Historical fiction

Prologues

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I’ve been thinking about prologues recently – a topic that often arises in discussions about historical fiction. Are they useful? Do they just get in the way?

Personally, I never start out writing a prologue. I often add them further down the line when I start to worry my starting chapter does not have enough punch. With Queen of Bedlam, I jumped in time to show Charlotte and George toward the end of their lives in the prologue, before hopping back to the beginning of their marriage and finally to the ‘present.’ While I enjoyed writing the prologue for that book, I’ve come to think that it was probably a mistake. The jerk through time proved confusing and the prologue didn’t really add to the story. What I should have done was just focused on rewriting the opening chapter to make it more exciting. Oh well, we live and learn!

However, prologues can be useful, especially when they are in the voice of someone we will not hear from for the rest of the narrative. I have two examples of good prologues I can call to mind. Firstly, Karen Maitland’s The Gallow’s Curse. Not only is it shocking, pacey and well-written, it explains how the curse of the title comes about. The curse will later impact upon the main characters, but not in a way that they can investigate and ‘reveal’ to the reader. Therefore the prologue is essential for our information, even though the main characters may never find out about the events it shows.

My second example is from a wonderful book called The Ballroom by Anna Hope. I have to admit, when I first read it, I thought it was a bit redundant. Why is this prologue there? I thought. Surely it’s given away the ending? But no – what it had actually done was set me up to believe the book was going to end one way, when in fact something quite different was going on. It was a clever device and I was completely fooled.

In my latest book, The Silent Companions, I added a prologue in the third or fourth draft. My reasoning was that horror stories often start with a shocking death, to compensate for a slow build up of creeping dread in the opening chapters before the true action starts. As I had a character that was dead when the book began, I thought a prologue was a perfect opportunity to ‘kill’ him on the page. But actually, I didn’t need it. I started to doubt its purpose and my agent allayed my fears by telling me the opening was strong enough without it. So off the prologue went into the deleted scenes folder… And I think the book is better without it.

However, just for fun, I’d like to share the deleted prologue with you. It is not a spoiler in any way. This character is dead when the book begins – although he now dies in a very different way to the one shown below. The companions have also changed – they no longer have the plant-like creepers that chase poor Rupert. Although the story is now different, I hope this little snippet will whet your appetite for the book when it comes out :)

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Prologue

The Bridge

He thought he would have more time.

His pocket watch showed a minute to midnight. Already they stirred above him; creaking, whining, hissing. Rupert rubbed his eyes with his good hand, chasing the sleep away. Time enough for sleep soon.

A dying fire touched his surroundings with orange streaks. He must have dozed in the chair, for they had been there: the marks of them were all over the room. A pile of dead leaves and thistles rose to his ankles. His hand stung like the devil and yes – the wound was open, oozing, threaded with fresh splinters. He shuddered, imagining them peering over him while he slept. They could have taken him, easily. But that was not their method. They wanted him awake.

Rising to his feet, he waded through the leaves toward the bureau. The equipment was all there: the two bottles and his last cigar. Glass clanked as he put the bottles in his pockets. They felt like leaden weights. He closed his eyes, trying to steady his breath. The moment had come. He had to do this right – for Elsie’s sake.

He took the cigar and the stub of his candle and lit them in the embers of the fire. Tears filled his eyes, making an orange, smoky blur. Only a couple of flames remained; the light was fading fast.

Creeping to the door, he pushed it open a fraction. Listened. The relentless hiss that haunted his dreams floated down the corridor, raising gooseflesh on his arms. They were above him, without a doubt. Rupert placed one eye to the gap between the door and the jamb. The corridor lay in darkness. He had to go now.

His slippers moved across the sawdust on the landing. He had taken the room next to the nursery on purpose – it was the closest to the servants’ stairs. Jamming the cigar in his mouth, he held up his candle and opened the baize door with his bad hand. It was excruciating. A thousand needles burnt up his wrist. His fingers were heavy, stiff, creaking at the joints. If this was what one touch did, he did not want to know the agony of their embrace.

As Rupert spiralled down shallow, winding steps his candle sent shadows capering up the walls. The stairwell amplified the hiss; it was all around him, vibrating in the very air he breathed. How did the servants sleep?

He stumbled into the kitchen, exhaling a cloud of smoke. For a moment, his courage failed. The housekeeper had heard it, hadn’t she? Perhaps it was not as he feared, perhaps it was not the tricks of his own mind. But then he looked at the mangled mess of his hand and remembered.

He pushed on into the larder, trying not to think of his parents, but their images rose out of the darkness. Poor Mama, raving on the bed, her ankle splintered and torn just like his hand. Then the bandage on Father’s arm, days before he fell so tragically from the second floor. Fell. His heart reached out, down the years, finally understanding: it was no accident. Father did what needed to be done. He saw the madness coming and saved the family’s reputation.

Setting the candle down, he rattled the bottles out of his pockets. They glimmered weirdly in the low light. He’d taken all the precautions he could: complaining of stomach aches, ordering laudanum for his wound. They could trace poison now – he had to throw the coroner off the scent. If they didn’t rule his death as accidental, Elsie would lose everything.

He opened the bottle of laudanum awkwardly with one hand. Its vapid, bitter scent mingled with the cigar smoke. Then he uncorked the second bottle containing tiny arsenic grains and tipped them into the laudanum. He expected something – a fizz, a reaction. The liquid just stared back at him, dull and reddish brown.

Hiss.

His shoulders trembled. How had it come to this? All those years he had lived, never suspecting that a curse lurked deep down inside of him. It must be hereditary – a fever of the brain, passed on through blood. It had demented his mother, consumed his father; he never stood a chance.

Hiss, hiss.

He removed the cigar from his mouth and laid it on the table. This was the time to prove himself. Could he do it? As he picked up the bottle, his nostrils filled with its sharp, deadly aroma. Everything in him recoiled. He wanted life, he wanted to be with Elsie.

The glass rim touched his lip. He could taste the vapours, their dizzying pull. Still he hesitated. Her beautiful face swam before his eyes. He did not know how he would disgrace her less: as a suicide, or as a mad man.

Hiss. Creak.

He could get better. There were medicines, these days. Better treatment than his mother ever –

‘Christ!’

A bolt of pain shot up his leg, jolting him forward. His fingers slipped and nearly dropped the bottle. Hot blood oozed between his toes. He looked down.

A thick creeper wound through the open door and around his ankle, bristling with thorns. Its pointed end pierced right through his slipper, through his foot, pinning it to the ground. He went giddy. Shadows concealed the worst of the gore but he could hear his flesh, squelching and sucking as the creeper moved.

The pain. The pain. There was no time for second thoughts. In one desperate slug he forced his toxic drink down.

He grabbed the empty bottles and his cigar. It was too late to follow his plan and fill the laudanum bottle with black tea – he would have to take his chances. Gritting his teeth, he yanked his foot from the floor. The sound was worse than the agony – a sickly rip as he forced himself out of the larder and into the passage that led to the kitchen.

Barely conscious, he pulled up the loose stone in the floor and hid his empty bottles under it. That would have to do. It was bad enough there would be blood in the larder – he couldn’t risk the bottles being found.

The creeper slithered after him.

Hell and damnation. It was all going wrong. He couldn’t leave a trail of blood, he would have to clean his foot up. Limping into the kitchen, he found a muslin for boiling puddings and wrapped it around his blood-caked slipper, adding a sack on top for good measure. As he tied it he heard them creaking, creaking ever closer. Time had nearly run out.

He stubbed out his cigar. The candle was still in the larder – he would have to go back up in the dark. The idea should terrify him but he was warm, lightheaded. It would not be long before the drugs pulled him under.

He climbed the servant’s stairs as if he were treading water. His feet were heavy, too slow. Now and then he felt the creeper teasing at his heels. It could go faster if it wanted, but it liked the chase.

Just as he reached the top of the staircase, a white hot fist squeezed his gut. He gasped. That would be the arsenic. Only a little farther . . .

Hobbling across the landing, he saw their silhouettes waiting in the shadows. He swallowed the vomit that rose in his throat. They wanted him to look into their dead eyes and feel fear, but he would not do it. Soon he would never have to see them again.

He crashed into the bedroom. The spluttering fire showed a hoard of them gathered by the window. Despite their vile faces, he laughed.

‘Better . . . luck . . . next . . . time.’

Somehow he hauled himself into bed. A low whine signalled their approach. Come on, come on. He was too tired for fear, too tired for anything, but he willed the poison on with the last ounce of his strength.

Elsie . . . He wished he had written to her properly. If he’d known it would be tonight, he could have prepared. But perhaps it was best this way. She’d never know of the brain fever that took his mother, that forced his father to . . . He only prayed she’d stay away from this cursed house.

Creeak.

God, how it burned. But he would brave it out. The muscle spasms, the sweat pouring from his skin – they were his victory over them.

Through fading eyes he looked up and saw it blurred beside his bed: the figure of the little girl. Close, very close. But the warmth was flowing in now, a tide of comfort and sleep. He tried to smile – his lips would not move.

Too late. He wanted to crow, but he could only think the words as the wooden face loomed up before him. Too late.

He had won.

Launch Day!

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Raise a glass of virtual champagne, it’s publication day! Mistress of the Court is out in UK paperback now.

There are plenty of exciting offers to kick off the launch. If you missed the Goodreads giveaway that closed today, do not fear. My publisher is offering a special pre-order price on the Kindle edition, which comes out on 25 September 2015. You can reserve yours now for just £1.99 ($3.10 US, $4.99 AUS). The price will go up after publication, so make sure you lock into this deal.

For UK readers, I’m delighted to announce I will be signing at Waterstones Bury St Edmunds on 8 August 2015 between 10:00 and 12:00 and Waterstones Colchester on 15 August 2015 between 12:00 and 13:00. The staff are wonderful and both shops are lovely, so please do come along and see us. If you can’t make it in person, they can take your reservation over the phone and post a signed copy to you.

Mistress of the Court will also be going on its own virtual blog tour with TLC. Watch this space for reviews and more!

Giveaway Time

Mistress of the Court

Make haste, there are only a few days left to enter the Goodreads giveaway for Mistress of the Court! An amazing 20 copies are up for grabs for UK readers. Entries close on 4 August 2015, so get in quick!

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The Penny Heart

24378570It was perhaps inevitable that I would love Martine Bailey’s second novel, The Penny Heart. I was a huge fan of her debut, An Appetite for Violets and once again she has returned to my beloved Georgian period. What makes The Penny Heart even more exciting is the Gothic world in which it immerses the reader. In a nod to the popular novelists of the era, Bailey creates a neglected old house with dark secrets to unearth.

There are two heroines to this story. The first we meet is the indomitable Mary Jebb, a flame-haired beauty working the Manchester streets as part of a criminal gang. Alone in the world and reliant on her own resources, Mary soon realises she does not want to become a prostitute like the other poor drabs at her lodging house. Using her talent for crafting sweetmeats, she charms herself into the graces of the forger Charlie and becomes involved in his operations. However, when she is caught in a confidence trick, she soon learns that her friends are powerless to protect her. The gentleman she tried to defraud, Michael Croxon, gives a powerful testimony against her and she is sentenced to death. At the very last moment, Mary’s life is saved. But is it really a reprieve? When Mary learns she is being sent to the penal colony of Botany Bay due to a ‘shortage of women’ she begins to suspect her trials are just beginning.

When we next meet Mary, she is back home in England. With forged papers from her friends, she is trying to start a new life as a housekeeper, under the name of Peg Blissett, at Delafosse Hall. Her mistress is our second heroine, the new Mrs Grace Croxon.

I found the character of Grace compelling and extremely sympathetic. Bailey has done an excellent job of making her a woman of her time, whilst giving her just enough spirit to get the reader onside. Grace has lived a sheltered life after the death of her mother, trying to care for her drunken father. When her best friend marries and her father chases her sweetheart away, she realises the true misery of her situation. It is no surprise that when the opportunity to marry the handsome Michael comes along, with her father’s blessing, she is eager to take it. Like many women of the era, Grace is aware that Michael’s primary interest is the money she will bring to the marriage. But although she feels gauche and inexperienced in his presence, she trusts that love will come in time.

Despite these happy auspices, the union proves difficult. Grace’s marital home is the stately but dilapidated Delafosse Hall; uncomfortable, low on staff and positioned in the middle of nowhere. Local gentry do not come to call and her husband is more interested in his business and the local tavern than her company. Left alone, Grace begins to find strange rooms and stories about the house. Every detail of Delafosse is vividly created, from its winding passages to the overgrown trees that tap against the window panes. We begin to share Grace’s curiosity as she explores and gains a strange affection for the old place.

Deprived of friends, Grace becomes intimate with her servants. Peg Blissett, the confident and knowledgeable housekeeper, is just the companion Grace needs to combat her own timidity. With Peg’s help, she sets out to win her husband’s love with money, sumptuous apartments, fine food and a wardrobe full of fashionable clothes. Although she succeeds, Grace begins to suspect she has been foolish and allowed her servant too much freedom. Moreover, she is not sure that Peg is altogether what she seems . . .

The narrative switches between the two women as we sense a deadly trap closing about Grace. We do not know what Peg intends, but is clear from her narration that Grace is the object of her latest fraud. . .

Peg/Mary was a fascinating and skillfully drawn character. Through flashbacks, we begin to discover what she endured in the years at Botany Bay and how she arrived home. Teased out with perfect precision, the story reveals a more tortured and yet sympathetic character with every scene. Bailey balances condemnation with a brilliant pathos that really strikes at the heart of this woman and her need for revenge. While she is by no means a nice person, Peg’s reactions are believable given the life she has endured. And perhaps it’s just me, but I couldn’t help rooting for her a little – even if her plans were evil. She is one of those characters you just love to hate.

Through Peg, we encounter a variety of Georgian cant and get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the criminal underworld. We sit on the dirty tumbrel to the gallows, we blister beneath the Australian sun. We also have a taste of some more period recipes, which was such a great feature of An Appetite for Violets. But Peg being Peg, these recipes have a dark twist, with many intended for nefarious means and others used to cheat customers out of money.

While both Grace and Peg are wonderful characters, it is clear that only one can survive. As the story begins to unravel, the women realise how they have underestimated each other. It all comes down to a thrilling battle of wits and nerve – I literally could not put the book down for the last quarter!

I would highly recommend The Penny Heart for a historic, disturbing and wonderfully exciting read!

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The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

9781444780499_p0_v1_s300x475Hodder and Stoughton must be my favourite publisher at the moment. Not only are they releasing books set in the Georgian era, but very good books at that! I’m currently reading Martine Bailey’s The Penny Heart and have just finished Antonia Hodgson’s The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. Both are the authors’ second books, both dark and wonderful in different ways.

I read Hodgson’s debut The Devil in the Marshalsea last year and enjoyed it. The sensory details and grim reality of life for 18th century debtors were well captured. However, something was lacking for me, and I couldn’t really put my finger on it until I read The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. It was pizazz, something extra that kept me turning the pages and holding my breath. And the good news is, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins has this in droves.

Hawkins, a kind-hearted but fatally flawed young man, has recently won his freedom and a new girlfriend. He should be happy, but gradually he begins to slip into the old habits that landed him in debtor’s prison in the first place. What starts off as a harmless adventure soon embroils him in the world of criminal gangs in St Giles and vicious wife beaters.

Finding the lives of his loved ones at risk, Hawkins tries to wriggle out of his troubles. Yet he only puts himself in further danger. Not only does he owe a debt to the Queen, he has been wrongly accused of murder.

The victim’s family all hide dangerous secrets. But will Hawkins be able to discover them before the law catches up with him? The twists and turns just keep coming – right until the last few pages.

While the narrative is an enjoyable murder mystery in its own right, it is interspersed with present tense ‘snapshots’ of Hawkins in a cart on his way to Tyburn. For me, these little glimpses made the book extra special. They were immediate and extremely well written, driving the narrative forward and providing a hauntingly accurate account of the last journey made by so many to the ‘Tyburn tree’.

Another clever interruption to the narrative were the ‘press-cuttings’ of Hawkins’ case. We see a ballad written about his crimes and a court record of his trial. These snippets evoked the flavour of the time perfectly and came across as very authentic.

Amidst some heart-pounding action scenes and forays into the slums of St Giles, we also get a glimpse of life at the highest rank of society. I have to confess, I was a little nervous to read the parts where Queen Caroline and the King’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, featured in the book. I’m a bit of a hard customer to please when it comes to two historic figures I hold so dear. But not only was the depiction accurate, Hodgson’s portrayal of Queen Caroline was, to my mind, spot on. I even managed to guess which of the princesses Hawkins was talking to, merely from her speech, which shows what a good job was made of researching the family, despite their comparatively small bearing on the main action.

While Hawkins is not exactly my type of hero, I found myself rooting for the well-drawn characters and eager to return to the their world. A highly recommended book.

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Deaf, peevish old beast

Henrietta_Howard

There are many reasons why Henrietta Howard, the heroine of my new book Mistress of the Court, is a fascinating woman to write about. In previous posts I’ve covered her determination, early feminism and struggle against domestic abuse. However, the aspect of her life that contemporaries at court chose to concentrate on, in poems and in jests, was her partial deafness.

Not all of these were malicious. Pope charmingly uses the affliction to highlight Henrietta’s modest nature:

When all the world conspires to praise her

The woman’s deaf and does not hear

Indeed, Henrietta herself was inclined to make light of her condition with her friends, writing to Lord Chesterfield

I know you so indulgent to your friends, that you would not interrupt their diversions . . . you always affirmed pain was my particular one

But this frivolous comment hid, as so often with Henrietta’s life, a world of pain and suffering. She was not born with any hearing impediment. Her biographer Tracy Borman believes the trouble began in Henrietta’s late 20s or early 30s. The cause is not clear, although for dramatic effect in Mistress of the Court, I attribute the damage to a blow received by her husband.

Henrietta’s was certainly a painful deafness; she often described her ‘poor pain in the face’ and letters from her correspondents are rife with regrets that she is not in  better health. Her friend Dr Arbuthnot constantly treated her for headaches. It may be that Henrietta started to have difficulty hearing her own voice and adopted some signs; one of her letters refers to ‘that gesticulation of the hand for which I am so famous.’

Despite the fact that George II, in one of his rages, referred to her as a ‘deaf, peevish old beast’, it appears Henrietta was perfectly stoical about her condition. In fact, one wonders if she could have born for so long with George II if she were not partially deaf. With the writer Jonathan Swift, she engaged in a kind of playful competition to see who was the most unwell.  ‘I should make you the best husband in the world,’ wrote Swift,’for I am ten times deafer than ever you were in your life.’ Henrietta, however, beat him by showing superior fortitude. Deafness and headache were ‘misfortunes I have laboured under these many years,’ she boasted, ‘and yet never was peevish with myself or the world.’

Eventually, the agony became too severe. Something had to be done. In the summer of 1728, Henrietta consulted the eminent surgeon Mr Cheselden. He suggested an operation – something to be feared and dreaded in the pre anesthetic/disinfectant era. One only has to read Fanny Burney’s account of her own mastectomy to swoon in horror.

Horace Walpole makes an interesting reference to Henrietta’s operation in his anecdotes. He claims that Henrietta heard a condemned man at Newgate, who suffered from the same condition. According to Walpole, Cheselden arranged for the prisoner to be pardoned, on the condition that he submitted to an experimental operation. This is not impossible – Queen Caroline made a similar deal when testing her smallpox inoculations.

Despite reading treatise and advice on treatment for bad ears, I could not establish the exact nature of the procedure Henrietta underwent. Suffice to say, it involved some sort of boring tool. Her own description is rather chilling, calling to mind a sweating surgeon and horrific instruments.

I sent for Mr Cheselden, who, give him his due, worked very hard, but found so much resistance, that I was justified to inquire no further then into my jaw; besides, finding nothing there, we were afraid to proceed.

Henrietta admits that the pain of the operation was ‘almost unbearable’, but it seemed to do good. ‘‘I am much better;’ she reported to John Gay in August. ‘Whether I owe it to the operation I underwent, or to my medicines, I cannot tell.’

When I write biographical novels, I often draft little scenes that I have no intention of putting in the final draft. I like to explore important events in the subject’s life and see even the mundane parts of life through their eyes. As I wanted to get a feel for the medicines Henrietta would take daily, and think about how she would cope with an operation, I wrote the following scene with my research into hearing difficulties.  It is not in the novel, but I hope you will enjoy it.

The doctor peered down his nose at Henrietta. He was dressed in black and white like a parson; as if he was prepared to perform the funeral rites, should she take a turn for the worse. A short, unpowdered wig sat beneath his hat. He looked eminently respectable, but Henrietta eyed him warily. Could this man help her? No doctor had been able to save her parents or siblings from their fate. In her experience medical men were mere harbingers of death; crows that sat on the lychgate and cawed as the coffin passed by.

‘Mrs Howard. An honour.’ He bowed, keeping his eyes fixed on her ear.

Suddenly, pain pulsed through her head, nearly felling her. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed a hand to her brow. This would not do. The pangs were coming frequently now, with greater strength. She had to try something to stop them.

A whiff of smelling salts beneath her nose jerked her back to her senses. She looked up gratefully at the doctor, who now stood beside her. ‘Thank you Mr Cheselden. I came over most queer.’

Her frowned. ‘It is your head that troubles you?’

‘Yes, my head and my ears. I do not hear well at all. My friends Dr Arbuthnot and Lord Chesterfield have spoken very highly of your skill with such things. They believe you can help me.’

He wet his lips. His face was plump and ruddy; like most doctors, he looked astonishingly well living off others’ pain. ‘Perhaps I can. Tell me how this first came about.’

With lowered eyes, she explained the gradual loss of her hearing and the headaches that arrested her, especially in times of distress. She told him she had knocked her head many times in the past, but attributed it to riding accidents instead of Charles’s well-aimed fist.

He lifted his bag and began to rummage in it. ‘And what have you taken so far?’

‘Some pills made of Jesuits’ Bark and gillyflower syrup. Laudanum, of course. I try to sleep with half an onion on the bad ear.’

‘With this type of pain, you should be kept cool and take emollient substances such as milk and spinach. Did you never think to shave your head?’

She could just imagine George’s reaction to that. ‘I wish to keep my hair. But I did have a blister, here.’ She ran her finger along her jawbone from the side her chin to just below her earlobe.

‘Yes. The corner of your jaw, just there. That is where we should concentrate.’ He drew out a small wooden case and laid it on a side table. Then, with his index finger, he tilted her chin to the light.

She swallowed. ‘What – what do you mean to do?’

‘You are familiar with the theory behind bleeding? Letting the ill humours flow out?’ She could not nod while he held her head, so she blinked. ‘Then there is a process where we go deeper, especially in cases of lunacy. You may have heard of trepanning?’

She froze. Everyone knew of the horrific procedure where a hole was drilled in the skull to release pressure in the brain. Sometimes discs of bone were removed permanently.

Mr Cheselden smiled. ‘Do not turn so pale, dear madam. I only mean to say that whatever obstructs the flow of blood through the head may cause the ache. With an instrument similar to the trepan, I can bore a small hole in the angle of your jaw to unblock it.’

Her heart bounded within her. Suddenly she did not want any help; she would rather be left alone. ‘Would it hurt?’

Evading her question, he gestured to an armchair. ‘We might do it just there. You could sit comfortably with a cambric handkerchief over your eyes; you would not see a thing. Have you an old sheet, and some lint?’

The ache in her head was dull now; terror drove it off. She moved her dry tongue. ‘I believe I do. But sir, pray tell me how much it will hurt. I must prepare myself.’ She watched him as he passed to the side table and opened his box. Polished steel glinted from within. She turned her face away, sick with horror.

‘I do not believe it will be much greater than the pain you already labour under,’ he said gently. ‘Unless . . . Perhaps you do not feel yourself equal to withstand it?’

Unexpected pride kicked in her chest. Unequal to withstand it indeed! This man had no idea what she had been through. ‘I am accustomed to discomfort, I assure you. What is your price?’ He named a large sum. ‘For such a fee sir, you must be sure of success.’ He inclined his head.

It did not feel right to spend so much, after begging George for more money. But didn’t she deserve some relief; a slither of money to spend on herself, instead of Charles and his blasted debts? ‘If you are certain, I will proceed, Mr Cheselden.’ Fear crept through her as the words left her lips.

‘I must ask for the payment upfront. In case of . . . difficulty.’

Trembling, she told the money into his hand. George’s impassive profile stared back at her from a coin. Despite everything, her lip twitched. It seemed absurd to pay out such a great sum, when George would gladly put a hole in her head for no charge at all.

The Second Empress

51z+c-y1D2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve now read two books by Michelle Moran and absolutely loved both of them! She is undoubtedly an author that keeps you turning the page. Madame Tussaud enthralled me with its depiction of the French Revolution, skillfully portraying the struggle from both sides of battle line. I galloped through The Second Empress in an even shorter time and, as it handily fits into the Napoleonic era, I thought I would tell you a little bit about the book.

I was thrilled when I found out that this novel existed, and not only because it was by Moran. I had long thought that the story of Maria Lucia of Austria was just waiting for its own historic novel. This was a young woman who, despite strong personal feelings against the match, became Napoleon’s second wife to save her country. Rather than sinking into a depression or becoming obstructive, as many a princess would in her position, she actually made the marriage a success. If this wasn’t a good enough reason to admire her, she also grew up in my favourite palace, Schönbrunn.

Moran brings Maria Lucia to life masterfully. We meet her as an artistic young woman who loves her family and is being raised as the future regent for her unwell brother. Her political astuteness and strong nature are clear from the start – she wishes to be a credit to her homeland of Austria. Through her eyes, we also learn of the toll the Napoleonic wars have taken on the land and grow to understand how hated an enemy the French were at the time period. This only heightens the conflict we feel when, to get her country out of its difficulties, she is forced to leave the man she loved and become the bride of Napoleon, a man she despises. I say she is forced – I mean by her conscience. Perhaps the most inspiring thing of all is that Maria Lucia is under no compulsion from her loving father – she makes the sacrifice for her people.

Maria Lucia/Marie Louise
Maria Lucia/Marie Louise

We join Napoleon’s court as fellow newcomers, equally dazzled and appalled by its excesses. Whilst Napoleon does not come across positively in the story, his behaviour is perfectly in keeping with the accounts I have read of him. Furthermore, we must remember that Moran is portraying him through the eyes of his enemy – ancient royalty looking down on what they perceived as an upstart solider. While Maria Lucia settles into her strange marriage, well aware that Napoleon is still in love with Josephine, we meet the other narrators of the story.

Napoleon’s most scandalous sister, Pauline, takes up the tale. I found her point of view immensely fun and wonderfully disturbing to read. While at times I thought the voice sounded a little modern, Moran’s choices seem to be supported by further reading I have undertaken about Pauline. Pauline is a bold woman, wildly ambitious and the closest of all the family to Napoleon. While she is bitchy and clearly mentally unstable, it is impossible not to feel a kind of affection for her. Her obsessions with Egypt and – worryingly – her brother, push her beyond the means of her health as she strives to become a queen worthy of legend. Slyly manipulating the split between Napoleon and Josephine, she is also instantly jealous of the success of his second empress. In her distracted state of mind, she begins to think that she will one day wed Napoleon herself. We learn that this bizarre love/hate relationship between the siblings goes back a long way; in his need to be beloved, Napoleon has exiled all of his sister’s lovers. It’s all rather disturbing, but it’s fascinating to read about.

Pauline Bonaparte
Pauline Bonaparte

Our third narrator is Haitian man whose name, for the moment, is Paul. He has given up his given name, his family and his heritage to serve Pauline, While he loves her, he is able to see her faults and condemn her treatment of Maria Lucia. Through his struggles, we see the price that the conquered have paid for Napoleon’s wars. We learn of Paul’s once beloved country, laid to ruin, and his identity crisis following the move to France. While he has made a good life for himself, he is reaching the end of his patience. He cannot put up with the hollow pretense of the French court for much longer. So far, his heart has kept him in France, but as times change he begins to take on courage. Pauline with have to choose between him and her brother – a contest he rather hopes than expects to win.

Full of drama and conflict, this is a book that will appeal to most readers of historical fiction. I do not mean to imply that men cannot enjoy the story, but I feel that women would perhaps appreciate it more, bound up as it is with the intricacies of female relationships and squabbles. The beginning of the book lacked pace for me, as it was full of backstory for the three narrators. However, this soon picked up and I found myself enthralled. A must for lovers of the French court and those who want to read about women in history who have dared to defy convention.

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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.

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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!

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

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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!

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