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Blog Reviews

Death in Delft by Graham Brack – a #17thCentury murder mystery

This is the first Master Mercurius novel I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Set in the immaculately detailed setting of 17th Century Delft, Master Mercurius is a character it is easy to warm to.  An undercover priest as well as a protestant cleric, he is keen to do the right thing in the spirit rather than the letter of the law, and has a dry sense of humour that is a good foil for the beastly business of solving murders.

In this case we have a dead girl and some other missing girls we fear for, and it’s a race against time for Mercurius to discover and flush out the kidnapper, before the dastardly murderer kills another.

One of the joys of this book is all the supporting characters we meet along the way. We get an intimate view of Vermeer described as having: an intensity of gaze I found unsettling, as if he really saw all there was to see, open or concealed.

We also get a view of scientists of the time such as the ‘polite’ Van Leeuwenhoek who is just experimenting with lenses to view what lives in our saliva – to Mercurius’s amazement. Of course there are plenty of clues for him to follow and a satisfactory wrap-up to the plot.

A well-researched, tightly-plotted treat. I highly recommend, and will be reading another soon.

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Blog Writing Craft

Author in Search of a Character – Why James Burke?

I’m delighted to Welcome Tom Williams to my Blog today to tell us about how he came to write the Burke series, described succinctly by Paul Collard as ‘James Bond in Breeches.’ Over to Tom:

Why James Burke? Would it make any sense to say I did it for the money?

If I’m being honest, it can’t really have been for the money, because I know that writing fiction (and particularly historical fiction) is never going to make you rich. But I started writing about Burke as a (sort of) commercial exercise.

Let me explain.

My first novel was The White Rajah. It was based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Like most would-be novelists with my first book, I desperately wanted to write the Great British Novel. I was fascinated by Brooke’s character and the history of how he had come to rule his own kingdom in Borneo and I tied this in with ideas about colonialism and the morality of British rule around the world. Just in case I hadn’t weighted the book down with enough “significance”, Brooke was almost certainly gay and there’s a whole subplot about that. And, as the cherry on the cake, the whole thing is written in the first person and (given that this first person was writing in the mid-19th century) not in the most accessible language.

Despite this, I got an agent! And the agent got rejections from every major publisher he approached. It was, they all claimed, “too difficult” for a first novel. “Why don’t you,” he suggested, “write something more accessible? Still historical, but more the sort of thing people are going to want to read?”

I was stumped. I asked friends for ideas. I even asked Jocelyn, an Alaskan tango dancer I’d met in Buenos Aires (as you do).”Why don’t you,” she said “write about the early European settlers in South America? They have some brilliant tales to tell.”

Jocelyn does not like stories with a lot of violence. I think she was looking more at the explorers and the politicians, or even the ordinary people who left Europe in vast numbers to build a new world in the New World. But when I started randomly looking for European figures in the early colonial history of South America, the one who caught my eye was James Burke.

Burke was a soldier, but we have good reason to believe that he spent most of his time as a spy. The first book I wrote about him, Burke in the Land of Silver, is very close to his true story. Sent to Buenos Aires to scout out the possibility of a British invasion, he explored what is now Chile, Peru and Bolivia, returning to Buenos Aires to assist with the British invasion when it finally came.

I’ve obviously never met Burke, but the little we know about him still gives a strong idea of his character. He was an Irish Catholic who had joined the French army because the British Army did not offer an impecunious Irishman much possibility of advancement. We know he was something of a snob, at one stage changing his name to something that sounded more prestigious than Burke. He ingratiated himself with rich and powerful men, but he does seem to have been good at his job. In any case, there was a James Burke on the Army list long after the Napoleonic wars were over, so he did seem to be kept busy doing whatever it was that he was doing.

It’s this uncertainty about his career that makes him an ideal candidate for a series of books. (If you want to sell nowadays, it’s best to write a series – like Deborah’s excellent trilogy based around Pepys’ life.) He was a spy. He moved in the dark and nobody is quite sure what his missions were. So I can make them up. And what a brilliant period of history it is to make up spy stories about. I’m in a long tradition of sales of derring-do about spies during the wars with France, from the Scarlet Pimpernel to O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin and Iain Gale’s James Keane.

Each Burke story is set around a different Napoleonic campaign. After the British invasion of Buenos Aires (Burke in the Land of Silver) we see him in Egypt’s during Napoleon’s invasion that country (Burke and the Bedouin) and in Paris and Brussels during Napoleon’s textile and returned to power (Burke at Waterloo). The latest story (though not told in chronological order) finds him fighting in the Peninsular War, specifically around the battle of Talavera.

The Burke of Bedouin and Waterloo is entirely fictional, but his adventures in the peninsula are based on another real-life spy, Sir John Waters. In all the books, whether Burke’s adventures are entirely fictional or based on fact, the military and social background is as accurate as I can make it. In fairness I can’t make it all that accurate, but I have gradually found a network of people who really understand the Napoleonic Wars and who have been generous enough to share their understanding with me.

I like James Burke as a hero because he is often far from heroic. Cynical, snobbish, and an inveterate womaniser with an eye for the main chance, it’s easy to dismiss him as an arrogant officer who relies on the solid good sense of his servant, William Brown, to achieve anything. But Brown will be the first to disagree with you, pointing out that when the chips are down Burke will, often reluctantly, always do the right thing. The fact that the right thing isn’t always what his military masters would want him to do, just makes it more interesting. When push comes to shove, he is not only physically but morally brave.

I have come to be quite fond of James Burke. His next adventure will see him in Ireland in 1793 where he is charged with infiltrating the Irish nationalist movement. Perhaps this early mission explains much of his cynicism, for it is his darkest and most morally dubious adventure in the series. But that’s to come. For now, we can relax and enjoy the fun as his schemes, fights, and romances his way through the chaos that is the Peninsular War.

Burke in the Peninsula will be published on 25 September. It is available on Amazon at £3.99 on Kindle and £6.99 in paperback.

You can read more by Tom Williams on his blog, http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/. His Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTomWilliams and he tweets as @TomCW99.

And The White Rajah did eventually see publication and is worth your time. Here’s the link: mybook.to/TheWhiteRajah

Categories
Blog Writing Craft

Introverts and Extroverts in Historical Fiction

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Frank Kovalchek from Anchorage, Alaska, USA

I recently came on a discussion in a facebook group about introverts and extroverts in fiction. (Sorry to whoever started this thread; I can’t find it again now!) But it really made me stop and think, because as a reader I have always been a fan of what I call ‘quiet books’. The more page-turning a book is, the less memorable. So as a writer I need to find a balance between the speed my reader devours the book, and the feeling or memory that the book leaves behind, both of which rely on slowing the pace.

Stakes

The fashion these days in books on the craft of writing is to tell you to concentrate on high action and drama and to have plenty at stake in an external way. This is what we see a lot of in film and TV drama, when the focus is on the physical demonstration of action. In these media, it’s necessary because we have no access to the interior thoughts of the characters.

But novels are different, and as a novelist I’ve always been much more interested the in motivation of my characters. They act, but not necessarily in a high stakes way. The suggestion that some readers might prefer to read about introverted characters, but that most fiction is aimed at extroverts, is a refreshing idea.

What is an introvert, and what might they want to read?

According to Healthline Carl Jung wrote that introverts and extroverts could be separated based on how they regain energy. Introverts prefer a less stimulating environment, and need time on their own to recharge their energy levels, whereas extroverts recharge by social interaction and being with other people.

It made me wonder if introverts prefer reading books written in the first person, where the ‘I’ conveys the inner feelings of the protagonist, and it is as if you are the only person through whom the story is being told. Perhaps a more extrovert reader would prefer multiple points of view and multiple characters which would mimic their preferred way to refuel?

Drawing Room Drama

In historical fiction, the history that has survived is often of the ‘high stakes’ variety. War, bitter battles for control over crown or state, murderous religious divides. Yet one of the most enduring historical fiction periods is the Regency period, presided over by the giant Jane Austen, whose quiet wit, and focus on the drawing room intrigues of societies marriage market, prove endlessly popular.

The Spectrum

As a reader I enjoy both types of fiction, but I couldn’t read an endless diet of historical thrillers. The non-stop breathless action makes me long for a quieter book. I suspect that like most readers, I am on the spectrum between introvert and extrovert, but heading more towards the introvert. As a writer, I need to recharge often after my most dramatic scenes, as I am literally living them as I write.

What do you think? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you like to read about introverted characters, or must they always be the ‘go-getting’ adventurous type? What type of books do you like to read, and would you categorize yourself as an introvert or extrovert?

Categories
Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – the joy of writing extraordinary commoners

I’ve just started a new book and after quite a bit of research, this is the first week of actually typing anything for my new project, book two of a series set in Italy. I’m a pantser, so I just launch straight in and then try to write my first draft as quickly as possible, and allow a lot of time afterwards for editing, refining and re-structuring the story. I have an overarching view of the story in the form of two sheets of A4 paper which are my only outline, plus of course the memory of what happened in Book 1. So far this week I’ve managed just over 7000 words, which is average for me. It gets slower as the story develops in complexity and as I figure out where the characters are taking me and what new research I need to do.

The piles of books on my desk (above)represent the things I am working on. On the left – things I’d like to write about – the writing wish-list. In the middle, books about my last series (in case anyone asks me awkward research questions!) and the next two piles are books about the stories I’m working on right now. There’s a lot about poisons as my main protagonist is a poisoner.

Again, the second book in my ‘Italian’ series is about a commoner. Publishers are often keen that novelists should write about ‘marquee names’ – which means to say people they’ve heard of. They know they can sell any number of books about Anne Boleyn. If the book is about someone people have heard of, its much easier to sell.

This is not actually true. The Girl with the Pearl Earring sold well, despite having an unknown woman at its heart. As did The Miniaturist. Besides,  Royal courts have never much interested me. Instead I’m interested in individuals who have made their mark in history despite being supposedly ‘nobody special.’ My job as a novelist is to make them special and unforgettable. This is a joy, as unlike Anne Boleyn, where there are thousands of interpretations of her life, each of my characters can shine out from her historical past like a gem in a very direct way.

The three women I wrote about from Pepys’ Diary were women he mentioned in passing. Yet now I have re-imagined rich and vibrant lives for Deb Willet, Bess Bagwell and Mary Elizabeth Knepp. You won’t know who they are because they are footnotes in history. The only portrait of them that exists, is in Pepys’ Diary and my books, and so to me these characters are unsullied by other interpretations. I got to know them through my own internal imagination and Pepys’ direct descriptions rather than through some other biographer’s lens. These women now live as more than footnotes and have been given imaginary voices, and I hope voices that concord with their status in the period.

Pepys Library in Cambridge

Because of the fact my characters have no biographers, my research is mostly background. I read very few books that pertain directly to my main characters. I love old maps and take great care with the settings to make them as authentic as possible. Here’s one of old Palermo I used in Book I of my new series. Historical events, and their impact on the people in my stories are my main interest. The cities of Palermo and Naples at that period were subject to earthquakes, rebellions and the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Politics always looks very different from the bottom, rather than from the point of view of those who make the decisions at the top.

My new series is based around the life of Giulia Tofana, an Italian 17th Century poisoner. She allegedly killed 600 men in the cities of Rome and Naples. She is half legend, half real person. Her story has been embroidered and changed over the centuries, but no-one has written a biography of her. So I had to find an internal way to bring her to life, and one of the ways I attempt to do that is to give her a strong setting, and within that to furnish her with a strong set of opinions. For her poisonings to be convincing, her view of the world has to be skewed in some way by her life’s events. In the first book we see these events brought to life, but by book 2 she is now in a very different situation. From being a courtesan in the first book, she now finds herself a nun in charge of a family of young women incarcerated against their will.

The first novel in the series, ‘The Poison Keeper’, is finished and has been contracted to Sapere Books for publication early in 2021. In my first week writing Book 2, I’m wrestling with how much backstory a new reader needs to jump them into the story. I’m also researching the history of the silkworm which will play a big part in the unfolding events. And as always I’m enjoying breathing life into Giulia Tofana, a woman who has not yet been voiced in an English-speaking novel.

Thank you for reading. Comments welcome.

My new WW2 novel will be published soon, and my latest book is here

Categories
Blog Reviews

Fortune’s Hand – a novel of Walter Ralegh

 

The Boyhood of Raleigh 1870 Sir John Everett Millais

I knew nothing about Walter Ralegh, except the legends I’d been told at school; about how he lay down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth I. Was this legend true? Read more here on History Extra to find out.

In his novel, Fortune’s Hand, R N Morris treats us to a visceral interpretation of Ralegh’s life. This is an extraordinary novel. We experience it from multiple points of view, from the acorn that will grow to become the oak timbers of the ship he will sail in, to the teeming life within an old ship’s biscuit. Much of Elizabethan life on board ship is ugly and brutal. We are shown a thief having his hand cut off, and later we witness a massacre in Ireland, and wince at the way a horse might pick its way across a corpse-strewn field. Yet the writing of it is always lyrical, and Morris gives these events a strange kind of beauty. What impresses is that Raleigh experiences these things as part and parcel of his life – to him they are every day occurrences. We are really treated to the mind-set of an Elizabethan man.

Ralegh is of course obsessed with gold, and we see his ambition and his turbulent relationship with the Queen. Yet his literary ambitions are also on show – the novel includes a whole scene after a tennis match written in blank verse, where the dialogue zips back and forth like a tennis ball as if we are in a Shakespeare play. Above all, this is a novel that explores what it is to be a historical novel. It is unlike any other historical novel of the period, and its skilful research and execution are much to be admired.

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Blog Seventeenth Century Life

Ten authors you should know about, who write about the 17th Century #HistFic

The Seventeenth Century is undergoing a bit of a revival, with best-selling authors like Philippa Gregory and Tracy Borman, all getting in on the act. Here is my first of two posts recommending authors who write about this period in European history.

Of course in England the 17th Century is rich pickings with the over-turning of the monarchy, a bitter civil war, new advances in science and medicine, not to mention the witch-hunts and religious persecutions. And London, England’s capital was besieged by war, plague and fire.

But there are many other authors writing about this period whose books should not be overlooked. Here’s a list of ten I can heartily recommend. Click on their names to find all their books.

L.C Tyler – the John Grey mysteries are wonderful who-dunnits and there is a lovely wit and irony to these books.

Alison Stuart – Her Guardians of the Crown series set in the English Civil Wars is full of swashbuckling, difficult choices, and romance.

M J Logue – Her ‘Uncivil War’ series and her Thomazine and Major Russell books have an insider’s view of the period and great characters.

Anna Belfrage – if you like time-travel you will enjoy being transported back to 17th Century Scotland in her gripping nine book series The Graham Saga.

Graham Brack – The Master Mercurius books of the 1670’s featuring a cleric who is both Catholic and Protestant are intricate well-researched mysteries with a dash of humour.

Cryssa Bazos – Her acclaimed romances in the ‘Knot’ series are much more than that. Expect impeccable research plenty of action and a thrilling ride.

Elizabeth St John – lovingly authentic reconstruction of a family’s difficulties through the 17th Century, rich with the real intrigue and political strife of the day.

J G Harlond – The Chosen Man Trilogy is chock full of seafaring, spies and treachery in the 1630s and beyond.

Linda Lafferty – her books about Caravaggio and Atremisia Gentileschi shows us the 17th Century movers and shakers in the art world.

Pamela Belle – The Heron Quartet and The Wintercombe Series provide us with fantastic insights into the life of the English Manor and the changing allegiances of its inhabitants during the 17th Century.

Categories
Blog Reviews

Two books with #WW2 connections

Of Darkness and Light is an engaging mystery of art and artists set in WW2 Norway. Heidi Eljarbo has certainly given herself a challenge – to write two historical periods in one novel which flow seamlessly from one to another, but the narrative works well and the two timelines inform each other beautifully. We begin the story in WW2 Norway where Soli works in an art shop. We see the shock of the invasion of Norway by the German army and what that means for Soli’s close family and friends.

As the book progresses, the art shop where Soli works is frequented by Nazi collectors of fine art, although the owner does his best to hide the most precious works from these men. When a murder happens right outside the shop, Soli finds herself irresistibly drawn into the mystery of who killed her colleague and why, and the puzzle deepens when Soli discovers that the victim, who she thought she knew well, is also known by another name.

At the same time a painting is missing from auction and Soli must uncover what has happened to it before the Nazis do. I can’t reveal too much of the plot without revealing all the twists and turns, but suffice it to say, Soli and her Art Club are drawn into the Resistance in their bid to save the art world’s cultural heritage from being stolen by the Nazis. Soli is an engaging protagonist, with the skill to tell a real painting from a fake, and the author makes the most of Soli’s ‘eye’ in giving us detailed descriptions of people and places. The reveal of what is inside the walnut and gilded frame is a highlight for me in descriptive writing.

As well as finely drawn detail within WW2 Norway, We are taken back to 17th Century Valetta, Malta, to the studio of Michelangelo known as Caravaggio, and his model Fabiola, again all described in sumptuous detail. If you love the art world and a good mystery, you will really enjoy this well-written book which has plenty of excitement and intrigue to keep you turning the pages.

Find out more about Heidi and her other books.

Endless Skies by Jane Cable is a contemporary romantic novel that harks back to memories of WW2. Archaeologist Rachel Ward’s relationships with men have always been a disaster.  Short-lived, and lacking in commitment. This novel begins to unlock why by gradually letting us into her past. Brought up by her grandmother, Rachel has a natural empathy with Esther, an elderly woman in a care home near where she is working. I really enjoyed the character of Esther, and thought she was drawn well without too much sentimentality.

The men in Rachel’s life are the dreadful, manipulative Ben, one of her students, and Jonathan, who is a property developer. An affair with Ben was always going to be a bad idea, but it also causes Rachel to look back at why she always makes such bad choices. Jonathan asks Rachel to do some work surveying what used to be a local airbase. This links up to Esther’s story, but I won’t give too much away.

One of the delights of the book is the atmospheric setting of the flat Lincolnshire countryside, and the deserted airfield which contributes to the idea that the ghosts of the past still have a bearing on what happens in the present. A thoroughly enjoyable read with multiple interesting strands.

Read more from Jane about the book.

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Blog Uncategorized

Building Blocks of Historical Fiction no 3 – Art and Artifice #HistFic

What does historical novel give you that film or television doesn’t? The answer is a total and intimate immersion. The language we use in a historical novel is what immerses us in time and place. Our word choices matter, and every choice we make impacts the reader from the inside. This doesn’t mean we have to use the language of the chosen period, or there’d be no instantly comprehensible novels about medieval England, as those who have studied Chaucer in the original will testify. (There are one or two notable exceptions to this, but not many.)

Of course if you take the time to study old English it then becomes comprehensible, but most readers want to be ‘inside’ the experience quickly. They don’t want to have to study before they can take the journey into the past. In a way, this explains the popularity of familiar periods over less familiar ones – the reader has already, in some small way, studied the period by reading other novels of the era.

Our job as writers is to make the study of the period effortless; to provide enough detail in the story to convince the reader they are there, walking the streets of a previous century, and this must be done in language that feels appropriate for the era. I have just been reading ‘Fortune’s Hand’ by R N Morris, about Walter Raleigh. (Review soon). It is a fine example of what writing can do that films can’t. For one thing, his opening gives us the point of view that is everywhere and nowhere – the ultimate God’s eye. We see an acorn as it grows to an oak, and then how it is transformed into creaking timber, and finally a ship. The world of the ship is of vital importance to all that Raleigh is and will become.

This is a leap of the imagination that is almost impossible to do in film, for us to transform ourselves in our imagination from a God’s eye view one moment and then to zoom into the inside of an inanimate object the next, and for that object to give us its point of view. What’s more, it can be done in beautiful language – language that you might never experience in every day life.

“The stem writhes as it grows, whipping the air. It is almost too fast for itself, has not the strength to support its vaunting height. Quick, quick, quickening, it girds itself with growth, thickening into an adolescents tremor.
I see the parting and spreading of the roots, the restless subterranean colonisation. It is the nature of all life, the urge to encroach.
I see the orb of the heavens wheel about. I see the Sun on its ceaseless course, a bouncing ball across the horizon. The waxing and waning of countless moons. The slow strophes of an eternal dance sped up into a frantic jig.”

So what is beautiful writing? Hmm. A hard question.

It is like art; hard to define, and one person’s art may be another person’s poison.
It can be a prose poem, as in Fortune’s Hand.
Or it can be much simpler – the exact choice of word used to convey a precise effect that transports you simply and confidently into the scene.
Here is Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk, and barely literate 15 year old Mary in 1831:

“the day it started was not a warm day to begin. no it was a cold day to begin and the frost was on every blade of grass. but then later the sun did come up and the frost went and then the birds were all starting up and it was like the sun was in my legs for i got the feeling that i get. it goes into my legs and then goes up into my head.

 

the sap was rising up through the stems and the leaves were unfurling. and the birds were putting a lining in their nests.”

Notice how bold these extracts are. How they are not like the language that we use every day. In Leyshon’s she has dispensed with capital letters, and allows her protagonist to repeat ‘and’ and ‘then’ the way a young girl might. In Morris’s extract we see language we would never see in a newspaper – ‘vaunting’, ‘girds’, ‘strophes’. The writer is transporting the reader by the use of language. Of course it doesn’t always work, and too much artifice can make a novel tiring to read, but one of the joys for me as a writer is to tread the edge of what might be possible with language. I have even invented words in a few of my novels. (If you spot one, and can tell me what it is, you can have a free copy of my new one when it’s out!)

So my tip for today is to take the risk with your language. Those who write contemporary fiction haven’t nearly so much freedom, as those of us supposedly constrained by the period.

More about Language in Historical Fiction: You might also like to read these longer articles on Language in Historical Fiction: The Historical Novel Society and The History Girls

You might also like: Building Block no 2: Suspicion Versus Suspense

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Blog

Morecambe Winter Gardens – a labour of love

WG IMG_0595I’ve just been on a guided tour of Morecambe Winter Gardens. Its not the first time I’ve visited, but it is more than five years since my last visit. Morecambe Winter Gardens was a place of music hall entertainment, with a grand ballroom next door, and was designed to give holidaymakers a taste of luxury away from their lives at home. Many of the visitors were on day excursions from the industrial towns of Leeds or Bradford, and would be looking for place to eat, drink, be entertained – all without going outside on a wet day. The Winter Gardens provided an indoor place to promenade, and a ballroom next door for dancing.

Once with a rolling programme of all day entertainment – ballet, mime, comedy, pierrots, song and dance –  the stage is mostly empty now apart from the odd ghost hunt or music event.

Stephen, our guide, took us up near the roof to see the iron girders supporting the elaborate ceiling. The infrastructure is built like a railway station with massive ironwork suspending moulded plasterwork. Unused since the 1970s the building fell into disrepair and has since been looked after, and restored, by a small team of volunteers. The task is enormous. The walls have been damp and crumbling, the roof unsafe. The volunteers have painstakingly removed hundreds of nails from the original parquet floor and replaced the missing pieces with appropriate period wood. They are now restoring parts of the granWG IMG_0593d circle.  Stephen freely admits that the task of restoring this building will take generations, and that they are looking to the future one step at a time.

It is such a shame that our seaside heritage doesn’t attract the sort of funding that would allow the refurbishment to progress faster, and before more crucial infrastructure is lost. During Covid people have been flocking to our seaside towns again and it is a shame when an iconic building like the Winter Gardens can’t be shown off in all its original glory. Of course it is interesting to speculate what the building could be used for, now that the thousands it could accommodate prefer to holiday elsewhere.

But a building so spectacular could be used for many different things – retail, food hall,  marketplace. Personally I would love to see it as a museum or exhibition of the seaside life as we used to know it. There is a tendency to ignore the art of the seaside funfair, circus, arcades and other pier-head attractions, which are a vital and interesting part of our history, with their own particular visual language.

For the volunteers who are bringing this building back to life, it is a real labour of love. They give up their weekends to show visitors around, when they are not painting, plastering or cleaning. They are raising money to put the seats back in the Grand Circle, one seat at a time. You can find all the information you need about how to support their work and their ongoing labour of love on their website www.morecambewintergardens.co.uk  Do book a tour too, its fascinating and gives a real window into seaside culture in its 1930s heyday. Tea and cake can be had in the foyer.

The pictures below show the spectacular Burmantoft tiles in the entrance to the Grand Circle and in the foyer, and the outside of the building with its magnificent arched window overlooking what must be one of the most spectacular views of the bay and the Lake District hills.

WG IMG_0599 WG IMG_0598 WG IMG_0602

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Blog

The Victorian Sickroom – a guest post by Charlotte Betts

cb Charlotte BettsI’m delighted to welcome  Charlotte Betts to my blog today, with her lovely informative article on the Victorian sickroom. Charlotte Betts is a multi-award-winning author of romantic historical novels and draws inspiration from the stories of strong women at turning points in history. Her careful historical research enriches her writing with an evocative sense of time and place. She is currently working on The Spindrift Trilogy, set in an artists’ community in Cornwall at the turn of the twentieth century.

Charlotte lives on the Hampshire/Berkshire borders in a 17th Century cottage in the woods. A daydreamer and a bookworm, she has enjoyed careers in fashion, interior design and property. She is a member of The Romantic Novelists’ Association, The Society of Authors and The Historical Novels Society.

 

The Victorian Sickroom

‘All women are likely, at some period of their lives, to be called upon to perform the duties of a sick-nurse.’ Mrs Beeton

The duty of nursing the sick within the home has traditionally fallen to the woman of the house, whether she is emptying basins and making cough linctus herself or overseeing her servants while they carry out the necessary tasks. In households where there were a number of children, a maiden aunt or a grandmother might also be called upon to assist in the sickroom if there was a bout of measles or mumps.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management states that the main requirements for a nurse are ‘good temper, compassion for suffering, sympathy with sufferers (which most women possess), neat-handedness, quiet manners, love of order, and cleanliness. With these qualifications there will be very little to be wished for; the desire to relieve suffering will inspire a thousand little attentions and surmount the distaste which some of the offices attending the sick-room are apt to create.’

cb Sickbed

From the 1880s, home care manuals advised the importance of cleanliness and separating the sick from the well. Soft furnishings and ornaments were frequently removed from a sickroom to make it easier to keep it clean and free from dust. Fresh air was advised, though the night air was considered dangerous. Items that might be brought into the sickroom were basins and kidney bowls, a commode, flannel for rubbing the patient’s limbs, stone hot water bottles and an oilcloth for protecting the mattress when giving the patient a blanket bath. A rope might be tied from the head to the foot of the bed to assist the patient to sit up without assistance.

Women were deemed fit to carry out the most tedious and mundane of tasks such as sitting by the sickroom bedside all night, emptying the slops and feeding the patient with teaspoons of calf’s foot jelly, toast water or bone broth, but a (male) doctor was often called upon to pronounce the correct course of treatment. In the early Victorian period, this might have included leeches or a purge. Adhering to a prescribed strict diet was advised, or perhaps a poultice or blister applied to the skin to draw out the ‘poison’. As a child, I frequently had chest infections and I remember my mother making hot poultices to place on my chest beneath my liberty bodice.

cb Household Management

Cholera, TB and smallpox were rife at this time and the medicines to cure these diseases didn’t exist until later. Whole families died from TB, or Consumption, as it was then known. Scientists Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur discovered that contagious diseases could be passed from one person to another by microscopic organisms that were too small to see with the naked eye. Once this was understood, the number of infections and deaths fell. Robert Koch built upon Pasteur’s work and in 1882 identified the organisms causing tuberculosis, prompting extensive public health campaigns. Anaesthesia enabled surgeons to operate more slowly and therefore more carefully on patients and, combined with cleaner operating theatres, a patient’s odds of survival improved.

In the home, a medicine chest was an essential item and it was the first port of call when illness struck, in the hope of avoiding the expense of sending for a doctor. Home remedies such as rose hip syrup would often be made by the woman of the house but a wide range of patent medicines were available from a pharmacy. Chloroform, morphia or laudanum, all derived from opium, could be easily purchased and were considered an efficacious treatment for toothache and headaches.

cb Laudanum cb Smedley

Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodine was a popular treatment for indigestion that, even as late as the 1960s, used to be in my family’s bathroom cabinet. Chlorodine contained kaolin and morphia for diarrhoea and stomach pain. I remember it as being very effective. Remedies for infant colic contained opium and, unsurprisingly,were known for successfully calming a baby. Steel’s Aromatic Lozenges promised to ‘repair the evils brought on by debauchery’, a veiled reference to syphilis, but frequently resulted in painful inflammation. Dr James’s Fever Powder contained antimony and ammonia. Coco leaf, from which cocaine is extracted, was available from a pharmacy as a muscle and nerve tonic.

Once the patient had either recovered or died from an infectious disease, the sickroom would be thoroughly cleaned. Bedlinen would be aired in the sunshine, boiled or burned.

Wallpaper was washed down with carbolic acid, stripped from the walls and burned. Then the room was fumigated. It was sealed by pasting paper over the windows and fireplace. Four ounces of sulphur was placed in a metal dish over a bucket of water and a shovelful of hot coals added to it. The door to the room remained sealed for five or six hours. To complete the process, the room was lime-washed and left with the window open for a week or so.

cb A doctor's adviceWomen proficiently managed their households and guided the education of the children. In the sickroom, they were seen as, and expected to be, capable nurses. Despite this, they were considered by men to be frail creatures subject to fits of the vapours and outbursts of hysteria. Reading apparently inflamed a woman’s brain. A doctor had no time for a mere female to question his medical advice and rarely agreed to accept a second opinion from another doctor, even if the patient wasn’t improving.

Many women suffered from headaches and were happy to retire to their bedrooms for a day or two with a bottle of laudanum. Some women, perhaps depressed by being oppressed by a male-dominated society, made a whole career out of being an invalid.

And who can blame them? A few quiet days in bed with a fire glowing in the grate, a new novel secreted under the covers and a tray of tempting morsels at meal times sounds like heaven to me!

cb The Light Within Us cover high resThe Light Within Us from award-winning author Charlotte Betts is the first book of the Spindrift Trilogy.

Talented artist Edith Fairchild is looking forward to a life of newlywed bliss with her charismatic husband Benedict. He has recently inherited Spindrift House near Port Isaac and Edith is inspired by the glorious Cornish light and the wonderful setting overlooking the sea. But then happiness turns to heartbreak. In great distress, Edith turns to an artist friend for comfort. After a bitterly-regretted moment of madness she finds herself pregnant with his child.

Too ashamed to reveal her secret, Edith devotes herself to her art. Joined at Spindrift House by her friends, Clarissa, Dora and Pascal, together they turn the house into a thriving artists’ community. But despite their dreams of an idyllic way of life creating beauty by the sea, it becomes clear that all is not perfect within their tight-knit community. The weight of their secrets could threaten to tear apart their paradise forever . . .

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Tomorrow’s Tour stop – A 20th Century artist’s colony http://www.charlottebetts.co.uk