Friday, June 17, 2016

It's that time of year...

It’s that time of year to don one’s best bonnet and go gallivanting again to Regency events and the ever so delightful balls and assemblies. Some friends and I will be dancing at the Alton Ball tomorrow, and those of us who have more love of Austen than sense [putting my hand up ;) ] simply can’t wait to get there.
If my scheduled post were next week, I could have brought new photos, but as it’s today I had to look for photos from previous years in Alton and Chawton.

The lure of Chawton is ever so great for those of us who revere Jane Austen and the legacy she left us. 

The beautiful cottage whence her genius was released into the world...

...the Great House with its tranquil beauty...

...the whole village and its picture-perfect cottages...

...and the surrounding countryside with the English verdure she writes about with so much affection in ‘Emma’

We can easily imagine Jane Austen walking the very same woodland paths – I think that, like Elizabeth Bennet, she enjoyed a good long ramble, and might well have returned home on more than one occasion with her skirts six inches deep in mud.

As always, I wonder what she would say were she to somehow learn of the amazing following she and her work still have, two centuries on; were she to see the crowds gathering in Alton in their finery to honour the Regency period, largely because of her. I think she would be surprised, hopefully gratified, but greatly entertained as well. Much like Elizabeth Bennet, I think she, too, dearly loved a laugh.

There will be laughter aplenty ‘on the morrow’, and dancing and good cheer, and hopefully we would continue to meet in years to come, to play dress-up (odd as non-Janeites think us :) ) and flutter our fans, dance and party like it’s 1799.

Monday, June 13, 2016


Looking at images of Georgian life, one gets the impression that the use of tobacco was neither general nor widespread. Caricatures tend to depict an exaggerated truth, and only in a few does one find a pipe smoker, and in none a man taking snuff.

Rowlandson shows one soldier smoking in a group of five, and similarly one working man among seven in a pub. A few men are depicted taking a pipe at their own hearth. Ackermann’s Fleet Prison yard, with groups enough to form a crowd, has one lone fellow with smoke issuing from his long clay pipe. Only Hogarth has half the males smoking pipes in a single group, and that is in a scene of drunken debauch!


It seems fair to assume, then, that although smoking was prevalent not everyone indulged in the habit; those who did confined their pipes to the pub, the coffee house or home. One can also be confident that far fewer women than men took tobacco at all, although an image of an elderly working class dame with a pipe pops up occasionally.

Clearly many did use snuff, because it was a high production trade and is mentioned in contemporary accounts. But although tobacco had a place, it seems unlikely that its use was anything like as widespread as it was during the earlier years of the twentieth century. Yet those Georgians who disapproved of the use of tobacco appear convinced that it was highly prevalent in their own time.

The dangers were known. Tobacco is listed in a late 18th Century treatise on poisons. According to the writer, there was evidence to suggest it was an active poison, “yet everyone knows that under the influence of habit it is used in immense quantities over the whole world as an article of luxury, without any bad effect having ever been clearly traced to it.”

Much was made of the effects of snuff on workmen who manufactured it, some sources claiming it gave them bronchitis and dysentery among other ailments, but others managed to prove that workmen became used to it and didn’t suffer any ill effects. As ever, those with a vested interest will find a way to prove their point!

Such symptoms as were noted are known to us now: speeded up heart rate, giddiness, shortness of breath, spasms, fainting, sickness, weak pulse and sleepiness. One doctor suspected apoplexy (heart attack) “is one of the evils in train of that disgusting practice”, referring to taking snuff. Two young men actually died from tobacco poisoning, having smoked about “seventeen pipes at a sitting”. One wonders how that compares with 20 or 40 a day now?

We are indebted to a French chemist of the era, Vauquelin, for naming the killer substance in tobacco as nicotine. Later chemists argued about which precise part of tobacco caused the problems, but it was generally agreed that tobacco contained an “acrid, alkaline principle and an essential oil to which the alkaloid adheres with great obstinacy”, which was bad news.

As early as King James, who wrote “The Counter-Blaste to Tobacco” within a few years of its introduction into Europe by Sir Walter Raleigh, it was believed that the smoking habit would result in “evil consequences” because of its poisonous qualities. Some governments tried to stop its introduction, although their methods were harsher than our current bans on smoking in public places. Popes excommunicated those who smoked in St Peters; in Russia it was punished with amputation of the nose; and in the Canton of Bern it ranked next to adultery.

Did that make any difference? Not according to the treatise writer: “Like every other persecuted novelty, however, smoking and snuff-taking passed from place to place with rapidity; and now there appear to be only two luxuries which yield to it in prevalence, spirituous liquors and tea.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chôse!

Guest blog by Elizabeth Bailey

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Melford Hall, Long Melford, Suffolk

View from the drive.
View from the front.
I try and visit a couple of stately homes every year. The first of 2016 was Melford Hall. The Hall was built on top of the original building which  belonged to the Abbots of St Edmundsbury. With the dissolution the abbot was forced to surrender the Abbey and all its possessions to Henry VIII in 1539.
The Great Hall
William Cordell, was a wealthy Long Melford man who made his fortune in the law and became Solicitor General in 1553. Queen Mary knighted him, as he was a Catholic, and chose him to be Speaker in her parliament. Even under Queen Elizabeth he remained a respected figure.
The bed that Beatrix Potter slept in.
 Cordell had no children so that the house passed to his sister Jane. Thomas Savage, the great-nephew of Sir William Cordell, inherited the house from his grandmother in 1602. Sir Thomas had nineteen children and extended the house – possibly to accommodate his enormous family.
During the puritan rule Countess Rivers, the owner,  sold the estate to a descendant of Sir William Cordell's grandfather. These new owners repaired and renovated the house and restocked the park.
Banquet Hall built in 1613
Sir Cordell Firebrace replaced the Tudor windows with Georgian sash windows, pulled down the old east wing and created a set of rococo style reception rooms in the north wing.

 I was surprised how small the banquet hall was, but a helpful volunteer explained that the meaning of the word has now changed. Banquet was derived from the word banquette which meant a small bench. This hall was set aside for dessert which was served to only a selected few of those that had been invited to dine. It was a place for conspiracy and secret conversations, which was why it was set aside from the main house.
Another fascinating thing I learned was that Beatrix Potter was a cousin to Lady Hyde Parker and visited Melford Hall frequently. The actual toy duck that Beatrix dressed and used for inspiration to write "The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck" is on view at Melford Hall.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this delightful stately home. The fact that the current owners live in the north wing makes the place more welcoming.
Kentwell Hall
Kentwell Hall is no more than half a mile away. They were built around the same time and it would be perfectly possible to visit both on the same day.
£1.99 / $2.99

Fenella J Miller

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Love and Friendship

I’m always a sucker for TV and film adaptations of my favourite historical novels and Jane Austen’s books are at the top of my list. Regardless of some people saying that the costume drama genre is stale, for me it never gets old. So I was very excited to see that there is a new adaptation of Austen’s book Lady Susan in the cinemas now, a film entitled Love and Friendship.

I loved Lady Susan from the moment I first read it in an anthology with Sanditon and The Watsons, two other lesser-known Austen books. The structure of the book, with the story told via letters, was new to me and I really enjoyed it. What I particularly liked, though, was the character of Lady Susan herself. Quite simply, I think Lady Susan is a monster. She’s a very clever, beautiful and interesting character but a monster nevertheless. I It took me a while to realise this. Jane Austen constructs her character so cleverly through her own words that I can still remember the shock I felt when I first realised “this person is not very nice!” In fact Lady Susan is ruthless, amoral and calculating, and all the more interesting for it. I imagine that Jane Austen, like so many authors, relished writing a villain.

Sometimes characters are entirely imaginary constructs, sometimes they have bits and pieces of real people in them, authors being like magpies in picking up and using things they observe, and at other times they may be inspired by a real person. So it is with the character of Lady Susan, whom Jane Austen was said to have based on a rather fearsome-sounding woman called “The Cruel Mrs C.”

I first came across “the cruel Mrs C” as a result of my research into the Craven family of Ashdown house because she was a member of the Craven family. Jane Austen, as many of you will know, was great friends with Martha and Mary Lloyd, whom she first got to know because their mother rented a house in the next village from Jane’s father, George Austen. Their grandmother was the Mrs C in question, a beautiful woman who had moved in the first circles of society as a member of the aristocratic Craven family, but who had apparently treated her three daughters very badly indeed. She beat them, starved them and locked them up, treating them like servants. One eloped with a horse dealer and another with a farmer. The third married the Reverend Mr Lloyd. The picture here is of Elizabeth Craven as a child - I couldn't find a portrait of her as an adult.

One can imagine Jane Austen hearing tales of the shocking behaviour of Mrs C from her grand-daughters, and it may well be that after the death of Mrs Lloyd in 1806 she felt free to draw on the character of Mrs Craven as inspiration. Yet however unscrupulous and selfish Lady Susan is, she does not have the genuine cruelty of the mysterious Mrs C, the accredited beauty who was so brutal to her daughters in private.

Has anyone seen the film Love and Friendship? What did you think of it? Which is your favourite Jane Austen adaptation?

Sunday, June 05, 2016

A Visit to the Park of Monsters

My first thought on visiting the Park of Monsters, a.k.a. the Park of Wonders or the Sacred Grove at Bomarzo, in Lazio, Italy, was that it would be a wonderful place for a heroine in jeopardy to have all sorts of hair-raising adventures. So this post is an account of what's in this amazing place - and you can decide for yourselves.
This is one of the first things you see. It is so huge that you can stand up inside the gaping mouth and there's enough room to stretch your arms up to touch its teeth. There is even a bench inside.
 The Mask of Madness

The park is the creation of the 16th century Italian condottiere, Pier Francesco Orsini. It is situated on the edge of an extraordinary volcanic landscape strewn with huge tufa boulders the size of a house. Orsini turned this chaotic landscape into a place which is unlike anything else in Italy. Many of the statues have carved inscriptions which are designed to provoke thought and to challenge assumptions, as well as to entertain.

Fighting Giants: the standing giant is about to tear the upside-down giant apart
 The sheer scale is impressive. When I stood by the railing in front, my head just reached the eyes of the upside-down giant. It's not easy to make out what's going on in the photo: the upside-down giant's right arm is on the floor with his hair flowing over it. His head is resting on it. An enigmatic inscription carved nearby reads: If Rhodes of old was elevated by its colossus, so by this one my wood is made glorious, too, and more I cannot do. I do as much as I am able to.

What does it mean? This was an age when the aristocracy, both papal and secular, enjoyed displaying their superiority by their interest in philosophy and hermetic knowledge. The statuary is full of obscure classical allusions. Are the giants Titans? If so, they represent the ancient gods who were defeated by Zeus and the gods of Olympus. But why are they here?

The Leaning House

This is a full scale building carved out of one of the tufa boulders. I climbed the stairs and went inside. The floor is tilted at a vertiginous angle and my instant reaction was to feel sea-sick. And that, I think, is exactly what Orsini wanted. An inscription nearby reads: Dedicated to Cristoforo Mandruzzo, Archbishop of Trent. The mind becoming quiet becomes wiser thereby.

I got the distinct impression that Orsini didn’t altogether approve of the archbishop. Maybe he was a know-it-all and Orsini felt he needed to be jerked out of his complacency. If you suddenly feel nauseous, at the very least you'll stop talking!

Carthaginian War Elephant

A war elephant has lifted up a Roman soldier and is about to hurl him to the ground. The elephant towers above you - my head reached about halfway up its legs. This is a reference to Hannibal and the Carthaginian Wars – which almost defeated Rome. This is not about the (eventually) victorious Romans; here, the elephant perhaps represents the power of the unconscious mind. One might argue that, about 350 years before Freud, Orsini is acknowledging the power if the Id.
 Dragon and Lions in Combat

This vast statue looms out of the undergrowth. What does it represent? Normally, one would expect the lions to defeat the dragon. Here, I’m not so sure. The Park of Monsters also seems to be about turning one’s expectations upside-down.

Xystus with Acorns and Pinecones

But there are also places in the Park where one can relax and enjoy oneself. A xystus (my word for the week, though heaven knows when I’ll use it again!) is an open colonnade or walk designed for relaxed conversation and recreation. The plinths support alternate pinecones and acorns. Pinecones represent enlightenment and the third eye (the god Dionysus, or Bacchus to the Romans, always carries a Thyrsus, a wand of fennel with ivy wound round it and topped with a pine cone to represent the importance and power of the unconscious mind). Acorns represent spiritual growth. You can indulge in philosophical thoughts, or you can just enjoy the walk!

 The Mouth of Hell

The Mouth of Hell is another monstrous head. Inside the mouth is a large cavernous space with a stupendous echo – I sang Donne Nobis Pacem (somewhat incongruously) and the echo reverberated right through my body. The inscription here reads: Abandon all thought you who enter here.  This is obviously a reference to the message above the door of hell in Dante’s Inferno, which reads: Abandon all hope all ye who enter here. But Orsini doesn’t want his visitors to abandon hope. He wants them to put aside all preconceptions, which is a very different matter.  

Cerberus: the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to Hades
And, in case you haven’t got the point, a statue of Cerberus guards Hell’s open mouth.
All in all, I could envisage plenty of places for a heroine to be frightened, hide in, be imprisoned in and, generally, have her mettle tested. There are also some statues of more friendly goddesses, like Demeter, to offer sanctuary or advice.
 Mermaid with double tail

I leave you with a statue of a double-tailed mermaid which defies explanation. Who is she and what are the two creatures in front of her? I have no idea. And that is one of the attractions of this intriguing park. You have to be content not to know. Maybe that is the lesson Orsini is trying to teach us: sometimes we don’t know, and that is all right.

Photos by Marilyn Palmer

Elizabeth Hawksley

Friday, June 03, 2016

Writing tips - Avoiding the Sagging Middle

Okay, you have an idea for your book, a really great idea, a fantastic love story! You start writing in a flush of enthusiasm and its all going well, until..... some point you begin to feel that you are flagging, that the book is going nowhere, that it is (hushed whisper) boring.

Many, if not all writers get this at some point. I know a lot of authors who say it kicks in at around 30,000 words. Sometimes they have finished the whole book and looking back they find the middle is stodgy, They have introduced the characters, set up the scenes, but then everything seems to flounder.  This is the bit commonly known to writers as the Sagging Middle.  Let's face it, if you as the author don't like the book at this point, it's unlikely that your audience is going to enjoy it.

So, what can you do about it?  It is unlikely that you can cut the whole middle section out, after all, you need to get from A to B somehow! So here's a few tips that might just help.

Interview your characters. They are your creations, and if you have done your job well then they can help you a great deal at this point.  Are they saying/doing what is right for them? Are they being forced in directions they don't want to go?  Talk to them, ask them what they want to do (I know, I know, this may sound slightly crazy, but believe me, once you have created characters they can take on a life of their own and the most difficult thing can be keeping them in order. So if you have great characters, then interview them, ask them what is wrong.  They might just tell you.

Go back and check your overall plan.  Does is still make sense? Is it going in the right direction?   Often when we are writing, a book takes a turn that we had not anticipated and if we manhandle it back on track that may not be the way the story really should go. Be prepared to change it, if it feels forced or unnatural.

Read your manuscript as a reader. Be objective, if you can.
If you feel too close to it then perhaps you can put it aside for a while and then read it with fresh eyes. Remember, though, readers read for entertainment and pleasure, not for grammar or spelling or construction. If bits of the story don't excite you, take them out or re-write them. Make sure everything you put in adds value.  Are you adding too much information, is it slowing the story and detracting from the pleasure of reading?

Discuss your work with someone. Perhaps you have a critique partner/group,  or a fellow writer who is on the same wavelength. Ask them to read your work and comment.  However, be careful not to ask too many people, or you could get too many differing opinions!

Do something else! This is the one that appeals to me most often. It doesn't matter whether its ironing, washing up, walking the dog, shopping, gardening, or even watching TV.
Get away from your work in progress for a while. Allow the ideas to settle, ferment, evolve. Give yourself permission to think of something else and very likely your brain will continue to work on the problem in your subconscious.

So that's it.  I hope these ideas might help to get you over the point of that sagging middle.

Happy reading (and writing)

Melinda Hammond / Sarah Mallory

Published July 2016 - The Outcast's Redemption (Harlequin Historical)