Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Inspirational Ruins

This month I’m thinking about ruins: castles, abbeys, more humble dwellings – it doesn’t matter. As a writer of historical fiction, I have always known, as I’m sure you have, that a ruin can be immensely useful in a novel, both as a suitable location to test your hero or heroine, and for what it can add to the atmosphere.   

I’ve just come back from a holiday in Northern Ireland where I saw a number of ruined monastic buildings. And the thought stuck me immediately that they’d offer ideal opportunities for hiding or pursuit.


 Grey Abbey; the east wall - note the buttresses

Take Grey Abbey, a Cistercian abbey dating from 1193, overlooking Strangford Lough. What my novelist’s eye noticed at once, was that, at some point, part of the abbey had become unstable; you can see three buttresses propping it up along the east wall.


Looking from a doorway along the line of buttresses; note the deep shadows

Take a Regency heroine (let us call her Angelica); she is in jeopardy – naturally. We find her inside the ruined abbey, peering cautiously through a side door, desperate to escape from the loathly Sir Tancred . She spots the line of buttresses, their width and depth could be useful in concealing her. But, could Sir Tancred be hidden behind one of them?  The abbey’s architecture allows your characters to play a deadly game of hide and seek amid the shadows.

Grey Abbey from another angle

It is evening, and the shadows begin to lengthen. In one corner, where plants grow in the crevices, there are some protruding stones going up the wall. Could that be an escape route? Angelica spent her childhood climbing trees but does she dare crawl over that huge arch?

Dog tooth decoration on the ceremonial arch at the west end of the church

Angelica freezes. The moon has floated out from behind a cloud and a dark figure has just stooped under the arch and there is a glint of a sword. Could it be Sir Tancred? But he’s too tall…   

Struell Wells, the ruins of a medieval church and the beehive-shaped drinking well

However, ruins can also be useful in other ways. Take the complex of buildings at Struell Wells, once a healing centre, dating from at least the 8th century. St Patrick himself is supposed to have visited it. The buildings spread out over a field, and comprise the Drinking well, the Eye well, and two separate bathhouses for men and women, as well as a medieval chapel. A stream with exceptionally pure water runs through the field and connects them all. The historical evidence suggests that this has been a place of healing since pagan times. An 1831 map shows that a holy thorn also once grew in the field.
 Close up view of the drinking well

Suppose your heroine (who needs a name change – Agneta?) lives in pagan times and comes from a long line of women healers. We all love proactive heroines, and pagan healing women were powerful and respected in the community. The arrival of Christianity brings problems to Agneta’s community, and St Patrick arrives to convert the holy springs and wells to Christianity. He is known to have spent hours in the Drinking well building, singing psalms.
And I don’t imagine priests at that date would have been keen on pagan women healers as guardians of Struell Wells, either.


The Eye well. Note the Men and Women’s bathhouses in the background.

The Eye well is a small rectangular building with a corbelled roof which is pyramidal in shape. Very little is known about it but this is an area which is rich in wild flowers and I don’t doubt that once special herbs were used to help cure eye complaints. Again, this could useful for a heroine. What Agneta actually does at the eye well is up to the author and you don’t need me to tell you that there could be much at stake… even her very life.

The Women’s bathhouse is small and poky compared with the men’s; you can just see a low ledge, perhaps for a bench on the right.

The Women’s bathhouse was once also known as the Limb well, and the Men’s bathhouse as the Body well. The current building dates from somewhere between the 13th and15th centuries. The men’s section is much larger; whether that was true originally, we don’t know. The water running (via a tap) in the Women’s bathhouse is silky smooth. 


General view of the landscape around Struell Wells

Society continued to have problems with powerful women who were trained in anything – and accusations of witchcraft continued until well into the 17th century. Even midwifery underwent an attempted male takeover. (Would Princess Charlotte have died with an experienced female midwife, one wonders.) The notorious ‘witch finder’ Matthew Hopkins hanged sixty women in Essex alone in 1645. Agneta could be a healer anytime up to the 18th century, which gives writers a lot of scope.
So there we are. All the imagination needs are a few ruins! 
Elizabeth Hawksley



Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Musing on the Changes in Publishing

I am in the process of moving from a three-bed house with a 21 year tenure to a tiny 2-room sheltered flat. Downsizing with a vengeance. Apart from having my mother’s goods and chattels to sort, I have been faced with what to do about screeds of old letters to and from agents, editors and publishers and paper copies of old books, and it got me thinking about how much has changed since I began in this business.
In the first place, any approach you made in a hopeful spirit to an industry professional had to be done by letter. Yes, I mean snail mail type letters. If you sent sample work, it was printed out. In fact, now I think of it, when I started it was typed out! Just as it was for all writers before the advent of word processors.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the double spacing, which meant sending a manuscript involved about 300 pages of printed material in a jiffy bag. Printed on one side of the paper only, that was about the size of an 80,000 word manuscript. Those bags were heavy. They cost quite a bit, and you had to enclose return postage too. The last thing you ever wanted to see was the postman standing outside with a whacking great oblong jiffy bag in his hands, because it meant your manuscript had just boomeranged with another rejection.

Since all approaches went by snail mail, everything took forever and a day. You enclosed, if you were wise, a postage paid postcard to acknowledge receipt. Some publishers actually used it. Then you waited. And waited… and waited. There’s an unwritten rule that you should wait six weeks before nudging on a submission, but it wasn’t unusual to wait months for a response while your hair went grey and the wrinkles in your face doubled.

If you actually went to the expense of approaching publishers in foreign lands, the whole thing cost four times as much and took even longer. None of this digital age winging an attachment across the pond in seconds. If you couldn’t afford air mail, it went by sea. Don’t even count how long that took.

Once you were lucky enough to get some kind of contract, there was more delay while the two copies were sent to you, signed on every page and returned to the publisher, who then signed both copies and finally returned your copy for keeping. These days, the contracts are whisked back and forth, digitally signed to start the process going, and then the printed version follows in due course. But by then it’s all rolling along merrily.

When the book was in production, along came the proofs. Yes, more print-outs (which actually looked like book pages then, two to a sheet), more jiffy bags. You got around two weeks to go through, make your corrections and send it back. At some point, actual glossy covers would come through in a card-backed envelope, and finally your copies of the book arrived in a box. The books arriving in a box still happens if your work is going out in paperback, but all the earlier process is done digitally by email these days.

During the life of the book, twice yearly, in came the batch of royalty statements. Of course I can’t throw away either these or the contracts, as they are the only records prior to shifting to digital. Now imagine 18 odd books over a period of 30 years, reprinted in different editions including foreign, and you’ll get an idea of the piles of paper accumulated. Not to mention the piles and piles of books. What I’m going to do with them all I have absolutely no idea!

Elizabeth Bailey

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Home Guard - 1941

 I was looking through my research bookshelf and came across the Home Guard Manual 1941 and thought I would dip into this for my monthly post.
"The primary object of the Home Guard is to have available an organised body of men trained to offer stout resistance in every district, and to meet any military emergency until trained toops can be brought up."
There were to be five platoons – signals, medical, transport, engineers, and supplies. I think that most Home Guards would have been lucky to have one platoon let alone five. The platoons were scattered about the neighbourhood. 
With regards to equipment each unit was supposed to supply their own which would have been made available in a store at the unit headquarters.
Each man was supposed to have when mobilised – a haversack, two blankets, waterproof coat or sheet, a greatcoat, knife, fork, spoon, plate, a change of underclothes and socks, a serviceable pair of boots, soap, towel, rations for at least twenty-four hours and a bottle of water.
I don't know about you, but whenever I think of the Home Guard my mind goes to the brilliant TV series, Dad's Army. Imagine the very elderly chap, who was the medical man, having to carry that lot.
They were also supposed to understand and be able to use semaphore, drill in a disciplined manner and have enough weapon training to make them effective with a rifle or whatever weapon was available. They were also supposed to be skilled at field craft, map reading and reconnaissance, field engineering, first-aid and basically anything else that might crop up.
Remember Pike? "Stupid boy!" 
It does add that training and ability will vary according to the physical capabilities of the men and meet local conditions or national urgency.
I can only be thankful that their role as protectors of the country was never needed.
 best wishes
Fenella J Miller

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Richmond, a Georgian Theatre and Miss Moonshine

Earlier this week I took a trip to Richmond, North Yorkshire. The town is full of beautiful Georgian buildings, many of them still with original features. 

The weather was lovely and we had an excellent day visiting the castle and making our way to the top of its massive tower, from where one can see for miles in all directions. 

The castle is perfectly placed to defend the town and lookouts would have had plenty of warning of an advancing army. Lots of information there for my current project, a hero who owns a sham castle, known as "Duke's Folly". He is weighed down by responsibility and needs a suitable wife, certainly not the tomboy hoyden who currently lives in Duke's Folly!  Look out for this charming story in the forthcoming Regency Romantics box set, due out soon!

Later that day we had a tour of Richmond's beautiful Georgian theatre. It seems tiny by modern standards, and seats an audience of about 200 these days, although our guide told us in the 18th century they would cram in about 400! We sat in the boxes, where the fashionable and wealthy patrons of the theatre would have enjoyed being seen by all and sundry (being seen was so much more important than anything that was happening on stage!).  In the eighteenth century it would have been lit by candles, about as bright as it is in this photo, but they were left burning throughout the performance, so the actors had to work hard to keep the audience's attention.

Then we went down past the pit, where the hoi polloi might have been sitting to enjoy an evening of heckling and throwing things at the actors, and down to the dressing rooms. The theatre was built by a travelling troupe and would have been "dark", or closed for most of the year until the troupe returned from the circuit (the actors walking, props and costumes taken by cart). We saw two of the three beautiful fireplaces in the theatre, one in the dressing room and one at the back of the stage, and fires would have been kindled a few days before the theatre opened, to drive off the cold and damp that would have permeated the building while it was closed up. Some of the actors might live in the dressing rooms during their stay in Richmond, so it was important that it was not too cold for them.

Finally, we wandered about the town, enjoying the large cobbled market place and the beautiful Georgian buildings that surround it, and while we were exploring we came upon this beautiful Emporium, and I couldn't resist a photograph, because I thought how much Miss Moonshine would have loved it.

For those who haven't heard, Miss M is the main character in an anthology to which I had the privilege of contributing a short story. Miss Moonshine's Emporium of Happy Endings is published on 18th May, and includes feel-good stories from nine northern authors - a perfect read for the long summer evenings ahead.

Happy Reading!

Melinda Hammond

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Jane Austen: A Writing Master Class

Jane Austen’s niece, Anna Austen Lefroy (1793-1872) was, as far as we know, her only relation who was also a novelist – though an aspiring one. When she was nineteen, Anna asked her aunt’s advice on her own novel Which is the Heroine? Does Dawlish have a decent library, she wanted to know - the answer was that it was ‘pitiful and wretched’. What I found interesting was that Jane understood her niece’s concern to get things right. Both wrote contemporary novels and they knew that accuracy was important.


Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra. National Portrait Gallery

For example, in a letter to her sister Cassandra in January 1813, Jane asks her if she ‘could discover if Northamptonshire is a country of Hedgerows.’ This seems a very minor point but it is all part of her creation of a convincing depiction of the countryside around Mansfield Park, which is set there and which she was writing at the time.
Later that year, Jane learnt ‘from Sir J. Carr that there is no Government House at Gibraltar’ and that, therefore, she ‘must alter it to the Commissioner’s’. It gets a tiny mention by William Price when he comes to visit Fanny at Mansfield Park, but fellow writers will give Jane Austen a tick for her attention to detail.  We all know how mortifying it is to be picked up on some small point we have got wrong. Readers, then as now, rightly expect authors to have done their research properly.

Mr Collins introduces himself to Mr Darcy

Jane also picks up on a social point in Anna’s novel: ‘I have also scratched out the Introduction between Lord P. and his Brother, and Mr Griffin. A Country Surgeon (don’t tell Mr C. Lydford) would not be introduced to Men of their rank.’  It reminded me of Elizabeth Bennet’s acute embarrassment when Mr Collins insists on introducing himself to Mr Darcy at the Netherfield Ball: ‘Elizabeth tried hard to dissuade him from such a scheme; assuring him that Mr Darcy would consider his addressing him without introduction as an impertinent freedom…’  a moment nicely captured in Charles E. Brock’s illustration above.

Later in the same letter, Jane has some further advice for Anna: ‘We (she and her sister, Cassandra) think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland. But as you know nothing of the Manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath There you will be quite at home.’
We note that Jane Austen follows her own advice in Emma. She does not follow Colonel and Mrs Campbell (and Jane Fairfax) to Ireland to visit the Campbell’s newly married daughter, Mrs Dixon; instead, Miss Fairfax insists on visiting Mrs and Miss Bates, her grandmother and aunt in Highbury, which is where we meet her. Miss Fairfax is doing that dangerous thing for a Regency lady – being proactive – and, when Mr Frank Churchill arrives, that precipitates a very tangled web of deceit indeed.
Promenade dress, 1809

We know that Jane Austen had a holiday in Lyme from her letter to her sister Cassandra in 1804. Sea bathing is mentioned, presumably from a bathing machine, something she really enjoyed; she attended a public ball; and walked for an hour on the Cobb. We have only the one letter from Lyme, but she must have taken the opportunity to note what it had to offer and used it in Persuasion many years later. I’d have loved a scene with Anne Elliot sea-bathing!
Jane wrote to Anna again in September 1814 with some more interesting plot advice: ‘We are not satisfied with Mrs F’s setting herself  as Tenant & near Neighbour to such a Man as Sir T.H. without having some other inducement to go there. A woman, going with just two girls growing up, into a Neighbourhood where she knows nobody but one Man, of not very good character, is an awkwardness which so prudent a woman as Mrs F. would not be likely to fall into. Remember, she is very prudent, you must not let her act inconsistently.’

 Reading lady from 'The Ladies' Pocket Magazine'

She suggests: ‘Give her a friend, & let that friend be invited to meet her at the Priory and we shall have no objection to her dining there; as she does; but otherwise a woman in her situation would hardly go there, before she had been visited by other Families.’  This refers to the custom of leaving calling cards. Mrs F. will make sure that she leaves a calling card for any lady with whom she wishes to be acquainted – presumably those introduced by her friend. Her call should be returned within a week which will signify that they are happy to know her socially. But she could not possibly dine at the Priory before this has happened.
In all of Jane Austen’s novels, her heroines need to be properly introduced; apart from anything else, it establishes their social credentials. Emma’s friendship with Harriet Smith is important in giving Harriet an entrée into Highbury society – something which Harriet, a mere parlour–border with a dubious pedigree, could never have done on her own. 
A lover from 'The Ladies' Pocket Magazine'
Anne Elliot is entirely dependent on the Musgroves to re-introduce her to Captain Wentworth; to include her in the outing to Lyme; and on Lady Russell to take her to Bath. Lady Russell can travel where she likes, but then, she’s the widow of a well-to-do knight and has her own private carriage. Unmarried ladies, like Anne, have very little opportunity to be proactive.
Lastly, Jane’s other piece of advice to her niece is well-known but is worth repeating: You are now collecting your people delightfully, getting them exactly into such a spot as is the delight of my life; 3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on… I hope when you have written a great deal more you will be equal to scratching out some of the past. The scene with Mrs Mellish, I should condemn; it is prosy & nothing to the purpose…. One does not care for girls till they are grown up.

Frontispiece from 'Correspondence between a Mother and Daughter' by Ann Taylor, 1817
How many of us write scenes which we realize, in the cold light of morning, are ‘prosy & nothing to the purpose’. Another earlier comment: ‘till the heroine grows up, the fun must be imperfect’ is odd, considering that 1814 was the year when Mansfield Park came out, the only novel where Jane Austen shows us her heroine, Fanny, as a child.
Sadly, Anna did not fulfil her literary ambitions – apart from a couple of short stories and a novella published in the 1840s. A few months this exchange of letters with her aunt, she married the Reverend Benjamin Lefroy. He died in 1829 leaving her with seven children and very little money, which may explain why she abandoned Which is the Heroine? and later burnt it.  
But we owe her a debt of gratitude for giving us a glimpse into how Jane Austen constructed her novels and what she thought was important.
Elizabeth Hawksley









Monday, April 30, 2018

Venturing into Audio

After a great deal of maundering around the difficulties or otherwise of putting my books up on audio, I have finally taken the plunge. In fact it proved relatively simple once I chose the way to do it – out of a plethora of apparently problematical paths.

A long time ago, in my acting days, I used to read books on tape for the blind for a charity. I did many Georgette Heyers, delighting in creating a whole raft of different voices for the various characters. I used to make a tape of the voices so that I could come back and check them if I forgot.

That process held no terrors. You simply used a good quality tape recorder with a relatively decent microphone and went to it, taking the thing an hour or so at a time and stacking up ordinary tapes. You then sent off the six tapes in specially prepared boxes to the Calibre library, securely in their free post bags. Job done.

These days, I discovered, it’s a great deal more complicated to do it yourself. With growing horror, I listened to a podcast about the dos and don’ts of current audio recording. In the first place, the whole thing is digital, which is enough to scare the whatsits off oldies like me. Then you’ve got to have the right equipment: proper high quality microphone, some kind of sound-deadening thingy that I didn’t understand, quantities of blankets hung up to cut out extraneous noise, and a whole lot more besides. Exit stage left, quivering.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, you have to be able to upload this fantastically clear recording to the various platforms and then fix it if they say it’s not good enough. Yikes!

I turned, with relief, to the companies who do it for you. Relief short-lived when I discovered that you needed to be a millionaire if you were going to pay for people to read and “produce” your entire canon with scarcely a hope of ever making your money back, let alone garnering profits. I shelved the whole idea.

Eventually I heard about ACX, which is the production arm of Audible, an Amazon company. Now Amazon, as we all know, is a juggernaut riding over everyone else, but they do understand authors are generally poor and have figured out ways for them to use Amazon platforms and make money without dishing out their hard-earned dosh beforehand.

Enter 50/50 deals. You can pay for a producer if you want to, but you can also make a deal with a producer/narrator for no money upfront in exchange for giving them half your profits. Worth it to avoid all the recording rannygazoo!

Though there was that tiny voice at the back of my mind. “Seriously, who’s going to do all that work for nothing?” I hesitated for weeks. Nay, months.
Finally, because I’m doing new covers, I decided to go for it. New branding, new covers, paperback, audio, the works. The idea being that as each new cover arrived, it would get the full treatment.

Would you believe it? Within a day of putting up, with great trepidation, my first book for audition, I got the most wonderful lady narrator who just happens to be a huge Georgette Heyer fan and immediately loved my book. Luck or serendipity?

Below is the audio cover for the book now in production. Hooray, I have ventured!

Elizabeth Bailey

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

April in the Big Easy

And it’s April, nearly May!
Things come and go in writing. At the end of the year, my series with Kensington, The Shaws, is coming to an end. I’ve run out of Shaws! But I’m writing another series, and keeping my fingers crossed that they take it.

That’s how it goes; sometimes there are so many deadlines you’re frantic, and other times it’s slow, and you wonder if it’s ever going to pick up.
Anyway, while I’m waiting to see, I’ve been tidying my computer up a bit. And found some photos I took of New Orleans.
When I visited the city a few years ago, I fell in love. I’ve been there again. It has been connected with Europe for longer than most of the rest of the country, since the seventeenth century. And it was dominated by the French until independence, when the Americans moved in.
Every building in the French Quarter has a history. I stayed in a hotel that was haunted by soldiers from the American Civil War, but I never saw any. Still, it was a lovely hotel, developed from a private courtyard house. I ate in an old inn that used to be the main market for the slave trade – I was glad I didn’t find that out until we left and I read the plaque outside.
New Orleans’ history is filled with action. It is the site of the Battle of New Orleans, where the French actually beat the British. Unlike, say, Waterloo!
Walk up Royal Street and every block is occupied by a jazz band. Different styles, different music, but all so good it’s easy to spend a day there enjoying the music and the history that leaches from the walls. It has a pharmaceutical museum, and while not as magnificent as the dispensary in Madrid, it’s still fascinating. While the city is obviously full of tourists, it’s also very much a working city. The tourists haven’t pushed out the residents. Temperance Hall and the renamed Louis Armstrong Park shows where the man who was a major influence in developing a new kind of music learned the new rhythms brought by the drummers from Africa.
There’s a hotel that used to be the haunt of great writers, and has a carousel bar that revolves slowly while you have your mint julep. On the following block a chain pharmacy, Walgreens, bears a sign that says it’s the site of the bank where the name “Dixie” was coined – it was based on the banknotes, which had the French “Dix” for ten on them.
You can go to the old plantations nearby, learn about the differences between Creole plantations and American ones, and the terrible history of slavery that taints this part of the country. Take a trip into the swamp, see the alligators and the amazing places where the Cajuns live.
And the atmosphere is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. Along with the decadent Laissez le temps rouler, there is a fierce pride in the place.
If you get a chance, go. Just go.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Duke's Alliance - book five - A Soldier's Bride

Release day 19th April
A Soldier's Bride is the fifth book in The Duke's Alliance series which charts the stories of a family of six siblings. 
Lord Peregrine Sheldon, Lord Aubrey's twin, is an intelligence officer for Wellington. When he is reported missing, presumed dead, Beau, The Duke of Silchester, does not believe this dreadful news and decides to go to Spain and find Perry.
Sofia, an English girl living in a Spanish hill village, fights with the partisans, wears a gentleman's attire and is as far from a society miss as one could hope to find. 
Perry is seriously injured in a fall and recovers consciousness to discover he is not only blind, but has no notion who he is, or what he is doing in the foothills of the Spanish mountains. Sofia discovers him and he is taken to her mother's home in the village to recover. 
Inevitably, they fall in love and Perry is finally able to declare his feelings when his memory and sight return. They are from different worlds and both soon regret their marriage. Sofia feels trapped by the conventions and rules of his world and Perry believes his lovely young bride will never settle in England after her wildlife in Spain. 
Will their love be enough to overcome the social gulf between them? Can the duke step in and persuade them to stay together?

I am sad to be about to write the sixth and final book, The Duke's Bride, in this series. Over the past two years I have got to know these characters and they are like personal friends. The last book will be the duke's story - the one readers are waiting for and the one I most want to write. That will be our in the autumn.
I have also written the fourth and final book in The Nightingale Chronicles, my Victorian family saga. All's Well That Ends Well is with my editor and I'm hoping to publish in the summer - if we ever get one.
The third series I am writing is Ellen's War, a WW2 saga following Ellie Simpson, a pilot in the ATA. I sold all three books to Aria, Head of Zeus, and so had to remove the first two from sale. Blue Skies & Tiger Moths will be released again in September and An ATA Girl  will come out next year. The final book, Over & Out has to be handed into Aria on January 1st. 

Now I have to begin all over again and think of three more sets of characters, one in each era, to write about.
Fenella J Miller

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Springtime News & Cover Reveal!

Spring is the time when the earth seems to wake up after its winter sleep, and I always feel a surge of energy as the days grow longer and the weather warms up.  This year is no different, and besides releasing my latest Sarah Mallory novel, The Ton's Most Notorious Rake, I have also been working on a brand new Melinda Hammond Regency (but more news of that at a later date) and a short story that will form part of a new anthology to be released very soon.

It is always exciting to reveal a new cover and a brand new book, but this one is a little different.  For the last few months I have been working on a short story for an anthology that is being released soon. I am one of nine northern  authors in the anthology, and our stories all feature Miss Moonshine's Emporium, a strange, other-worldly little shop set in a fictional town in Yorkshire. We have all written stories in different time periods, ranging from the Regency to modern day and I am delighted to say that my offering is the very first one in the book.  What do you think of the cover?

This is very different from anything else I have done as Melinda Hammond (and not the usual sort of cover one sees on this blog), and I am so pleased to be working with such a talented group of authors. You may know some of them and if you don't then this is an excellent introduction to their writing.

My contribution to the anthology  is a sweet little tale of love lost and found, set in the year following the Battle of Waterloo, when Miss Moonshine's Emporium is comparatively new.  It was a joy to  collaborate with other authors on this project. Writing can be a very solitary business and sometimes it is good to try something a little different. I have learned a lot from the experience, and I hope readers will enjoy reading these stories as much as we have enjoyed writing them.

Happy writing.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Jane Austen: Mourning as a Plot Device

Considering how many of Jane Austen’s heroes and heroines have lost a parent, there is remarkably little about mourning in her novels. The only characters who are directly affected by losing a parent are the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility. Elinor and Marianne’s father dies in February and Mrs Dashwood and her daughters remain at Norland Park for at least six months before they move to Barton Cottage in Devonshire. There are several reasons why Jane Austen allowed so long a time to elapse; first, it overs the first six months of secluded, deep mourning expected for a husband or parent, and, more practically from a novelist’s point of view, it gives Elinor time to get to know the attractive but diffident Edward Ferrars, brother of her mean spirited sister-in-law, Mrs John Dashwood, the new chatelaine of their home, Norland Park.

19th century mourning jet choker

However, once they are settled in Devonshire, they visit Mrs Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton, at Barton Park and enjoy a lively social life. Marianne meets the handsome and eligible Willoughby, and falls in love. The fact of them being now in half-mourning isn’t mentioned. And the following January, Elinor and Marianne accompany Mrs Jennings to London to enjoy what society has to offer without worrying about the propriety of it whilst they are in mourning. Possibly, the custom of lengthy mourning for relations was not yet so strictly observed in Society as it was to be later on; Sense and Sensibility was an early novel, first written in 1797-8.

 Mourning brooch with the deceased's plaited hair under the glass

The mourning is much more overt in Persuasion. When Anne Elliot first sees her cousin Mr William Elliot in Lyme, both he and his manservant are in mourning for Mr Eliot’s wife who died six months earlier. Jane Austen uses Mr Elliot’s mourning to help Anne learn about his true character from her friend Mrs Smith who once knew him well. Even if he didn’t care for his wife, surely he should be affected by her sudden death only six months before. He certainly ought not to be making up to the mercenary Mrs Clay who, Anne suspects, has plans to become the second Lady Elliot. Is Mr Elliot exercising his wiles to forestall that happening?

Ebony fan 

So what were the correct periods of mourning during the 19th century? Views became more extreme as the century wore on. At its height, a widow was expected to be in deep mourning for a year, wearing clothes made in matt black paramatta (a sort of silk/wool bombazine) and crepe. Twenty-one months later, she might leave off the crepe and three months after that she went into half-mourning for six months: grey, lavender, mauve, violet or grey and white stripes. As The Queen magazine put it: she was the victim of ‘a mild form of suttee’.

Cameo in jet frame
The mourning for a parent or child was a year. Again, one gradually ‘slighted’ the mourning. It must have been a relief to be able to wear jet ornaments, and, a little later, pearls, gold and silver and diamonds.

For grandparents, the mourning was six months, as it was for brothers and sisters. Uncles and aunts warranted two months’ mourning, great-uncles or aunts, six weeks, and first cousins a month. One had to lighten the mourning by degrees.

Gold, ebony and pearl mourning ring 
An amusing satirical sketch from Hoods Magazine is illuminating:

   Lady: ‘I suppose you have a great variety of half mourning?’

   Shopman: ‘Oh! Infinite – the largest stock in town. Full, and half, and quarter, and half-quarter, shaded off, if I may say so, like and India-ink drawing, from a grief prononcé to the slightest nuance of regret.’

Jet bracelet

The half-mourning colours reminded me of an episode in Georgette Heyer’s Bath Tangle. Six months have passed since her father’s death, and Serena has ‘slighted’ her mourning. She chooses to wear a new dress made by Bath’s leading modiste: It was a striking creation, of black figured lace over a robe of white satin, the bodice cut low and the train long. With it she wore her diamond earrings and the triple necklace of pearls her father had given her at her coming-of-age.

The hero, Lord Rotherham, is coming to dinner, but, at this stage, they are not on good terms. Serena looks magnificent but ‘the comment she evoked from the Marquis was scarcely flattering, “Good God, Serena!” he said, as he briefly shook her hand. “Setting up as a magpie?”

Broken jet necklace 
Georgette Heyer knew very well what she was about in Bath Tangle when she made her heroine, the 25-year-old Serena, a beautiful and queenly red-head, and her very young stepmother, Fanny, as a diaphanous and appealing blonde. She wrote to her agent: ‘They have to be like that so that each can look terrific in mourning.’

In other words, mourning can be a very useful plot device. For example, in The Toll Gate, the heroine Nell’s dying grandfather has high-handedly acquired a marriage licence, determined that Nell marries the hero Captain John Staple then and there; he wants to see the knot tied, before he dies. Nell thinks it’s outrageous.

 Mourning buckle

John has to persuade her. He says, ‘Now, consider, my love! If we are to wait until your grandfather is dead, how awkward in every respect must be our situation! You will then scruple to marry me until you are out of your blacks, and what the deuce are we to do for a whole year? Where will you go? How will you support yourself? With so many scruples you would never permit me to do that!’  

Nell gives in.

Gold, black enamel and seed pearl mourning ring. The reverse shows plaited hair from the deceased

Then there is Eugenia Wraxham, the tiresomely priggish fiancée of Charles Rivenhall in The Grand Sophy. Heyer needs Eugenia to be betrothed to Charles but not yet married. Mourning for an aunt is the answer and Eugenia ‘will not be out of black gloves for six months.’ (Interestingly, this is a longer period than is strictly necessary.)
When Charles, to his fury, discovers that Sophy has arranged a ball to launch herself into Society, and Eugenia has not been invited, his outspoken teenage sister says: ‘Can you have forgotten the bereavement in Miss Wraxham’s family?  I’m sure that if she has told us once she has told us a dozen times that propriety forbids her to attend any but the most quiet parties.’
Assorted jet beads 

If Eugenia were not in mourning, then she and Charles would have married months ago. But Heyer has other plans for Charles…
So, if you need to up the ante for your hero or heroine, you might want to consider how useful an inconvenient period of mourning could be.
Elizabeth Hawksley