Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Ghosts on the Walls by Imogen Robertson


I have a thing about medieval wall paintings. That probably wont come as a great surprise to you. I also have a thing about the medieval marginalia as regularly tweeted by Medieval Manuscripts and Bibliophilia, but the wall paintings in churches have a special place in my heart. I think it's because they exist in the place they were created. They are part of the fabric of a community, a place and its people. This was art for the many not the few, and it’s impossible to look at them without thinking of the thousands of others who have looked at them before. 

Rochester Cathedral

I was in Rochester a few days ago - nothing to do with the upcoming by-election, though I did dodge Nigel Farage on the pavement and heard a man saying indignantly to his friends, ‘it was the Huguenots that made Kent anyway!’ I was there for the castle, the cathedral and the bookshops. They are all excellent, by the way. I added to my collection of 'Highways and Byways' in Baggins Book Bazaar  and picked up a fantastic little book on hop pickers a bit further along the High Street, and the castle is still pretty intimidating, but my highlight was a partial 13th century wall painting of the wheel of fortune, featuring Fortuna herself and some scrambling  citizens. The best image I can find of it is here. https://www.flickr.com/photos/lysander2/3938405986/in/photostream/

The painting survived because for centuries it was hidden from the reformation by a pulpit and when that was removed, it was discovered looking almost as fresh as the day it was painted.

I know where my wall painting thing comes from. When I got married a couple of years ago, Ned and I made quite a meal of the occasion and had three weddings. We had a legal ceremony in Peckham, our real wedding in a Sussex barn, and then another party the following week in Darlington, my home town.

We spent part of our between weddings week in Richmond, North Yorkshire (in a slightly dazed state and a damp cottage), and while we were there wandered down to Easby Abbey and the adjoining church of St Agatha where we saw this:



And these:



I went to Easby Abbey many times as a child, but perhaps because we always had the family dog with us, we never went into the parish church, so the paintings were a new discovery. It is a small church, and not very distinguished looking from the outside but it was built before the magnificent Easby Abbey, which now lies in ruins around it. The paintings are mid 13th century and are wonderfully preserved (whitewashed during reformation, rediscovered during Victorian restoration). They are extensive, but I like in particular these surviving Labours of the Month designs in the window splays. Were they portraits of individuals? I hope so. Anyway, as I stood in the chancel with my new husband they cast a particular spell. 

I haven’t become religious, but I find I’ve been visiting churches a lot more since then. I find them fascinating. Each one is a palimpsest; unique, made over generations as a reflection of the community around it and of those that have visited that community, scored by the times lived through. Standing there I felt like one ghost among thousands - the ghosts of those who had been there to worship, celebrate, mourn or just look, and those that were still to come. Our feet polishing the stones, our hands resting on the woodwork, we were like water moving over a riverbed. We were part of the movement of time passing through this still point. 

Many medieval wall paintings have survived reformation and restoration in churches and cathedrals all over the country. The best guide to the subject I’ve found is Roger Rosewell’s Medieval Wall Paintings. Looking at the book now, I find that illustrations of Rochester and Easby are on facing pages, which I find strangely pleasing. 

I highly recommend the book and I’ll end with a quote from it: ‘In a physical sense they [the wall paintings] belonged to every parish. They were part of its inherited tradition, its history, the kinship of men and women who worshipped beside them, before them and beneath them… They were a peoples’ art for a peoples’ faith.

Monday, 20 October 2014

BETRAYED, FORGOTTEN AND REVILED: The Lost Women of the Bible by Ann Swinfen

It is a truism that history is written by the victors.

Western history and culture have their roots deep in the Judaeo-Graeco-Roman tradition, and it is a strongly patriarchal tradition. Archaeological evidence points to earlier matriarchal cultures which preceded the pervasive patriarchal bias, but by the time written literature began, this matriarchal culture had been suppressed, pushed to the margins into folktale, superstition, and myth. The patriarchal principle had won the battle for social dominance.

And men wrote our history.

One of the earliest written records is, of course, the Bible. Assembled over several centuries it is not simply a testament of faith. The Old Testament is an historical record of a nomadic people’s wanderings over the Middle East and north Africa followed by their settlement in Judaea. It also contains a carefully preserved genealogy of families and tribes, and a collection of some of the world’s most memorable stories. The New Testament takes matters forward into the birth of the modern world and the foundation of Christianity. The world’s three great faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are all rooted in this extraordinary book, a book which has outsold every other and whose influence on our thoughts, culture, literature, and history is incalculable. Would our individual perceptions of ourselves be the same without this influence? Difficult to say.

Here I am not planning to look at the Bible as a religious work, but in those other three aspects: a history, a genealogy, and a collection of stories.

Where are the women?

Have you noticed how few ‘good’ women there are? By and large they are found in the New Testament. This reflected the kindlier, more humane face of the new dispensation. Women even played a major role in the early Christian church, preaching, travelling through Gentile lands spreading the word, and perishing for their faith in the Roman arena. Until, that is, the church fathers seized control of the church hierarchy and turned it into the mirror image of the male secular power of the time, the Roman Empire.

However, the majority of women in the Old Testament who are sufficiently honoured as to have their names recorded for posterity are ‘bad’ women. So bad, indeed, that their names have become by-words for evil. And how the authors rub their hands in glee over their horrific ends!

If you ask the average person brought up in our modern secular society (which still has its roots in the Christian tradition) to name women from the Bible, the answers will go something like this. From the Old Testament: Jezebel, Delilah, Eve, the Queen of Sheba, Ruth . . . er, Moses’ sister . . . was she called Miriam? A few might remember Judith, the heroine who slew Holofernes. The list is unlikely to extend much beyond that. From the New Testament: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Salome. Some will recall that John the Baptist’s mother was called Elizabeth. Then there was that widow with her mite. What was she called? What indeed.

If we examine the many genealogies in the Old Testament, which can make parts of it very tedious for the modern reader, we have to ask: Where are the women? X begat Y begat Z ad infinitum, but only the generations upon generations of men are recorded. Who gave birth to all these generations? All these men had wives and mothers, but the women remain nameless, lost for ever in the mists of time. They constituted half the Israelite population, those women. They wandered with the men, living in tents, herding the sheep and goats, cooking over open fires, giving birth to their children and sometimes burying them. They fed, clothed and reared each successive generation of the nation, yet they are ignored as if they never existed.

Just occasionally one woman is glimpsed for a moment, usually because it is obligatory to mention her in order to clarify the links between families or tribes – for example Sarah, wife of Abraham [Genesis 11:29 ff.]. There is just a whiff here of the ancient matriarchal culture which still held sway at the time. Though Abraham is credited with elevating the strictly masculine Yahweh to pre-eminence in Israelite religion, the fact is that Yahweh was not the only god of those early Israelites, and he had a spouse, Asherah, equally powerful, equally exalted, the Great Mother, who was still being worshipped centuries later, when Hezekiah tried to suppress her cult around 700 bc.

Sarah’s granddaughter Dinah, only daughter of Jacob amongst his thirteen children by two wives and two concubines, also receives a tiny mention [Genesis 34]. Dinah achieves fame because she is raped by Shechem, a prince of the Hivites, who loves her and wants to marry her. In Genesis Dinah is seen as a victim and then disappears from the story as her brothers wreak a terrible and sadistic vengeance, betraying their own promise to the Hivites to forgive them and allow the marriage if the Hivites agree to be circumcised. The Hivites keep their part of the bargain, but are then slaughtered to a man by Dinah’s brothers. I’ll be returning to Dinah later.

In a slightly later period, the period of Judges, there was one remarkable woman, Deborah, whose historic deeds do earn a mention [Judges 4-5]. She was herself both a prophetess and one of the Judges, part civil, part religious leader, and that is remarkable in itself. She was also a military leader, which is even more surprising. With her general Barak she attacked and defeated the Canaanites, who were long-standing and aggressive enemies of the Israelites. The Song of Deborah [Judges 5] is one of those extraordinary things one encounters in the Bible, a paean of triumph and national fervour, a wonderful work of literature in its own right, like The Song of Songs, which is surely the greatest love poem in world literature. The Song of Deborah is possibly the earliest surviving example of Hebrew poetry and has been dated from linguistic evidence to the twelfth century bc.

Occasionally the Israelites encountered foreign women of power, like Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued the infant Moses. The most memorable, of course, was the Queen of Sheba, who came on a state visit to Solomon [I Kings 10:1-13 & II Chronicles 9:1-12]. Clearly she fascinated the Israelites with her beauty, power, and riches, as she has fascinated people ever since. Yet she and her country remain mysterious. And she is nameless.

In the earliest religions practised in the area, the Great Mother or the Earth Mother seems to have been the foremost deity. Statues of her appear all around the Mediterranean basin, far surpassing any images of male deities at the time. Women, who give birth and so perpetuate mankind, were reverenced. Yet all this changed. By the time the book of Genesis came to be written down, Eve had been named as the First Woman and, above all, the villainess who brought about all man’s suffering, his exile from Eden, his mortality, his monstrous fall from grace [Genesis 3]. It was her fault that women suffered great pain in childbirth. Convenient, that. The men of Israel could point the finger and say: It’s all your own fault for eating of the Tree of Knowledge. Interesting that we would have been better off, would have remained in Eden, if we had also remained ignorant. More of that later.

Eve’s villainy was of a fairly mild variety; she merely yielded to temptation. So did Adam, but he doesn’t appear to have carried so much of the blame. Later on in history we find some real, full-blown villainesses, of whom Jezebel and Delilah are the most notable examples. What strikes me about both of them is that they were foreign women of strong character who came from a different religious and cultural background to that of the authors of the Old Testament.

Jezebel [Kings 1 & 2] was a Phoenician princess, daughter of the King of Tyre and married to Ahab, King of Israel (the northern kingdom of the Holy Land), in what was clearly a dynastic and political marriage intended to cement an alliance between the two kingdoms. Israel was always keen to acquire access to good sea ports on the Mediterranean coast, while Phoenicia wanted an agricultural hinterland together with overland trade routes. Ahab and Jezebel had two sons, Ahaziah and Jehoram, who were the natural heirs to the crown. Under the joint rule of Ahab and Jezebel, the religions of both peoples were tolerated. This was the ninth century bc, before the worship of Yahweh was established as the approved religion of the Israelites. Ba’al, one of the gods of the Phoenicians (known by them as Melqart or Melkarth, identified by the Greeks with Heracles), was also one of the ancient gods of the Israelites. After the death of Ahab, his sons succeeded to the throne, but Elisha – leader of the Yahwehist faction – who had slaughtered 450 priests of Ba’al, now had the usurper Jehu illegitimately crowned. Jehu then murdered Jehoram, son of Ahab and Jezebel, as he fled for his life.

The queen mother, Jezebel, a strong woman of royal blood, was a danger to Jehu, so he and Elisha incited some of the court officials to murder her by throwing her out of a palace window and further dishonouring her by leaving her unburied body to be eaten by dogs. The fact that Jezebel dressed in her royal finery to confront her murderers has been vilified by the puritanical, but it reminds one of Cleopatra’s similar defiance in the face of political murder. If this were a modern crime novel, wouldn’t we expect the investigator to look a little more closely into the circumstances of her death, instead of simply accepting the official version which was put about by her political enemies who wanted to be rid of her? And as in the case of all murders, shouldn’t we ask: Cui bono? In whose interest was it to portray Jezebel in the form that has come down to us? She was painted as an evil woman by the usurping victors. (Common practice: compare the propaganda put about by Henry VII who had usurped Richard III’s crown.) Yet seen from the Phoenician point of view, their royal princess and her sons were the victims of a politically motivated coup d’état. An interesting footnote to her story is that Josephus [Against Apion 1:18] tells us that she was the great-aunt of Dido, queen of Carthage. A strong but unhappy lot, these Phoenician princesses.

If Delilah’s story [Judges, 16] had been written down by the Philistines, it would have been told from a very different angle. She would probably have been cast in the role of a national heroine, like the Israelite Judith, but one whose life ended in tragic sacrifice. Her origins are obscure. Her nationality is unclear. She was said to come from the Valley of Sorek or Soreq, which has not been identified. ‘Soreq’ means vine, and so is probably symbolic of Samson’s fall from grace. As a dedicated Nazarite, he was forbidden to drink wine or cut his hair. It’s likely Delilah was a Philistine, or had some connection with that country which, like Phoenicia, lay between the Israelite kingdoms and the sea. The tensions over access to the sea shaped Israelite politics for centuries. Delilah yielded to the temptation of the bribe offered to her if she discovered the secret of Samson’s strength. She was foolish and perhaps greedy, but may not have realised the magnitude of what she did. In any case, it ended tragically. The whole story reads like an allegory. The woman from the valley of the vine cuts off the hero’s hair, that is, Samson, through lust for a woman, betrays his vows as a Nazarite.

I’m playing the devil’s advocate here. Perhaps they were both evil women, but we don’t hear their side of the story. Consider a much more recent example, where we do know both sides. Jeanne d’Arc was a heroine to one of the political factions in her own contemporary France. To the opposing French faction – who handed her over to the English, then ruling a large portion of France – she was a dangerous insurgent (terrorist, if you like) and a witch. Nowadays she is generally regarded as a heroine, but that was not the universal attitude at the time, not even in France.

Ruth, however, is one woman from the Old Testament whom most people can name and whose story is both poignant and positive. In a time of famine, a family from Bethlehem flee to Moab: Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion, who marry the Moabite girls Ruth and Orpah. After the deaths of her husband and two sons, Naomi decides to go home and urges the two young widows to return to their families, who will find them new husbands. Orpah sadly does as she is bid, but Ruth makes one of the most famous pledges in literature:

Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God. Where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. [Ruth 1:16–17]  

Together the two women make the perilous journey from Moab to Bethlehem, where Ruth gleans in the fields to support them both and is eventually married through Levirite practice to a kinsman of Naomi’s family, becoming the great-grandmother of King David. Even the Israelite author of her story – painting her glowingly for her conversion – seems to have recognised what it had cost her, this exile and loneliness, where she has to labour like a pauper in the fields and risk the attentions of reapers, until Boaz gives orders: ‘Have I not charged the young men that they shall not touch thee?’ The implications for a young foreign girl working in the fields are clear.

Enough about those women whose names are generally remembered. Perhaps the most intriguing of all, despite being the most elusive, are the nameless women. All those wives, mothers and daughters who are blocked from our view by an intransigent male presence. Sometimes they are mere shadowy ghosts, hovering in the background. Sometimes their existence is acknowledged through their husbands, sons or fathers. When Noah was selected to survive the Flood [Genesis 6-9], he took into the Ark, besides all those animals, his wife (unnamed), his sons (named: Shem, Ham and Japheth) and his three daughters-in-law (unnamed). Did he have any daughters? If so, no one bothers to record them. Now we have to ask ourselves, who did the cooking? Who provisioned the ship? Who packed the clothes, made sure there were blankets and cooking pots and fuel for the stove and a means of lighting it and a supply of fresh water? Did the men organise the animals’ feed? Or did the women do that as well? Nobody would have survived on that stinking ship for forty days and nights (and longer before they were able to disembark) without the women looking after the demanding problem of feeding everyone. When the ordeal was over, ‘God blessed Noah and his sons’ [Genesis 9:1].

But not the women.

Then there is the daughter of Jephthah [Judges 11:30-40]. Jephthah had made a vow that if God gave him victory over his enemies in battle, then ‘whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.’ When Jephthah does return home, it is his daughter who comes out to meet him ‘with timbrels and with dances’ – his only child. Submissively she accepts her fate, but asks for two months’ grace, so that she can go up into the mountains with her friends to ‘bewail her virginity’, as she will never live to have a marriage and children. When she comes home, Jephthah carries out his vow. In this brutal story, Jephthah is given the distinction of a name, but his daughter is not. Unlike Isaac on a similar occasion, she is not saved at the last minute. Interestingly, at the end of the story the author mentions that it was the custom that ‘the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gildeadite four days in a year.’ So although she remained nameless as far as the writer was concerned, she was not forgotten by the girls who came after.

Most of the women I have been discussing occur in the Old Testament. However, in the New Testament there is this intriguing reference. When Jesus speaks in the synagogue in Nazareth, his neighbours, annoyed at his presumption, say: ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?’  [Matthew 13: 55-56] Once again, the sisters are nameless, although his four brothers are named.
If we turn to the Protoevangelium of James, we find that two sisters are indeed named there as Melkha and Eskha. Were they his only sisters? Matthew refers to ‘all’ his sisters. Perhaps there were more.

In recent years, some of these women of the Bible have begun to be rescued from obscurity. And one of the Old Testament stories in which a woman plays the part of a villain has been turned on its head.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has achieved worldwide fame, been translated into numerous languages, gained many awards and provoked considerable controversy. Set in a world parallel to our own, and moving in and out of other worlds, it has as its central character Lyra, a clever, unconventional, courageous and unruly girl whose destiny (whether she likes it or not) is to save mankind. The enemy is obscure but takes the form of a kind of ecclesiastical hierarchy. Pullman appears to be attacking not innate spirituality but the kind of organised religious bureaucracy which denies mankind intellectual and spiritual freedom. Thus Lyra becomes a latter-day Eve, who has eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, and is celebrated for it. Pullman is saying that eating the fruit of knowledge is what has raised mankind above the beasts and should never, ever, be seen as a fall from grace.

It is through knowledge, not ignorance, that mankind is redeemed, becomes godlike.

I’m not alone in wondering what really went on in the Ark. I’m taking the story literally here. Though we know there was never a flood which covered the entire earth, there is geological, archaeological and literary evidence that there was at least one major flood in the Middle East in ancient times. (Amongst other early references, it is mentioned in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.)

So there seems to be a germ of fact in the Noah story. Geraldine McCaughrean has taken the original text and developed it into the novel Not the End of the World, in which she explores the minutiae of daily life aboard the Ark: the stench, the fear, the illness, the growing tension between the passengers. The central character is a daughter of Noah, for, after all, who is to say that he did not have a daughter? This is no idealised version of the story. Above all it confronts the cruelty involved as Noah and his sons smash the fingers of their drowning neighbours who cling desperately to the ship, begging for their lives. Noah’s daughter is appalled by the whole experience and manages to rescue two children, whom she conceals amongst the animal pens. The five women on board, Noah’s wife, daughter and daughters-in-law, all play major roles in the novel. Often at loggerheads, at the last minute they are united in an action which defies the ruthless cruelty of Noah and his two eldest sons.

The story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, has been turned on its head by Anita Diamant in The Red Tent, where she takes as her premise the idea that Dinah was not raped, but was in love with Shechem and wanted to marry him. The murder of Shechem and all his people by her brothers is seen as a preliminary to their attempted murder later of their brother Joseph, he of the coat of many colours. However, this episode involving Shechem occurs well into the novel, which starts by exploring Dinah’s upbringing by her four ‘mothers’ (Jacob’s two wives and two concubines). As the only girl in her generation, Dinah is instructed in all the female lore handed down from mother to daughter. It is a remarkable reconstruction of women’s lives, beliefs and everyday work in this early Israelite period, right down to their religious practices involving Asherah and other ancient goddesses who were still worshipped, although this was the period when monotheistic Yahwehism began to gain ground. In the latter part of the book, Dinah makes a new life for herself in Egypt, where her brother Joseph also famously made his mark.

Something which has intrigued me for many years is the real-life background to Jesus’s life. He did not appear on the public stage until he was about thirty – what was he doing in all those missing years? And what would it have been like to be part of his immediate family, a peasant family living in a village amongst the hills of Galilee? In particular, what would it have been like to be his sister? Those nameless sisters, brushed aside by history. One day Mariam, sister of Yeshûa (Aramaic for Jesus), simply walked into my head and started talking. I knew about the nameless sisters [Matthew 13: 55-56]. It was only later that I discovered Melkah and Eskah, but Mariam came to me complete with her name and I sensed she had been written out of history for some compelling reason. Fired up, I began to do research into the period and discovered that far more was known than I realised. I also needed to know about domestic life – houses, food, clothing – in order to understand the daily life of a Galilean peasant girl. One part of the story which has always baffled me was why Yehûdâ (Judas) would have betrayed Yeshûa. I read the recently transcribed Gospel of Judas. And then I realised that Mariam might have been betrothed to Yehûdâ, her brother’s oldest friend, while the ‘betrayal’ was the result of a painful but inescapable bargain between the two men. I brought these strands together in my novel, The Testament of Mariam. What has been remarkable has been the response, including astonishing warmth from men of the cloth, some of whom shared my mystification at the Judas story and said my version suddenly made sense of it. The novel has also been praised for depicting the important part played by women in the story.

 So: Where are all the lost women, the named, the vilified, the nameless?

In recent decades, both historical fiction and non-fiction have reached out to cover a much wider field than the traditional one of ‘great’ deeds performed by kings and generals. Interest is constantly growing in the lives and experiences of ordinary people. And once writers began to look at the majority of humanity, it became impossible to ignore the female half. Recent research by historians and archaeologists has brought to light a vast amount of detail about the daily lives of our ancestors, which has enhanced our perception of the past and made it possible to write about them with conviction and credibility. Those lost women of the past, so often neglected and ignored, are stepping out of the shadows and making their voices heard.


Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Irresistible Charm of the English Murder by Christina Koning

‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,’ says Amanda in Private Lives. The same might be said of fiction – at least of a certain sort of ‘cheap’ fiction, variously known as the thriller, the murder mystery, the detective story, and the whodunnit. To this genre – or rather to a particular sub-genre, disparagingly referred to by aficionados of the grislier sort of crime fiction as ‘cosy’ – I am, I freely confess, addicted. In the past few months, I’ve polished off twenty-eight novels by Ngaio Marsh, fifteen by Dorothy L Sayers, eight by Josephine Tey, forty-four by Agatha Christie, six by Edmund Crispin, five by Margery Allingham, two by Nicholas Blake, and the collected Sherlock Holmes stories. I include these last in the awareness that they were published around forty years before the ‘Golden Age’ of English detective fiction (roughly 1920 – 1940) which encompasses the others, but since none of these later works would have existed without Conan Doyle’s sublime creation, I feel they belong together.
Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget 1908


With his louche, but essentially ‘gentlemanly’, appearance, eccentricities of behaviour (violin-playing, cocaine addiction) and the forensic acuity of his mind, Sherlock Holmes – now enjoying a revival of interest, due to the cult success of a recent television treatment, starring Benedict Cumberbatch – is surely the pattern of the English detective, for the period leading up to and immediately following the First World War. Here he is, making his debut, in A Study in Scarlet:

In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawklike nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of an extraordinary delicacy of touch…

In this mesmerising piece of description can be seen the inspiration for a whole clutch of detectives – from Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, with his ‘sensitive’ mouth, and eyes whose supposedly ‘foolish’ expression can turn at the drop of a stiletto to lethal sharpness, to Marsh’s tall, ascetic-looking Roderick Alleyn, whose looks are a cross between those of a ‘polite faun’ and a ‘monk’. Tey’s Allan Grant is another aesthete-turned-policeman, with his ‘dapper’ good looks and his fondness for solving historical puzzles (not least that of who really murdered the Princes in the Tower (vide: The Daughter of Time). Christie’s Hercule Poirot, too, though lacking the dashing style of Alleyn, or the aristocratic demeanour of Wimsey, has, when on the case, ‘cat-like’ green eyes, that flash with intellectual fire. Most of these men – and they are (with one notable exception: the redoubtable Miss Marple) all men – conceal their ruthless intelligence beneath a veneer of absent-mindedness or ineffectuality. Crispin’s Oxford-academic-turned-private-eye, Gervase Fen, is a case in point, with his donnish fussiness and predilection for sixteenth century poetry.



Blue-bloodedness is another factor common to several of these characters – apart from the impeccably well-connected Wimsey and Alleyn (both younger sons of lords), there is Allingham’s Albert Campion, who has a title but prefers not to use it. Though born into high society, these gentlemen detectives seem to enjoy fraternising with the demi-monde – not only that of the criminal underworld, but of the theatre (cf Marsh’s Enter a Murderer; Crispin’s The Gilded Fly) the art world (Artists in Crime), and the bohemian world inhabited by the followers of cult religions (Death in Ecstasy). This is just as well, considering that so many of the crimes they are called upon to solve take place in these milieus. Not that there is any shortage of homicidal incident in the ostensibly more respectable walks of life, such as academia (Sayers’s Gaudy Night; Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding) advertising (Murder Must Advertise) and the House of Lords (Clouds of Witness).

Then there’s the question of the women. Because whilst Holmes – apart from a passing fancy for the beautiful but untrustworthy Irene Adler (A Scandal in Bohemia) – is famously wedded to his poisons and his different types of cigar-ash, a number of his fellow detectives seem to have found time not just for the exacting science of criminal investigation, but for love, and indeed, marriage. Given that these are men who spend a great deal of time hanging around police courts, it is perhaps hardly surprising that their inamorata should often be women on trial for their lives. The splendidly arresting beginning of Sayers’s Strong Poison finds Harriet Vane in the dock:

There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot face and his parrot voice were dry, like his old, heavily veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harsh with the crimson of the roses…

Harriet is on trial for poisoning her lover, an egotistical poet, and the evidence looks very black against her. Fortunately, Lord Peter Wimsey is in court that day. He falls for Harriet’s ‘eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows’ – and the rest, as they say, is history. Indeed Harriet, a best-selling writer of detective stories, proves a valuable asset when it comes to solving a number of Wimsey’s more intractable cases. That it takes him several books before he convinces her to marry him, only adds to the thrill, with the crime-solving, on occasion, taking second place to the romance. Inevitably, given both the author’s academic background and that of her characters, things come to a head in Oxford:


‘Tell me one thing, Peter. Will it make you desperately unhappy if I say No?’

‘Desperately?… My dear, I will not insult either you or myself with a word like that. I can only tell you that if you will marry me it will give me very great happiness.’

They passed beneath the arch of the bridge and out into the pale light once more.

‘Peter!’

Ngaio Marsh in 1935 by Henry Herbert Clifford


Roderick Alleyn also goes for the intellectual woman (can it be mere co-incidence that the authors of so many of these celebrated crime novels were themselves intellectual women?). His Agatha Troy is an artist – first encountered on a voyage back to England from the Antipodes – and prickly as hell when Alleyn interrupts her painting. (‘”How long have you been there?” she demanded ungraciously…’) Back in England, it isn’t long before she, too, becomes the prime suspect for murder – although luckily, not as far as Chief Inspector Alleyn is concerned:


‘Do you think for a moment,’ said Troy, in a level voice, ‘that I might have killed this girl?’

‘Not for a moment,’ said Alleyn…

Again, it isn’t until several books – and quite a few murders – later that the independent-minded Troy consents to become Alleyn’s wife, thus consolidating one of the more durable partnerships (Holmes and Watson notwithstanding) in crime fiction.

Then of course there’s the question of murder, and why it should be such an attractive subject for writer and readers alike. It’s not a question to which I can find a ready answer. Because there’s no escaping the fact that, delightfully old-fashioned as these stories might seem, with their titled detectives and their country house settings, and seemingly unassailable hierarchies of class and wealth, they deal with the darker side of human behaviour: fraud, embezzlement, blackmail, sexual jealousy, and murder. One could argue that it isn’t the crime itself that attracts, but the intellectual puzzle involved in unravelling what has led up to it, and that this – the murder – is merely a necessary convention. Murder is, one might say, the mechanism on which the story relies, and is secondary (surely) to the pleasures of detection. Certainly, by the gruesome standards of most contemporary thrillers, which revel in describing ever more sadistic killings, the murder mysteries of the Golden Age seem like pretty tame stuff. Almost cosy, in fact.


And yet one can hardly describe as ‘cosy’ a tale in which a man dies horribly from drinking nitric acid (Artists in Crime), or one in which the murder weapon is a peal of church bells (Nine Tailors), whose combined clamour, experienced at short range, is enough to drive the victim to madness and death. People are routinely stabbed, shot, strangled, bludgeoned, drowned and – on one memorable occasion – brained with a plant pot (Busman’s Honeymoon), but the favourite method of dispatch in these homicidal tales is often poison, with all the possibilities it offers of being slipped into coffee or strong drink, or substituted for the sleeping tablets or heart medicine of the victim.

Plaque in Torre Abbey Photo credit Violetriga Creative Commons

In False Scent, a leading lady dies after spraying herself with her favourite scent, into which a lethal agent has been introduced. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, an autocratic matriarch expires as a result of drinking poisoned cocoa. Sad Cypress, another of Christie’s Poirot novels, begins with the trial of heiress Elinor Carlisle, for the murder of her rival, beautiful Mary Gerrard, whom she has allegedly poisoned with a fish-paste sandwich. Nasty. Very nasty. And yet one finds oneself reading on…


But – dashing detectives aside – what exactly is the appeal of the whodunnit? I suppose it comes down to one thing, really: the pleasure to be had from uncovering the layers of falsehood and half-truth with which the narrative has been overlaid, in order to arrive at the ‘real story’. Of course, readers of any work of fiction are to some extent playing this detective role, in as much as they’re searching out clues, as they read, about the meaning of the text; it’s just that in crime fiction the process is more overt. As George Orwell pointed out in ‘Decline of the English Murder’, nothing is so enthralling to the general public as a murder by a hitherto upstanding citizen, for whom ‘respectability – the desire to gain a secure position in life, or not to forfeit one’s social position through some scandal such as divorce – (is) one of the main reasons for committing murder.’


So perhaps it’s not just the excitement of the chase – of following up clues and unravelling a mystery – that makes detective stories so compelling. It’s their psychological complexity – the fact that they deal with the darker aspects of human nature; its hypocrisies and self-deceptions – which makes us avid to read them. Detectives, in these stories, often fulfil the role of psychiatrists, enabling those burdened with unbearable secrets to reveal them, and those guilty of terrible crimes to confess. There’s an inevitability to the narrative which somehow never seems to undermine the suspense. Even though one knows from the beginning that the murderer will be found and the crime punished, there is always the faintly subversive thought that this time it might not happen, and the forces of darkness will be allowed to triumph…

There are of course quite a few celebrated examples of murder stories in which the killer ‘gets away with it’ (Patricia Highsmith’s beguilingly nasty Mr Ripley series being amongst them), but in general, what one looks for in a good whodunit is for the agent of chaos (the murderer) to be caught, and for the social order to be restored. It’s this that draws one back, time and again, to these tales – ‘cosy’ or otherwise – of mystery and imagination. Bodies in libraries, shots ringing out, faces frozen in dreadful rictuses of terror… it’s just the kind of thing for a long winter evening, in front of the fire, or tucked up under the duvet. Who needs tiresome reality, when you can have Roderick Alleyn raising a quizzical eyebrow, as his sidekick Nigel Bathgate presents him with the latest piece of evidence? Or Jane Marple speculating about murder weapons, over the tea-table? I’m happy to say that my Kindle is currently well-stocked with several dozen pre-war thrillers, to see me through until Christmas.


Saturday, 18 October 2014

Sarah Waters - Celia Rees


Last week, I went to see Sarah Waters at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. I was there purely as a punter, a fan, no magic access to the Green Room this time. Just like any other reader, I like to go and see my favourite authors and hear what they have to say about their writing. As a writer, I go to see if there are any tips I can pick up - you never know - and as a sometime performer, I like to see how other authors present themselves on the platform or stage. I've appeared at Cheltenham a few times myself and I like both the town and the Festival. One tiny gripe about the latter. I was there in the evening. Waterstone's Book Tent in full swing. I looked in vain for Children's and Y.A. titles, however. Then I noticed another, smaller tent, shut and darkened. 'The Children's Books are in there,' I was told, as if any fule should know, delivered with a look that seemed to say: why would the Children's Bookshop be open at 7:30 in the Evening? Children will be in bed, for goodness sake

That apart, it was a very rewarding evening. Sarah Waters has a quiet, unassuming way about her which readers warm to immediately but which speaks to me of enormous assurance and confidence. She is not afraid to use self deprecating humour or to admit to problems, confusions, worries and concerns about her books as they are being written. With that, she's won over the writers in the audience (well, me, anyway).  Not that I needed winning over. I've been an avid fan since I first picked up a copy of Tipping the Velvet in 1998. 



I was flying to Belfast and was looking for something to read in W.H. Smith's in Birmingham Airport, which I feared might be a fruitless task, when I saw Tipping the Velvet. I have a passing knowledge of Victorian Underworld slang and was intrigued. I'd never heard of Sarah Waters but the title was enough for me. I started reading on the plane and went on reading when I got to my hotel. I tried to slow down, to make the book last, but just couldn't stop. I recognised immediately that here was a story teller of rare power, writing about a 'hidden' history, exploring a world that seldom appears in period fiction or non fiction.  Better than that, I'd discovered a new writer and I've followed her ever since.

She said at Cheltenham that she makes 'an imaginative leap into [her characters'] perspective', and that the story comes from 'what the characters need to do and how they feel about it.' Her knowledge of her period, the period in which her characters live, is immaculate.  It is built up through intense research, using the writing of people who lived at the time: letters, diaries, novels. This seems a good model for any historical writer. It seems a simple idea. If you are going to write about people living in a particular period then that's where you need to go to find out what they thought and felt, but what they did actually think and feel is often surprising. Our ideas about what it was like to live in wartime or post war Britain, as in The Night Watch, or The Little Stranger, are often coloured by hindsight, filtered through modern pre-perceptions or the distorting glass of memory. Waters' unearths the unexpected, continually confounding lazy, cliched views of the past.



















She never allows her research to overburden the text. She uses it to make her period come alive to the modern reader and to give validity to her characters as they move through it. Her extensive reading of contemporary sources imbues her writing with a feeling of the times she is describing, not pastiche, more authenticity, and her plots work with the precision of a swiss watch. Her latest novel, The Paying Guests, the subject of her talk at Cheltenham, is just as clever, accomplished and absorbing as the others, a kind of Suspicions of Mr Whicher from the inside out.  




I'm just left thinking, 'How does she do that?'

Celia Rees

www.celiarees.com

Friday, 17 October 2014

POWDER - AND A PICTURESQUE PASSION by Penny Dolan



A couple of weeks ago, away in Llangollen, I came across an interesting answer to one of those questions that sits in the back of your mind: 

“How exactly did they do that, then?”


I was at Plas Newydd, the home of the famous Ladies of Langollen: Miss Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler. 

The Ladies were a pair of aristocratic women who rejected the expectations of high society in Regency Dublin.  Rejecting the trials of society marriage, or the low status of spinsterhood, the friends eloped together.  Twice. 

The second time, they were successful, although they had to rely on friends as well as family to live.

Inspired by romantic ideals, the Ladies left Ireland, crossed to Anglesey and travelled on rough, unmade roads through Wales.

In 1780, the Ladies settled, “retiring” to a cottage in the beautiful Dee valley

Close by were the picturesque ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey and the hill fort settlement and broken walls of Castell Dinas Bran were visible from the site. 
 


 
With Mary Carrell as their formidable housekeeper, the Ladies lived a quiet and cultured life. They decorated their home in the Gothic style, with strange wood carvings broken from old furniture, fragments of old stained glass and the many curiosities brought to them by their many visitors. Later, under General Yorke, the wood carvings were increased and darkened and the place took on its distinctive black and white look.


Plas Newyydd had brought "retirement from society" but not seclusion and the Ladies, with their scandalous and romantic tale, became celebrities. Over the years, visitors included Southey, Shelley, Byron, Caroline Lamb and Wordsworth as well as the Duke of Wellington and many more. The Ladies were involved in local culture and music and the Welsh harpist Jonathan Hughes often played in their drawing room.

Back now to the start. The eighteenth century was still an era of wigs, pomades, hairpieces and hair-powder. This French fashion had been popularised by Charles II back in the seventeenth century, when “big hair” was linked to the display of health and wealth, to the comfort of hair easily de-loused and to concealing the ravages of hair loss and diseases. Men were the main wig-wearers, but women included a variety of hair pieces as part of “natural” hair-styles.

Hair-powders, coloured or white, helped with these fashions. The powders absorbed natural oils at a time when hair was not frequently washed as well as the grease of pomades, the styling gels of the period. 

Such powder, made of some form of starch, was applied with bellows and brushes by a maid or servant, and was useful for blending both false and natural hair together.  

The gentle-person's garments needed to be protected by arrangements of capes or coverings. Plas Newyydd offers what may be a more ingenious everyday idea. The Guest Bedroom still has a true “powder room”. It is a small walk-in cupboard off the bedroom, a place where one could attend to one’s personal toilette.   


 
The wooden door has a large round hole cut into it. Although this could just be for daylight, the current National Trust Visitors Notes suggest that the servant stood inside, with the bowl of powder at the ready. 

The gentleman or lady, remaining in the bedroom, stuck their head of hairs, various, through the hole and were duly be-powdered, thus protecting their garments - and the room - from an untidy scattering of dust. I do not know if this “invention” was common at the time -  or even if this is just historic supposition – but what a simple and practical device it appears. And what a fascinating scene that would be to write! 

 


The picture of the elderly Ladies above shows them in rural hunting dress. Other portraits show the pair with fairly short hair, cut in the style of their youth, but probably still lightly powdered.

"Powder” however, was already disappearing. With revolution in France and riots and unrest in Britain, society people were less eager to display grand hairstyles. William Pitt’s 1795 Duty on Hair Powder Act, raised to fund the war against the French, finally killed off such powder rooms, except for the coy use of the term in occasional modern hotels.







Penny Dolan
Author of A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E  (Bloomsbury)

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Alhambra: by Sue Purkiss

Last month I wrote about our trip to the Alpujarra, in southern Spain. You can read about it here. The Alpujarra is a region of the Sierra Nevada, and by the nature of mountainous regions, it's not easy to get to or get out of. Places that look close on a map are not in reality. But there was one place we all agreed we must go to: the Alhambra in Granada.

The Alhambra is a supremely beautiful mediaeval Arab palace; yet, ironically, it was founded (in the 13th century) as the power of the Moors was declining. It is set on a hill above the city, and although the landscape around it is sandy and arid, the citadel itself is surrounded by woods and gardens; you are never far from a fountain. The gardens are irrigated by water from the Sierra Nevada, carried by a series of cunningly contrived channels: in my previous post, I wrote about how cleverly the meltwater from the mountains is conserved and distributed, and that the foundation of the system was laid by the Moors, and perhaps even before them by the Romans.

We were only able to be there for a few hours. It wasn't nearly long enough to take in all that there was to see, and I hope one day I'll go back. The Nasrid Palace, which is the jewel in the crown of the Alhambra, is a curious combination of simplicity and extreme complexity: the rooms have no furniture, so there is nothing to stop one's gaze being drawn to the meticulous, intricate, exuberant patterning on every surface.

I know really nothing about the origins of the patterns, the history of the decoration. So I'm just going to put up some pictures, so that you can take a virtual tour, and think, not only about the long-ago kings who commanded the building of the palace, but about all the craftsmen who must have laboured so long and with such care to create it.



The Ambassadors' Hall



The Court of the Myrtles






Orange trees!


The Lions' Court


A view over Granada from the Alhambra

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Childhood in the Past by Marie-Louise Jensen

A few things have made me reflect on the concept of childhood in the last few days, so I thought I'd muse a little here.

I'm aware that childhood in its present form in Western industrialised society is a modern construct. The idea that childhood should be protected, a time for learning and development is recent. And sadly it's not the case for many children world-wide.
In the past, of course, even in Europe, things were very different. Take the age of 15. Thinking specifically of girls, in many eras in the past they would be married or at least thinking of marriage if they were well off. If they were poor they would have been working for years.

When I wrote Daughter of Fire and Ice, my first Viking novel, I discovered that many girls of standing were married off very young indeed. Some were so young, it was considered normal that they took their toys with them to their new home. I found that rather heartbreaking. Although I didn't use that particular information in the book, it helped shape my understanding of how my 15-year-old protagonist would have seen life.

It's especially interesting given that wives of householders in the Viking age were in charge of the store cupboard. They decided how much food could be taken for household use and when and held the key. This was an incredibly responsible job in a world without shops or regular markets - if you misjudged, the whole household could starve before spring; something that does nearly happen in my story.

Wives were also left in charge of the farmstead when the husband was away trading or raiding - sometimes for a season, sometimes for years. What a responsibility for a young wife.

Throughout the ages girls have shouldered responsibilities very young; managing long working hours, providing competent labour, running households, caring for children. In war years, women and girls stepped up and did men's work while they were away fighting. Particularly on the land, girls would often do a full day's heavy work from a very young age.
This is perhaps one of the things that makes teen historical fiction so very different from the other genres. In the past, only the very wealthy would have been able to indulge in the kind of stroppy, sassy, self-indulgent behaviour that is portrayed in some contemporary teen fiction.

When a historical novelist writes about the girl of the same age, the weight of adulthood is already resting firmly on her shoulders in the way that perhaps only child-carers face in contemporary Europe. It's a very different proposition to write about such girls and make it possible for today's teens to relate to their place in the world, their concerns and their ambitions. But so important, I feel, for today's girls to be aware of how much things have changed.