Tuesday, April 22, 2014

All that glitters ...

Gem stones and jewels are endlessly fascinating and I have recently noticed that I seem to feature these in a lot of my stories although I didn’t mean for this to become a recurring theme.  I have blogged about both diamonds – “a girl’s best friend” – and pearls before, and I love treasure and precious things of any kind, but that goes for most people I think.  Through the ages, mankind has always coveted that which is most difficult to acquire, so at least I’m not alone!

(Not the Cheapside Hoard jewels but still pretty)
When Elizabeth Hawksley very kindly told me about an exhibition at the Museum of London called The Cheapside Hoard –London’s Lost Jewels, naturally I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to go and see it.  It sounded absolutely amazing, as indeed it was.  Not just because of the beauty of the treasures on display, but because of the mystery behind the discovery and the uniqueness of the collection – what looks like the entire stock of a 17th century jeweller, giving us vital knowledge of his trade at that time.

The find was shrouded in mystery for quite some time, although it is clear now that the cache of jewels was discovered by workmen in 1912.  They were demolishing a house in Cheapside – once one of the main markets and thoroughfares of the city of London and the place where all the best goldsmiths and jewellers had their shops during the 16th and 17th century.  When the builders reached the cellars of the house and broke through into an original cellar from before the Great Fire of London (which happened in 1666), the glittering hoard came to light.  They must have been both stunned and delighted!

Although such finds should be reported to the authorities, the labourers didn’t.  Instead they filled their pockets and anything else they had to hand and went to see a pawnbroker who was known to buy anything antique dug up in London.  Fortunately for posterity, he did the right thing and alerted the London Museum, who subsequently bought most of what had been found.  Some of the pieces did get lost and may still be in private ownership somewhere, but the vast majority of gems and jewels ultimately ended up at the museum.  And what a dazzling display they make!

There were bodkins (hairpins), rings, necklaces and loose gemstones.  Brooches, cameos, watches and buttons.  In short, every kind of item you would expect to find in a goldsmith’s shop.  I imagined myself as a 17th century lady, trying to choose something out of this magnificent collection and decided that if I could only have one thing, it had to be one of the lovely pendant drops.  Made of amethysts, emeralds or garnets, they sparkled in the muted light and looked like mini chandeliers, some with little jewel clusters that had been fashioned to resemble bunches of grapes.  I could have bought two and used them as earrings, or just one for a necklace.  They were quite simply stunning!

I think we definitely owe that pawnbroker a debt of gratitude for saving the Cheapside Hoard from being dispersed – it would have been a terrible shame not to be able to see it now.

So back to my own stories and jewels – the one I’m working on at the moment (Monsoon Mists – to be published August 2014) features a gem trader who is based in India in the late 1750’s.  Unfortunately this was a bit later than the Cheapside Hoard, but I had great fun doing the research for this era too.  It’s never a hardship to go and look at beautiful diamonds, rubies or sapphires, and I enjoyed learning about the various ways in which these were graded and valued.  The best of them came from India, Sri Lanka or Burma, whereas if you wanted emeralds, the quality stones were from South America.  My hero travels both to the fabled diamond mines of Golconda (India) and to Burma in search of rubies.  And along the way he comes across a very unusual jewel, which causes him no end of trouble … but more about that in August.

As for the jewels of the Cheapside Hoard, I have a feeling they will come in very handy for my next time slip which is set during the English Civil War.  Now all I have to do is choose whether my heroine should have amethysts or emeralds for her pendant drop earrings …

Christina x

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Titanic Affair

It’s over a hundred years since the sinking of Titanic, but the disaster still resonates with us today. The ship struck the iceberg on the night of April 14th, 2012 at 11.40 pm and sank in the early hours of April 15th at 2.20 am. I’m going to be blogging about my historical romance set on board the ill-fated ship.

 I believe it’s important to keep the story of Titanic alive because, to quote Edmund Burke, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”.

Writing Titanic Affair was a new experience for me. Although I’d written a lot of historical romances by the time I wrote Titanic Affair, they were not based around any specific event, so the research process was very different. It was very important to me that the book was factually accurate and so I turned to survivors’ accounts and newspaper reports from the time, as well as the findings of the official investigation. I knew that my book would cover the entire voyage and so I didn’t just research the disaster, I also researched accounts of life on board before disaster struck.

My heroine, Emilia, is leaving England to live with her godmother in Ireland. She is poor, but her godmother has given her a first-class ticket and so she is able to enjoy everything the first-class passengers have at their disposal. One of her friends on board uses the gym, with its cycling and rowing machines as well as its more exotic pieces of apparatus such as an electric horse and an electric camel. She visits the Turkish Baths, with their lavish Moorish-style decorations, but stops short at using the swimming pool. She eats in many of the cafés and restaurants including the Café Parisien, with its beautiful trellis work and wicker furniture. She also dines in the dining saloon as well as the à la carte restaurant, which was run by Monsieur Gatti, who had previously managed the restaurant of the Ritz.

But her plan to stay with her godmother is destroyed when she runs into an old adversary. By the time she escapes, Ireland has been left behind and she is forced to remain on board as the ship heads out to America. Which brings her into an increasingly close relationship with  the wealthy Carl Latimer . . .

You will find a lot more about life on board, as well as the love story between Emilia and Carl, in Titanic Affair. It’s in a special promotion at the moment on the Kindle. You can buy the book at Amazon UK
Amazon US

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rocking and Rolling, Naval Style

As many of you know, I have quite a yen to write a Regency with a Naval hero or three. Must be all those Hornblower books that I keep reading -- saying nothing about the TV series, natch -- and maybe those fabulous uniforms. 

Royal Clipper under Full Sail
But I had never been on a sailing ship. Well, now I have and it is amazing.

This is the ship I was on. I'm told she's the largest fully rigged sailing ship in commercial use. She is certainly very large, with five masts. She's also much, much more automated than anything Nelson's navy could have dreamed of.

I think she's absolutely stunning. When she's whizzing along under sail, it is supremely peaceful and the feeling is wonderful.

Provided she's just whizzing along, that is. We had a couple of sectors on the trip when she wasn't whizzing peacefully along at all. She was rolling (from side to side). A lot. Now that's actually OK, I found. If you're in bed, you just go with the flow and try not to fall out. If you're walking about, you always have one had free to hold on (with the drink in the other one).

Mind you, in the dining room, rolling was a bit problematic. There was one night when we were sitting at a table of 6. The 3 women were sitting on the banquette along the ship's side. The 3 men were sitting opposite on rather spindly gilt chairs. The ship was rolling so that the portholes along the dining soom were disappearing under water every now and then. And every now and then, said men were grabbing at the table in order not to go over backwards which would have been very undignified (and, for the wives, very funny). I can now say I have definitely seen fear in a man's eye.

Seriously, when the ship was rolling AND pitching as well (prow down into the water and then back up again), it was not at all comfortable and I shall have much more sympathy with my Naval heroes when I write then. Especially as their sailors had to go up the masts, in all weathers, to set and trim the sails. Have a look at this set of sails and just imagine how it would have been. Scary, I'd say.

Royal Clipper: Just Count How Many Sails She Has!

And in spite of the rolling, the waiters could still serve soup -- slowly -- without spilling a drop. No doubt Nelson's sailors could serve him soup as well.


and at last on Twitter too @JoannaMaitland

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Weather Conditions – natural or man-made?

 The weather this year has been extraordinary – no doubt caused by global warming. More flooding, more rain and less frost than previously recorded. Then most of March was extraordinarily warm.  I was married on March 7th 50 years ago and it snowed. This year it was warm and sunny and people wore summer clothes to our party. Last year the weather was mild in February and snowed heavily in March.
I thought I would look in my "Seed Time & Harvest", the diary of an Essex Farmer – William Barnard of Harlowbury by Joyce Jones – to see what the weather was like in April.
April 13 (1811)
The weather this day very ungenial ...the severe frost have checked vegetation  very much which the previous mild weather had caused to be forwarder than had been known for many years.I should have tried to sow Grassy piece with barley this day had I not been at malt carting; it has now been plowed about a month & having once got dry it was useless to attempt to sow it without rain, but if we do not have more showers I am not sure I can do it next week. I never remember so long a time this season in the year without rain.

So unseasonable and unusual weather can be caused by things other than man-made pollution. April 1811 was obviously unusual. The severe frosts William Barnard mentions in his diary were causing him problems and then the long period of dry weather, also unexpected in April – there wouldn't be the saying "April showers" if the month is not usually wet – prevented him from planting his barley.
The long-range weather forecast for 2014 is for the hottest summer ever – May to August the temperatures are expected to be in the 30s. Is this expected heat wave a product of deforestation and carbon emissions or just part of the world's natural cycle? Even the Americans now believe there is something called "global warming" but I'm not sure they accept this is damaging our world and changing weather patterns.
What do you think?

Fenella J Miller

Monday, April 07, 2014

Dick Turpin and Highwayman Heroes

On this day in 1739 Dick Turpin, one of the most famous highwaymen in England, was hanged at York for stealing a horse. The historical Dick Turpin was, of course, very different from the romanticised image of the highwayman that sometimes appears in historical fiction. Turpin was a thief and a murderer. In his own times he was not the most famous of highwaymen and after his death he was forgotten for a hundred years.

It’s interesting how outlaws can become heroes, both in historical fiction and in the heritage industry. Some of my favourite fictional heroes are pirates or smugglers or highwaymen. In Georgette Heyer’s books I have a particular fondness for Nick Beauvallet, the pirate hero of Beauvallet, and for Ludovic Lavenham in The Talisman Ring. Jane Aiken Hodge's book Watch the Wall, My Darling was one of the first historical romances I read and I loved the free trading hero. My very first book had a highwayman as hero. It was never published but I have retained a fondness for highwaymen and have written pirates and smugglers as well.

So how and why did outlaws, from Robin Hood to Dick Turpin, become heroes? Why is the highwayman sometimes a romantic and glamorous figure? He is usually portrayed as a dashing miscreant or likeable rogue.  He is a hero in the public imagination whereas in reality, he (or she) is a criminal. There is a suggestion that the outlaw personifies some of the aspirations that lie deep in many of us to be a devil-may-care individualist and go our own way. In addition, it takes courage and confidence to hold up carriages; it requires strength of personality as well as force of arms, superb horsemanship, stamina and patience. The highwayman of myth embodies gallantry and courtesy, and faces death with a swagger. Horses were expensive and were therefore usually ridden by a “gentleman” unless, of course, the highwayman was also a horse thief.

Highway robbery flourished at a time when the hold of government and of law and order was incomplete or when forces of government were unpopular or illegitimate. There is usually the implication that the outlaw is a wronged character, either personally or by powerful and corrupt government forces.

It was the Victorian novelist W Harrison Ainsworth who started Dick Turpin’s cult of celebrity when he
made him a character in his first novel, Rookwood. Ainsworth invented Turpin’s famous horse, Black Bess, and attributed to him the famous ride from London to York, which was actually made by a completely different highwayman. Turpin’s fame and hold on the popular imagination grew from there. I vividly remember the 1970s TV series Dick Turpin which was one of the many costume dramas I loved as a child. It did a great deal to instill a romantic love of history in me!

Do you enjoy books with outlaw heroes, whether they are highwaymen, pirates or free traders? Do you have any favourites? And why do you think they are popular?

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Glamour of Italian Fashion

On Wednesday, I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum for the preview of their new exhibition: The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014, from 5th April – 27th July 2014,  sponsored by the Italian jewellers, Bulgari, with added support from Nespresso.

                                                              Prada 2012 Flame shoes

I arrived feeling frazzled by the London rush hour and desperate for a cup of coffee. Fortunately, outside the exhibition, Nespresso was offering us some. I know it’s not cool, but I don’t like my coffee strong so I asked, diffidently, for a mild cappuccino. He looked at me through narrowed eyes for a moment and then said, ‘Brazilian coffee. It’s very smooth. You’ll like it.’

I did. It was delicious! I made a mental note that, in future, Brazilian coffee will be my coffee of choice.

                                                              André Lang coat 1960s

Rejuvenated, I went into the exhibition. My first thought was that I was in heaven; the clothes, shoes, handbags etc. were wonderful and, what’s more, they were raised up and properly spaced out so that you could see them properly. The lighting was just right, the signage was excellent and, on the walls above the exhibits, film clips and fashion photos added to the dolce vita ambience. The credit for all this must go to the curator, Sonnet Stanfill, who, in my view, has done a brilliant job.

                                                    Sorelle Fontana evening dress 1950s

The models photographed, particularly from the 50s and 60s, look like real young women with proper curves. They obviously enjoy life. You suspect that, for two pins, they’d hitch up their skirts, hop on the back of a Vespa driven by a sexy Italian wearing an impeccably-tailored suit, and zoom off. They are refreshingly different from our sulky, stick-thin 21st century models.

                                                                   Vespa 125, 1949

I particularly enjoyed the 50s and 60s rooms. The pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the fabulous Bulgari emerald and diamond necklace set that Richard Burton bought for Elizabeth Taylor. It’s rarely exhibited, so it is great to have a chance to see it. 

                                           Bulgari emerald, diamond and platinum necklace

This was the era when Hollywood came to Rome and Cinecitta to shoot films like Roman Holiday and all the big names are here. I loved Audrey Hepburn’s Empire-line ball dress by Gattinoni (1955) from War and Peace, now, alas, rather faded. And there are superb examples, like Gianfranco Ferré’s elegant evening dress, or André Lang’s superbly-tailored coat, both from the 1960s, which demonstrate Italian technical expertise and flair.

                                                  Gianfranco Ferré Evening dress 1960s

The exhibition also has plenty examples from modern designers. You can admire Dolce and Gabbana’s dramatic, glittery 2001 ankle boots, or Prada’s 2008 flower-heeled shoes, for example. The last room is devoted to up and coming designers who have something new and exciting to offer.

                                                  Glittery boots, Dolce & Gabbana 2001

Above all, I just loved the elegant design and attention to detail of all the items on display; shoes and handbags as well as the clothes. There’s something immensely satisfying about seeing clothes by designers who are absolutely at the top of their game. The Italians can do anything, I decided; be it with leather, wool, silk, beads or embroidery.

                                                      Prada flower-heeled shoes 2008

Often, after spending several hours in an exhibition, I reel out in a state of cultural exhaustion. This time, I left feeling energized. This exhibition is a real tonic. If you feel in want of a little glamour in your life – and who doesn’t? – get to the V & A. You won’t be disappointed.

Elizabeth Hawksley

Photos taken by Elizabeth Hawksley by kind permission of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Stage Mega Stars of the Eighteenth Century

My recent book for Harlequin Historical – AT THE HIGHWAYMAN'S PLEASURE,  had the working title The Actress and the Highwayman, for obvious reasons! When I was researching for it, I read about the real life actresses of the eighteenth century, and what fascinating characters I discovered.  They were the mega stars of their day. 

Anne Oldfield
Anne Oldfield, for example (1683 – 1730). She was a soldier's daughter who started work as a seamstress's apprentice, but one day when she was reciting some lines from a play (as you do!) the  dramatist George Farquhar overheard her and she was taken on as an actress as Drury Lane.

 It was not overnight stardom, though, it was ten years later when she was acclaimed as the best actress of her day. By the time she died she had amassed a considerable fortune, some of it from a gentleman who left half his fortune to her and their son (born out of wedlock). She had another natural son by Lieutenant General Charles Churchill. She is buried in Westminster Abbey, beneath the monument to Congreve.

Lavinia Fenton
Another great actress of her day was Lavinia Fenton. She is thought to be the daughter of a naval officer but took the name of her mother's husband (relationships were just as complicated in the 18th century as they are in today's celebrity world). 

It is also thought she was a child prostitute before she became an actress. She made her name as Polly Peachum in the Beggar's Opera.  Portraits of her were in great demand, books were written about her and verses published. In 1728 she ran away with the 3rd Duke of Bolton, who was much older than herself.  They had three sons together and when his wife died in 1751 he married her.  She outlived her husband and died in 1760.

Finally, there is the actress whose name is still well known today – Sarah Siddons. She was born in Wales in 1755 and was famous for her tragic roles. Here she is painted by Reynolds "in tragic pose" as Lady Macbeth.  She came from an acting family, the Kembles, but acting was still not quite "respectable" and her parents did not want her to go on the stage. She began her working life as a lady's maid but acting was in her blood and in 1773 she married an actor, William Siddons. Her first appearance at Drury Lane was not a success and they told her she was no longer required.  In 1777 she went to the provinces and worked  "on the circuit" for the next six years. Then in 1782 she returned to Drury Lane and this time was hugely successful. 

She was described as tall and striking with brilliant beauty and expressive eyes. She had a solemn dignity in her tragic roles. In 1802 she went into semi-retirement, appearing occasionally at Covent Garden where she gave a farewell performance in 1812. After that she made a few special appearances, the last in 1819.  Sarah died in 1831, having borne seven children and outliving five of them. She is buried in St Mary's Cemetery at Paddington Green.

My actress, Charity Weston, is not as successful or famous as any of the above, but it was fun to give her some of their characteristics – she is very beautiful, for example, and when she meets the fascinating Ross Durden she needs all her acting skills to bring their story to a successful conclusion.

Sarah Mallory - AT THE HIGHWAYMAN'S PLEASURE pub Harlequin March 2014


As Melinda Hammond: the award-winning   DANCE FOR A DIAMOND now available on Amazon.