Saturday, 26 September 2015

Every Picture Tells a Story - Part II

I blogged recently about the stories behind the pictures HERE 
My continuing research recently found me in my car, with a friend, and with my back seat loaded up with the contents of my daughter's uni house. (This is how I spend most summers, driving around like a demented motorised snail, with someone else's house at my back, rather than on it. (Unless I brake sharply, of course). Halfway along the skinniest road imaginable, my little long-suffering car started making strange graunching noises and by the time we parked up, I was less concerned with pictorial research than with ensuring I had enough mobile phone signal to contact Green Flag. First stop, the visitors' centre. What this picture, of the wonderful aisled barn, 
doesn't tell you, is that there was a little glass pod at one end of the barn, in which were encased a farmer, complete with flat cap and Northern accent so fruity you could pour gin on it and make punch, and his whippet. Of course with his whippet. The farmer was on the phone, shouting seven shades of nasty to a hapless supplier who'd failed to send the correct invoice. We obeyed the notice which said, "Visitors please enter" only to be greeted with "No, shut t'door, the dog'll be off and I'll not catch 'im. What d'you want? Leaflets? Tek that one there and shut t'door behind you."

Scarecrows in the aisled barn

After that less than cordial encounter, we went snooping around the ruins of the old manor house which offered countless photographic opportunities. And what the picture below does not tell you is how long I waited to click the shutter, while the only other people in the valley that day chose that moment to walk past this window. And stop. And walk back. And then wait for their friends. And their small child. And the dog.

My friend and I climbed a hill. Just a small one. If you've clicked on the link to my previous exploits, you'll understand that big hills and I don't really get along. And so I was able to take this picture of a very old pack horse bridge. And position myself so that the afore-mentioned children, clad that day in Barbie-pink jackets, and sitting at the far end of the bridge, could not be seen.

The bridges in this village are very old and very famous. And my friend was enraptured as she walked across this one below. I was not so pleased, however, because I was trying to take another picture. And so it was that she crouched behind the tree that you can see to the right of the photo and obligingly waited until I had my shot. This day, she was wearing turquoise. Does nobody wear brown or grey any more?!

We climbed out of the valley and scaled a larger hill where we sat for a while in this, the panopticon.

And a man came with a big telephoto lens. Ever-conscious of the photographer's need for unobstructed views, I asked him, "Are we in your way? Would you like us to move?"
"No," he said, "You're not. But that is."
At least I only want people to get out my way. Asking concrete structures to shimmy to the left is a little more tricky ...

If you want to know where I was and what I was really up to, pop over to HERE where I talk about The Ruination of Wycoller

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Bare-knuckle Fighting, Burned Records and Jacobites: Julia Brannan Casts Light ...

Today I am delighted to have as my guest Julia Brannan, author of Mask of Duplicity.

Can you remember the first thing you wrote? How old were you?

I don’t remember the first thing I wrote. I was quite a precocious child. I learnt to read and write early, and when I went to school at the age of five, I was half way through reading Tom Sawyer. Imagine my disappointment when I was given my first reading book, which was a ‘Happy Venture’ book, with maybe five words per page! I couldn’t write as well as I could read, but I wrote in full sentences, with punctuation.  I know as a small child I would write stories and make them into tiny books, complete with illustrations (dreadful illustrations – I can’t draw to save my life). I would spend hours doing these. My father worked for a national newspaper, and I would also make little newspapers with reports from Fairyland, etc.

What ignited your love of history - was it lessons at school, or something else?

I was definitely not inspired by history lessons at school! I went to the local comprehensive school, and our history lessons consisted of the teacher telling us to open our textbook at a certain page, and then to copy the text into our exercise books. To be honest, I was in one of the worst classes in the school, behaviourally speaking, and I think he just wanted to keep us quiet. I was bored rigid, and dropped history as a subject as soon as possible.
My love of history was really ignited by my mother, who used to tell me stories about her life during the depression, and during World War II, when she helped to make Lancaster Bombers. Her father had also told her stories about his very colourful life in Glasgow at the end of the nineteenth century, and she passed these stories on to me too. My granddad died when I was ten, but when we visited him in the old folks’ home, he used to sit me on his knee and tell me jolly stories of life as the leader of a razor gang, and as a bare knuckle fighter in the Depression, while my father tried desperately but unsuccessfully to change the subject. I think they made me realise from an early age that history is not just a series of dates to memorise, but that it happened to real people, with hopes and dreams, just like us.

What is it that draws you to the Jacobite period? 

For most of my life I had almost no knowledge of the eighteenth century. I’d read a couple of Georgette Heyer books at one time, but they didn’t inspire me to research the period. I was far more interested in the Victorian period, or the Tudors and Plantagenets.
Before her death, my mother started researching her family history, but didn’t get very far back, as she couldn’t find her grandfather’s birth certificate, and hit a wall there. Some considerable time after she died, I was looking through her papers, and realised that I had enough hearsay information to bypass his birth and continue searching. It actually became an obsession with me for a while, and I fanatically researched all the branches I could of my mother’s and father’s family trees. This was pre-internet, so I got to travel all over the country and spend hours going half-blind trying to decipher faded microfiche!

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Most of my mother’s side of the family came over from Ireland in the 1820s-30s, and most of them had Irish surnames. Except for the Gordons. My mother was brought up for a time by her grandmother, Margaret Gordon, and told me many tales about her. Margaret was a devout Catholic, fanatical Scottish nationalist, detested the English, and taught my mother a number of Jacobite and IRA songs as a child. Due to the IRA burning down the records office in Dublin, I’ve been unable to trace my family further back. But I was intrigued as to why the Gordons would have been in Ireland at all. Which led me to research the period, whereupon I discovered that after Culloden, many Scots fled to America, but a good number went to Ireland.
At the time, all I knew of Culloden was that a lot of Scots died there, and that Bonnie Prince Charlie looked good on tins of shortbread. 

But when I started researching, I discovered that it was a fascinating period of history, and appears to have been almost totally overlooked by historical novelists. I then determined to write a novel about the period, because really, there was just so much material, I had no choice!

What are the particular challenges faced by HF authors?

I can only really speak for myself, because I don’t personally know many other HF authors. There are a number of challenges, but two in particular stand out for me. One is knowing when to include and when to leave out research. I researched the period intensively for a year before I put pen to paper, and know all sorts of details, which was really helpful in allowing me to write relatively naturally about the eighteenth century. But I have to be constantly aware that whilst I might find the tiniest details of domestic life in the period fascinating, for example, that my readers will not appreciate pages of description. Nor will they appreciate long accounts of the political machinations of the day, as fascinating as I found them!
The other challenge, which I didn’t think about at all until I started writing, was to make my characters true to their period, whilst ensuring that I don’t alienate them from a 21st century reader. It’s relatively easy to write a villain, because he or she can be a racist or misogynistic without any problems, because the reader isn’t necessarily meant to like them. But with the heroes of the book, it’s much more difficult. Although my books are fictional, they include many historical characters, and I also want my fictional characters to be believable, and appealing to a modern reader, but true to their time. And it’s actually virtually impossible to do. The attitudes towards female roles, slavery, corporal and capital punishment, to name just a few, that were universally accepted at the time, are abhorrent to a modern reader. But writing a hero who believes in feminism, gay rights, racial equality, etc would be a travesty. Instead you have to tread a very fine line between historical reality, and fictional license. The same goes for physical issues. Writing a paragraph in which your hunky hero delouses himself, or wanders the hills and glens wearing the same clothes for months without washing them, may be accurate, but will not romantically endear a fastidious, two-showers-a-day 21st century reader. And after all, I do want people to read and enjoy my books!

How did you go about researching for Mask of Duplicity? Did your research throw up anything unexpected or unusual? 

I actually wrote the first two books, and drafted out books three and four, before the internet became widely available (and free!) Consequently most of my initial research was undertaken via the local library, which is why I’ve acknowledged the staff there at the start of Mask of Duplicity. They were incredibly helpful, and it got to the point where I could go in and say such outlandish things as; “Do you have a book that describes exactly how someone looks when they’re being hung?” without raising an eyebrow from any of the staff. And then they would source such a book for me. I can’t even begin to say how important I believe libraries to be!
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As well as that, I spent two weeks in Manchester reading the newspapers of the day, mainly The Gentleman’s Magazine and The London Gazette, and visited Didsbury to get the lay of the land.
A couple of enriching things happened – I got to spend a week on the beautiful Isle of Skye, doing an intensive Scottish Gaelic course. The Skye Celtic music festival was going on at the same time, so I had a fabulous time.
Also whilst researching, I read a number of books about Prince Charles Edward Stuart. In one book there was an illustration of a painting of the Prince, with two of his followers. One of the followers looked exactly like my mental image of Alex MacGregor. I found this interesting, but was even more interested when a couple of days later, my friend Mary, who was reading the book as I wrote it, and giving me invaluably feedback, phoned me up and told me that she’d seen a picture on a car boot sale, and thought; “That’s Alex!” It was the same picture!  It’s owned by the Queen, and is hung at Holyrood House in Edinburgh, but in a room that’s not open to the public. A short while later I visited Holyrood whilst walking Land’s End to John O’ Groats. To my disappointment, one of the rooms was closed for renovation. But then I discovered that they’d temporarily opened another room to compensate – and it was the room with the painting in! I got to stand there and admire it in all its glory.

the painting that Julia saw

I happen to know that you live in a beautiful part of the world - how much does the landscape inspire your writing and in what ways?

It’s true that I do live in a lovely part of the UK. I can walk out of my house and be in the woodlands and mountains in minutes. The scenery is not unlike some parts of Scotland. My first instinct was to answer by saying that it doesn’t inspire my writing, as my books are not about Wales, but on second thought, indirectly the beautiful countryside around me does indirectly inspire me, as I love to go for long walks, and whilst walking, often ideas for scenes in my books will pop into my head. The trick then is to remember them until I get home and can write them down! I really should be more organised and carry a notebook everywhere with me!

Do you have a writing routine - how easy is it for you to find time to write?

I don’t have a writing routine, but I really wish I did. I admire those authors who say; “I get up every morning and write for four hours,” and I would love to be that disciplined, but I’m not. I do have a day job, which pays the bills, and I also do editing and transcribing work, which is intermittent but very intense when it comes in, but there’s nothing to stop me devoting a couple of hours each free evening to writing. But that’s not the way I work. Instead I tend to read hundreds of books about the period I’m writing about, and then I’m really reluctant to actually sit down and start writing. I’m not sure why that is. Once I do sit down, though, I can write for twelve or fourteen hours straight – basically until I’m just too hungry, thirsty and tired to write any more. 

Once I get started, I’ll write every spare moment I can, and my boyfriend will phone me periodically to make sure I’m still alive, and occasionally drag me out of the house to remind me that outside my window is the 21st century, not the 18th!

What's next?

Next is to finish off Book two, The Mask Revealed. I had hoped to release it in October, but it’s looking as though, due to unforeseen circumstances, I might have to postpone until December or early January. After that, the other four books are in various stages, ranging from nearly finished to rough plotting. After that...well, I’m thinking of writing about another period of Scottish history...

Find Julia Here
and buy her book Here Here or Here
Julia is also on Twitter and Pinterest

Thanks, Julia, for such illuminating answers

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Televising the past - truth or fairy tales?

How much does the 'story' part of history matter?

If you are going to teach history you need to teach the facts, right? Films and TV dramas that mess with those facts are irresponsible, misleading and wrong. Right?  That 'awful film' Braveheart that got the Battle of Stirling Bridge so badly wrong - removing the bridge from the retelling - and that terrible series The Tudors which didn't even bother to slap a ginger beard on Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Tut tut. This will never do.

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Except ...

Well, how about going back to the beginning - and no, I don't mean pre-history - to take a look at how history should or shouldn't be taught in schools.

Richard Kennett, teacher and contributor to BBC Radio 4's Making History wrote insightfully in History Today magazine: "Narrative at school is often a dirty word ... as teachers we scrawl ... 'stop telling the story' in the margins of essays as if this was an insult to history." He went on to say, "Children love a story and what makes history great is that these are stories that actually happened. Tell your students about the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. Four knights entering Canterbury Cathedral and lopping off the head of an archbishop. What more could you ask for to grab the attention of a class?"

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So, does it matter if that story deviates a little from the truth?

The strange thing about story-telling, when it comes through the medium of film or TV, is that by masking the facts one can sometimes interest viewers sufficiently to lead them to discover the truth:

Let's go back to that terrible series The Tudors. Perhaps I'm an equally terrible parent but I allowed my youngest child, then aged about 12 or 13, to watch it. She loved it; initially, I suspect, because she was rather taken with the aforementioned Mr Rhys Meyers, and possibly the equally fine Henry Cavill as Suffolk. When we took a family holiday to Ireland she was keen to see some of the locations used for filming, such as Kilruddery House, pictured below

blogger's own photo

but she was equally interested when we visited places which were associated with historical characters

blogger's own photo

such as Ormonde Castle and Manor House, above. Here, she learned how Francis Bryan, 'the one with the eye patch', married Lady Joan Fitzgerald, widow of the 9th Earl. Okay, so apparently the dating of his arrival at court and the appearance of the eye patch were a little wonky (pun intended), but hey, she knew who he was. The series brought my daughter to explore the history and associations with the houses we saw in Ireland. When I then quietly explained that Henry didn't look like that, and that he had two sisters, not one - she accepted it, and amended her 'knowledge' accordingly.

So what about Braveheart? It's all wrong, wrong wrong. The battle was on a bridge, not in a great big field. He's depicted having an affair with a princess who was actually only about ten when he was executed. He was a lowlander, not a highlander, so he wouldn't have worn the plaid etcetera etcetera.

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BUT - if you get that Edward I was trying to smash the Scots, if you get that Wallace 'succeeded at Stirling, failed at Falkirk', should we get too hung up? I happen to think that the film offered a realistic view of how the world looked at that time, how bloody and thunderingly loud the battles were and how chaotic the business was of the Scottish succession in this period. Such images surely serve to give people a better idea of history than none at all? 

Ian Mortimer, author and historian, makes the argument that academic debates are but a small part of history and that "The vast bulk of history lies elsewhere ... in the biographies and general history books. It lies in the television programmes that bring key themes to the attention of millions overnight."

The Braveheart film spawned many serious documentaries detailing what is known about Wallace's life, which surely reached a larger audience than they would have done had the film not been made.

But how far can you go to make it a good story before it deviates and stops being history? I'm thinking immediately of the film A Knight's Tale - but, if it gets people interested in Chaucer by thinking he looked like Paul Bettany...

My A levels studies of Bismarck and the unification of Germany were much enhanced by my notion that Bismarck looked like Oliver Reed, who played him in the Flashman film.  (And I can't help wondering how more recent students will have enjoyed studying the Napoleonic era now that they can picture Richard Sharpe charging around capturing Eagles). Sharpe was fictional, but boy can we all now picture what the battles of the Peninsular War looked like...

Probably one of the most earnest historical films was Mary Queen of Scots which was made in 1971 and starred two of the most talented and respected actresses of their generation: Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. Yet even here, there was an erroneous scene depicting the two queens meeting, which has never been proven to have happened. Did it spoil my learning or understanding? Nope.

Some years ago I visited Dover castle at the beginning of a project to redecorate some of the rooms in the Great Tower. Now it's finished, and they depict how these rooms would have looked at the time of Henry II. 

image - English Heritage

Better, perhaps, to reconstruct, to avoid the lament which my own children chanted regularly when we were on holiday: "Not another castle, please, Mummy." I still recall their glee when we went to one that "Actually has a roof on it!" How much better it is for children to 'see' what the past might have looked like.

When I was a child, a joke, (admittedly a bad one) had a mother lemming asking her child, "If your friends asked you to jump off a cliff, would you?" Now we know that lemmings don't have suicidal tendencies, but it's a bit mealy-mouthed to point it out and spoil the joke. Sometimes we have to go with the accepted 'truth', the one that engages people, gets them interested.

Susannah Lipscomb, Convenor for History and Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the New College of the Humanities, London recently remarked : "As a Tudor historian I am bothered slightly less by the fact that the TV drama The Tudors had a tendency to conflate characters, rearrange historical events and compress time than by the underlying conviction that, if you can strip away all the guff about faith and politics and honour, you will discover that Henry VIII, his six wives and his ministers were really secularists with modern ideas about sexuality."

She went on to say: "But all these forms of history as entertainment share an ability to dust the discipline down: to stimulate viewers to a sense that the past was as vivid, vibrant and dynamic a place to live in as that depicted on our screens and that the issues our ancestors grappled with were as urgent to them as our social, political, spiritual and romantic lives are to us today. If they achieve this, we need not be snooty."

I think she's right.  As an educator, I am thrilled if my small charges take an interest in a new topic. If they get it a bit 'wrong', we don't criticise; we applaud their enthusiasm. If a partly inaccurate film or TV series gets it a bit 'wrong' but sparks an interest and sets off a pursuit of learning, I think that's probably okay too.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Widow's Dilemma in History - Isabella Hargreaves casts some light

Today I am delighted to give author Isabella Hargreaves a blank page to tell us all about the widow’s dilemma in history

As an author of historical romance, I’m interested in the position of women in society in the periods in which I write. It’s from issues of social status, societal values and so forth that conflict arises between my characters. Widowhood is one factor that raises many issues and potential conflicts.
Throughout English history women’s role in the community was centred primarily on marriage and children. Their independence, status and power within the household, and society at large, was controlled by men. They were subject to the wishes of the male head of household - fathers, husbands and, in their absence, brothers. Christian teachings prescribed that women should submit to men, and laws supported these teachings, limiting married women’s existence as separate entities in society.
A belief in the separateness of men’s and women’s spheres of endeavour arose in the mid-18th century and was expressed in literature, law, medicine and religion. Separate spheres became widespread in practice, especially amongst the expanding middle-classes as the industrial revolution progressed, as a means of combating the economic and social upheavals of the period. As medicine became more scientific, it was proclaimed that women’s brains were unsuited to study and that education for women should be an adornment only, as the serious acquisition of knowledge would affect their bodies’ functioning. The literature of the period reflected societal views about women and their proper role in society.
Widowhood was an aberration of the right order of society. It put women outside their normal circumstances and had a range of positive and negative results for them.
Widows could be quite threatening to male patriarchy. They were no longer innocent, and possibly not as easily duped or willing to be commanded by a man, once they had been freed from the bonds of matrimony. Consequently, widows living independently have at various times in history been susceptible to many accusations: for example, of immorality or of witchcraft in the Middle Ages.
Financially, widows were very vulnerable. If a widow was not left money by her husband; nor was eligible to receive a war widows’ pension (for officers’ wives from 1708, for widows of other ranks starting from the Crimean War); or were not supported by their family, they often became reliant on charity from the church and benevolent groups. The poor house of the Victorian era was a very real threat for widows with no means of financial support. Attitudes to widows could be harsh – as one Victorian mother said of her middle-aged daughter’s second marriage: “had she been left without anything [money] she might have been compelled [to marry], if any one then would have married her”.
In the dark and middle ages, families could rid themselves of the burden of keeping widows by sending them to convents. Conversely, widows might choose to enter one themselves as a means of freeing themselves from the control of men; although perhaps they were swopping one master for another.
Widows were not empowered by the law. For instance, they were not necessarily the guardians of their children. Instead, that power was given to men and they could control whether the widow even had the care of her children.
Widows’ choices for their future were determined by a range of variables created by personal, social, economic and legal considerations. Some of these considerations included whether the widow was:
  • young,  old, or in-between
  • childless or with children
  • wealthy, poor, or with a financial situation in between;
  • formerly happily married, unhappily married, or in between;
  • part of a family with a male head of household, or not;
  • a member of the aristocracy, middling classes, or working poor.
You can probably think of more variables which defined a widow’s predicament. The permutations of these factors are many, as is each widow’s response to her circumstances. Her subsequent actions after bereavement resulted from these factors.
A poor widow with a large family of children to support (in a world without social security payments) and without a family to support her, would probably need to marry again quickly or risk destitution. Remarriage was an economic decision, probably not a love-match. Conversely, an older, unhappily married, wealthy widow without a controlling male head of family might choose to live independently. Of course, many widows did remarry for love – after all, it is a strong motivation.
For writers of historical fiction and historical romance, these variables in widows’ circumstances provide an array of backgrounds and motivations for the heroine and other female characters. In my recent release, Wanton Widows, three widows with differing experiences of marriage choose three different ways of re-partnering (to use a modern word). In ‘What a Widow Wants’, the young dowager Countess of Newberry has had a nine-year long, unhappy marriage and doesn’t want to be stuck in a similar situation again, so she intentionally flaunts society’s rules. In ‘The Widow’s Wedding Night’ Arabella Linfield, who had a short but happy marriage, wants to repeat the same happiness so has quickly fallen in love again without really understanding the family she is entering. Viscountess Helena Tremoyne in ‘Wooing the Wealthy Widow’ had a happy marriage and doesn’t need to marry again for financial reasons, but would like to repeat the loving, companionable relationship she previously had, so is very choosy whom she marries, this second time around.
If you’re interested in reading more about widowhood, see the sources below. These may spark the idea for your next great story or take you further into the world of widows in the historical context.
If you wish to read my light-hearted short stories featuring widows from the Regency period, here are the blurb and the ebook links:
Three Regency-era widows seek new partners in unconventional ways.
'What a Widow Wants'
  The young Dowager Lady Caroline Newberry plans to snare a lover.
'The Widow's Wedding Night'
  Arabella Linfield dreams of a wedding night to remember, but the reality is a surprise.
'Wooing the Wealthy Widow'
  Can Sir Hercules Standfast pass the wealthy widow's twelve tests for penniless suitors?
Excerpt from "Wooing the Wealthy Widow"
            At Hyde Park, Helena found herself sharing her carriage with a popular man. Although he hadn’t been an acquaintance of hers, he appeared to be one of almost everyone else in the park – many of them his relations – although he was an only child of an only child. It was a far different outcome from that achieved by many of her former suitors. They had been shunned for being outright fortune-hunters. An hour later they escaped the crush of vehicles. 
              “Gunter’s, please,” Helena called to her driver.
                One notable suitor had accompanied her there only to leave shortly afterwards, complaining that anywhere that was a venue for the nursery set was not one for him. Helena had waved him on his way and remained to enjoy her ice, unconcerned by the large number of children being indulged by their kith and kin.
               Sir Hercules escorted her into the well-known café, smiling to the left and right at paramours, parents, nursemaids and children alike. He seated her, then ate his ice with finesse and patiently waited as she savoured hers.
Want to know about Isabella Hargreaves and her books? Go to:
Cavallo, Sandra and Lynden Warner. Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Longman, Harlow, 1999.
Crabb, Ann. Widowhood – Renaissance and Reformation – Oxford Biographies. <> Accessed 7 August 2015.
Davies, H J. Elite Women of Nineteenth Century South-east Queensland: Their Role, Independence, Status and Power within the Family, University of Queensland, MA thesis, 1996.
Muller, Nadine. ‘The Widow and the Law: A Brief History of Widows’ Pensions in Britain’, <>, Accessed 7 August 2015.
Theobold, Margaret, Knowing Women: Origins of Women’s Education in Nineteenth Century Australia, CUP, Melbourne, 1996

Vicinus, Martha. Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850-1920, Virago Press, London, 1985.

Thank you, Isabella, for sharing these wonderful insights.