Thursday, 27 March 2014

What's in a name? II

Nothing throws me out of a piece of historical fiction more quickly than inappropriately named characters. A historical heroine called Jade? No, no, no! In the past, calling a woman a jade was an insult.

Until comparatively recently, English given names were drawn from a relatively small pool. There were exceptions, such as Brilliana, but a writer would need a convincing reason to give a heroine such an unusual name. Wanting her to stand out isn’t enough; good characterisation should do that.

Before 1066, Anglo Saxon names such as Alfred, Edmund, Edward, Aethelflaed, Edith, Mildred were common. In eastern England a proportion of the people were of Scandinavian descent. They might be called Olaf or Raegnald or Thurketil.

After the Norman Conquest the Old English names quickly fell out of favour, not enjoying a revival until the nineteenth century. Norman French names such as William, Thomas, Robert, John, took over and have remained the most popular boys’ names ever since. By the end of the Middle Ages Anne, Mary, Elizabeth were established as among the most popular girls’ names.

In the eighteenth century, when the Hanoverian kings were on the throne, bringing German princesses to England as their wives, names such as Caroline or Charlotte became popular. The name Victoria was introduced into England in 1818 when Edward, Duke of Kent, married Victoria of Saxe Coburg. It did not become really popular until much later in the nineteenth century, by which time their daughter, also Victoria, had been on the throne many years.

Suitable names for historical characters can be found in historical records. Tax returns for Cumberland in the 1330s list people such as Aldonsa, relict of Richard, Agnes de Burghe, Thomas de Ravenwik, William Rotheland, Adam, son of Henry and William Walker.

Returns for the City of London in 1541 include Elisabeth Malyn, Ales Lupsed, Margaret Throme. Among the men are John Rookes, Thomas Bartilmewe, Ambrose Barker. John Hevans suggests that perhaps the Cockney ’h’ was established by the reign of Henry VIII.

It was usual for the eldest son and daughter to be named after their father and mother. Second and third sons and daughters were named after their grandparents. Subsequent children were often named after other relatives. The result could be families of cousins all with the same names.

That would not work in historical fiction, of course, where characters need to be easily distinguishable. However, short forms of names were commonly used in the past. Queen Victoria’s three eldest children were known as Vicky, Bertie and Affie. One could have a heroine known as Bet, her Aunt Lizzie, and a grandmother, also named Elizabeth, but who, if she was a widow, might never be referred to by her first name by anyone.

Then there are nicknames, the origins of which have been long forgotten. Anyone who has ever done any family history research will have spent time searching for Great Uncle John, only to discover that his name was really William. Or have always thought that Great-Grandma’s name was Peggy, when in fact she was baptised Louisa.

And a case of mistaken identity involving two cousins with the same name, or someone who is known by a name other than his or her baptismal name, could make an interesting premise for a novel.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A young lady, accustomed to tuition -

I'm in the middle of editing a novel which I plan to publish on Kindle next month.

The heroine is a governess. Governesses frequently appear in fiction, of course. It was an occupation pursued by many women  in the past, and sending a young woman off to take up a position as a governess is an easy way to enable her to go to new places and meet new people.

The popular idea of the Victorian governess is a (young) woman living in the household where she was employed. That was not the universal experience of governesses, however.

Over seventeen thousand women gave their occupation as 'governess' in the 1881 census of England and Wales. Many of them lived at home with their parents. The Misses Anna, Rachel, Emma and Jessie Adams, for example, aged from seventeen to twenty six, lived with their parents and adult brothers in York. Their aunt, aged forty six, who lived with them, was also a governess.

Agnes Turnbull, from Scotland, who was twenty two, was a governess in a boarding school in North Meols in Lancashire. The Misses Mary and Lucy Salisbury were the heads of household. There were seventeen young ladies, aged between eleven and seventeen.  Most of the pupils came from Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Harriet Askton, from Buckinghamshire, who was also twenty two,  resembled the typical fictional governess. She lived in the household of the Rev. Henry Pearson of Hackney, Middlesex. He had five daughters and three sons, aged from three to nineteen. Some or all of those were no doubt Miss Askton's pupils.

Advertisements in The Times in January 1860, which is when my novel begins, also reveal the varied opportunities for governesses.

Languages 'acquired abroad' are most commonly offered or requested. Music is also wanted. One lady 'about 40 years of age' offered to teach flower painting as well as the more usual accomplishments.

Some advertisements seem to seek, or offer, homes for women who would otherwise be homeless, as much as they do employment.

The lowest salary offered is fifteen pounds a year (plus board). Some agencies, however, purport to have positions available paying up to eighty or a hundred pounds a year.

Just to show that respectable young women need not be limited to governessing, one advertiser in 1860 was seeking an engagement as a daily governess, a teacher of drawing in a school, or a designer and illustrator to a house of business.

Inevitably, there were women who had become too elderly or too infirm, or whose skills were outdated or inadequate, who could no longer work as governesses. The Governesses' Benevolent Institution existed to assist them.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Time travelling

Revisiting the books one loved as a child can be a mistake.

One book I had from the library often was A Child's Day Through the Ages by Dorothy Margaret Stuart, first published in 1941. As the title indicates, each chapter describes a typical day in the life of a child from a different period of history, from the Bronze Age to Edwardian England.

Some years ago I found a second hand copy of the book. On reading it again, I couldn't see why I had liked it so much. The characters were flat. There was little plot or conflict or drama. Both the text and the illustrations seemed designed to educate rather than entertain.
"The merchant, still wearing the high crowned beaver hat without which he was seldom seen during his waking hours, said a rather long grace and seated himself at one end of the square table, with his wife opposite him, and his son between them. On either side of the fireplace stood a broad and high arm-chair finely carved ut of glossy brown oak, but at table the family sat on wooden stools. A linen cloth was spread, and on it were pewter cups and plates, and spoons of a kind of brass-ware called 'latten'. There were knives with wooden handles, but forks with wooden handles had not yet appeared in the homes of the merchant class." 
There are copies of the book available on Amazon for anyone who would like to read it, but for me the magic is gone.

Another book I loved was The House of Arden by E. Nesbit, forst published in 1908. It's not one of her best books, nor her best known. It's a time travel story, and even as a child I could see flaws in the way the time travel worked. But I like time travel stories and Elfrida was one of my favourite fictional characters.

The story was first published as a magazine serial, and that's evident on reading it now. But the characters are alive. There's adventure and danger as well as every day life. E. Nesbit's descriptive passages are scene setting rather than educational.

"They found the George half-way up Arden village, a stately, great house  shaped like a E, with many windows and a great porch with a balcony over it. They gave their letter to a lady in a round cap who sat sewing in a pleasant room, where there were many bottles and kegs, and rows of bright pewter ale-pots, and little fat mugs to measure other things with, and pewter plates on a brown dresser. There were greyhounds, too, all sprawling, legs and shoulders and tails entangled together like a bunch of dead eels, before the widest hearth the children had ever seen. They hurried away the moment they had given the letter. A coach, top-heavy with luggage, had drawn up in front of the porch, and as they went out they saw the ostlers leading away the six smoking horses."
This one I come back to often.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Identity theft?

How far should a novelist go in researching the names she gives her characters? Of course character names should be appropriate for the time and place the book is set.  Should a novelist investigate any further?

Recently, I was reading a review of a romance novel set in London in the 1830s. The hero was the Duke of Lennox. Lennox is a real Scottish dukedom that has been around, on and off, since the sixteenth century. The present line descends from an illegitimate son of Charles II. The holder of the title at the time the novel was set was the fifth duke, who had served with Wellington in the Peninsular campaign and subsequently entered politics. The character in the novel was not him.

Another time, I came across a Regency romance in which the hero was Philip Stanhope. There was a real Philip Stanhope. Several of them, in fact. Stanhope was the family name of the earls of Chesterfield and the earls Stanhope. Four earls of Chesterfield and three earls Stanhope were called Philip.

Philip, fourth Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) is best known for his letters to his son.

Philip, fourth Earl Stanhope (1781-1855) was a somewhat eccentric, well travelled man - characteristics he shared with his much more famous half-sister, Lady Hester Stanhope. But again, the character in the novel was not him.

The Stanhopes who entered politics did not rise to very high office, but they were well connected with those who did. Lady Hester's maternal grandfather was William Pitt the Elder, first Earl of Chatham. Her maternal uncle was William Pitt the Younger. Until his death she lived with him and acted as hostess for him, as he was unmarried.

The third Earl Stanhope's second wife, Louisa Grenville, was stepmother to Lady Hester and mother to the fourth earl. She was niece to one Prime Minister, George Grenville, and cousin to another, William Grenville.

Dukedoms and earldoms are unique; they can only be held by one person at a time. A writer cannot, therefore, say that her character just happens to have the same name as a real life aristocrat. None of this information is hard to find, especially when someone is already researching the period.

These people may not have been especially great or heroic or distinguished, but they lived their lives and had their achievements. Novelists have plenty of names to choose from. Why take one away from a real person?

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Twitter and Daffodils

I've started  a Twitter account. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it, but anyone who wants to can find me there @WriterVictoria. If I've set things up properly, my Tweets will appear below the posts here, and links to my posts here will be Tweeted there.

This photo was taken in York a few years ago, but following the warm weekend we've just had, daffodils seem to have come into bloom everywhere almost overnight. Hosts of golden daffodils indeed.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The cover that wasn't

In discussions about self publishing, a widely held view seems to be that the cover of the book is of paramount importance. Self-publishers, it's said, should be prepared to spend money on professionally designed covers for their books.

It's true that the covers of some self published books do look amateurish. But then mainstream publishers don't always get it right either. How often does one see a cover on which the heroine has the wrong hair colour, or is wearing a dress that  is quite wrong for the date at which the book is set?

For various reasons I didn't go for a professional cover for Inheritance of Secrets, but designed my own. Having made the decision to publish on Kindle, I had limited time in which to do it, and finding a cover artist and conveying what I wanted would have taken too long.

Also, I was approaching this as a learning process and thought it would be useful to start at a point from which I could tweak or change everything to see what worked best.

I wanted to feature a young woman on the cover, to represent my central character. I went looking on the internet and found a picture that was just what I wanted. The woman in the picture is prettier than my heroine, but everything else is just right.

Then I discovered that it's a portrait of Emma Hamilton by George Romney. I thought potential readers might recognise it as Emma and be misled into thinking the book was about her. With regret, I abandoned it.

I chose instead an image I had of a suitable house. Not as good as a person, but the house is important to the story. I wanted to establish that it is not a mansion. 

I think the picture I used establishes the mood and setting of the story quite well. But I still wish I could have used Emma.