Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Account of Edw. Blake & Edw. Coleman, Overseers....

It's often said that provision for the poor in the past was harsh or inadequate or even non-existent.

This is how the parish of Burmarsh dealt with Mary Harris, an unmarried servant girl of nineteen who became pregnant in 1810. Items are in the order in which they appear in the overseers' accounts among other entries, not the chronological order of events.

Received of Richard Turrell towards the support of Mary Harriss during her Laying In £2 0s 0d
11 Jan [1811] Relieved Mary Harriss with 5s 0d
paid Mary Harriss 7 weeks pay at 4/- per week from
the 13 Jan to the 2 of March £1 8s 0d
paid Mrs Cambell towards the support of Mary Harriss
during her Laying In £2 0s 0d

paid 2 women Laying her forth 10s 0d
paid Mrs Whittington setting up with her 6 nights 6s 0d
paid Mrs Flicher 2 Nights 2s 0d
paid Mrs Williams for 2 Bottles of Wine and Still Waters for
Mary Harris 11s 6d

Paid the Parson his fees for Burying Mary Harriss 2s 6d
Paid the Clark his fees 6s 0d
Paid Mr Fowle for Examining M Harriss An Hoye & Warrants for Richd Tareall and Richd Martin 8s 0d
A Journey to Hythe to take Richd Tareall 2s 6d

In April 1813 the vestry meeting agreed 'that John Harris of Bilsington be allowd 4/- per week for the support of his Grandchild Richard Tearall Harris belonging to this Parish and one Guinea for his Clothes, likewise Half a Guinea more, by reason of no allowance for Clothes last year.’

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Poetic licence?

The London fog, caused by the smoke of thousands of coal fires, domestic and industrial, is a familiar feature in both historical fiction and fiction written before the Clean Air Act of 1956.

Adding fog is an easy way for a writer to create a mood of foreboding and danger. It’s an essential part of the scene in late Victorian London:

‘A dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement.

'The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light.’

But what about earlier times? Can the historical novelist realistically add fog to the scene in any era?

'...Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air…'

So said Wordsworth in September 1802. Could the air really have been as clear as he suggests?

Pugin and Rowlandson's illustration, just a few years later, shows a definite haze hanging over the east of the City, beyond St Paul‘s. (The bridge shown is Blackfriars.)

John Evelyn’s Fumifugium, published in 1661, describes a heavily polluted city:

‘The City of London resembles the face rather of Mount Ætna, the Court of Vulcan, Stromboli, or the Suburbs of Hell, than an Assembly of Rational Creatures, and the imperial seat of our incomparable Monarch. For when in all other places the Aer is most Serene and Pure, it is here Ecclipsed with such a Cloud of Sulphure, as the Sun itself, which gives day to all the World besides, is hardly able to penetrate and impart it here; and the weary Traveller, at many Miles distance, sooner smells, than sees the City to which he repairs.’

It’s suggested that there was an element of political allegory in Evelyn’s writing. Should it be taken literally? Probably. Wordsworth is the odd one out. While the air may indeed have been unusually clear that morning in September 1802, the sight he saw was probably not typical.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Otherwise bald and unconvincing?

In the latest issue of the Historical Novels Review, former lecturer in history Tristram Hunt is quoted as saying ‘there is a dangerous tendency among historians to slide into historical fiction, which must be avoided at all costs.’

He is said to be 'bored and appalled' by 'the relentless focus on detail which provides the authenticity.'

As a historian who also writes historical fiction, obviously I don’t agree with Dr Hunt’s proposed blanket ban on historians becoming novelists. But I do think he might have a point about the ‘relentless focus on detail.'

Long factual descriptions of what people wore, what they ate, how they furnished their rooms, do not on their own create a sense of time and place. Yes, the writer needs to know enough about these things to avoid glaring anachronisms, but most of them have no place in the novel.

In a contemporary novel, a writer would not devote paragraphs to describing how a character prepared breakfast, got dressed, travelled to work. So why do it in historical fiction?

If the hero, on his way to work, steps into the path of a hansom cab because he’s preoccupied by whatever predicament the author has placed him in, the reader wants to know how he reacts to the cabbie shouting and swearing at him, whether he feels shaken by his narrow escape as he continues his journey. The reader does not need a precise description of the cab that nearly ran our hero down. 

Don’t describe in minute detail the home of a well to do tradesman. Show the girl whose job it is to clean the hearth and polish the pewter.

Don’t give a stitch by stitch description of the ball gown. Describe the seventeen year old girl who is dressing for her first ball.

Don’t write at length about how crowded, noisy and dirty London was in whatever era the story takes place. Show the reactions of the young woman from a provincial town who is experiencing it for the first time.

Fiction, of whatever genre, is, or should be, about the characters, the challenges they face, and how they deal with those challenges, not about the setting - unless, of course, the setting is the challenge.

Some historians overlook the people in their non-fiction work. They provide tables of population growth, of economic growth, of imports and exports. They write about great religious or political movements. They seem to forget that driving all these events are individuals, all with their own fears, secrets, ambitions and achievements.

They are the historians who should not be writing fiction.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Government borrowing, seventeenth century style

Excessive government spending and high levels of debt are not new. The Stuart monarchy was perennially hard up. One reason for this was the Stuart kings’ extravagance. Another was that no-one was quite sure how much it actually cost to run the country, and therefore how much the government should be seeking to raise in revenue. And there was not yet an efficient system for assessing and collecting taxes.

In addition to borrowing money from his wealthy subjects, Charles II dealt with his money problems by simply not paying the people to whom he owed money - suppliers of goods and services, and people who worked for the government.

Employees of the Royal Dockyards, where ships of the Royal Navy were built and repaired, were supposed to be paid quarterly, but their wages were always in arrears, often by years.

Richard Cooper, a labourer of Deptford, died in June 1687. He was owed  wages from ‘the late King’ (Charles II, who died in February 1685) and 'this King’ (James II).
Richard Cooper seemed to be running a beer house or beer shop as a sideline, perhaps to raise some ready cash while waiting for his wages. When he died he had in his cellar £5 12s worth of beer, which he had not paid for.

He in turn had allowed ‘24 poore people’ to run up debts for beer of £12 4s 6d. These were ‘bad debts’ which were not expected to be recovered.

If Richard Cooper was typical (and he probably was) nearly everyone in Deptford owed money to someone, and was owed by someone else. The entire local economy operated on credit, because the King did not, or could not, pay his debts. 

Saturday, 12 February 2011

A Rococo sensation

This is the music room from Norfolk House in St James’s Square in Westminster.

The room was designed for the Duke of Norfolk's house, built between 1748 and 1752.

The ‘lightness and novelty’ of the interior caused a sensation when the house was first seen by the Duke’s guests.

When Norfolk House was demolished in 1938, the music room was removed and reconstructed at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The room is a splendid place to visit for atmosphere and inspiration for locations for scenes in fiction with an eighteenth century or Regency setting.  


When I visited the V&A recently I had the room to myself and could easily imagine it full of ladies and gentlemen in eighteenth century dress. Not everyone can visit the V&A or similar places, of course, but for those who are fortunate enough to be able to do so, five minutes in a room like this is worth hours of reading about eighteenth century decor.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

I already know the ending.

Various people have asked me if I’ve read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize. Several have offered to lend me their copies.

I’ve always declined.

I’ve never read Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, which many fans consider to be her best work, for the same reason.

I already know the ending.

Wolf Hall is about Thomas Cromwell, the man who had the job of sorting out Henry VIII’s marital problems. King Hereafter is about Macbeth.

This is just my personal preference, of course. Historical fiction focusing on the lives of real people is read by many people. It can be an enjoyable way of learning about past times. Jean Plaidy was the queen of the genre in the 1960s and 1970s, and some of her books have recently been re-published.

I first encountered Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV of France, in historical fiction. The novel only focused on one part of his life, and at the time I read the book, in my early teens, I didn't know how his story ended.

For me, knowing in advance how the story will end takes away much of the pleasure of reading a novel for the first time. And I particularly don't want to read someting that I know in advance will not have a happy ending.

When I’ve mentioned this, people have said the books are still worth reading, for the quality of the writing or the research. But if I wanted to read a well-researched book about a real person, I’d look for a biography.

I think including a real person as a secondary character can add depth to the story. It helps to set the scene and tie the fictional events of the novel into the real world. If it’s a well known historical figure, the reader will already be familiar with him or her and be able to anticipate, to some extent, how he or she will interact with the main characters.

A writer of Regency romances, for example, doesn’t need to devote paragraphs to introducing the Duke of Wellington, or the Prince Regent, and therefore the story can move along more quickly.

But I prefer to get to know the central characters in a novel for the first time over the course of the story, and experience the twists and turns of events along with them.

Friday, 4 February 2011

A noble cupola -

- a forme of church-building not as yet known in England, but of wonderfull grace. 

So John Evelyn described the proposed design for the new St Paul's, to replace  the cathedral destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. It’s a building that every English person probably, and every Londoner certainly, should see at least once.

It’s not cheap to go in (£14.50 at time of writing), but there is a lot to see. It needs a whole afternoon to begin to do it justice.

To men accustomed to the Norman and Gothic styles, Wren’s design for St  Paul’s was revolutionary. His plan, with the great dome, was rejected in favour of something more familiar.

Wren reputedly achieved his masterpiece by erecting a high fence around the site, allowing no-one but himself to see the complete plans, and making alterations as building progressed, until the work was too far advanced to reverse them.

Despite the initial reservations about the design, the dome of St Paul’s has become an essential and iconic part of the London skyline.

The image of the cathedral surrounded by smoke and flames came to symbolise Londoners’ resistance during the Blitz of 1940-41.

Wellington and Nelson are probably the best known of those buried in St Paul‘s, but it is not only national heroes who are commemorated there. There are memorials to artists, musicians, newspapermen. In the north aisle are plaques commemorating the crew of HMS Captain, lost in 1870. In the crypt is a memorial to correspondents who covered the Sudanese campaigns of 1883, 1884 and 1885.

Christopher Wren is buried in his cathedral. His tomb is unobtrusive and easily overlooked. It does not matter. His epitaph, composed by his son, also Christopher, says all that is necessary:

Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice

Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.