Wednesday 31 May 2017

May competition

To win a copy of Gaslight by Eloise Williams, answer this question in the Comments below. Then please copy your answer to

"What period of history has influenced your life in the way that the Victorian era has made such an impression on Eloise?" Please give reasons.

Closing date 7th June

We are sorry our competitions are open to UK Followers only


Tuesday 30 May 2017

Cabinet of Curiosities - The Visconti-Sforza Tarot by Charlotte Wightwick

The Hermit. 
In today’s Cabinet of Curiosities we’re heading to the Italy of the mid-late fifteenth century.

Italy in this period was not one unified country, but was instead made up of a great constellation of city-states: some tiny, others wealthy, powerful and magnificent. The five great powers were Florence and Venice, the Kingdom of Naples, the Papal States and the Duchy of Milan.

The stories of the Renaissance most closely lodged in many people’s minds are those of the great trading republic of Venice, of the beauties of Florence and the power of the Popes in Rome. In contrast, the Milanese ruling families of the period, the Visconti and the Sforza, don't hold a prominent place in public consciousness. Yet they embody just as much of what we find fascinating about the Renaissance – the beauty of the art coupled with the brutality and corruption of its politics – as do the Medici or the Borgias. Leonardo da Vinci, after all, spent nearly 20 years in Milan and created some of his greatest masterpieces there.

There were smaller treasures, too. For example, the ‘Visconti-Sforza tarot cards’ demonstrate the wealth and artistry that the Dukes of Milan could command. They were created most likely in the mid fifteenth century, probably shortly after Francesco Sforza’s ascension to the ducal throne in 1450.

The pack is made up of seventy four hand-painted playing cards (four are missing from the original pack of seventy eight). They are large compared to modern playing cards (and to other, lesser-quality cards from the fifteenth century) indicating that they probably were produced as items for display and to demonstrate status, rather than as cards to play with. They are mostly painted by the same person, although six were made by a different artist (who also painted other extant packs of cards). They are stunning, tiny masterpieces of Gothic art: rich with gold and the jewel-bright colours of a master illuminator’s craft; saturated with the symbolism of what we would think of as the medieval world: with knights, kings and queens, swords and grails.

Knight of Swords

There is no evidence that tarot (from the Italian tarroco, plural tarrochi) were used at this point for divination or were linked to the occult. Instead they were playing cards: a mixture of suit cards, which will be familiar to all as the basis for modern playing cards, plus a series of ‘trump’ cards, including a range of Virtues, astronomical symbols (the sun, moon etc) and people – Popes and Popesses, the Hanged Man and others.

We know that card games – both played with and without trumps – were highly popular across Italy at this time, although there were regional variations in how the games were played. In Milan, the duchess Beatrice d’Este, wife of Ludovico Sforza reportedly won three thousand ducats at play at one point in 1494 (and spent her winnings on alms and embroidery, although her husband was at a loss to see how she could have spent all of the money on just those two things!)

It is a fascinating glimpse into a courtly world, perhaps all the more so because it was a world doomed to disappear, a fact foretold by the cards themselves. One of the cards shows the Wheel of Fortune. A man is depicted in four different states: destined to rule, ruling and then, his Fortune overturned, on his hands and knees, without dominion.

The Wheel of Fortune

Only a few years after Ludovico Sforza wrote so cheerfully to his wife about her gains at the card table, he would be imprisoned by the French, his glittering court destroyed.

But in a strange way, that court lives on, for it was the Milanese version of these card games, and not those of other cities, which was taken back to France by the victors, and thence on to other parts of Europe and beyond, and so into modern culture.

For me, therefore, the Visconti-Sforza tarot stand not only in their own right as works of art, but of links between a glittering past and our own world today.

(All pictures from Wikimedia Commons)

Monday 29 May 2017

Gaslight by Eloise Williams

Our guest for May is Eloise Williams

Credit: Angharad Thomas photography
This is what Eloise tells us about herself:

Sixer of Pixies. Child of the 70s. Survived encephalitis, pizza thrown in face, a decade as an actor, school, endless years of Heavy Metal abuse from younger sister’s room. Lives in West Wales. Lives for the sea, love, repeats of ‘Murder She Wrote’, for as long as she can. 'Elen's Island' was Highly Commended for the T'ir na nOg Awards. 'Gaslight' is Eloise's second book.

My love of the theatre goes back to childhood.

One of my very first memories is watching Yul Brynner onstage at the London Palladium in ‘The King and I’. Of course, at the time I had no idea who Yul Brynner was but I can remember the excitement of the trip to the Big Smoke, the vivid colours of the costumes, the joke where Anna’s hooped skirt reveals her bloomers as she attempts to bow. I was hooked by the atmosphere, the magic of the lights, the glamour, the glitter, the applause. Who wouldn’t be?

I trained as a Drama teacher at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in my early twenties and was fortunate enough to follow a module on the history of theatre. I loved it all but was particularly drawn to the theatre of the Victorian age. I’ve always been a fan of the Victorian. Not the glorious dresses and the well-to-do side of things. More the ghosts of Jacob Marley and the Woman in Black. Gravediggers at Highgate Cemetery, foggy streets with cutthroats on every corner, and, of course, gaslights.
I could imagine Sir Henry Irving as another worldly creature onstage at The Lyceum in ‘The Bells’. I wrote my dissertation for the BA on Irving’s influence in Bram Stoker’s creation of Dracula, and talked of his face glowing green in the limelight, the long shadows his frame would have cast against the scenery, his stooped stance and otherworldliness. That period of history reached out to me.

When we talked about the Greeks letting people out of prison so they could experience the catharsis of theatre, I was impressed, but I couldn’t imagine it. When Oscar Wilde quips were thrown at me I laughed, and then immediately forgot them. There was something magical about the Victorian. Something that was already there in my psyche.

Don’t worry I’m not talking about reincarnation, or claiming that I was Ellen Terry in a past life. I think it’s more to do with my childhood. My doll’s house was Victorian, my actual house was Victorian, the woman I wanted to be when I grew up – Jean Simmons as Estella Havisham - was a Dickens creation, Narnia was navigated by a lamppost which looked pretty Victorian to me. The list goes on…

Gaslight came to fruition a long time later but if I really analyse it I’d been writing it in my head for about twenty years.

Cardiff is my birthplace and my first love as a city. You can actually feel the history there as you walk the streets. It’s a fascinating place of flat vowels (I proudly own them myself) and kindness. Close enough to The Valleys to have a feeling of community, on the Bristol channel, so the air is fresh and salty. I knew when I looked out of that lecture room window to the grounds of Bute Park below (I spent a lot of time staring out when I should have been concentrating) that Cardiff was going to play an important role in a story one day, I just didn’t realise I would be the one telling it.

With its theatres and castles, the sweep of the rivers towards the docks, the tunnel they were then building beneath Tiger Bay, the coal export, the fog, the dramatic tumble and dance of the city, I found the perfect place for a foundling to start her story.

My mother disappeared on the 6th of September 1894.

I was found at the docks in Cardiff lying like a gutted fish at the water’s edge.

Or, more accurately, you could say that the place found me. It just took me a while to listen.

Sunday 28 May 2017

How to grab the attention of an unwilling audience by Julie Summers

Half of my professional time is made up of public speaking. I know that I am not alone in this. In these days of social media, we authors are expected to be out there, promoting our books, doing twirls at book festivals. We have to be erudite, charming and polite even when we are standing in a freezing cold marquee speaking to an audience of nine or ten, half of whom are festival volunteers. These events are often as not gratis even though, as Philip Pullman pointed out eighteen months ago when a row about literary festivals blew up, everyone else connected with events gets paid, from the technicians to the cleaners.

If a literary festival gets it right - and it is not hard - authors are very happy to speak to their audiences for as little as a warm welcome, a cup of tea or a glass of wine and perhaps a bed for the night if we have travelled for hours. One festival I went to provided absolutely nothing and I even had to pay 20p to go to the public lavatory to get changed into my festival garb. A high point of last year was Frinton Literary Festival which staged a wartime tea-party. Everyone dressed up for the event including the members of Frinton WI who came as 'Nippies', the name given to the waitresses who worked in the Lyons coffee houses in London in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Frinton Literary Festival 2016 
Members of Frinton WI in their Nippy uniform

When invited I talk about my research, the subjects of my books and - occasionally - about the process of writing. I enjoy this side of my life enormously and by and large I seem to get positive feedback from my audiences, large and small. I am fortunate in that the subject matter seems to chime with history groups and, luckily for me, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, who pay their speakers. When I wrote Jambusters, the story of the WI in the Second World, I could not have imagined it would give me five years worth of lectures. The WI are great consumers of their own history. And rightly so. It is a remarkable one. The Second World War was in many ways their finest hour. They kept the countryside ticking by busting bureaucratic logjams, making copious amounts of preserves from surplus fruit, feeding the farm workers with millions upon millions of meat pies and advising eleven government departments on everything from national savings and housing to education and post-war reconciliation in continental Europe. The WI had the ear of the government and the eyes to see what was happening in rural communities in England, Wales and further afield owing to their excellent connections. Sometimes I speak to groups of twenty women in a village hall or a pub, at other times I find myself faced by more than a thousand eager pairs of eyes in a theatre.

The WI's National AGM 2016, Brighton

Some of my talks, however, are to other groups that comprise both sexes. The topics that go down well with men are of course those focused on the male-dominated aspect of my work: mountaineering and war. Everest Needs You, Mr Irvine, is a talk I have given hundreds of times over the last twenty years and its endless appeal seems to be the unsolved nature of the greatest mountaineering mystery of all time: did Mallory and Irvine reach the summit of Mount Everest 29 years before Hillary and Tenzing? I can't supply the answer but the romance of the story seems to capture people's imaginations even 90+ years on from the event.

Mount Everest from the north side.
Mallory and Irvine were last seen close to the summit pyramid on 8 June 1924
Similarly, the true story of the Bridge on the River Kwai has the armchair war enthusiasts leaning forward in their seats to check that I don't get my destroyer confused with a gun boat. If they can pick me up on a factual detail they will, but they are always courteous, especially if I can prove them wrong. Aficionados seem to enjoy being corrected as well as correcting.

An enthusiastic audience of historians and family members
of Far Eastern Prisoners of War at a conference in 2010
The trickiest group of people to speak to are luncheon or evening dinner clubs. And here I have almost come unstuck on more than one occasion. In December 2015 I was asked to prepare a 45 minute illustrated talk for a male-only club Christmas dinner where the wives were invited as a special treat. That was already somewhat uncomfortable but the invitation had come through a friend of a friend so I did not refuse. When I arrived I was given a glass of mulled wine and when I protested politely that I never drink before a talk the secretary raised his eyes dramatically to the male deities above. Seated between the president and the treasurer at dinner I was summarily ignored as they discussed the time-table for the evening, leaping up and down from the table to whisper an instruction in one or other member's ear. The programme was over-running and by the time it was my turn to speak the president asked me whether I could condense my talk to twenty minutes and do it without slides. It was the last straw as far as I was concerned. I asked to be allowed to powder my nose and collect my thoughts before doing my twirl.

As I was tweaking my pale cream skirt I suddenly realised I had an ace up my sleeve. Returning to my chair and without sitting down I indicated I was ready. The president called me down to his level and said in my ear 'remember, don't go over the time. You look lovely but they don't want to be staring at you in half an hour!' I whispered back: 'Indeed not. They might be worried. I wouldn't want anyone else to know this, but I'm wearing a pair of my husband's underpants.' I have never seen anyone blush and jump simultaneously. It was a sweet moment. 

The cream silk skirt on its first public outing in 2008. 
I spoke for 19 minutes. And for the record the club did not even pay my petrol. But I felt I'd won that night. I was wearing my husband's underpants, by the way. I have not had recourse to use them since but this one unhappy evening provided me with a good story to tell.

I am not advocating a rebellion but I urge any of you who go out to speak, especially if you do it for free, to remind the people who commission you to treat you with the respect they would wish to be treated with themselves. And if that calls for a little shock, so be it.

Saturday 27 May 2017

Joyce Grenfell's Lost Song by Janie Hampton

Benjamin Britten, Joyce Grenfell, Peter Pears at The Red House, June 1967
In 1947 the British composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, the singer Peter Pears, fulfilled their dream when they started the Aldeburgh Music Festival, in Suffolk. Aldeburgh is a pretty fishing town on the East coast of England, unchanged since its hey-day in the early 19th century. At first concerts and lectures were performed in local churches and village halls. The British writer and entertainer Joyce Grenfell (1910-79) and her devoted husband Reggie went every June for the music, the people and the bird watching. Joyce liked all types of music, as long as it was good: Bach, Beethoven, Britten, Gershwin and Rogers. ‘I would rather go to a concert than the theatre, cinema or an exhibition,’ she wrote. In 1966 she wrote to her friend the writer Virginia Graham: ‘All the usuals here, such as Lady Dashwood, in modern clothes and assisted brunette hair-do. June is a magic month in Suffolk & the drive over to Orford in a faint summer haze with long blue shadows was breathtaking. Ditches full of Queen Anne’s lace, wild roses, elder flower in full cream, and a nightingale sang in the church yard, as we were going in! Such production!
‘Lovely day ended with an accolade from Ben: “Will I do a concert here next year for the new concert hall and the 20th festival?” “Yes of course Ben,” I say. At once, sitting in the parish church hearing but I fear not listening to, lovely early Byrd, I started panicking about new material for the event.’
‘My Dear Ben,’ she wrote shortly after, ‘I feel truly honoured to be asked to be part of the best festival in the world. It is the compliment I am more proud of than anything that has ever happened to me. I mean this. Your music past and present - and future – makes me feel as if I had been taken into space. I always feel music, such as Beethoven’s late quartets, is already there from the beginning. With love Joyce. P.S. Please thank Peter, too, for his singing in Curlew River - oh and in the Schumann!’
Joyce Grenfell, circa 1945.
Joyce Grenfell was an unusual choice for this rather intellectual concert series. But Britten must have known that her comedy show would subsidise the more esoteric offerings. Also in that year's programme were the Vienna Boys’ choir, The Castaway by Lennox Berkeley, a new production of Britten’s The Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Plomer reading poetry, a talk on Anglo-Saxon Ship-Burials, and ended with Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Three events each day gave everyone time to enjoy each performance and the place, without having to rush. Joyce wrote two new monologues: about an intense American music student called Marty Winderhauer, and a new Shirley’s Girlfriend with her whistling from behind a pulpit. She and her pianist and composer William Blezard also wrote a song in praise of Britten. ‘I have never toiled, polished, worked on anything as I have on this ditty,’ she wrote. ‘I was praying that he would like it.’
In case Britten didn’t like it, Joyce and Blezard performed the song for Britten on the morning of the concert at The Red House where Britten lived with Peter Pears, just outside Aldeburgh. The song is one of Joyce Grenfell's most sophisticated - a recitative of puns set to Blezard's  lively jazz accompaniment.
'How benevolent is the setting
Suffolk winds benignly blow
Benefitting all who came here
And to concerts go oh-oh-oh
Seats benumb on Parish church benches
But the benefited ear recognises benediction
In the wonders it can hear
Bene, bene molto bene.'
Joyce was amazed by Britten’s reaction. ‘I was quite flummoxed,’ she wrote to Virginia Graham. ‘Ben ran to me and embraced me, weeping! He was very touched and moved. It was very dear and entirely unexpected.’
So fifty years ago, at the concert that night on 5 June 1967, in the Jubilee Hall, the song was rapturously received and the audience called out for an encore. But Joyce thought it was a ‘one occasion song’ and did not sing an encore, nor ever performed it again.
The next day Britten wrote to Joyce: ‘It was a joy to have you here, & we are grateful to you for the incomparably funny and wise evening you gave us - we were the honoured ones! Come back again, both of you, & do another such evening for us - ‘as near the bone’ as you like to make it. Love Ben.’ Joyce replied: ‘Dear Ben, Thank you for letting me be a small part of this 20th festival. There is something about the Aldeburgh Festival that makes one want to do far better than one has ever done before, anywhere else in the world. It is a challenge to keep up to the standard you & Peter give, that goes far beyond the line of duty!’
Back in London, Joyce and Blezard made a gramophone record and sent it to The Red House. Three years later, in 1970, Britten wrote: ‘I do hope this letter reaches you in a forgiving mood! Peter & I were hunting for an ancient record in a seldom used cupboard, & to our great surprise, then delight, & then horror, we found a record you’d sent us, away back in 1967, which neither of us had seen before. I can only imagine your handsome & delightful Tribute was ‘tidied away’. I somehow think you will forgive, for you are so grand a person.’
Joyce replied, ‘Of course I understand & of course I forgive! What’s more I can imagine the wave of horror you felt when you discovered the record and you have my deepest sympathy.’ And the record and the song were forgotten again.
Postcard from Joyce to Donald Swann, 1951
While I was researching the biography of Joyce Grenfell 15 years ago, I found Britten’s and Grenfell’s letters in separate archives. After I’d put copies of them together in chronological order, I started to look for the song Bene . But by then William Blezard had lost the manuscript; the Aldeburgh festival manager had just died; and the Britten-Pears archivist had never heard of it. Ten years later I tried again, and after some further searching at The Red House, the single gramophone record of the Bene song was found, mislabelled but still in perfect condition.
Not heard for nearly 40 years, it was broadcast for the first time on Joyce Grenfell at Aldeburgh Festival on BBC Radio 3 in 2005.
Joyce visited Aldeburgh Music Festival every year from 1962, until a few weeks before her death in 1979. Listening to a performance of an "advanced" piano piece, Grenfell composed her own obituary: 'She died from opening her mind too far'.

Friday 26 May 2017

A new step forward in France, by Carol Drinkwater

We have a new President.
The whole world has learned by now that France has voted for Emmanuel Macron, the youngest man to step into this role since Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, Napoleon III.
Born in Paris on 20th April 1808,  Louis-Napoléon became President on 20th December 1848.

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of Napoléon I, was the first head of State to take the title of President and he was the only President of the Second Republic. Barred from running for a second term, he organised a coup d'etat and took the throne as Emperor of France on 2nd December 1852.  He remains the longest serving Head of State in France since the French Revolution, and died in exile in England in 1873 after the fall of his Empire in 1870.

Emmanuel Macron steps into the role of President at the age of thirty-nine and six months so just a tad younger than France's last Emperor, making Macron the youngest President in French history.  Does his age matter? Yes and no. His youth and energy are seen here as a breath of fresh air. His beautiful wife Brigitte Macron is over twenty years his senior making him, I believe, a man with an individual spirit who follows his own path, his own destiny. I watched a clip of their wedding recently and was charmed by the way he spoke so openly about embracing their age difference. I find it quite remarkable when one considers the chauvinism so often shown in politics.

I, we, hope that this mindset will bring courage and a new way of thinking to French politics. Most here are saying that the country is in dire need of reform. Yes, there is much that needs to be addressed - our very high unemployment figures (around ten per cent), the weight of bureaucracy in the public sectors - both are two concerns regularly cited.
Another urgent issue is national security. We are a country that has been living in a state of alerte rouge since January 2015. Over the last two years, France has been the victim of several monstrous terrorist attacks. In these last two and a half years, close to 300 people have been murdered during or as a result of these attacks. Macron's opponent, the far right candidate, Marine Le Pen, has been suggesting measures which would alienate the large Maghrebian (north African) population here in France, would close down our borders, take us out of Europe and do away with the euro. Fortunately, Macron has opposed all these proposed policies. During the televised debate between Macron and Le Pen just days before the second and final round of voting, Macron stood firm against her accusations when she shockingly threw the word 'traitor' at him because he had visited Algeria and stated that France did not behave well during its years as an imperialist power there and that some of the acts perpetrated against French colonial citizens were crimes against humanity. It took great courage and integrity to stand firm on national television, peak viewing, to repeat his position. I agree with Macron. Like him I also believe that until France takes responsibility for its past, healing and social meshing cannot take place.

I have written about France and its Algerian history in other History Girls posts:  and

The terrorists who perpetrated the appalling attacks here, from Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 onwards, are, or were, members of and trained by ISIS/Daech. They are not necessarily directly related to France's colonial past except that many of the disenfranchised north Africans living, in most cases, in very difficult conditions on the outskirts of French cities have been easy pickings for the terrorist organisations. These second and third generation French citizen youths are without work, living on the fringes of our society, despised and looked down upon by a percentage of the population and their rights and needs are not always being met. How easy then to lure them into acts against the establishment, to stoke up within them the hatred and anger necessary to commit such atrocities. The solid impenetrable establishment does not want to hear that France owes a great debt and more than an apology to the citizens of its colonial past. Macron's words were not easy to hear for many and were outrightly denied by others, such as Marine Le Pen.
It is a breath of fresh air to hear a politician say that his nation must take responsibility for its crimes before any future can be built. I applaud Macron for not buckling at the possibility of losing votes because of the position he had taken.

My new novel, THE LOST GIR, to be published in just over a month on 29th June in the UK is set in two locations and several time zones. At its heart it is a contemporary story which begins the night of Friday 13th November 2015 in Paris. That night there were six terrorist attacks all within the eastern quarters of Paris. Over 200 people were murdered many of them youngsters attending a rock concert at the Bataclan concert hall near Bastille.

How did this book come about? The evening of the terrorism in Jan 2015 really affected me and set the tone for my response to the 13 November attacks. My husband was in Paris when the Charlie Hebdo attacks took place. He was working at his office which in those days was one street away from the CH offices. Naturally, I was terrified when I heard the news before I knew the precise location. Once all was revealed, I learned from Michel, my husband, that he had worked with one of the illustrators who was murdered that late afternoon.
The fact that it was a colleague, someone just one step away, a man working in the arts, not a close friend of Michel's but a respected colleague, this really shook me up.
Freedom of speech, freedom to believe whatever one chooses as long as it does not cause harm to others, freedom to love whomsoever one chooses, as long as we are not talking about minors or unwilling partners. These are at the heart of French values, a cornerstone of this society. 2015 was a turning point for me in that I recognised how living in France has transformed me. I also realised that speaking out and mourning publicly for the victims was essential. I felt that I had to stand up and be counted.
THE LOST GIRL was in gestation, I see now, even before the night of 13th November.
That evening I switched on the television to see the news which is not something I am in the habit of doing. I was standing with my mother in the living room and together we watched the events unfolding. I was weeping. Mummy said to me, talking particularly about the young who were trapped as hostages within the Bataclan where two gunmen were shooting, picking off audience members one after another in cold blood 'Everyone of them is someone's daughter or son. Mothers are waiting everywhere to hear the news.'
My story was seeded, although I did not know it that evening. Several days later, I put aside the novel I was at work on and began to write ...

Kurtiz is an Englishwoman, a renowned photographer who has become estranged from her actor husband. Their marriage fell apart when their sixteen-year-old daughter, Lizzie, went missing from their London home four years earlier. Out of the blue, there is a sighting of Lizzie in Paris. Kurtiz's husband, Oliver, firmly believes his daughter will be at the Bataclan rock concert and he goes there in search of her. Kurtiz is waiting in a nearby bar for news, for a meeting, for a craved-for reconciliation.

THE LOST GIRL is a love story with plenty of drama. At its heart it is a tale of new beginnings, of second chances, of learning to forgive and to seize the moment and live.

France has voted, not for extremism and fascist knee-jerk reactions, not for closing down its borders, but for new beginnings, for building upon the knowledge that within its recent past, the nation, the ruling powers, have committed crimes. With an open heart, the long slow journey towards healing and creating opportunities for those who have been left out in the cold, can begin.
I am feeling optimistic.

I wrote this blog and posted it at the beginning of this week. A day later, Manchester in the United Kingdom was hit. A suicide bomber waited to explode his foul ammunition on young people preparing to make their way home from a rock concert. First,  my sincere condolences to those who have lost members of their families. R.I.P to those who lost their lives. I pray that those who were injured may recover speedily. Lastly, huge respect to the citizens of Manchester who handled the abomination with such compassion. During my time researching The Lost Girl I spent a month watching filmed material of the events of that night in Paris and the long harrowing days that succeeded it. One of the most remarkable things I took away from all that I watched was the generosity of the Parisians, the French. Blood was given, doors left open. Everyone was on hand to help do their bit to counter the ugliness of such an atrocity. In all the war zones I have visited for my work and travels, for the research for The Lost Girl and for all that I have read over these last few days from Manchester, I have been deeply moved time and time again by our ability to express compassion and generosity to others who are suffering. Man's indomitable spirit. Our kindness, our desire to reach out and offer a hand to another in need. I hope these qualities come across in my novel and I sincerely pray that these are the energies that will overcome these appalling waves of terrorism.

Thursday 25 May 2017

Frederick Hervey, Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry by Miranda Miller

     I came across this remarkable eccentric while researching eighteenth century Rome, where he spent the last ten years of his life. As a young man he was appointed Royal Chaplain to George III, who referred to him as "that wicked prelate". He later became Bishop of Derry and advocated religious tolerance and equality. He had a taste for mildly sadistic practical jokes and filled a vacancy for a curate by making the more overweight candidates compete in a race along the beach. Hervey was also a philanthropist who built roads in Derry and tried to relieve some of the poverty in the area. The Royal Society made him a Fellow in recognition of his interest in vulcanology and his scholarly work on the Giants’ Causeway. He built himself a magnificent house at Downhill, near the Causeway, and filled it with his art collection which included works by Rembrandt, Raphael, Titian, Dürer and Caravagio.

    In the grounds of Downhill is the Mussenden Temple, which is an exact copy of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli - Hervey wanted to transport the original to Britain but the Pope refused to sell. Underneath it he built a room for Catholic priests to say Mass, a provocative decision during that time of anti-Catholic penal laws. He also became involved in the Irish Volunteer Movement and in 1782 led a triumphant procession from Downhill to Dublin. Theatrically dressed in a mixture of military and ecclesiastical costume, in a carriage drawn by horses ornamented in matching purple and gold, he seems to have fantasized that he would reign over a new, tolerant Ireland. At an Irish nationalist convention held at Dublin he indiscreetly spoke of rebellion, which almost led to his arrest by the British government. After that he appears to have stayed out of politics.

   Hervey does seem to have earned his reputation for wickedness: he swore and blasphemed constantly and had many scandalous love affairs. He ill treated his wife, Elizabeth Davers, who stayed in Suffolk while he travelled all over Europe. Hotels where he had stayed often renamed themselves the Hotel Bristol, proud that they had been chosen by him for he was a famous epicure and drunk and only the best food and wine would satisfy him.

   In his late forties Hervey inherited what was then a vast income of about twenty thousand pounds a year and was able to fully indulge his passion for art. In Rome he was regarded as a Maecenas and whenever he was in town artists flocked to his house on the Via Sistina. He doled out commissions generously but didn’t always pay for them: when John Soane was a penniless young architect in Rome Hervey engaged him to build a new dining room and a classical dog-house for Downhill. Poor Soane wasted months designing a kennel that looked like an ancient Roman temple - but it was never built. The Bishop had an unpleasant habit of disappearing from Rome just as all the artists he had commissioned work from were expecting orders on his banker.

    Hervey was famous for his brilliant conversation and met or corresponded with Voltaire, Goethe, Benjamin Franklin and Boswell. This sophistication was combined throughout his life with outrageous behaviour; for example, on his last visit to Siena, he threw a tureen of pasta from the window of his hotel onto the heads of a passing procession of the Host. His house in Rome was said to be filled with pornographic frescoes and portraits of the wives of the artists he patronised as Venus in indecent poses. Catherine Wilmot, an Englishwoman who travelled in Italy and had an acerbic pen, wrote this description of him in old age:

   His figure is little, and his face very sharp and wicked; on his head he wore a purple velvet night-cap, with a tassel of gold dangling over his shoulder and a sort of mitre to the front; silk stockings and slippers of the same colour and a short round petticoat, such as Bishops wear, fringed with gold about his knees. A loose dressing-gown of silk was then thrown over his shoulders. In this Merry Andrew trim he rode on horseback to the never-ending amazement of all beholders! The last time I saw him, he was sitting in his carriage between two Italian women dressed in white bedgown and nightcap like a witch and giving himself the airs of an Adonis.

   For a man who had argued all his life for religious tolerance, he came to a very sad end. When the French invaded Italy they accused him of spying and kept him in prison in Milan for eighteen months. When he was released he wanted to return to Rome. On the way, in the country near Albano, he felt unwell & asked a peasant couple to shelter him for the night. They were afraid to welcome a Protestant - a heretic - in their house so they made him sleep in a cold, damp outhouse. Hervey was then seventy-three, worn out by his imprisonment and desperately anxious about his art collection. He died there and his body was brought back here to Rome. Hundreds of artists attended his funeral in Rome in 1803 and he was buried at his ancestral home, Ickworth in Suffolk, where there is an obelisk paid for by public subscription by the Catholics, Presbyterians and Protestants of Derry.

   In this portrait of Hervey with his grand-daughter Caroline the Earl Bishop looks rather benign. The miniature below is of Hervey’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth Foster, known as Bess, who was much admired by Edward Gibbon and many other men. She was a great friend of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire - a friendship that seems to have survived even when Bess gave birth to the Duke of Devonshire’s child. The three of them lived together for years in a famous ménage à trois and eventually, after the death of Georgiana in 1809, the Duke and Bess were married. When the Duke died less than two years later Bess went to live in Rome where, like her father, she became a patron of the arts, particularly archaeology. She funded the excavation of the Forum, enabling the recovery of the Column of Phocas and the stones of the Via Sacra. In Rome, she also found the last love of her life, Cardinal Hercule Consalvi, the secretary of state to the Vatican.

Wednesday 24 May 2017

A JACK OF ALL TRADES - on the historical novelist and research by Elizabeth Chadwick.

I began writing  my first historical novel when I was fifteen years old.  I had fallen for a knight on a BBC television programme titled Desert Crusader - dubbed from the original French where the series was known as Thibaud ou les Croisades. (you can find it at Youtube under that heading.  For example Thibaud ou les croisades)  It's available on DVD from Amazon France and I have my own copies now for posterity!  
 I began writing my own form of fan fiction which quickly developed a life and story line of its own that departed far from the TV original.

My story involved a European settler family in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  The hero had a Greek mother and an Angevin father and was a knight in the service of King Fulke of Jerusalem and often employed on James Bond style undercover operations.  He fell in love with the daughter of a visiting pilgrim family and long story short, returned to Europe with them when his father's brother died and he was the only living male relative.  That first teenage novel turned into a four book series - all unpublished but a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining learning curve for the writer!

When I began writing, I knew very little about the period and the life and times.  My inspiration was generally hormonal linked to a natural delight in romantic tales of adventure and derring do, and I didn't have much idea of the historical background.  However, I wanted my tale to feel as real as possible and that meant I needed to embark on the research.  For my Christmas present when I was 15 I asked for Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades volume 1.  Although that work is now outdated and considered dubious in places, It still gave a marvellous overview  to a 15-year-old and helped me to structure the novel by showing me the adventure in the political events.
However, it wasn't just the political history that I needed. I had to know what sort of clothes people wore and whether the clothes differed when it came to social rank. What colours did they wear? What were the dyestuffs? What was the difference in fashions between Europe and the Middle East? What did they eat? When did they eat? How did they eat? What were their beliefs about the food they ate?(the table of humors for example where if you were elderly it was viewed as not a good thing to eat pears or lampreys because they were so cold and moist on the table of food properties that they might put out your fire!) What were their social attitudes? How did they address each other? What was their attitude to marriage? To sex? To childbirth? What was their attitude to hygiene? How often did they realistically bathe? Did they immerse themselves? How tall were they? What sort of money did they use?  How was it made and transported?  Did they have pockets?  What were their horses like? Their dogs? What sort of names did they give those dogs and horses? What sort of names did they give themselves?   What were their swear words? And so on and so forth.

One of the first books I read to get me clued up on my hero's weaponry was the fabulous Archaeology of Weapons by Ewart Oakeshott. This is where I learned that a sword of the mid to early 12th century wasn't some great heavy weapon as I'd imagined from reading other novels and watching film and TV, but actually a balanced thing of beauty weighing no more than between two and three pounds. I discovered also that my hero's horse wasn't some magnificent beast standing 17 hands high, but far more likely to resemble a modern small, strong Andalusian horse or a Welsh cob. At every turn As I delved into the research material I was having my preconceptions knocked off their pedestals. Yes people bathed. No people did not use spices to disguise the taste of rotten meat - which makes complete sense when you think of how expensive spices were. The only people putting spices on their foods would be the well off, and no well off person was going to eat rotten meat. Yes, people drank water. Yes they wore colours beyond brown and grey.

It was one of the things I loved -  having my preconceptions and the things I had been told at school or in popular history, challenged and either debunked or fleshed out with entire new vistas of information. The more I read and studied, the more I discovered and the more interested I became, and the more I wanted to write about my chosen period.

Historical novelists by the very nature of what they do Must have a wide ranging background knowledge of the period about which they write. The more that is known and understood, the closer to one's characters one becomes. The aim is to become a native speaker rather than a tourist passing through. Script writing guru Robert McKee says in one of his lectures on script writing that the author must know his or her imaginary world as well as they know the one in which they live and this is so true for historical novelists. It doesn't mean that an author should  dump all the information they  garner into a novel, but it does mean that their background knowledge will inform the choices made when writing the novel. The more an author knows about their characters - what they are likely to have thought and felt based on wide-ranging background research  into their lives and times, the closer they will come to them and the more the readers will feel that connection. Awareness will flow organically to become a seamless part of the writing.

Rather than being specialists in certain areas ( although of course we may have those specialisations), we have to be Jacks and Jills of all trades and know a lot across a very broad spectrum.

 I thought I would finish by posting 10 books from my research shelf of thousands collected down that years, that address some of the questions I posed in paragraph 3. You can never have too many books - although I could certainly do with more bookshelves! 

Elizabeth Chadwick is one of the U.K.'s bestselling writers of historical fiction. Her latest work is a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine.