Castles, Customs, and Kings…

I may have the reputation of being a walking encyclopaedia, but I can assure you, there are shed-loads of things about which I know nothing.

Quantum physics for example.  Well, I can spell it.  But that’s about it.  And alchemy at the court of James VI and I.  I don’t know anything about that — and in the main I don’t wish to find out.  Not a fan of old James, me.  The fellow gives me the creeps.  I mean, think about it, all that drool…Blech.

But I do know about a lot of other stuff — otherwise refered to by my nearest and dearest as ‘little known facts of doubtful value…’

The only thing is…well, allegedly the detritus which litters my tiny grey cells does in fact have a value.  (I know!  Whoever would have thought it?)

But it’s true.  For this condition which has over the years been the source of much amusement, has now apparently made me the ideal choice as an editor for the soon-to-be published compendium, Castles, Customs, and Kings — which is a ‘best of’ collection of the first year’s worth of blogs on the increasingly popular English Historical Fiction Authors blog, a website on which, each day, an historical novelist (Barbara Kyle, Sandra Byrd, Nancy Bilyeau, and Judith Arnopp among them…) writes a bit about some of their research or historical events and people which interest them.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.inddIt hits the shelves on the 23rd September 2013, this tome does, courtesy of Madison Street Publishing.

And I’ll tell you an interesting thing.  I’ve genuinely enjoyed editing it.  I’ve truly enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with the various periods of English and British history which are not my specialisms and with which I had sort of lost touch.

I’ve loved reading about mediaeval bathing and banqueting.  I’ve loved learning about different unknown to the world places in England and Wales.  I’ve been fascinated by the various individuals who have peopled this English stage over the centuries and I’ve loved how the authors have brought them to life for me.

(And yes, I am a contributing author of several essays as well as editor…)


The sections range from Roman Britain all the way up to World War II…yes, there are gaps, I suppose.

But whether your eye is fixed on the rival queens of Wars of the Roses or Jane Austen’s London or the languid Lady Mary of Downton Abbey — whether you just enjoy history or revel in historical fiction, this book, well…what I would hope is that readers would enjoy dipping in and out of the various periods of history by means of these essays, as much as I have.

Because these many authors have written engaging looks at the periods and places and people which drew them into the web of writing historical fiction in the first place, and they bring to their work a love and an enthusiasm which is just infectious and winning…and it’s all just made me appreciate more than I ever could have imagined this wonderful country in which I live, “this sceptre’d Isle, this England…”

Below is one of the first reviews we’ve received on Goodreads for the Advance Review Copy, and I can’t tell you how chuffed I am that our collective work has been so well received.

“Full disclosure: I received an advance copy and am writing this about 2/3 of the way through (I will update when I finish the book). I am also not a fan of historical fiction. I rarely read anything on the fiction shelf and even less of books that do not relate to royalty and the daily lives of their subjects across all eras and continents.

“I opened the book expecting to find something akin to a conference proceedings without “trained” experts. Instead I found a new appreciation for the meticulous research and knowledge of the genre’s authors.

“The book is divided into diverse subjects or historical periods. Each author has taken a topic and in a few pages given a succinct, well sourced overview. I find myself adding books to my wish list with every chapter. 

“The book itself first appears daunting in length. The short topic ‘chapters’ make it eady for on-the-go readers to read in small portions or even skip topics. The editors did a great job with transitions and order for each topic. Despite the length, there is no encyclopedia feel and each author’s voice is well preserved.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.indd“This book is a scholarly treasure trove with a wide appeal. It covers everything from the first English word to the food (and recipes) served at a Tudor feast. If you are interested in nonfiction works on England, history, and/or royalty you will find a book that you will return to. Fans of historical fiction and England will find the book rich in supplemental information to complement their reading with an introduction to authors of works they might enjoy.”

So, the short and the long — I hope you’ll have a look at the new book, and I hope very much that you’ll enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together for you.

So there you go.  Looking for something to read?  This may just be the book for you.  Castles, Customs, and Kings…



Why things aren’t always clear-cut…

There are a lot of armchair historians out there these days…which, don’t get me wrong, I think is a good thing.

For one thing, it may mean that the publishers who seem to have given up on publishing history in favour of celebrity drool-fests might rethink their strategy and go back to publishing works by the likes of Charles Esdaile, Dominic Lieven, Andrew Roberts, Michael Broers and all these other fabulous authors I admire.  And that wouldn’t just be a good thing, it would be a grand and noble and enriching thing.

(It would additionally mean I’d have to add another bookcase in the Growlery, but who’s counting…)

Yet it often also means another thing, and that is, everybody’s got an opinion on everything.  No matter how small, somebody’s going to give it to you when your views don’t match theirs.

Let me give you an example.  Let’s consider the introduction of the waltz into British society.  (A dangerous pastime, I know…)

You might think it’s of no import, and quite possibly, you’d be right.  Does it matter?  Did it lead to anyone’s death, to an epidemic of disease, to the cure of a disease, to war, to peace, to the emancipation of women or slaves?  And the answer is, of course, none of the above.  Nevertheless, a lot of folks get very miffy over it–insisting that it could not ever, ever, ever be mentioned in a book that was set earlier than 1815-1816.

May 1812And this is where the issue begins to impinge on self.  Because my works (thus far) are set in 1812 and 1813…and I do mention the waltz.  (And being a bit of a fiend for accuracy in my own work, this concerned me…)

So I was chatting about this dilemma to another historian, one whom I respect enormously as much for her knowledge as for her ability to approach problems from different angles.

And after recounting the adamant position of those who held that it was unknown here until the Lievens introduced it in the late autumn of 1812 (he was the Russian ambassador), and discussing with her the various historical references I had to hand, including engravings of waltzing couples published well before 1812, she said something quite interesting.

She said, “When was waltz music first published here?  Because if they’re waltzing to music, then somebody has to be playing it for them…And that will tell you when it started to become popular and socially acceptable.”

Is that a stroke of genius or what?  Of course, she’s right.

And it was at that point that things started to get very interesting.  Because the first publication of music for the waltz was in 1806.  A not-well-known-to-us English composer, Edward Jones, published A Selection of Original German Waltzes, and dedicated the volume of music to none other than the Princess Charlotte (who was only ten at the time).

And here’s another thing, publishing companies don’t just publish stuff for no reason–they have to believe there’s a market for their product and they’re going to sell the stock.  So, 1806 has to herald enough of a degree of popularity for the music and dance that the sheet music is going to fly off the shelves…

Anyway, this novel approach to searching out the music led me to a number of quite fascinating bijou fact-ettes about the waltz, all of which kind of overturn the idea that this ‘shocking’ dance erupted on the scene out of nowhere in about 1814-15.

In 1810, Gillray published his famous caricature of waltzing couples, entitled, Le bon Genre.

There’s Lord Byron’s poem about it, A Satire on Waltzing, which was written in the autumn of 1812 and published anonymously in the spring of 1813.  He disapproved, as unlikely as that seems, given his reputation:

Endearing Waltz! — to thy more melting tune
Bow Irish jig and ancient rigadoon.
Scotch reels, avaunt! and country-dance, forego
Your future claims to each fantastic toe!
Waltz — Waltz alone — both legs and arms demands,
Liberal of feet, and lavish of her hands;
Hands which may freely range in public sight
Where ne’er before — but — pray “put out the light.”
Methinks the glare of yonder chandelier
Shines much too far — or I am much too near;
And true, though strange — Waltz whispers this remark,
“My slippery steps are safest in the dark!”

lawrence-caro-lambThere’s also the small matter of a letter from Lady Caroline Lamb, again written in 1812, which says:

“My cousin Hartington wanted to have waltzes and quadrilles; and at Devonshire House it could not be allowed, so we had them in the great drawing-room at Whitehall. All the ‘bon ton’ assembled there continually. There was nothing so fashionable.”

Equally, there is another private letter, this time by Byron, written in 1811, in which he complains about the immorality of the dance (yes, I know, rich coming from him!) and how all the nobility are indulging in it…

And finally, there’s this lovely bit of insight into Viscount Castlereagh’s personality–that’s the Foreign Secretary, in case you’d forgot, with the wife who’s allegedly a stodgy great stickler for manners and morals as well as a Patroness of Almack’s.

Lord-Castlereaghs-waltzNevertheless, by 1815, because he loved it so much, there was even a waltz dedicated to him, with the title, Lord Castlereagh’s Waltz.  And the most famous dancing master of the age, Thomas Wilson, supplied not one, but two versions of this dance in his immensely popular volume, Le Sylph, An Elegant Collection of Twenty Four Country Dances published in 1815.

And years later, writing about her uncle’s fondness for the dance, Castlereagh’s beloved niece, Emma, would say:

“He liked the society of young people, and far from checking their mirth and their nonsense, he enjoyed and encouraged it, with his own fun and cheerfulness…he was able to work serenely at the most important dispatches amidst the clamour of a family party, which he preferred to the isolation of his study.  If an air were played that pleased him, he would go to the pianoforte and sing it; if a waltz, he would say, ‘Emma, let us take a turn,’ and after waltzing for a few minutes, he would resume his writing.   His power of abstraction was indeed remarkable; our talking and laughter did not disturb him; once only do I recollect that he rose from his chair laughing, and saying, ‘You are too much.’”

All of which evidence suggests to me that the waltz–not the one we know (and I’ll get to that in a minute)–was well and truly a fixture on the dance floor long before it was allowed at Almack’s.

Though even that date has to be fixed no later than June 1814, because Tsar Alexander was here for a few weeks’ visit then, and we know he loved to waltz (whether it was that he loved the dance or he loved the opportunity to get handsy, I can’t tell you), but I just can’t see anyone saying “no” to him–not even at Almack’s, where he assuredly went.

Which led me to examine the issue even more closely…one reference I found to it in 1802, spoke of the waltz as but one of a medley of elements making up the series of country dances…so lots of people were learning it and dancing it, they just didn’t necessarily have a separate designation for it.

It was at this point then, that I began to wonder, ‘Exactly, what the heck were they doing back then, really…

Eventually, I fossicked out the answer on the website of a dance historian by the name of Walter Nelson, who paraphrasing the description from the aforementioned book by Thomas Wilson, writes:

1806waltz“It began with the ‘March’ which was a very brief side by side promenade. This turned quickly into the ‘Pirouette” or ‘Slow Waltz’.  The partners would take each other in one of several holds, one of the more popular of which had the partners facing in opposite directions, hip to hip, with one arm across the front of the partner’s body and the other hands holding in an arch above the body.  In this posture, they would rotate very slowly, with their gaze fixed on one another.  This was the part that probably made the blue stockings the most nervous.

“The next was the ‘Sauteuse’.  At this point, the dance got a bit more energetic, with the music tempo increasing and the dancers working a little hop into the step.  The posture would be changed – one possible option would be the man holding both the lady’s hands behind her back.

The routine would finish with the ‘Jetté’ which was even more energetic and up tempo.”

And as Mr. Nelson also says of it:

“The Waltz we know today was not the Waltz of the Empire/Regency era. It was not the fast moving, twirling Viennese Waltz of the Victorians, and it was not the sedate but graceful box-step of the 20th Century.  It was a strikingly intimate and sensuous dance, which is a major departure from the group dances and stately minuets of earlier generations.  To a society that focused so much attention on harnessing teenage libido to the purpose of making a good marriage, this was rather disturbing.”


So there you have it.  It wasn’t as I thought.  It wasn’t what anyone I’d spoken to previously thought.  It was a twisty, turning tale of some were, some weren’t, some knew, some didn’t, here a little, there not so much…just like all history, really.

Not at all clear-cut…In fact, messy as a pig’s breakfast.

Le Grand Chiffre…or am I talking in code?

Sorry, sorry, sorry…yes, that headline is me laughing at my own jokes.  Sorry.  It was too good to pass up.

Anyway…codes.  Secret codes.

FrenchiesplantingminesleavingMoscowWell…The reason I’m on about this at the minute is that last Sunday, as announced in this news feature, a page of a letter written by Napoleon in code was going under the hammer at some auction or other.  And this particular letter was of great interest because it detailed what the French army were to do–blow stuff up–upon their retreat from Moscow in October 1812.  So, of great interest to historians and particularly Russian historians.

But of course, as so often happens, the, er, author of this bijou article-ette didn’t quite get his facts right with his comments about Napoleon’s Secret Coded Letter…chiefly because, he writes as though this was the only one.  A one-off.  And how spooky, secret-agenty was that?

Er, not exactly.

Since the days of Louis XIV, back in the late 17th century, the French Foreign Ministry had excelled in code-work.  And let’s face it, in those days of shifting loyalties and French expansionism, they probably needed to.

Anyway, over the hundred or so years, they had developed several examples of petits chiffres (little ciphers) of some 600 characters.

And the way this thing worked was they had the numbers 1-600 written down on their deciphering sheet, and corresponding to these numbers were words, so that when the secretary wrote down his message, he would substitute the numbers for the words in the sentences, which resulted in a pretty confusing or inconclusive reading of the information for anyone without the code book.

By 1750 or so, this enciphering table had been expanded to 1200 numbers, rendering the encrypted messages even more difficult to interpret.  And of course, there were more esoteric codes employing hieroglyphs too.

Copies of these ciphering tables had remained untouched during the years of Revolution in the French foreign ministry drawers, just waiting to be rediscovered and re-used and expanded upon.  But at first Napoleon didn’t have need of them.

In the early Napoleonic campaigns, they had used letters written in a petit chiffre–which were normally composed of number substitutions for about 50 words, but these were quite easy to crack–and if that message fell into the wrong hands, it would only be a matter of a few hours before the contents were decoded.

However, when Napoleonic troops invaded Spain and Portugal in 1808, they found themselves in exceedingly hostile territory, among exceedingly hostile natives…and with the two main armies being separated by hundreds of miles across exceedingly hostile terrain where anything might happen…well…to put it mildly, communication just got a whole lot more difficult.

Yes, in France and across much of the conquered German lands to the east, telegraphs had been erected to aid in the speedy transmission of information from Paris to the other parts of the Napoleonic Empire, but this wasn’t going to work in Spain.  The Pyrenees Mountains were in the way, for a start…

So, it’s at this point, that they go back to the idea of enciphering their letters.  That way, if the Spanish guerrillas captured the courier (as so often happened) even if that happened, neither he, nor, after 1809, his British counterparts and allies could read the thing.  Brilliant, yes?  And by 1811, the need was acute.

marmont1And it’s at this point that Marshal Marmont, assuming command of the Army of Portugal as they called these French divisions, ordered the creation of a new cipher–bigger than the old–comprised of some 1200 numeric substitutions.  And a great many of those numerals would have been used to indicate locations.  Genius!

The next step came from Napoleon himself who ordered the creation of a new cipher, a grand chiffre, for his brother Joseph, nominally King of Spain, (he’s a bit of a feckless loser, to be honest) and to be used to shore up Joseph’s waning authority–and he starts sending the letters to Spain written in this.  But the problem was that not everyone, including Joseph, had the new encryption tables…So, the King resorts to writing things out–writing en clair, as it’s known.

The British too, at this point, are coming into possession of more and more of these coded letters and they’ve got their own code-breakers beavering away at cracking the codes.

The codes vary in difficulty.

Some break words into syllables or even letters and combine separate numbers to form words phonetically or to partially spell them out–as say, if one were to break the word etait (was or were) into four:  et-a-i-t, then it might look something like this when enciphered.  (As if in fact it did when found in a letter from one French officer…)

By the winter of 1811, amidst the confusion of too many code tables and who knew what and when, Napoleon had his chief fixer in Paris, Hugues Maret, compose a new cipher which was to be sent out to all the Marshals in Spain and Portugal and to King Joseph too.  The table had 1200 code numbers, which was expanded to include another 200 numbers which mainly described Spanish places or terms.

GreatParisCipherThe new more complex code, le Grand Chiffre, or the Great Paris Cipher as it was now called, allowed for the same words to be broken up and encrypted in several different ways–making it nearly impossible for a British code-breaker to crack the thing.

Thus the sentence (this is from an actual letter), “Ah my friend, he could not disguise that he was the cause of the capture of [Ciudad] Rodrigo” looked like this when encrypted, “Ah my friend, he could not disguise that he the of 6.28”.

You can imagine the rolling of eyes in the British camp when they came across this stuff…But, as the guerrillas were picking off French couriers with the same ease as shooting fish in a barrel, any and all French messages between Napoleon and his cohorts were written using this code–so you might say, there were nothing but coded letters.

lettersdecodedbyScovellAnyway, despite the challenge or perhaps because of it, a rather canny and quite tenacious fellow by the name of George Scovell didn’t roll his eyes and give up, he cracked the Frenchie blighter!

It didn’t happen all at once and he wasn’t alone in working at it.  Copies of the encoded messages captured by guerrillas were sent on by Wellington to the Foreign Office, the War Office and Horse Guards in London, and their home-grown boffins were hard at work on it too.

[A word about the decrypting process:  the code-breaker’s eye naturally seeks out the repetitive sequences or particular numbers.  For example, the letter e is the most commonly used letter in English.  It also occurs quite frequently in French and Spanish, as does u.  So, the genius of the Great Paris Code is that they didn’t just use numbers for single letters, they also used bigrams and/or whole word codes.  Which makes it almost impossible for the code-breaker to develop a rule.

By having the endings of French plural verbs encoded–that’s ons, ez and ent–again, they’re making it more difficult to establish the rules as the cryptographer might spell the letters out using numbers for each letter, or they might vary that with numbers to represent the verb endings.  So a code-breaker can never be sure where the words begin or end–it’s just this fiendish stream of numbers across the page.

And the big break didn’t come until the French in the field began to get sloppy and write enough of their letters en clair that Scovell and the others could deduce the encoded words from the context within the sentence.]

But Scovell, because he had greater access to all the incoming captured communications, and because of his hard work, fine brain and excellent French, was the man to crack the thing wide open–and this without the help of Alan Turing or a prototype Enigma computer…

But it was that huge.

For decrypting the Grand Chiffre enabled Wellington and the British troops to outflank and outmanoeuvre the French, even as Napoleon was withdrawing 30,000 of the best of them for his campaign against Russia…

I don’t know how long it took–but the French didn’t learn for the longest time that the Grand Chiffre had been virtually decoded and that the British knew in advance what they were likely to be up to and were responding accordingly.  Possibly by the time they worked that out, it was too late–Joseph was abandoning Madrid, Wellington had the French on the run…And this is about at the same time as Napoleon is invading Russia–so just prior to writing the abovementioned letter in code, which as you’ve seen, was hardly a singular event… (punk)

May 1812Okay.  So how cool is that?

(And yes, the reason I learned all this stuff, including how to crack these coded messages, was so that I could put it in my novel, May 1812…right at the beginning.  And yes, there on the cover of the book is a page from Scovell’s decryption table, now found in the National Archive.)

Yes, I’m ranting…

Yes, I am ranting.  Rant, rant, rant

And I’ll tell you why.  Because of the internet. 

Because it makes me crazy and because so many misstatements of fact, so many bare-faced lies, and so much misinformed drivel is trotted out as fact on all the various blogs that clot up the blogosphere that it makes me absobloominglutely crazy. 

So there I was today, reading along in my quaint little Englishey fashion, when I came upon a blog about George Brummell–or Beau Brummell, if you prefer.  Whatever. 

And within two paragraphs, I was swearing.  Expleting.  Using the full-force of my extensive vocabulary in three languages! 

(It’s at times like this that I hate being an expert.  I hate, hate, hate it.  I want to be a nice person, you see.  I want to be supportive and lovely and charming and say things like, “That’s utterly fab!” and “I think you’ve done a smashing job…” 

I do not, not, not want to be known as that wild-eyed, wilder-haired semi-lunatic professor who throws chalk [hard] with unerring accuracy at his students and hits them smack in the forehead when they get their Latin verbs wrong!  [I had a professor like that once.  He was utterly brilliant.  Terrifying.  But brilliant.])

Also, please understand that I don’t really have an interest in Brummell one way or another.  I mean, I know lots about the fellow, because I read and research bloody everything, but knowing about him doesn’t get me firing on all cylinders like say the Russian light cavalry or formation of the Landwehr in 1813 does, or anything.  I mean, I’m sure he was perfectly delightful but…

But, okay, back to this blog…Because the first thing that set my teeth on edge was a bit about Brummell going to Eton where he ‘got to rub shoulders with the aristocracy’ as if it’s some sort of rare privilege accorded to a special few and we should all genuflect or something. 

So let me be perfectly clear here:  I am friends with several members of the aristocracy.  Get over it. 

In fact, until her death, my very dearest friend in all the world had a title–an ancient one.  And do you know what?  She was brilliant.  She was smashing.  She was the very least up-herself, stand-on-ceremony, proud or arrogant person in the entire world.  And I loved her dearly.  And I miss her like stink. 

But I’ll tell you something else.  She had to brush her teeth.  Just like everyone else.  And when she didn’t, she got cavities.  Just like everyone else. 

But back to Brummell. 

The thing about that statement–besides the obvious aristophilia issue which has me splenetically croaking–is that the author had just finished telling us that Brummell was born at 10 Downing Street where his father lived because he was the private secretary to Lord North.  Who was the Prime Minister under George III.  And who had, clearly, a title. 

And in and out of the front door of Downing Street, handing Billy Brummell (young George’s father) the requisite sweeteners to ensure that they could get in to see the Prime Minister were half the aristocratic heads in the kingdom.  Because that’s how politics worked in those days.  

So, young George would have been ‘rubbing shoulders’ with the aristocracy from the day he was born–or any time he wasn’t in the nursery…

Okay.  (Breathing in.  Breathing out.)  So then I skipped a bit, because there wasn’t a wall close enough at hand against which I could bang my head.  Hard…

And then I came across the statement that the thingie that’s called a Bow-window is called that because Beau Brummell used to sit in White’s bow window overlooking St. James’s Street.  What? 

Has no one but me heard of that superlative set of volumes known as the Oxford English Dictionary????  The repository of all the most wonderful information and the definitive authority on how and when words came into use in English?  And there’s no bally excuse for not using it because it’s now ON-LINE!

And had the author of this blog bothered to check any of her facts in that fine and noble work, she would know that it was Samuel Richardson who first used the word ‘bow-window’ in print in the year 1753. 

That’s 25 years before George Brummell made his appearance in Downing Street as a squalling brat. 

Later, Repton uses in in a discourse on gardens and conservatories or something.  And Austen used it in 1816 in Emma.  It had nothing to do with Brummell or his soubriquet.

[I have–since yesterday–refered to the index in my copy of Ian Kelly’s biography, Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Dandy, and have found that Kelly does indeed refer to this thrice between pages 245-46.  He writes:  “The facade of White’s clubhouse…was remodelled during the second half of the eighteenth century, and a little later a bay window was added over a former doorway that became a landmark on St. James’s Street.  Here Brummell held court in the afternoons, in a bow window that became known as the Beau Window…The men of the Dandiacal Body…’mustered in force’ around Brummel’s chair in the Beau Window, watching the world go by and telling jokes.”  I, therefore, stand corrected on this point.]

Pause for more of that breathing manoeuvre…

So then, I skipped along and discovered the startling information that [allegedly] Brummell contracted the syphilis from which he died in 1840 in the last years of the 18th century, when he was stationed in Brighton with the Prince’s own 10th Regiment of Light Dragoons. 


The only problem with that bijou fact-ette is that it’s impossible–which she would have known had the author bothered to read the whole of the Kelly biography that she cited in her footnotes. 

Because syphilis was a fast-working killer in those days and as Brummell was clearly suffering the torments of tertiary syphilis in the 1820s and 30’s, he had to have contracted the disease in London, at the height of his fame and popularity.  So around 1811. 

Because by 1816, he’d shaved off his hair to combat the baldness that was a side-effect of the mercury treatment.

Had he contracted the disease in Brighton before 1797 as she averred, he would have been bald and losing his teeth by 1803–the very time he was introducing the starched cravat of folded linen to the gentlemen of White’s Club! 

And the thing that really vexes me and peeves me in all this is that now this blog with all this rot is out there.  You know?  And some perfectly charming little person, having read a Georgette Heyer novel or something, will think, “Oooh Beau Brummell, I should google him…”  

But instead of coming across a piece that will enlighten her and give her an insight into the early 19th century mindset and provide some useful historical context, instead of all that, this charming little person will get regurgitated sancitmonious Victorian de-sexualising b*ll*cks. 

Because that’s what happened!  By the time Gronow and his mateys were writing this pap about Brummell, Victoria was on the throne, Wellington–another quite the virile man about town–was a staid, elderly statesman, and all that naughty Regency stuff had to be white-washed–and for heaven’s sake, no one mention Harriette Wilson (Brummell’s close confidante and Wellington’s former mistress).  And to say they messed with their facts doesn’t even get warm!

The very worst I ever read of that stuff was one late Victorian biog of Brummell which simpered on about his mincing walk which was like he was tiptoeing around the raindrops. 

Ya, right.  A chappie who was a cavalry officer–think boots, well-built shoulders, hard-drinking, hard-swearing, hard-riding, manly man, a fellow who spent 4-5 hours in the saddle every day–is supposed to have tippy-toed around the raindrops.  I don’t think so.

Oh–and another thing.  Brummell broke his nose when meeting face-to-face with a cobblestone.  On account of his horse having shied and spooked. 


I also have met with the ground, nose to nose, as it were, pretty much in the same way.  Fortunately, it wasn’t a cobblestone, it was a hummock on the South Downs, so my nose does not have an interesting tilt to one side.  However…It’s not Romantic.  It’s just what happens…

And I’d also like to add that that prissy little picture of him isn’t Brummell.  The most likely candidate for an accurate picture of him is this one with the broken nose…

So what was Brummell then, if he wasn’t this prissy sissy clothes-horse? 

He was a man’s man.  A very well educated man who wrote rather spiffing epigrams in Latin (most Eton boys did so–they’d been writing plays in Latin or Greek since they were about 14.)  He loved dogs.  And dogs loved him.  He didn’t wear perfume or scented after-shave–he said a man should smell like clean, country-washed linen and nothing else.

And he most especially loved fabric.  Not in a girlie kind of way–but more in the way I conjecture someone like Karl Lagerfeld or Yves St. Laurent loves fabric.  He loved the weaves.  He was passionate about the depth of colour in a good English wool.  He loved how the cut of a coat could show off the fabric. 

And the early 19th century was a great time for English wool–the new mechanised looms were producing some fantastic weaves and blends…and he loved them all.  They set him alight.  And his enthusiasm for the cut of the fabric and for the design that would emphasise that changed English menswear forever. 

He was a dandy when the word didn’t mean some bloke who wears all different colours at one go and has floppy hair. 

A dandy as he lived it [dandy in those days was defined as the opposite of a bore–work that out…] wore perfect tailoring in subtle and dark colours–dark blue or dark green jackets with buff coloured breeches for daytime and for evening black breeches (later pantaloons) with a well-cut black or navy coat.  All of which sounds very contemporary, very button-down, very elegant.  No? 

Oh, and he had a great sense of humour–and played lots of practical jokes.  A lot like Oscar Wilde from what I can tell…

He was seriously addicted to gambling.  Compulsively.  Obsessively.  And it was this which destroyed him.  He gambled away millions.  And his addiction destroyed all his relationships–just as any addiction if left untreated will do–obliterated all other interests.  It left the friends who lent him money to pay off his debts seriously up against it. 

And in the end, he had no choice but to face the bailiffs or scarper off to Calais.  Which is what he chose to do.  In disgrace and ignominy. 

As for this other stuff, well…I think what I need to say is, People, do your research.  Do it properly.  Check everything.  Don’t present yourself as an expert if you’re not.  And don’t even think about blagging it.  

If only because I’m sick of knocking my head against the wall because you can’t be bothered.  

Otherwise, shut the **** up.

The depth is in the detail…

What with one thing and another, I come across a fair few number of young historians and writers in my daily rounds…and novelists and aspiring novelists and historical authors and all that…and I read a fair number of historical blogs too, some of which are utterly superb. 

(I’m always so grateful when someone has written about something I need to know!  It’s very much a case of my cup runneth over kind of thing for me…)

But one thing I’m noticing a lot is an emphasis or reliance on facts and nothing but the facts approach.  And that, in my estimation, has the effect of de-humanising history and reducing the lives of those who lived before us to something about as deep as onion-skin or parchment. 

This can be most acute with timelines, for example–not that I’m suggesting that one shouldn’t learn the facts, the names and dates and all that.  It’s essential.  Obviously, I think that.  I mean without it, you’ve got no framework upon which to hang the understanding of the events and people! 

But the thing is…the thing is…

How can I put this?

Well, the other day, I was talking with a student of history–focusing on the Tudors at the minute–and she was ranting about how much she can’t stand the blighters.  All well and good, but one of the reasons she gave was that Henry VIII stank so badly.  According to her one could get a whiff of his Majesty from a mile away. 

(Which seems hyperbolic to me, even on a windy day…but I digress.)

So I felt forced to say, “Hang a tick,” (not because I like the Tudors, because I don’t), “but I think you’re leaving out an important element here–you’re forgetting that they were human”.  I’m not saying that the Tudors don’t deserve a degree of mockery–as I said, I don’t much care for them.

“And whatever you do”, I continued, “Never let anyone make you forget that however different they were to us, they were human.   And allow them the dignity of being human–not just a name and a series of dates.” 

Probably, my comment went in one ear and out the other–but I tried.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

But it is a thing, you know…there are so many histories and works of historical fiction or romance where the authors seem to have no clue as to the humanity of those about whom they’re writing.

They’re not human, they’re not people–these figures who people the pages–they’re names or titles with a set of posh clothes.  Which makes them a named clothes’ horse–not a person.   These characters or historical figures are nothing more than cardboard cutouts–you can’t imagine them having a lie-in of a Sunday morning, or preferring sausage to streaky rashers with their cooked breakfast. 

But without some sense of character, of likes and dislikes, of what makes them smile or laugh, well, without that…I don’t know…history is reduced to this dry as late autumn leaves affair, with the life crushed out of it.  (Hence, it’s no wonder that today’s students perhaps think history is boring.) 

You see, we’ve got to go beyond the recitation of names and dates to the details that define the individuals.  And not just because it makes for more informative and more interesting reading, but because otherwise we are in danger of missing out on the great wonder and endless variety and sesquisuperlativeness of the human race.

Take the Viscount Castlereagh, for example. 

I mean, yes, he did all sorts of politically amazing things and he was Foreign Secretary from 1812 until his death and led the fight against Napoleon and was a chief mover and shaker at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and probably one of the greatest Foreign Secretary’s ever…all of which is important, but…

…he also had a thing about renovating kitchens.  No, really, he did.  And every time he bought a new house for himself and Lady Castlereagh, the first thing he did was have the kitchen expanded and remodelled. 

I mean, how is that for quirky?  (Frankly, it sounds just like some friends of ours…) 

I don’t know whether he did it because he was a devoted foodie and an early Hugh Fearnley Whittingsall.  I don’t know if he had the kitchens expanded because he was concerned for the health and safety of his cook and thought cooking in a crabby little badly-vented kitchen was bad for her health.  I don’t know if he did it because he was keen as mustard on the new kitchen ranges that were being manufactured at the time and he couldn’t wait to install the newest version…maybe all of the above. 

But every time he bought a house–both Number 18 St. James’s Square and the farmhouse at North Cray in Kent, he redesigned the kitchen and had the walls pushed out until it was all modern and convenient (in the early 1800’s–how funny is that?) and they didn’t move in until the builders had done their work. 

Beethoven’s another one.  Did you know he had deep dimples in his cheeks, and when he smiled broadly, his cheeks had these great whorls in them?  And that he had a wildly flowered dressing gown which he used to wear in the mornings, and the Viennese used to see him through the open window of his flat in Vienna and laugh at him in it–that’s how garish it was.  And he loved it. 

Or Charles Vane Stewart, Castlereagh’s younger half-brother.  The brothers in that family, in general, seemed to be prone to bouts of depression.  (If they’re sounding quite modern–that’s because I think they are–or maybe they’re just human?)  Anyway, the same month that saw their younger brother killed in action in the Peninsula, also saw Stewart’s wife die after an operation to remove a brain tumour…

Stewart sank into a bout of deep depression–he really did love her…

And it was at that point that their son came to live with Castlereagh and Lady Castlereagh, because young Charles simply couldn’t pull himself together after her loss.  He never returned to the Peninsula, but was attached to the Allies from August 1813 as they pushed Napoleon back and back and back, all the way to the gates of Paris. 

Afterwards, he was a diplomatic envoy in Vienna, for the Congress there, and is notorious for drinking heavily (was he self-medicating?), having an affaire with the Princess Bagratian, spending heaps of money, and wearing yellow boots.  And having large parties and rowing with people.  Sounds remarkably like a lot of folk one could mention…

Or Lady Castlereagh…yes, she was a Patroness of Almack’s.  So?  One of the great loves of her life was wild animals–I mean, she was mad for them in the way people today have a thing about elephants or tigers… 

(I know, you didn’t see that one coming…)

And at their farm at North Cray, she had built a vast aviary and a menagerie, in which she kept ostriches, kangaroos, llamas, a zebra and even a lion.   She was also a seriously switched-on exotic gardener–O’Brian’s Dr. Maturin would have been her kind of guy–so she had this great exotic hothouse constructed so that she could grown the tropical plants which were sent to her from all over the world…And she really knew her botany…I mean, how cool is that?  How real?  How genuine? 

Another one–a person I don’t much talk about–is Lady Caroline Lamb.  Yes, there are all the famous stories about her chasing after Byron and all sorts.  But, she also lost two children.  I don’t know if it was a case of miscarriage or still-birth, but I do know that she suffered terribly with depression after the loss of those babies.  Her husband, William, was equally cast down, bless him. 

And all those stories about her slitting her wrists or swallowing shattered glass–do those not hint at a girl who–however rich and titled–just couldn’t cope and who was self-harming? 

(It sort of changes the way you look at her, doesn’t it?  It brings her closer…and makes her more understandable…even one of us.)

Beau Brummell loved dogs.  Really loved them.  It was one of the things that drew him to Chatsworth, where he was friends with the Duchess of Devonshire–she had lots and lots of dogs.  And, dogs loved him…Which tells you a lot more about his character than that he wore a high cravat–if you see what I mean…

So there you go…look for the detail, the individuality…it will bring history to life in all its glorious Technicolor delight. 

Because, I don’t know about you, but I am definitely more than my date of birth and where I went to school…and it seems to me that since I’d like to be known for more than that, the least I can do for those friends who’ve gone before, is to get to know them as I would wish to be known…

200 Years Ago Today ~ The Retreat from Moscow

Righto.  So where were we? 

Ah yes.  That’s right.  About a month ago, after traipsing with his Grande Armee of some 500,000 plus men across Europe to Moscow–having lost more than half of them already to famine, dehydration, dysentery and just about anything else you can think of–he’d fought the Battle of Borodino and then, taken the capital of Russia, Moscow

Only that hadn’t worked out quite as planned.  Because the Governor of Moscow, one Count Rostopchin, had made plans to set the place alight if the Frenchies too it.  Which plans had been carried out.  And the place had burned to the ground over a period of four days. 


Right.  So here we are, back in burnt-out Moscow, Napoleon installed at the Kremlin (kinda suits him, don’t you think–he would have loved the KGB!), his remaining troops–some 90,000 of them–reduced to living in the burnt out shells of buildings, scrabbling for food, abusing the remaining Muscovites, stealing, fighting among themselves…and all of them waiting. 

For what?

Well, that’s unclear.  Sort of. 

Napoleon had sent a letter to the Tsar’s mother, burbling about how much he valued his friendship with the Tsar and how he believed that this little contretemps of him being forced to invade Russia was caused by the Tsar having bad advisors and how he really, really, really hadn’t meant for his men to act so savagely in Moscow–that was all Rostopchin’s fault…

So apparently, what he was waiting for was a peace envoy from the Tsar in St. Petersburg saying something along the lines of, “Oh!  Oh!  Changed my mind again.  I really do love you best, Nappy old thing, and I’ll do anything you want so we can be friends again…”

(Ya, like that was going to happen…)

But by the 3rd October, Napoleon was getting a little fractious.  So he insisted his sidekick, Caulaincourt, go on a peace mission to Alexander. 

Caulaincourt refused.  Point blank. 

Plan B was to send another chappie, Lauriston, to see the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, General Kutuzov, with a letter to be delivered to the Tsar…

Lauriston went.  Kutuzov played the wily old fox–as ever–and when Lauriston returned to Napoleon on the 6th October, he had good news–Kutuzov would see the Tsar got the letter.  Napoleon (sad, befuddled twit) was jubilant. 

(The letter has never been found…)

So, what sort of jolly larks and japes were the rump (did I say rump? I mean to say remnant…) of the Grande Armee getting up to while they awaited confirmation from the Tsar that they’d won and Russia had lost and they could all be friends again? 


They held a number of spectacular military reviews, with the lines of buffed and polished troops marching perfectly in the great piazza before the Kremlin:  the Infantry of the Old Guard, Roguet’s Division, Compan’s Division, the next day, Gerard’s…on and on and on. 

Napoleon visited the Kremlin churches…The Italian singer, Tarquinio, gave two concerts for the Emperor…there were piano recitals.  The Emperor spent his evenings rewriting the constitution of le Comedie Francaise–the state theatre of France–while on Wednesday, 7 October, the “French Theatre in Moscow” gave its first performance, opening their Moscow run with a three-act comedy called, Le Jeu de l’Amour et de l’Hasard…[the Game of Love and of Risk].

Yet meanwhile, winter threatened. 

(Napoleon believed that the climate of Moscow was like that of Paris.  [Do not say anything!])

By the second week of October, there were frequent snow flurries, though none settled in the street.  The common soldiers (and many of their officers) had lost all sense of discipline and been reduced to lives of savage desperation…stealing, fighting, whoring, raping, pillaging, always in want, always hungry, always cold…and nothing but ashes and rubble about them. 

Daily, detachments of cavalry were sent out of the city to forage for food, only to be harassed by bands of Cossacks and locals.  When (if) they returned late at night, often they would have found nothing for themselves or their horses.  (This according to one officer destroyed the cavalry and artillery horses…)

Eventually, Napoleon caught on though–the Tsar wasn’t playing.  And by the 13th, he was heard to say, “We must hurry.  In eight days we should be in winter quarters.” 

By the 14th, the evacuation of the wounded was being hurried along.  The rank and file still believed they were heading for India.  Reinforcements of cavalry and artillery were sent messages to halt at Smolensk.  Napoleon gave the orders that he would depart the city on Sunday, the 18th.

A flurry, a rage of pillage–pillage on an industrial scale–and at every level, began.  The soldiers stripped the city of anything and all they could find, with Napoleon leading from the front. 

He had robbed Venice and Rome and Malta of their treasures.  Now, he arranged for the great iron cross that graced the tower of the church of Ivan Veliki in the Kremlin to be removed–he planned to carry it back to Paris and mount it atop the dome of Les Invalides where he thought it would look just spiffing…

However…when the cables were fastened to the cross and the engineers began to lower it down, the cable snapped, the scaffolding collapsed, the Sappers fled, and the cross fell–breaking into three pieces as it hit the ground. 

Still…Napoleon had the bits packed up along with all the other holy relics he’d filched and added to his baggage train.

He ordered the remaining buildings–those like the Kremlin and the Arsenal which were still standing and might prove useful to the Russians upon their return–to be mined. 

(What he did not include in those orders was a provision for the horses to be shod with spiked winter-shoes, which would allow them to safely travel uphill and down in snow, sludge and sleet.  His neglect in this is one of the single-greatest contributions to the cataclysm which would overcome his army over the next months.)

Though everything was ostensibly ready for departure on the 18th, Napoleon decided to defer his departure for one more day, determined to spend one more night in the Kremlin.

Finally, on the morning on the 19th October 1812, the vast stream of human beings began to pour out of the city gates in a procession of carriages, carts, pedestrians, horsemen, waggons…hordes of refugees, camp followers…all of them flowing out of the city onto the roads to Kaluga, weighed down by packs stuffed with booty, dragging sledges piled high with pillage, wearing layers and layers of clothing they had stolen from the Muscovite houses or stripped from off the Muscovites themselves… 

It was a bright day, and clear.  And by noon, the Emperor of the French has crossed the Moskva river… 

As Eugene Labaume wrote:  “Those who did not witness the departure of the French army from Moscow, can form but a faint idea of what the Greek and Roman armies, were, when they abandoned the ruins of Troy or of Carthage…The long files of carriages, in three or four ranks, extended for several leagues, loaded with the immense booty, which the soldiers had snatched from the flames, and the Moscovite peasants who were now become our servants resembled the slaves which the ancients dragged in their train.  Others carrying with them their wives and children, or the prostitutes whom they had found at Moscow, represented the warriors amongst the captives had been divided. 

“Afterwards came numerous wagons filled with trophies, among which were Turkish or Persian standards, torn from the vaulted roofs of the palaces of the czars, and, last of all, the celebrated cross of Saint Iwan gloriously closed the rear…

Out of Moscow via the savage scorched-earth Russian landscape and into the brutal jaws of cruellest winter…

Can anyone say Pyrrhic victory?

A word about introductions…or do I mean modes of speech?


This is a thing, or a number of things, which annoys me very much.  And this has very much to do with hierarchy and protocol and all that stuff which contemporary authors often don’t know about, because we live in this ostensibly equality driven society and believe erroneously that these things don’t matter.

Well, maybe so.  Or not.  (I’m not certain that respect should ever be allowed to fall out of fashion.)

But the point is that just about any society previous to the one we’re living in was more formal than ours. 

So, for example, here in the UK, males did not, until about five minutes ago, refer to our friends and acquaintances in public by anything other than their surnames.

I know it sounds mad to say so.  (Surely we call them things like Bingo and Tuppy and Stinker…well, yes, obviously…)

But think about movies made during WW2.  The American movies of the period will have had a cast of characters with names like Bob, Phil, Tom, etc. 

The British films (yes, often starring John Mills) will have had a cast of characters known by the surnames, Smith, Barker, Tuffnell, Williams…And that’s how it was.  That’s how they’d been referred to when they were in school, at university, at their bank, at their club…

I’m still known to many people only by my surname.  Boys in private or public schools still often only use their surnames.  It’s not that we’re not friendly…(well, probably we’re not very), but that’s absolutely how it was until at least after WW2…

This is even more true when one is speaking of those with a title. 

They’re always known by their title, unless one is a close family friend or indeed a close relation. 

So–for example–Viscount Castlereagh…yes, his name before he had a title was Robert Stewart.  Absolutely it was.  But no one, not anyone outside of his intimate family relations used his Christian given name–so that’s his wife, his brothers, his father and step-mother, and his uncles (sometimes).  The rest of his colleagues and friends wrote about him as Stewart, or once he had the title, Castlereagh…Or still later, Londonderry.

And I’ll be frank…because this is typical usage, because of the very clear separation of private and public spheres here,  and particularly 200 years ago, to see a contemporary author using his name and calling him Robert when they’re writing about him strikes one as unseemly, disrespectful, inappropriate and well…genuinely squirm-worthy.  Because 200 years ago, to use his Christian name without the benefit of family relations would have implied that he was your inferior and/or subordinate…

So really, it goes beyond incorrect.  It’s actually a bit offensive.  (Perhaps similar to refusing to call a former president Mr. President…)

Which brings me to another thing that is mostly got wrong.  And that’s introductions.  Until, as I say, about five minutes ago, the rule was that one always presented the person of lesser degree to the person with the title. 

It goes like this. 

If I’m walking about a garden with my friend Miss Bosomworthy and I see Lady Strychnine who is also a friend, I say to Lady S:  “Lady Strychnine, will you allow me to present my friend Miss Bosomworthy…”  

What I don’t say or write is “Miss Bosomworthy, may I introduce the Countess Strychnine to you?”  Because that would be an affront. 

And up it goes. 

If I’m strolling down Pall Mall with the Earl of Erewash and Sir Candlestick MacHandsome comes across the street to tell me about a new gun he bought, I say, “Erewash, may I present my friend–and fellow worshipper at the altar of Joseph Manton–Candlestick MacHandsome to you?” 

And Erewash, being an amiable chap, says, “MacHandsome, glad to know you.  It’s not that rifle-barrelled piece with the carved rosewood…”

The lesser degree is always presented to the greater title.  Or…if you wish to be 18th century pedantic, you would ‘name’ the person you’re presenting. 

So it’s, “Lord Buggerluggs, may I name Miss Frostyfanny to you…”  (Buggerluggs leers appreciatively.)  “Why yes,” says he.  “Miss Frostyfanny…Enchanting…truly enchanting…”

Okay?  Have we got that?  No Christian names once the person has left the nursery and lesser or younger person always presented to their elder and better. 

Excellent.  Because this getting it wrong is making my teeth curl.