A Place in History – Israel

Israel in the 1940s – The Laundry Room

by Lynda Lippman-Lockhart

 

 

 

 

What is there about traveling to foreign ports that is so evocative, compelling, and necessary? I have always been a proponent of getting away, giving into a change of attitude and altitude, and most of all—educating myself and my family. It is good for the soul and certainly good for the brain. There isn’t a trip that I haven’t learned something that has come in handy in the future. Each one of my books arose from a particular place I have visited or lived. Apparently, the place made an impression on me.

The Laundry Room is an example. It all began with a promise and a prayer. The new rabbi at my synagogue stood on the pulpit of his congregation during the High Holidays promising to take a group to Israel in the near future.  My husband and I were two of the first to sign up.

I remember arriving at the Ben Gurion Airport and marveling at how modern it was with its clean lines and lack of clutter. Our luggage was right on time, and we loaded our tour bus, finding those familiar to sit next to. Our guide Jeremy, began the tour as soon as the bus left the airport. I don’t know what I expected but was amazed at the melding of new and old in the city of Tel Aviv.  The traffic was almost as bad as New York’s. Our first stop was on the Mount of Olives, a part of the Judaean Mountain chain and the ancient Judean kingdom. It was there we beheld Jerusalem and all of its splendor as the sun set in the west, casting a golden glow over the city, hence Jerusalem of Gold, a popular Israeli song. We left the mountain and headed toward the coast and the center of Tel Aviv, a thriving metropolis with signs of bombed buildings next to new. The contrast was startling to say the least.

That night we had dinner at the hotel and then walked to what we were told would be a gathering of people to commemorate Israel’s Independence. What we were not prepared for was the blast of sirens at which time everyone stopped in their tracks, buses, cars, people. There was complete silence for five minutes; and afterward, our guide explained this was their way of thanking all who gave their lives so that freedom would prevail. It took all of us some time to recover from the awe of that moment. At the park, thousands of young people congregated as they listened to one after another speak on freedom and the country. What caught me off guard was how young the military was and how these young people were standing around with guns slung over their shoulders. All citizens eighteen and over are compelled to serve in the military for a minimum of two years—male and female.

The next morning, we were headed to Caesarea. On the way, we passed the technology center of Israel, Herzliya, and continued to a bucolic seaside spectacle. It was here at Caesarea that Herod built a temple dedicated to Tiberius Caesar.

Little remains, but some of the mosaics that have managed to survive time and ware, are magnificent. The clear, aqua waters of the Mediterranean wash gently upon the shore, spilling over into the largest natural pool I’ve ever seen.

We arrived at Masada after passing bands of Bedouins hunkered down with their animals and tents. They live as they did in biblical times. Upon reaching Masada, we were told it was the last stronghold of a band of Judean rebels trying to escape the rage of the Roman soldiers bent on their destruction. Here, in the dusty terrain, high above—in what resembles a southwestern mesa—960 men, women, and children held off 8,000 Roman soldiers for several months. When it appeared their plight was hopeless, they decided to take their own lives instead of becoming slaves of the Romans. They drew straws to see who among them would be the last to take their own life. Standing on the top of the mesa, brings to mind how precious life really is and makes one think of Egypt and the lives of the Israelites before escaping Pharaoh’s domination. The bus trip to the Dead Sea was silent.

Of all of the stops we made, the one that remained with me when I arrived back in the States was the Ayalon Institute (1), not because of its beauty or tragic event, but for courage and dedication to a cause.

I could go on and on, but for some reason, it was the Ayalon Institute that held fast. I tried to do some research when I returned home, but there was little. I wrote to the institute to ask for a brochure, but instead received a personal email from a Judith Ayalon, one of the 45 youth that built, supplied, and ran an underground ammunition factory that would play a major role in the establishment of Israel as an independent country. She and I would correspond for the next two years. The visual of teenagers fashioning bullet casings out of copper or filling those casings with gunpowder is hard to erase. There was nothing special or memorable about the terrain, but what took place there will never be erased from my mind. A well-kept secret until 1986, this historic site has become a major stop for those visiting Israel and a place I will never forget. The Laundry Room covers those historic events from beginning to end.

© Lynda Lippman-Lockhart

  1. “Now a museum, the Ayalon Institute was a secret ammunition factory disguised as part of a kibbutz to fool the British back in the 1940s. Jewish people used the factory in their efforts to fight for the independent state of Israel. Organizers went to extreme measures to build and sustain this secret factory within the kibbutz.” (From: https://www.touristisrael.com/ayalon-institute/16168 accessed 14/05/2019)

About Lynda Lippman-Lockhart

Originally from St. Petersburg, Florida, Lynda now lives in Columbus, NC, with her husband and a moyen poodle. Lynda retired from teaching eleven years ago and took up writing after winning first place in the Florida Writers Conference short story contest. She says her first book was a fluke in that she was sitting out on the deck of their summer home with her poodle Bogie and the title Oodles of Poodles came to her. She started writing and the subsequent book became a huge success. The next book was historical fiction, The Laundry Room, mentioned above. Lynda’s latest work is a crime novel Nine Minutes to Kill, which invites the reader to help solve the crime. She is currently editing her next historical novel Con Artist about Goya, the queen of Spain and her lover, and a scandalous painting: ‘The Naked Maja’.

About The Laundry Room:

The British Mandate over Palestine is coming to an end. The purpose of the Mandate was to divide a portion of the now defunct Ottoman Empire into two British protectorates: Palestine, which would include a home for the Jewish people, and Transjordan, an emirate under the rule of the Hashemite family. The problem: how will these two diametrically opposed peoples survive after the Mandate ends? In 1946, when the King David Hotel outside the “Old City” of Jerusalem is bombed, peace-loving Laila Posner becomes a victim. Swept up in the blast, she flies through the air like a dove and lands as a hawk, transformed for all the wrong reasons.
Upon recovery, Laila joins a group of young people—many of whom have been orphaned by the Holocaust—sent to Palestine for protection. Forty-five of these Young Pioneers form a kibbutz and resolve never to let someone else direct their lives. The success of the kibbutz reaches the ears of the Haganah, the Jewish secret police, who approach the kibbutz with a proposition: participate in a clandestine operation to save the Jewish state. It is during her time at the Ayalon Institute—a name given to disguise its activities—that Laila comes of age, taking a leading role in the operation of the kibbutz and running the secret factory.
In the face of daily challenges to survive—volatile compounds, marauding Arabs, and the fear of discovery by the British—Laila finds the strength to go on. Amid the turmoil of the time, a close-knit community is formed, spawning lifetime attachments and love. Laila, however, never forgets the young British soldier who came to her assistance during the bombing of the King David Hotel, which causes friction between her and her kibbutz sweetheart. His intermittent presence in her life leaves her feeling uneasy about her future.
The selflessness of these youths who came to the aid of their country is a testament to how heroes are formed out of ordinary human beings.

For more on Lynda Lippman-Lockhart and her books go to:

A Place in History – Fiesole, Italy

Fiesole as Setting for The Contessa’s Easel

by Mary Donnarumma Sharnick

The late novelist Henry James once wrote, “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.” How insightful his words have been and are for writers who bring their imagined characters to life in geographical settings replete with recorded histories, both societal and individual.

Fiesole, Italy, a picturesque, much-visited, and perpetually-storied Tuscan hill town five kilometers northeast of Florence, offers authors records, artifacts, ruins, architecture, gardens, and artworks prolific enough to ensure careers-long historical contexts. Giovanni Boccaccio set The Decameron here, E. M. Forster A Room with a View. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Hermann Hesse’s Peter Camenzind, and James’ own Italian Hours feature the evocative location in their pages.

When I first visited Fiesole with my husband during the summer of 2002, I was smitten. With its ancient Etruscan walls, Roman baths and amphitheater, fourteenth-century town hall, the Monastery of San Francesco, several churches, the novice home of Fra Angelico in San Domenico, the town offered historical narratives at every turn. Villa Le Balze (Georgetown University’s study-abroad campus), Villa Sparta (former residence of the Greek royal family), and numerous other distinguished domiciles each offered detailed accounts about their inhabitants, visitors, interlopers, intimates, and detractors. Living in and near the town for periods of time over the course of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries have been: French writer Marcel Proust, American art historian Bernard Berenson, German painter Paul Klee, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The town is known as the most affluent suburb of Florence.

Since our initial visit, my husband and I have returned to Fiesole often, sometimes as a couple, other times with student groups we have sponsored. Our most recent trip, in July of 2018, was to conduct research for my fifth novel, its working title The Contessa’s Easel, the anticipated third in a quartet of the Orla Paints Series. While Orla’s Canvas (Penmore Press, 2015), the first novel in the series, and Painting Mercy (Penmore Press, 2018), the second, make frequent and direct references to Fiesole and the fictional Contessa Beatrice D’Annunzio’s villa-turned-orphanage during World War II, The Contessa’s Easel will call Fiesole home, with the main action of the novel taking place there.

Plenty of history contextualizes and informs the narrative, as the action alternates between the novel’s present, the summer of 1989, and its past, the summer of 1944. The raison d’etre for the conflation of the two historical periods is Fiesole’s forty-fifth-anniversary celebration of its liberation from the Nazis (who had seized and occupied Villa Le Balze because of its comprehensive view of Florence below). Among the celebratory events is protagonist and recognized American painter Orla Castleberry’s art exhibition, featuring portraits of Fiesolani in the novel’s present. The same locals had been photographed during the Nazi occupation of the town. The photographs, made available by the Contessa to Orla’s lifelong confidant, attorney and history aficionado Tad Charbonneau, become the primary sources for Tad’s debut history book, The Orphans of Fiesole. In turn, the photographs inspire Orla to seek out Fiesolani who, almost a half-century since World War II interrupted and altered their lives, still live locally. While the 1944 photographs tell their subjects’ stories in medias res, as it were, Orla’s paintings render their personal histories via their faces and bodies interpreted by a painter’s brush. My research in Fiesole revealed a number of actual archived photographs that afforded me the opportunity to inform my own fiction.

In the layering of one historical period over another that occurs through time, 1989 Fiesole found itself responding to the global AIDS crisis. Although AIDS arrived in Italy during the early 1980s, the Ministry of Health, led by Carlo Donat-Cattin, had refused to initiate public education programs even as late as 1988. Not until mid-1989, with the arrival of Donat-Cattin’s successor, Francesco DeLorenzo, did informative television commercials and public education initiatives take hold. Just as Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century pilgrims had fled Florence and the plague for the hills and fresh air of Fiesole, some afflicted and dying of the more recent “plague” also find their way to the Contessa’s villa. Orphanage transforms to hospice. Past function is re-purposed by present need. Several German and Italian and American characters meet, brought together by an epidemic threatening all. Former alliances and misalliances are re-introduced and re-construed in yet another historical context fraught with fear, uncertainty, and imminent mortality.

Also illustrative of historical layering is the Hotel Villa Aurora, just steps from the bus stop in Piazza Mino. Recently closed, the hotel was still in 2018 housing visitors to Fiesole.

Its garden terrace, its contemporary basement bar, and its convenience to Fiesole’s sites made it a stopping place for many. Even as I researched at the hotel last July, I was hard-pressed to imagine the barroom as the prison it had once been for the ragazzi, young men rounded up by the Nazis and doomed to die unless and until the three police officers, the carabinieri, who came to be known and honored as “the martyrs of Fiesole”, came out of hiding in the ruins. The three, a trio of partisans amidst a region of fellow partisans, had carried out acts of resistance for months. Hearing of their fellow Fiesolani’s peril, they did emerge from the shadows. They were shot on the terrace the evening of August 12, 1944 (ironically, after the Allied Forces had already liberated Florence on August 11). Today visitors can honor them on a self-guided walking tour in Fiesole. They are: Vittorio Marandola, Alberto LaRocca, and Fulvio Sbarretti. All were in their twenties.

Just as past merges into present with the historical martyrs’ lives and the monument to those lives, several past relationships in The Contessa’s Easel also develop into present ones. Those relationships, too, are altered by the unrelenting passage of time, vast political changes, as well as town, family, and individual secrets exposed and contradicted. No character is exempt from surprises–some painful, some joyous, all revelatory.  Every character must re-assess and re-consider what they knew or thought they knew in 1944, what they know or think they know in 1989. The inevitable and irrefutable corollary, of course, follows as a question: What is the relationship between the historical record and a human being’s experienced life? This is the question The Contessa’s Easel explores.

The late American novelist, E. L. Doctorow once wrote, “The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”

My goal in The Contessa’s Easel is to invite readers to feel vicariously in a brick and mortar context, a context verifiable by the historical record; to explore the “blur,” the moment when a character’s particular life intersects with social history; and to vivify and render kinetic an imagined place that becomes—at least for the time readers visit it—as real as any historical one. In this case, as real as Fiesole.

About the author

Mary Donnarumma Sharnick is the author of the National Federation of Press women prize-winning novels, Orla’s Canvas and Painting Mercy, both published by Penmore Press. Her previous two novels, Thirst and Plagued, both set in Renaissance Venice, were published by Fireship Press. Thirst is being adapted for the operatic stage by composer Gerard Chiusano and librettists Robert Cutrofello and Mary Chiusano. Mary teaches at FlexSchool, New Haven, Connecticut, and offers a range of writing services to individuals, groups, and schools. She and her husband lead custom-designed tours to Italy, the country Mary considers her second home.

You can find out more about Mary on:

www.marysharnick.com

www.penmorepress.com

Twitter: @marysharnick

Facebook:@authormarydonnarummasharnick

A Place in History – Scotland

A Sense of Place

Scottish author Marie Macpherson explains how her native county of East Lothian provided the foundations for a trilogy.

 

 

 

Hailes Castle

 

The mist-covered mountains of the Scottish Highlands may have cast a spell over many romantic novelists, but my heart lies in the Central Lowlands where most of Scotland’s political struggles and bloody conflicts took place. The early 16th century during the turbulent period of the Reformation and the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, has inspired my trilogy based on the life of the Reformer, John Knox.

The rich history of my birthplace has fascinated me, not surprising perhaps, since I was brought up on a battlefield – the Battle of Pinkie fought in 1547 (we lost) – and within sight of Fa’side Castle from where Mary Stewart set off for her last confrontation as Queen of Scots at Carberry Hill (she lost). Digging in the back garden became an archaeological excavation to find buried treasure or the bones of slain soldiers. Other blood-soaked battlefields were within easy reach; Prestonpans (we won), Dunbar (we lost, twice), Athelstaneford, birthplace of the Scottish flag, the Saltire (we won). There’s hardly an inch of turf in the Lothians untrodden by a marauding army and hardly a castle or stately home that is not haunted by a ghost. This instilled in me a strong sense of the past and urged me to explore more deeply the stirring history of my native county. Writing fiction gives my imagination free rein as I attempt to conjure up what life was like for the inhabitants of those now ruined castles and deserted abbeys. Exploring the personal relationships and often hidden motivations of historical characters drive my curiosity.

My journey started off with a very small step, almost a footnote in history, The Treaty of Haddington signed in 1548 which betrothed Mary, Queen of Scots to the French Dauphin and this intrigued me. Several sources mention that this significant event took place at the abbey and for years this was assumed t to be St Mary’s Collegiate Church as there was no abbey in Haddington – except there was – or had been. Sadly, St Mary’s Cistercian Priory, a victim of the Reformation, had been erased from history and memory for centuries. Only a few stones and place names – Abbey Mill, the Abbey Bridge – recorded its existence. Yet, as I discovered, this long-lost priory had been one of the wealthiest religious houses in Britain, presided over by some very unorthodox prioresses, including Elisabeth Hepburn, the reluctant nun, who became my heroine.

Another nugget I unearthed concerned the playwright and makar, Sir David Lindsay, who wrote a scathing satire on the corrupt Roman Catholic clergy. He had been exiled to his estate at Garleton Castle, near Haddington, now a forgotten ruin set amidst farm buildings. Speculating that the fates of the poet and the prioress might be intertwined became the starting point of The First Blast of the Trumpet.

Digital StillCamera

The historic town of Haddington was also the birthplace of another religious figure, the fiery Reformer, John Knox. Because he called himself Giffordiensis, it was assumed he was born in Gifford, a village that did not exist at the time: he was more likely to have been born in Gifford Gate, Haddington.

 

 

There was also confusion about his birthdate. 1505 is inscribed on the commemorative plaque beside the oak tree planted by the great Victorian historian, Thomas Carlyle, whereas Knox was probably born around 1513/14. After studying at St Andrews, he returned to Haddington to serve as a Roman Catholic priest and notary. He was ‘pulled from the puddle of papistry’ by the charismatic preacher, George Wishart, who was arrested in St Mary’s Church, despite Knox standing at the foot of the pulpit bearing a two-handed sword to defend him. While Wishart was taken to St Andrews and burnt at the stake, Knox was arrested as a heretic and sentenced to toil for 19 months in the French galleys. Which fate was worse? Knox’s survival from certain death convinced him that God had intervened to save him to become His divine messenger. The First Blast of the Trumpet ends after the signing of the Treaty of Haddington when Queen Mary sails off to France in a galley, possibly rowed by the slave John Knox.

Hailes Castle sets the scene for opening of The First Blast of the Trumpet.

At midnight on a doom-laden Hallowe’en three young lasses sit round the hearth in the West Tower, gazing into the flames trying to divine their future. From this fortress perched high on a rocky outcrop on the banks of the River Tyne, accessible only by a narrow farm track, the powerful Hepburn family, the Earls of Bothwell, controlled the lands of East Lothian. Though now a ruin, this hidden gem retains many features still recognisable enough to fire the novelist’s imagination. In the Great Hall, the earls would host grand banquets prepared in the vaulted kitchen underneath where scullions would turn spits over huge fires; children would scamper up and down the turnpike staircases of the three towers, and prisoners would languish in the two pit prisons or oubliettes – one of which is said to have contained George Wishart after his arrest. What must it have been like to have been lowered down into a pit and left in complete darkness on a freezing winter’s night?

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, brought Mary, Queen of Scots to Hailes at least twice – if not three times. Firstly, when he abducted her after the murder of her husband Darnley, secondly on their way to Edinburgh to be married and possibly a third time before the stand-off at Carberry Hill where she surrendered to the Confederate lords and he fled into exile.

No self-respecting Scottish castle is without a ghost and Hailes is said to have at least two. The spirit of a man who starved to death in the pit prison because he had fallen in love with the laird’s wife, and a White Lady, said to be Mary, Queen of Scots, reputedly haunt the castle. Although local people claim to have sighted these spirits, I’ve still to experience any ghostly presence. However, wandering about the jagged ruins does send shivers up my spine. If only those stone walls could talk.

The Second Blast of the Trumpet follows the release of Knox into exile, firstly in England and then to Calvin’s Geneva, Frankfurt and Dieppe. Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Prioress Elisabeth Hepburn stands by the Regent, Queen Marie de Guise, in her struggle to hold the throne for her daughter against the oncoming tide of Reformation, led by the Protestant Lords of the Congregation. As they travel round the various royal residences, I try to give a flavour of what life was like in a Renaissance palace such as Falkland or Holyrood, or a fortified castle like Stirling or Edinburgh (none of which were a rocky grotto or bat cave as portrayed in the recent film!).

I’m working on the third part of the trilogy, The Last Blast of the Trumpet, which takes place mainly in Edinburgh where I lived for a time as a student and which has a special place in my heart. The medieval Old Town of Auld Reekie, a labyrinth of cobbled streets, narrow wynds and hidden courtyards, is amazingly well preserved and positively reeks of history, although the steaming midden heaps have long gone. John Knox House, where the reformer lived for a short time before his death, retains many medieval features. The dark oak panelling and painted ceilings make it particularly atmospheric, transporting me back in time to see Knox at his desk writing his fire-breathing sermons to be thundered from the pulpit in St Giles’ Kirk. Every stone and cobble from Edinburgh Castle down the spine of the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace has witnessed conflict and chaos, corruption and cruelty through the centuries. I consider myself very fortunate to have all this history on my doorstep to inspire me as I strive to breathe life into Scotland’s rich past.

About Marie Macpherson

Marie Macpherson hails from from the historic town of Musselburgh, six miles from the Scottish capital Edinburgh, but left the Honest Toun to study Russian at Strathclyde University. She spent a year in the former Soviet Union to research her PhD thesis on the 19th century Russian writer, Mikhail Lermontov, said to be descended from the poet and seer, Thomas the Rhymer.

 

After a career teaching languages and literature from Moscow to Madrid, she has found her niche in writing historical fiction which combines her academic’s love of research with a passion for storytelling.

The First Blast of the Trumpet and The Second Blast of the Trumpet are published by Penmore Press. She’s currently working on the third part of the trilogy, The Last Blast of the Trumpet.

Connect with Marie on:

Penmore Press Page: https://www.penmorepress.com/penmore_authors_/marie-macpherson.html

https://www.amazon.co.uk/l/B007WAY5NE?_encoding=UTF8&redirectedFromKindleDbs=true&ref_=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1&rfkd=1&shoppingPortalEnabled=true

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5404227.Marie_Macpherson

WordPress: https://mariemacpherson.wordpress.com/about/

Twitter: @MGMacpherson

Facebook author page: Marie Macpherson

https://www.facebook.com/marie.macpherson.96

Watch the mini-documentary on YouTube:
John Knox and the Birth of the Scottish Reformation:  http://youtu.be/40PV0rll6dw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Girl Puzzle by Kate Braithwaite

The cover and title of this novel are worth thinking about before one opens the book itself. The author is telling us that at one level it is historical fiction, a tale told about a past epoch and how people lived then; at another, it is a story of someone’s life but not a biography. It is a story: the author’s interpretation of what happened to Nellie Bly. Who in turn was not only Nellie Bly but Elizabeth Cochrane, a young woman shaped by the lamentable circumstances of her parents’ life – which she is determined to overcome. The puzzle starts here, but is quickly forgotten because the author’s lucid prose and excellent characterisation means that one falls into the events of Nellie Bly’s life as if they were happening for the first time now.

Braithwaite has chosen to write about a woman whose published autobiographical work is relatively well known in the USA. This story is told, however, on a dual timeline. Readers new to Nellie Bly’s life know from the start that yes, she overcame the shame and poverty of her childhood, and yes, she became the most celebrated woman in journalism of early twentieth century – and yet they can read each page anxious to know what happened next. This is sophisticated story telling.

Nellie Bly, now a wealthy woman journalist in late middle age, is living in a New York hotel suite. While she continues with her popular newspaper social commentaries, she is also writing her memoirs. Hand written chapters are given to Beatrice, one of her secretaries, to type up. In this way we see Nellie’s first-person account of her life, and also learn what a younger woman thinks about her employer.

Elizabeth/Nellie’s story begins when she is a twenty-year-old anxious to find a job on a New York newspaper and make a name for herself. Down to her last borrowed dime, she accepts a frightening challenge as the condition for obtaining a job: to become an inmate of a mental institution and report on conditions from first-hand experience. Elizabeth Cochrane/Nellie Bly then becomes Nellie Brown, a poor befuddled young woman who has lost her luggage, her family, her home, and her memory. The act is convincing enough to get her into Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum. Nellie becomes trapped in the vicious treatment regime of a late nineteenth century mental institution. She is demeaned, ill-treated and controlled day and night by some appallingly cruel nurses. Readers also meet some of the other inmates: gentle but dangerous Tilly Maynard, sad and apparently quite sane Anne, and a number of other rowdier, nastier women who are also subject to the asylum’s institutionalised torture. It makes chilling reading, and I was most disappointed that the one ‘good doctor’ who could have made their lives so much more tolerable turned out to be weak-willed, and ultimately no match for our brave heroine. (More on that would be a spoiler.)

Running alongside this narrative is Beatrice’s observations on Nellie Bly’s informal adoption agency and how the woman becomes besotted with a small girl who has also been the victim of tragic family circumstances. Beatrice is fascinated by her employer, but wise enough to see her flaws – which is how the reader is left to form his/her own judgment.

As I say, this is sophisticated and accomplished story-telling. It is also a timely novel, for while it shows how one determined woman achieved success in what was then in every way a man’s world, that woman was not without her own weaknesses and blinkered vision. This novel is indeed a Discovered Diamond.

© J.G. Harlond

This review was originally written for https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com (21st May, 2019)

Book Review: ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Robert Dodds

Historical fiction / Historical biography

In the year 1490, Brother Jacomo of Seville is sent to Brabant as a Papal Inquisitor. He loses no time in condemning a man to be burned alive in the main square of Den Bosch. It is a public warning: be sure your sins will find you out.

But who is without sin in Den Bosch? Not the local abbess, nor the local artist, Jerome (known to us as Hieronymus Bosch), nor his wife and best friend, who share a mortal sin, nor his serving maid. Nor, as it turns out, the Inquisitor himself, who takes far too much pleasure in devising hideous torture devices, which he insists the local blacksmith makes against his will.

Robert Dodds has taken the creation of a triptych depicting Man’s Fall from Grace for his canvas and created in turn a compelling read. Each character is real, each has his or her good points and weaknesses. Even the foul-minded Inquisitor has a backstory to suggest how and why he has become the man to disrupt and ruin forever the convivial peace of a provincial town.

The setting is Hieronymus Bosch’s home town, but it could be any small town in Northern Europe for this is the late 15th century when ordinary folk believe utterly in heaven and hell, and that they must do all they can to lighten their burden for the Day of Judgment. The story opens and unfolds in a quiet fashion befitting the location, yet it is a page-turner, and by no means predictable. The artist’s wife and friend and servant share a not uncommon secret, but even that does not play out as one might expect. Dodds’ writing is exceptional: he draws in his reader gently, almost subtly, and I found myself reading on long after I should have put down the book down each evening. The Garden of Earthly Delights is skilfully crafted, well-written, informative and enjoyable.

This review was originally written for Discovering Diamonds Reviews: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com

To learn more about how and why Robert Dodds wrote this book go to: https://www.robertdodds.com/the-garden-of-earthly-delights.html

© J.G. Harlond

 

Writing fiction using historical fact

Secret Agents, Tulips, and the English Crown Jewels

The real history behind The Chosen Man Trilogy

Some authors are irritated by the question ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ but I see it as perfectly valid. Knowing the genesis of a good story can deepen its enjoyment or appreciation. In my case, however, it’s rather chicken and egg. Which came first, the idea for The Chosen Man and what became a trilogy, or the ideas generated out of the research? Historical fiction authors can probably relate to this; they may also agree that while research can take you down fascinating rabbit holes, some of the best bits have to be left out because readers almost certainly won’t believe it. This is what happened when I started gathering material about the first financial bubble known as tulipmania or tulip fever and Vatican secret agents for The Chosen Man. All of which was fascinating, but in many respects almost beggared belief.

But where did the idea come from? Well, the story began with a combination of events, one very real with devastating financial consequences, the other un-real, when I ‘saw’ people during a visit to Cotehele, a British National Trust property on the River Tamar in Cornwall and the model for the fictional house ‘Crimphele’ in my first novel. Wandering around the house mentally preparing the sequel to The Empress Emerald (set early 20th Century), I was beset by characters living in the 17th Century. To start with, the evil-minded McNab walked out of a wall, crossed the Great Hall and disappeared, then re-appeared later crossing the courtyard. He made my skin crawl, but he was not to be ignored. The portrait of a Stuart harridan gave me the unpleasant mother-in-law, and then to top it all, while I was gazing down at the Tamar Estuary from the roof of the Tudor tower I ‘saw’ Ludo da Portovenere arrive on a boat – much as he does at the end of the first book in the trilogy. So, I went home, set aside my original notes and started a new book entirely.

The story-line fell into place as I watched news coverage of the Lehman Brothers and mortgage scandals in the USA and I was reminded of the Dutch tulip bubble. During the 1630s in the Netherlands, or the United Provinces as the country was known then, tulip bulbs were worth more than their weight in gold. A virus which attacked the bulbs resulted in exotic stripes or ‘flames’ on petals, and a single rare bulb could cost three times the annual wage of a skilled artisan or even the price of an elegant house in Amsterdam. This was a period of intense political and religious intrigue in Europe. Spain was heavily involved in the Thirty Years War to regain Flanders; Pope Urban VIII was outwardly supporting Spain while conspiring to limit the size and power of the Holy Roman Empire, to which Habsburg Spain belonged; and France was playing both sides against the middle, harrying Spanish ships and playing double games with Rome. Having lived in the Netherlands I was well acquainted with the tulipmania, and it seemed quite plausible that a character such as Ludo might be employed as an agent provocateur in a conspiracy to undermine the burgeoning Protestant Dutch economy. Charismatic, wily Ludo is fictional, but he serves to show how just one man can create financial mayhem and ruin the lives of humble men and women in the process. Acting on behalf of the Spanish monarch and a Vatican cardinal, Ludo encourages and facilitates speculation on tulip bulbs.

The conspiracy theory behind Ludo’s actions is unproven, but the tulip bubble was very well documented at the time. Contemporary reports and records of sales transactions demonstrate the outrageous escalating prices paid up to 1637, when the bubble burst.

The question is why did otherwise sober, thrifty Dutch men and women engage in what was basically gambling with flowers that for most of the year could not even be seen? The answer lies in a combination of factors overshadowed by the knowledge that Death was quite literally on their doorstep.

Amsterdam in 1635 was a thriving city driven by what we call the ‘work ethic’. Frippery and ostentation were frowned upon, so what could people who by their very thrift have acquired surplus income spend their money on? It had to be something that was not a visible luxury. Some people became patrons to up and coming artists, some became tulip connoisseurs. These exotic flowers, introduced into Holland from the land of the infidel, were defined as a ‘connoisseur item’ and were named after famous admirals and towns, and coveted. Within no time, otherwise sensible men and women began gambling on bulbs doubling or tripling their value in the space of a year, a month, a week – by 1636 prices were going up by the day. Men of both the professional and artisan classes, and many women, were spending their entire savings on bulbs, because money must not lie idle, and plague could kill an entire family in the space of one day.

One pamphlet of the time recorded the items and their value which were traded for a single Viceroy bulb. As you read, bear in mind the family of a shoemaker or baker lived on between 250 and 350 guilders* a year.

Item Value
(florins*)
Two lasts of wheat 448
Four lasts of rye 558
Four fat oxen 480
Eight fat swine 240
Twelve fat sheep 120
Two hogsheads of wine 70
Four casks of beer 32
Two tons of butter 192
A complete bed 100
A suit of clothes 80
A silver drinking cup 60
Total 2,500

(Guilders and florins* – the name of the currency used at this time varied from province to province. I opted to use guilders because it is the modern word for the currency.)

At its height, in the early spring of 1637, a Dutch merchant paid 6,650 guilders for a dozen tulip bulbs. Artisans pawned or sold their tools to ‘invest’ – largely thanks to Ludo da Portovenere, who brings bulbs from Constantinople then facilitates a futures market so humble men and women can participate in the fun. Ludo had access to the forbidden city because he was once a Barbary corsair and speaks the language.

As the trilogy progresses, Ludo gradually reveals his identity, or lack of it. His mother, a Doria, daughter of the Doge of Genoa, was captured by corsairs. Ludo was born in the Berber stronghold of Salé and raised by Murat Reïs, a renegade Dutchman named Jan Janszoon, who went into history as the infamous Murat Reïs the Younger, illustrious ancestor of the American Vanderbilt family, Jackie Onassis and Sir Winston Churchill.

In Book 2, A Turning Wind, Ludo moves into the Portuguese Goan spice trade, but he is still pursued by the Vatican agent, Rogelio, who must destroy any evidence of the tulip conspiracy. Rogelio is part of the Vatican Black Order, sinister operatives and secret agents tasked with eliminating those who oppose or threaten the power of Rome. Here again, my background reading supplied much of the story – although this is where I also chose to leave out quite lot. The real history behind the Holy Alliance and the Black Order is hair-raising.

To write this second book I had to read about taxes and tariffs on cargoes from the East, about gems and silks, and secret treaties between England and Spain. Ludo becomes involved in delicate personal missions for two monarchs and sets in motion his vendetta on the Doria clan, who rejected his mother on her return to Liguria and exiled her to the castle in Porto Venere.

Agostino Doria was Doge of Genoa from 1600-1603. His family tree names each of his sons, but there is also an un-named daughter (who became Ludo’s mother). Having lived across the Gulf of La Spezia in Lerici, I knew a fair amount about Porto Venere. Each of the scenes there is written with the place very clearly in mind. Ludo, we learn is illegitimate, he is also ambitious and determined to get recompense for the way his mother was treated by her brothers, which is exactly what would have happened to any woman of ‘gentle birth’ who had been captured by corsairs: she could never hope to make a good marriage after that, her name was sullied.

As the story progresses, Ludo is sent to the Spanish court, which is passing the summer in El Escorial. He has been engaged by Charles Stuart to seek support from Catholic Spain for the coming Civil War in England. He is also charged by King Charles’ wife, the French Henrietta Maria, to help her sister Isabel, Queen of Spain. Both these commissions are based on real, albeit perhaps little-known affairs. During the early 1640s Spanish and English Ambassadors were drawing up a treaty that would enable Spanish troops to cross southern England as a land bridge to Flanders to avoid being attacked by the French. It was a tricky issue, the Protestant English celebrated the failure of Catholic Spain to invade Britain in 1588, the Spanish would not have been welcome, despite the fact that the West Country mainly favoured the Royalists during the subsequent war. Ludo becomes involved in these negotiations, and also in the Spanish queen’s private battle for control over her husband Felipe IV with his valido (First Minister and favourite) the infamous Conde-Duque de Olivares, and his Gorgon of a wife, Inez.

This became another moment where researching documented history uncovered details begging to be turned into fiction. The Conde-Duque was difficult, dangerous and spectacularly ugly. And in each respect, he and his wife were well-matched. Writing scenes involving these two real characters was as entertaining as it was challenging. A lot has been written (in Spanish) about both, so I had to choose my words carefully.

While researching Goa and the uncut-gem trade, I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) while preparing for A Turning Wind. In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India, Tavernier quotes an account supposedly written by Marco Polo of how diamonds were found and traded in the area centuries before. It was too good not to use so I wove it into the opening scene. That, and the ancient ethical origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, created the background for Ludo’s second adventure, via documented history on Portugal and the ambitious Duchess of Braganza. This is where having lived in different countries and travelled pretty widely came in useful too. We had lived near El Escorial in the province of Madrid for a number of years, and I had visited Lisbon, Portugal, on various occasions.

Imagining these places in the past was not difficult, although Lisbon was effectively destroyed during a major earthquake in the 18th century, which made describing the old city rather more creative than factual.

 

Book 3, By Force of Circumstance, was helped along by a visit to a gin distillery in Plymouth (important research here!) and some astonishing facts relating to how Queen Henrietta Maria tried to raise money for Charles Stuart during the English Civil War. On a more serious level, one of the main themes in the trilogy shows how decisions made in high places can have appalling consequences for ordinary members of society. What happens to the main characters, Ludo, Alina and Marcos, is determined by a conflict not of their making, in a country not their own. Their efforts to safeguard their families was probably little different to what real people in their social circumstances experienced.

To write this part of the story I needed to find out what happened to certain gems, brooches, necklaces and pearl-studded hatbands belonging to the English Crown Jewels. Queen Henrietta Maria’s attempts to sell and pawn these royal heirlooms was well documented at the time, although a few, including the spinel clasp named The Three Brethren, did go astray. What Ludo does with the jewels is largely my invention, but a Portuguese Catholic princess did marry an English monarch so to an extent I was only playing with facts. It became a matter of ‘what if . . .’ combined with Ludo’s capacity for mischief.

This final story takes Ludo back Porto Venere. The name derives from a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus. I’d had the final scene of the trilogy in mind for a very long time, but writing it brought tears to my eyes. Ludo and Alina had become real people for me.

You can read more about the origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, Tavernier’s description of how men used eagles to acquire diamonds from pythons, and about the missing items belonging to the English Crown Jewels here in this blog.

Each of the books in The Chosen Man Trilogy is a Readers’ Favorite 5*. If you have enjoyed the stories, please leave a review on your retailer’s site.

 

 

 

 

The Chosen Man Trilogy completed!

Mission accomplished! The trilogy I promised Penmore Press is now complete. It’s exciting, and I will admit to a considerable sense of satisfaction, but there’s also to a sense of loss: I shall miss my voyages with Ludo. I shall also miss doing the research behind each story; it was both enjoyable and enlightening. Each of the books involved a good deal of background reading and investigation despite being based on topics familiar to me and set in places I know.
To give you an idea of what I have learned while writing the trilogy here are a few details on how each story began and what I needed to know about before I could actually start.

The Chosen Man – Tulips, Vatican intrigue and a financial scandal

The first Ludo story was inspired by a combination of two events; one very real with devastating financial consequences, the other un-real, other-worldly, when I ‘saw’ people during a visit to Cotehele in Cornwall (while preparing for another book altogether). Cotehele, a National Trust property on the River Tamar, became the fictional house Crimphele, then the story-line fell into place as I watched news coverage of the Lehman Brothers and mortgage scandals in the USA. I had lived in the Netherlands, was acquainted with the tulip bubble, and it seemed quite plausible that a character such as Ludo (the infamous ancestor of Leo Kazan in The Empress Emerald) might be employed as an agent provocateur acting for Habsburg Spain and, supposedly, for Rome. After fitting these elements together, I then had to learn some hard facts behind ‘tulip mania’ and some of the vaguer, barely credible history behind Vatican espionage and secret agents. It took a good two years to write The Chosen Man, fortunately reviews show it was all worthwhile.

A Turning Wind – Gems, Snakes and Ladders and the Queen of Spain

A long, long time ago I had a gap year job in a jewellery and antique shop, it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I learnt a lot and it helped greatly while preparing notes for A Turning Wind. During my research, I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689). In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India, Tavernier quotes an account supposedly written by Marco Polo of how diamonds were found and traded in the area centuries before. It was too good not to use so I wove it into the opening scene. That, and the ancient ethical origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, created the background for Ludo’s second adventure, via documented history on Portugal and the ambitious Duchess of Braganza, and a little known, unrealized treaty between Charles 1st and Felipe IV of Spain. Having spent many years living near El Escorial, the scenes set there with the infamous Conde-Duque de Olivares and Velazquez were easy to write.

By Force of Circumstance (2019).- The English Civil War, Barbary corsairs, Doria family secrets and Portovenere

One of my aims while writing this trilogy was to show how decisions made in high places can have appalling consequences for ordinary members of society. This story in particular shows how one’s personal destiny can be determined by events far beyond one’s control. The over-riding circumstance here is a civil war. What happens to Ludo, Alina and Marcos is determined by a conflict not of their making in a country not their own and their efforts to safeguard their families. Regrettably, it is something many readers can relate to nowadays.
What I specifically needed to learn about for this book, though, was what happened to certain gems belonging to the English Crown Jewels. Queen Henrietta Maria’s attempts to sell and pawn exquisite necklaces, hatbands and brooches – royal heirlooms – was well documented at the time, although a few, including the famous spinel clasp named The Three Brethren, did go astray. What Ludo does with the gems is largely my invention, but a Portuguese Catholic princess did marry an English monarch so to an extent I was only playing with facts. All I really had to do was say, ‘What if . . .’ and combine it with Ludo’s capacity for mischief.
This final story takes Ludo back to Portovenere in Liguria, Italy – a place I have visited many times. The name derives from a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus; and there’s a Doria castle there too. Agustin, the Doria Doge of Genoa of the epoch, had a daughter, she is un-named in the Doria family tree but she may have lived there. Barbary corsairs constantly raided the Ligurian coast – so again, what if . . .?
And that brings Ludo’s adventures to an end, although he does have two impish daughters who might well set to sea in a galleon named ‘Tulip’ in the not too distant future.

If you would like to know more about some of the history mentioned here you will find it here in my blog.

Ancient Iberia

As part of my ‘places in the past’ series, guest author Glenn Bauer has written a fascinating post on why he writes about ancient Iberia.

Iberia, cradle of heroes

A couple of weeks ago, Jane kindly invited me to explain why I was motivated to write about Iberia. There was the obvious explanation of Iberia is where Hannibal Barca stepped into his father’s sandals, but that was not the whole reason or even a large part of it. Why Iberia? To help explain my motives, I should start with a very short summary of the Sons of Iberia series, which is of course set primarily in Iberia.

I self-published the first title, Warhorn – Sons of Iberia, in 2013 and the fourth will be available in the Spring of 2019. The series is set during the 2nd Punic War which was fought between Carthage and Rome between 218BC and 202BC.

The central characters are native Iberians, the people who were caught between two empires, one old and mercantile, the other young and martial.

You might know this war from tales of Hannibal Barca leading his elephants across the Alps, splitting great boulders with fire and vinegar, and the crushing defeats he inflicted on Rome. Fewer readers will know that this war was sparked by a minor conflict at the walls of an Iberian city made rich by trade and home to a large population of Greeks.

This city was named Saguntum and exists now as Sagunto, a small town just a half hour’s drive to the north of modern-day Valencia. Today, a more recent castle complex guards the long hill on which Saguntum once stood. In exploring the history of Saguntum, known as Arse by the native Iberians, it becomes evident that the people of Iberia experienced successive waves of immigrants washing up on their eastern shore and migrating from north of the Pyrenees. From the diaspora of the people of Troy to the expansion of Phoenician trade colonies, there was an inexorable growth in interaction which benefited the Iberians and the newcomers.

The Iberians of old, were tribal people and regrettably very little is known about them as they did not appear to have developed writing until after contact with Phoenicians and Greeks. What little we do know, is thanks in large part to the ancient historians Livy and Polybius who documented the 2nd Punic War. We know the Latinised names of the tribes such as the Bastetani (South East), the Turdetani (South) and Illergete (North East). Of all the tribes, the most enduring appear to be the Vascones whose principal town, Iruna, is the site of modern-day Pamplona. The Vascones appeared to have managed to thrive and expand and from them derive today’s Basque people.

Modern archaeology has also contributed to our knowledge with unearthed ruins and artifacts that bare testimony to a people who valued art, built with stone and were talented metalsmiths.

All this is grist to the mill for a writer and if you consider the dearth of contemporary English literature set in ancient Iberia, makes for a compelling reason to write a series of books set on the peninsula.

While the ancient people of Iberia are long gone, their land remains largely unchanged and just as dramatic. The river Tagus which flows a thousand kilometers across Spain and Portugal to the Atlantic from its wellspring in the Fuente de García. The wild coast of the Costa Brava. The moon-like Bardenas Reales. Interesting local settings are vital in creating depth and atmosphere in any tale and from the beautiful blue coastal waters of the Mediterranean to the high mountains of the Pyrenees, Iberia offers a palette of landscapes in which countless deeds of heroism wait to unfold.

The varied Iberian landscape is complemented by an abundance of fauna and flora. Even today, centuries after the industrialization of farming, Portugal and Spain still boast many species that have gone extinct elsewhere in Europe. One such species is the Great Bustard, one of the heaviest flying birds alive and a species that was hunted to extinction in England, the last specimen being shot in 1832. A project to reintroduce Great Bustards to Wiltshire, England began in 2004 and in 2014, fifty-four fertilized eggs were imported from Spain which has the largest pool of these marvelous birds in Europe.

Other wonderful creatures that still roam the wilds of Iberia include the endangered Iberian lynx, brown bear, and Spanish Ibex. The Iberian lynx often features in Sons of Iberia and I begin the series through the eyes of a lynx.

“She would need to move soon despite having just given birth. The mountains were dangerous with winter-hungry wolves. The scent of the afterbirth could easily draw these powerful foes to her newborn. She was young and strong but would be no match for such a pack.”

To experience nature such as the ancient Iberians might have, there are fortunately many incredible nature reserves and protected areas such as the Doñana National Park in southern Spain, a huge swathe of wetlands that offers sanctuary to hundreds of thousands of migratory birds.

In conclusion, Iberia and its people were pivotal in the 2nd Punic War and yet so little is told of the Iberian people or how the war was fought there. For me, the opportunity to give a voice to an ancient people in the settings gifted by the Iberian Peninsula was one I could not decline.

Glenn Bauer – Sources and links:

Sons of Iberia on Amazon:     http://bit.ly/JGlennBauer_AllTitles_UK

Great Bustard Group: http://greatbustard.org/

Doñana National Park :          https://www.miteco.gob.es/es/red-parques-nacionales/nuestros-parques/donana/#section

Domus dels Peixos–An archaeological museum in Sagunto: http://www.ceice.gva.es/va/web/patrimonio-cultural-y-museos/museo-arqueologico-de-sagunto

Titus Livy–The History of Rome:        http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/3707

Author J. Glenn Bauer:           https://www.jglennbauer.co.uk/

 

A Tribute to Daphne du Maurier

It is 80 years now since Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was first released. Back in 1938, du Maurier’s publishers were nervous about the novel’s future, but the story has become a classic: a world-wide favourite, a play, a television series, even an iconic black and white movie. For a while, back in the 90s, new editions of du Maurier’s novels were hard to obtain, but with the recent film version of My Cousin Rachel she is very much back in the public eye.

Which is as it should be, because Daphne du Maurier was a very accomplished novelist.

Despite her success, du Maurier would probably make a modern publisher nervous, too. She did not, or would not, stick to one genre. Worse: she wrote books that were the antithesis of best sellers. The Glass-blowers (a fictionalised version of her French family history) was written in direct opposition to the hugely popular Scarlet Pimpernel and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. In this novel it is the skilled artisan not the aristocrat who takes centre stage: the novel tells not of heroes but of ordinary people striving to survive and make a future for their children during the French Revolution. And this, I think, is why many new readers are being drawn to du Maurier’s fiction. Despite Hollywood casting’s best efforts to the contrary, her protagonists are real people. They are ordinary men and women confused by events, over-awed by more glamourous or charismatic people around them, caught up in situations beyond their control. They may triumph in the end, but it is never a certain or perfect ending.

We may not be like the timid heroine of Rebecca or Rachel’s doubting, bewitched young man, we aren’t the frightened girl in Jamaica Inn or the bored wife in Frenchman’s Creek, but we understand their worries and motivations. Hungry Hill includes extra-ordinary events, but what happens is grounded in normal family life.

Reading the Glass-blowers recently, I was struck by this, and the simple wisdom in the story. Du Maurier understands the difficulties her characters face. Like real people (like us) they may present one facet of their personality to the world, but underneath, inside, they are much more complex. As was du Maurier herself.

There is also a sense that no matter how fantastical or exciting the plot, and most stories are page-turners, there is something very ‘lived’ in each book. Du Maurier was classified as a Romantic Novelist, and I’m not belittling romantic fiction, far from it, but the sum of her writing goes well beyond that genre description. In an article on the anniversary of Rebecca in the Guardian (23rd February, 2018) the writer Olivia Laing says:

‘What really startled (du Maurier) was that everyone seemed to think she’d written a romantic novel. She believed Rebecca was about jealousy, and that all the relationships in it – including the marriage between De Winter and his shy second wife – were dark and unsettling. (“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” hardly betokened love between equals.) The idea had emerged out of her own jealousy about the woman to whom her husband, Tommy “Boy” Browning, had briefly been engaged. She had looked at their love letters, and the big elegant “R” with which Jan Ricardo signed her name had made her painfully aware of her own shortcomings as a woman and a wife.’

Many of du Maurier’s books address the past like this, they take on our concerns and confusions related to ‘what happened when’. Her writing examines what Laing calls the ‘oddities of time’. Regarding these ‘oddities of time’, I remember with absolute clarity reading the time-slip novel The House on the Strand during the course of a family Christmas day. The paperback transported me out of a modern household into an ancient house on a tidal reach, out of the 20th century into the 14th century. Listening to the story on the radio some months ago, I was taken back to those three time periods: that Christmas day and the two epochs in the novel. Some weeks later I picked up a battered hardback of My Cousin Rachel and remembered worrying about the laburnum seeds in our garden. I have now re-read most of du Maurier’s novels. On each occasion, opening the first page I have a clear vision of a place and/or moment in the story, and how it affected me the first time I read it. I remember reading the end of Frenchman’s Creek during the last lesson of a rainy Friday afternoon when I was about 16 – I remember feeling the tears on my cheeks. The teacher confiscated the book, naturally. I’ve read that story twice since then, and each time I’ve seen something new in it; I relate to something I hadn’t recognized before, but each time I have been taken back to that classroom. It is a curious experience. A good historical fiction author can take a reader back in time in the space of a paragraph, but I wonder how many can mark their readers for life like this.

Was du Maurier aware that she had this skill, this gift to transport readers through time and into other lives? I don’t know. Accounts of her own life tell of a troubled woman at odds with her gender and circumstances; a woman trapped in a troubled marriage with a man who had a breakdown because he was having two extra-marital affairs simultaneously. She is often linked to the house named Menabilly on the Cornish coast, where she apparently went to escape the real world.

Big houses, full of private tragedies and secret histories, feature in many of her novels. Looking at photographs of Menabilly I wonder if that house stands as a metaphor for her fiction – as full of conflicting emotions, versions of the past and fantasies as the house on the strand. Such thoughts and ideas are only suggested, it is up to each reader to interpret them of course, and as in real life we interpret them according to our own way of thinking and personal experiences. Readers bring their own baggage to any book.

Not all is what it seems in du Maurier’s novels, though, and they can’t be limited by a genre label. “Don’t look now,” we are told in that famous story about grieving parents in Venice, but if and when you do, you will find something disturbing, a theme that is both honest yet fantastical. For me, du Maurier’s novels are like a haunted room full not of ghosts but of real lives from the past – and the present.

This post first appeared in the Discovering Diamonds blog: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/search?q=A+Tribute+to+Daphne+Du+Maurier

© J.G. Harlond

 

 

A Cornish backwater near Jamaica Inn.

 

Horses in Historical Fiction 2: Making journeys in the past

Making long journeys on horseback

A number of people have asked me now about how far a horse can go in a day. The simple answer is: ‘that depends’.

It depends on the age and skill of the rider, the age, type and fitness of the horse, and the terrain they have to cover.

Healthy, well-trained horses entered in modern long-distance races, sometimes called endurance races (for a very good reason) can cover up to 100 miles in a day. The favoured breed is the Arabian, but while the type of breed matters, it’s the training that is important. Each mount has to be prepared for these distances over a long period of time, and this includes getting used to eating hard fodder at different times of the day, which many horses do not or will not do.

In the wild, equines graze for most of the day and night; kept in stables they become accustomed to eating and drinking water at certain times of the day. Breaking that routine with stabled horses can lead to colic. Horses that are being prepared for long distances need not only to have excellent physical stamina and good leg bones, they need to learn to feed and drink on a completely different basis.

Basically, this means if you have characters in a book covering long distances you need to take into account that horses are not machines. They also lose shoes and go lame, which can slow a journey if not bring it to a halt altogether. Here are three sample questions on this topic with my answers:

Q: My characters hire livery horses to cross open territory to get to a remote village, taking about four days on the journey. One character is an excellent horseman but the rest have limited experience. They take their food, equipment and weapons. What do I also need to mention or include?

Your characters will need to hire sound, sturdy horses at the livery stable – cross breeds probably. Do not include any mention of English Thoroughbreds, they are not well-suited to rough terrain. Each horse will need its own properly fitting saddle and bridle, plus a head collar with a rope line and/or hobbles. Ill-fitting saddles can cause a lot of damage: the wrong size bit can destroy the animal’s mouth and make it unresponsive or downright difficult. Your group should also hire at least one pack mule for their equipment, and they may need to take fodder for their horses as well, unless they are crossing lush terrain. Think about water, too: horses can survive a day without food, but not without water. Remember that one person will have to have the mule’s leading rein, so it doesn’t try to run back home.

If your group are travelling for four days and there is no great haste, one mount per person, plus a pack mule should be all right, but a spare mount would be useful in case one of the horses loses a shoe or steps in a rabbit hole, which happens surprisingly easily. Horses stumble and ‘twist their ankles’ much the same as we do. They have numerous small bones in the foot and hock and can go lame for a while. The hock area may swell up, but then the beast may recover after a rest.

What sort of horses do you need for a long journey? Does gender matter? Gender doesn’t matter as long as no stallion is present. A stallion is easily distracted by a mare; if she’s in season he can become uncontrollable. Some, (but not all) stallions also challenge or try to attack geldings, this can include biting and striking out with front legs. Geldings are generally more reliable, but mares and geldings can be equally difficult depending on age and temperament. I have an aging gelding with an appalling imagination: he’s quite capable of seeing mortal danger in the flight of a bird or a falling leaf if the mood takes him, or if it’s a windy day. High winds confuse horses’ olfactory and auditory signals. Mares can often get awkward when they come into season.

I’ve read that horses don’t need as much sleep as we do and that a mini herd takes turns sleeping throughout the night. Could my characters sleep through the night knowing that horse is on guard against predators and will alert them?

Horses, being prey animals are always on guard. They can sleep standing up using a bone-locking device so, if necessary, they can make a quick getaway. This means they are often dozing on the hoof and from a distance it looks as if they are awake. Most horses only lie down to sleep if they feel very safe in their surroundings. They might be unsettled in strange terrain and more restless if there are predators around. I’m not sure about individuals taking turns to be on guard in a herd, but I think your human characters need to take shifts to stay alert during the night in open country.

A common way to hobble horses in the past, and still used in rural areas of Spain, is to tie the front legs together at the hock so they can move sufficiently while grazing but not trot or gallop, so they can’t get very far. Tying horses to trees or lines as they do in the movies is unreliable because they can break their tethers if they choose to. A horse tied to a tree can break its reins, bridle or head collar very easily – I’ve seen it done more than once. Smarter horses can rub their heads against the tree to get out of bridles and head collars, too. I had a mare who could get herself out of just about anything except her saddle.

Remember that while horses are usually gentle and willing, they do have immense strength when need be. You also need to take into account that restless horses can be very hard to tack up and they make each other nervous.

As to distances, here is a general guide to equine miles per hour, but please remember, horses are sprinters; keeping up fast pace for a long period can tax or even destroy the healthiest animal. The rest depends on the age and condition of the horse, its load and the rider.

Walk: 4 mph

Trot: 8 to 12 mph

Canter: 12 to 15 mph

Gallop: 25 to 30 mph

A final word: these blog posts are written from my personal experience of a life-time caring for and training horses. If you go to other on-line sources you may find conflicting or differing information.

JGH

Málaga, 5th November, 2018