historians to dabble in several periods at once, with books and articles on subjects including World War II, the Tudor Church, and the economics of the Civil War. He was famously slow with his books. Even Mrs Thatcher chided him:.‘On the stocks? On the stocks?  A fat lot of good that is! In the shops, that is where we need it!’
In many ways Trevor-Roper embodied the crazy Oxford ‘Modern History’ syllabus of the day (55BC to 1911, with everything from 1688 onwards covered in eight weeks). In the 1970s you would sometimes see him walking round the town, looking very aristocratic and proud – though he was in fact of relatively lowly stock: the son of a provincial doctor. But he was one of the few Oxford professors of whom the outside word had heard. Then, as now, academics who were not invited to write newspaper articles or appear on radio and TV resented any colleague’s public exposure.  Even (perhaps especially) fellow media tarts, such as AJP Taylor were embroiled in spats with him.  It was a pretty nasty period for infighting at universities - giving rise a new collective noun: a malice of historians.
Plenty of academics enjoyed seeing Trevor-Roper brought low.  But he was not the only one taken in by what appeared to be an irresistible story.  I have posted some links at the bottom of this page to first-hand accounts of how it all went wrong. 
It retrospect it seems extraordinary that so many people fell for the hoax, but in fact the episode is a very good example of the power of group-think, and of how difficult it is to ask obvious questions or to challenge accepted 'truths' when those around us accept them. In the case of the Hitler diaries, an overbearing proprietor - Rupert Murdoch - was so determined to publish that his underlings willingly suspended their normal journalistic and historical instincts. Trevor-Roper was a board member of Times Newspapers, and although theoretically he was there to keep an eye on the owner, he was swept up by the 'bravado' Murdoch admitted to the Leveson inquiry last year.  

But it would be wrong to imagine that the Hitler Diaries affair, though a landmark error in handling evidence, was a one-off.  We need only look at the very recent reports on the banking crisis, NHS scandals, and the cock-ups at the BBC to see that such frailty is still with us today.
Elizabeth Chadwick’s excellent post last month on this very site, in which she cleverly blasted away accepted 'truths' about the family of Eleanor of Acquitaine, shows how malice, cowardice and ambition are not indespensible ingredients of mistakes. There’s something much more potent, and perhaps more common, lurking in the background.  It’s the failure to ask primary questions when faced with a humdrum ‘fact’ – something ‘everybody knows’, which one generation of historians has passed on to another.  In the case of Queen Eleanor’s brother, there is no cause to believe that anyone deliberately set out to mislead. It’s just that no one, other than Elizabeth Chadwick, asked themselves, “Really?  How do we know that?”
 We are at a funny time in historical research.  Students are (rightly) warned at the beginning of all good history courses about the dangers of believing everything you read on the Internet.  Untruths and half-truths can get bedded in to the accepted narrative faster than ever, as mistakes, and speculation disguised as fact, are cut and pasted from one article to another.  But in another way, the Internet may be our saviour: electronic images of original documents have never been easier to access; plagiarism can be detected with simple software programs; references can be more easily checked.
And that last point is crucial.  Sometimes you hear historians harking back to the pre-Google age, when anyone writing a learned work needed genuinely to read any source from which he quoted, to get the reference right.  What the Internet is revealing is just how often past scholars simply copied those references from each other's work, adopting the interpretation of their predecessors about what the original said and meant without consulting it at all.  Putting right some of the accepted ‘truths’ of the Trevor-Roper era has become fertile ground for PhD students everywhere.

And yet, and yet...Many things still go unquestioned, and not just in the world of words on paper.  I had a very interesting conversation with a painter the other day about the stunningly modern techniques used by El Greco in the 16th century.  He said it was almost as if...
Of course we all accept that the El Grecos in our galleries are genuine… don't we?  The experts must have checked them....surely?   But don't forget that it was only a confession that exposed Han van Meegeren, the Dutch forger who sold fake ‘Vermeers’ to the Nazis.  
And what's wrong with a good old-fashioned hoax, anyway?  With digital technology it is growing ever easier to produce copies indistinguishable from the real thing.  Maybe we should celebrate the forgers of the past, who needed fabulous skills to pull off their deceptions . 
Konrad Kujau.        photo : Achim Necker

The key forger of the Hitler Diaries, Konrad Kujau, served a prison term. When he came out, he made a successful career capitalising on his notoriety by openly selling forgeries to an eager public.
Shortly after the Hitler Diaries debacle, Britain’s most celebrated art forger, Tom Keating, died.  He'd become a bit of a media poppet in the 1970s, when he took the art establishment for a long and lucrative ride.  
 Maybe we all love to see the experts overturned. 

 Hitler image above: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-12975 / CC-BY-SA

Here links to a couple of articles about the Hitler Diaries, written by people who worked for the Sunday Times when the ‘exclusive’ was published:

There's a book, too: