Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Surprising revelations about pianos

When I was writing the book that is coming out on 4th February, I had blithely made my heroine a virtuoso piano player without realising how much research it was going to demand. I knew about Broadwood pianos. Well, I’d heard of them. And of course we’ve all heard of a Steinway Grand. But this is the early 19th century, the Spring of 1806 to be exact, and here is my heroine asking for a quality piano in exchange for giving herself to a convenient marriage.

I delved. And found no Steinway, but Stein. Yes, we had Broadwood. But we also had Graf.  Who he? You may well ask. There were others, but we will content ourselves with these three as I did for the book.

Johann Andreas Stein, it turns out, was a major contributor in the late 18th century to the improvement of the piano in terms of controlling the sound and responding to the player’s touch. I won’t attempt to explain how, but this illustration shows the innovation called the Stein Action which is all in the way the key works to make the sound with the “hammer”. This is just one contraption attached to one key.

Mozart, who visited Stein in 1777, had this to say of his pianos:
... In whatever way I touch the keys, the tone is always even. It never jars, it is never stronger or weaker or entirely absent; in a word, it is always even…. His instruments have this special advantage over others that they are made with escape action. Only one maker in a hundred bothers about this. But without an escapement it is impossible to avoid jangling and vibration after the note is struck. When you touch the keys, the hammers fall back again the moment after they have struck the strings, whether you hold down the keys or release them ...

Joseph Broadwood, a British maker, founded a dynasty that survives today. (See the piano at the top.) His was the maker hand that developed the pianoforte (or fortepiano) into a piano, increasing the range to six octaves. Who knew?

Conrad Graf was Viennese, and his pianos were known for effective damping of sound after the key was released. Graf achieved this result by a variety of means, with which I will not trouble you. He also had a second soundboard. This is, I am told, the surface of a string instrument that the strings vibrate against, usually via some sort of bridge. But Graf’s second soundboard had no bridges, but simply floated above the strings (not attached to them)… its purpose was to make the sound mellower and more blended."

As if this wasn’t enough to contend with, my heroine needed music to read from in order to play. How did one get this then? Fortunately there was sheet music, but you didn’t necessarily buy it. You could borrow it, like books, from a music library. But once she has the means, Lily is only too happy to take out a subscription to the music sellers so that she may buy her own copies of new music coming out.

Yet I still had to find out who was composing then. Whose music was she likely to be able to play? I pored through lists and found some names suitable to the time and details about their styles. Eureka!

Finally, where was she going to buy this piano? Who sold them? Fortunately, I found Clementi’s in Tottenham Court Road where she could go, not only to look at pianos, but at sheet music too.

Phew! I had all I needed. Isn’t the internet wonderful?

Elizabeth Bailey

“This fellow will serve you, Lily.”
He indicated the assistant, who bowed. “My name is Driffield, my lady.”
Lily’s face lit. “Oh, thank you! I have never seen a Stein, and I have not heard of this one.” She waved at the instrument by which she was standing. “Graf? Is it German?”
The fellow Driffield nodded. “Viennese, my lady. A new name, Conrad Graf, who is gaining something of a reputation. We thought to give it a trial.”
Lily began to strip off her gloves. “May I try it, Mr Driffield?”
“Of course, my lady.”
The assistant opened the instrument, laying bare the gleaming set of black and white keys. Lily shoved her gloves at Vincent, who took them automatically, watching her slip onto the stool and poise her hands above the keys. She flexed her fingers and ran her right hand along the keys, producing a series of notes. She did the same with the left hand and then, apparently satisfied, she began to play.
Vincent was no judge, but the air Lily produced, playing from memory, was pretty and her fingers moved across the keys with ease and sureness.
“It has a pleasant tone,” she said, addressing the fellow Driffield. “Does he use dampers?”
“Indeed, my lady. And a second soundboard, which makes the sound mellower and more blended. We find these pianos to be of sturdy construction and believe they should last for years. A most promising instrument, we think.”
Within minutes, Lily and the elderly creature were deep in discussion about the rival merits of the various instruments and Vincent was utterly lost. Unknown terms battered his ears as the two spoke of the merits of five or six octaves, pedal controls and the Stein action. They might have been talking in a foreign language. Indeed, Vincent suspected much of what they said was in German or Italian.
Lily flitted from one piano to another, discussing each as she played what she called a mazurka here and a sonata there. It struck him that Driffield went from interested to thoroughly engaged, as if Lily was almost as knowledgeable as he clearly was himself.
“Well, my lady,” he said at last, “from what you have said, I would recommend the Stein.”
Lily smiled. “Yes, and I dare say you are right that it will give me the best tone.” The mischievous note Vincent was coming to know entered her voice and she threw him one of her dancing looks. “And my husband has very kindly given me permission to purchase the best piano that I can find. Only I’m afraid I have fallen in love with that Broadwood over there.”
With which, she raced across to the very first piano she had seen upon entering the showroom. Driffield followed and Vincent trailed in their wake, his interest aroused.
Lily was addressing the assistant, touching the pale wood with its decorative inlay.
“It’s so beautiful to look at, you see, apart from its tone, which is perfect. I think I would take as much pleasure from its aesthetic line as from playing it. Do you not think so?”
Driffield was deference itself. “It is a consideration certainly. But from the point of view of the sounds you will produce, I submit your ladyship cannot do better than the Stein.”
Lily looked back at the recommended piano, which was of a dark wood, rich and smooth. But Vincent was not much surprised when she opted for the other.
“No, I have quite made up my mind. I will have this one.” She smiled at Vincent. “And save my husband a few pounds into the bargain.”
Vincent waved aside this mundane consideration. “Have the one you want, Lily. The cost is immaterial.”
For answer, she sat down at the piano of her choice and played for several minutes, becoming, as far as Vincent could see, quite lost to the world. She sat with eyes upon the keyboard barely half the time, her fingers moving across the keys as if she could see them by touch alone.


A fortune at stake if he does not marry now. Almost anyone will do.

Intrigued by the dissolute Lord Wintringham and with nothing but drudgery in store, Lily Daubney dares to contemplate his desperate offer. Sanity prevails. But Vincent’s persistence lands her in so much hot water she has no option but to marry him.

Delighted with her reward of a fine pianoforte, Lily rapidly discovers the perils of her bargain. Impossibly selfish, treading a path to perdition, Vince seems wholly irreclaimable. Is Lily’s growing desire to reform him doomed to failure? Or will her unexpected influence turn disaster into happiness?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Men, Women and Herveys!

I’ve been obsessed recently with the fate of minorities in eighteenth century Britain. Mostly gays, because I’ve been writing and promoting Sinless. I discovered so much. It wasn’t a happy fate, unless you were rich and powerful enough to ignore the rules. Even then, if you fell from power, the locusts would descend.
Pre 1969, sexuality was used to bribe, coerce and blackmail people. Even more after the strictures of the Victorians led to an intractible moral code that drove anyone not deemed as “normal” to the burgeoning underground. Not just “sodomites” but the promiscuous, people with unusual preferences, and the rebels.
It isn’t necessarily a threat to security, being gay (I know it’s an anachronistic term but so is “homosexual” – I had to take the plunge and use the terms they did at the time!), but being forced into hiding a secret causes a vulnerability. Molly houses welcomed all gays, but also transvestites who were not necessarily gay. However, for much of the eighteenth century men were unashamed peacocks. As we now know, they are not all the same, but they were considered so for a long time. The famous Chevalier d’Eon, who dressed in women’s clothes publicly, wasn’t definitely outed as male until after his death. He was a spy, a man who dressed in the clothes of both sexes, took part in duels and created a fuss wherever he went. He must have been remarkable.
Closer to the 1750s, when Sinless is set, was the even more remarkable John Augustus Harvey. He had a wife who adored him, and with whom he had a large family – eight children. He was a politician at the highest level. John Hervey was a baron, but never inherited his father’s title of Earl of Bristol, as he predeceased his father. He was one of twenty children. Oh yes, twenty. He was an ally of the Prince of Wales, but after falling out with him over a woman, switches sides to Walpole. He was Lord Privy Seal, and a member of the Privy Council. However he also had a male lover, Stephen, to whom he was devoted. They had to share him. There was plenty to go around. All this was conducted at the highest level of society. Hervey also had a pernickety diet, in an age of gluttony, he dressed flamboyantly, made no attempt to conceal his preferences. He was probably the lover of Princess Caroline, the daughter of George II, who was said to have mourned him for the rest of his life.
A literary squabble arose with Alexander Pope, who was jealous of Hervey’s friendship of Lady Mary Montagu, who once declared that there were three sexes – men, women and Herveys.
I have his biography, and one thing that puzzled me was, where did he find the time? He had eight children, a male lover, and at least one other female lover, he was a hard working and intelligent politician, he was an important figure in the literary world. Honestly, if I’d written a book about a character based on Hervey, nobody would have believed me!
So I wrote about Darius instead. I do love him, the man with an essential humanity, who cared deeply about his family and the person he falls in love with. If he was cut open, Darius would have “iintegrity” written all the way through him. I am very fortunate that my publisher let me write his story, in the middle of a series about purely heterosexual relationships. I wrote him as a foil to his twin Valentinian, but he gained his own fans, including me, as we all got to know him better. Would I have loved John Hervey as much? I doubt it.

 Lord Darius Shaw has never been in love before. But when he renews his acquaintance with lawyer Andrew Graham in a raid on a molly house, where men meet men for forbidden pleasure, they discover mutual feelings as deep as they are dangerous. For while society will turn a blind eye to an aristocrat’s transgressions, Andrew has far more at stake. The son of city merchants, Andrew has a disastrous marriage in his past, and a young daughter to support. He could lose his livelihood, his reputation and even his life—and drag Darius down with him.

Darius and Andrew’s only choice is to deny the true nature of their relationship. But when an enemy Italian spy threatens their secret—and their futures—the two set out to catch him. And in the process they are forced to face their desires—and make a life-changing decision.

Buy Sinless Here:
Publisher; Kensington Books  :  Amazon USA  :  Amazon UK  :  iTunes  :  Kobo  :  Barnes and Noble Nook

Monday, January 15, 2018

Inspirational Trees

Trees are everywhere. They clean our air, break up boring landscapes, soften built-up areas. We take them for granted until they drop their leaves on the rails and disrupt the trains, or are blown down in a hurricane.  But they are very inspirational. Think of the stories that involve trees. Charles II hiding in the oak, myths and legends like Robin Hood taking refuge in the forest, big bad wolves hiding there, a tree lined road that conceals hidden menace. Even forests that are alive, and trees that can move.

I find them very inspirational and many years ago I watched a tv programme that introduced a series of trees, including the Pitchford Lime, an ancient tree with a beautiful treehouse built amongst its branches (there it is, above).  The treehouse wasn't a children's toy but used by adults. My imagination immediately moved towards a story with my heroine using her treehouse as a refuge.  That story turned into one of my all time favourites, Lucasta.

Many people find a walk in the forest relaxing. There is something about trees that can be comforting, to say nothing of the benefits of exercise! On the flip side, think of a forest in winter, bare trees, wind soughing through the branches, or even a wood at night with owls hooting and leaves rustling. Then you have the beginnings of a nightmare.  I recently enjoyed a walk through a nearby forest which was very much like the setting for a Gothic novel, and I came across this beauty.

Immediately I was imagining secret trysts, or a heroine coming upon a strange man resting upon this branch. Is he hero or villain, will he be her downfall or salvation?

What do you think about trees, to they set your imagination running wild, or perhaps you just enjoy walking through them, listening to the birdsong, looking out for squirrels. Maybe you remember building a treehouse?  Do tell!

Melinda Hammond

Friday, January 05, 2018

Jane Austen's 'Persuasion': Rules of Precedence

The importance of precedence is a major theme in Jane Austen’s last novel Persuasion, and this post looks at the ramifications of this. Persuasion’s opening scene shows Sir Walter Elliot’s perusal of the Baronetage, the most important book in his library, which charts the lineage of the Elliot family from its first mention in Sir William Dugdale’s Baronetage of England (1675-6) until Sir Walter's own entry in the 1790s.

The Importance of the Family Tree

Sir Walter has no sons, and his heir is a distant male relation. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, shares his feelings about the importance of the Elliots and they get on well. However, he rates his two younger daughters 'of very inferior value.’  Mary, the youngest, has acquired ‘a little artificial importance by becoming Mrs Charles Musgrove,’ but Anne, the middle daughter and the book’s heroine, is ‘nobody with either father or sister.’

I found myself wondering how the sisters themselves viewed their social status. The snobbish Elizabeth is content to walk ‘immediately after Lady Russell out of all the drawing rooms and dining-rooms in the country.’ What is important is that Elizabeth is the eldest daughter of a baronet – an inherited title. This ranks above Lady Russell’s title; she is the widow of a knight, the next down in rank, a title given by the monarch for life only. The only reason that Lady Russell precedes Elizabeth, is that she is married and Elizabeth is not.

However, the fact that Elizabeth, Anne and Mary are daughters of a baronet means that they are entitled to various social privileges.

Mary, (Mrs Charles Musgrove) is acutely aware of this and resents not being afforded her due when visiting her in-laws, the unpretentious Mr and Mrs Musgrove of Uppercross Hall. She constantly complains to Anne that her mother-in-law ‘was very apt not to give her the precedence that was her due when they dined at the Great House with other families’. Correctly speaking, Mary, being a daughter of a baronet, has precedence over her mother-in-law.

As one of her sisters-in-law says to Anne, ‘Nobody doubts her right to have precedence of mamma, but it would be more becoming in her not to be always insisting on it.’ One can only agree.  Anne, we note, never thinks of putting herself forward in such a way.  

Even though Anne is the middle daughter, she is below Mary in the social scale as she is unmarried. Mary, as the only married daughter is now above both her sisters – though I can’t see the snooty Elizabeth allowing Mary to take precedence over her. 

There is a scene in Lyme, where Mary is staying after her sister-in-law Louisa’s accident, which illuminates this. Mrs Musgrove, Louisa’s mother, has come down to do what she can to help. Initially, her hostess, Mrs Harville, gives the elder Mrs Musgrove the precedence. Mary is put out. Fortunately, she receives ‘so very handsome an apology from (Mrs Harville) on finding out whose daughter she was,’ that her self-importance is satisfied – especially as Mrs Harville thenceforward gives Mary the precedence that is her due. Whew!

But what of Anne? She has none of the Elliot self-importance. When she goes to stay with Mary at Uppercross Cottage, she is perfectly happy to pay an unceremonious call on the elder Mr and Mrs Musgrove at the Great House. Correctly, they should be deferential and call on her first. But Anne says, ‘I would never think of standing on ceremony with people I know so well as Mr and Mrs Musgrove.’

Mary, however, disagrees. ‘Oh, but they ought to call on you as soon as possible. They ought to feel what is due to you as my sister.’ 

Anne’s reaction on meeting Captain Wentworth’s friends, the hospitable Harvilles, is one of delight (Mary, by contrast, notes that they have only one maid). ‘There was so much attachment to Captain Wentworth in all this, and such a bewitching  charm in a degree of hospitality so uncommon, so unlike the usual style of give and take invitations, and dinners of formality and display… These would have been my friends,’ was her thought; and she had to struggle against a great tendency to lowness.’ 
This is one of her lowest points; she has now seen, with her own eyes, she sort of life she might have had with Captain Wentworth; one of warmth and affection, and without the cold pomp and ceremony of life in her father’s house -  if she hadn’t broken off their engagement eight years ago.

But Anne has yet more trials to face; she must go to Bath, to her father’s smart and fashionable house in Camden Place, and leave Captain Wentworth behind, not knowing if they will ever meet again or whether he will propose to Louisa.

The letter scene

We see Anne once more ignoring the dictates of her upbringing, and the disapproval of her father, when she visits her old and sick school friend, Mrs Smith. Her father is outraged: 'A mere Mrs Smith ... to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland!'

But it is this renewal of friendship which helps Anne to be proactive and take the steps necessary for her own future happiness. No-one else will do it for her. Mary and Elizabeth, in their different ways, expect Anne to give way to their own convenience. And Lady Russell values rank more than she ought.

One of the things I love about Persuasion, is that Lady Russell has to do a 180 degree turn in her thinking, and Mary and Elizabeth both get their comeuppance when Anne marries Captain Wentworth.
Anne, restored to the rights of seniority, and the mistress of a very pretty landaulette
Mary, who in her way is fond of Anne, finds it creditable to have a sister married, and ‘it was very agreeable that the captain should be richer than either of her sisters-in-law’s husbands.’ But she is a bit put out to realize that Anne’s marriage means that she, Anne, is restored to the rights of seniority. As the eldest married daughter, Anne now ranks above Elizabeth as well as Mary. Elizabeth’s reaction to the news of Anne’s engagement to Captain Wentworth is to be ‘cold and unconcerned.’

And, as a final thought, we might remember that Jane Austen herself was a second daughter and, by precedence, right at the bottom of her family’s social order. She is asking her readers to consider just what Mary, say, has ever done to warrant being given precedence. The answer, of course, is nothing.

And we might ask the same questions of any number of her characters: Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for example, or Maria Bertram. There is plenty of food for thought for discerning readers here.

Elizabeth Hawksley