Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy Christmas!

Steventon Rectory
Wishing all our readers a very happy Christmas!

I've been busy with a new book, Project Darcy, which is out now and on a special Christmas offer on Kindle, along with Mr Darcy's Secret and Searching for Captain Wentworth. Here's a little blurb about my timeslip novel which is inspired by Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:-

A LOVE STORY LOST IN PRIDE & PREJUDICE... It is high summer when Ellie Bentley joins an archaeological dig at Jane Austen's childhood home. She's always had a talent for 'seeing' into the past and is not easily disturbed by her encounters with Mr Darcy's ghost at the house where she's staying. When Ellie travels into the past she discovers exactly what happened whilst Jane danced her way through the snowy winter of 1796. As Steventon Rectory and all its characters come to life, Ellie discovers the true love story lost in Pride and Prejudice - a tale which has its own consequences for her future destiny, changing her life beyond imagination.

Here's an excerpt -I hope you enjoy it!
Hopping about on the cold floor pulling on long woollen stockings, I reached for my dressing robe and tip-toed to the window avoiding those places on the oak boards that I knew would creak with a loud retort and wake the rest of the house. Outside, beyond the snow-powdered casement, pine trees glittered with ice crystals in the pearly morning light, and the fields stretched away under billowing, white folds like sheets flapping in the wind on washday. It had been snowing again and all pathways and the road beyond had vanished save for the trails made by pheasants and foxes, rabbits and other small creatures that had been up and around in the night searching for food.
All of a sudden, my thoughts were interrupted by the thud of something white and icy being hurled against the glass. It was a snowball! Looking out through the window once more, I could see nothing at first until the sight of a figure stepping out to look up caught my attention. Running downstairs with my hair flying and giving not a care for anything except opening the front door, I felt the same kind of excitement that I’d been conscious of at the Manydown ball. I opened the door with caution but the figure had gone, and although I’d only glimpsed him I knew exactly who had thrown the snowball at my window. I looked all about, but Tom had truly disappeared. I was about to shut the door when I noticed a small package at my feet on the step.
I ran to my room with the precious parcel. With trembling fingers I untied the scarlet ribbon that bound the small box to discover a sprig of mistletoe inside, tied with the same ribbon, its milky pearls still glistening with snow. There was a note.
To Miss Jane Austen - a poem, with apologies to Mr William Cowper from whom I have stolen said verse and rearranged for my own ends. Please think on me when you behold this token.

To a Friend

What Nature, alas! has deni’d
To the delicate growth of our isle,

Art has in a measure suppli’d,

And winter is deck’d with a smile.

See, Jane, what beauties I bring

From the shelter of an obliging tree,

Where the flowers have the charms of the spring,
Though abroad they are frozen and dead.

’Tis a bower of Arcadian sweets,
Where Flora is still in her prime;
A fortress to which she retreats,

From the cruel assaults of the clime.

While earth wears a mantle of snow,

This mistletoe is as fresh and as gay,

As the fairest and sweetest that blow

On the beautiful bosom of May.

Thank you for so many exquisite moments last night, dearest Jane,
Your friend,
T. L.

Holding the be-ribboned mistletoe to my cheek I delighted in his simple gift as if it had been a token of gold. How clever and unexpected of Tom. I’d hoped I might see him, but this was the next best thing and could only remind me of last night. It hadn’t been a dream and Tom was clearly thinking of those stolen kisses just as much.

With thoughts of my handsome Irishman dancing in my head, I washed and dressed in a dream. The house was stirring. I could hear the familiar murmur of my parents talking in the next room, and knew they would be wishing to break their fast very soon. I rushed downstairs to help Nanny Hilliard and Nanny Littleworth who insisted they needed no help at all so I dashed to the quiet parlour to sit at my writing box and fetch out a piece of pressed paper. Cassandra must be told my latest news about Tom if she were not able to meet him herself.
Jane and Tom Lefroy at the Ashe Ball

As if my very thoughts had been read the post was brought in, and there was a letter from my dear sister. Cassy told me how she was passing her time pleasantly with the Fowles, but that it meant she missed her Tom even more. Spending time with his brother who reminded her of him so much was very hard, but in her usual stoical style she wrote that she had time to spend on sewing shirts for him and thinking about her wedding clothes and much else. The letter went on:
I am certain your Tom is as much the gentleman as you describe and I am very sorry not to meet him, but I cannot read your last letter without giving you a hint of caution. Please be sensible of those people who will take pleasure in gossiping about the pair of you if you do not disguise your partiality. You should not show your preference for any gentleman, and, in any case, I do not think you should neglect those you have been pleased to call your dancing partners in the past – there are always those who are ‘willing’. Do not let Tom single you out for more than two dances or for too much conversation – it may not be safe – Tom will not be in Steventon forever, and it might be propitious to look closer to home for a husband.
Besides, if you have set your cap at Mr Lefroy, you will leave these other fellows broken-hearted. Can it really be true that you are to dance your last with the beaux of Steventon? The Hampshire lanes will be strewn with lovelorn gentleman, and on my return, I will, no doubt, have to counsel them all!
But, I cannot believe that you truly mean never to dance again, except with a charming Irishman – especially one who chooses to display his shocking want of taste by dashing around Steventon in a light coloured morning coat! Now I understand why the pink Persian silk was so important – no doubt, you shall wear it under muslin for the next ball.
Now, I have given you my sisterly advice, I shall say only this: I hope you have a wonderful time at the next evening party and have many partners with which to dance, although I fear that you and your Tom may expose yourselves too much for propriety. In any event, I will allow you to step out for the first two with the handsome Mr Lefroy, and I remain,
Yours affectionately,
p. s. I long to hear all about the ball at Manydown!

 Happy Christmas, with love-
Jane Odiwe

Monday, December 23, 2013

Mistletoe and Christmas

As a teenager, I used to read Asterix the Gaul comics and absolutely loved them.  That may not seem very relevant to this blog, but actually, I learned a lot about the Romans from them and even some Latin!  It was also the first time I heard about mistletoe, which was rare in Sweden, and the authors made it sound like something magical.  Indeed, in the stories the village druid, Getafix, uses it as a special ingredient for a secret magic potion and cuts it with a sacred golden sickle, which all seemed wonderful to me!

When I moved to England, mistletoe seemed to be readily available to buy in shops around Christmas-time, but I never thought about where it came from or how it grew.  I somehow assumed it was grown commercially somewhere and harvested for sale to people wanting somewhere to smooch at Christmas.  I was therefore amazed to find it in our garden when we moved to the country – not just a little bit, but huge great balls of the stuff, hung about the trees.  Without my glasses on, I’d taken it to be bird’s nests!

So where does the notion of kissing underneath it come from?  No one seems quite sure. 

First of all, there are lots of different varieties of this plant, but the one we usually refer to is known as the European White-Berried Mistletoe, Viscum Album.  Mistletoe is mentioned in the Norse sagas, but as a murder weapon only (!), and the Celts apparently used it as a remedy for various things (it is poisonous, so they would have had to be very careful).  However, they also considered it a fertility symbol, which could explain the kissing.  (And since it is an evergreen plant, it continues to be fruitful while trees like oak and ash lose their leaves, hence it’s still ‘fertile’.)  And the shape of the mistletoe, its leaves and juicy berries, are sometimes viewed as a slightly ‘sexual’.

By the 16th century, kissing under mistletoe seems to have been a popular custom in England, so its association with fertility must have continued in people’s memories.  The tradition could also come from Scandinavia, where there are lots of obscure customs to do with Christmas and the run-up to Yuletide (or jul as we say).  It is definitely considered a ‘pagan’ plant and is often banned from being used as church decorations, perhaps because it was associated with pre-Christian mid-winter solstice rites.

In continental Europe it is said to bring peace and luck, as well as in Greek and Roman legend.  Perhaps this was where the Asterix creators’ view of mistletoe came from?  Ancient Celtic druids are supposed to have used and revered the plant, according to tradition, but there isn’t really any evidence of this at all.  Pliny the Elder wrote about druids, saying they worshipped mistletoe because it grew on their sacred trees, especially oak.  In actual fact, mistletoe seldom grows on oak trees, so this may not be very accurate.

It also happens to be the county flower of Herefordshire, where I now live – no wonder I found so much of it in my garden!  And a town on the Herefordshire/ Worcestershire border, Tenbury Wells, have a National Mistletoe Day and a Mistletoe Festival at the beginning of December.  I’ve missed it this year, but I will definitely go next year!

Happy Christmas everyone and I hope you’ve stocked up on mistletoe!

Christina x

Friday, December 20, 2013

Guest blog - New illustrated edition of Pride and Prejudice

If you love Pride and Prejudice - and who doesn't? - there's a wonderful new edition available on Kindle with original illustrations by Elizabeth Monahan. We're delighted to have Elizabeth as our guest here on the blog to talk about her work.

Over to you, Elizabeth!

Thanks! I am a freelance illustrator, having graduated from The Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. I’ve illustrated a number of children’s books for Oxford University Press, Channel 4, and Dominie Press, and recently illustrated a new edition of The Wizard of Oz, published by Quarto.

I live in Norwich with my husband, who is a freelance photographer and our retired, ex-racer greyhound, Mister Bingley!
I have loved Jane Austen’s books for as long as I can remember, and her novels have been a touchstone for my enduring love of historical fiction. I studied English Literature at Southampton University, and chose the works of Jane Austen as the subject of my final year degree thesis. After this, I took a sabbatical from illustrating, and worked as a secondary school English teacher for 3 years, before returning to my easel in 2007.

The advent of new technologies inspired me to realize my dream of producing a self-published version of Pride and Prejudice, using my own illustrations. I’ve been really encouraged by the success of my ‘Cast Of’ series, a set of paintings that I produced in 2011, featuring all the main characters from each of Austen’s six novels. I’ve been selling prints of them through my own Etsy shop: ‘BlueSkyInking’, and also through the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire.


I wanted to honor the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice with my own tribute, and decided to produce a newly illustrated edition that focused on the satirical nuances of the plot rather than the more familiar romantic themes. I’ve enjoyed the many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice on TV, especially Andrew Davis’s seminal 1995 BBC interpretation, but felt the time was right to offer a fresh insight into the book, with contemporary illustrations highlighting the timeless quality and enduring wit of Austen’s prose, without patronizing the reader. I hoped this approach would appeal to a new generation of Austen fans, who might be unfamiliar with the novel, and crave something more rewarding than the limited scope offered by the film and TV adaptations. However, I didn’t want to alienate Austen’s established fan-base, so I had to be careful not to make the artwork too ‘modern’. I started by making very rough pencil sketches and once I’d settled on a style, I worked them up into something more ‘substantial’. I also spent a lot of time in art galleries, museums and public libraries, visiting bookshops, and researching the work of contemporary illustrators whom I admire, to gain insight and inspiration.


I also had to decide how to ‘personalize’ the characters. I knew that they would need to be slightly ‘cartooned’ in order to convey the humorous situations in which they find themselves. Austen gives very little away in terms of her characters’ physical appearance, which was something of a blessing for me.

I was acutely aware that everyone has a personal vision of how Elizabeth and Darcy should ‘look’. My husband and I once spied Matthew Macfadyen shopping in Arundel, West Sussex. I couldn’t help myself! “My goodness, it’s Mr. Darcy!” Thank goodness he didn’t hear me! He was standing outside a shop, looking a little lost. I’m grateful that I didn’t introduce myself because, seconds later, his wife Keeley Hawes (“My goodness, it’s Lady Agnes Holland” [Upstairs Downstairs]), came scuttling round the corner, weighed down by a mountain of shopping bags. Memories of that serendipitous afternoon returned to me as I sat pondering my first rough sketch of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. After much soul-searching, I opted to go with the interpretation that I’d formed on first reading the book, when I was sixteen!

When I am commissioned by a publisher to illustrate a book, I usually work with a picture editor and designer. I will work to a specific brief and follow a design-template that directs me where to place a picture in relation to the text. Once the artwork is finished, it’s sent off to the publishers, who’ll use their own design team to marry the text and illustrations, before it’s sent to the printers. Ta-Dah!

I enjoyed no such luxury, or support, (apart from the odd cup of tea and macaroon from my husband, and words of encouragement from family and friends alike). I had to make all those decisions on my own. Once I’d settled on a ‘style’, I mapped out the book in a rough format, producing a ‘storyboard’ version, which covered the walls of my studio. All in all, it took ten long months. I continued to finesse the completed artworks, which took a further three or four months. In total, 64 illustrations made it in to the book, although I rejected hundreds in the process.

Perhaps the most time-consuming (and frustrating!) aspect of putting the book together was the technological side of the process. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is my first foray into the ‘dark-arts’ of self-publishing, so my learning curve was vertiginous! I had to learn how to put the document together and follow the specifications carefully so that my document would upload correctly as an e-book. This took many attempts and re-starts, but I got there in the end!

I hope to illustrate all of Austen’s novels. My next challenge is ‘Mansfield Park’ for its bicentenary in 2014. I hope it won’t take as long as Pride and Prejudice. I’ve started to do rough outlines for the main characters, and I’ll hope to post regular updates of my progress. I’ll have to re-read the book over the Christmas holidays, and I hope to start in earnest in the New Year. I hope to follow it up with ‘Emma’ in 2015 and ‘Persuasion’ on 2017. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Northanger Abbey’ will perhaps appear in 2016, but I may need a rest by then!

Thank you, Elizabeth! You can find out more about Elizabeth's work, including some wonderful notecards to buy, at her Etsy shop and you can buy the illustrated Pride and Prejudice from all Amazons including  Amazon UK and  Amazon US 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Very Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year

George Morland, Skating Party. Wash & ink. c.1792


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Public Penance

When notice was posted of a public penance that would take place at a Cornish church on Trinity Sunday, 6th June 1834, a crown of 5000 – most of them women – turned up to see the event.  They arrived well in advance of the service to witness what the local newspaper's reporter called, 'this highly ridiculous piece of mummery.'

A Mrs Brown had apparently called a Mrs Michell a naughty woman.  Whether these were actually the words Mrs Brown used, or whether the reporter was being tactful in order to avoid upsetting reader sensibilities, isn't clear.

Mrs Brown arrived in a post-chaise at midday. Wearing a white dress and a smart bonnet decorated with flowers and ribbons and a long black veil, she carried a green parasol, and with all the confidence of a theatrical queen, she walked into the church in the middle of the sermon.  Not surprisingly this caused immediate uproar.

Mrs Michell, the injured party, was seated at the clergyman's desk. Mrs Brown was escorted to the desk usually occupied by the clerk.  Once there she raised her veil and carefully swept it to one side. The reporter noted that her smile revealed a good set of teeth as she bestowed smiles on all her admiring friends who had prepared an effigy of poor Mrs Michell which they promised to burn.  Mr Davey, a deputy-lieutenant of the County, immediately called upon the parish constables to remove and destroy the effigy.

Eventually the sermon resumed. After it finished,  the clerk announced psalm 120, the new version, as this most clearly expressed the injured feelings of Mrs Michell.   Then the clergyman read the following words which were repeated by the supposedly penitent Mrs Brown:

'I, Jane Brown' do hereby acknowledge and confess that I did speak several reproachful, scandalous and defamatory words of you, Elizabeth Michell, and that I have defamed and abused you, and ask your pardon, and promise not to be guilty of the like offence in future.'

When she had finished, she thanked the audience for the honour of their attendance, then added in an undertone:  'For a pint of toddy I'll go through the same next Sunday if you, Mother Michell, will pay the tip.'

So much for penitence!

Jane Jackson.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Happy Christmas

Hi everyone.

I've taken advantage of this extra post, gifted me by Joanna Maitland to wish all my readers and friends a Happy Christmas.  I now have this little Christmas story on sale at Amazon Kindle, and this month the first of a new Regency triolgy from Anne Herries and Mills & Boon was launched.

Have a wonderful Christmas and a healthy, happy 2014!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Writers' clubs

From literary salons to writers of aggrieved, bitter diatribes against the ills of society, clubs for writers have existed as far back as we can trace. This month, if you will indulge me, I'll describe a couple I'm a proud member of.

Over the years I’ve belonged to not a few writers’ clubs, from after-school ones to the RNA, which of course is much more than that. But it also serves as a club.

Writers need these, because sitting at the computer/desk/coffee bar all day making stuff up is a tiring business, and the old batteries need refreshing a time or three. But they can be a mixed bag.
There was an awful one at school. My English teacher tried to make me write like Alan Sillitoe, and because I’m from the working class, she kept wanting me to write stories set there, taking "Write what you know" a bit too literally. I wanted to get away, and dream of other worlds, other places. Miss Dumont was a lovely lady and very encouraging. The writers’ club was very highbrow. Nobody read romance unless it was the twelfth century kind. Or it was Doomed. They were all right, the doomed kind. But I was young and impressionable, and I hid my scribblings about people who found their soulmates and lived happily ever after. People like my parents, and most of my family. Because they don’t exist in real life, do they?
I'm not the clubbable type, but I do belong to two these days.
One is the North-West chapter of the RNA, where we have luminaries, I mean real stars. And really nice people. What’s more, really nice people who understand what writing romance means, and almost more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. We have all sorts, from the writer of the long drawn-out clogs ‘n’ shawls dramas, to Mills and Boon writers, to writers of the naughty stuff (that’s me!). We meet for a good meal four times a year, and it’s a great and welcome change from eating a quick ham butty while I’m sitting at the computer. Mind you, since I got my Bialetti, I’m getting great coffee.
Which reminds me, I'm about due one now…
One coffee later, I have one more writers’ group to talk about. My local club, the Wire Writers (so called because the town of Warrington was famed for making wire for the Empire) contains a disparate group. Screenwriters, poets, memoir writers, people who want to write to fulfil their own ambitions, and have no intention of publishing, people who have been writing wonderful, accomplished poetry all their lives but are destined to starve, and people who want to learn how to write. I’m a bit of an oddity there, but I really love being a member and listening to the others. Run by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Joanna Delooze, we take part in arts festivals and public recitals. One of my friends and her partner stood in the marketplace and read their poetry the other week. Just like the Romans of old, declaiming in the forum! We have a meeting tonight, early because of Christmas. There might be mince pies!