Friday 28 August 2020

Phoebe Anna Traquair by Adèle Geras

This is a self -portrait of the Scottish artist,  Phoebe Anna Traquair.  Until about eighteen years ago, I had never heard of her and when I mention her name, very few people in England know who she is. Although she was born in Dublin in 1852, she's associated with Scotland and in particular with Edinburgh where she lived with her husband, Ramsay Traquair, a professor of palaeontology  She is an artist of the most astonishing variety and as well as her murals, she illustrated books, designed jewellery and created the most beautiful embroideries. She died in 1936.
Many years ago, I received a Christmas card, with a beautiful image of angels on it. I made a note of Traquair's name, and of the fact that the image was from the Song School of a Cathedral in Edinburgh. And I put it in the box where I keep all images I can't bear to throw away. Then, in 2009, I was a speaker at the Edinburgh Literary Festival.
 To cut a long story short, we found the Catholic Apostolic Church. It is now a wedding venue called the Mansfield Traquair Centre and I do urge anyone who can to make every effort to see it in real life. 

When we visited, the place was quite empty. Only the building itself was there to wonder at. The walls were covered with most beautiful murals, illustrating for the most part, the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. I fell in love with Traquair's images at that point and determined to find out what I could about the woman who painted them.

Flash forward many years. Much happened. We moved to Cambridge. My husband died. I decided to write a different sort of novel under a pseudonym: Hope Adams. My first novel under this name, Dangerous Women, comes out from Michael Joseph (and Berkeley in the USA)  in February next year, and that's about the Rajah Quilt. I have written about it on this blog.

What I do in the Hope Adams books is: I superimpose a fictional story, invented entirely by me, on to what's known about a real artist. In the case of Dangerous Women, it was Kezia Hayter, and when I began thinking about what I could do next, my thoughts immediately turned to  Phoebe Anna Traquair.

I bought a book by Elizabeth Cumming, called  Phoebe Anna Traquair, 1852-1936,  published by the National Galleries of Scotland and in 2019, I made a trip with Helen Craig to Edinburgh and met Elizabeth, who showed us round the Mansfield Traquair Centre and told us  much both about the artist and the way she went about the work. She has been enormously helpful to me throughout the process so far and I'm very grateful to her.  Traquair was a small woman and used a scaffold to reach the enormously high spaces.  The thought of her, in her overall, and with her red hair bound up in a cap, covering that vast space with beautiful images was fascinating and moving. 

In the 1880s and 1890s, mural decoration was an art form much admired by the Art and Crafts movement. Traquair was part of a thriving artistic community in Edinburgh and beyond. 

Between 1885 and 1901  she worked on the decoration of three Edinburgh Buildings: the Mortuary Chapel of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, (later moved to a new hospital and repainted), the Song School at St Mary's Cathedral and lastly, the Catholic Apostolic Church in Mansfield Place.

This is an image from the Song School and when I saw it,  I recognised the scarlet-winged angels from that long ago Christmas card. 

I am now in the process of  working out my fictional story with which the work and life of this marvellous, under- recognised artist will be entwined. The title is there already, I think, though nothing is ever fixed till it's fixed. Her Scarlet Wings is what the book is called at this stage....I'm looking forward to spending the next few months with these images in front of my eyes. 

Friday 21 August 2020

Five New Historical Novels for Young People Sheena Wilkinson

Five years ago this week my first historical novel, Name upon Name, was published, thus fulfilling a long-held dream. If I’d known then that it would be the first in a trio of books about young women coming of age during the turbulent years of early 20th-Century Ireland, I’d have been even more delighted. 2017’s Star by Star was my most successful book ever, and then, earlier this year, came Hope against Hope. In two of my historical novels, the main characters are deeply affected by a pandemic (Spanish Flu). I could have had no idea that Hope against Hope would be launched in the middle of one, and that every event scheduled to promote the book would be cancelled. And of course, set against the prevailing worries about Covid-19 and the state of the world, this is a small concern. Isn’t it funny how writing about crisis is much more fun than living through it?


My trilogy of historical novels 

Obviously I’m not alone. Hundreds of books have been, or are about to be launched during this time. Authors, being creative folk, are doing wonderful things online, and generally finding ways to keep their particular baby afloat, but it’s very hard, and nothing beats the actual book launch and the real-life event. We all need help from our friends, and so this blog post I’m giving love to some wonderful historical novels for young people which have been – or are just about to be – published during Covid-19. I know all the authors, and I make no apology for that! They don't know I'm featuring their books, though, so I hope they get a pleasant surprise. 


Chasing Ghosts – Nicola Pierce (O’Brien Press)


This is an enthralling novel about Franklin’s 1845 ill-fated Arctic voyage to find the fabled North-West Passage. Thousands of miles away in Ireland, Ann and brother William are convinced that the spirit of their dead sister Weesy is haunting them. Nicola Pierce is well known for her ability to weave fascinating, spooky tales around real-life events, and the way she brings these two separate stories together is masterful. This is a moving and epic story. I’d known very little about the Franklin voyage apart from in folk songs, and the story was even more heart-breaking than I had imagined.

On Midnight Beach – Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (Faber)

Funnily enough this book is also related in my mind with song. Set in the hot summer of 1976, which is long enough ago to count as historical even though I remember it, On Midnight Beach is a reimagining of a famous Irish legend, the Táin, or Cattle Raid. I knew the story of the Táin from a 1973 album of that name by Irish folk-rock group Horslips. On Midnight Beach is a piercing love story set against a sweeping background of sea caves, a mysterious dolphin and the intense passions of a small community. A really original read. 


The Boldness of Betty – Anna Carey (O’Brien Press)

Anna Carey, like me, has written widely about young women in early-20th-Century Ireland, specifically the Irish Suffragettes. The Boldness of Betty is about the1913 Dublin Lockout. When Betty has to leave school at fourteen to work in a cake shop, she doesn’t imagine that she will end up on a picket line, playing her part in the most defining incident in Irish labour history. Like all Anna Carey’s novels, The Boldness of Betty is meticulously researched, with a lovely lightness of touch. 



Kicking Off – Eve Ainsworth (UCLAN Press)

Again, this is very much ‘my’ period, so I’ve always vaguely known about the women’s football teams during World War One, whose hugely popular games raised a lot of money for the war effort. Eve Ainsworth’s story is based around the team at the Dick, Kerr munitions factory in Preston. It’s 1917 and women have got used to fulfilling some of the roles traditionally taken by men. When Hettie goes to work in the Dick, Kerr factory she gets the chance to develop her love of football, an interest she’s had to suppress until now. This is a great story of female solidarity, sport and progress. 


And finally, because I am not that altruistic, here’s a bit about my own Hope against Hope (Little Island).


It’s 1921. Ireland has been partitioned after a brutal war. Polly runs away to Belfast to escape family and community violence in her small border town. Helen's Hope hostel is a progressive space where young women live and work together - a haven of tolerance and diversity in a fractured city. But some people hate Helen's Hope and its values, and when Polly tries to bring people together, she can’t foresee the tragic consequences. 

All these books are about events of historical significance; all are about young people being caught up and responding to these events. None of them deserves to be less well-known because they were published at the 'wrong' time. I'm sure other people have 2020 historical novels they would like to show some love to. Don't hold back! 

Friday 14 August 2020

Tom Lehrer and the Cold War by Joan Lennon

Watch this, recorded in September 1967.  Does it bring back memories, or is it something new?

We Will All Go Together

Or how about this one, recorded at the same time:

So Long, Mom (A Song For World War 3)

I've been thinking about the Cold War a lot lately.  Joan Haig and I are writing a non-fiction book on 17 speeches from Abraham Lincoln to Greta Thunberg, aimed at  8-12 year-olds and called Talking History: 150 Years of Speeches and Speakers (due out from Templar in July 2021).  I've been working on a chapter on Rene Cassin and another on Yuri Gagarin and Sally Ride.  So I've been trying to find ways to present the Cold War to primary school and first year secondary school pupils in a way that makes sense.  Sadly, I realise Tom Lehrer isn't exactly the way to do that.  But it brought him back to mind - that sardonic humour - the piano playing - the voice - the smile - those eyes -

Tom Lehrer, who is 92 now, was a ferociously talented mathematician, entering Harvard aged 15 and going on to teach political science and mathematics at MIT and University of California - where he also taught a course in musical theatre.  He is alleged to have invented the Jello Shot.  He started out producing and hand selling his own records, a process of which he said, "Lacking exposure in the media, my songs spread slowly. Like herpes, rather than ebola."  He performed; he wrote; he composed; he recorded; he produced work for television comedies and academic mathematical journals; and he spoke with brilliant intelligence to a world gone crazy-stupid.

I grew up in the Cold War.  I was taught to Duck and Cover in school.  The possibility that the world might end in a nuclear holocaust was an ongoing reality.  And those are perhaps the things that made Lehrer's dark satire so vividly one of the voices of the time.  It would be interesting to know if others feel the same.  I listened to his songs with my dad; I introduced my children to Lehrer (I let them get to 15 or so first) via Poisoning Pigeons in the Park on YouTube; Joan Haig remembers her father singing Lobachevsky and The Elements around African campfires; Isaac Asimov heard Lehrer in a nightclub and quotes some of his lyrics in his autobiography.  Is he new to you, or do you have memories of your own of when you heard Tom Lehrer first?  

And, as a dark little theme song for our own times, I leave you with Lehrer's 1997 recording of I Got It from Agnes -


Friday 7 August 2020

The Idea of Justice in Historical Fiction – by Anna Mazzola

Dostoyevsky famously said: ‘The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.’ Winston Churchill said, ‘The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.’ Or, of course, it’s lack of civilisation. Look at the rising prison numbers in America and the system’s treatment of black people in particular; look at the crisis in our own criminal justice system, and you understand a lot about society and government. Look at the treatment of crime and criminals in a crime fiction novel and you’ll learn a lot about what the author is trying to say, and about the historical era in which they’re writing.

No matter what my novels are ostensibly about – and my second one is about dark folklore on the Isle of Skye, and my next one is about moving clockwork dolls and Versailles – I always end up talking in them about justice and what it means to obtain justice for the victims and survivors. That may be because I’m a criminal justice solicitor, but then again perhaps I ended up in that field because I’m fascinated by how society treats its criminals and its victims.

I’m not alone in finding the topic compelling. We all have highly personal beliefs and emotions about what constitutes a crime; when someone is responsible for their crimes; and how the legal system ought to deal with them. Defining and punishing crime, and protecting citizens from crime, are key roles of government and often lead to public debate: who should we imprison and where and how? How much of a role should victims have in the system? Are there ever circumstances where capital punishment or torture are justifiable? These are debates we’ve always had, only the answers have varied across the ages.

That leads to a rich subject to explore in fiction, where we can walk readers through a search for justice, and through the ambiguities and frustrations along the way.

Window onto the past

What constituted a crime, who constituted a criminal, and how those people were dealt with gives us a unique window onto the past. And punishment of crime can of course be one of the most terrifying uses of state power, capable of ruining lives, producing serious injustice, and sure-ing up the authority of oppressive regimes.

Part of the reason the Tudors have always held such fascination for us is the bloody and tyrannical nature of their so-called justice system, which was as much about settling scores and seeking revenge as it was about attaining justice, something which is depicted most brilliantly in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy.

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose showed us the complex and shady power exercised by the Church in the 14th century. Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy exposed the corrupt system that, in late 19th century France led to Alfred Dreyfus being false convicted of espionage, and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. Antonia Hodgson’s Devil in the Marshalsea and Sarah Waters’ Affinity showed us the injustice and inhumanity of the prisons of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The protagonist as finder of justice

As well as exploring the justice systems of the era in which they are set, many historical novels seek to attain justice or revenge or payback or some kind of catharsis for their characters within the terms of the novel.

This is of course in line with the classical detective story model, which gives us the story of the crime, followed by the story of the investigation, involving enquiry, revelation and closure. The rise of detective fiction happened at about the same time as the beginning of detective policing i.e. in the mid 19th century. If crime was the problem, then the solution was the capture and removal of the criminal. That was how justice would be achieved. So in fiction, removing the offender from the scene healed the breach in the social fabric. The problem was solved, be it by Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple or Jackson Brodie.

The assumption of the detective genre is that not only is there a motive and a true meaning to the crime, but the detective can uncover it, deliver the criminal, achieve justice and narrate the story in a form that transmits that coherence to the awaiting reader. And that is why it’s so satisfying. Because of course real crime is usually not like that, and I say this as someone whose day job is dealing with where things go wrong in criminal investigations and prosecutions. Even if a crime is reported, it may not be properly investigated. Even if it is, the Crown Prosecution Service may decide not to charge. Even if it gets to court, it may collapse. Even if a conviction is secured, the criminal may refuse to explain why they acted as they did, or the sentence they are given may fail, in the eyes of the victim, to reflect the severity of their crimes. There is rarely any neat conclusion to real criminal cases, rarely any feeling among victims that justice has been achieved and normality restored. Often the detective figures are too busy doing other things or too hampered by funding cuts, poor training and huge caseloads to go about achieving a cathartic ending for the victims.

Not so in detective fiction. Or at least, not usually. Many of the detective figures in modern historical mysteries are focussed on achieving justice for victims. ‘Justice, Sergeant Shardlake. I know you have always believed in it, and have sometimes sought it in dark corners.’ So says Lady Elizabeth to CJ Sansom’s Shardlake who is always questing to find justice for the underprivileged. The same is true of Mick Finlay’s Arrowood, forever fighting for the underdog.

Alternative forms of justice 

Of course obtaining justice within a novel does not always meaning sending the criminal to jail and throwing away the key. Particularly where the justice system is shown to be corrupt and unfair, justice may have to be achieved in a different way.

In my second novel, The Story Keeper, I wanted one of the evil characters to be punished, but – because this was the 19th century and the character was an upper class man of status - I knew there was no chance he would ever be arrested, never mind prosecuted, for sexual offences against poor girls. (Looking at some recent cases, it’s arguable things haven’t changed hugely). I spoke to an academic who suggested that, instead, I use the divorce courts that were beginning in that era: the police might not arrest the man, but his crimes could be aired in a different kind of court.

Other historical authors have found other solutions. At the end of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Maud also destroys the thing that she knows will destroy the wicked uncle who has abused her: his library. In The Crimson Petal and the White, Sugar never lives out the bloody revenge she has described in her own writings, but she frees the other woman William Rackham has tormented - his wife, Agnes - and she escapes with the little girl to whom he’s never shown any love.

In some novels, the possible injustice or unfairness of the character’s fate is the point of the novel. When Burial Rites opens, Agnes has already been convicted and sentenced to death for murder. In Jill Dawson’s Fred & Edie and Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, both based on real women, unpick the emotional climate of their times and show us – whatever the truth of these cases – these women were damned before their trials even began.

My first novel, The Unseeing, was also based on the life of a real woman, Sarah Gale, who was convicted with her lover of murder in London in 1837. The focus of the novel is whether or not she did in fact carry out the crime she is accused of and if so, why. That is because when I first read about the case I began to wonder whether – due to the inadequacies of the justice system particularly in relation to women, and particularly in relation to so called ‘fallen women’ - there had been a miscarriage of justice. One of the key themes of the novel is what constitutes justice, and the detective character, who is the lawyer appointed to investigate her appeal, must determine what justice means for Sarah.

Perfume by Suskind subverts the ‘justice must be done’ formula altogether. Grenouille escapes the scaffold for the murders he’s committed, but then pours an entire bottle of his final perfume on himself, leading to a group of criminals being so overcome by what they later claim is ‘love’ that they tear him to pieces and eat him.

The impact of the justice system

For Antonia Hodgson, author of the Thomas Hawkins series, it’s not so much about getting justice for her characters as looking at what ‘the pursuit of justice and revenge does to them, how dangerous it can be for their souls (to use an eighteenth-century term). How their life experiences and character lead them to make certain choices, and the consequences of those actions.’

In each of Hodgson’s books, Tom is confronted with a by a (real) authority figure – the Marshalsea keeper William Acton, Queen Caroline, magistrate Sir John Gonson, former chancellor of the Exchequer John Aislabie - only to discover they are self-serving, corrupt, and/ or hypocritical. ‘In a corrupt world, the question becomes - do you take justice in your own hands? How does that look, and what does it do to you?’ We see Kitty and Tom both impacted by the actions they take, and the abuses that have been done to them. By the time we reach the latest in the series, The Silver Collar, the whole question of justice and revenge becomes central - particularly in the final act. Once Jeremiah and Tom know they have found the enemy, Lady Vanhook, they have to decide what they are going to do. How do they punish her? And in fact Hodgson plays a rather clever game to bring the reader into the story. We must ask what we ourselves think is right.

Punishment without crime

And then there are novels where people are punished, but their punishments don’t fit their crimes, or they aren’t remotely guilty at all.  Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell brings offenders to account, but usually not for the crimes they’ve actually committed. People pay for crime, but not necessarily their own. And Cromwell often commits crimes of his own in order to secure their convictions – surveillance, torture, deceit, fraud. The trilogy is so fascinating because we are never quite sure who to root for – the endlessly resourceful outsider, Cromwell, or the more or less innocent but unlikeable people whose heads end up on the chopping block.

A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel’s first work of historical fiction, is a fascinating study of how what started as a just revolution became a bloody massacre, where the so-called justice system descended - by Robespierre’s era - into an arena for different factions to send each other to the Guillotine. She begins one of her chapters with this quote from Robespierre: ‘Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.’

In fact, by that point, so-called justice was terror and retribution, and it wouldn’t be long before it came for Robespierre himself.

Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. She spoke about justice and revenge in historical crime fiction at St Hilda’s Crime Fiction Festival and the video will be available until 31 August 2020. 

Featured image: 'Waiting for the Verdict' by Abraham Solomon (1857)