Thursday, 20 July 2017

The fascination of British History Online

Browsing the British History Online (BHO) website can while away many a happy hour in a fascinating, sometimes surprising, experience. If you don’t know of it, BHO is a digital library of key printed primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain and Ireland, with a primary focus on the period between 1300 and 1800.

The website offers an astonishing number of documents. To pick at random from the catalogue index, just to show the sort of documents available…

EXAMPLE 1: Feet of Fines, Sussex Feet of fines are court copies of agreements following disputes over property. In reality, the disputes were mostly fictitious and were simply a way of having the transfer of ownership of land recorded officially by the king’s court. The records in this series relate to the county of Sussex for the period 1190-1509. I’d need to brush up on my Latin to make sense of the Edward I volumes, although those for Edward III are in English…

‘Sussex Fines: 21-25 Edward I (nos. 1072-1118)’, 
in An Abstract of Feet of Fines For the County of Sussex: Vol. 2, 1249-1307
(full reference below)

‘Sussex Fines: 11-15 Edward III’,
in An Abstract of Feet of Fines For the County of Sussex: Vol. 3, 1308-1509
(full reference below)

EXAMPLE 2: Calendar of Close Rolls - Edward III (14 volumes)

The Close Rolls record ‘letters close’, that is, letters sealed and folded because they were of a personal nature, issued by the Chancery in the name of a particular king or queen. They usually contained orders or instructions. These calendars provide summaries full enough, for most purposes, to replace the original documents. However, these particular documents are designated on the BHO as “premium content” and require a subscription to access that I don’t have.

EXAMPLE 3: The Medieval Records of A London City Church St Mary At Hill, 1420-1559
Edited by Henry Littlehales, these records were first published by the Early English Text Society in 1905. They are churchwardens’ accounts for the St Mary At Hill parish. The records are at their fullest for the period from 1480 onwards. The volume also has an extensive introduction, detailing the history and liturgical practice of the church, and the impact of the Reformation. Looking at this page, you’d clearly need to understand the notation used for the accounts, but it’s fascinating stuff!
The Medieval Records of A London City Church 
St Mary At Hill, 1420-1559 (full reference below)

Anyway, what I am actually reading right now on British History Online is the Victoria County History for Hampshire. The Victoria County History was begun in 1899 and dedicated to Queen Victoria. Organised by county, it provides a vast and detailed record of England’s places and people over many centuries. It has been described as the greatest publishing project in English local history, and it certainly does provide a wealth of fascinating information.

From BHO, ‘The hundred of Meonstoke: Introduction’, Paragraph p2
What I was specifically browsing in the Victoria County History were the pages for the Hundred of Meonstoke in the Meon Valley. A “hundred” was a division of the shire. Hundred boundaries were independent of both parish and county boundaries, though they were often aligned, so a hundred could be split between counties, or a parish could be split between hundreds. The Meonstoke Hundred contained a number of parishes and some tithings that were part of other parishes.

The setting for my Meonbridge Chronicles is not actually Meonstoke, but I have a sense that “Meonbridge” lies broadly in the area occupied by Meonstoke and its neighbouring villages, so it is interesting to read what the History can tell me about about these villages and their development over time. My recent browsing led me to think that I’d like to share a little of what I’ve read. And various things have drawn my interest…

For example, the way the structure of the hundred changed over time. At Domesday, Meonstoke consisted of ten parishes, and a tithing from another parish/hundred but, by 1316, it was down to four parishes – Meonstoke, Soberton, Warnford, and Corhampton – plus three tithings from three other and different hundreds (‘The hundred of Meonstoke: Introduction’, Paragraph p3).

Then there is the way that the names of places changed over time, or perhaps were simply recorded with different spellings. So, for example, Meonstoke was Menestoche in the 11th century, Mienestoch or Mionstoke in the 12th; Manestoke or Menestoke in the 13th; Munestoke, Munestokes, Maonestoke or Moenestoke in the 14th (‘Parishes: Meonstoke’, Paragraph p1).

But perhaps what really drew my attention about Meonstoke were the names of some of the owners of its manors – including both illustrious and notorious individuals – which give Meonstoke a seemingly glittering past that sits somewhat strangely with the rather peaceful, out-of-the-way, “backwater” it might appear to be…

The “glitter” perhaps derives from the fact that Meonstoke was always part of the king’s demesne. It formed part of the lands of King Edward the Confessor, and, at the time of the Domesday Survey, being part of the crown’s demesne, it was not assessed. But, in the reign of Henry III, it was divided into three portions and, from then until the 14th century, there were three manors of Meonstoke – Meonstoke Tour, Meonstoke Ferrand and Meonstoke Waleraund (later Meonstoke Perrers), each with a distinct history (‘Parishes: Meonstoke’, Paragraph p4).

Effigy of William Edington in Winchester Cathedral. 
(full reference below)
Meonstoke Tour was land granted by Henry III to one Geoffrey Peverel but, in 1240, it was back again in the hands of the king, who then granted it to his serjeant Henry de la Tour. The manor remained in the hands of the de la Tour family from then until 1353, when it was sold to no less a personage than William de Edendon (or Edington or Edyngton), the Bishop of Winchester. In 1366, the then king, Edward III, wanting to reward William for his long service, tried to appoint him Archbishop of Canterbury, but William was already in failing health and he declined the honour. He died in the October in nearby Bishop’s Waltham, and is buried in Winchester Cathedral. The new bishop was William of Wykeham (a Meon Valley man, born in Wickham, and one of the area’s most illustrious sons), who bought the manor from de Edendon’s executors and merged it and the other two manors back into a single “Meonstoke” manor (‘Parishes: Meonstoke’, Paragraph p7).

William of Wykeham (1320-1404)
(full reference below)
Meonstoke Ferrand’s land was granted by Henry III to his Gascon crossbowman Ferrand in about 1233. A Ferrand then held the land until 1305, when it was sold to John de Drokensford, who was bishop of Bath and Wells. For the next fifty years, Drokensfords held the manor, until it seems to have been sold as part of a larger transfer of messuages (dwellings with their adjacent buildings and lands), other land and mills by one Maurice le Bruyn. The buyer we have met already – William de Edendon, the bishop of Winchester. After his death, Meonstoke Ferrand was also bought by his successor, William of Wykeham, who merged it with the other manors (‘Parishes: Meonstoke’ Paragraph p6).

And so we come to Meonstoke Waleraund, or Meonstoke Perrers, as it later became. And this is the story in the BHO that particularly intrigued me because of its second name… It is first mentioned as a separate manor in 1224, and was held briefly by a de Percy but, in 1229, Henry III granted it to one Fulk de Montgomery. But, two years later, Fulk sold it to Sir John Maunsell, who obtained a grant of a weekly Monday market in Meonstoke and a yearly fair on the “vigil, feast, and morrow” of St. Margaret, and, two years later, also a grant of free warren (permission from the king to kill certain game within a stipulated area) in all his lands in Hampshire. Sir John was a favourite of the young King Henry III and is thought to have obtained vast numbers of benefices all over the country, perhaps more than any other clergyman, including the provost of Beverley, in 1247, the livings of Howden, Bawburgh and Haughley, the prebendaries of South Malling, Tottenhall, Chinchester [sic – I assume Chichester], the dean of Wimborne, the rector of Wigan, and the chancellorship of St. Paul’s, London, as well as papal chaplain and chaplain of the King ( He also served as the Lord Chancellor of England. A powerful man indeed!

Statue of Simon de Montfort on the
Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester

(full reference below)
But when Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, grew in power, King Henry was forced, apparently against his will, to deprive Sir John of his possessions, granting them to Simon in 1263. Although, another story says that it was after the battle of Lewes in May 1264, when de Montfort defeated Henry and took power, that he deprived Sir John of all his lands. Whether the “deprival’ included Meonstoke I am not clear, but perhaps it was at one time owned by the notorious de Montfort.

However, after the battle of Evesham in 1265, when de Montfort himself was defeated, Sir John was already dead, and Meonstoke passed to another de Percy. But, only three years later, he sold it to Robert Waleraund, and the manor remained in the hands of Waleraunds or their descendants until perhaps 1370 or thereabouts, when the manor escheated (was returned) to the king, Edward III. And he then granted it to trustees for the use of his mistress, the famous, or infamous, Alice Perrers, at which point the manor came to be called Meonstoke Perrers.

An imagining of Alice Perrers and Edward III
by Ford Madox Brown in 1868
(full reference below)
Whether or not Alice ever visited her new manor of Meonstoke Perrers I have no idea, as I believe she had many manors to choose from to rest her head, but it is nice to imagine that she might have spent a night or two at least in the lazy backwaters of the Meon Valley…

However, in 1376, the “Good” Parliament banished Alice and deprived her of her possessions, although in the following year, the “Bad” Parliament reversed the decree and she regained them. But then, in the first Parliament of Richard II, the sentence against her was reconfirmed, and Meonstoke escheated once more to the crown. The manor was put into the hands of stewards until 1379, when the sentence against Alice was yet again revoked, and the manor was granted to her husband, William de Windsor. But, only months later, he sold it to our friend William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester (and also chancellor to both Edward III and Richard II), who merged it with the two other Meonstoke manors and eventually granted it to his foundation, Winchester College (‘Parishes: Meonstoke’ Paragraph p5).

This must have been the lot of hundreds of manors throughout the country – this toing and froing between owners as their status soared and dived at the whim of those in power. One wonders what the tenants thought of it all? Probably nothing. It was no concern of theirs. They undoubtedly just kept their heads down and got on with their work. I suppose, in many cases, tenants scarcely knew their “lord”, if he or she was of the absentee type, as I am sure all of those I have mentioned here must have been. As far as tenants were concerned, their masters were the reeve and steward or bailiff, and their own lives were lived with no connection to the, possibly illustrious, person who actually benefited from the results of their labours.

A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 3: Edited by William Page. Covers eastern Hampshire, including Portsmouth, Southampton, Petersfield and Havant. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1908. Ref.: A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1908), British History Online [accessed 11 July 2017].

‘The hundred of Meonstoke: Introduction’, in A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1908), pp. 245-246. British History Online [accessed 11 July 2017].

‘Parishes: Meonstoke’, in A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1908), pp. 254-257. British History Online [accessed 11 July 2017].

‘Sussex Fines: 21-25 Edward I (nos. 1072-1118)’, in An Abstract of Feet of Fines For the County of Sussex: Vol. 2, 1249-1307, ed. L F Salzmann (Lewes, 1908), pp. 159-169. British History Online [accessed 11 July 2017].

‘Sussex Fines: 11-15 Edward III’, in An Abstract of Feet of Fines For the County of Sussex: Vol. 3, 1308-1509, ed. L F Salzmann (Lewes, 1916), pp. 88-102. British History Online [accessed 11 July 2017].

The Medieval Records of A London City Church St Mary At Hill, 1420-1559, ed. Henry Littlehales (London, 1905), British History Online [accessed 11 July 2017].

Effigy of William Edington in Winchester Cathedral. By Ealdgyth [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

William of Wykeham (1320-1404) Contemporary portrait [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Simon de Montfort on the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester (By NotFromUtrecht [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons]

Detail of Ford Madox Brown’s 1868 painting of Chaucer reading to the court of King Edward III, depicting Alice Perrers and Edward III (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Gibbon's Decline and Fall – Reading for the age of Austen? by Alison Morton

Edward Gibbon by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792)
In his Companion to the Roman Empire (2006), David S Potter called Edward Gibbon the 'first historian of the Roman Empire'. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire charting AD 98 to 1590, Gibbon was certainly the first in the modern era to use primary sources, cite those sources in detail and comment objectively, even if not politically correctly for the 21st century reader. His style is slightly ironic, certainly detached and lapses occasionally into moralising. The notes accompanying the text are almost chatty and often comment on both ancient Rome and 18th century Britain.
After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid,7 maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.
The various tribes of Britain possessed valour without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union. They took up arms with savage fierceness; they laid them down, or turned them against each other, with wild inconsistency; and while they fought singly, they were successively subdued. Neither the fortitude of Caractacus, nor the despair of Boadicea, nor the fanaticism of the Druids, could avert the slavery of their country, or resist the steady progress of the Imperial generals, who maintained the national glory, when the throne was disgraced by the weakest, or the most vicious of mankind.
 7 --Claudius, Nero, and Domitian. A hope is expressed by Pomponius Mela, l. iii. c. 6, (he wrote under Claudius,) that, by the success of the Roman arms, the island and its savage inhabitants would soon be better known. It is amusing enough to peruse such passages in the midst of London.*

When assessing the character of any subject, Gibbon is at pains to give a balanced view, unlike the authors of previous partisan or quasi-mythical stories, so enabling the reader to feel confident of his methodology and his account.
A more accurate view of the character and conduct of Julian will remove this favourable prepossession for a prince who did not escape the general contagion of the times. We enjoy the singular advantage of comparing the pictures which have been delineated by his fondest admirers and his implacable enemies. The actions of Julian are faithfully related by a judicious and candid historian, the impartial spectator of his life and death. The unanimous evidence of his contemporaries is confirmed by the public and private declarations of the emperor himself; and his various writings express the uniform tenor of his religious sentiments, which policy would have prompted him to dissemble rather than to affect.*

Gibbon wrote his account between 1776 and 1789, significant dates in a period of political turmoil.  Living amidst rebellion against mother country, economic failure, overthrow of monarchy and war across the Channel must have been, to say the least, stressful for informed Enlightenment gentlemen of letters. To what extent these events influenced Gibbon’s History is hard to say, but all writers are the product of their age. In a letter to Lord Sheffield on 5 February 1791, Gibbon, then living in Switzerland, praised Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France:
Burke's book is a most admirable medicine against the French disease, which has made too much progress even in this happy country. I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I can even forgive his superstition...

By the time Volumes IV, V and VI were published Gibbon was being praised by contemporaries as William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, Lord Camden, Horace Walpole and Adam Smith who said, that Gibbon's triumph had positioned him "at the very head of [Europe's] literary tribe.". In November, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

How does this connect us to Jane Austen whose anniversary we are celebrating this month? She lived from 1775 to 1817, so was a baby when Gibbon published the first volume.  Even when he had finished the last she would only have been 14. After periods away at school, Jane stayed in her family circle from 1786 onwards. The remainder of her education came from reading, guided by her father and brothers, James and Henry.

Gibbon’s History was groundbreaking and an acclaimed bestseller at the time and I suggest that Reverend George Austen and his friend Warren Hastings were very likely to have had copies in their libraries. I rather like the idea of Jane Austen turning the pages of a first edition of the first modern history book.

Although not mentioned as I remember, I’m sure Mr Bennet would have had a copy in his library as would Mr Darcy; both would have read it. Mr Bingley probably not, but being fashionable he would have had a copy in the library at Netherfield. Perhaps Mr Woodhouse had one and perhaps he read it in between head colds; I’m not entirely sure. Emma’s Mr Knightly, Elinor’s Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon most certainly would have a copy and read it. Of the ladies, I wonder. Much of their time was consumed in the daily business of living, paying social calls and attempting to secure their future with a good marriage.

Gibbon’s History is known for its status as a first history book and for its sweeping content across fourteen centuries. He follows the fate of both Western and Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empires. Any aspiring Roman fiction writer should read it for detail and inspiration; the history student for a study of basic methodology and use of sources.  But given the number of reprints, new editions with scholarly prefaces and introductions, the History seems to be as popular for the general informed reader as it would have been in Jane Austen’s day.

*Gibbon, Edward. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. Hans-Friedrich Mueller Plantagenet Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Jane Austen: 200th Anniversary - Celia Rees

Portrait of Austen (c. 1810) by her sister,  Cassandra

July has been Jane month on the History Girls and today we are marking the 200th anniversary of her death by posting some of our thoughts and observations, favourite books and film adaptations, characters and quotations. 

It is only right and fitting to begin with our leader and founder, Mary Hoffman:

Favourite novel: Persuasion

Favourite character(s): Mr Knightley and Henry Tilney

Favourite scene(s): Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection of Mr Collins’ proposal and his blithe inability to accept it; Same character’s blissful put-down of Lady Catherine.

Favourite dialogue: “ You have shewn that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.”

“Brother and sister! no, indeed.” 

(Emma and Mr Knightley) 

Caroline Lawrence says: As a movie lover, I must share my fave film version. It’s the Joe Wright PRIDE & PREJUDICE with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. I saw it four times in the cinema and it was my best film of 2005. The film-making was superb. Five scenes in particular: 1. When Jane arrives at the Bingley's and the door opens and we just see her sneeze. A whole chapter of exposition captured in a single moment. 2. When Elizabeth is on the swing and we see the passing of seasons as she twirls. SO clever. 3. The scene when Darcy confesses his love for Elizabeth in the rain. Women in the audience almost swooned. 4. The scene where Lizzy sees the sunlight through leaves on her closed eyelids. Unique! 5. The final scene in the summer dawn with Darcy coming through the early morning mist and their declaration of love. Bliss!

Pride and Prejudice  
Karen Maitland recommends: 

'...a brilliant new nonfiction book out called The Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, exploring the hidden literary friendships between female authors. The first chapter is about the influential friendship between Jane Austen and the playwright, Anne Sharp, all mention of which was excluded from the first biography authorised by the family. As Jane Austin writes in Northanger Abbey - "The men think us incapable of real friendship, you know, and I am determined to show them the difference."

Not all History Girls are Janeites. Elizabeth Chadwick confides:

'I shall always remember the utter relief of the class vote not to read Mansfied Park for 'O' level. We were sent away over the summer holidays to read Austen's novel and Brighton Rock by Graham Greene and decide which of the two we wanted to study. In September, there was a unanimous show of hands for Graham Greene - and especial sighs of relief at the result from the boys in the class. People have told me that Mansfield Park is not the best Austen novel for a beginner, but I have tried others and have yet to get beyond the first couple of chapters. However, I have enjoyed the Austen effect and its inspiration in other ways...'

Elizabeth will explain more in her own post on the 24th. 

As Elizabeth reminds us, likes and dislikes regarding literature often go back to school days - when Catherine Hokin was more a Hardy girl than a Janeite. 

'When I was at school the world was very tribal: Donny Osmond or David Cassidy (the latter, of course); Manchester Utd or Liverpool (the latter of course) and, as the joys of A level English bit, Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy - you've guessed it. I was always a Hardy girl, far preferring his tortured heroines and wild landscapes to heaving bosoms in the parlour. And then I got a little older and did a bit of acting including the hilarious Emma by Doon Mackichan, which involved a fabulous frock (although not enough bosom), pretending to be an 8 year old and singing the Marseillaise very loudly (try and see it). I laughed at Clueless and couldn't avoid Colin and the lake and the pages beckoned again. I'll be honest, I'm still not the greatest fan although I do have a soft spot for Northanger Abbey and I could watch Alan Rickman in Sense and Sensibility on a permanent loop. I'm deeply irritated by Elizabeth Bennet, bored rigid by Darcy and nothing about Mansfield Park has improved since school. But, something about Miss Austen drags you back and I'm a better reader for reading her. And Pride and Prejudice gave us Bride and Prejudice - watch that on a cold rainy day with a bucket of chocolate and you'll be the biggest Austen fan in the world.'

Leslie Wilson's favourite quote is Mr Collins "resignation is never so perfect as when the blessing denied begins to lose some of its value in our estimation." 'We're meant to laugh at him, but I think Austen means us to realise we usually proceed on that basis ourselves...'

Her favourite book: Emma

Favourite adaptation hero: Mr Knightley played by Jeremy Northam. 

Favourite character: Miss Bates.

I'm with Leslie. Emma is my favourite, too. Like Elizabeth and Catherine, I was not massively keen on Jane Austen when I was at school. I went to the kind of school where we were made to read the Classics from the First Year on. I remember reading Northanger Abbey and hating it. It wasn't until I was in the Sixth Form and fostering literary pretensions that I picked up Jane Austen again. I started to read Emma and by the end of the first paragraph, I was a convert. 

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." With the added caveat a few lines later that "The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself..."

The whole novel is right there.

I can't leave Emma without mentioning the fabulous 1995 movie, Clueless. A clever, witty adaptation set in 1990s L.A. full of memorable quotations and one liners and surprisingly true to the book. Kardashians with irony? As if!

As writers, we are all aware of the importance and power of that first sentence, that first paragraph. Jane Austen is the past mistress of the consummate opening. She is a novelists' novelist, a superb technician and we still have much to learn from her. 

Carolyn Hughes offers 'three snippets from a book by my friend, mentor and novelist Rebecca Smith, five-times great niece of Jane Austen and former writer-in-residence at Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton. The book is The Jane Austen Writers’ Club (Bloomsbury 2016), a guide for writers in which we discover Jane’s “methods, tips and tricks, from techniques of plotting and characterisation through to dialogue and suspense”.

The extracts, from the chapter ‘Plan of a novel’, draw on letters Jane wrote to her niece, Anna, critiquing her draft novels, and to her sister, Cassandra. As I myself am now in “edit mode” with my current novel, I thought these pieces of advice most pertinent!

Don’t clutter your work with unnecessary detail; cut and edit

[From letter to Anna 9th September 1814]: ‘You describe a sweet place, but your descriptions are often more minute than will be liked. You give too many particulars of right hand & left.’

Beware of overwriting and clichés

… ‘Devereux Forester’s [one of Anna’s characters] being ruined by his vanity is extremely good, but I wish you would not let him plunge into a “vortex of dissipation”. I do not object to the thing, but I cannot bear the expression; it is such thorough novel slang, and so old that I daresay Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.’ [Letter to Anna 28th September 1814]

Edit meticulously

Jane noticed [infelicities and repetitions] in whatever she was reading, joking to Cassandra…in spring 1811, ‘It gives me sincere pleasure to hear of Mrs Knight’s having a tolerable night at last, but upon this occasion I wish she had another name, for the two nights jingle very much.’

I'm off to order my copy right now!

Alison Morton reminds us that Jane Austen is one of those writers who can be read and re-read and whose books resonates differently throughout a lifetime. 

'Jane Austen was one of the first writers to capture me entirely. She made me laugh, think and learn at the same time. And reading Pride and Prejudice at 14, 34 and 54 is an entirely different experience. The first time, as a teenager you love the heroine’s story as she makes her painful way to her ‘happy ever after”, as a young married woman in your thirties, slightly wiser about the world, you find yourself nodding, tutting and able to see viewpoint of each character – a much rounder and more satisfying read. At 54 you rediscover this clever, glorious and hilarious book and devour it.

I took my son, then aged 18, to see the film with Keira Knightly (I know, but he had a crush on her!). It was a Wednesday afternoon. I forbade sweets with crackly wrappers – this was Tunbridge Wells and the audience would be packed with older people who were keen Janeites. He scoffed; the cinema would have a dozen people, maximum twenty. Well, we squeezed into practically the last two seats. He surveyed the sea of grey heads and whispered into the silence, “I must be the youngest person here.”

We watched. The photography was splendid, the adaptation pleasant, and Judi Dench suitably terrifying. I ignored the omissions and continuity gaffes. As we filed out, there was genteel chattering. In the foyer, my son, educated at one of the leading boys’ grammar school in the country, turned to me and said. “Really good. But I think I was the only person in there who didn’t know the ending.”'

I leave the last word to History Girl Àdele Geras. 

'Jane Austen's novels have been part of my life since before I was in my teens. She's my favourite novelist and the fact that she wrote so few novels means it's quite easy to read all of them. There's a famous joke told about Harold McMillan, who, when he was once asked if he read novels, answered: "Oh yes, all six, every year!"

My late husband, (Norm Geras, who died in 2013) had read EMMA for his A-levels and liked it very much. He was a slow reader and most of his life as an academic was taken up with reading other things than novels. He was also not fond of travelling but in 2007, I persuaded him to come to Florence on holiday. He took two books: the one he was reading (TRUE GRIT) which he'd almost finished, and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE on the grounds that it was short. He was also aware that it consistently topped the list of most beloved novel in the language.

Have you ever watched someone fall in love? That was what happened. He was just....knocked out. He took to carrying the book around with him all the time and you could see him mentally stroking it and looking at it and just....LOVING it. Being the sort of man he was, once he'd finished that book, he went on to all the others, in order. Then he read the criticism and the lives. Then he read the letters. He became the most ardent Janeite at the age of 64. 

He wrote about her on his blog, normblog, very often. HERE is an account of an event we went to in Ely which speaks for itself. WotN is me. Wife of the Norm. 

I still love Jane Austen best of all but now she has the additional merit of reminding me so much of Norm.'

Monday, 17 July 2017

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker: the Servants' Story. Review by Penny Dolan.

I overlooked LONGBOURN, the novel by Jo Baker, when it was published in 2013. 

However, Joan Lennon’s recent History Girls video-post, where the adept presenter needed help with dressing herself in her Regency Lady garments, brought out all my usual niggles.  
Who did the work involved in the delicate and many-buttoned dresses? Who looked after all the laundry and the house and the meals? Who ran the Bennet household for them?  
 Those questions, and a fragment of conversation, reminded me about  LONGBOURN, the novel, once more so I found a copy just in time to read it as part of the History Girls celebration of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death,and to offer some of my reflections

LONGBOURN runs alongside the plot of Pride and Prejudice, but Baker is telling the stories of the servants at Longbourn House: housemaid Sarah, housekeeper Mrs Hill, Mr Hill and eleven year old Polly, or as Austen describes them:
"the butler . . Mrs Hill and the two housemaids"
The novel does not focuses on Elizabeth and Darcy, but on Sarah's developing relationship with the mysterious new stable-hand, James Smith.

The book constantly reminds us of the impact of the weather on those lives and times. We first meet sixteen year old Sarah early on a January morning, bringing water in from the outside pump, ready to start on the laundry. Later, as Lydia sips her sugared milk and complains to Miss Hill in the kitchen: 

 Next door, down the step to the scullery, Sarah leaned over the washboard, rubbing at a stained hem. The petticoat had been three inches deep in mud when she’d retrieved it from the girls’ bedroom floor and had had a night’s soaking in lye already: the soap was not shifting the mark but it was biting into her hands, already chapped and chillblained and making them sting.

Sarah’s rough hands seemed to me to be an almost constant symbol within the novel, making those petticoats seem less carefree garments, and highlighting the fact that the Bennett girls are happy to drop a newly-pressed silk dress on the floor, and to believe that their dainty stitchery and silk-thread embroidery is “work”. 

Meanwhile, the real work goes on, inside and out and when James appears and takes on some of the heavy work, his strength and thoughtfulness is welcomed. The first hint of his good nature is when Sarah wakes and find water in the boiler and the fire lit.

All the way through, the Longbourn servants – housemaid Sarah, housekeeper Mrs Hill, Mr Hill the butler and eleven year old Polly - have little choice but to accept orders. Even so, they seem to be tolerant and proud of “their” family: Mrs Hill talks fondly of the girls “innocence”, while making sure that Sarah remembers that a servant life must be different.

The book also shows that Longbourn is also home for the servants. Sarah and young Polly, both brought there as destitute children, have been trained by Mrs Hill and Longbourn is their only security. We see Longbourn as a usually-kindly household, where the servants know there will be food and shelter, and a sense of the beauty and quiet in their isolated Hertfordshire location.

 Sarah, however, is at an age when her own eyes are opening to aspects of society beyond Longbourn’s fields. She starts to fret about the limitations of her situation and the extreme reticence of James. Sent into town, Sarah is as excited as the Bennet girls when the red-coated Militia arrive in town. However, unlike those young ladies, she witnesses the brutal flogging of a young “deserter” at the the street barracks, a moment that suggests something about James’ behaviour to the reader but not to Sarah. 

After Darcy and Bingley's arrival at Netherfield, Sarah becomes fascinated by Ptolemy, Bingley's elegant, well-mannered black servant and the distinct attention he shows her. Brought over from the family’s sugar plantation, Ptolemy has learned to use his looks to advance his position, but shocks Sarah with his real attitudes on the night of the ball.

Later on, after coming across the rigid hierarchy of servants in a grand house and meeting Ptolemy again, she looks again at her life back at Longbourn.

LONGBOURN has several memorable scenes, apart from the laundry as we step into the setting. One is the coach journey from rural Hertfordshire into to a dirty, disreputable London and on to : the reader does not sit inside the carriage but outside with Sarah, strapped to a kind of shelf and braving the weather – and also likely to be toppled on her neck if the carriage overturns. Another vivid account comes in a later part when, suddenly stepping outside the book’s setting, Baker describes James Smith’s horrific experiences during the flawed Spanish campaign against Napoleon, a flashback that explains much of his story and character. The difference between the power of the commissioned officer and that of the ordinary soldier is brutally demonstrated, both in the field and during the flogging in Meriton.

At times, I was half-amused by my reactions to the novel. For example, I felt a sense of imposition when Sarah is sent out into a torrent to buy last-minute “slipper roses” for the girls to wear at a ball. At another moment, I was recoiling: Mr Hill the butler regularly spits on the silver forks to polish them for the table. Later on, an account of Mrs Bennet’s early married life, her many pregnancies, and another significant matter, offered a different understanding of Mr and Mrs Bennett and their unhappy relationship.

One theme that comes through strongly in LONGBOURN is the precariousness of people’s social situation at that time, and at all levels. 

When Mr Collins visits his inheritance, the Longbourn servants know their own future employment will depends on him noticing them favourably, and when Elizabeth’s refuses him, we see this action could damage them as well as the Bennett family. As Baker reveals an age when inheritance and preferment mattered so much, her drawing of Mr Collins is much more sympathetic, certainly than some tv adaptations. 

On the other hand, seen from the servants' knowledge, Wickham is shown as a far worse character: predatory, full of cruelty and vice. One fears for fifteen-year-old Lydia, and sees her concept - and ours - of a romantic world undercut by a dreadful reality.

Although the story eventually circles away from Longbourn into other territory, it ends with a bold search, an eventual reunion, and hints at the changes coming towards the rural rolling landscape of England. 

 I did not hear much of an Austen voice - unless you recognise the quote below - that is there to be admired in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, but I felt that LONGBOURN was well worth reading for the glimpse the novel gave into eighteenth century society and as an antidote to Regency romance. 

"There is nothing like the imminence of a parting to make people unduly fond of other people."

Penny Dolan


Sunday, 16 July 2017

Francis Masson, plant hunter: 1741-1805 - by Sue Purkiss

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post introducing the plant hunters - you can find it here. Logically, my first subject should be Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), a wonderful, larger-than-life character who travelled with Captain Cook on his first voyage round the world, and then persuaded King George III to put him in charge of his garden at Kew, which Banks developed into the immensely important botanic garden which it still is today. He also became President of the Royal Society, and played a considerable part in fostering the talents of scientists such as the Herschels and Humphrey Davy.

But as it happens, I wrote about him some years ago, when the History Girls were asked to choose their favourite historical character. So you can read about him here - but this month, I'm going to write about Francis Masson.

Francis Masson

Masson was closely linked to Banks. Born in Scotland, he was working as an under gardener at Kew when Banks spotted his potential, and sent him off with Cook on his second round-the-world expedition. (Banks was meant to be going himself, but the Admiralty felt that his conditions were a trifle unreasonable - among other things he wanted to take a pack of greyhounds and his own personal orchestra - and they were unable to agree on terms.)

After three and a half months at sea, Masson parted company with Cook at Cape Town, in South Africa. As is the wont of plant hunters, he went looking for plants and found danger; on Table Mountain, he was so entranced by the glorious variety of flowers before him that he lost all sense of time and direction, and completely forgot that he had been warned that a gang of escaped convicts was on the loose - until he heard the sound of men's voices, and, more ominously, clanking chains. He crept through the undergrowth to an old shepherd's hut, where he sheltered till he was able to slip away as dawn broke.

Strelitsias - Bird of Paradise flowers - on Table Mountain: one of the hundreds of species Masson sent back to Kew. 

Evidently not put off by this brush with danger, he hired a covered wagon, a driver and a guide/translator, and set off cheerfully on a 400 mile round trip into the interior. Naturally, along with a range of exciting new plants, he encountered treacherous rivers, steep mountain paths, poisonous snakes, rampaging hyenas and so on. But he made it back safely, and to Banks' delight, was able to deliver more than 500 new plants to Kew.

But after risking life and limb in search of new plants, gardening at Kew really just didn't cut it any more, so he was soon off again; this time via Madeira, Tenerife and the Azores to the West Indies. His difficulties this time began when he got to Grenada, and the French invaded. (Bear in mind, this being Jane Austen month, that their dates overlap - hers are 1775- 1817 - and that while her books have the drawing room in the foreground, they have war in the background: many of her male characters are in either the navy or the army.)

Instead of hunting for more plants, Masson found himself conscripted into the militia and then captured and imprisoned by the French. He lost his plant collection, but, thanks to the intervention of Banks, he was released. (But how long would the messages necessary to achieve that have taken?)

Things didn't get a great deal better. In St Lucia, his next port of call, a hurricane destroyed his new plant collection and his journal. Disheartened and miserable, he sailed home early in 1781.

Another plant introduced by Masson - the streptocarpus, or Cape Primrose.

However, he bounced back, and after a pleasant two-year trip to Portugal, in 1786 he went back to Cape Town. Travelling was much more difficult this time, as Britain and Holland were at war and the Dutch were in charge in South Africa. Nevertheless, he stayed here for some years, only returning home in 1795. As usual, he couldn't settle, and persuaded Banks to send him off again, this time to North America. He'd survived so much, but the bitter Canadian winter was too much for him; he died there, thousands of miles from home, in 1805.

For the information in this post, I'm indebted to The Plant Hunters, by Toby, Chris and Will Musgrave, published by Seven Dials.

Sue Purkiss's novel for children about the plant hunters - Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley - comes out at the end of September.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey and Farleigh Hungerford Castle

by Marie-Louise Jensen

In honour of our July celebration of Jane Austen, I thought I'd draw readers' attention to the research done by Janine Barchas in her work Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location and Celebrity.
This came to my attention through some coincidences.

When I set my second YA novel The Lady in the Tower at Farleigh Hungerford Castle near Bath, I had no idea at all that I was treading in Jane Austen's footsteps. I had no idea until Janine wrote to me and told me that her daughter was reading my novel (bought on holiday in New Zealand, as far as I remember!) and she had realised that it was set in the very castle that she had researched in connection with Austen's Northanger Abbey.

All Austen fans remember Catherine Moorland's disappointing, abortive drive to Blaise Castle with the dreadful John Thorpe. In her book, Barchas points out that this was a ludicrous trip to a castle so far away when there was a very popular ruined castle within six miles of Bath - an easy drive. Farleigh was, according to Barchas, a popular day-trip for visitors to Bath, and full of the kind of gruesome Gothic history that would have appealed so much to Catherine Moorland. Barchas further proposes the theory that Northanger Abbey was based on Farleigh Castle. Once that connection is made, it seems blindingly obvious. Jane Austen's family, she tells us, had a guide book including Farleigh Castle and it is even annotated in her hand. It is very likely she visited the castle herself.

There are many dark tales connected with Farleigh Castle. Austen alludes to the murder of John Cotell by his wife Agnes. His body was allegedly burned in the kitchen range and she and two servants were later prosecuted for the murder. This is echoed in Austen's novel when Catherine Moorland suspects General Tilney of doing away with his wife at Northanger Abbey.

This incident had only a brief reference in my novel; I was more drawn by the tale of Lady Elizabeth, locked in the Lady Tower for several years. But it's strange to realise that I was inspired to write a story by the same location as Jane Austen without knowing it.

I can thoroughly recommend Janine Barchas' book on Austen. It's a fascinating read, and reveals many things, among others Austen's subtle sense of humour. Much is still amusing for a modern audience today, but other things require context. For example, Barchas points out that Thorpe was the name of the local map maker in Bath in Austen's time. Giving John Thorpe his name when he cannot find the way to Blaise Castle and doesn't know about Farleigh Castle is a little dig that only locals would have understood. There are many gems like this in Barchas' research.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Breaking through a wall of silence: Researching the Women’s Palace in old Tokyo by Lesley Downer

The dimensions of the Seraglio and the extent to which it exerted a malign influence upon the conduct of public affairs may be measured by the number of its inhabitants. 
A History of Japan, 1615 - 1867, by Sir George Bailey Sansom (1963)
Only existing photograph of
a lady of the shogun's court
(Life in the Women's Palace
 at Edo Castle

In a couple of weeks my new novel, THE SHOGUN’S QUEEN, will be published in paperback. It’s set in the Women’s Palace in old Tokyo, a place surrounded by secrecy and about which until recently almost nothing was known. In fact it was treated rather like a shameful secret.

I’m not sure when I first stumbled upon the fact that the shogun - the de facto ruler of Japan for several hundred years - had had a harem or something very akin. I’d lived in Japan for years, absorbed myself in the history, literature and lore, had written books, even lived with geisha, yet never heard a word of any harem. 

It seems three thousand women lived in the O-oku, the ‘Great Interior’ of Edo Castle, in the city we now call Tokyo. They all swore an oath of secrecy, never to speak or write of anything they heard, witnessed or experienced. In 1868 the castle was handed over to the enemy after a bitter civil war. The occupants were expelled and everything that had gone on was expunged from the history books. Most of the women had come from families on the losing side and many found themselves homeless. Most kept silent till their deaths. 
Shogun being served by his ladies - tableau, Nijo Castle, Kyoto

A search of the library at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, revealed a single book on the palace, entitled Life in the Women's Palace at Edo Castle. In old age one of the ex-ladies-in-waiting had broken her silence and spoken to her son and a couple had agreed to be interviewed. 

I could almost hear the croaking voices of the old ladies as they explained the etiquette and protocol, the hairstyles, clothing and duties of each rank of lady, ruminated over which classes were high enough in rank to enter the presence of the shogun and his wife and which were not. They described the recruitment process, the three daily audiences, the annual festivities, the parties. 
Nun with shogun (Life in the Women's Palace at Edo Castle)
Very few of the three thousand women, they explained, ever became concubines. Concubines were chosen usually by rank but sometimes when the shogun happened to spot a particularly lovely girl in the gardens or even out on the street. Ienari, the thirteenth shogun, set a record with fifty three children born to twenty seven concubines - though only the concubines who bore children are listed in the records and he probably enjoyed the company of many more.

Whether you were a concubine or the shogun’s wife, sexual activity ended at the age of thirty. There were tales of frustrated ladies-in-waiting, condemned to a life of celibacy, who sneaked out to sleep with handsome monks, carpenters or kabuki actors and were harshly punished with exile or even execution. 
Himeji Castle women's quarters

I was struck by the fact that unlike the harems of the Topkapi in Istanbul and the Forbidden City in Peking, there were no eunuchs in the women’s palace or anywhere in Japan. Four nuns - shaven-headed and officially desexualised - acted as intermediaries between the men’s and women’s palaces but the O-oku was run not by them but by seven hard-smoking elders who had once been concubines. In Japan the women ran their own affairs. 

I would have given anything to have seen the palace. But not only had the castle been taken over by the enemy, it had burnt down many times. There was nothing left. 

I started off by visiting Himeji Castle in Japan. Every lord, I discovered, had had a harem, and the buildings that housed the harem of the lord of Himeji are still there, though they are empty now, just bare wooden walls and tatami-matted floors with nothing left to imagine of the life. 

Then I went to Nijo Castle in Kyoto. Magnificent though it is, this was just the shogun’s pied a terre, a mere shadow of the splendour of Edo Castle. The painted transepts and gold encrusted screens, designed to impress visitors, are still in place in the grand audience halls. 

Bridge and Great Gate, Women's Palace,
Edo, late 19th century
The women’s quarters, conversely, are much quieter and calmer, domestic in mood, walled with screens painted with ink-brushed scenes of country life and peopled with mannequins of the shogun and his women in lavish kimonos. I spent a long time there, imagining the jealousy and back biting, picturing the women tiptoeing around fearful of putting a foot wrong while all the while hoping they would be spotted by the shogun and elevated to concubine. 

And finally I went to Edo Castle, now the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Where the women’s palace once stood - with its white walls and ranks of dove grey roofs, its thousands of women in exquisite kimonos rustling through the corridors and across the walkways - is now the East Gardens. I crossed the bridge that spans the moat to the Great Gate where merchants used to wait. 
'Site of Oh-oku'

Inside there is nothing but an endless expanse of lawn marked at one end with the granite foundation stones of what was once a five-storeyed tower. I paced out the area, awed at the vast size of the place. Then I walked down Tide-Viewing Slope up which the women were carried in painted palanquins before entering the palace, never to leave again. 

Finally I discovered a small sign, half-hidden inside a hedge. It read ‘Site of Oh-oku,’ final confirmation that thousands of woman had once whiled away their lives here, on what is now an empty expanse of lawn.

Lesley Downer's latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, is set in the Women’s Palace. It comes out in paperback on July 27th. For more see