Friday, 18 April 2014

The Road Goes Ever On... Celia Rees

So begins The Walking Song, composed by Bilbo Baggins and sung in J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit and sometimes in the Lord of the Rings. They do a lot of walking in both, so a walking song must have come in handy. Both books are quests and quests often involve a lot of journeying, often on foot, sometimes on horseback. Quests never seem slow moving, although the characters might move slowly. That is because being on the move allows things to happen. Journeying allows the characters to have new experiences; to learn more about the world and about themselves. 

Quests and journeying are most often associated with fantasy but they are the mainstay of all kinds of fiction. If you want things to happen, send your main character on a journey, voluntarily, or not. If they don't want to go, have them kidnapped.

I often take my characters on journeys. It gets them out of the house, out of their comfort zone, puts them on their mettle, presents them with new challenges, new places to see and new characters with whom they can fight or fall in love. In Witch Child, Mary goes to America and then off into the wilderness in Sorceress,. In Pirates! Nancy leaves Bristol for the West Indies and in the company of her friend Minerva, she sails the seven seas. In Sovay, the eponymous heroine journeys first to London and then to Paris.  In The Fool's Girl, Violetta travels from Illyria to London. I don't write about stay at home kind of girls.

Sending your heroines (or heroes) on journeys demands a certain kind of research: modes of travel (beyond shanks's pony), travel times - how long to x from y using z transport, where to stop on the way.  This, in turn, leads the writer to a certain kind of writing, in particular travel journals. It is always best to read a contemporary account of the kind of journey that you want your character to make if said account is available, particularly if it is written by an excellent writer, as these accounts often are. Daniel Defoe's  A Tour Thro' The Whole Island of Great Britain, Divided into Circuits or Journies , for example, or Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary, Being the Diary of Celia Fiennes

Memorial to Celia Fiennes
Even if the intrepid traveler is not an exact contemporary of your fictional character, I always reason that, until quite recently, travel didn't change markedly for quite long periods of time. Fifty years here or there doesn't make a whole lot of difference. The detail and insights such writers provide are far more important than a slavish adherence to dates.

Research has introduced me to a whole new area of literature and one I have come to thoroughly enjoy, especially since I don't have to stir from chair or study to have the most fantastic adventures, visit places, landscapes, cityscapes, even countries that are not there any more. Books like Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her account of her travels in Yogoslavia before the Second World War, or Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water where he describes his journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, allow us to time travel, which is what the writer of historical fiction wants to do most of all.

 Books like these, or Robert McFarlane's The Old Ways make me want to pack an old knapsack like Bilbo Baggins and be on my way, off to find my own adventures, but if that's not possible,  and it rarely is, then reading about someone else doing it is the next best thing. The other best thing is writing about it: taking the journey in your own head, with someone like Patrick Leigh Fermor or Celia Fiennes guiding your every step.

Does anyone else have favourite travelling companions of a literary kind?

Celia Rees

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Children and Puppet Thing - by Penny Dolan

Why children, I wonder?   

On Monday, I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the Shakespeare Puppet show mentioned by Louisa Young in her History Girls “Fear of Puppetry Overcome” post a few weeks back.

I took two children - 7 & 10 - and the noon-time show was the first public performance. 

As well as displaying and demonstrating different kinds of puppets, the script was cleverly woven through with lines from Shakespeare’s great plays to introduce his phrasing and poetry, and very enjoyable it all was.

However, the quantity of very small children in the audience set me thinking. Why, here in England, are puppets almost always seen as something for young audiences? Even those magnificent Warhorse puppets – like the horse on display in the V&A Theatre Gallery – originated in a story written for children.

I started wondering whether this attitude had any historical link. Might our national response to puppets go back to the Reformation, and the destruction and defacing of so much religious statuary and images? Did that great ferment turn all forms of images into suspicious objects, especially any used in processions or plays and likely to deceive souls by seeming "alive"? 

Did whatever puppets existed back then – in whatever was street theatre or as part of mystery plays -  become deceits of the devil and casualties of the Puritan view? Or were puppets far too close to  the venerated icons and miraculous statues of enemy Papist practices, and all those other suspicious customs of “foreigners”?  

(European puppet companies still have a tradition of producing shows for adults as well as for children, and many other world traditions are intended for all ages.)

Would the fear of witchcraft or, worse, accusation of witchcraft, make people shun puppets in case such objects were seen as evidence of their crimes?  Were children's "poppets" and "babies", used to encourage mothering skills, seen as innocent when puppets themselves were not?

And if so, does that mean that Henry VIII, Good Queen Bess and Old Noll killed the English love of puppets? Note: I'm just wondering here. I don’t know, not yet. Do you?

However puppets are still around, hanging on at the edge of our culture.  We still have Punch and Judy shows, even though the rascal originated in Italy. Occasionally, the art of puppetry resurfaces in the theatre, or on our televisions whenever Spitting Image's satirical caricatures become newsworthy.

We still have human puppets like the “’Osses” of the mumming tradition, and speaking dolls like the ventriloquist’s dummy. Sometimes whole communities get involved with puppets: the town of Skipton has a bi-annual puppet festival and procession, next due in 2015, and not so long ago a huge Elephant puppet paraded through London to great audiences and acclaim.  

Even so, I bet any publicity about a puppet show will be – unless there are very explicit warnings - read and seen as “for children” - and very little children at that.

By the by, I once read that the violent destruction of so much religious art during the Reformation created such intense trauma that English visual tradition ceased. The main means of expression shifted towards words, which brings me very back nicely to the glory of Shakespeare’s language and that V&A puppet show.

Penny Dolan

ps. I'm rather fond of puppets and created an old Punch and Judy man as an important character in my children's novel. A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. (Bloomsbury)


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A Right Bobby Dazzler and Four Marys Catherine Johnson

This post came about because I was reading a memoir by Mikey Cuddihy about her childhood, orphaned at 9 and uprooted from her New York family and sent away to the alternative school in Suffolk, Summerhill, in the 1960s. It's called A Conversation About Happiness and it's a lovely read by the way. Anyway, in the book Mikey recounts the parcels from other students' parents containing girls' comics - Bunty and Judy - and how they were passed round and devoured even though much of what happened in them, boarding school punishments  and the like were foreign to Summerhill students.

This got me thinking. What strange beasts those comics were. I think most of them staggered on into the 1980s desperately trying and failing to re-invent themselves. I read them in the late sixties at my friend Sheila's house. Her older sister Jean got them every week, and not having English parents myself they offered a window onto - for me at least - an equally foreign world.

What I remember most of all is the thick strand of masochism - Wee Slavey always toiling away for the upper classes and being treated horribly. Ballerinas beaten by evil dancing instructors (of both sexes by the way),  and also The Four Marys who never suffered quite so horribly but who had incredibly weird and strange haridos presumably so readers could identify one from the other. When you compare them to the American Comics that I can remember from the period, Archie, Richie Rich, there was none of that out and out suffering, that know your place Englishness going on at all.

There were ponies and dancing and orphanhood and ghosts - quite a bit of seeing things and psychicness  (although having since done a bit of research rather than just remembering, this was Misty, the horror themed comic)- the odd tomboy - modelling, air hostesses, and plenty of suffering.

It was in these pages I learnt what a Bobby Dazzler was - she was Roberta on the cover of Judy. And how it was to be a boarding school girl even though I lived in a terrace house in North London. But most of all I learnt that to be a girl which always seemed involved a veil of tears and knowing one's place and of course, naturally, you had to be white. Luckily since I wasn't I knew that the world I read about was one that didn't apply to me.

Catherine Johnson's latest book is Sawbones published by Walker books.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Book Review: Girl with a White Dog

By Anne Booth

(Post by Marie-Louise Jensen)

Jessie is excited when her gran gets a white Alsatian puppy, but with Snowy's arrival a mystery starts to unfold. As Jessie learns about Nazi Germany at school, past and present begin to slot together and she uncovers something long-buried, troubling and somehow linked to another girl and another white dog…
Family troubles, dementia, a longed-for pet and a mysterious past: I wasn't far into this book before I began to realise there were many layers in the narrative and that the way the tale was unfolding was unusual but exciting. The writing is gentle, warm and caring.

When Jessie's grandmother begins to have episodes of forgetfulness and fear and to say things that make no sense to her family, Jessie becomes afraid for her. Strangely, the things she is saying begin to link uncomfortably with Jessie's aunt, who blames immigrants for all the troubles in the area, with the brick that is thrown through Mr Gupta's village-shop window and with an attack on the young man with Down's syndrome. Her grandmother's condition also seems to coincide with her unexpected acquisition of a white puppy for whose safety she is irrationally afraid.
Jessie grows curious about her grandmother's past, which no one in her family knows anything about. This becomes especially important when Ben's grandmother visits the school to talk about Nazi Germany as part of a history project. Eventually she decides to look through her box of photos and letters which Snowy has found and chewed.
All the threads in the story are linked and connect past and present. The tale is a lesson in remembering the past and making sure it doesn't repeat itself horribly in the present. My favourite line, without doubt, and the main message I myself will take from the book is in the very last section: "a story [...] is being told that we believe in [ ... ] But we have not checked who is telling it."
Do we always think about who is telling us something and what their agenda might be? If we don't, we should. Otherwise we are easily manipulated.
Jessie tells us this is a fairy tale, and like all fairy tales it begins by being sad. And you have to make up your own mind about whether the ending is happy or sad. It may be different things to different readers.

It’s difficult to pinpoint an appropriate reading age for this book. It seems to be set in secondary rather than primary school, as the subjects are divided and taught by different teachers. The voice is young and the writing highly accessible. The subject is upsetting in places but always gently told and never graphic. My feeling reading it was that a child would understand the story on different levels depending on their age and would draw an age-appropriate message from it. There is plenty here for an adult reader too, especially those readers who aren't all that familiar with the Third Reich - and anyone who enjoys a sensitively-told tale, beautifully written.

With thanks to Catnip Books for a review copy.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Writers' Houses 1: Max Gate - by Sue Purkiss

Portrait of Hardy
I think it’s always interesting to visit houses furnished as they would have been in the past. It’s part of this whole thing of trying to imagine life in different periods, of trying to work out whether people are intrinsically the same whatever period they happen to have lived in.

But there’s an extra layer of interest when it comes to visiting writers’ houses. What do the houses say about the writers? Recently I visited Max Gate in Dorchester, the house into which Thomas Hardy moved in 1885, when he was forty five. Hardy actually designed this house, so there’s even more reason to expect that it will tell us something about him.

Max Gate

From the outside, it’s rather forbidding. Built of dull dark pinkish-red brick, it has a central section with a pointed gable, and on either side there’s a square tower topped with a pinnacle – slightly gothic, perhaps. The front garden has mostly gloomy trees and shrubs, which, as you approach, partially obscure the view of the house – it’s as if the house is hiding: though to the left and rear of the house is a much pleasanter, happier garden, with flowers, lawns and vegetable beds. It’s a house that would serve very well as the setting for a ghost story, with figures flitting across the small upstairs windows – particularly the Rapunzel-like casements high up in the towers. No wonder, perhaps, that Hardy wrote such gloomy, doom-ridden stories here.

The sitting room
Inside, however, the feeling is quite different. It has the most relaxed feel of any National Trust house I’ve been into: the stewards invite you to go into the kitchen and help yourself to tea, sit anywhere you like to drink it, pick up anything you want to look at. The dining room is perhaps not fully restored yet; it doesn’t feel lived in. But the sitting room is another matter. It’s colourful and cosy, with red walls covered with pictures, comfortable saggy armchairs, tables piled with books and magazines. It looks as if it’s just waiting for Hardy to sit down and have tea with a visitor – in later years T E Lawrence, perhaps, ridden over from his retreat nearby at Clouds Hill on his Brough Superior motorbike. 

Just off the sitting room is a conservatory, or garden room. The house was built on an archaeological site: when the ground was being prepared for building, an ancient grave was found, containing skeletons curled up in a foetal position. And Hardy found a stone, which he had dug up and set upright in the garden; recently, others have been found nearby, and it looks as if Max Gate was on the site of a Neolithic stone circle. Considering Hardy’s interest in ancient sites – think of the scene at Stonehenge at the end of Tess of the D’Urbervilles – this seems astonishingly fitting.

Emma as a young woman
On the first floor are various bedrooms, one of which is set out as Hardy’s study. (His actual study furniture is in Dorchester Museum, and he used several different rooms as a study.) But more poignant are two tiny rooms which you find by venturing up a rather precarious staircase into the attic – Emma’s rooms.

Emma was Hardy’s first wife. They met when Hardy, trained as an architect, went to a village in Cornwall to do a survey of a church in need of restoration; Emma was the rector’s sister-in-law, a woman of thirty, whom the rector was keen to see married off. Pictures of her show a sturdy looking girl, a little heavy-faced, but with creamy skin and a mass of thick chestnut hair. Thomas and Emma married four years later, and at first, all was well. 

As the years went on, however, they grew apart, Emma perhaps jealous of Hardy’s fame and the literary life he led in London for part of the year. Eventually she asked him to make for her these two rooms, and here in the last few years of her life she spent much of her time, sewing, reading, drawing, writing. (She wrote a lively account of her own recollections of her early life, and her drawings of St Juliot Church are better than Hardy’s. If she’d lived now, maybe she would have had her own career, and
would have seen no need to marry someone in whose shadow she would always remain. But who knows!)

On the 27th November 1912, Emma died in one of these rooms. Hardy hadn’t seen her death coming, and he was devastated. He went on a journey back to the places where they met and courted, and the result is an outpouring of his efforts to come to terms with his feelings of loss, in a collection of very beautiful poems: here's a verse from one of them, After a Journey.

Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
    Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you
What have you now found to say of our past –
    Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?
    Things were not lastly as firstly well
        With us twain, you tell?
But all’s closed now, despite Time’s derision.

And perhaps that's a good place to stop.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

POLITICS AND THE ART OF INTIMACY: Levina Teerlinc, a sixteenth century miniaturist – Elizabeth Fremantle

The mid-sixteenth century saw the rise of a new art form: the portrait miniature. Designed to be hidden, rather than displayed in public, miniatures were worn on ribbons tucked away from prying eyes amongst layers of clothing, in pockets and pouches, or in boxes – like Elizabeth I's collection of tiny likenesses. They often signified love and were exchanged as betrothal gifts, keepsakes or between clandestine lovers, but were also worn as covert symbols of political affiliation. It is one such portrait, an image of a woman, who many championed as Elizabeth I's successor, with her son, potentially a future King of England, that is a central symbol in my novel Sisters of Treason.

This portrait of Lady Katherine Grey and her son Lord Beauchamp is the first known English secular image of a mother and child. It is also, if you look very closely at the object Katherine wears round her neck, the first instance in painting of a miniature being worn. It is her husband's likeness and so this forms a kind of family group. When this was painted Katherine was imprisoned in the Tower of London for her unsanctioned marriage to Edward Seymour – indeed that is where she gave birth to little Lord Beauchamp.

The artist was Levina Teerlinc, the daughter of an illuminator of some renown, who came to England from Bruges, joining the household of Katherine Parr when she was queen. Teerlinc was remarkable as a sixteenth century woman earning her living as a painter, but more so in that she served as a court artist to four Tudor monarchs: Henry; Edward VI; Mary I and Elizabeth I, and would have worked on designs for jewellery, seals and documents as well as portraits. It is a great shame that more of her work has not survived but from the few images we have it is clear that she was instrumental in the spread in popularity of the limning or miniature. Specialist in portraiture of the period, Susan E James, makes a strong argument that Teerlinc was the author of A Very Proper Treatise Wherein is Briefly Set for the Arte in Limning that demonstrated the main tenets of the form. James is also of the mind, as is art historian Roy Strong, that Teerlinc may have taught Nicholas Hilliard who was to become one of the world's greatest practitioners of the art.

Teerlinc painted a number of images of the Grey family: the portrait of Lady Katherine with her son and another of her as a girl and also a much disputed miniature by Teerlinc that some, including David Starkey, believe to be a likeness of Katherine's older sister, the tragic Lady Jane Grey. This is hotly disputed and there is no definite image of Jane Grey but there is in these little portraits a clear suggestion of a relationship between Teerlinc and the Grey family.  I have built on this in my novel, weaving the painter's life with that of the two younger Grey sisters Katherine and Mary, two girls whose lives were played out at the heart of the struggle for the Tudor succession, only to be forgotten when their Stuart cousins came to power.

This brings me back to the portrait of Katherine and her son and the political significance of such an image. It was widely copied (I know of at least three similar images in existence) and would have been a covert demonstration of allegiance to the Greys and their claim to the throne. Elizabeth I, ever fearful of usurpers, had Lord Beauchamp deemed illegitimate and Katherine was to end her days in incarceration, but thanks to the intimate art of Levina Teerlinc we have an insight into a forgotten fragment of history.

Ref: Susan E James The Feminine Dynamic in English Art 1485-1603, Ashgate.

Sisters of Treason will be published by Michael Joseph on 22nd May 2014

Saturday, 12 April 2014

March Competition Winners

The winners of the March competition are: 

Ruan Peat
Clare the Reader

Please send your land addresses to:

David Sanger

to claim your prizes.