Sunday, 25 December 2011

'God bless us, every one!'

I was trying to think of some English writing about Christmas that is not Dickens. Then I remembered that I haven't yet posted about the fact that this year is the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible.

The King James Bible was a translation into English of the original Greek texts. There could not have been a better time to commission it. The English language was experiencing its greatest flowering; Shakespeare's The Tempest was first performed in 1611.

The Bible translation was not the work of one man; there was a committee of about fifty scholars. It was not a new translation; it drew heavily on earlier work such as that of  Wycliff and Tyndale.

It is the most widely published text in the English language. It has given us a great number of phrases and sayings. Until quite recently, almost every English person would have had some familiarity with it.

And it has the greatest piece of writing about Christmas in English.

Gospel of St Luke, Chapter Two

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
([And] this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this [shall be] a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Work in Progress

I can't write directly on to the computer. Whenever I try, my sentences come out very short and stilted. It's probably because I'm not a good enough typist to be able to type without thinking about it. So everything goes down on paper in longhand first, and has to be typed up later. There have been times when I've carefully tidied my pages awaiting typing away in a safe place and then not been able to find them...

So the novel is under way, but I have no idea of the word count so far, because it's not typed yet. It's not an enormous number, though. I've spent too much time getting sidetracked into different areas of internet research.

I think that something which I'd intended to be an element of the mystery might not now fit in with the plot as it's developed. But that doesn't matter, it was only a side issue.

At the moment, it looks as if this will be written from a single point of view, that of the central female character.  That wasn't a conscious decision, but there's no other character demanding a voice.

In looking for names for characters I've come across some real life names that are almost too improbable to be used in fiction. All these people lived in England in 1881.

Mercy Bright was an eighteen year old servant. She worked for a family that had six sons living at home; I hope the boys were made to tidy up after themselves and not leave it all to her.

Mortimer Tipple was a jeweller, and only 27, but he was an inmate of Holborn Union Workhouse. He is not said to have had any disability; I hope he didn't end up in the workhouse through trying to live up to his surname.

There were several girls and women called Rose Raven. The majority were children, probably because the name Rose was only just becoming popular. One of them must have grown up to be the heroine of a romantic novel.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

This sceptred isle...

... This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house...

I've been dipping into Vanished Kingdoms, a new book by Norman Davies. Dr Davies writes about states which once existed in Europe, but which have now disappeared, remembered only by a few European history specialists. The kingdom of Montenegro was absorbed by Serbia, against the wishes of its government and people, at the end of the Great War. The republic of Carpatho-Ukraine declared its independence from Czechoslovakia in March 1939, only to be invaded by Hungary the next day.

The book reinforces my belief that we do not fully appreciate the difference that being an island has made to our history. We have in many respects been more fortunate than the 'less happier lands' referred to by Shakespeare. There are things we take for granted which people on mainland Europe have never been able to.

We cannot be invaded overland; we have never woken up to find the forces of a hostile nation massing on our frontiers.

Our borders will not change after a war, and again after the next war, and after the one after that. In Central Europe in the twentieth century, someone could have been born in the Hapsburg Empire under the Emperor Franz Josef, spent his boyhood and adolescence in Poland, lived under Nazi and Soviet rule and died in Ukraine - all without leaving his home town. 

The names of our towns and cities will not be changed to reflect the prevailing political ideology, or the language of the current ruling majority. (Streoneshalh became Whitby and Northworthy became Derby, but that was over a thousand years ago.)

For a thousand years up to the twentieth century, we could be sure that in any war other than a civil war, the fighting would take place somewhere else. We would not have bands of mercenaries roaming the country. Our towns would not be pillaged, our crops ruined and our people left starving.

In England, we take for granted that we have a system of law and government that has evolved continuously over 1500 years. It has not been overturned by conquest or revolution.

And in England we have written records going back almost as long. We assume that those records were kept (mostly) by Englishmen, (mostly) in English. We wrote the history of our own country, in our own language; unlike other European peoples, whose records were kept and whose history was written by a controlling or occupying people in a language other than their own; or whose records might have been destroyed in war, or never kept at all.

Being an island has shaped our history, the way we see ourselves, and the way we relate to others. We need to remember that fact when we try to understand ourselves, and also when we try to understand other nations and their histories.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The past is a foreign country -

but do they really do things very differently there?

William Fitzstephen, writing in the late twelfth century:
'The only problems that plague London are the idiots who drink to excess and the frequency of fires.'

Student life in Oxford and Paris is described in a biography of Richard Wych, bishop of Chichester, born in 1197: 
‘Such was his love of learning that he cared little or nothing for food or raiment. For, as he was wont to relate, he and two companions who lodged in the same chamber had only their tunics, and one gown between them, and each of them had a miserable pallet. When one, therefore, went out with the gown to hear a lecture, the others sat in their room, and so they went forth alternately. Bread and a little wine and pottage sufficed for their food. Their poverty never allowed them to eat meat or fish except on a Sunday or some solemn holy day, or else in the presence of companions or friends. Yet he has often told me how he never afterwards, in all his days, led such a pleasant and enjoyable life.’

At Westminster School in the thirteenth century, in the morning the boys were required to say their prayers ‘without shouting and confusion …. Whether they are standing or sitting in the choir let them not have their eyes turned aside to the people, but rather toward the altar; not grinning or chattering or laughing aloud; not making fun of another if he does not read or sing psalms well; not hitting one another secretly or openly or answering rudely if they happen to be asked a question by their elders. Those who break the rules will feel the rod without delay…. Again whoever at bedtime has torn to pieces the bed of his companion or hidden the bedclothes, or thrown shoes or pillow from corner to corner, or roused anger or thrown the school into disorder, shall be severely punished in the morning.

And when John Bond was contracted to build a house for Thomas Bloxwych in Temple Balsall Warwickshire in 1415, ‘sometimes he came to his work around prime (early morning) and sometimes around sext (midday).’

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged -

- that the opening lines of a novel must grab the reader's attention immediately.

Having chosen a name for my central character, and decided exactly when the story is to take place,  I'm now thinking about the first chapter.

Most editors and agents agree that the novel should begin when the action begins. So no long scenes of introspection as the heroine looks back over her life to this point (that's what flashbacks are for, after all). She needs to start her new job/meet the hero/find the body within the first few pages.

It's unlikely that the extended infodump with which Jane Austen began her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, would get it beyond the slush pile today. Nor the long and convoluted sentence with which Dickens began his first published novel:

The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.

Other authors managed to be more concise in their opening lines: 

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.

'Oh damn!' said Lord Peter Wimsey at Piccadilly Circus.

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

It started at one thirty on a cold Tuesday morning in January when Martin Turner, street performer and, in his own words, apprentice gigolo, tripped over a body in front of the East Portico of St Paul’s at Covent Garden.

Dorothy L. Sayers managed to compress the most information about character and setting into the smallest number of words. She was an advertising copywriter who knew how to get a message across succinctly.

It's desirable to include dialogue as early as possible, but that means someone has to be provided for the character to talk to.  Lord Peter is speaking to a taxi driver, who is there solely for that purpose and plays no further part in the story. 

I already know that my character will have a friend and what the friend's personality will be.  I think that instead of introducing her later, as I originally planned, she and my central character will bump into each other, and have a conversation, in the first few pages.

Now I need to decide on the friend's name  - and on the opening sentence.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month

'Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!'

February 1918
'Then we walked for miles over the duckboards till finally we got to Glencorse Wood and Polygon Wood. These consist of a few score of torn and splintered stumps only. But the view of the battlefield is remarkable. Desolation reigns on every side. Litter, mud, rusty wire and pock marked ground.... The Passchendaele ridge was too far away for us to reach but the whole immense area of slaughter was visible. Nearly 80,000 of our British men have shed their blood and lost their lives here during 3½ years of unceasing conflict.... Death seems as commonplace and as little alarming as the undertaker. Quite a natural event, which might happen to any one at any moment, as it happened to all these scores of thousands who lie together in this vast cemetery, ennobled and rendered forever glorious by their brave memory.' 

November 1918
'It was a few minutes before the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I stood at the window of my room looking up Northumberland Avenue towards Trafalgar Square, waiting for Big Ben to tell that the War was over....  And then suddenly the first stroke of the chime. I looked again at the broad street beneath me. It was deserted. From the portals of one of the large hotels absorbed by Government Departments darted the slight figure of a girl clerk, distractedly gesticulating while another stroke resounded. Then from all sides men and women came scurrying into the street. Streams of people poured out of all the buildings. The bells of London began to clash. Northumberland Avenue was now crowded with people in hundreds, nay thousands, rushing hither and thither in a frantic manner, shouting and screaming with joy. I could see that Trafalgar Square was already swarming. Around me in our very headquarters... disorder had broken out. Doors banged. Feet clattered down corridors. Everyone rose from the desk and cast aside pen and paper.... The tumult grew. It grew like a gale, but from all sides simultaneously. The street was now a seething mass of humanity.  Flags appeared as if by magic. Streams of men and women flowed from the Embankment. They mingled with torrents pouring down the Strand on their way to acclaim the King. Almost before the last stroke had died away, the strict, war-straitened, regulated streets of London had become a pandemonium.'

'I had a walk round and eventually sat on a seat on the Embankment. I must have dozed off because it was dark as I woke up, so I decided to stay put till morning. I woke as the dawn was breaking and what a sight it was. All the seats were full of old soldiers in all sorts of dress - mostly khaki - and a lot more were lying on the steps, some wrapped up in old newspapers. Men who had fought in the trenches, now unwanted and left to starve were all huddled together.'

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Past vs Present

I've been reading this blog, which is following the proposals for the redevelopment of part of Deptford. Deptford is a run down area of south east London which is certainly in need of regeneration.

However, the area which it is proposed to redevelop is historically significant. It is the site of the first Royal Dockyard which dates from the time of Henry VIII. It is also the site of Sayes Court, home of the diarist John Evelyn, and of his garden.

Those who object to the proposals argue that they do not give proper consideration to the historical importance of the area; that they risk damaging or destroying archaeological evidence;  that they do not allow for community access to and appreciation of some of the historically important aspects of the site.

Yet homes are needed, as is investment that will bring jobs to the area. How should these needs be balanced with the desire to preserve the past?

The question of past versus present can be asked elsewhere. How much should local authorities spend on archive services when services for children and the elderly may be facing cuts?

Should the owners of  historic buildings be restricted in what they can do with their properties?  Yes, it is desirable that that old buildings should be preserved whenever possible. Timber and brick are almost always more attractive than concrete.

(It would be even better if planning authorities took account of scale and context when deciding what to preserve.)  

Most houses have been altered over the years. Fireplaces and chimney stacks have replaced open hearths. Tiled roofs have replaced thatch. Extensions have been added, rooms knocked through or partitioned off or converted to different uses. New windows and doors have been fitted. Mains drainage, water, gas and electricity have been added.

Why should it be decided that at some arbitrary date in the twenty first century a building should stop evolving to meet the needs and wants of the people who live there?  

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Crime and Punishment

Anyone who writes crime fiction set in the past has to deal with the fact that capital punishment existed. I was surprised to find myself squeamish about this when deciding who my villain would be and how he or she would be discovered.

I'm usually the one arguing that things were different in the past and we must not  judge by present day standards.

I don't have a problem with killing characters by other means. I've killed off good characters and bad ones.

There are ways to avoid the issue. Have the villain run in front of a train as he tries to avoid capture; have such strong mitigating circumstances that it can be suggested that the death penalty will almost certainly be commuted (according Old Bailey Online, many death sentences were never  carried out); make the villain so irredeemably evil that no-one could feel any sympathy for him; write about crimes that did not carry the death penalty.

But that would feel like cheating (and in the case of the irredeemably evil villain,  two-dimensional characterisation). And if one is going to write historical crime, one can't avoid the issue forever.

However I choose to approach it, it must remain my problem and not become my characters'.  They are of their time and it's unlikely any of them would object to capital punishment on principle.

If one of them had a personal connection to someone who was facing the drop, however - now that would make a dramatic storyline.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

How not to be a short story writer

I rarely write short fiction. Short story writing, which requires set up, development and resolution in two thousand words or fewer, is a skill that I don't have. The novel, with a plot that takes time to work out, and a large cast of characters, is my natural medium.

However, a while ago I was inspired to write Bess, her story, linked to under 'Pages' above. It's not a story, more a slice of life or character piece. It's not at all my usual style, and I don't think it would work in a longer piece, but it demanded to be written that way.

(The next paragraph discusses the piece, so you might want to read it before reading further here.)

And even in this short (just over two thousand words) piece I have nine named characters, two who are individually described but not named, and others who are mentioned but not individually described.

What is totally lacking, however,  is a plot. The characters don't drive the action. They don't make any decisions that change the course of events. They only observe and react.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

How to teach history?

‘History [is] little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.’

‘If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.’

‘Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.’

The history teaching debate seems to have resurfaced in some areas. According to one blogger, 'schools history instils in students very little sense of what history is really about, and very few of the skills for university history ....  History is about interpretive skills and understanding other cultures.... The real, socially and culturally valuable skills of history proper can be taught regardless of the place or  period under study.'

So what matters, it seems, is not actually teaching about the past, but teaching some undefined 'skills' for which the student may or may not have a use in the future. But surely skills are useless without knowledge and context?  One would not, presumably, teach someone the skills to perform heart surgery without first teaching him or her human anatomy? Or the skills to rewire a house without teaching about electricity?  Why should it be any different for history?

It is true that in order to study history at university one does need analytical and critical skills. But the majority of people who study history at school will not go on to study it at university. Many will not even study it to the age of eighteen. Is it appropriate, therefore, to use the limited time available to teach skills that many students will never actually need, rather than to give them knowledge which will help them understand the world in which they live?

Should not the purpose of history in schools be to teach students how we came to be where we are today? That is, to teach them about the origins of our landscape, our language, our monarchy, our legal system, our parliamentary system, our Commonwealth, and may other aspects of daily life?

The idea of teaching history as a continuous narrative is also decried by some. Under the National Curriculum in schools, and with the modular approach favoured by some universities,  it is possible to go through thirteen years of school and three years of university specialising in history without studying the complete political, social and economic history of Britain.

Yet one cannot properly study historical topics and eras in isolation. One cannot understand the Second World War without studying the First. One cannot understand the causes of the First World War without going back at least as far as 1815, and arguably as far back as the ninth century. One cannot understand Henry VIII’s conflict with the Pope without looking at relations between the English monarchy and the Papacy as far back as the time of William the Conqueror. And so on.

This debate has been going on for some years and shows no sign of being resolved in the near future. It is possible that the end result will be that, as there is now a generation of English teachers who cannot punctuate, because they themselves were never taught how, there may in future be a generation of history teachers who do not know any history, because they were never taught any.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Washing Day

I was recently without a washing machine for a while. I'd forgotten what life was like before automatic washing machines; how one had to plan what to wear when, because you couldn't just wash something and have it ready to wear again a day or two later; how time consuming washing by hand was; how we had to hope for a fine day to get everything dry (if one had outdoor space to hang things out; otherwise they dripped in the bathroom for days.)

I started thinking about how my young Victorian woman character would do her laundry in about 1880.  She is single and lives alone in London in a rented room. She wouldn't be able to wash more than stockings and handkerchiefs there.

Heavy outer garments, made of wool, weren't washed They were brushed and hung up to air. Stains might be sponged or dabbed with a stain remover.

That left cotton and linen items - dresses, petticoats, underwear, nightgowns, sheets, pillowcases, towels. My character would not have more than two of any of these, three at the most, and not more than one in the wash in any week.

There might be a wash house attached to the house where she lived, or at the end of the street. There would be a copper to heat water, washtubs and a mangle. But my character has a job. I don't think she'd want the trouble of getting fuel, heating water and doing the washing herself. I think she'd have it done for her.

She would have plenty of options.  Laundress was one of the most common recorded occupations for women in the nineteenth century censuses.

Some would have worked for the commercial laundries, which operated on a large scale by about 1880.

The Beulah Laundry and Cleaning Works, in South Lambeth Road, offered its services to families, club houses, hotels, ships &c.

The Sunny Bank Laundry Company, Langley Lane, South Lambeth, guaranteed that no chemicals, soap powder or other injurious compounds were used. Linen was well rinsed and 'quite free from the usual odour.'  

Women did not only do the washing in these commercial laundries; Mrs E. J. Chapple managed the London and Provincial Steam Laundry in Battersea. 

There were also many women who took washing into their homes, returning it the following week. Women such as Mrs Harriet Cripps of 444 Old Ford Road, Bow, or Mrs Eliza Blake of  82 Deacon Street, Walworth, or Miss Mary A. Clarke of 113 Bramley Road, Notting Hill. There was a choice of French laundresses too, such as Madame Angelique Pemmers of 11 Dorset Street, Portman Square.

But I think it's most likely that my character would have an arrangement with a neighbour, whereby her laundry is included in that woman's household wash.  No money changes hands; my character repays the favour by helping the neighbour in some way.

A character's laundry arrangements don't usually need to be described in detail in a novel. But asking such apparently trivial and irrelevant questions can help to build up a picture of the world a character lives in, how she interacts with her community, what particular skills and abilities she might have and use in her day to day life.

Friday, 23 September 2011

E-publishing - or not?

Waterstone's have announced their own e-reader, to go on sale next year. Whether it will be any challenge to the dominance of the Amazon Kindle remains to be seen.

For a writer, the advantages of e-publishing are clear. It's possible to make one's work available directly to readers without going through the time consuming process of repeated submission and rejection, or taking the financial risk of self-publishing in traditional format.

Because there need be no time-lag between completion of a book and its e-publication, it's much easier for a writer to jump into the latest trend in fiction, whether it's vampires or Tudor queens or medieval crime.

Conversely, a writer who e-publishes can experiment with themes and genres currently considered unpopular by traditional publishers and agents.

A traditionally published novel is normally between 75,000 and 120,000 words. Anything shorter or longer isn't commercially viable. An e-book can be any length. Short stories, for which the traditional market is shrinking, are well suited to e-book publication.

When publishing with Kindle, the author sets the price of his or her own book, and keeps a higher percentage than when traditionally published. (E-publishing of course does not have the overheads that have to be covered by traditional publishers.)  With paperback prices now not far off £10, an e-book at £2.99 is very attractive.  Some of the most successful e-publishing authors have set their prices as low as 99p. And e-books do not go out of print; they remain available unless or until the author or publisher decides to withdraw them.

So what, if any, are the disadvantages to the writer of e-publishing?

E-publishing isn't suitable for any kind of non-fiction where illustrations, maps, charts or tables need to be displayed. The screen of an e-reader is not big enough.

So many e-books are now being published directly by their authors that a book by a new or less well known author is likely to sink without trace. Books that are not published by a known and reputable publisher will not be reviewed in newspapers or magazines. It is much more difficult to browse a list of e-books on a screen than a shelf of books in a shop or library; chance discovery by readers looking for something new is less likely, especially given the sheer quantity of books available.

We hear a lot about the reduction in the amount of editing done by publishers. But it is still the case that a traditionally published book will have been read by at least one person other than the writer, and that person will be someone who is knowledgeable about the industry as a whole and the particular genre into which the book fits.

There are many freelance editors out there, of course, and an e-publishing writer could choose to use one. But unless an e-published book was extraordinarily successful it would be a long time before it earned back the cost of a thorough professional edit.

Then there is the sense of validation that comes with the knowledge that someone else, a professional in the industry, considers one's book good enough to publish, and the satisfaction of holding the published book in one's hand, neither of which is possible with direct e-publishing.

Finally, what about posterity? A paper book may survive indefinitely. Any eighteenth century writer of Gothic romance, any early twentieth century writer of girls' books, may one day be rediscovered and republished. Their books are accessible in the copyright libraries to any student wanting to research a thesis on the history of the genre.

What will happen to e-books when the technology has moved on, the Kindles are thrown away, and there is no-one around to ensure that an author's books are available in the latest format?

And how will future researchers write the history of popular literature in the twenty-first century when so much of it will no longer be available to them?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

You learn something every day -

I was thinking of using the name Verity for a woman character in the Victorian period.  I searched for it in the 1881 Census to see how commonly used it was.

The search returned twenty eight people who had Verity as a given name. Twenty two of them were men.

Verity is a surname; there was a Yorkshire cricketer called Hedley Verity. Most, if not all, of the male Veritys were probably named after a Mr Verity of their parents' acquaintance.

Three of the six women had Verity as their second given name, not their first. They too might have been named after someone with the surname Verity.

Which leaves three girls or women alive in 1881 whose parents might have chosen the name Verity intending it to mean 'Truth'.  If I use it for my character I'll be giving her a name that was very unusual at the time, and most people, on hearing it, would probably think she was a man.  Which is a bit too much of a cliche to use as a plot point.

One difficulty with choosing a name for a Victorian-era character is that the Victorians loved short forms or pet forms of names. The Queen's three eldest children were known as Vicky, Bertie and Affie.  I don't want my character to be Kate or Lizzie or Nellie, but realistically, if her name was Katherine or Elizabeth or Ellen (or Helen or Elinor), that's what her friends would call her. So I want a name that could plausibly have been given to a girl born on the mid 1850s that can't easily be shortened or otherwise altered.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Flannelled Fools

It's  nearly the end of summer and I haven't posted about cricket. Very remiss of me, considering the England team's terrific performances in the Ashes in Australia last winter and against India at home this summer.

Cricket is not just a game of physical skill and stamina. The most successful captains are those with the best tactical skills. And then the most careful plans can be undone by the English weather.

Cricket seems to have originated in south east England. The earliest known documented reference is in a court case in Surrey in 1598. A witness recalled playing fifty years before.

In the summer of 1652 several men were indicted for 'playing an unlawful game called crickett' on several occasions in Ballfield in Cranbrook in Kent.

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 cricket was no longer unlawful, but it could be dangerous.

In April 1662 John Carely ‘being playing at a sport called cricket with David Morgan and others at Goudhurst  .... in striking at the ball thrown against his wicket with [a] cricket bat which he had then in his hand ... did strike the said David Morgan under the ear ... inflicting an injury  from which he died.’

John Carely was indicted for  murder, the charge later being reduced to manslaughter. The jury, however, found that Carely ‘had no malicious intent’ and Morgan died ‘not by any homicide.’

Cricket was played by all social classes. The cricketers at Cranbrook and Goudhurst in the seventeenth century included a gentleman, a clothier, a husbandman and a labourer.

In the mid eighteenth century the Sussex shopkeeper  Thomas Turner often watched, and sometimes played in, matches between parishes in his neighbourhood. He also occasionally had a bet on the results. He seems to have been well informed about the game, recording after one match that ‘Lindfield kept the field best and batted best in general, but could not bowl.’

The game was becoming more organised by the later eighteenth century. Thomas Turner saw a team that purported to represent the whole county of Sussex. The Marylebone Cricket Club was founded in 1787 and a year later the Laws (not Rules) of cricket were laid down.

The best known lines of cricketing poetry are probably those by Sir Henry Newbolt:

There's a breathless hush in the Close tonight -
Ten to make and the match to win -
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.

The game is a popular subject for prose writers in both fiction and non-fiction. Lord Peter Wimsey is probably the best known fictional cricketer.

Some cricketing moments have become part of the national memory. Anyone who has any interest in the game will remember where he or she was on the fourth and fifth days of the Headingley Test  in 1981. Or the moment when a large part of the nation was reduced to giggles.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

St Bartholomew's Day

24 August is St Bartholomew's Day.

It is the anniversary of the Battle of Sandwich, otherwise the Battle of St Bartholomew's Day, fought in the English Channel between the French and the English in 1217.

The English were led by Hubert de Burgh, who had sixteen or eighteen large ships and twenty smaller ones under his command.

The French fleet was probably twice the size of the English, but since it was carrying reinforcements and supplies for the invading force already in England, the ships were overloaded and not easily manoeuvred.

The French fleet was commanded by Eustace the Monk, a notorious pirate and mercenary who also dabbled in magic. Eustace made his fleet invisible to the English, so that it could slip past them and enter the Thames Estuary and proceed to London.

However, Stephen Crabbe, a Winchelsea man, was also a student of magic. Despite Eustace's enchantment, he could see the French ships. He leapt aboard Eustace’s ship and struck off his head, whereupon the French fleet became visible again.

A storm raised by the intervention of St Bartholomew scattered the French fleet and left the English unharmed.

More plausibly, it is suggested that when the two fleets came to close quarters the English threw barrels of powdered lime onto the decks of the French, blinding them. Then Eustace’s ship was captured and Stephen Crabbe did indeed behead him on the deck. About twenty French ships were captured, the remainder retreating to Calais.

The Chapel and Hospital of St Bartholomew were founded in Sandwich to commemorate the victory.

Bartholomew Fair was held at Smithfield, on the edge of the City of London, from 1133.

As well as cloth merchants and traders in other commodities from all over England and further afield, the Fair attracted ballad sellers, tumblers, gamblers, conjurers, quacks, cheapjacks, doxies, cozeners, coney catchers, cutpurses, pickpockets, rogues and vagabonds. Many travelled long distances to be at the Fair, providing a headache for local authorities.

The Fair was used as the setting of a play by Ben Jonson in 1614.

By the nineteenth century, fairs as centres of large scale trade were becoming obsolete as other methods of distribution developed. The respectable merchants no longer came and Bartholomew Fair became increasingly vulgar and riotous. The last Fair was held in 1854; it was abolished by the City authorities in 1855.

The proceeds of tolls from the Fair went to the Priory and Hospital of St Bartholomew, founded in 1123. The Priory was dissolved in 1539. The Hospital was refounded, endowed, and its administration given to the City of London, in 1547.

The churches of St Bartholomew the Great and St Bartholomew the Less survive from the medieval period, but otherwise the earliest surviving buildings of Barts Hospital date from the eighteenth century.

Barts has now amalgamated with other London hospitals, but continues to operate from its Smithfield site.

In fiction, it is best known for the fact that John Watson met Sherlock Holmes in a laboratory there.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Subscribing to this blog

Some technical notes for anyone who would like to be notified when this blog is updated: at the foot of the page is the option to subscribe to the Atom feed. For anyone using Internet Explorer, this will display in the Favorites bar at the left hand side of the window. There are also options to sign up to receive notifications by e-mail.

And for something more literary, one great English poet, Kipling, writes about another:

The Coiner

Against the Bermudas we foundered, whereby
This Master, that Swabber, yon Bo'sun, and I
(Our pinnace and crew being drowned in the main)
Must beg for our bread through old England again.

For a bite and a sup, and a bed of clean straw,
We'll tell you such marvels as man never saw,
On a Magical Island which no one did spy
Save this Master, that Swabber, yon Bo'sun, and I.

Seven months among Mermaids and Devils and Sprites,
And Voices that howl in the cedars o'nights,
With further enchantments we underwent there.
Good Sirs, 'tis a tale to draw guts from a bear!

'Twixt Dover and Southwark it paid us our way,
Where we found some poor players were labouring a play;
And, willing to search what such business might be,
We entered the yard, both to hear and to see.

One hailed us for seamen and courteous-ly
Did guide us apart to a tavern near by
Where we told him our tale (as to many of late),
And he gave us good cheer, so we gave him good weight.

Mulled sack and strong waters on bellies well lined
With beef and black pudding do strengthen the mind;
And seeing him greedy for marvels, at last
From plain salted truth to flat leasing we passed.

But he, when on midnight our reckoning he paid,
Says, "Never match coins with a Coiner by trade,
Or he'll turn your lead pieces to metal as rare
As shall fill him this globe, and leave something  to spare...."
We slept where they laid us, and when we awoke
Was a crown or five shillings in every man's poke.
We bit them and rang them, and, finding them good,
We drank to that Coiner as honest men should!

Saturday, 20 August 2011

To plan or not to plan?

Fiction writers are firmly divided into two schools of thought; the planners and the non-planners. The planners believe in having every detail of a novel worked out before they start writing, sometimes to the point of knowing exactly what will happen in every scene.

The non-planners literally make it up as they go along. Some crime writers do not even know who the villain will be when they begin writing. I'm definitely a non-planner, although perhaps not so extreme as some.

When I start writing I always know who my main characters are, what the main conflict of the story will be,  and have at least some idea of how it will be resolved. But I don't know exactly how the story will unfold.

Two things, however, are essential before I can start writing.

I have to get the main characters' names right. I once changed the name of my central character because I thought the name I'd initially chosen was over-used. It took me a while to get used to her new name, and with it her character developed differently from how I had originally imagined her.

In historical fiction, I have to know exactly when the novel is set. Historical fiction centred on particular events, or a real person's life,  is of course tied to specific dates. But if that isn't the case, how does a historical fiction writer decide exactly when a story should take place?

When I began a previous piece of work, I knew the story had to be set in the late eighteenth century,  because that was when conditions existed for the story I wanted to tell. I decided to set it specifically in the autumn and winter of 1792-93,  just before Britain went to war with Revolutionary France. The impending war heightened some of the tensions and conflicts within the story, and the autumn weather, combined with the physical setting, could be used to establish the mood.

I'm just in the very early stages of thinking about another piece of work. The inspiration came from a passage in a book published in 1879, but the story could be set a few years either side of that.

Since it's to be a crime story, set in London, I don't want to go as late as 1888, as I don't want to have to deal with (or ignore) the Whitechapel murders. I also don't want to overlap with the Sherlock Holmes canon; the first story,  A Study in Scarlet, was set in the early 1880s and published in 1887.

I also have the impression that the 1870s are less used as a setting for fiction than the 1880s, so the earlier decade might be a good choice.

The year and even the month will be important as technology, and the
geography of London, were changing rapidly in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1874 my character could have seen the demolition of Northumberland House, the last of the great noblemen's palaces which had once lined the Strand, followed by the construction of Northumberland Avenue.

From 1878 she might have seen a telephone in operation in London. The Royal Albert Dock was opened in 1880, the Circle Line was completed in 1884; in the years preceding my character could have seen them being constructed.

Quite possibly, as I research the period, I'll discover something that was happening in London at this time which I can use in my plot, which will determine the precise date the action takes place.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Does it matter?

When does criticism of a writer's work cease to be reasonable and become nit-picking?

In a novel set in 1797, two army officers are returning, on horseback,  to Woolwich, from a country house in Kent, described as being forty miles from London, south of the Maidstone road. They are riding up Shooter's Hill.

They halted at the top of the hill beside a curious, triangular tower....
'What is this thing?' asked Whittington, looking up at the tower....
'It's a memorial to a man called Sir William James..'

Except that Sir William's memorial, Severndroog Castle,  isn't at the side of the road as one goes over Shooter's Hill, or even, nowadays at least, visible from the road.  I can't help feeling the author has confused it with another tower, an early twentieth century water tower, which  actually is at the side of the road at the summit of Shooter's Hill. (Google brings up yet a third tower,  the water tower of the former Brook Hospital just beyond  Shooter's Hill to the west.)

Aside from this confusion of towers,  if these two gentlemen were returning to Woolwich via the Maidstone road, they should not have been on Shooter's Hill at all.

Does any of this matter?  Only a few readers would pick up on these points. None of it has any impact on the plot. The point of the journey was  to provide an opportunity for the two characters to have a conversation, which they could as easily have had at an inn  while eating and resting their horses. The mention of Severndroog doesn't seem to serve any plot or character related purpose at all. While I was briefly thrown out of the story, my overall enjoyment of the novel wasn't spoiled. 

On the other hand, while these might be minor nitpicks, they are errors that need not have been made. Maps, both current and historical, are easily available, in print and online, for working out journeys. Sometimes travellers' descriptions of particular roads exist. If this author had wanted a near-contemporary account of the Maidstone road, she could have referred to the Torrington Diaries of 1781-94.

But how far is it necessary for an author to go in researching these minor points? Do small mistakes cause readers to lose confidence in an author's research into major plot elements even if, as in the case of this novel, it appears to be thorough and detailed?  Of course novelists should aim for accuracy in what they write, and a failure in research which rendered a plot implausible or impossible would matter. But readers should probably be forgiving of minor errors, as long as a book does not contain too many of them.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Bank Holiday Monday

The first Monday  in August used to be Bank Holiday Monday, the high point of the summer holiday season for many English people. (But not all; parts of the North of England and the Midlands had different traditional holiday arrangements.)

Christmas Day, Good Friday and Whit Monday had traditionally been observed as holidays in England.  It was said that ‘Saint Monday’ was also widely observed by the English labouring classes.

In 1871 the government passed the Bank Holidays Act, which added 26th December (Boxing Day), Easter Monday, and a new holiday, the first Monday in August, to the existing traditional days. Banks would be closed, and so any business involving financial transactions would perforce have to close also.   

According to The Times, the ‘holyday’ was devised for the benefit of the lower middle class, who inhabited ‘the rows of small houses which extend for miles through the suburbs of London,’ from among whom ‘the vast army of bank clerks’ was drawn. Hitherto they had been overlooked by legislators and  philanthropists. ‘It is not for them that taxes have been taken off, schools founded, or suffrages extended.’

The new holiday was an immediate success. The Times reported that ’the early morning trains to the country and the Southern seaside resorts were crowded and the favourite exhibitions in London were frequented by innumerable sightseers.’

The local newspaper in one south eastern seaside resort reported ‘we are overcrowded, invaded and threatened with famine … On Saturday, Sunday and Monday last every nook and corner was filled. In vain respectable people applied for lodgings …. Monday was a holiday under the new Act and we had forgotten all about it. Our rooms were not reserved, our bread and beef had been supplied only in the customary quantities. When the rush of excursionists came - over 700 in one train -  we were overwhelmed and the excursionists were starved.’

It was said that in London neither the railway companies nor the steamboat companies could cope with the rush to the seaside that weekend. Passengers on boats were packed like sardines, all the food on board being sold out within ten minutes. Travellers arriving at Charing Cross at eight o’clock in the morning had to wait two hours to get on a train.   

England might stop on a Bank Holiday weekend, but world events did not. Bank Holiday Monday in 1914 was 3rd August. On that day Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. The British government declared that the banks would remain closed the following day also, in order to avoid a financial panic. 

As paid holidays became the norm, Bank Holidays became less significant. But the first weekend in August remained the time when many people took their two weeks summer holiday. As car ownership became more common, for many the Saturday of the Bank Holiday weekend was notable for the hours spent sitting in traffic jams.

In 1965, in an attempt to spread the holiday rush more evenly, the Bank Holiday was moved to the last Monday in August, initially on an experimental basis. The change was made permanent in 1971, one hundred years after the holiday was first introduced. Also in the early 1970s, the advent of the cheap package holiday to Spain changed the English holiday trade forever, and marked the end of prosperity for many English seaside resorts.   

Thursday, 28 July 2011

'It put Liverpool on the map.'

What did?

Liverpool FC's tremendous run of success under Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish, three Scotsmen who made a significant contribution to sport in England?

The Cavern Club, where the Mersey Sound originated, where the Beatles began their careers, changing the face of pop culture and setting the tone for the Swinging Sixties?

Was it the Liverpool to Manchester Railway, the first railway line built to connect two major cities and the first purpose built passenger railway (famous also for what happened to the government minister William Huskisson on the opening day)?

Or was it the Port of Liverpool and its trade? In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries millions of bales of cotton were imported through Liverpool, feeding the cotton mills of Lancashire, which along with coal and iron formed the basis for the nation's industrial power. Liverpool was also one of the principal tobacco ports.

Liverpool was also the principal English port involved in the Triangular Trade, shipping enslaved people from West Africa to North America and the Caribbean.

The Port of Liverpool played a vital role in the Second World War, being the destination of many of the merchant shipping convoys which brought vital supplies from America and elsewhere. The city was heavily bombed in an attempt to disrupt the work of the port.

No, it was none of those things that 'put Liverpool on the map'. It was a soap opera.

At the risk of sounding like a Grumpy Old Woman, this is the kind of trivialisation that sees celebrities and fictional characters given equal status to people with real achievements to their credit. It shows a lack of historical perspective; nothing beyond the memory of the person speaking counts. In public votes for the Top 100 of anything, results are always overloaded with recent examples, whatever their relative merit.

Present day ways of thinking and doing things are always superior to the past. Or, alternatively, people in the past always thought exactly the same as people in the present day. In historical fiction, characters who don't share modern values are often presented unsympathetically. The context in which people in the past thought and acted is not considered.

Television presenters reinforce these attitudes by suggesting, for example, that people in the 1920s and 1930s had poor quality of life because they did not have washing machines, televisions and computers. Whereas many people moving in to their new houses with bathrooms and inside toilets, with access to radio and the cinema, considered themselves to have a much better standard of living than their parents and their grandparents.

The first thing a history teacher, or a writer of historical fiction, must convey is that things were different in the past.  Most people were not stupid or ignorant or cruel. Most of them did the best they could with what they had and what they knew.

And if we are talking tv, for my generation, this was the show that 'put Liverpool on the map'. And this was the song. 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Lord have mercy upon us

In the seventeenth century those words painted on the door, along with a red cross,  indicated a household that was ‘visited’ with the plague, otherwise referred to as the sickness, the infection or the visitation. 

Summer was plague time in England from 1348 to 1666. Bubonic plague   flourished in hot weather; even if there are no other indications, burials rising in June, July and August and falling again in the autumn are an infallible indicator of a plague outbreak.
The first known plague epidemic in England (although not the first known  in Europe) occurred in the year 664. It killed, among others, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Deusdedit.  The next known outbreak was in 1348-50. This is the epidemic commonly known as the Black Death. Over the whole of Western Europe, the Black Death is thought to have killed between a third and a half of the population. It took the population of England two hundred years to recover, with a consequent impact on English society and economy.

After 1348 there was probably a plague outbreak somewhere in England every summer, and a major, countrywide epidemic every twenty or thirty years or so. 1563 and 1603 were particularly bad years.

The epidemic in London in 1665-66 is the best known, largely because it was so vividly described by Samuel Pepys, who remained in London throughout. Thomas Vincent, a contemporary of Pepys’, wrote:

'People fall as thick as leaves in the autumn … now shops are shut in, people are very rare and few that walk about, in so much that the grass begins to spring up in some places, and a deep silence in almost every place … no prancing horses, no rattling carriages, no calling in customers or offering wares … Now in some places not one house in a hundred but what is infected, and in many houses half the family is swept away; in some the whole from the eldest to the youngest.’

The custom of shutting up sick and well people together in their houses was based on lack of understanding of how the disease was transmitted. Some towns had pest houses where infected people could be taken, but allowing people to stay in their homes was considered more humane than taking them away and placing them in isolation.

Families that were shut up were not completely abandoned. The parish authorities saw that they were supplied with food.

The consequence, however, was that entire families could be wiped out. In the 1603 epidemic in Maidstone, William Hamon died, followed by his children Thomasine, Mercie, Joseph and Ann. The only survivors were another son, Thomas, and William’s apprentice.

For reasons that aren’t completely understood, the 1665-66 epidemic was the last in England, although there were isolated outbreaks for a few years afterwards. On the Continent, outbreaks of bubonic plague continued into the eighteenth century. But the ending of bubonic plague in England was one of the factors which made possible the rapid population growth of the eighteenth century,  helping to provide the conditions in which the Industrial Revolution could take place.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Earning a Living - 1945

GERMANY CAPITULATES! declared the front page of the Daily Telegraph on V.E. Day, 8 May 1945.

Obviously writers of historical fiction must know the big events which shaped the lives of their characters. How might the characters in a novel have celebrated V. E. Day?

 If in London, might they have been out mingling with the crowds in the streets? Or would they have stayed quietly at home, listening to the King and Mr Churchill on the wireless?

But day to day life goes on, even while great events are taking place. It’s the details of every day life which are of most importance in researching the lives of people in the past.

Page two of the Daily Telegraph on 8 May 1945 carried the Situations Vacant. No doubt many service men and women, hoping to be demobbed before too long, read these advertisements with interest.

There were plenty of opportunities for travelling salesmen, with companies looking forward to post-war development.

A ‘well known West London Dance Hall’ was looking for a General Manager aged between 30 and 40 who ‘must have sound experience in controlling crowds and staff, with a knowledge of accountancy.’

The Isle of Wight County Press wanted a journalist with ‘good provincial experience.’ The post was ‘war temporary’ but could become permanent.   ‘Preferably a disabled ex-service man.’

Despite rationing, there were still opportunities in retail for women. Fortnum and Mason required a junior saleswoman in their perfumery department.

Pontings of Kensington wanted an experienced Corsetiere to ‘live in or out’; in the past women staff of department stores, especially the teenaged apprentices, were often accommodated in the attics above the sales floors.

Other jobs in fashion and retail were advertised by Derry and Toms of Kensington and Netta Gowns Ltd of New Bond Street. At the opposite end of London, Hammerton’s of Green St, Upton Park, wanted a ’Lady Buyer’ for Coats, Gowns and Millinery.

Office work was the other main area of employment for women advertised in the Telegraph. Some advertisements stated ‘5 day week’ or ’No Saturdays’ - a reminder that many offices worked on Saturday mornings.

Posts for office juniors aged 14-16 were plentiful. The girl (or, sometimes, the boy) was wanted as a clerk or copy typist, sometimes to do telephone or switchboard work too. For the girl who wanted something more glamorous than a City office, Warner Bros in Wardour Street were advertising several posts.

One ‘old established firm’ required ‘Junior Girls’ aged 16-18. ‘Preferably secondary education but this not essential.’ Many children remained at their elementary schools until they left when they were fourteen and received no secondary education. It was not until the 1944 Education Act was implemented in 1948 that secondary education was guaranteed for all children, and the school leaving age was raised to fifteen.

More senior positions required shorthand and typing. Some shorthand-typists’ jobs advertised paid £5 a week - a very good wage for the time. Most advertisements however asked applicants to write stating their age, experience and salary required.

Society had been changing throughout the twentieth century, but some advertisements still specified ’Lady Clerk’ or ’Lady Secretary’.

Jobs in domestic service were still advertised, under the heading ’Household’. Mrs J. Mann of Greenacre, Cannon Hill, N.14, wanted a house-parlour maid. She offered £2 15s a week ‘and all found’. There were three in the family. A cook and daily help were also kept.

Local papers, and different daily papers, would advertise different types of jobs. And the type of job advertised changed over time. The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were probably the heyday of the shorthand typist; in the 1970s audio typing took over from shorthand typing. But the Situations Vacant in a newspaper at any time and place provide a good starting point for a writer developing the background of a character in a historical novel.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Oh dear! II

From an article about the plague on the Channel 4 History website:

‘Being exact about the size of the population and mortality (deaths) so long ago is fraught with problems. Although there was a national system of registration of births, marriages and deaths, some families - for reasons of religious dissent or moral conscience - avoided the process.’

This historian evidently knows something the rest of us don’t!

Even the greatest expert can get it wrong sometimes. But this is a fairly fundamental misunderstanding (or at best a very poor explanation) on the part of someone who has an interest in population history.

As every family historian knows, there was no national system of registration in England before 1837. There was parochial registration.  Each of the nine or ten thousand parishes of England kept records individually. They did not record births, marriages and deaths; they registered baptisms, marriages and burials.

The lack of a national system of registration is precisely why reconstructing  the population of England in the past is ‘fraught with problems’!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

It doesn't mean that!

‘People died young there, and any man living on it who reached the age of forty could consider himself fortunate indeed’ is how one novelist described a bad street in the East End of London in 1898.

She has made a mistake common to writers and television historians. She is referring to statistics on average life expectancy. Life expectancy at birth in England was indeed around forty for most of the nineteenth century. However, average life expectancy is not the same as age at death.

Average life expectancy was reduced by the very high levels of infant mortality.  In 1899 (by which time levels of infant mortality had begun to fall), sixteen or seventeen out of every hundred babies born died before their first birthdays.

It is true that there were fewer elderly people in the population in the nineteenth century than there are now. Between 1821 and 1901 the proportion of the population of England and Wales aged 65 or over was between five and seven per cent. In the early 21st century it is nearly twenty per cent.

But it is not the case that no, or very few, people lived beyond their thirties and forties.

In Stepney Workhouse in the East End of London in 1881, out of 736 inmates, about 450 were aged 65 or over. Some were over eighty, such as Daniel McCarthy, an 87 year old dock labourer from Cork, and Elizabeth Hennigan, an 86 year old blind washerwoman, born in Bury St Edmunds.

The author of the Census report for 1901 believed that there was a tendency for people, especially the very elderly, to overstate their ages, so that the number of men and women in their eighties recorded in the Census was greater than it should have been. However, a man or woman claiming to be 85 was presumably older than 65, so this overstatement does not distort the proportion of older people in the population.

Some people might have added a few years to their ages when they were young. Many family historians will have encountered ancestors who claimed to be 21 when they were married, who were in fact younger. They might have kept those few extra years throughout their lives.

No-one born in England before the middle of 1837 would have proof of date of birth. He or she might have proof of baptism, but that isn’t the same thing. For most people, the ten yearly Census was the only time they were required to state their age for official purposes. (For marriage, it was only necessary to say that one was ’of full age’.)

Quite possibly, many people genuinely did not know how old they were.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

True Crime?

I believe that bloggers and reviewers shouldn’t give away the plots of other writers’ novels. It’s perhaps not so crucial in traditional romances, when it’s guaranteed that the hero and heroine will have their happily ever after. Although I do recall reading about someone who objected when a review of a television adaptation revealed that Elizabeth Bennet marries Mr Darcy.

In novels where the detection of crime is a major theme, however, the reader’s experience can be completely spoiled if he or she knows the ending in advance. I remember the furore when a national newspaper obituary of Agatha Christie gave away the solution to one of her mysteries. As I recall, the obituarist was unrepentant; he said it was the best way to illustrate Dame Agatha’s particular genius.

However, I don’t think it’s possible to make the point I want to make in this post effectively without revealing plot details. So I’ll say in advance that I’m going to be talking about Phil Rickman's The Lamp of the Wicked and Christopher Fowler's  Bryant and May: Off the Rails. Anyone who really doesn’t want to know about those books shouldn’t read beyond the end of this paragraph. I have read and enjoyed other books by these authors; the fact that I have reservations about these two titles doesn’t mean I dislike their work overall.

So, on to the point of this post. When, if ever, is it appropriate to use real life crime for fictional purposes? The Whitechapel murders have been providing material for novels and film and television drama for years. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is the most recent fictional interpretation of a crime that took place at Road Hill House in Wiltshire in 1860. All the people directly connected to these crimes is long dead and can‘t be affected by anything written about them. (Although, remarkably, one person involved in the events at Road Hill House lived until 1944 and is probably remembered by people still alive today.)

What about more recent crimes? In The Lamp of the Wicked, Phil Rickman uses real life events in Gloucester in the 1990s as part of the background to the story. Real people do not appear in the book, but one of the characters is said to have known and been influenced by the perpetrator of these real life crimes. There was no advance warning that fact and fiction would be mingled in this way; if there had been, I would probably have chosen not to read the book.

In Bryant and May: Off the Rails, Christopher Fowler concludes what, up to that point, had been an entertaining novel set against the fascinating background of the abandoned and unknown parts of the London Underground by revealing that the murderer the detectives had pursued through two books started the King's Cross Fire in 1987. There is in fact no evidence that the fire was started deliberately or criminally; that is pure invention on the author’s part. Again, there is no warning that real life events are going to intrude so starkly into the fiction.

So where does an author draw the line? Is it ever appropriate to use real tragic events as a background to fiction? Would it be more acceptable to use an event such as the King’s Cross Fire to explore the impact of a disaster on the lives of survivors, rather than to drive the plot of a mystery novel? Or should contemporary novelists always stick to fiction and leave real life events to journalists?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Oh dear -

'As Inspector Ben Ross of Scotland Yard walks across Tower Bridge one Saturday evening in late October 1867...' is the beginning of the front cover blurb of a historical crime novel. In the book itself he walks, more plausibly, across Waterloo Bridge, but I wonder how many people will think the blurb is indicative of the historical accuracy of the book, and decide to give it a miss?

Friday, 10 June 2011

‘My Husband and I’

- was a phrase often used by the Queen as a means of acknowledging the Duke of Edinburgh's contribution to her private and public life.

His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh is ninety years old today. Her Majesty the Queen has a few years to go before she becomes our longest reigning sovereign, but the Duke is already the longest serving consort. The second is Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. She became queen when she married George III in 1761 and lived until 1818. 

The Duke of Edinburgh was born a prince of Greece, but his ancestry is mostly German and Danish. He and the Queen are both descendants of Queen Victoria and of King Christian IX of Denmark.

Who to marry, and what official role a consort should play, has always been a difficult question for a reigning queen. It was considered inappropriate, and likely to cause faction and rivalry among the nobility, for a queen to marry a subject. Marrying a foreign prince, however, was likely to result in England being drawn into Continental  conflicts.

Mary Tudor chose to marry Philip II of Spain, who took the title of ‘king’, the only consort ever to do so. The match was unpopular in England from the start; there were armed protests against it. Philip took England into his war with France which cost money the country did not have and led to the loss of Calais, England’s last remaining territory in the French mainland. 

Following this, Elizabeth I’s decision not to marry was wise; but a childless sovereign leads to uncertainty over the succession.

Mary II reigned jointly with her husband William of Orange (William III), who was the nearest Protestant male claimant to the throne. After her death in 1694 William ruled alone. He was succeeded in 1702 by his wife's sister Anne. She had married Prince George of Denmark in 1683. Prince George was devoted to and supportive of his wife. He was given the title Duke of Cumberland and the office of Lord High Admiral. This is now a purely ceremonial office, but at this time the Lord High Admiral had overall responsibility for the Royal Navy. 

The last queen's consort before the Duke of Edinburgh was Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg, husband of Queen Victoria. Prince Albert did much to repair the reputation of the monarchy, which had been damaged in the later years of George III by the activities of his sons. Albert and Victoria, with their children, presented an image of happy family life. Albert was unpopular with some. The Queen's husband has no constitutional role and it was thought that the Queen should not involve him so closely in official business. However, his advice was usually good, and he helped to counterbalance the Queen's more impulsive nature. The Queen was devoted to him and inconsolable when he died in 1861.

Like Prince Albert,  the Duke of Edinburgh has not had a clearly defined role. However, he has had a wide range of interests, has worked to promote a number of causes, and has supported the Queen throughout the nearly sixty years of her reign.

Monday, 30 May 2011

A woman's place?

Women in the Victorian period suffered a number of legal disabilities. They could not vote in Parliamentary elections. They were excluded from some professions. Until 1870 married women could not own property, and they were unfavourably treated under the divorce laws.

However, it would be wrong to assume that Victorian women were passive creatures who meekly submitted to their fathers and husbands, limiting their concerns to their homes and families.

The campaign for women's suffrage began in 1867, before all men had the vote. From 1869 women could vote in local elections, and women could stand for election to local authorities such as Boards of Guardians and School Boards.

Women campaigned on a range of issues. Josephine Butler and Annie Besant worked on behalf of some of the most disadvantaged women.

Frances Buss and Emily Davies were among those who raised standards of education for girls. Barbara Bodichon demonstrated that illegitimacy did not prevent a woman from taking part in public life.

Gertrude Bell and Marianne North travelled independently in remote parts of the world and were acknowledged by men and women as experts in their fields.

These women were financially independent and had the time and money to pursue their interests. Women who had to work also found opportunities increasing in the Victorian period. Domestic service was the most common employment for women, but many more types of work were available by the end of the century.

A large proportion of the workers in cotton mills were women and girls. The new department stores employed many young women. After 1870 compulsory, state funded education brought an increasing demand for school teachers, many of whom were women.

Women also ran businesses. In one town in 1855 women were running schools, lodging houses, public houses, hotels, dining rooms, beershops and shrimp warehouses.

They were shopkeepers, bakers, grocers, greengrocers, milliners, straw hat makers, dressmakers, staymakers, haberdashers, booksellers and printers, boot and shoemakers, pawnbrokers, basket makers, dealers in eggs and fruit, stationers, whitesmiths, dealers in marine stores, furniture dealers, market gardeners, barge owners, ironmongers, leather sellers, wax modellers and glass and earthenware dealers.

There were some things that women did not do. They did not go to sea in the fishing industry, although they were often part-owners of fishing boats and in many fishing ports they were involved in handling the catch on shore. They were excluded by law from some occupations. From 1842, for example, women could not work underground in mines, although they could and did work at the surface.

However, there was a wide range of occupations that women could undertake in the Victorian period. A writer setting a novel during this period could make her heroine something other than a governess or a servant, without her necessarily appearing unusual or encountering opposition. Giving a heroine a different occupation allows the writer to explore different aspects of Victorian life and of the heroine’s own character, which can only make the story stronger.