Benjamin Franklin House

benjamin-franklin-house1A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to take an architectural tour around the Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street. A delicious little Georgian townhouse hidden off the Strand, it is full of wonderful period features.

I have to admit, I knew very little about Franklin before attending the tour. Obviously I knew about his experiment with lightning and his involvement with the Declaration of Independence, but that was about the sum of my knowledge. The visit really piqued my interest; Franklin was a man at the center of diplomacy who lived through an astonishing time. Part spy, part scientist, diplomat, inventor and philosopher, he was a fascinating man. Franklin lived in London for nearly sixteen years in his role as Postmaster for American, returning home in 1775 with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Sadly, his Craven Street house is the last of his residences to survive.

I have visited many Grade II listed buildings, but Benjamin Franklin House tops the bill at Grade I – a place of exceptional interest to our heritage. The restoration project completed to bring the house up to its present condition was a huge undertaking. Fortunately for us, lots of love and devotion have rescued the place from dereliction and you can now see a genuine example of an everyday Georgian townhouse.

imagesI say ‘everyday’ – in fact, it seems 36 Craven Street was far from ordinary! Not only did you have Franklin lodging there with his experiments and important dinners, but there was an anatomy school running downstairs. A collection of bones found during conservation were on display, from where the school had practiced cutting up bodies – either obtained from the gallows or the resurrection men! I rather feel for the poor landlady, Margaret Stevenson, with such strange lodgers, but it seems she rather enjoyed her eccentric household.

One of my favourite parts of the tour was a chance to play Franklin’s famous glass armonica. You can get some seriously spooky sounds from this instrument, but also great music – Mozart and Beethoven both composed pieces for it. My musical skills were sadly lacking – still, I had fun!

glassHopefully I will be returning to Benjamin Franklin House later this year to take part in their Historical Experience. Through this attraction, the house is brought to life in its Georgian splendour. Actors read excerpts from Franklin’s writing and recreate every day scenes from the house. Using light projectors, the interior is returned to something like its original decoration, immersing you in the smells, sights and sounds of the era. I can’t wait!

You can find out more about Benjamin Franklin House here.

Life Mask

Elizabeth Farren

Elizabeth Farren

It’s time for another Georgian book review! I’ve been reading a lot lately, so I thought I would share with you my thoughts about Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask.

I was drawn to the book, not only but its eighteenth/nineteenth century setting, but the fact that one of the heroines was Elizabeth Farren. I grew interested in Elizabeth after seeing her spectacular portrait at a Thomas Lawrence exhibition. The catalogue explained that she was a famous actress who went on to become a Duchess. How could such a fairy-tale fail to capture my imagination? I was also interested to learn that Elizabeth was a great comic actress, a rival to Dora Jordan. Jordan’s long-term relationship with the Duke of Clarence, late William IV, has ensured her prolonged fame, but Elizabeth Farren has disappeared into some obscurity.

In Life Mask, Emma Donoghue brings Elizabeth to life as determined and proud character. We learn that her life was far from easy as she forged a path for herself from a poor background. Through all her trials, she is shown as guarding her hard-won reputation with jealousy. She keeps the Duke she will eventually marry at arm’s-length until he is single, defying the contemporary stereotype of actresses with loose-morals. Through Elizabeth, we get to explore the world of the eighteenth-century theater in all its bawdy glory, braving rowdy audiences and meeting some of the leading lights of the age. Donoghue shows that Elizabeth could be ruthless and was prepared to sacrifice friendships for the sake of her career. But in spite of, or perhaps because of that, I rather liked her.

Life Mask is not written entirely from Elizabeth Farren’s point of view. One of the narrators is the Duke of Derby, her future husband. His part of the story provides a fascinating insight into Georgian life and politics, especially the expectations on the Georgian man. Although Derby was caricatured for being short and ugly, his wealth and status ensured him a good position in society. He is represented as a man of his time, taking us into the bloody world of cock fights and the fast-paced arena of horse-racing. What appealed to me most about Donoghue’s portrayal of Derby was his state of flux – at once a reformer and an aristocrat, he often finds himself in a difficult position. Doggedly loyal to the Whig Charles James Fox, he is nonetheless jealous of his ancestral rights. It was interesting, from my perspective, to see the inner workings of the Whig party. After spending my time studying Pitt and George III, I got the chance to sit in the other side of the camp, where they were referred to as ‘the Eunuch’ and ‘Old Satan’. I have to say, I came to understand Fox and his party much better. Derby’s political sympathies appeal to the reader and his devotion to Elizabeth is touching. While he is shown as being somewhat harsh to his first wife and indifferent to his children, this romantic worship of an actress rather wins us to his side.

Elizabeth Farren by Anne Seymour Damer

Elizabeth Farren by Anne Seymour Damer

The star of this show, however, has to be the sculptress Anne Seymour Damer. A widow, estranged from her husband before his death, she has grown used to governing her own life. She is first introduced to us as she befriends Elizabeth and begins work on her bust for display at the Royal Academy. However, as the story progresses, we find that the Life Mask of the title is the mask that Anne is wearing, hiding her progressive attitudes from the world. Somewhat outcast by her single state and daring to enter the realm of the arts, Anne focuses her life on sculpture and friendships. Sadly, these friendships begin to fall away before distressing gossip. She has to re-evaluate all the relationships she has known and come to terms with the fact that the rumours about her could be true. Her struggle provides a wonderful exploration of the female state and sexuality in the eighteenth-century, covering such diverse topics as intense friendships through to the legal nonentity of a wife. It is only towards the end of the story that Anne is finally able to embrace what she truly is and live the life she wants, in spite of society. She is helped along in her journey by the blue-stocking Mary Berry and Horace Walpole.

I have to admit that Donoghue made rather too much use of her research in this book. I did feel like I was being hammered with facts at times. There were parts that dragged for me and, had I not been interested in the period to start with, may have made me give up reading. Much could have been edited, however the excellence of Donoghue’s writing shines through in some truly beautiful phrasing. What is more, she makes you truly interested in the lives of the people she writes about. I was keen to do my own research and find out more about the real historical figures straight after reading. I particularly enjoyed her representation of Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill. I am now very eager to visit his Gothic mansion and see some of the scenes from the book with my own eyes.

On the whole, I would say that perhaps Life Mask does not work as a novel – I would struggle to tell you the story or the plot. It meanders and does not compel you in the way a novel should. Nonetheless, it is a great piece of creative biographical writing, and one I think her subjects would be very flattered by.

9781844081752

Caroline and George

caroline-of-brandenburgThe relationship between George II and his Queen, Caroline of Ansbach, was far from simple. The love they shared is hardly the stuff that dreams are made of – she manipulated him; he cheated on and humiliated her. And yet this partnership was the most successful of the Hanoverian dynasty, ending only with Caroline’s death after thirty-two years of marriage. In the spirit of Valentine’s day, I thought I would dwell on the romantic aspects of their love. There are many sweet anecdotes, not to mention George’s famous love letters.

Their story starts off like a fairy-tale. Caroline was a beautiful, orphaned princess growing up under the protection of George’s aunt, nicknamed Figuelotte. Figuelotte wanted Caroline to wed her own son, but the princess was not keen on the young man. As fame of Caroline’s beauty and intellect spread, she attracted many suitors, among them Archduke Charles of Austria. But the right marriage came in the most unlikely form.

406073_151546_LPR_0_0In June 1705, Caroline received three unexpected visitors: Baron von Eltz, his servant and Monsieur de Busch. They stopped, supposedly, on their way back to Hanover, to present compliments from the Hanoverian Chief Minister. But in fact, ‘Monsieur de Busch’ was George Augustus in disguise. He came to spy on the princess he had heard so much about and see if she was as agreeable as everyone said. She was – George was instantly smitten. From then on ‘he would not think of anybody else’. He ran back home and told his father he wanted to marry Caroline. The proposals were made immediately, George being ‘seized with such an affection and desire for her, that he is most eager to marry her without delay.’ The ceremony took place on 2 September, just three months after the initial meeting of Caroline and ‘Monsieur de Busch’.

In February 1707, Caroline produced her first child, the desired son and heir, Frederick. But her health remained poor following the birth. By July she had come down with smallpox and pneumonia – a deadly combination. The distraught George refused to leave her side, nursing her through the illness and finally contracting it himself.This sacrificial devotion served to bring the couple even closer together and, thankfully, they both recovered.

By 1709 a second child was born, Anne. George was away at the time of the birth but wrote Caroline one of his fabulously romantic letters.

I have just received the good news of the birth of a daughter at which  feel all imaginable pleasure… I am only a little bit angry that it caused you pain. You should know me well enough my very dear Caroline to believe that everything that concerns you is infinitely precious to me. This new token of your love attaches me the more deeply to you and I assure you dear heart that I love the baby without having seen it. Adieu my dearest heart, for God’s sake take care of yourself and the young family, particularly the new-born infant who at present has the most need of care. The peace of my life depends upon knowing you in good health and upon the conviction of your continued affection for me. I shall endeavour to attract it by all imaginable passion and love and I shall never omit any way of showing you that o one could be more wholly yours dear Caroline than is your George Augustus.

George would continue to show attention to his wife in her childbearing. In later years, he entered the birthing chamber itself to resolve a quarrel between her ladies and the midwife. And the letters didn’t stop, either. In his memoirs, Lord Hervey recalled couriers arriving weekly with ‘a letter of sometimes sixty pages, never less than forty.’

Caroline was to prove the strength of her attachment to George in 1718, when she was faced with an impossible choice: leaving her husband or her children. She was a fond and good mother, but she said her children were not worth ‘a grain of sand’ in comparison to him. Her sacrifice was rewarded richly by the time she became Queen . She was entrusted with the Regency of Britain on several occasions. George fixed her jointure at £100,000, then made Richmond Lodge and Somerset House over to her. Happily, by this time, she was also reunited with the children.

The last few years of Caroline’s life were not easy ones. Her relationship with George was rocky and he was frequently scolding her. He also sought her advice and opinion on his love affairs, of all things. But all this was forgotten when Caroline collapsed in November 1737. Once again George became the devoted husband, sleeping fitfully at the foot of her bed and kissing her hand repeatedly. This time there was no hope of recovery. The couple’s parting was both touching and comical. To quote from my previous post about Caroline’s death:

Caroline … urged him to marry again. Crying, he said he would have mistresses instead. Still unable to resist a joke, Caroline cried “My God! That never stopped you before.”  But George would stand by his words – he never took another wife. As he explained, he never saw another woman “fit to buckle Caroline’s shoe”. Caroline removed the ruby ring placed on her finger at the coronation and put it in her husband’s hand, saying “This is the last thing I have to give you. All I ever possessed came from you. My will you will find a very short one: I give all I have to you.”

The strength of George’s grief took everyone by surprise. He ‘showed a tenderness of which the world thought him before utterly incapable’. He cried when giving speeches and left drawing rooms early. His daughter Amelia removed the queens from his pack of cards to save his feelings. George was once again ‘Monsieur de Busch’, devoted to his departed wife. In a frenzy almost worth of Wuthering Heights, he ordered a hackney chair to take him to the vault where Caroline was buried and spent hours by her tomb. Then, to end the love story with the romance that it had begun, George wrote down his wishes for his own burial. Not only did he want to be buried next to Caroline, but he ordered for the sides of the coffins to be removed, so that their ashes might mingle. It was a very sweet end to what was, undoubtedly, an extremely strange marriage.

If you want to find out more about George and Caroline, look out for my book Mistress of the Court in August!

Mistress of the Court

A03973(2)I’m very pleased to announce that I now have a date for the second book in my Hanoverian series, Mistress of the Court. The good folk at Myrmidon books will be sending it out into the world on 4 August 2015!

I thought I’d be slightly less excited about the publication of my second book than I was about the first, but this is not the case. As you’ve probably seen from my numerous posts about them, Henrietta Howard and Caroline of Ansbach have become extremely dear to me. I simply can’t wait to introduce them to you in fictionalised form. It seems a very long time ago I was talking about Caroline’s rooms in Hampton Court on television. I feel like I’ve taken a huge journey with these ‘characters’ already, but it’s far from over!

We don’t have a cover yet, but if you would like a visual taster of the world you will enter in Mistress of the Court, please visit my Pinterest board. It’s a work in progress but already has some beautiful images. You can also explore my archives, which discuss Henrietta’s early feminism, Caroline’s quick and vengeful wit, and the gentler side of George II. However I must warn you – they may contain spoilers!

To further whet your appetite, here’s the blurb for the book. Roll on August!

Orphaned and trapped in an abusive marriage, Henrietta Howard has little left to lose. She stakes everything on a new life in Hanover with its royal family, the heirs to the British throne. Henrietta’s beauty and intelligence soon win her the friendship of clever Princess Caroline and her mercurial husband Prince George. But as time passes, it becomes clear that friendship is the last thing on the hot-blooded young prince’s mind. Dare Henrietta give into his advances and anger her violent husband? Dare she refuse?

Whatever George’s shortcomings, Princess Caroline is determined to make the family a success. Yet the feud between her husband and his obstinate father threatens all she has worked for. As England erupts in Jacobite riots, her family falls apart. She vows to save the country for her children – even if it costs her pride and her marriage.

Set in the turbulent years of the Hanoverian accession, Mistress of the Court tells the story of two remarkable women at the centre of George II’s reign.

Henrietta Howard

Henrietta Howard

 

Georgian Reads 2014

Well another year is over, which means there’s a whole new calendar of books to look forward to in 2015! I’m pleased to say I’m seeing more and more releases set in the Georgian era. Here are the best I’ve read over the past year, both fiction and history. Not all of them were published in 2014, but that’s when I read them.

An Appetite for Violets – Martine Bailey

violetsLet’s start with my favourite, the amazing An Appetite for Violets. I don’t think there’s much I can say about it that wasn’t covered in my review earlier this year, but I’ll just stress that it’s a must read for historical fiction fans. The exciting news is that Martine Bailey’s next book, The Penny Heart, (also Georgian) will be out on 21 May 2015. I can’t wait!

Slammerkin – Emma Donoghue

227684Donoghue is clearly a gifted author. Her book Room was listed for the Booker Prize and her Victorian novel The Sealed Letter was additively page-turning. In my eyes, Slammerkin is her best piece of all. Telling the tale of an impoverished Georgian girl who yearns for more than her lot in life, it takes us from the slums of London through to brothels and the wilds of Monmouth. The subject matter may be too shocking for some, but it is compelling and wonderfully written. Highly recommended.

Madame Tussaud – Michelle Moran

8689913I’m cheating a bit with this one – since it’s not set in England, it’s not actually under the reign of a King George, but . . . I really loved this book. I picked it up because I wanted to know more about the famous female artist. I actually got a gripping story of the French Revolution, seen through both sides of the conflict. Horrifying, moving and beautiful in equal measures, the tale captivated me. Moran has a wonder style and I can’t wait to read The Second Empress.

The Devil in the Marshalsea – Antonia Hodgson

23161030

I don’t read many crime/murder mystery books, so I can’t tell you if this was a good specimen of that genre. However, I found this offering by Antonia Hodgson very readable and bursting with Georgian detail. My interest in the Marshalsea was sparked by Little Dorrit, but this book tells the more brutal truth of a corrupt prison split into a master’s side and the common side, where death is all but inevitable. The characters were lively and likeable, particularly the so-called ‘devil’ Fleet. I thought it was a stand-alone when I read it, but now it appears there will be a whole Tom Hawkins series – watch this space!

Longbourn – Jo Baker

17380041It’s always going to be difficult to please die-hard fans when you meddle with a classic. Still, I enjoyed this take on Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view. I think it painted an accurate picture of what life would have been like serving the Bennet household and it had some lovely descriptions of the English countryside. My favourite parts actually had nothing to do with Pride and Prejudice, so I’ll be interested to see what this author can do when not tided to another’s story.

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England – Roy & Lesley Adkins

16158557Non-fiction this time and a real treat. Full of quotes, anecdotes and snapshots from of all walks of life, this is popular history at its highly-readable best.

London in the Eighteenth Century – Jerry White

13153303Wow. This non-fiction book is, quite simply, a masterpiece. I can’t imagine the years it took the research and write, examining every aspect of London life in great detail. While it’s great for the eighteenth-century lover, some readers may find it rather hard going and daunting due to its size. I skipped the section on architecture as it was a bit too dry for me, but the rest was amazing.

The Wideacre Trilogy – Philippa Gregory

WIDEACRE_1291585335PThe oldest of all the books mentioned here, but as I read two out of three of the trilogy during 2014 I had to give them a mention. I hugely enjoyed these dark, mystical and disturbing chronicles of a gentry family in the late 1700s to early 1800s. Some readers might find the amorality and ‘unlikeable’ heroine too unsettling, but I doubt they’ll be able to put the books down! For more, see my post Gregory and the Georgian era.

Lined up for 2015 so far I have more treats such as The Silversmith’s Wife and Ace, King, Knave. And of course my own Mistress of the Court will be out – I don’t have a date yet, but I’ll let you know.

Happy (Georgian) reading!

The Lions of London

Menagerie_LionCubs_Lg_2A little while ago I told you about the inspiration behind my short story for the HNS 2014 conference. As a treat for the New Year, I’m happy to share the tale with you at last. It was a nice change to write about ‘common-folk’ instead of royalty. I do hope you’ll enjoy it. Happy New Year!

The Tower of London, 1713

‘No, Tom, no! Don’t do it!’ Nelly’s shoes skittered over the slick cobbles as she tried to keep pace with her husband’s stride. Her heel turned; she swore under her breath but pushed forward, propelled by the screaming tear of panic beneath her ribs. ‘Stop!’

Her words were lost on the wind that blasted through the London streets and whipped up the flags on the parapets. Their colours stood out vivid against the grey brick and leaden sky: blood red; the blue of a tender vein. Swallowing a wave of nausea, Nelly ran on.

Why had she succumbed to this man? Since their hurried marriage ceremony at the Fleet, she had spent every day in tears. Tears of anger, of sorrow and of shame. His fool, trotting along behind him.

As she entered the bustling Tower Menagerie, Tom’s brown coat faded amidst a swarm of sight-seers. She shoved her way past the tittering ladies with their milk-white skin, the young bucks who slapped her rump. Well-bred children pointed her out to their nurses. On a normal day, Nelly would stop and give them an earful for their sauce. But the thought of Scamp kept her feet moving.

Her lungs heaved beneath her stays; the constricting whalebone fingers that Tom had made. She sucked in breath but the air was foul, tainted by dung and sickly sweet hay. God damn it, she’d never reach him like this. Kicking off her heels, she continued in her stockings. The cobbles were cold and damp against the soles of her feet. A piece of rough darning pressed into her little toe as she sped along. The crowd cleared; she saw Tom and the precious bundle within his arms. Her heart lurched.

‘Tom!’ she shrieked. ‘Tom, stop! Please!’

Scamp raised his head at the sound of her voice. Those soft eyes, the silken ears; her only comforts through a loveless marriage. Somehow she found the strength to accelerate. She drew up alongside them, her skirts bellying in the wind. ‘Tom!’

He didn’t turn. ‘I’ve warned you before, Nell. You knew this would happen.’

A keeper in a scarlet coat approached and stopped them with a raised arm. ‘It’s thruppence to see the beasts, sir. Unless . . .’ He caught sight of tiny Scamp, huddled against Tom’s chest. A look passed between the men. Tom nodded, once. The keeper stepped away.

‘No!’ Nelly howled. ‘You can’t do this. He’s done nothing wrong.’ It didn’t sound like her voice at all; wrung from the depths of her chest.

Tom forged ahead. ‘Look at my shoes,’ he said. Her eyes flicked to the floor. There was a ragged hole by his heel that let the water in. The latchets hung useless and threadbare, trailing in the puddles. ‘We can’t afford a new pair.’

‘I’ll take in more work. I’ll – ’

‘It’s not just the shoes.’ Scamp writhed in his arms, letting out a pitiful whimper. ‘Pissing on my newspaper. Scratching up the wood. Barking all bloody night so I can barely sleep.’

Nelly’s throat constricted. It was as if one of the snakes had escaped from its hut and was squeezing her tight. Words stampeded through her mind, but she knew none of them would persuade him. Tom didn’t care that Scamp was the only remnant of her dead family. It didn’t signify to him that she had raised Scamp from a pup, been there when his eyes opened. Tears spilled, hot against her frozen cheeks. ‘Please. He’s all I have.’

The corner of his mouth twisted cruelly. ‘I am all you have. Perhaps when this rat is out of the way you’ll be a proper wife. Bear me a child. A boy to take over the stay-making business.’

Somewhere inside the grey labyrinth of courtyards and towers, a wolf released its mournful wail.

Scamp looked to her with a melting appeal. ‘Good boy,’ she whispered, watching his tail thump against Tom’s arm. ‘Good boy, Scamp, don’t you worry.’

How easily the lies slid off her tongue. He had every reason to worry. They had reached the destination Tom promised would come: the Lion Tower. Whining, Scamp scrabbled his paws and tried to climb over Tom’s shoulder, but a swift jerk to the tail brought him down again.

A thick, meaty stench overpowered Nelly the moment they entered the tower. The hair on her arms prickled. She could sense the prowling beasts; their snorts and the grumbles echoing in their deep-barrelled chests.

They made their way by a strange, soupy light, passing other visitors on their way back out. Nelly heard the restless tick of claws on concrete, but she kept her eyes fixed on Scamp. His wet nose, the way his ears twitched. These were the last moments. She had to drink in every beloved feature before . . . She shut her eyes, squeezing out fresh tears. She couldn’t leave him, but how could she bear to watch?

‘Here she is,’ Tom said. ‘Magnificent.’

Her eyelids snapped open. They were in a long, stone room lit by arrow-slits. The floor was polished wood, adding the honey scent of beeswax to the animal musk. Cages were set into the wall like cabinets. One side of each opened out to the public, striped with rusty iron bars. Nelly exhaled in wonder. She had never seen anything like it. Jewel-coloured parrots hopped and whistled. A monkey sat, carefully picking through its mate’s fur. Two ladies stood close to the cage and marvelled at the animal’s deft fingers. But Tom had not stopped by the monkeys. He was further up the room, looking at something with frank admiration. Nelly took three paces forward. Her guts withered.

A lioness lay long and sleek on the straw. Muscle rippled beneath her wheaten coat. Light fell through the bars in blades, accentuating her dark, soulless eyes, the whiskers that twitched at the scent of meat. Her head alone was bigger than Nelly’s torso.

‘Oh Tom!’ She dropped onto her knees, careless of the dirt. The ladies turned to stare at her. ‘You cannot!’

Tom held Scamp aloft, sizing up the gaps between the bars. ‘How do you like this, my pretty?’ he asked the lioness. ‘A tasty morsel for you.’ She shifted a paw. Nelly saw her deadly claws slowly emerge from their sheaths.

‘Oh, God!’ she sobbed. ‘Have pity! Slit his throat first! Don’t let her tear him limb from limb!’

Tom swallowed. His eyes flashed, wary, as he approached the lioness. Her lip curled back. Suddenly, the gaps between the bars seemed very wide.

Nelly shuffled across the floor and gripped Tom’s breeches. ‘Please! Let a neighbour take him. Turn him out on the street. Anything but this!’ She aimed a beseeching look at the ladies. Their painted faces were beautiful but blank. ‘Miss! Please. Won’t you help me?’

The lioness revealed the ivory spikes of her teeth. Scamp yipped. The parrots echoed his sound, throwing it down the room like a ball. Squealing, the ladies bustled out. A pair of cowardly milk-sops, for all their silk petticoats.

Tom sniggered. ‘Come now, Nell. If we don’t feed him to the beast, we’ll have to pay that three pence entrance fee, won’t we?’

‘Tom!’ She tugged so hard on his breeches, she was sure they would come down. Hatred lit her from the inside. ‘How can you be so cruel? If you do this, I’ll despise you for the rest of my life. I swear it. And I will never give you a son.’

He paused. Shadows expanded and shrank in the half-light. His eyes passed from Nelly to Scamp and back again. The lioness flicked her tail, scattering flies. ‘Perhaps . . .’

Nelly flinched as liquid dripped onto her hand. Instinctively, she released Tom and looked up. Scamp quivered uncontrollably. A yellow trickle wound its way across Tom’s shirt, down his legs, to dribble on the floor.

‘Blast your eyes, cur!’ Tom’s face scrunched and turned beetroot. ‘It’s the lion’s den for you.’

‘No!’ Nelly lunged but Tom was too quick. Seizing Scamp by the scruff, he darted forward and pushed the dog’s head between the bars. Before the lioness could react, he flung Scamp and rushed away.

Horror held Nelly paralysed. Scamp flew, a sailing cloud of white and tan. As the lioness turned her head, he landed sprawled out in the cage with a thump.

She wanted to cover her eyes, to run for help, but she was powerless. She could only gape, transfixed, as Scamp stood and shook himself. In one liquid movement, the lioness rose to her feet.

‘Now watch carefully, Nell. See what happens to those who cross me.’

Hunching her shoulders, the lioness slunk toward Scamp. He moaned. His pink tongue darted across his lips as he shifted from one foot to the other. Crescents of white showed around his chocolate eyes.

‘Scamp!’

A deep rumble vibrated through the air. The lioness circled him, each twist tighter and tighter. This was it. Nelly drove her fingernails into the palms of her hands. She would never forgive Tom. Never.

Suddenly, the lioness lurched, thumping a paw either side of Scamp. He let out a sound like a human scream. The monkeys shrieked and banged against the bars. Nelly shut her eyes, bracing herself.

There was no sickening tear of flesh, no pitiful wail. Instead, she heard a soft bump and a groan. Lapping. A wet sound of mastication. Blessed God, the lioness had dispatched him quickly. There could not have been much pain.

Trembling, Nelly raised her eyelids. She was prepared for gushing blood, the body of her precious pet twisted at an angle – but not for this. What she saw made her gasp.

The lioness lay on her stomach with Scamp curled between her front paws. Alive. Slowly, methodically, she licked his coat until it stood up in wet spikes. Like a bitch with its pup she cleaned his nose, his eyes and his ears.

Tom staggered back. ‘What the devil? This is a lioness, isn’t it?’ He dashed to the corner and rummaged in a slop bucket. Producing a handful of offal, he threw it through the bars. ‘Go on, eat!’ A few hunks of grey sludge bounced back. A thick, clear juice ran down the side of the bucket and pooled on the floor. ‘Eat!’

The lioness nosed a slimy piece of offal. She turned it so Scamp could nibble on one end.

Tom removed his hat and held it, utterly defeated. ‘I don’t understand.’

Nelly stood. Triumph surged through her. Tom might think that he could control nature – that all women and beasts leapt to a man’s tune. But he was wrong. ‘I do. I understand now exactly what happens to those who cross you.’ All the loathing of the past three years was naked on her face. She took a step toward him. ‘But Tom, do you know what happens to those who upset me?’

He reared away from her. Focused on her glaring eyes, he didn’t see the offal spilled behind him. As he stepped back, his foot slid and he tripped on the torn latchet of his shoe. He fell with a smack against the bars. One arm slotted between the gaps. The lioness stopped licking Scamp and cocked her head.

‘Nelly.’ Tom’s voice was tight with panic. His fingers groped, trying to find purchase. ‘Nelly, my shoulder’s stuck.’

The lioness stood. Finally free, Scamp leapt up, slid between the bars and scuttled to Nelly’s side.

‘Nell, help me.’

She regarded Tom, pinioned. That sinewy hand that had slapped her face lay exposed, so fleshy and bare. ‘Come, Scamp. Let’s go home.’

As they turned, the lioness stirred. She sniffed; she could smell the rank scent of fear oozing from Tom. He tugged desperately against the bars. ‘Nelly!’

The lioness raised her hackles.

Copyright 2014 Laura Purcell

Death by Cricket?

Frederick as Prince of WalesI was so sad to hear about the recent deaths of cricketer Philip Hughes and umpire Hillel Oscar in tragic mid-game accidents. With our modern safety equipment we no longer expect these awful occurrences. I guess that these days we think of cricket as rather gentle game compared to heavier contact sports. But back in 1751, the sport was blamed (falsely, in this instance) for another death -  one that changed the history of Britain.

Frederick, Prince of Wales, was the cricketer in question. As heir to the British throne, he did all he could to please his future subjects, but having spent the first 21 years of his life in Hanover, he started at a disadvantage. Nonetheless, he soon became the darling of the Londoners by flying in the face of his unpopular father’s rules. He took care to charm the ‘common folk’ by interacting with them  – whether he was walking in local parks or playing popular sports. When he became father to a large family, it was only natural that he spent more time playing games like tennis and cricket with his little ones.

However, all this joy and popularity was to be cut short when, at the age of just 44, Frederick died after a short illness. His death left his 12-year-old son, a minor, as heir to the throne. Considering that the present King was 68, an approaching Regency seemed all too likely. Amidst the rumours that swirled – one being that Frederick’s wife, Augusta, poisoned him to boost her own importance -  came the report that the cause of death was a burst abscess in the prince’s side. Supposedly, the abscess had been broken by a blow received while playing cricket at Cliveden some years earlier. But if we look at the facts of Frederick’s death, this theory seems unlikely.

FrederickSince his birth, Frederick had suffered from indifferent health. As I mentioned in a previous post, he was considered a slow and sickly child. It was his reliance on restoratives such as ass’s milk that led to his mother concluding he would be an impotent man. It is possible he was never destined for a long life. In fact, in 1750, there were signs that he at least suspected his impending doom. He visited fortune tellers but would not reveal what they saw. When reproached for working too hard in his garden at Kew, he replied that he wanted to finish the work as soon as possible, for he was persuaded he would not live long. Most importantly, he wrote out instructions to his eldest son George ‘for his good, that of my family and for that of his people’. This letter, which I have seen with my own eyes (eeek!) was essentially advice on how to be a good king and seems to assume that Frederick would never inherit. One quote is all too poignant, given the circumstances:

Retrieve the glory of the throne. I shall have no regret never to have won the crown, if you but fill it worthily.

No wonder the future George III was to feel continually under pressure! But in spite of, or perhaps because of, these bleak forebodings, Frederick took very little care of his health. His adviser, Bubb Doddington, records in his diary ‘Went to Leicester House where the Prince told me he had catched cold the day before at Kew.’ Rather than nursing his ailment – a course of action that would have been wise considering he had suffered from pleurisy before – Frederick continued life at a hectic pace. He spent a busy day in the House of Lords sweltering under state robes. Ironically, he went there to assess his father’s state of health, for their were rumours the King was on his way out. After this, he changed into thin clothing and worked in his gardens at Kew in a brisk March wind. Then, tired out, he came home and fell asleep for three hours on the couch. The rest would have done him good, except that he left the window open onto the bitter air. (For all readers not resident in the British Isles, it can get very cold here in March. We’ve had snow.)

Unsurprisingly, Frederick’s cold grew much worse and he was confided to bed. There he endured the ever unhelpful eighteenth-century treatments of being bled and blistered. At this time Augusta was about 5 months pregnant with her last child but refused to leave her husband’s side. Moreover, she would not let many people come near him. Of course these actions would fuel the later rumours about poison, but when questioned Augusta revealed that she had an inkling the end was near – Frederick had confided in her about his suspected short life span. Indeed, Frederick’s symptoms must have been prolonged and disturbing, for the King actually sent to inquire after his health. Father and son had long been at daggers drawn. Frederick was so touched by this olive branch that he burst into tears.

Young George

Young George

After a while, things seemed to be improving. Frederick slept for a solid eight hours and was well enough to desire a little entertainment. For his amusement, the children’s French dancing master Desnoyers took up station in a nearby room and played softly on his fiddle. The family themselves were playing at cards, and in this happy state of affairs the doctors prepared to leave. But just as they were going, Frederick was seized by a coughing fit. He was not able to stop. Dashing to his side,  one doctor became alarmed and said ‘Here is something I do not like.’ Frederick clutched his stomach, gasped ‘I feel death,’ and expired.

Much as I like the idea of British history being altered by a ‘cricket ball of doom’, I think it is more likely that Frederick’s abscess burst naturally or through violent coughing. Furthermore, it seems clear there were underlying health problems, particularly pleurisy and lung complaints, that would have caused mischief without cricket balls. Frederick’s descendants were to suffer from tubercular and scrofulous illnesses, and these conditions were blamed for the deaths of his grandsons Octavius and Alfred, and his granddaughter Amelia.

Sad as this taint in the blood would turn out, the immediate aftermath of Frederick’s death was even more tragic. Clearly, his young family were devastated, with little 12 year-old George likening the sensation in his chest to the one he felt watching construction workers falling from the scaffold at Kew. The King received the news somewhat more calmly. He was playing cards with his mistress when the fatal note was passed to him. He exclaimed, ‘Why, they told me he was better!’ before explaining simply to his mistress, ‘Fritz is dead.’ While it is terrible for a father to have such a lack of emotion over own his son, it’s somewhat pleasing to know that the King, who had long despised Frederick, did not have the hypocrisy to put on displays of grief. He was, however, genuinely sorry for the little fatherless family and shed tears when he saw them, telling them they must be ‘brave boys’.

Despite this, the King still managed to bungle Frederick’s funeral. It wasn’t for lack of money – the expense was only £500 less than the King’s own funeral would cost 9 years later. But invitations were sent out only eight hours before the ceremony, with the result that no English lord or bishop was able to attend. In the pouring rain, poor Fred, the king that never was, was laid to rest without even a family member to see him off (it was not customary for women or children to attend funerals). While court mourning was prescribed, there was one glaring omission: coloured ribbon was allowed. This was practically unheard of in the past and I cannot imagine how hurt Augusta would have been. Whatever she felt, she was wise enough to disguise it – she had to stay on good terms with the King to survive. It seems this crotchety old King spoke truly when he later said, ‘I lost my eldest son, but I was glad of it.’

The widow Augusta

The widow Augusta

 

 

Seeing the Lions

TOL-iconic-white-tower-1Back in September I was thrilled to discover that my short story, The Lions of London, had made the award long list for The Historical Novel Society Conference 2014. I don’t have much experience writing short stories and considered myself ‘bad’ at them – an opinion I will now have to revise! I’m very eager to share the story with you, but I’m not sure if I can yet. The terms and conditions of the competition said the long list may be published in an anthology, so I’m waiting a while. In the meantime, I’d like to tell you about the historical finds that inspired the tale – a feminist, animal-loving dash through the Tower of London!

You may know that the Tower of London was practically London’s first zoo, home to all manner of beasts from the reign of James I. So popular was the Tower Menagerie that it became one of London’s ‘must-see’ attractions. Going sight-seeing in the capital was soon referred to as ‘seeing the Lions of London’ – hence the title of my story. While there were many animals on display, ranging from polar bears to ostriches, the lions remained the most popular – perhaps because of England’s old symbolic associations with the animal. They were appropriated their very own Lion Tower. Up to eleven lions could be kept here, with fresh running water to drink and a diet of nine pounds of beef every day. Young lions were separated from their mothers but allowed free range to play in the Tower grounds – something we can hardly imagine in an age of health and safety!

Menagerie_LionCubs_Lg_2In the later Georgian era, another menagerie opened at the Exeter Exchange, but it does not quite capture the imagination in the same way as animals imprisoned in an ancient fortress. So I decided to do a bit of research and base a story around the Lion Tower in the early 1700s. There were a great deal of diary entries and letters written regarding the Tower Menagerie, but two in particular caught my attention. The first I actually located in Jerry White’s London in the Eighteenth Century. It was a quote from Mrs Percival, who visited in the winter of 1713-1714:

There was only one Lyoness. The Keeper threw a Dog for her to devour she fawn’d on it, and of all the Meat that was brought her would give him part and got him between her Paws, and lick him: For all this tenderness the Dog was very uneasy.

What a wonderful image this conjures – the maternal lion and a wary dog, an unlikely pair of companions! But if you are a dog lover like me, you will also be questioning why the canine was thrown into the pen in the first place. A bit more research showed me this was far from unusual – I was distressed to find live dogs and cats were frequently thrown to the lions! In fact, if you brought one of your own from home, they would wave the entry fee to the Tower!

My second anecdote features a less docile lion. It is the tale of poor Mary Jenkinson, who was a maid to the keeper in 1686, a few decades before the Georgian period began. Throwing caution to the wind, she decided to stroke a lion’s paw through the bars of the cage (not recommended!). Unsurprisingly, the lion grabbed her arm ‘with his claws and mouth, and most miserably tore her flesh from the bone.’ The only course of medical action in those days was to amputate the limb. Surgeons performed the operation but sadly Mary died shortly after, probably from a combination of shock and blood loss.

Menagerie_BengalLion_Lg_2These two real-life events provided the basis for my story. But to add atmosphere, I wanted to put a few more animals into the mix. I had my lion cage beside squawking birds and chattering monkeys that jumped about when the big cat roared. This, however, was not based on fact. While there were monkeys at the Tower, their real home was more fantastical than I could have imagined. They lived in a furnished drawing-room, much to the amusement of the visitors, and were taught to mimic human actions such as smoking pipes. You might think you’d be safer in the monkey room with these semi-civilized primates, but you’d be wrong. One monkey bit a soldier’s leg, while a baboon developed a penchant for throwing large objects – a hobby that ended in tragedy when he hurled a 9lb cannon shot at a young boy and killed him.

Should you visit the Tower of London in the modern day, you can see their exhibition on the royal beasts that once made the grey stone walls their home, along with wonderful sculptures. I particularly liked the elephant! I would highly recommend the trip to everyone – even without the bigs cats, the Tower truly remains one of the Lions of London.

An Undignified Death

George II

One thing you can say for the Hanoverian royal family – they certainly knew how to die in interesting ways. George I had a series of strokes in his carriage but insisted on continuing the journey, finally laying down to expire in the same room he had been born in. His grandson Frederick, Prince of Wales, was famously but inaccurately said to have been killed by a cricket ball. And as you have seen from my post and short story, Queen Caroline died in a thoroughly gruesome way with great courage. Some twenty-three years later, her husband George II was to meet his own infamous death.

I have already written at great length about the farcical nature of George II. This comedy carried over into all the main events of his life. He fell asleep during the sermon at his own wedding. The news of his accession to the throne in 1727 reached him during another afternoon nap; he doddered out to meet Sir Robert Walpole with his wig askew and unbuttoned breeches. When the minister informed George that he had become king, he yelled that it was ‘one big lie’ and stormed off again. It should come as little surprise that this monarch with a penchant for comedy would top it off by dying on the toilet.

George spent his last hours in the first floor private apartments of Kensington Palace, by far his favourite London residence. He had once boasted that he would never die at Kensington, which, if you ask me, was rather tempting fate! On the morning of 25th October he rose from his small hair mattress bed at the usual hour of six ‘ o clock. Neither the King nor those about him had any apprehension of what was about to happen. His German valet de chambre, Schroder, thought the King had ‘never looked better’ than when he received his cup of chocolate that morning.

After chocolate, George threw up the window and looked out onto the south-east gardens that his bedroom faced. He asked Schroder about the weather and direction of the wind – since he received favourable answers, he announced his intention of walking in the gardens.

Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace

At quarter past seven, George retired to ‘a little closet’ to empty his bowels. After a time, Schroder heard what Walpole humorously describes as ‘a noise louder than the royal wind’, followed by a groan and a thud. The poor man was put in a terrible predicament. Dare he enter the royal toilet? It sounded like the King needed help, but he had never presumed on such a step before. At last, Schroder made the agonising decision to enter the room and found George on the floor.

It was clear that the King had tried to call for assistance, for his hand was reached out toward the bell. As he had fallen from the close-stool, he had hit his head on the side of a bureau, leaving a deep cut on his face. Help was summoned; he was dragged to the bed a blooded, but ‘not a drop flowed’.

In the throes of death, George tried to call for Amelia, but his speech was not intelligible. There was also some confusion over which ‘Amelia’ was meant – his mistress, Amalie, or his daughter commonly called Emily? Some accounts say both the mistress and daughter were summoned, while others only mention the daughter. Either way, we can be sure that Emily was there, for the last seconds at least. She did not get the chance to hear her father’s last commands, for as she put her face close to his, she felt his cheek was cold and recoiled – he was already dead.

Close-stool at Hampton Court

Close-stool at Hampton Court

To add to the indignity of George’s death, his burial was delayed. An investigation was required to ascertain the cause if his sudden demise and an autopsy performed. The reports, that I have combined her, do not make for pleasant reading.

Upon opening the body of his late Majesty the right ventricle of the heart was found burst & the pericardium filled with a great quantity of extravasated & coagulated blood, nearly a pint . . .the whole heart was so compressed as to prevent any blood contained in the veins from being forced into the auricles; therefore the ventricles were found absolutely void of blood . . . and in the trunk of the aorta we found a transverse fissure on its inner side, about an inch and a half long, through which some blood had recently passed under its external coat . . .His Majesty had been frequently out of order of late, and his pulse so extremely low that the physicians could scarce perceive any motion in it at all. 

The conclusion was that a ventricle of the poor man’s heart had burst. While it sounds very painful, at least it was mercifully sudden.

George II's heart

George II’s heart

Being a royal corpse, George II’s body was embalmed. This meant that his bowels were removed first for the embalming process and buried separately – another thing that strikes me as undignified, but it was the custom for all princes, and we should not see it as something special to him. It is only unfortunate that, having died in the process of emptying his bowels, such focus should later be put on the organ!

George was finally laid to rest in Westminster Abbey on 11 November, 1760. He was the last monarch to be buried there, according to the Abbey’s website, as subsequent rulers preferred Windsor. And here is the sweetener to George’s tempestuous life and his unrefined death – he was buried like a romantic hero. Not only did he get the full burial rights of a King, but he was laid beside his beloved wife Caroline. In accordance with his will, the sides of the two coffins were removed so that the ashes could mingle. A rather touching end, I feel, to what is so often described as comical death.

Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey

Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey

 

Mrs Fitzherbert’s Grand Tour

Maria Fitzherbert, Royal Collection

Maria Fitzherbert, Royal Collection

As you may have guessed, the drab way in which Maria Fitzherbert is often presented by history has become one of my bugbears. While I’m sure she would have loved the tragic, sainted image that has survived her, it is not strictly true. Don’t get me wrong – she was a good woman. But she was a woman of her time, and a lot more fun than many people realise. She certainly wasn’t a prude.

My novel about Maria and George (working title A Forbidden Crown) starts with her escape to the Continent in a bid to make the Prince of Wales forget about her. Or, as she termed it, ‘throwing cold water’ on him. Traditionally, this has been seen as a journey of quiet reflection for Maria. Yet when you look at the facts, she had an awful lot of fun. There are many episodes from her travels that I would have loved to write about in my novel, but since I make it a rule only to include scenes that push the plot on or reveal more about the character, they didn’t make the final cut. So, I thought I would tell you a little more on my blog about the wanderings of Mrs Fitzherbert.

First of all, let us talk about her traveling companions. For a lady so concern with her reputation, Maria was intimate with some lively characters. Her closest friend, Lady Anne Lindsay, was not considered spotless. Her engagements had all sizzled out – one, because her fiance would not give up his mistress and illegitimate children. There had even been rumours about Lady Anne’s own relationship with the Prince of Wales. Lady Anne’s sister, Lady Margaret Fordyce, was an abandoned wife whose husband had gone bankfrupt in 1774 and fled the country. Along with these two interesting ladies, Maria also had male travelling companions. Her brother brother Jack and her country squire brother-in-law, Basil Fitzherbert were both with her on separate stages of her journey. So from the start, it was clear that Maria did not intend to spend lonely days in total seclusion.

Lady Anne

Lady Anne

While Maria disliked traveling, especially over the sea, she made sure that she did it in style. Sailing in her own packet, she took her carriage and all her servants. There is even some evidence that she helped smuggle a debtor out of England on her packet by disguising him as one of her household. Once on the Continent, she started off with a visit to the convent at Dunkirk where she had been schooled and gave all the old nuns a feast. She then moved onto Spa with its casinos and balls.

What interests me is that Maria did not seek to conceal herself from notice or shun all connection with royalty. In fact, she positively courted notice from the European monarchs ad Stadtholders. She visited the Haig, where she was received cordially by Willem V and formed a friendship his daughter Louise – somewhat awkward, since the Haig were half in hopes that Louise herself would make a match with the Prince of Wales. Maria made such an impression that Willem V loaned her his  royal barge to take the next step of her journey.

Princess Louise

Princess Louise

When the travelling party made it to France, they went wild for every bit of royal paraphanlia. They saw the crown jewels, the death masks of kings and the coronation robes of Louis XVI. Lady Anne had great fun trying out Louis XV’s bed, before they visited the coffin of that same monarch. They called on the Duc de Chartres at the Palais Royal and met Madame du Barry before moving on to the famous palace of Versailles. Their visit attracted such interest from the French royals that Marie Antoinette sent her own hairdresser to prepare Maria’s long golden locks. Powdered and poufed, Maria and her companions went to the grand couvert to watch the royal family eat in public, where they spent most of the meal peering through their quizzing glasses at her. Lady Anne ‘saw she was gratified.’ On the final part of her travels in Switzerland, Maria spent a good deal of time with the prince’s paternal uncle and aunt, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. These do not strike me as the actions of a woman who wanted to hide from the prince’s attentions and had no ambition – whatever she might profess. I think, deep down, Maria longed for the life she was seeing played out in European courts, but she could not decide how to obtain it legally and without damaging her conscience.

While I believe Maria truly loved the prince, there is no doubt that she enjoyed a bit of flirtation in his absence. To modern eyes, Maria does not look particularly striking. Her large face and aquiline nose would be mocked in cartoons over the coming years. But there is no doubt she had an irresistible charm and was considered an attractive woman in her day. Lady Anne’s travel journal reads like a list of men who fell in love with ‘the Fitz’. Captain Conway was smitten at Spa. When they toured a hospital for the mentally ill, a young surgeon ‘was making love to Mrs F… begging to know when he might wait on her.’ She  had to pay off a man she had once flirted with in Florence years ago, to avoid him revealing her letters to the world. Her departure from the Haig was hastened when the attentions of Prince Heinrich Reuss XIII became too pressing. Most impressive of all, when she visited Plombiere, Maria received an offer of marriage from Marquis de Bellois.

Prince Heinrich

Prince Heinrich

I don’t mean to down-play the awkward and distressing position Maria found herself in when the prince fell in love with her. She was certainly very unhappy and homesick toward the end of her journey, when she was in Switzerland with only her brother Jack, having spent well over a year separated from her home, family and friends. Such extensive travel in the eighteenth century was full of inconvenience. She must have felt truly exiled towards the end. Indeed, it was the prolonged indecision and life in virtual stasis that wore upon her, prompting her to capitulate: ‘I feel so worn out… the length of time it has gone on, and the continual prey it has been on my spirits makes me sometimes think that nothing can happen to make me more thoroughly wretched than I am.’ But I hope this post has shown that Maria’s escape to the Continent wasn’t one long journey of misery, reflection and preparation to become a semi Princess of Wales. Like any other young woman of time, she was trying to enjoy her life in the pursuit of pleasure. And I think we can see, from her visits to court and flirtation with young men, that this was a woman who, all along, secretly wanted to accept the prince long before she actually did.

1 2 3 10