Friday 30 October 2020

Mr KEYNES REVOLUTION, a novel by E.J.Barnes. Interview by Penny Dolan

Mr Keynes’ Revolution

I am delighted to welcome Emma Barnes, aka E.J. Barnes, the author of MR KEYNES REVOLUTION, to the History Girls blog today. 

Emma's newly published historical novel, which I very much enjoyed, is about the intriguing relationship between the economist John Maynard Keynes and Lydia Lopokova, the talented ballerina who had danced with Diaghilev. Keynes met Lydia in London, in 1921, while she was appearing as the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty.

As someone who is lightly fascinated by the Bloomsbury Group, I admit I experienced a slightly wicked pleasure in observing, through Emma's writing, how much this romance ruffled the feathers of Keynes family of friends.  The two sisters at the heart of the Bloomsbury circle - the artist Vanessa Bell and the author Virginia Woolf -  were irritated by Lydia's forthright style and direct manners, and considered her a vulgar foreigner who danced professionally for money.

Keynes' love affairs had previously been with young men, so most of the Bloomsbury set, both male and female, hoped his new passion would fade, leaving their elite aesthetic circle unchanged, as well as still supported by Keynes quiet financial generosity.  In the novel, Lydia, who knows about hardship and poverty, wisely comments: "You mean your friends, the ones they call Bloomsbury, if they don't care for money, that's because they have plenty of it."

A particular strength of this novel is that, alongside the warm but unusual romance, a more political drama is unfolding. Emma Barnes shows Keynes - writer, academic, art lover and investor - struggling to make goverment ministers and bankers appreciate the consequences of their financial decisions. Although not a knight on a white charger,  Keynes' continuing battle against poor postwar economic choices does read quite heroically, and feels more than relevant to the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Emma, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed about your first historical novel: I'd like to ask you a few questions. 

 (Image of the artist Duncan Grant on the left, and the economist Maynard Keynes on right. Wikipedia) 

 Q. Why did you choose Keynes? What is it about his character that interested you and inspired you?

A. I'd known about Keynes' work since studying economics, first at school, and then at Cambridge University. where he still loomed very large in the landscape. But I didn't know anything about his life until I read a book called Mrs Woolf and the Servants, which rather circuitously led me to Keynes via the Bloomsbury Group. I was amazed to learn of Keynes' many gay love affairs, and sudden passion for a ballerina. I was also fascinated by his involvement in so many worlds: high finance, government, journalism, academia, the arts and Bohemia.

Above all, I felt his struggles spoke to ours. He lived in a time in which complacency about politics and economics was overtaken by crisis and extremism. Civilisation itself was under threat. His mission was a heroic one: to find a humane capitalism that could serve as an underpinning for a democratic, civilised, peaceful society. Maybe there are some pointers for us now.

 Q. Why did you choose the 1918 Paris Peace conference as the opening point of your novel? 

A: Originally I wrote a quieter start, but I loved the drama of the Paris Peace Conference: Maynard Keynes, who has been so successfully negotiating the corridors of power, suddenly has had enough. He see the politicians are failing everyone and walks out. It sets up the themes of the book: a complacent and callous establishment, and the dilemma of someone who both belongs and does not belong, but can never just walk away. 

Q. Two of the central locations of the novel - Kings College, Cambridge and  Charleston, the Bloomsbury's Sussex retreat - are beautifully described. Were you able to visit these settings specifically for your novel Mr Keynes Revolution?

A. Yes, I've stayed at Kings, and I was lucky enough to see the paintings that Duncan Grant and Vaness Bell produced for Maynard Keynes rooms. At Charleston, I fondly remember the scones in the heavenly gardens. Charleston is a work of art in itself: you can see why it was sucha haven for the metropolitan and vastly overworked Maynard Keynes.

 Cambridge - Wikipedia

Q. Much has been written in admiration of the Bloomsbury movement but I felt that your novel offers a gently humorous sideways view of the group. Vanessa, on occasions, is shown as intellectually snobbish, waspish and possessive, despite Bloomsbury's belief in liberty and sexual freedom. She is a complete contrast to Lydia, the practical "little pony" of a ballerina, comfortable in her all-too-visible skin, and at ease with both the servants and the need to make money. How did you develop your ideas about Lydia?

A. Bloomsbury were never at their best in their dealings with Lydia. In fairness, Maynard did rather hurl her into the group with little regard for how they might respond. But their response was not generous. Bloomsbury did give Maynard a  great deal though - not least, a lasting ideal of art and friendship that inspired him throughout his life.

Lydia Lopokova - Wikipedia

Lydia herself is an astonishing character. She had an amazingly colourful life, from a childhood in Tsarist Russia to stardom on Broadway and with the Ballets Russes, to love affairs, to acting Shakespeare and Ibse, to a long and eccentric old age. More than this, her spirit and originality were noted by everyone and emerge strongly in her letters.

 For those who want to read about her life I would recommend Judith Mackrell's biography, Bloomsbury Ballerina, and the published letters, Lydia and Maynard. Writing the novel, it was a challenge not to portray Lydia in a way that felt over the top. In many ways, she was larger than life, although I think the extrovert persona also disguised a degree of personal tragedy, and so I was concerned that the fictional version might appear to be a caricature. I've tried to convey her vulnerability and her courage.


Q. In your novel, Keynes romance and some of its complications are very much rounded out by the chapters written from the servants point of view. Where did this strand come from?

A. I've long  been interested in servants - my own great-grandmother was a maid. Domestic service was the biggest employer in the early twentieth century but it's a very hidden world. I've always been interested in the memoirs of servants, and also enjoyed Lucy Lethbridge's Servants. The most direct source was Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants which explores the lives of several Bloomsbury servants in detail. The character of Lottie is particularly influenced by that book. Gates alone is entirely my invention although his storyline is still inspired by historical events. 

 The relationship of servants and their employers is fascinating: intimate, sometimes affectionate but also often exploitative and filled with unexpressed resentments. For employers like Bloomsbury - trying to overturn social conventions, attempting to be progressive, yet undeniably part of a privileged elite - the relationship creates particular tensions.

Mrs Woolf and the Servants - Alison Light

Q, You mentioned writing this as a screenplay. Did that format help you when it came to writing and pacing this as a historical novel?

A. Yes and no. It meant I was familiar with the material but a novel is a very different form and written straight from a screen play would be "choppy." There's more space for introsepction, and I also had to think of historical accuracy all over again - with a screenplay, it's impossible to be completely accurate within the constraints of a two-hour script. With a novel, there's more flexibility so you need to think exactly what you are trying to achieve. A novel is usually more intimate which actually means it has covered a shorter span of time, but in more detail, than a screenplay.

Q. Which was the hardest scene to write? And your favourite scene to write?

A. The opening chapter, at the Paris Peace Conference, was a hard one in terms of it being a big historical event with a lot of detail to get right. Some of the economic discussions are also tricky because you are trying to convey quite difficult subject matter, without overwhelming the reader or losing dramatic tension. At the end of the day, economics is at the heart of what Keynes was about but economic theory rarely crops up in novels so that was a challenge!

My favourite scene is Lydia and Maynard on the Sussex Downs after the ill-fated Charleston party.(Seconded here, by the way!)

File:Charleston farmhouse - - 291473.jpg ...

Q Emma, I became very involved with your main characters and their worlds as I read on through Mr Keynes Revolution. Do you have any future plans for these characters? 

A. Yes. This novel finishes in 1925. I am working on a sequel which contains many momentous challenges for Maynard and Lydia, including a trip to Bolshevik Russia and the Great Depression. I'm enjoying it!

Emma - E.J. Barnes! - thank you for answering all my questions here on History Girls. Good wishes on this novel - and on the next.



Interview by Penny Dolan

MR KEYNES REVOLUTION by E.J.BARNES. Longlisted for The Peggy Chapman-Andrews First Novel Award . Greyfire Publishing ISBN 9780993515835 .


Friday 23 October 2020

Brunel and his family - by Sue Purkiss

I've mentioned before that I volunteer on the SS Great Britain, which sits in the dry dock where it was originally built on Bristol Harbourside. (I've also written a children's book set on the ship, Emily's Surprising Voyage.) I was there the other day, and spent part of the afternoon in one of my favourite places there, in the new museum called Being Brunel, which is about the man himself and all the other projects he worked on apart from the beautiful ship.

Part of the Duke Street Office

I was in the replica of Brunel's office in Duke Street, London - he lived in London, though he had a close association with Bristol since he came to recuperate there after a serious accident in the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which he and his father Marc were constructing beneath the Thames. Never one to be idle, he became aware of a competition to design a suspension bridge to cross the Avon Gorge - and then later, decided to tender for the new railway line to be built from London to Bristol. Then after that, he decided, with typical panache, that the next step was a passenger ship to cross the Atlantic, so that people could travel from London all the way through to New York. So he built first the Great Western, a paddle steamer - and then the immensely innovative Great Britain, noted for being built of iron, for running on steam as well as sail, for being driven by a propellor rather than a paddle wheel - and of course for its size.

The Duke Street office is a large and pleasant room. The window looks out on St James's Park. It is lined with wooden panelling, and there are, from memory, two large desks. On one of them Brunel's cigar sits ready for him to pick it up - he was an inveterate smoker, getting through more than forty a day. Letters and other papers are scattered over the desk. In one corner is a comfortable armchair, with a glass of sherry on the table beside it. On a shelf is a model of a machine which his father, another engineer, had designed to facilitate the production of the wooden blocks required to operate sails. Family was very important to Brunel, and his father was a great influence.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

It feels as if he has just gone out of the room, and might wander back in at any minute. He feels very close. Mind you, if he did appear, it could well be very disconcerting (apart from for the obvious reasons). He was an impatient man who could be irascible: one of my favourite quotes is something he wrote to an associate whose work he deemed to be inadequate: "You have wasted more of my time than your whole life is worth!" He drove himself mercilessly, and he expected similar dedication from others. Probably he sensed, towards the end of his life, that his time was unusually limited: he died when he was only fifty three.

I'm very interested in the extent to which history is affected by charismatic individuals. That was partly why I was drawn to King Alfred, about whom I also wrote a book, Warrior King. Certainly, if Brunel had not had the character he did, the Great Britain would not have been built in the way that it was. The fact that it was successfully constructed from steel meant, counterintuitively, that ships could be bigger: there is a line that directly connects the vessels which carry goods around the world today with Brunel's ship. It meant that that they could carry sufficient coal to power steam engines, which would carry them further and faster. (Though at this point in time, as we slowly begin to realise what we are doing to the environment, we may wonder about whether this was or was not 'a good thing'...)

Marc Brunel

But as I chatted to visitors about Sir Marc's machine, and about how different in character the two of them - both brilliant engineers - were, I realised that my interest in the Brunels is not just down to their engineering achievements. I'm interested in the family, and I'd like to know more about it. In his portraits, Sir Marc looks like a much more genial character than his son was; there's a glint of humour in his eyes. He was French, but was on the wrong side of the Revolution and so had to leave his country, spending some time in America before eventually arriving in Britain, where he was reunited with an English girl, Sophia, whom he had met in France during those turbulent years. Their marriage was evidently a long and very happy one.

Colleagues at the ship, who know far more about engineering than I do (not difficult), think that Marc was actually the more innovative, creative engineer of the two. But he seems to have lacked the drive of his restless son; he had brilliant ideas, but he didn't have a sure hand when it came to making money - and was indeed in a debtors' prison at one stage, where his loyal Sophia joined him.

Sophia Hawes

He was a devoted father. There are letters and diary entries that show this. There's one from his daughter Sophia, where she fondly remembers how her father would take the children for walks and teach them to observe nature, and then go back home and draw it: there's a lovely drawing of a horse which Isambard did at at the age of six. Sophia says wistfully something to the effect that of course Isambard, being a boy, was able to pursue his studies seriously: she, a girl, could only do so up to a point.

Also in Being Brunel there is a replica of Brunel's dining room, where there are three talking portraits. One is of Sophia. She speaks fondly of her brother, to whom she was evidently very close - he spent a great deal of time at the home she shared with her husband, Sir Benjamin Hawes.

I'm intrigued by Sophia, but there doesn't seem to be a huge amount of information available about her. There's even less about the middle child, Emma: and very little about Brunel's wife, Mary. Hm... I wonder...

Friday 16 October 2020

Nostalgia, or, Be careful what you wish for

by Susan Vincent

I often find myself yearning for the past. Not for a time of personal recollection and experience, but for The Past, a lost time of history.

As a child I read voraciously, historical novels a speciality. My favourites were those where the protagonist slipped through the boundary between then and now, and pitched up in another time. Compared to the past, the here and now can seem so unsatisfactory, so rushed and uncertain, so disappointing.

On all sides I am assailed by a sense of loss, the ‘now’ falling short from the pre-lapsarian ‘once-was’: fewer birds and animals, the ice caps in retreat, even a dwindling of the darkness, harried into the few remaining parts of the planet as yet unlit. I am even thinking nostalgically of the famous passage from Ecclesiastes, ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’. The reaping and sowing, the building up and breaking down seem now to have been replaced by a solitary time of unending consumption.

Compared to this, the past looks measured and well-run, with predictable, proper seasons, a clear social order, and vintage homewares like those sold in National Trust shops.


Frequently I feel as though I don’t fit in the now; I was born out of my time. And if you’re reading a blog about History, chances are you feel that too.


Maybe we all have a period that we yearn for more than any other. The one that captures my imagination and nostalgia – the one that I long to experience – are the interwar years. Basically, I want to go on holiday in the 1920s and 1930s.

This might seem like an odd period to pitch up into, but just look at its advantages. As a dress historian, I’ll start with the clothes: chic but simple; a new look but without the nauseating turnover of fast fashion; body adaptable but not skimpy. Thanks to the new fashion of the bob a woman could have short hair, and if she were daring enough, could even wear trousers.

But there were other things possible for a woman in this period too. She could go to school and even university. She could vote (full suffrage in 1928), divorce on equal grounds (1923 Matrimonial Causes Act), and thanks to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, earn her living in the professions. And since I’m also a bit of a Golden Age detection junkie, we may as well add that she could become an all-time best-selling crime author. (Thank you Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey…)


There were also aspirins, luxury ocean liners, English villages straight off a chocolate box, and sensible brogues for country walking.





But this is all rubbish of course. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nostalgia - that desperate, sweet longing for an unattainable place or time – was considered to be a disease. In the twentieth century we turned it into a marketing opportunity. It is a longing that we now both assuage and nurture with heritage visits and retail therapy. But as yearningly pleasurable as nostalgia is, I think there is something to be said for its earlier pathologizing.

Obviously, having your eyes fixed on a distant horizon means you’re blind to the here and now – including to all its advantages and joys and beauty.

But it is also bad history, for the yearning gaze sees only what it wants to. Let’s face it, if I were magically transported back I would not cruise the Atlantic, look fashion-plate perfect, or live what I consider to be an emancipated life. I would have fewer opportunities, miss modern dentistry, and be bereft without trainers. There may have been corncrakes in every field, but the cities were also clogged with choking smoke. My view of the interwar years conveniently starts up after the Spanish flu, pans quickly over the maimed WWI servicemen begging on the streets, ignores the Depression, and very handily stops short of the next war. I am blind to incalculable loss and past trauma.

And perhaps the most important thing that I need to remember is that while I look to a golden past, so did that very past look back and itself yearn for an earlier time. Where I see certainty and a wonderful retro-design aesthetic, the interwar years were experienced very differently by those who lived them. This was a time of self-conscious newness, jagged and uncompromising. The First World War had shorn the world from the past and in its place was modernity: angular, fast, and utterly different from old fuddy-duddy bewhiskered Victorianism. And where I see a rural, unchanging paradise, contemporaries experienced a swamping tide of technology and suburban expansion.

Take electricity for instance. When Stanley Baldwin announced plans for the National Grid in 1926, it released the slow march of pylons. This was bitterly contested, especially in areas of the countryside renowned for their beauty. In a letter to The Times in 1929, W.H. Cormack of Mungrisdale Vicarage called the pylons a ‘hideous disfigurement’ on the Lakeland scenery. Electricity, he said, was not even needed: ‘in the country we get on very well with oil’ (The Times, 6 July 1929).

The following year, 1930, a correspondent from Kent deplored plans that would leave ‘all lovers of our beautiful country, all lovers of history and tradition’ mourning a landscape that ‘will be utterly ruined’. He suggested siting the proposed pylons next to the London to Folkestone road, which had already sprouted ‘the usual crop of bungalows, petrol pumps, tea shops, and advertisements for Continental watering places’ (The Times, 16 January 1930). Where I look back on quaintness and romance, all Lewis Biggs of Treetops in Wrotham could see was nasty new-builds, brutal modernity, and ugly commerce. 

So what’s the moral?

One. I need to remember that in time, others will come to see my crippling present – even with a global pandemic – as their nostalgic place of safety.

Two. Nostalgia makes for very bad history. 

And three. Be careful what you wish for.