Thursday, 31 October 2013

October Competition

Competitions are open to UK residents only, we're afraid.

To win one of five copies of The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd by Miranda Miller, our October guest, just give an answer to the following question in the Comments below:

"Which historical character can you imagine visiting 21st century England, and what would she or he think of us?"

Closing date 7th November

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

October in the Cabinet of Curiosities, by Laurie Graham

No, not a gravy boat, though it would make a very pretty one.

This is a bourdaloue, once the salvation of many a lady caught with a full bladder in a public place. The only problem was, having used it she needed someone to empty it for her. If she didn’t have a maid I suppose she could have slipped it under a chair and nonchalantly kicked it over with the toe of her dainty slipper. 

I find it interesting to see things that were once a part of my daily life becoming collectable antiques. I was born too late for a bourdaloue but not for a chamber pot. Growing up in a house with no indoor plumbing it was an essential item under every bed.  Mine was pink. My parents had one in blue and white willow pattern. The unenviable job of emptying them each morning fell to the females of the house. When you were deemed old enough to empty your own gesunder you knew you’d really grown up.

Gesunder was one of its several affectionate names. As in ‘gesunder the bed’.  ‘Jerry’ had a similar etymology, during and after World War Two.  Po (from pot-de-chambre) was the favourite in our neighbourhood, which caused a lot of stifled mirth when we did the rivers of Italy in school.
The chamber pot wasn’t a very hygienic thing but by the 20th century it was at least  used in the privacy of the bedroom. Up to the 19th century gentlemen, full of claret and ready to progress to the port, depended on finding a po in the dining room sideboard, though of course they’d only use it after the ladies had withdrawn. Why, you may ask yourself, didn’t they go to another room relieve themselves? What, and risk missing a bit of gossip or a good joke?

Writers of historical fiction sometimes get berated either for bringing 21st century sensibilities to their creations, or for not doing so. Personally I’m in the ‘tell it how it really was’ camp. And the bourdaloue is a good reminder that spending a penny hasn’t always been a private affair. I wonder, by the way, how long the expression ‘spending a penny’ will remain in circulation. On Horsefair Street in Leicester sixty years ago a penny used to buy you a very comfortable call in a spotlessly clean cubicle. Nice warm wooden seats too.  Those were the days. As for bourdaloues  -  named by the way, after a French priest famous for his bladder-testingly long sermons - they are now collectors' items. And chamber pots look very nice planted with geraniums.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Writing the Bedlam Trilogy by Miranda Miller

Our guest this month is Miranda Miller. This what she says about herself:
Miranda Miller has published seven novels, a book of short stories about Saudi Arabia and a book of interviews with homeless women. Hilary Mantel has said of her novels, "Miller's intricate fictions are lit by the dark flickerof a strong and original imagination." She has just published 'The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd,' (Peter Owen), Part Two of her Bedlam Trilogy. She lives in North London with her husband, a musician, and has a daughter and two stepchildren. She is a Royal Literary Fund
fellow at the Courtauld Institute. 

Over to Miranda: One morning about twelve years ago I was lying in bed, half awake, when I saw the image of a young woman in Victorian mourning clothes crossing a busy modern road. I wrote two more novels before this persistent young woman became the heroine of Nina in Utopia (Peter Owen 2010).

Nina visits our London and, being a tourist, gets it all wrong: she thinks we live in a Utopia, where all are equal and the evils of money and violence and war have been conquered.  Nina sees "a wonderful city where men and women live quite freely and without lies and hypocrisy."  "Everywhere we went he paid with his visiting card. I saw many others go to a hole in the wall near the restaurant where we sat and take bundles of money from it! So I think there has been some great Chartist revolution and the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street has opened her coffers to all."

When she returns to her own time and tells her husband she has seen this wonderful future and shows him drawings she has done of our London, he, understandably, thinks she is mad and has her confined to Bedlam.

Now at this point I thought I was writing a Gothic novel and that conditions in a mental asylum in 1853 would be horrific. Then I started to do research and discovered that at that time a remarkable man, Dr Charles Hood, had become Resident Physician at the Royal Bethlem Hospital and had carried out a number of reforms. One of the patients in the Criminal Lunatic wing at the back of the hospital was Richard Dadd, a painter who has always interested me. He became a minor character in Nina in Utopia and when I finished writing that novel I was still fascinated by him, so I decided to give him a novel of his own.

Peter Owen agreed to publish The Bedlam Trilogy, about the links between art and madness. Part Two, The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd, has just been published and I am half-way through Part Three, King of the Vast.

Richard Dadd was a promising young painter of twenty-six when he murdered his father and was confined to the Royal Bethlem Hospital, and later Broadmoor, for the rest of his life. With the encouragement of the doctors he continued to work and his most famous painting, the Fairy Feller's Masterstroke, is in Tate Britain. In these two novels I try to explore his inner life and his relationship with his doctors. Richard Dadd's long years of incarceration were not lost. Heroically, he continued to produce mysterious and beautiful work. As attitudes to mental illness have changed his reputation, and his prices, have soared.

In my novel Richard Dadd visits Tate Britain and tries to steal his own painting before being thrown out into  frightening darkness. "There are figures slumped in doorways asleep under piles of bedding.  I am tempted to join them, but it is so cold that I'm afraid I won't wake up again.  I have no bedding, no friends, nothing to eat or drink. Nobody going nowhere with nothing. The longest night I've ever known and the loneliest."
Richard Dadd

Most historical novels ask what we think of them, those long dead people. In these three novels I try to imagine what they would think of us, and each of the three main characters has some vision of our London.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Found in translation? Biographer Clare Mulley considers the importance of language to identity.

Last week my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent in the Second World War, was published in Poland. I think she would have been delighted that, in a way, she was finally coming home. There is no doubt that Poland was always home for her, albeit a home that had sometimes rejected her, and one to which she could not return after the war when the country was run by the Soviet-sponsored Communist regime. By the time of her death, in 1952, this courageous and deeply patriotic woman had adopted British nationality along with her British nom-de-guerre, Christine Granville, of which, she wrote, she was 'rather proud'. However she remained, above all, a patriotic Polish émigré, switching effortlessly between Polish, English and French depending on her audience. In addition to everything else, Krystyna/Christine is a fascinating study in identity. 

Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville

Krystyna's childhood home, Trzepnica, Poland

Of course, biographies are studies in identity too, but when my book was translated into Polish this took on deeper meaning. Would the Christine that I had researched, pictured and tried to present, be the same Krystyna that emerged on the pages of the Polish edition? Would the translation release her from the English idioms that she had never completely mastered, but which she enjoyed playing with for effect, and enable readers to hear her voice more clearly, more directly? Would the 'English sense of humour' she displayed in her letters to British friends, be lost, and, looking back, what nuances had I failed to catch when translating the woman to the page in the first place. Just how defined are we by our language, our nationality, and the nationality of those who aim to describe us?

Interestingly, my Polish publisher has changed the title of the book. Instead of The Spy Who Loved, which refers to Krystyna’s deep-seated desire for adrenalin, danger, men and, above all, freedom - for her country and for herself, the Polish edition is called, The Woman-Spy: A Pole on His Majesty’s Secret Service. Pleasingly there is still a hint of Bond here (Ian Fleming was inspired by Krystyna), but the central intrigue is now not that she was a passionate woman, but that she was a Polish woman working for the Brits. 

The British cover

The Polish cover

Krystyna, and later her lover Andrzej Kowerski, were exceptional in being Polish nationals employed by the British special services during the war. Krystyna’s reasons, however, were entirely pragmatic. She was in southern Africa with her second husband, a diplomat, when Poland was invaded in September 1939. By the time she was back in Europe, Poland had fallen - but had not yet established its Government-in-Exile. Desperate to join the fight against the Nazis occupying her homeland, Krystyna stormed into the British Secret Services HQ and demanded to be taken on there and then. Her plan, soon put into action, was to ski over the perilous Carpathian mountains, sometimes in temperatures of -30 degrees, smuggling money and propaganda to the fledgling Polish resistance, and information, radio codes and microfilm back out. By the time she arrived in Budapest for her first mission, however, the Polish underground was getting organised and were determined to maintain their independence. As a result the main resistance group, the ZWZ, refused to work with Krystyna because officially she was already a British agent. This was a legitimate concern. The two countries might be allies but their interests would not always be aligned. ‘We are the Polish Underground,’ one officer put it colourfully, ‘and we do not wish the British to peek inside our underpants’.

Once in occupied Warsaw, however, Krystyna did join a fiercely independent Polish resistance group: the Musketeers. Unfortunately they would later be disbanded in disgrace; their leader assassinated for having entered into talks with the Nazis regarding the Russian threat. Krystyna would now never be accepted by Poland's exiled government. Putting her life on the line was not enough, being passionately patriotic but not especially political, she had failed to play the strategic game. In her haste to serve her country she had in some Polish eyes betrayed it.

Krystyna Skarbek, in British uniform
When the war in Europe ended, Krystyna was left stateless. She knew she could never return to Poland under the Communist regime. She may not have been aware that the British had at one point traded her name with the NKVD (precursor of the KGB), but being a pre-war Countess and war-time British special agent was enough to guarantee she would not be well-received. Yet the British, for whom she had put her life on the line for six years, the longest tour of duty of any female special agent, dismissed her with only £100. When someone in the British administration suggested she was not entitled to further deployment or citizenship because she had been fighting for Poland rather than Britain, she rightly remonstrated that this was rather 'hard', given that 'I have got into so much trouble with the Poles because I worked for the firm'. The last British memo relating to her stated, ‘she is no longer wanted’. It was not our finest moment.

Ultimately Krystyna did gain British citizenship, having at one point refused to accept honours from a country that would not give her residency. When she died, in 1952, she had been awarded the British George Medal and the OBE, along with the Croix de Guerre from France, and an array of ribbons that any General would have been proud of. Yet among her collection, now kept at the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London, is one unofficial badge of honour; a silver gorget (designed to be worn at the throat) in the shape of a shield embossed with the Polish white eagle. Because she was a British agent, Krystyna has never been honoured by the Poles, and this badge was perhaps her own private statement of her loyalty to, or token of appreciation from, the country that she served if not on paper, than certainly within her heart.

Krystyna's medals. The gorget is centre top. 

Publically recognised or not, Krystyna was never an exclusively British heroine. In fact despite being honoured officially here but not in Poland, she is probably better known in Poland today. Certainly the book launch at the Warsaw Uprising Museum next week is being organised by wonderfully generous and enthusiastic Poles, and attended by the Polish Foreign Minister several other cabinet members, as well as the British Ambassador and French First Consul. Earlier, during my research, I had also found plenty in Polish archives, and through interviewing Poles both in Britain and Poland who, or whose relatives, had known Krystyna. On the other hand there was even more information in British archives. But how did she view herself, and in what language did she choose to communicate?

Krystyna was born and brought up in an area which is now Poland, but was then part of the Russian Empire. Belonging to a family of patriotic aristocrats, she spoke Polish at home, but French at her convent school. By the time she arrived in London in 1939, via Europe and southern Africa, she spoke some English too, although French remained her default foreign language. As a result, when the British sent her to Hungary it was under the guise of being a French journalist. It was here that Krystyna met her compatriot, soul-mate and partner-in-arms, Andrzej Kowerski, and their language of love was definitely Polish; she was his affectionate 'kotek' or kitten, and he her 'kot', her cat. In Egypt she took classes in English and Italian. She now spoke English charmingly, if not always very accurately, with a lilting accent and similarly seductive turn of phrase. She would often translate idioms literally if she felt it added impact, such as when telling admirers how she loved to 'lie on the sun'. But then even her French was idiosyncratic. She was 'fluent but rather breathy', one friend noted, and her natural manner was to speak in a 'halting... panting fashion'. Always conscious of the power of language, when she felt  her Polish charm could not get her what she wanted, Krystyna would simply petition friends to write on her behalf 'in your King's English'.

All of the letters I traced in Krystyna’s own hand were written in English – although still with the odd Polish endearment and literally translated turn of phrase thrown in. 'Perks kochany' - literally 'Darling Perks' - she boldly opened one 1945 letter to Harold Perkins, her formidable SOE boss. This letter, the rest written in English, is a wonderful testimony to her courage and determination. 'May be you find out I could be useful getting people out of camps and prisons in Germany - just before they get shot', she wrote, 'I should love to do it and I like to jump out of a plane even every day'. So brave, yet she clearly also felt nervous that her English might be letting her down, adding 'Sorry for the spelling!' in a rather jarring ps.

Krystyna's letter to Harold Perkins, March 1945 (TNA, HS9/612)

It seems that Krystyna mostly thought in Polish; this was the language that shaped her and best expressed - possibly even helped to define - her feelings and ambitions. As she learnt more languages she enjoyed collecting other useful turns of phrase, 'quel potron' (what a coward) was a favourite that friends remembered, as was the pleasingly expressive: 'bloody fool'. As with her approach to friendships, it seems that Krystyna would pick and choose her language to suit her mood, intentions and audience.

Wherever I was researching, I tried to get to the truth of this extraordinary woman, but the fact is that there were many truths. Krystyna could be kind and generous, even with her life, but she could also be cruel and self-centred. She was tough and fiercely independent but also rather vulnerable. She lied, exploited and deceived, but she fought for justice, freedom and honour. Her mother was Jewish, her father was anti-Semitic; she was brought up a Catholic but converted to secure a divorce; she was a pre-war beauty queen and a highly-trained special agent fighting among men. She spoke several languages, was known under about twenty names, and she had two nationalities. It was the same Polish Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek that became the British Polish émigré Christine Granville.

The truth is that we can only understand Krystyna in the context of her country, although it often rejected her, and in the context of her times, although I would argue that in many ways she was ahead of them. In life Krystyna was informed by, and let down by, Poland and Britain, but both her birth-country and her adoptive-country seem ready to embrace and honour her now. And if the Polish translation of my biography helps to reframe and present another flavour of this complex woman to the world, then that is certainly appropriate and I am absolutely delighted.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

After All That - by Louisa Young

I have been much engaged with Aftermaths recently. My most recent novel was set in the First World War; it required a sequel, so what choice is there? I wanted to call the sequel After All That; the publishers didn't care for it. Sales thought it sounded like the punchline of a laddish anecdote. I'd thought it sounded like Goodbye to All That. Ah well - goodbye to all that. We're calling it The Heroes' Welcome. I'm very pleased with it.

An aftermath is a very different thing to write about to a war. How can it live up? Nothing happens, except people sit about in shock, going 'Bloody hell, did I really survive that?' It's not quite so full of - oh, peril, and action and narrative drive. Plot. (And there is a funny modern issue when writing about this period - I don't want to use anything they used in Downton Abbey. And sadly, from flu to facial reconstruction, from class war to black musicians, Julian Fellowes has swept every corner to find all the obviously interesting lines of approach. He hasn't followed them very far, but he has certainly mentioned a great many.)

In a sequel, you have to go where history forces you. You can leap, of course, but the only direction, chronologically, is forward. I decided just to sit in 1919: a quiet year (so quiet that Juliet Nicholson called her book about it The Great Silence) but one during which, quietly, a great advance was made: the step from the end of the war (goodbye to all that) to the start of the modern age, the actual twentieth century.

The advantage of a sequel, of course, is that you know your characters pretty well by now. I knew what they would want, and I wanted to give it to them. They'd had quite a hard time of it in Book 1. I knew just what I wanted for Rose, the tall thin kind dry one, who'd nursed with a passion, who put up with everyone, who was in her thirties, who had no intention of getting married thank you very much.
And so it's back to the archives . . . .

And what a pleasure it is.

Eleanor Updale wrote very amusingly the other day about researching on line; for me this time it was wading back into the joys of serendipity and misdirection in searching on paper. I was in the bowels of the Red Cross building in the City of London, metal filing cabinets, rubber bands, friendly archivist, photocopies, old blue cloaks in strong cardboard boxes, fascinating distractions everywhere you look. And what I was after: the VAD Scholarship scheme.

Here it is - the letter Rose received:

Devonshire House, London W1

Dear Madam,
On behalf of the Joint Committee of the British Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem, I have the honour to ask you to fill up the enclosed ‘Scholarship Scheme Form’ if you wish to train for definite work after demobilisation. The Joint Societies have decided to give a sum of money for scholarships and training, as a tribute to the magnificent work so generously given by V.A.D. Members during the War. 
Training will be given for those profession for which the work done by members would make them particularly suitable, such as the Health Services or Domestic Science. A preliminary list is appended with the approximate period of training. and probable salary to be gained when fully trained.
A limited number of scholarships to cover the fee and cost of living will be given to those who pass the qualifying examinations with special proficiency, but in other cases it is hoped to assist materially those members who wish to be trained for their various professions in centres all over the country.
The work of VAD members is beyond all praise, and we very much hope that they will again be leaders in important patriotic work which equally demands the best of British womanhood.

Yours faithfully
Chairman, Joint Women’s V.A.D. Committee. 

Here is the the list of things to be taken into account:

Length of Service. - Members must have worked officially in a recognised British Unit prior to January 1917, and have continued working until their services were no longer required. 
Recommendations. - Applications for Scholarships must be forwarded with a recommendation from :-  (a) The Matron ...   ...   ...    For Nursing Members working in Military Hospitals. 
A new Medical Certificate will be necessary.   
Age Limit. - 20-40.  
Standard of Education. - Certain Scholarships will require a high and definite standard of education which will be taken into consideration. 
Applications.- Application should be made before March 31 1919. 
Further correspondence. - When a form has been filled up by a Candidate, forwarded by her Officers, and approved, further correspondence will be carried on confidentially with the Member with regard to the amount of financial assistance required and other matters.

There was the list of things she could apply for a scholarship to study, with numbers of how many applied, how many were given scholarships, and how much money was spent:

There was another story altogether, that of Eileen Price and her experience in Salonika, and her voice. How lovely that this should qualify. How right. And yet how easy it would have been, had the committee been made up of Jobsworths, to dismiss her application. (Author controls urge to race off down a different path. . .)

And here is the committee: all women. All rather interesting women. Revert to Google - yes. Very interesting. Early breastfeeding research . . .  orphans of Guernica . . .  differentiation of curricula for boys and girls . . .  maternal mortality . . .  League of Nations . . . identification of risk factors for breast cancer . . .  the first ever published epidemiological questionnaire . . .   

 And here are the actual women who won the scholarships that Rose applied for:

Later, I read in the records about the ones who pass and fail their exams, who apply for further funds for further training, and the one or two who, to the committee's great disappointment, drop out and get married. Because, and oh how easy it is to forget, a married woman did not work. That's it, ladies. Less than a hundred years ago we had to choose between our work, and our love, our children, our own family. 

They also had this sweet alphabet book, put together by a talented nurse artist: here is her self-portrait.

And here is her portrait of her colleagues.

I was so happy to sit among the papers which would allow my dear character Rose, the right sort of wench, to honour her ambitions. I was so pleased to know who would have interviewed her, on what day, at what time even! I put Eileen Price in the waiting room with her.  Rose is going to become a doctor. This is how it would have happened. It may be a small, aftermath-of the-drama kind of thing, but it is her own life. 

Saturday, 26 October 2013


Historical fact? Or Historical fiction? It depends on who tells the story. I grew up with History books so slanted toward a single viewpoint that they were almost subversive, but at the time I believed they recorded the absolute truth.

When a young doctor of 28 was found hanging in his cell while under the 90 day Detention Act which allowed prisoners to be held without recourse to a lawyer or trial, and which could be re-instated for another 90 days as soon as the first ran out…. was this suicide? Was it assisted suicide? Or was it murder? Had his interrogators tortured and killed him and made it look like suicide, or had he in fact taken his own life?

What is fact? What is fiction? Either way he died in police custody.

In Parliament in South Africa, in 1982, the Minister of Police, Louis le Grange, announces… "the detainees in police cells or in prison cells are being detained under the most favourable conditions possible… All reasonable precautions are being taken to prevent any of them from injuring themselves or from being injured in some way or from committing suicide."

Two days later, Dr Neil Aggett is found hanging from the bars of the steel grille in his cell in John Vorster Square. He has spent 70 days in detention. He is the 51st person and the first white person, to die in detention. This is fact.

In the week after his death, 90 000 workers down tools and hold a national half hour work stoppage. 15 000 workers, more than 200 nurses in uniform from Baragwanath, the black hospital (hospitals were segregated then) where Neil worked, together with his friends and family follow the coffin on its seven kilometre journey from St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg to the cemetery of West Park. The city comes to a standstill. No funeral for any South African statesman has ever made a greater impact. This is fact.

Beverley Naidoo's book, DEATH OF AN IDEALIST, explores the journey of the sports loving schoolboy who became a doctor and then an unpaid trade union organiser whose life ended so abruptly. The photographs in the book show a bright open-faced boy staring out from the page with his tennis and cricket teams. And later photographs of him with his friends on their vegetable co-operative, growing cabbages, looking like true 70's hippies.

A friend of Neil’s in the audience at the London launch of DEATH OF AN IDEALIST, said the following:

· The foundations of a civil society are based on individual accountability for moral, ethical issues. Neil’s fundamental idealism was to do good in the world and to live a simple and generous life.

· Neil’s story reflects the capacity an individual has to mobilize others out of apathy… an apathy that is becoming more obvious in present societies.

· Prisons are a world of total institutionalization, not only for detainees but also for the police who act behind impervious walls, where even good people are capable of bad acts.

Beverley Naidoo, who herself was banned from South Africa in her early 20’s and whose first youth novel about two children who travel to the city to find their working mother, Journey to Jo’burg, was banned in South Africa – a first for a children’s novel set there – has written a poignant story of a family bewildered by their son’s death and the political furore it caused.

DEATH OF AN IDEALIST is as much the story of a remarkable young man as it is a reminder that every generation needs its idealists. 

In Beverley Naidoo’s hands Historical fiction is explored against the template of Historical fact.

Friday, 25 October 2013

CLICK FOR HISTORY by Eleanor Updale

I was planning something pretty earnest for this month, but it needed a photo specially taken in London, and a change in my travel plans means it will have to wait for another time.
Photo by Adam Jones
via Wikimedia Commons

My first idea for a replacement was something equally worthy.  I thought I’d give an example of how profoundly the Internet has affected the research process.  I was going to illustrate it with the story of my own quest, ten years ago, to find a fragment of a torn 17th century letter, which turned out to be in the archives of an ancient British bank (the main body of the sheet being in Australia). 
Back at the turn of the century (and even though the Internet was beginning to make our lives easier) the shoe-leather side of historical research took ages. We still had to consult card indexes, with all their vulnerability to misfiling, illegibility and loss. Sometimes, a long journey to an archive would result in disappointment: either the thing you were looking for was not there, or there was a policy that only the staff could undertake a search. They were unfailingly helpful and polite, but they were inevitably operating at a disadvantage – not really knowing what you were after, no matter how good the brief; blind to the resonance and inspiration of apparently irrelevant items; prisoners of the little summaries written by the original cataloguers, who had read the documents with the preconceptions and value judgments of their own time. 

Photo: Dr. Marcus Gossler, via Wikimedia Commons
Even then, some libraries would communicate only by post, and demanded written references to show that you were entitled to ask a question in the first place.
So much of that has gone.  If anything, the problem now is wading unaided through a superfluity of undersourced information.  But uniting the two halves of that letter would probably be a quick job these days...

... Or so I imagine.  I didn’t get as far as that comparatively simple task.  Instead, caught up in the egg-whisk of the search engine, I hit on the idea of seeking out a digital image of a random 17th century letter from anyone, anywhere, and unpicking it for you. So I put in some very broad search terms (digital, letter, archive, university etc) just to see what would pop out of the Internet Lucky Dip.
The very first search result was from Duke University in North Carolina, USA.

As it happens, there are some distinguished researchers in my period there, so I thought it was all ‘meant’, and I clicked on. And that’s when you were rescued from my plan, because what I hit on was the most wonderful archive of AmericanTV advertising.  Duke has put online thousands of television commercials created or collected by the D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles advertising agency.  They date from the 1950s to the 1980s.

 If you know my book Johnny Swanson, you will understand why my heart leapt.   
Part of the plot of that book is based on 1920s classified ads, so I was already primed to relish diving in to one of the best resources for getting a feel for the social tone of a time and place.

If ever you fancy a lost afternoon, this digital archive is the place to go. It’s the reality behind Mad Men, with all the deification of doctors, flagrant peddling of bogus science, and manipulation of maternal concern.  Everything is interesting: the scripts, the camera angles, the clothes, the narrative structure of the ads, and the extensive exposure of children’s bodies, in a purely innocent way that would be unthinkable today. As you would expect, the unintentional humour trumps any real jokes.

I would love to embed some of the films here, but there are threats about copyright, etc, so here’s the link:

I particularly recommend the ads for Vick’s vapour rub:

Of course, my interest was entirely academic and soberly historical (ahem). Duke University is, without doubt, a highly respectable place with a serious and important archive. These advertisments are just as important historical sources as the letter I meant to look for.  But they're fun too.  If you need a bit of a diversion from real life, and don’t mind losing a huge chunk of work time, give this archive a click.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

HISTORICAL SNAPSHOTS by Elizabeth Chadwick

I am a very visual writer.  When working I see the stories of my novels as film clips and photographs but withthe emotions and senses added in.  When it comes to doing the research I use a variety of mediums to weave the background and  to create the solidity of the characters living their story centre stage.
Much of the research is conducted via study of the written word either in book form or online and I have an extensive research library.  This method of research is a core staple, but I like to augment it through other forms too.
I join in living history experiments and displays with re-enactment society Regia Anglorum, and this in itself gives me far more than I could learn from a book, or even from studying artefacts in a museum.  For example, I have a replica cooking pot with a late Anglo Saxon/early Norman dateline.  Through using it I know that a beef and barley stew doesn't burn on the base when being simmered on gentle open such as at the side of a hearth fire. The shape of the rim means that evaporation is kept to a minimum and unless you have the pot in blazing heat, you can comfortably pick it up off the embers by the rim without burning your hands. So if I ever need to write a scene with a cooking pot scenario, or even as background, I know exactly how it works.
My cooking pot.  The soot staining is down to it having been used in
the heart of a blazing fire to boil up the potter's tea water!
These days wherever I go, I always have a camera in my bag.  The artefacts from past centuries tell us just as much about society then as the written word, but in colourful visuals, and make all the difference to the writing experience.
Historical novels need to understand the mindsets of the people about whom they are writting. How did they think and feel about the issues of their time?  Their material culture is a vital part of finding that out.  It's more than just window dressing for background colour (although it can act as wallpaper if that's all the writer requires), it tells us about status and tastes and attitudes.  It also brings one down to earth to realise that without today's technology and advantages, the crafstmen of past centuries made the most exquisite items with their own hands and coped with the conditions at hand (imagine working without magnification and knowing that when the daylight went there was only candle light or oil lamp light to work by).
Even the items that were basic and utilitarian, such as my cooking pot, were superbly equipped for their function and are proven to work every bit as well as their modern counterparts.

Last weekend I was at the Museum of London and would recommend it to anyone as worth a visit.  It has galleries going from the Stone Age through to modern times - as modern as costumes from the recent Olympics ceremony.  Here are some of the photographs I took and which will be going into my research album. Mostly they are medieval because that's my firm period of research, but I've enclosed one or two others for everyone's general interest.

Iron dagger in a wood and bronze bound sheath - any time from 600-50bc

Bronze age swords and skulls, one of which shows battle damage

copper brooch decorated with gold plates and gold wire and set with
polished garnets.  Mid 600's AD

Axe for shaping timbers. Circa 1000
Syrian glass bottle, undated but belonging to the Medieval period and
discovered in London
Horse bit circa 1000 and stirrup mount above, stated to be Viking.
Beautiful leaf-patterned shoe circa 1300's
Labourer's leather mitten circa 1400
'Piggy bank'. Medieval money box.
Brass inlay letters for a funerary monument
Spades 1100-1400. Spades had wooden blades, sometimes augmented
by an iron blade, but not always. 
Eel spear circa 1500
remnants of the first spectacles - early 1400's
Headdress frame late 1400's - 1520's.  Pewter.
leather jerkin and codpiece 16thC
Dress of Ann Fanshawe 1750/1
close up detail on the bodice of the above dress.
Model of the type of horse typically used to pull carriages in the 1750's
Flintlock duelling pistols 1810
Bodice of early 19thC dress
mid 19thC barber's shop
Mid 19thC shop window
Mid 19th C dolls in a toyshop window
Penny Farthing Bicycle
gaslight shade 1887

Gold shoes 1925
The Roaring 20's.  Peter Pan costume far right
Bronze lift from Selfridges 1928
Travelling wardrobe trunk belonging to Jewish refugees 1940's
Costumes from the Olympic Games opening ceremony 2012