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Recent reads and reviews of Historical Fiction

Mrs YaleThe Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale by David Ebsworth

‘For is that not the secret of life? To keep open as many of our options as possible for as long as we may dare. And if my only remaining option to keep them alive…’

This is the first of a trilogy set in 17th Century Madras, India, a period and place which I am keen to know more about. David Ebsworth provides a wealth of information in this novel, a feat of painstaking research and historical detail. Taking the form of a private journal, this is the story of a woman who actually existed and is apparently well-known in and around the Wrexham locality, although most people will never have heard of her or her husband Elihu Yale. This is a shame because she was clearly a woman of great pragmatism. When her husband Joseph dies, leaving her with no means of support, she decides – in rather too much of a hurry for the gossips of Madras –  to re-marry Elihu Yale, a man with little obvious charm.  It is an arranged marriage in which they have agreed certain conditions ( I shan’t spoil the plot). Needless to say, things do not progress as smoothly as anticipated. The diary format and first person narration can tend to distance the reader from the action which is always reported but David Ebsworth handles this smoothly, and there are some great scenes reported in this novel – the age-old Tamil practice of a widow throwing herself onto a funeral pyre, the death of a child by snakebite, famine, rioting servants and the bloody betrayal by those Mistress Yale trusts the most. Ebsworth creates a convincing language for the time, peppered with Tamil phrases, which are helpfully given a glossary at the back. You will especially enjoy this book if you are interested in the East India Company and life in early Madras.

The book is beautifully produced with a lovely cover and interior design.

Where did I buy this book? I was sent a complimentary copy by the author for an honest review.

Silversmith's WifeThe Silversmith’s Wife – Sophia Tobin

“How do I explain it to her? he said.

‘Tell her the truth,’ she said. ‘That her husband wished her to marry a dead man; and that, since he is gone, her fate is to be decided by you.’

A slow burner of a book with rich historical detail of 18th Century London. The story begins with a murder, and at the outset you wonder who cut Pierre Renard’s throat and why. His journal entries are at the start of the chapters so you gradually begin to get an insight into the man, and why he might have been killed. Multiple points of view and multiple threads make this book hard to fathom at the beginning, but the quality of the writing guides you through until the plot begins to knit together. Mary, The Silversmith’s Wife of the title, has been so downtrodden by her abusive life with Renard that she is prone to sleepwalking and night terrors. When he dies, though, she is vulnerable, and the conditions of his will mean that pressure is put on her to re-marry. In this tense brooding atmosphere, the murderer is still at large, and this gives a dark edge to all the relationships in the book. I would have liked more detail on the actual silversmithing, because it was fascinating. I suppose what weakened the book for me was the fact that Mary was a victim from the start and her initial lethargy didn’t endear me to her. Other characters such as her sister, Mallory, were more interesting, but I did find the themes of deceit, greed, and control of others kept me turning the pages and I would definitely search out more books by this author.

Overall, this was a really well-written book and one I would recommend to historical fiction fans for its sense of brooding menace.

Where did I buy this book? I picked up the quality hardback, which has lovely endpapers, at my local second-hand bookshop (Carnforth Books)

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Shopping with Elisabeth Pepys in Restoration London

 

Royal Exchange 1569Through the diary of Samuel Pepys, we get a remarkable insight into the City of London in the seventeenth century. Here, amongst Samuel Pepys’ political exploits, and his reports of the Navy, the King and the Court, we can also get a picture of where and how his wife Elisabeth shopped at the time.

Elisabeth loved clothes and fashion, and both she and her husband aspired to move upwards in society. The Restoration was a fabulous time for fashion as people reacted against Cromwell’s Puritan repression with lace, bows, frilled petticoat breeches, and yards of flowing ribbon, even for men.

In 1661 the diarist John Evelyn commented on one young man had ‘as much Ribbon on him as would have plundered six shops, and set up Twenty Country Pedlars; all his body was dres’t like a May-pole’.

Elisabeth often shopped at Unthank’s the tailors, a large shop in Charing Cross, where she was measured for her gowns, and would choose fabric and cloth. Unlike shoemakers and bootmakers, whose leather work could be done on stalls in the open air, tailors usually worked indoors out of the weather. ByV & A Ribbon Gloves the end of the 17th century more exotic and valuable fabrics from abroad such as East Indian chintz became popular.

Sometimes more expensive fabric, such as chintz or silk, was supplied by the client, leading to tailors being seen as cheaters, because the client suspected they skimped when making up the fabric and used the left-overs to make smaller garments they would then sell on. Many pamphlets of the time describe tailors in this rather unflattering way.

A range of accessories that were both decorative and practical were available. Decorative muffs acted as a place to store handkerchiefs, purses and perfumes. Hoods, both attached to, and unattached to cloaks were popular too, with some shops only selling hoods. Opposite – ribbon-trimmed gloves from the V&A.

In the diary, arguments between Samuel and Elisabeth were frequent, especially over money.  For example after the Duke of Gloucester died and everyone was in mourning, Elisabeth overspent the fifteen pounds she’d been given for her mourning costume, and Pepys says ‘after I had looked over the things my wife had bought today…they costing too much, I went to bed in a discontent.’

Elisabeth would have taken her coins and tokens (coins were in short supply during Charles II’s reign) and go to the Royal Exchange, which before the great fire was the great centre of commerce in the city. The coins illustrated read:  ‘Coffee Tobacco Sherbet tea and Chocolat retail’d in Exchange Ally’. The Exchange was officially opened in 1565 by Queen Elizabeth I, who awarded the building its Royal title. It had a central courtyard surrounded by more than 160 galleried shops. Some of these were little bigger than booths, and were so poky and gloomy that they had to be lit by candles, even in the daytime. The covered walks were decorated with statues of English kings.

London Bridge by Claude de Jongh
London Bridge by Claude de Jongh

Unfortunately, the Royal Exchange was destroyed in the Great Fire and had to be rebuilt. A statue of Gresham, who founded the Exchange, stood near the north end of the western piazza. After the Fire of 1666 this statue alone remained unharmed, according to Pepys’ records. Unlike today, only shopping, or the exchange of goods took place. Stockbrokers were not allowed into the Royal Exchange because of their loudness and rude manners, so they had to meet at Jonathan’s Coffee-House which was nearby.

 

 

trade-token-002

Another street that was for fashionable ladies was Paternoster Row, which according to Stow in his book about London, ‘their shops were so resorted to by the nobility and gentry in their coaches, that oft-times the street was so stop’d up that there was no passage for foot passengers.’

Elisabeth also shopped for small linens in Westminster Hall, where it appears you were allowed to run up a bill on account. Mrs Mitchell and Betty Lane both had stalls there, where Samuel Pepys dallied with more than just lace and linen. Westminster Hall was a magnificent arched and lofty building, part of the Palace of Westminster, and some people were disgusted it should be used for trade. But it appears that chapels and palaces were all a part of Elisabeth Pepys’s shopping experience in the hedonistic era of the Restoration.

Pictures: The Ropleasing mr pepysyal Exchange, wikipedia

Leather Tokens: London Museum via the Guardian

My book featuring Elizabeth Pepys is out now. myBook.to/MrPepys

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Fetch Nurse Connie by Jean Fullerton

As I’m a blogger, I received a copy of ‘Fetch Nurse Connie’  from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Fetch Nurse Connie - Cover 18th Feb th Jan 2015..doc

 

Anyone interested in the post-world war two period will just love this. Full of great little details that really bring the past to life, this is a page-turning saga in which we meet memorable characters, and learn a lot about nursing in 1945. Connie Byrne is a determined, staunch and upright young woman facing a demanding job, and a difficult relationship with a fiance who has returned from the war with a shock in store for her. Charlie is convincingly plausible as the unreliable and self-seeking fiance, with looks to melt your heart, and Connie’s nursing friends are real individuals not just cardboard cut-outs. Connie’s journey up the ladder of the nursing profession is a difficult one, but the book does not shy away from the sexism of the times, and from the harsh realities of life in the East End of London for poorer communities.
The interest in this novel is in immersing yourself in another time and period, and in the pre-NHS nursing system, all lovingly evoked by the author.
Jean’s Blog gives lots of interesting information about her research process.

‘In order to get the detail right I have collected over the years a number of nursing text books of the period. These include nursing and midwifery dictionaries, child health books, contraceptive manuals, nurses’ exam crib sheets, 1940/50s editions of the Nursing Mirror and midwifery text books. These are all invaluable but the pride and joy of my collection is my 1947 edition of Irwin and Merry District Nursing manual. ‘  Read More
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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Win a copy of A Divided Inheritance

divided_Inheritance_fc_

I am delighted to announce that A Divided Inheritance is available on kindle today. Click on the cover to take you to Amazon. It will be available in all other formats from 24th October, including the traditional weighty paperback.

Today I’m giving away a signed paperback (UK) or e-book (US) to a winner picked from the hat –

leave a comment to enter with your email address. Entries close Friday 11th October. Two more UK winners will receive a copy of  the US editions of The Gilded Lily and The Lady’s Slipper. These are rare items in the UK and have integrated reading guides and beautiful covers. With family and friends I will be celebrating the release of A Divided Inheritance with a tour and afternoon tea at Leighton Hall. Leighton Hall is a beautiful old house close to where I live, and home to the famous Gillow furniture manufacturers in Georgian times.

Leighton Hall, picture from www.leightonhall.co.uk

Every owner of Leighton Hall, with one exception, has been a Roman Catholic and during Penal Times a priest was always hidden somewhere in the house. This makes it particularly appropriate venue for the launch of  ‘A Divided Inheritance’ as the book is set just after the Gunpowder Plot, when Catholicism was repressed in England. The only owner of Leighton Hall to conform to the Established Church was Sir George Middleton, the last of the Middletons of Leighton, although his wife remained a staunch Recusant throughout.

The public launch is at Carnforth Bookshop which is home to 100,000 second hand books and some new ones. Please join me from 2.30 till 3.30 on Saturday 26th October where I will give a talk on the life of a historical novelist! Below you can see the inside of Carnforth Bookshop – is it any wonder that with this just down the road I probably buy more titles than I actually sell! Here is the ideal opportunity to browse their packed shelves and get yourself a bargain.

Carnforth Bookstore Indie

As places are limited – books take up most of the space! – please contact the bookshop on 01524 734588  to reserve your place or email carnforthnew@aol.com Don’t forget to leave a comment to win a book.

Deborah is currently reading: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth