Thursday, March 30, 2017

Coping with Shakespeare

Those of us who write historical romance tend to be familiar with old-fashioned language, although we have to be circumspect about making it understandable to readers. Thus it is with productions of Shakespeare which often seek to shift the scenario to a modern day equivalent in hopes of making the Bard more accessible.

My epiphany with Shakespeare came when I was at drama school, because now I had to be able to work with the language and make it emotionally real to an audience.

I remember the exact speech where I made the breakthrough. Claudio in Measure for Measure, talking to his sister of his fear of death.

“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where…” I recall vividly the sudden realisation when the concept in the words began to strike me: his living body to turn to earth in “This sensible warm motion to become a kneaded clod…” and where his spirit might roam in “To bathe in fiery floods… to be imprisoned in the viewless winds, and blown with restless violence round about this pendent world…”

All at once Shakepeare ceased to be strange phrasing and weird words. The ideas leapt out at me, couched in rhythmic and beautifully descriptive language. From that point on, I grew to understand and love Shakespeare and could read it, understand it, and, later on when I began to direct and teach drama (especially at A level) to inculcate that same understanding and love of Shakespeare in my students.

For the uninitiated, there are two things to remember about Shakespeare. Firstly, the reason his plays have lasted for 500 years is that he knew what makes people tick. Secondly, if he was missing the precise word to express what he wanted, he made one up. He added hundreds of words to the language and many of his phrases have become idioms and sayings in common English, used by us all.

If you want to tackle Shakespeare, the first thing is to hit the glossary, or better still, a Shakespeare dictionary. Don’t get too hung up on poetic and old-fashioned common words like thee, thou, yon, whither, wherefore, thus, doth, dost (both from “do”), nay, ay, wouldst, couldst etc. It doesn’t take long to get a handle on them as they pop up all the time.

Once you know what the words mean, you can get to grips with the construction of the language. Since most of Shakespeare’s plays use blank verse form, you need to forget about straightforward English and expect to find topsy-turvy sentence structure to accommodate the rhythms of the text.

With “Call you me fair?” we might now say “Are you calling me fair?” The word “fair” here means beautiful, so a modern idiomatic sentence might be “Are you saying I’m beautiful?”

It always pays to take time to turn the old man’s words into idiomatic modern speech, because once you understand what is being said, the old-fashioned words and constructions become meaningful. For this you need to ignore the rhythms and the verse structure, and concentrate on the punctuation which may well roll into the next verse line in order to make sense.

“O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius’s heart.”

Simply put, this means: “I wish you would show me what feminine tricks you’re using to make Demetrius fall in love with you.” (Understood here is the idea of “how you look” meaning “the way you look at him”.)

“Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or rather do I not in plainest truth
Tell you I do not nor I cannot love you?”

He’s saying here: “Have I come on to you? Am I nice to you? No, I’m perfectly honest with you when I tell you I don’t and can’t love you.” (Fair here means “nicely” rather than “beautiful”.)

I once had my students do a scene from Richard III in modern speech, immediately followed by the same scene in the original Shakespeare. The audience were thus able to get the archaic language because they already understood the scene, which made for a better appreciation of the beauty of Shakespeare’s version.

Immediately you make the connection with modern idiom, you also discover how the emotions of Shakespearian characters are no different from ours. The situations may be different since his world is often peopled by kings, queens and princes. But the essential human conflict might have come straight out of Eastenders.

Shakespeare deals in the common problems of life and the difficult emotional battles we deal with every day: doubt, fear, pain, grief, love and hate, wrapped up in themes we all recognise and understand. Jealousy, betrayal, honour, faithfulness or faithlessness, ambition, greed, sorrow, joy, triumph, winning and losing - you name it, Shakespeare has written about it.

The key to understanding the Bard is not to be intimidated or fooled by the language. Don’t allow the reverence to make it sacrosanct. Treating Shakespeare like everyday speech is the surest route to appreciating his genius. After all, he was writing for an audience of ordinary people, mostly illiterate, who came to the theatre to be entertained, and Shakespeare gave them in full measure all the emotional highs and lows we expect from any drama on TV.

Elizabeth Bailey 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Hidden in the Wardrobe

It's spring, that time when I feel a most uncharacteristic inclination to clean and tidy. Whether this is a throwback to my childhood, when spring cleaning was quite a thing in my grandmother's household, or whether it's that I have just emerged blinking from writing my latest book, I find myself sorting out books and clothes and even occasionally wielding a duster.

The change over of winter to summer clothes is always fraught. Is it too soon to cast a clout? The garden seems to be flowering earlier and my lighter clothes are emerging earlier too. Which reminds me that it isn't only clothes that we keep in the wardrobe.

Recently I was talking to an author and publisher about re-discovering the romance books of my youth. By youth I’m talking about the very first books I read that could be described as being romantic, before I devoured Georgette Heyer or Jilly Cooper. I was about twelve years old. They included family sagas, romantic suspense – I remember Spindrift by Phyllis Whitney - and The Property of a Gentleman by Catherine Gaskin. I loved discovering the Gothic suspense of Victoria Holt, and packed amongst the historicals were some of the raunchy 1970s contemporary novels. What an education they were.

I found all these books in my grandmother’s spare room wardrobe, tucked away amongst her evening dresses and smart clothes. The same cupboard contained her scent bottles and her jewellery.  Oh, and there were shoes too, beautiful shoes in different colours not like my brown school ones! My grandmother was a well-dressed lady but these were not the clothes she wore every day. These were special, packed away carefully in tissue paper and plastic bags, smelling of perfume and mothballs. As a result, the books smelled of perfume and mothballs too. They were lined up so you could see their spines yet when the wardrobe doors were closed you would not have known they were there.

My writing friends and I were discussing this and one of them recalled finding Hardacre, a classic family saga set from the Victorian era to the 1950s, in his mother’s wardrobe too. He suspected she had hidden it away because it had a single swear word in it. (Naturally he read the book and found that one word.) This set me thinking about wardrobes and the things people hide in them and why.

The first “wardrobes” were actually rooms in palaces or grand houses where the nobility kept their clothes.  For royalty this meant the place that the king kept his clothes, armour and treasure, and as a result, in medieval English government the “wardrobe” grew to become the royal palace’s accounting department, hence the role of Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe being so influential.

Ordinary people however, used chests to store their clothes. It was from these cupboards the modernth century. Here is my Regency-era hanging wardrobe, which I bought from Ebay!
wardrobe or freestanding “closet” emerged. There are examples of such “hanging cupboards” in the US that date from the 17

There’s something about wardrobes, isn’t there. Perhaps it’s the fact that you can lock things away in there. Perhaps it’s that they are big enough to hide in. And they are dark inside. The book by CS Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe uses the wardrobe as a gateway into another world. What is hidden inside is adventure and danger and an escape. In the play The Wardrobe by Sam Holcroft, the wardrobe is a place of safety and protection where for seven hundred years children have hidden from events in British history such as the Civil War and the plague.

Wardrobes aren’t just for clothes. People hide other things in them – secret diaries, money, forbidden things… Which brings us back to the books in the wardrobe. Was it simply a practical storage solution for my Nanna to keep her romance books in there? There were plenty of other bookshelves in the house, but they contained non-fiction and Readers Digest condensed editions. Was she ashamed of reading romance and so she hid the books away? Romance novels were hugely popular at that time and with her group of friends but perhaps they were made to feel inferior in the way that some people still look down on romance today.  Or perhaps it does come back to the sex and the swearing. Knowing that she had a curious and avid reader for a granddaughter maybe she wanted to hide the books away from me! However, finding them in the wardrobe with all those lovely clothes and the perfume and the jewellery just made me see romance books as impossibly exotic and glamorous, exciting, an escape from real life. I guess I still see them that way today.

Does spring prompt you to sort out your cupboards too? Are you prepared to share the secrets of your wardrobe or closet?  Are there books lurking on the shelves, or other things hidden away? 

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Things you never knew about bank notes.

I'm currently writing the third in my Victorian saga, The Nightingale Chronicles, Better Bend Than Break, and wanted to know some details about banknotes in the 1840s. My male protagonist needed to receive a considerable amount in exchange for the deeds of his property and could hardly march off with a large bag of gold.
This led to discovering things about our currency that I'd not known before and thought I would share them with you.
I did know, and I'm sure most of you do, that the first use of paper money was in China in the seventh century but paper money wasn't used in Europe until a thousand years later.
Goldsmith-bankers accepted deposits, made loans and transferred funds but they also gave paper receipts for cash (gold coins) that had been deposited with them. These pieces of paper were known as "running cash notes" and were made out in the name of the depositor and promised to pay him on demand. Some also carried the crucial words "or bearer". This was the beginning of paper money. This was in the 1500s.
In 1694 the Bank of England was set up to raise money for King William's war against France. The bank issued notes with the promise to pay the bearer the sum of the note on demand. This meant that the note could be handed in to the bank for gold or coinage by anyone who owned it. Strangely if it wasn't redeemed for the full amount it was endorsed and altered to show how much had actually been withdrawn.
These were initially handwritten on blank paper and signed by one of the bank's cashiers. In 1696 the there was no longer any need for small denomination notes and only notes for sums over £50 were issued. As few people made
more than £20 a year most people never saw banknotes.
In the 18th century banks started issuing lower denomination notes. These notes only had the £ sign and were partially printed and were completed by the bank cashier. The numerals, the name of the payee and the cashier's signature plus the date and the number were added at the time of issue. They could be for uneven amounts, but most were round sums. By the middle of the century notes were being printed ranging from £20 -£1000.
By the end of the 1700s, because of the gold shortage caused by the Seven Years War, both £10 and £5 pounds notes were issued. The bank was also forced to stop exchanging actual gold in return for the notes because of the expense of the wars.
This was when the playwright and MP, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, referred to the bank as "an elderly lady in the city". This was changed by cartoonist, James Gillray, to "the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street," and that name has been in use ever since.
The first notes that didn't need any handwritten additions by the chief cashier were issued in 1853.
The name of the chief cashier as the payee on notes changed in favour of the anonymous quote I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of..." This has remained the same until today. Printed signature continue to be one of three cashiers until in 1870 it has always been that of the Chief Cashier.
The Bank of England was not always the sole issuer of banknotes in England and Wales. Many provincial bankers – the so-called country bankers – who were either individuals or small family concerns – continued to issue banknotes. The Country Bankers Act of 1826 made this practice legal if there were more than six partners in the bank and the bank was not situated less than 65 miles from London. The act also allowed the Bank of England to open branches in major provincial cities which gave it more outlets for its notes.
in 1833 notes were made legal tender for all sums above £5  in England and Wales. This was done so that in  the event of a national crisis Joe Public would be willing to accept paper money and  gold reserves could be kept intact. In 1844 the Bank Charter Act gave the Bank of England the monopoly of note making in England and Wales. The last private banknotes in England and Wales were issued by  a Somerset bank, Fox and Co in 1921.
And today we have the nasty little  plastic £5 note. I can remember, just, when a five pound note was a large white note and look what we have now!

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Jane Austen: Travel in 'Persuasion'

This post looks at the importance of journeys for Jane Austen’s heroines, and, in particular, Anne Elliot, the twenty-seven-year old heroine of Persuasion. She is the middle daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, ‘a foolish, spendthrift baronet’, who has spent her entire life, apart from a few years at school in Bath, at Kellynch Hall, the family home in Somerset. Her elder sister, Elizabeth, her father’s favourite, goes to London with him every year for the Season, to see and be seen, but Anne is never invited.

Promenade dress 1809

Her position is unenviable. ‘Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding, was nobody with either father or sister; her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way – she was only Anne.’
The only people she sees are her much-loved god-mother Lady Russell, who lives at Kellynch Lodge nearby, and her whiny younger sister Mary Musgrove at Uppercross Cottage, three miles away. It must be a desperately lonely life.
Sir Walter is deeply in debt, so he lets Kellynch Hall and moves to Bath, a place Anne dislikes. It’s arranged that Anne will stay with Mary, who isn’t feeling well, until Lady Russell can take her to Bath after Christmas. ‘I cannot possibly do without Anne,’ was Mary’s reasoning; and Elizabeth’s reply was, ‘Then I’m sure Anne had better stay, for nobody will want her in Bath.’


Young lady at a cabinet forte piano, 1808
Anne’s first journey is a very short one: from Kellynch Hall to Uppercross Cottage, it’s only three miles but it is significant. The first thing that strikes her is that ‘a removal from one set of people to another, though at a distance of only three miles, will often include a total change of conversation, opinion and idea.’  Nobody at Uppercross cares that Kellynch Hall has now been let to Admiral Croft and his wife; the Musgroves are fully occupied with their own concerns.
Still, it’s an improvement. Anne is wanted and useful; her piano playing is appreciated if the Musgrove daughters want to dance, and she’s fond of her two little nephews. She’s among people she likes and who like her, which makes a change.
Enter the hero, Captain Frederick Wentworth. Eight years earlier, he had met Anne and they had fallen in love and been briefly engaged. But he had no fortune and Lady Russell persuaded Anne to break off the engagement. Anne’s subsequent loneliness has also included heartbreak. Now he’s back, staying with his brother-in-law, Admiral Croft, at Kellynch Hall.


A gentleman politely drew back

Nobody at Uppercross knows about Anne’s engagement. Mary was at school then; Frederick has not told the Crofts, and Anne’s father and sister are now in Bath. Is there a chance for Captain Wentworth and Anne to get back together? Probably not. The captain is taking an open interest in the Musgrove daughters, the spirited Louisa and her quieter sister, Henrietta.
Captain Wentworth has a friend in Lyme, Captain Harville, and makes a lightning visit to see him. He speaks of going again and ‘the young people were all wild to see Lyme’, so a visit is arranged. Lyme is seventeen miles away and it’s November; the days are short so they will stay the night. Anne is one of the party.
This second journey proves to be momentous for Anne. She learns a number of things. Meeting the Harvilles is a bitter-sweet pleasure: ‘These would have been my friends’, she thinks. She finds a ‘bewitching charm’ in their generous hospitality, so unlike the ‘dinners of formality and display’ she is used to.

Looking on her with a face as pale as her own
Then Captain Benwick, still in mourning for his fiancĂ©e, Fanny Harville, becomes interested in Anne. It has been a long time since Anne has enjoyed any masculine attention, and a further look of admiration from one of the inn’s guests, a look which Captain Wentworth notices, also raises her spirits. ‘She was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion.’
Then comes a near tragedy. The wilful Louisa insists on being jumped down from the stairs on the Cobb so that Captain Wentworth can catch her. She mistimes her jump and lands on the pavement below and is taken up for dead. No-one seems to know what to do, except for Anne. She thrusts her smelling salts into Captain Benwick’s hands and tells him to help Captain Wentworth, who is holding Louisa.
She then suggests getting a surgeon and, when Captain Wentworth is about to rush off himself, adds, ‘Would it not be better for Captain Benwick? He knows where a surgeon is to be found.’

Obliged to touch him before she could catch his notice
Anne shows what she is made off. She doesn’t lose her head; her suggestions are practical and effective; and the men instinctively do as she bids. Back home at Kellynch Hall, ‘her word had no weight’; here, her intelligence is valued.
She does not yet know it, but it’s a turning point for Captain Wentworth. Before, he had been angry and resentful at her breaking off their engagement; now he begins to do her justice. When Captain Wentworth, Henrietta and Anne return to Uppercross in the carriage, he talks to Anne about what to do, and asks her approval of what he suggests. 
It’s a precious moment for Anne: ‘the remembrance of the appeal remained a pleasure to her – as a proof of friendship, and of deference for her judgement, a great pleasure; and when it became a sort of parting proof, its value did not lessen.’  
Captain Wentworth returns straight to Lyme and Anne must agonize a while yet.
In another moment they walked off

Anne makes another small journey, this time to Lady Russell’s in preparation for going to Bath, and notices that her inner mental landscape has changed. She now has little interest in her father’s new home in Camden Place; all she thinks about is Louisa, the friendship with the Harvilles and Captain Benwick, and, of course, Captain Wentworth. Even paying a call on the Crofts at Kellynch Hall does not give her a pang as it does Lady Russell.

Anne’s journey to Bath in Lady Russell’s carriage is passed over in a sentence but, it, too, signifies change to come.

Turning briefly to Captain Wentworth, it’s interesting to note just how many journeys he makes in Persuasion. Travelling was much easier for men at the time; they could go where they wanted when they wanted. He begins by coming to Kellynch Hall to stay with his sister, Mrs Croft. Jane Austen doesn’t mention it, but we note the irony of him staying at Kellynch Hall, the very place from which, eight years previously, Sir Walter would probably have thrown him out.  

Placed it before Anne

He pays a lightning visit to the Harvilles – there and back in a day - and, later, joins the Uppercross party to Lyme. After accompanying Anne and Henrietta back to Uppercross, he then sets out again for Lyme.

Anne assumes that he is returning to be with Louisa, but, in fact, he goes straight up to Shropshire to see his newly-married brother, Edward. He hopes to weaken Louisa’s interest in him; he draws out his visit until he’s rescued by the news of her engagement to Captain Benwick. Then he hot-foots it to Bath.
Anne herself is not the same person as she was at the beginning of the book. She has re-met Captain Wentworth, whom she still loves and her very real help in Lyme has deepened her relationship with the Musgroves. Now, she allows herself to be more independent. She ignores her father’s disapproval and visits her poverty-stricken and ill school friend, Mrs Smith. It is through Mrs Smith that she learns the true character of Sir Walter’s heir, Mr Elliot. And she resists Lady Russell’s attempts to persuade her to look favourably on Mr Elliot’s suit.  


The mistress of a very pretty landaulette
Although she is living with her father and Elizabeth, she joins in their socializing as little as possible. Mentally, she has already left them. She’s delighted to see the Crofts who have come to Bath for the Admiral’s health. When the Musgroves arrive, she joins them at the White Hart as much as she can. And, when Captain Wentworth appears, she does her best to speak to him and to avoid Mr Elliot.

And, if proof were needed of the importance of independent travel for women as well as men, we learn that Captain Wentworth buys his wife ‘a very pretty landaulette’. It’s a lovely touch. I rest my case.

Illustrations by Hugh Thomson

Elizabeth Hawksley

A companion piece to this post: Jane Austen: Travel in 'Northanger Abbey' is up in