Saturday, 5 September 2015

Victorian Photographs and Women Reading by Joan Lennon

This is a post in two parts.

Part the first:  There is a wonderful exhibition on at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, running till the 22nd November, titled Photography: A Victorian Sensation.  I highly recommend it if you find yourself within striking distance - but beware - we were there for 1 1/2 hours and only got half way round before being politely booted out at closing time.  (I'll try to go again.)

It was dimly lit and the photographs were small in their beautiful cases, but the curators had cunningly provided electronic display thingies where you could enlarge each portrait to your heart's content.  And that was where the time went.  Being able to look closely at the faces, read the stories behind the lines and the expressions.  The majority were full face and because they had to hold their poses for so long, it wasn't possible to hide behind created persona smirks or "Everything's fine!" animation.  They were vulnerable and open.

Now, a good number of the men's portraits had them with a finger in a book, but very few of the women were shown this way.  As we weren't allowed to take photographs of the photographs, I found this one of the fabulous Julia Margaret Cameron elsewhere in that pose (she is a heroine of mine and, irritatingly, in the part of the exhibition I got "encouraged" out of.  It was my own fault, of course.)

But what those images made me think of was ...

Part the second - paintings of women reading.  There is a similar stillness and lack of defence - the viewer sees the reader's face in repose, but this time without making eye contact.  You will not be surprised to learn I've never been an artist's model, but if I were, I've always thought the best pose to go for would be reading.  With all my clothes on.  This would help with the boredom and goosebumps.  And here are some that I like a lot -

Woman reading a letter by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)

Reading “Le Figaro” by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

Woman Reading by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

La Lecture by George Croegaert (1848-1923)

Elisabeth Allan Fraser by Patrick Allan Fraser (1812-1890) 
(She is reading in the dining room at Hospitalfield House, just up the coast from where I live - an amazing place.) 

Do you have a favourite portrait of a woman reading?  If so, I'd love to see it - share a link to it in the comments.  Thank you!  (And go to that exhibition if you possibly can - )

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Snorri the Seal fights the Nazis - by Katherine Langrish

When I was about six years old, my grandparents gave me a book called 'Snorri the Seal'. It was the story of of a vain little seal pup who ignores the advice of his elders and betters about keeping out of trouble in the form of Growler the polar bear and Grab the killer whale - and, instead, spends most of his time admiring his reflection in the ice. Of course, little Snorri does get into trouble. He listens to the flattery of Grab and Growler and is nearly eaten. The story was funny and exciting and the pictures were glorious. I adored it. I read it so many times that the front cover came off, and my mother had to mend it (she found a photo of a fjord to stick on the front).  I still have the book, and I still love it. 

What I never suspected and have only recently found out (I don't think for a moment that my parents or grandparents knew it either), is that 'Snorre Sel' by Frithjof Saelen, published in 1941 in occupied Norway, is a satirical fable, a piece of anti-Nazi propaganda. It sold 12,500 copies before the German administration cottoned on. 

In a fascinating book, 'Folklore Against the Nazis: Humor in Occupied Norway 1940-1945'  (University of Wisconsin Press), the author Kathleen Stokker explains how this apparently innocuous children's story decodes as a criticism of Norwegian complacency in the face of the dual threat from Germany and Russia. Snorri's enemy Brummelab (transated as Growler in my English version) is Russia. I can see it so clearly now: he looks just like Stalin.

Nazi Germany is represented by Glefs (Grab) the Killer Whale, accompanied by his henchmen the wicked seagulls Sving and Svang (See and Saw) - whose initials are those of the Nazi SS. 

They spy on Snorri and reveal his hiding places to both bear and whale.  As Stokker explains, 'Sporting the red and yellow colours of the Nazi party and having a "false gleam" in their eyes, the gulls incessantly screech, Skui, skui, an allusion to the inescapable Nazi heil og sael salute. Promising Glefs "if you want steak, we can get it for you", the treacherous pair reflect not only Quisling's aid in luring Norway into Germany's grasp, but also the abundance enjoyed by the occupiers and their Norwegian collaborators as others endured crippling shortages...'

Snorri receives many warnings from Uncle Bart (Uncle Whiskers in my version) the kindly walrus, who represents England.  But the little seal doesn't understand why he should be in any danger: "'... I'm not going to do them any harm,' said Snorri, innocently. And Uncle Whiskers laughed so much he had to hold his sides. "That's the funniest thing I've ever heard. Why, if they so much as set eyes on you, they'll be so hungry they'll have a tummy-ache.'"

In only the second illustration in the book, we see Snorri having fun sliding on the ice floes. Of course I never noticed, but that ice floe is shaped like the map of Norway. 

Even the Norwegian Resistance itself makes a sly appearance in the shape of the three little shrimps who, unbeknownst to Glefs the Killer Whale, live inside his teeth and cause his toothache.

To quote Kathleen Stokker again: 'Cornered on an icefloe by Glefs, Snorri again remembers Uncle Bart's warnings and feels "almost angry" that his uncle isn't there to save him, reflecting the impatience many Norwegians shared in their view of Britain's inept assistance...  Saelen, like Snorri, holds out hope that Britain would eventually come to Norway's rescue, however. Uncle Bart, he asserts, is stronger than anyone else in the Arctic Ocean; it just takes him a long time to get sufficiently riled.'

Snorri swims for his life to escape Glefs/Grab, diving through a tunnel in an iceberg in the nick of time. At the other end he finds Uncle Bart, who has '"been sharpening his tusks on the back of an old hermit-crab" - according to Stokker,  'an allusion to Roosevelt's 1941 Lend Lease Act that supplied Britain with sorely-needed weapons'.  Ready now to fight, the two of them make a plan. Snorri swims back through the tunnel and pulls faces at Glefs. 

The infuriated Killer Whale lunges at Snorri. He becomes hopelessly stuck in the narrow tunnel as Snorri darts out of reach. Meanwhile, Uncle Bart swims around the iceberg and gives Glefs a good thrashing from the rear. Glefs "couldn't do a thing. He was stuck in the ice, and there he will stay till the iceberg melts."

'At a time when England had achieved few military successes and Hitler's armies had yet to lose a single field battle, the story dared to suggest England's victory and Germany's defeat,' says Stokker. 'It moreover endorsed acts of passive resistance... Finally it suggested that like the iceberg's tunnel the long, dark and uncertain passage of Norway's occupation ... would eventually end in sunlight. It is thus little short of amazing that the book, provocatively subtitled "a fable in colour for children and adults" initially not only escaped censorship but actually received high praise in the Nazi-controlled press', which hailed Saelen as the 'Norwegian Walt Disney '.

By the time the authorities caught on, the entire print-run of 12,500 copies had been sold. Saelen was not interrogated until January 1943, when with deadpan aplomb he denied any political intention and asked if they planned to ban the Brothers Grimm? Nonplussed, the Nazis released him, and he went on with his resistance work.  By 1944 he was the leader of the main Norwegian resistance movement, Milorg. Eventually he had to flee via the 'Shetland Bus' to England, where he presented a copy of his book to King Haakon VII, in exile with the Norwegian government in London. 

I'm sure the main reason why Saelen got away with it is that his book works brilliantly on both levels. The subversive political allegory is embedded in a truly excellent children's story full of comedy and drama, with beautiful illustrations. No wonder the Nazi officials were confused. The sincerity of it must have puzzled them: there is real love in the story of vain but brave little Snorri. The pictures celebrate the beauty of the Northlands. These looming snow-covered pinnacles with their sinister almost-but-not-quite faces enchanted me, as a child:

And so did the many underwater scenes, and the crackling little spirits of the Northern Lights, and the bubble boys 'who look after the fish for Father Neptune'.  But now that I've learned, thanks to Kathleen Stokker's book, the real story behind the tale of Snorri the Seal, I understand at last Saelen's final words - words which as a child gave me a wonderful, mysterious yearning for something I couldn't quite grasp...

"That was the story of a little seal who believed that everything was beautiful and nice up there in the Arctic Sea. But it wasn't, even if it all ended happily. And it was from this old seashell that the whole story came. 

"Perhaps you yourself may find a seashell like that one day. And perhaps it will whisper another story to you. Who knows?  So much comes bubbling and whispering up from the bottom of the sea. So much of everything - both good and evil."

Picture credits: 

All artwork by Frithjof Saelen.
Scanned by Katherine Langrish from book in her possession.


Thursday, 3 September 2015

A Tyranny of Petticoats, by Y S Lee

Hello, readers. I am tremendously excited to share with you the absolutely glorious cover of Jessica Spotswood's historical anthology, A Tyranny of Petticoats (Candlewick Press, March 2016). Behold!

My friend Cat taught me the phrase "on fleek", and now I just want to walk around now yelling, "It's SO ON FLEEK!"

Here's a bit more about the collection, which combines historical realist and historical fantasy stories:
From an impressive sisterhood of YA writers comes an edge-of-your-seat anthology of historical fiction and fantasy featuring a diverse array of daring heroines.

Crisscross America — on dogsleds and ships, stagecoaches and trains — from pirate ships off the coast of the Carolinas to the peace, love, and protests of 1960s Chicago. Join fifteen of today’s most talented writers of young adult literature on a thrill ride through history with American girls charting their own course. They are monsters and mediums, bodyguards and barkeeps, screenwriters and schoolteachers, heiresses and hobos. They’re making their own way in often-hostile lands, using every weapon in their arsenals, facing down murderers and marriage proposals. And they all have a story to tell.

With stories by:

J. Anderson Coats

Andrea Cremer

Y. S. Lee

Katherine Longshore

Marie Lu

Kekla Magoon

Marissa Meyer

Saundra Mitchell

Beth Revis

Caroline Richmond

Lindsay Smith

Jessica Spotswood

Robin Talley

Leslye Walton

Elizabeth Wein
My ARC arrived in the mail just this week, which means that it's time to proofread my own short story, "The Legendary Garrett Girls", one last time. As regular blog readers know, I really appreciate this last chance to check the story and catch any clangers. Mostly, though, I'm looking forward to read the other 14 short stories in the anthology. Yes, I could have read them earlier in PDF format, but - call me traditional, if you must - I still find curling up with a print book more satisfying.

I am giddy with delight to be part of this sisterhood, and I owe it all to fellow novelist and worshipper-at-the-altar-of-history Stephanie Burgis: she's the one who first suggested to editor Jessica Spotswood that I might want to be involved. THANK YOU, Steph!

This was my first time contributing to a fiction anthology and I learned so much. To begin with, the parameters were incredibly open: a story with a girl protagonist at any time in American history. Indeed, it was so liberating that I felt almost frozen with indecision - until I realized that fourteen other writers were simultaneously staking out their own historical and geographical territories. Suddenly, it felt like the start of an open-water swimming race: fast and splashy.

I've noticed that in my fiction I lean towards borders and margins, both literal and figurative. Sure enough, I first proposed something along the Great Lakes or in the Thousand Islands area - specifically, a midwinter prison escape from Ontario into New York state, over ice and open water. But Jessica suggested something less marginal and more definitively American, so I began to scan my shelves.

Several years ago, I went on a family holiday to Alaska. True to nerd form, the souvenir I brought back was a reprint of a nineteenth century memoir and travel manual, William B. Haskell's Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898.

I'd read bits and scraps of it in Alaska, but when I pulled it from the shelf last summer, it fell open to this quotation: "They now say there are more liars to the square inch in Alaska than any place in the world." -- The Seattle Times, August 1897. Clearly, this was fate: I was going to write a story about con artists in the Gold Rush town of Skagway, Alaska.

That story, "The Legendary Garrett Girls", is just one of the fifteen in A Tyranny of Petticoats. Gloating over the table of contents, I'm struck by how diverse our geographical choices are: not just Boston and Los Angeles, but Wyoming and Indiana; Washington, DC and Washington State. It reminds me how relatively little I know of American history.

I can't wait to change that.

Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn Mysteries (Walker Books/Candlewick Press). She blogs every Wednesday at

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Living in Time - Gillian Polack

I was going to write a delightful post about my favourite works of literature (a few of the many) but fate intervened. I confused my calendars and I am two weeks closer to my holiday period than I thought I was. This means that calendars are on my mind: literature can wait.

One of the earliest children’s rhymes recorded in the English language starts “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November.” From memory, this dates back to the thirteenth century. This means that it was written down then and that the manuscript it was written in has survived. It could be older, but we know it is at least as old as that manuscript. Time is a precarious concept, and measurements are parlous.

The rhyme is also deceptive. It’s tempting to think that people in the thirteenth century saw the year in the same way we do. After all, they used the same rhyme to remember the length of the month.

What tripped me up today is that my holiday season uses a different calendar. That is to say, that some of us use two and even three different types of calendars in our lives. In Australia, the Christmas and summer holidays occur at the same time. The whole nation grinds to a halt in late December. Some of us drag ourselves into the workplace in early January (except me – I was always on holiday duty when I was in a regular workplace, for I take my time off around now, instead) and everyone is back at work when the weather is still impossibly hot and the beach impossibly tempting. The UK doesn’t operate like that at all. A short coldish Christmas season and a long holiday in Australia’s winter. Australia notes Christmas as cold (we get cards with snow on and much television explaining that Christmas is a cold time) so we live with the northern hemisphere calendar alongside our own seasons and festivities. Then there is the school year and the work year and the university year and the Jewish year, the Moslem year, the Hindu year and more. So many years, all wrapped into one. 

Most people handle the complexity by focussing on the bits they need to know. We create our own small calendars to manage our personal and family years. I need to know when my holidays are. I also need to know when Christmas is, because the shops will be closed and it’s a good period to get a lot of work done.

BL Add 21114, f 1

This is far closer to the medieval reality than the strict numbering of days of the month was. Different regions celebrated different saint’s days. Those holidays could change: for instance, a brand-new one was instituted during the twelve days of Christmas just for Thomas (who was murdered in a cathedral and caused a lot of bother for many people both before and after). People kept track of their particular saints and days with Books of Hours, with all the fast days marked and all the feast days.

The fiscal year was different, and so as the regnal year. The law terms were followed by the newly-established universities. System was added to system, and people dealt. Many people would only worry about key dates. Their lives were dominated by those dates and by the seasons. Work was done according to the seasons. No electricity meant that a lot more could be done outdoors and in types of work where natural light was important than in the long summer than in the dark of winter. The dark of winter was the time for quite different activities, normally indoors and in the warmth. Seasons often played a part in whether a war dribbled to a halt or continued a few weeks longer, for it was hard to fight a series of big battles when your foot soldiers were also your peasants and needed to bring in the crops. They’re one of the many reasons for the Hundred Years’ War being so infamously waged in bits and pieces, with gaps both long and short.

My new year is coming up in a bare few days. This is exactly like the experience of many people in the Middle Ages. They had more than one new year, just as I do. There was 1 January, of course (which is my favourite new year, in modern times, if I’m honest, for I like the fireworks over Sydney), but there were celebrations of religious cycles, and of legal cycles and of financial cycles. The regnal year (which I mentioned earlier) changed with each and every king. 

Some people kept track of. Other people relied on those who did. One of my perfect medieval scholars is Bede, for he was a historian. He also pulled calendars together with calculations so that they were workable. An amazing book on the subject talks about Bede and about medieval calendars, but focuses on more recent calendars.  Elisheva Carlebach’s Palaces of Time  is a wonderful book. Whenever I start thinking “we all experience time in the same way, because we share calendars” I get the book from my shelf and remind myself of the reality. How we measure time is complex and fascinating. We have good days and bad days. There are safe moments and dangerous moments.

How we shape time is not just through calendars. It’s through seasons and personal experience and changes in light and dark. This means that each of us has a unique experience of time. I’m tempted to invent words to describe it, using the notion of idiolects, dialects and languages. Idiotime is personal, individual. It’s me and my peculiar sense of time and how I manage my different calendars and make my year function. Then there’s diatime: the time we share with a group of others. That would be the Australian calendar, with its summer overlapping with Christmas. And then there’s the broader cultural experience of time, where we share the calendar. 

This brings me back to where I began, for quite obviously the language level of time for us has to include the data that forms the rhyme “Thirty days hath September...”

Tuesday, 1 September 2015


At Sudeley Castle in the Cotswolds there is a small collection of Roman artefacts, among them a statue of a local deity, Apollo Cunomaglos - the Hound Lord. Most of the items are from the site of a 2nd century Roman villa on the Sudeley estate. In the 1880s Emma Dent, the chatelaine of Sudeley Castle, organised the excavation and protection of the remains of this villa. Several mosaic floors had been found, and people had begun taking away parts of them as souvenirs. Emma had the best-preserved mosaic removed to the castle and a replica made. This can be seen on the terrace at Sudeley. The Roman mosaic was then re-laid in its original place and covered with a tarpaulin to protect it; and some of the remaining walls were built up to a higher level.

Also in the Roman collection at Sudeley is a quote from Bill Bryson, who came upon the villa while out walking. He describes his wonder at finding the remains of this ancient building in a little wood, and how he sat down there and thought about the people who had come to this place and built a home there so very long ago.

It was this quote that made me want to do the walk and find the villa. Spoonley Wood is only 2km from Sudeley, but it was a hot day and the two of us took a wrong turning and had to retrace our steps, so it seemed further. There are no signposts to the villa, no mention of it anywhere.

We crossed several fields of sheep,

and two ploughed fields,

and followed hedgerows; and at last we came to the little wood.

You could easily miss the villa, even though a path leads right through it. We saw a few low walls, a few stones, a great slab that must have been a doorstep, and a mystery object that looked rather like a shallow kitchen sink.

In an open shed roofed with corrugated iron, under a cloth and weighted with stones, was the original of the floor we had seen at Sudeley. We did not uncover it all, just lifted a corner.

A stream runs nearby, and the OS map shows at least one spring near the villa. The site was quiet and peaceful, and wonderfully free of all explanation. I enjoy the "Roman experience" as much as anyone - places with videos, labels and reconstructions - but this quiet place allowed me to daydream about the villa and the lives of its inhabitants: to imagine the people who lived there going about their work; children playing by the stream; a cat sunning itself on a wall. Perhaps Apollo Cunomaglos, the Hound Lord, once had an altar in this house?

It was summer, the trees were in full leaf and the brambles were dense; they blocked our way and our view. If there was any more to see there, we didn't discover it. So we walked back, leaving the ancient house to peace and birdsong and the ripple of the stream.

Thank you, Bill Bryson. And thank you, Emma Dent.

More information and photos of the site and the mosaic floor can be seen at

Mary Hoffman is away

Monday, 31 August 2015

August competition

Our competitions are open only to UK Followers

To win one of five copies of Sheena Wilkinson's Name upon Name, answer the following question in the Comments below:

"Which book set in WW1 has the most resonance for you, and why?"

Please send a copy of your answer to:

so that I know how to contact you to let you know if you are a winner.

Closing date, to allow for holidays, is 14th September

Sunday, 30 August 2015

In the Cabinet of Curiosities, with Laurie Graham

copyright: FIDM Museum, Los Angeles
 Any guesses what this is? If I didn't know better I'd have said it was something used in the construction of bagpipes. Let me help you get to the bottom of this. It is an item of apparel: a  health bustle (so-called) that dates from the mid 1880s.

Bustles had two periods of fashion favour. The first, in the early 1870s, created a substantial, rounded derriere, sometimes referred to as a Grecian bend. But by 1875 bustles were so last year and given the considerable discomfort of wearing them you'd have thought they'd have remained that way. Then along came Lily Langtry.

Lily, you will recall, was a sweetheart of the Prince of Wales and also an actress, always with an eye on her appearance and her bank balance. She was paid to endorse Pears soap.

The revived bustle, angular, jutting almost horizontally, which Miss Langtry helped to make fashionable, emphasised the slenderness of an already tightly-corseted waist. Here she is, the saucy minx.

One of the problems with early bustles had been sitting down. You couldn't. The best you could hope for was to perch gingerly or lean. Add to that the fact that you could barely breathe in your stays and were steaming like a turkish bath under all those petticoats, being a Victorian fashion plate can't have been much fun. But Lily had an idea how to make the bustle a little more user friendly. And here it is: the Langtry collapsible bustle cage.

   I've never had occasion to wear a bustle but I have been known to dress up as a historical protagonist in order to present a book so who knows, it may yet happen. I imagine anyway that some of you are eager to learn the art of sitting in a collapsible bustle so let me point you in the direction of this video. Any day now you may get invited to a steampunk costume party.  No harm in being prepared.