This isn’t usual for self…

But I shall try it anyway.

The thing is, in the last few days I’ve done an interview, which if I’m honest I actually truly enjoyed!  And I kind of wished to share that.

And not only but also, I’ve done another thing on the state of the country–at war– during that era we’d like to think was uber-friv, parties, pretty dresses, aristos in high cravats and Beau Brummell–the early 19th century.  And I kind of wanted to put that out here too.

So, do you mind if I just give you two charming links to these bits and say, Thanks jolly much for reading…?

A glimpse of Austen’s England. 

Bennetts and that little white pony, a salutary tale for authors.  Or parents.




My Journey with Jane Austen…

Over the last little while, I have got to know a rather splendid person, one I’ve come to admire immensely.  Her name is Sue Pomeroy and she’s the director of a film-to-be about Jane Austen…

You know, there’s so much hype and chatter and all sorts about Austen’s work these days, but so often, at least to me, she seems to have got lost in it all.  Forgotten.  And perhaps it was that which made me warm so much to Sue and her ideas.  Because she puts Jane herself back into the picture.  And I love that.  I just love it.  And I thought you would too.

Ovecoming Pride & Prejudice coverSo without further ado, please welcome Sue Pomeroy talking about her Journey with Jane Austen

“My first encounter with Jane Austen was on a school trip to a stage production of – I think it must have been Emma.

“All I remember was an old fashioned ‘box set’ and actors wandering about with cups of tea in tights and carpet slippers, speaking very archly.  It was a total turn off and it put me off Jane Austen for years.  If that was the best Jane Austen could offer I wanted nothing more to do with her.

“The highlight of the evening was when one of the students dropped a box of Maltesers in the back row and they all bounced down under the staggered seats for ages.  That at least made us laugh.

“How wrong first impressions can sometimes be!  As the plot of her novel of that name reveals, sometimes first impressions prove to be the exact opposite of the truth.

Carl Davis & Jean Boht

Carl Davis & Jean Boht

“When I turned back to Jane Austen some years later to read Pride and Prejudice I realised how wrong I had been in my estimation of her.  I had reacted to the creaky theatre production and not to her at all.  So, somewhat humbled, I started afresh with a rediscovery of this rather brilliant novelist.

“The other major factor in my re-assessment of Jane Austen was my stay in East Berlin.  Strange, but true.

“I was thrilled to be awarded an arts bursary to work behind the Berlin Wall with the world famous Berliner Ensemble.  What an amazing experience that was.

“One of the things I saw at very close quarters were the tactics employed by writers and playwrights to step around the censorship of the communist regime, and get their ideas across.  For instance there were no less than three productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare in East Berlin during one season, which bemused me – until I realised they were using ‘the Wall’ in the Pyramus and Thisbe story, acted out by the rude mechanicals as a comment on the ‘die Mauer’, the Berlin wall.

“The more productions I saw in East Berlin the clearer it became – writers were using symbolism, humour and comedy as well as adaptations of classical work, to communicate their ideas. The audience knew this and were looking out for all the clues to the author’s real views.  In a repressive regime you have to employ all sorts of inventive ways to step around the political restrictions.

“That opened my eyes when I got back to reading Jane Austen.  It was her delicious wit and mischievous sense of humour that allowed her to find her own unique voice and deal with issues that would not have been considered palatable for a woman to voice openly in Regency England!

20130609_151400“She exposes hypocrisy within the church, the obsequious behaviour of the landed gentry to anyone of title, the blind obsession among the upper classes with breeding, the limited opportunity for intelligent women when a good marriage offered their best, and only, chance of happiness.

“In the period in which she was writing, novels were dealing with fantasy, great adventures, romantic extremism and epic subjects.  Jane on the other hand created novels which reflected the real world which she observed in great detail.  She had strong opinions and her characters played out her views on the world she lived in.  I am sure she got away with it through her wit and comedy.

“By the time I was working on an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I was smitten.  The more I worked on the adaptation, the more Jane Austen’s novel resembled a beautifully crafted cut jewel, shimmering as you hold it up to the light.

JA1“We took the production on an extensive UK tour of No 1 theatres at the same time as the BBC series was broadcast, and enjoyed the same rapturous reception.  It was fascinating to see the audience response to the characters and the twists and turns of the plot.  They picked up all the nuances of the hidden barb, the ‘off the cuff’ witticism, the send up satire. As readers would have done when first reading the novel, published during Jane’s own lifetime.

“Over the years, I feel I have become closer and closer to Jane Austen.  I feel I have got to know her as a person.  And my feelings toward her are of the greatest admiration, and an almost sisterly pride in her achievements.  I also feel a little protective of her.  To watch the public enthusiasm for her work grow to such proportions is breath taking.  And I sometimes wonder when I hear the experts pronouncing on her work, see the opulent screen adaptations and observe the universal delight in dressing up in frocks and breeches, what would Jane have made of it all?

JA2“I see her in her modest cottage in Chawton, writing away quietly, leaving the squeaky door so she could hide her papers when someone came in and I wonder if we have forgotten her individual journey to bring those novels to fruition and then to publication. Hers was not an easy life, as a poor country parson’s daughter, and it became less easy after her father died and she and her mother and sister had to rely on the generosity of others to get by.

“Her sense of humour, her love of family and her deep faith must have sustained her through some of the difficult times, but I do feel for her.  My heart goes out to her. This single woman, writing, keeping the flame of hope and love alive.

“That has been the catalyst for wanting to make this film. The growing love and enthusiasm for her work across the world is wonderful, but amid all the adulation and admiration and commercialisation I see a woman at her desk, in a small English village, having the tenacity and courage to keep on writing, to keep on hoping, to keep on loving.  I want to celebrate the events of this 200th Anniversary year, and the people we have met on our journey to film them.

“But before we all get carried away with the delight and the fun of it all, I want to bring the focus back to Jane herself and remind ourselves of her story.  To look at what it must have taken to write six brilliant novels as a woman at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and how Jane overcame the pride and prejudice of her own life and times to become a published author.  That’s what my film will be exploring.


Sue Pomeroy is currently making a new film about Jane Austen’s life and work.

Fuschia Films logoTo find out more about this new film, and to help make it happen please visit

For more on Fuchsia Films see

For regular updates follow the project on twitter @JaneAustenFilm and @FuschiaFilmsLtd



The Latest on an Austentastic film…

I was about to grumble, you know.

About to start out, “Bloggetty, bloggetty, blog blog blog…”  (In fact I had written those very words…) Because I’m at a kind of stage of deep research into the events of autumn 1813 and frankly, there’s nothing worth burbling in your shell-likes, I just talk piffle at the minute as my thinking about the events sorts itself out…

But then, the news of this rather superlative project slid into my in-box.  And suddenly I have something I want to share with everyone! Because I subsequently had a long chat (well, actually it turned into quite a heated agreement!) with the director of this film about Jane Austen and I’m frankly in a state of holy wow about it all.

So I wanted to copy you in on the latest newsletter because I just can’t keep it to myself.  *wink*


“Dear MM,

“We’d love to share with you the latest news about a wonderful new film on Jane Austen’s life and work, with a special focus on this two hundredth anniversary year,Jane Austen – Overcoming Pride and Prejudice. The film explores Jane Austen’s impact and her struggle for the freedom to express herself in her novels.

“Some fantastic names have already pledged their commitment to the project, including the actor David Bamber and legendary music composer Carl Davis. We’re currently in the exciting early stages of production and have been inspired by Jane Austen’s incredible achievements, and the courage she must have found to publish her novels at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Fuschia Films have an extensive portfolio of theatre and film productions and this film is our latest venture.

“To find out more please go to our website or Jane Austen facebook

“At Fuschia Films we have a passion for making meaningful films that resonate with people, sharing the stories of pioneers in life who we think have made a difference. For us Jane Austen is one such pioneer. This film is dedicated to exploring how she surmounted the pride and prejudice of what was, for her, a repressive society and what it cost her to find her own inimitable voice.

“The film has a strong and experienced Production team: Director Sue Pomeroy has adapted and directed several of Austen’s novels (Pride & Prejudice, Emma) as part of an extensive career, the film will be cast at the highest level and Nick Hamson of Studio Soho with a slate of films behind him joins the team as Producer, with Phil Taylor of Film Engine as Executive producer and Chris Wood of Fast Films as Finance director.

“During our filming this summer we’ve met Jane Austen lovers from all over the world, and we welcome the widest involvement in the film. To find out more and to support the film please go to  where you can also pre-order Love and Marriage – Jane Austen style, celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, as a download and on DVD and there are even exciting opportunities to be Regency ‘background artistes’ in the film and be shoulder to shoulder with the stars on the film set. We look forward to welcoming you.

“Please do share this newsletter with everyone who loves Jane and her work. Thank you.”

So there!  Now you can be as excited as I am…


Courtesy of Mr. George Brummell…

Now, I shall be honest, I don’t talk much about clothes in my novels.

Not because I don’t know or haven’t spent long hours absorbed in the cut of a waistcoat at the Museum of Fashion in Bath or even longer studying the uniforms in the Musee d’Armee in Paris, but because long descriptions of clothes (his or hers) pretty much bore me witless.

(I also don’t write about the various mixtures and flavourings of snuff, for roughly the same reason…it adds nothing.)

But that’s not the same as ignorance.

Gentlemen’s clothing underwent a radical change during the early years of the 19th century.  The long war with France which began in 1792 had isolated Britain from the Parisian aristocratic trend-setters who had dominated the 18th century, along with their preference for brightly coloured silks and satins.

copy-of-beau-bonhamsIn their place, a new, austere, almost monochromatic aesthetic had taken hold, courtesy of one George Brummell.

And for this new vision of male style, based on the finest of British tailoring, Brummell drew his inspiration from the military (he’d served in a cavalry regiment for a while), from the clothes worn by English horsemen and country gentlemen and, above all, from a classical standard of masculinity as seen in the ancient Greek and Roman statuary, most notably the Apollo Belvedere.

And this ideal (as seen in the muted colouring of said statuary) of “unity, simplicity and a continuously flowing movement from one part of the body to the next” was at the core of Regency menswear.

So, gone was the ornate embroidery, gone were the flashy or clashy colours, gone were the baggy cravats and even baggier breeches.

Then too, the body beneath must needs be moulded into a figure worthy of the clothes–hence there’s a new emphasis on daily exercise as taken by gentlemen at the many boxing saloons, such as Gentleman Jackson’s on Bond Street, or Fencing schools about London.  Riding is also known to build strong back and shoulder muscles, as well as those of the thighs and calves.  Carriage driving also requires very strong shoulders…And if you’re thinking it’s all very macho, homo-erotic even, that’s because it is.

blokeAmong the essentials of this new neo-classical look were breeches or pantaloons for the day, made either of doeskin or chamois leather or a soft stocking-like fabric.  (If made of soft leather, often the wearer first wore them dampened, allowing them to dry to his physique so that they more closely resembled a second skin–they weren’t called bum-clingers for nothing.)

Both had corset lacing at the back, a fall front fastened by side buttons over the stomach, and were held up with braces to maintain the severe and fitted line over the thigh.  They were also cut wider on one side at the top of the thigh, and higher on the other, to accommodate the family jewels, in a custom known as dressing to one side.  Beneath the knee, button fastenings kept the fabric taut down the length of the leg.

Evening breeches or pantaloons were made of sheer black silk jersey, knitted cashmere or a stretchy silk-stockinette imported from India, made with only one seam per leg and that along the outside–though this was sometimes embroidered or ‘clocked’ down the length of it–all of which was intended to frame the flexing muscles of the thigh.

During an evening’s dancing, the jersey would cling tighter and tighter as the wearer perspired until they looked more like they’d been painted on than put on.  Also, due to the extreme sheerness of some of these fabrics, for modesty’s sake, the breeches or pantaloons might be lined with either swanskin, as they termed cotton flannel, or a sheer cotton.

For summer, the breeches would be cut the same, but made of stout pale or white linen or nankeen, a heavy twilled cotton.

Just as important was a gentleman’s fitted waistcoat, which would have been made of white or skin-toned fabric–the idea being that if a gentleman were to remove his coat, in his shirtsleeves and from a distance, he would resemble nothing so much as a naked Greek god, muscular, beautiful, carved from marble or stone.

Coats were now made of dark matte fabrics such as wool Bath cloth or ‘superfine’, sculpted through the back and shoulders, with a high collar to provide a contrasting frame to the whiteness of the starched cravats.  With the new emphasis in society on sartorial matters, there were many specialist tailors from whose work to chuse:  Stulz was known to make a large number of the military’s coats.  But there was also John Weston’s at No. 34 Old Bond Street, or even Mr. Brummell’s favourite, Schweitzer & Davidson on Cork Street.

BAL_202477Beneath it all, the shirt of white linen, plain and lightly starched, with collars “so large that, before being folded down, it completely hid [the] head and face…” with tiny buttons at the neck and cuffs.  Cuffs were worn long–a good inch or two longer than the coat sleeve to emphasise the fact that the gentleman did not work.

And of course, the cravat.

Made of fine Irish muslin, a triangle was cut on the diagonal from a square yard of fabric, with its edged plainly stitched.  This triangle was then folded twice and wrapped carefully about the neck, with the ends tied in one of several manners before the wearer lowered his chin to create a neat series of folds which were either rubbed into place by a day-old shirt or pressed with a hot iron.  (I favour the day-old shirt method, myself…less danger of frying the larynx.)

Footwear?  Highly polished Hessian boots with spurs by day and thinly-soled black pumps for evening.

Stockings?  Depending on the season and the hour, he might wear fine knitted wool stockings or silk stockings, plain or clocked–his preference.

Underwear?  Very little was worn and then only rarely–it being pretty much a thing of the 18th century, although it was still in use (in cold weather, for example) and referred to as ‘summer trousers’.  In this look of self-aware but careless, casual, sensual arrogance, there was no room for lumpy knickers or rucked up shirt tails.

1812_greatcoatThere would also have several driving coats and/or greatcoats, caped, and made of a heavier wool worsted or “Norwich stuff” for colder, rainier weather–that’s most days from September to May and most of June).

Anything else?  Gloves.  Which perform a practical service–they kept the hands clean of city dirt, possibly warm, and if the fellow was driving or riding, they protected his hands and fingers from blistering by the reins.

Hats?  High-crowned bevors from Lock’s, the Hatters, on St. James’s Street.

Moreover, a gentleman would have dressed some three or four times during the course of a normal day.

And according to the journal of a visitor to London at the time, he would also have required, per week, in addition to the usual “20 shirts, 24 pocket handkerchiefs, 9 or 10 summer trousers, 30 neck handkerchiefs, a dozen waistcoats, and stockings at discretion”, a chintz dressing gown and Turkish slippers for taking his breakfast.

A few years back I attended a display of Regency menswear as part of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, entitled, Undressing Mr. Darcy.  And during the course of the presentation, the abovementioned list was read out and the audience encouraged to think what vain and shallow creatures were the men of 1812 that they required so many shirts.

Ehem.  Let me just put it this way:  No deodorant.  And no loo roll.  (Thank heavens for those clean shirts…)

In fact, due to the no deodorant situation, one finds that many of the surviving shirts of the era have neat triangular patches inserted under the arm in order to eradicate the yellow perspiration staining.

purefoy as brummellLike Brummell, other gentlemen of his class and station bathed every part of his body every day, and in hot water.  Brummell himself used no perfumes (they were considered very 18th century) but smelled instead of very fine linen and country washing–which he said were the mark of a gentleman.

So that’s a little of what himself is famous for.  I think we owe him a myriad of thanks for the introduction of daily bathing.  I think that often.

However, there’s one small point that I feel I should also mention and that’s that  Brummell loved dogs.  Really doted on the things.  And they are said to have had an instinctive affection for him.  And it’s probably that which tells me–regardless of all that was said about him and there is a lot which is to no one’s credit–he and I should have got along just fine.

Daily Life ~ Through the Prism of The Great War

This is one of those blog posts I’ve been avoiding writing for some time now.  Like for well over a year.

Chiefly because writing it will mean that I might have to get up off my sorry backside and go look in a book or two to confirm a couple of details rather than just opening up my brain and allowing the contents to leak onto the page.  Which obviously is my preferred method.

English officersYou see, as I’ve observed the popular focus on the early 19th century in novels and because of the undimming interest in Austen, I’ve come to feel that–somehow–there’s this assumption from the few oblique references to it in Austen’s works that the long wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France really didn’t impact on the lives of the ordinary and/or aristocratic British at this time.

But that’s a bit like inferring that Austen and her family didn’t eat eggs.  Or wouldn’t have known what they were. She never mentions them, does she?  Ergo…

Yet, like eggs or milk or bread, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, the ongoing war with France was so much a part of the fabric of daily life that–like her omitting to say that her characters had eggs for breakfast–it possibly didn’t occur to her to mention it.  Indeed, this period of war created the very weft and warp of their existence…And the daily reminders of it–they called it the Great War–were so constant, so ubiquitous in their daily lives, that Austen and all her readers took it as understood.

horationelson2The wars with France between 1793-1815 defined, changed and effected abso-blooming-lutely everything!  And they went on and on and on, world without end, amen…

And therefore I would contend that in order to truly understand the period–which some call the Regency (though that’s far from strictly accurate)–one must view it not through a rose-tinted lorgnette with an aristocratic mother-of-pearl handle, but rather through war-tinted spectacles.

Let me show you.

From the outset of the French Revolution, English eyes (and newspapers) had been riveted on the unfolding events in Paris.  Remember–France is right across that little arm of water called the Channel (or la Manche if you’re French)…a body of water so narrow, a person can swim it.  A small boat can sail it on a fine day…

Until just 250 years previously, at least a part of France had always been owned or ruled by England.  The ties, therefore, for all sorts of reasons, were very close.  So, it must have seemed like their French cousins and business partners/competition had plunged into a vortex of sanguinary madness such as had never before been seen…

warprintAnd then, in 1793, four years into this Revolution, the French declared war on Britain.  Viscount Castlereagh, when still a young man, was the in the Low Countries during the September Massacres…he daren’t enter France himself…and he read with mounting horror the newspaper accounts of the events that still today are nearly unreadable for their savagery.

By 1797, France was strong enough and cocksure enough to attempt invasions of both Ireland (then under British rule) and the British mainland…both, fortunately, fizzled out–Ireland’s due to a blizzard and heaving gale and the mainland’s due to the inferiority of the French troops and the welly of the Welsh they encountered at Fishguard.

martellotower But subsequently, all along the south coast, successive governments would embark on building a series of Martello towers to protect against the present threat on invasion.

Nor was invasion just a mythical nightmare of a threat.  Napoleon, in power since 1799, used the year of the Peace of Amiens (1802-1803) to establish one of the largest army camps at Boulogne–which again, is just across the Channel and which, on a clear day, one can see from the coast of Kent.  And what the English saw didn’t make for very reassuring viewing.

For at Boulogne, Napoleon was assembling his troops for invasion.  Some 500,000 of them. And often he was there himself, reviewing the troops in full view of the English telescopic lenses trained on the place.  Imagine it.

Bearing in mind that ever since the Commonwealth, Britain hadn’t had a standing army per se–or at least nothing on the scale of the European powers–this was pretty scary stuff.  If that Corsican upstart managed to get those troops across that tiny slip of water, the result would have been overwhelming.  Quite literally.

Thus, the army fellows spent weeks and months working out which were the most likely points of access and then, carving up Kent and Sussex with a series of water courses to hinder the French advance while they, in London, would get the King and royal family away to safety in Wheedon–where they built the early 19th century version of a royal bomb shelter.  As the whole of Kent and Sussex were carved up this way, the impact on transportation and even agriculture would have been immense–a daily reminder of the threat across the water.

It seems impossible to fathom, of course, but although he was pretty hot as a general on land, Napoleon never got the hang of water.  And that, of course, saved Britain time and again from his invading forces.

Those forces gathering and threatening in Boulogne were only held back as the French waited for a spell of calm in which to cross over. Because Napoleon, judging the difficulty of navigation solely on the width of the Channel, had opted for rafts–large wooden rafts, four feet deep–in which to transport his men, horses, artillery across to England.

And when the first troops were loaded onto these rafts for his inspection, they, er, tipped over.  Many soldiers–being unable to swim–drowned, the guns fell into the water and sank, and the horses swam for shore.  Whereupon, Napoleon stormed off in one of his classic rages…

The threat may have been lessened for the moment, but the Brits didn’t lose their sense of vulnerability.  Not ever.

semaphore towerImagine the disruption to daily life, there, along the south coast.  Also along the coast, just as in the weeks preceding the arrival of the Spanish Armada, huge woodpiles were erected to act as beacons should the French be sighted crossing.  Added to this, from 1796, there were the telegraph hills or semaphore towers, marring the skyline perhaps, but able to send coded messages inland (Deal to London) in a matter of minutes.

No wonder the militias in those southern counties were particularly active and always recruiting…and all the landed families of each county would have been expected to send their sons and husbands to be officers in the militia, if they hadn’t already bought commissions in the military or gone to sea…

Britain was indubitably on a war footing and that’s how things would remain until 1814…

Everywhere they went, everything they saw and experienced would have emphasised this, if ever they forgot…the newspapers churned out a daily diet of war coverage, and particularly naval coverage, because it was at sea that Britain truly excelled.

Between the years of 1793 and 1812, year upon year, Parliament voted to expand the size of the Royal Navy, taking its size from 135 vessels in 1793 to 584 ships in 1812, with an increase in seamen from 36,000 to 114,000 men.   Those seamen all had families, families who missed them whilst they were away, families who grieved if and when they were lost.

In 1792, the size of the merchant marine was already at 118,000, but this too expanded as the Continent was increasingly closed to British trade and British merchants had to seek farther afield for fresh markets.

nelson'stombAdmiral Horatio Nelson was the hero of the age–embodying the tenacity, the daring, the sea-savvy of Britons through the centuries, standing up to Continental aggression and aggrandisement alone.  He wasn’t just lionised, he was idolised.

Thousands upon thousands of British boys went to sea because of him–and he was known for treating the younkers well.  When he died at Trafalgar, the nation mourned, quite literally.  (Have a look at his catafalque in St. Paul’s if you doubt it.)

Again, along the south coast, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton were all swimming with sailors, and with all those industries which support a maritime war–from shipyards to rope-makers to munitions-makers…it was boom-time.

Encampment in St. James's Park 1780

Encampment in St. James’s Park 1780

Hyde Park and numerous other vast public tracts of land were covered with the tents and paraphernalia of military training camps for the army.

But it wasn’t just in the ubiquity of the military that one sees the war–the preferred and very available art form of this period was the cartoon, the satirical print.  The war and in particular, Napoleon, provided the fertile imaginations of the cartoonists with a veritable buffet of opportunities for their cynical art and wit.

printshopwindow1Given then some 40% of the population was illiterate, it was from these prints, every day displayed in print shop windows, that the British public, gawping and laughing, gathered much of its news and thereby formed its opinions.  (That’s every day for nearly 20 years!)

The theatres too invariably included a naval spectacle or re-enactment as part of each evening’s bill, in much the same way as during WWII wartime dramas starring John Mills were churned out by Pinewood Studios.

Plays about Nelson were the most popular and the plays of Charles Dibden (then popular, now forgot) reflected this with titles like Naval Pillars, a piece based on Nelson’s victory at Aboukir Bay.  Indeed, it was often joked that Dibden should be decorated by the Admiralty for the number of successful naval dramas he’d written…

As if that weren’t enough, the popularity of these maritime spectacles prompted the owners of Sadler’s Wells to create a lake of real water upon their stage as a more lifelike setting for all these pieces.  And when one considers that up to 20,000 Londoners attended the theatre each night–and that’s not including Vauxhall Gardens where they also produced martial spectacles or any of the smaller venues where the chief attraction was naval illuminations–that’s when you start to see this war as almost the emotional meat and potatoes of their daily lives.

militarystyleClothing design, especially for women, embraced the military influence–whether it was riding jackets a la militaire with double rows of buttons and frogging up the bodices and cuffs, or as lady’s head wear, taking its shape from the common shako or the caterpiller-crested helmets of the dragoons, there it is again.

For the underclasses, let’s call them, all along the coast from Cornwall up to East Anglia, the endless French wars led to an increase in smuggling activity upon an industrial scale.

Brandy, French silk, and all sorts were smuggled in, whilst wool for uniforms was smuggled from East Anglia, and just about everything else you can imagine was smuggled from the rest of the coast to European beaches…the organisation and size of these smuggling gangs grew proportionately more sophisticated as the wars raged on, and once Napoleon closed Europe’s borders to British trade, the size of these gangs just mushroomed.

As did the need for an increased presence of Preventive Officers and Revenue Cutters, patrolling the waters of the Solent, the Channel, and the North Sea…

And finally, these wars hit everyone where they’d feel it most, every day.  In their pockets.

The war itself, added to the agricultural consequences of years of terrible harvests, led to rampant inflation.  Food prices as well as the cost of common goods soared.  The lack of grain was so acute that in the years 1808-1812, the Government had been forced to buy thousands of tons of grain from the United States, to be shipped to feed the British troops on the Peninsula.

shako1Not only that, but within five years of its breaking out, the cost of the war had effectively drained the Treasury–the wretched conditions in the Royal Navy had in 1797 led to mutiny and the army was, not to put too fine a point on it, starving.  There was, as seen up above, a serious threat of French invasion and Ireland needed troops to ward off any French incursion there.

Pitt the Younger was both Prime Minister as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer (a common combination of offices at that time) and he felt there was a need for an increase in ‘aid and contribution for the prosecution of the war.’  His solution?  Income tax.  Which was announced in 1798 and became part of every taxpayer’s nightmare from 1799.  As today’s Inland Revenue describes it, it was a fairly straightforward proposition:

“Income tax was to be applied in Great Britain (but not Ireland) at a rate of 10% on the total income of the taxpayer from all sources above £60, with reductions on income up to £200.  It was to be paid in six equal instalments from June 1799, with an expected return of £10 million in its first year. It actually realised less than £6 million, but the money was vital and a precedent had been set…”

It was, as it turned out, just a drop in the bucket when set against the vast costs of the war.  A detailed, country by country, analysis of the subsidies Britain paid to her allies over this twenty year period adds up to the eye-watering sum of £55,228,892.

(If you’d like that in today’s money, that’s £3.5 billion, using the retail price index.  Or if you prefer to calculate using average earnings, £55.1 billion.)

And if you think they weren’t constantly grumbling about it…think again.

Nor does that sum include the cost of maintaining a military force in the Peninsula under Wellington, the cost of the disastrous Walcheren expedition, nor the vast (and we’re talking millions) sums secretly paid out to the intelligence agents and spies…The total figure, therefore, is closer to £700 million or £44 billion in today’s dosh.

And none of this even hints at the private sadness and inconsolable losses of those who received, daily, from the Admiralty, from Horse Guards, from commanding officers in Spain, letters informing them that their loved ones would not be returning home…

The war, it was everywhere…it was the carefree laughter and the relief of peace that were missing. And for many had never been known.

That thing called ‘voice’…

Only two things have grown in my garden this summer, because of the unlimited buckets of rain and other delights–and that’s slugs and weeds.  And whilst I did get out today to begin to rectify at least the latter of those…

That wasn’t destined to last.  Because it came on to–yes, you guessed it–rain.

So instead, I finished a journal of a Russian cavalry officer who fought against Napoleon, got stuck into a new book on the Leipzig campaign (with really cool maps–I love maps…)  And stewed. 

About a thing which has been driving me abso-flipping-lutely bonkers for some time now. 

Actually, I wasn’t going to say anything about it, because I fancy it may be one of those touchy subjects, but then I read a thing Julian Fellowes said recently American actors:  “I think Americans are wonderful film actors – the best in the world – but they are a very contemporary race and they look forward all the time. There is something about period drama where they tend to go into a strange place called ‘Period’ where people wear funny clothes.

“Whereas I don’t think our actors do that; they make it very real and that is, with something like we’re doing, very helpful. The cast is so much the main reason for its success.”

Apologies if there are those of you offended by Fellowes’ remarks.  (If you’re going to be cheesed off by comments on this blog, I’d prefer it if they were my remarks, not some other blokey’s…)

But anyway, his comments reminded me of this thing that’s really been annoying me.  And that is authorial “voice”. 

Now this can be a pretty tricky subject, especially for those who write historical fiction. 

I mean, there are the obvious problems if your chappie actually spoke mediaeval French or Aramaic or 16th century Hungarian–such as who knows what the heck they sounded like, how and if they expleted, and all of that…But at least we know that we can only recreate–at best–a sense of how they expressed themselves and how they thought.  If that.

Obviously, when one can read the other languages, that can and does provide the author with a clue to a nationality’s modes of thought.  And that can be translatable into the modern vernacular–one can give a sense of their speech and thinking, just dropping in a phrase here, an oath on the Virgin Mary there…that kind of thing.

And I’ve become very interested myself in how German literature of the early 19th century conveys a sense of respect for family members which, even in English writings of the same period, is wholly lacking.  Words or epithets such as ‘most respected’ or ‘most precious’ frequently appear before the words “mother” or “father” or even “brother”. 

And this in turn communicates a sense of the hierarchy of the society, their terms of reference and endearment, the manner in which age and position was treated with deference, and the use of such phrases and words can convey so much about that society when used well and effectively in historical fiction.  It literally can speak volumes.

There’s the syntax as well.  Change English syntax into French syntax, even whilst still writing in English, and suddenly, your character is thinking like a Frenchman.  Add garlick and onions as the old caricature would have it…et voila, l’homme est absolutement un vrai francais, n’est-ce pas? 

Shakespeare was a marvel at capturing the differences in the various nationalities of these Isles through the vagaries of their speech and syntax and expression–read Henry V and see if you don’t agree with me.

But today, the problem with English, it seems to me, is that everyone believes they speak it and furthermore that they speak it well.  And here, I’m talking about the Queen’s English…or even more so, Austen’s English. 

And frequently there’s this sense–where it springs from, I haven’t a clue–that Austen’s English, particularly that used in Drawing Rooms, was this coy, simpering, contrived hybrid of a language, and too many authors attempting to create an early 19th century atmosphere lay this stuff on with a trowel–the pages of their prose all bestrewn with verbal antimacassars.

Yet curiously, in all of Austen’s works, there are really only two or three characters that I can recall who qualify as coy or simpering.  And they would be that prinking man-bait Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility and possibly Mary and Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion

But here’s the thing–these characters are obviously figures of contempt.  Austen writes them with that arch voice to highlight the appallingness, the falseness, the conniving-ness of their characters.  It’s not a compliment!  She’s not intending for us to want to emulate them.  She’s working hard to make the skin crawl off our backs and head for the door. 

So why oh why do modern authors seek to mimic that voice? 

Not only is it teeth-curling, but if it sounded phony 200 years ago, you may believe me when I tell you that today it comes across like aural root canal. 

(Breathe, Bennetts, breathe…In…and out…in…and out…)

Yes, I know Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote ‘arch’ dialogue in his very successful comedies–but he was writing satire!  Biting satire at that.  And people aren’t named things like Sir Benjamin Backbite or Snake or Lady Teazle in real life.  Those are caricatures!  They wander among the pages of Restoration comedies and nowhere else.  (Okay, yes, Dickens used funny names too–but he was a genius!)

(More breathing exercises here…)

Let me explain by giving you example.  Many years ago I knew a person who was dead-keen to be the next Dickens or George Eliot, or maybe it was Mrs. Gaskell she was hot to emulate.  Anyway, she wrote what she believed was how they wrote and to check for the veracity of her ‘voice’ she’d read her stuff aloud to her children in what she believed was a British accent.  (She was from somewhere in the western US, I think…) 

Now, I am NOT saying that Americans cannot ‘do’ a British accent here.  They can.  Gwyneth Paltrow and Reese Witherspoon are both cracking actresses and both of them have turned in top of the trees Englishy English performances.  Anne Hathaway?  Not so much. 

Where was I?  Oh ya, reading in a false Brit accent. 

Well, I was given a sampling of this performance and all I can say is I’m lucky my eyes didn’t pop out of my head.   To say that it sounded false or forced or frightening may give you a sense of the emotional turmoil it engendered.  My jaw most certainly required wiring, I can tell you–for it had been swinging in the proverbial breeze throughout.  (And yes, that Youtube video of the Austen/Costume Drama rap does skitter across the recesses of my mind here.)

So, what are any of us to do?  I would say, keep it real.  Keep it genuine.  If you can’t get it out of your mouth without sounding like a numpty, then don’t use it.

The good guys in Austen talk straight from the heart.  And they’re not necessarily that prolix either; they don’t beat around the mulberry patch.  Think Captain Wentworth. 

“I can listen no longer in silence.  I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach.  You pierce my soul.  I am half agony, half hope.  Tell me not that I am too late…”

There’s an amazing rhythm and directness in that speech, isn’t there?  A forward drive, which perhaps signifies that Wentworth is above all a man of action. 

(Obviously, the good guys in Mrs. Radcliffe are a different matter…)

But this is surely one reason why Persuasion reads so well, still after 200 years.   Because there’s nothing prissy or arch about the main characters, or even most of the secondary characters.  Wentworth’s sister and brother-in-law are direct and lovely; ditto the Musgroves. 

And that, I do believe, is the voice we’re meant to hear.  That is the voice we should be striving to emulate.  We should be aiming to write dialogue that reads naturally, honestly.  Yes, absolutely we can pepper it up with the language or slang of the period–but that’s got to be used wisely and sparingly.  Otherwise, we stray into the danger of writing caricature…

Yes, we do have the occasional toff who talks like something out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel or like Dorothy L. Sayers’ character, Freddy Arbuthnot.  In real life, they’re referred to as Hooray Henrys. 

There are very few of them about.  And yes, they do have girlfriends whom we refer to as ‘totty’ and who exclaim “Swe-et!” to just about everything.  (It’s a two syllable pronouncement with the first syllable being about an octave higher in pitch than the second.)  But I would suggest writing these successfully could be a difficult thing to pull off–most people wouldn’t believe it…

There’s another problem too–and that is archaic usage or vocabulary.  I avoid that too, within reason.  And I’ll tell you why.

In the King James Version of the Bible, there’s a bit in Acts during the conversion of St. Paul, where Christ said to him, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks…”

(I acknowledge that I have a smutty mind–let’s just get that out of the way now.)  So my first inclination upon reading that some twenty years ago was to think in great surprise, “What?”  But then I dismissed that idea, because that was just silly, wasn’t it? 

However, then, it kept me going.  What did that mean?  Were there some sort of stinging spiritual arrowheads poking at the guy or what?  (I have a very literal mind.  Or maybe I read too much C.S. Lewis as a child or something.)

It wasn’t until last spring, when I was reading the entire New Testament during Lent–but reading the J.B. Phillips translation–that I finally discovered what the pricks were.  First of all, they’re not mentioned in the original recounting of Paul’s conversion.  And it’s Paul himself who later mentions them when he’s telling King Agrippa about the event, later in the Acts of the Apostles.  And there he makes it clear.  He’s talking about the “pricking” of his conscience. 

Of course, it finally makes perfect sense! 

But you see my point, don’t you?  What may have been quite normal usage four centuries ago doesn’t mean quite the same thing nowadays.  It’s picked up some alternate connotations and definitions over the years.  So we–who are trying to recreate the atmosphere–need to be careful.

By all means, read the literature of the period, get a sense of their usage, work with it until it feels natural to you both in writing and in speech.  (Robert Low is grand at this, I think.)

But never forget that language is the window through which the reader knows each character’s heart and soul and mind.  That’s really all we the readers have to go on. 

And the bottom line is–and this is the case whether we accept it or not–we may believe we’re writing in a perfectly charming rendition of early 19th century natter, but the fact is, our readers have 21st century eyes and ears…and if it doesn’t work for them, then we’ve failed. 

At the heart of a great estate is…

This may come as a bit of a shock to some people, but despite having a reputation as a military firebrand of an historian and author, actually I began life as a social historian.

Which possibly sounds a bit girlie and light-minded.  Until I tell you that under that heading I studied things like rural poverty, child mortality, changes in legislation, taxation, wages, the price of wheat, land-use, laws governing apprenticeships, nutrition, that kind of thing.

(I know, you cannot conceive of anything more boring.  You thought, when I said social historian, it was going to be about society and cravats and banquets cooked by Careme with goldfish swimming in the ice sculpture centrepieces.  Er, no.  Not exactly.)

And as I was focusing at that time on the 15th century, my hero was the greatest demographer of the 20th century, Fernand Braudel.  His epic works, Capitalism and Material Life and the three volumes of The Wheels of Commerce were my favourite texts. (Stop yawning.)

Anyway, I was reminded of all this recently when I was writing a post for another blog about landscape gardens in the 18th century.

Because as I put it all together, I realised that, for the most part, when people look at any novel which speaks of the landed gentry–such as Pride & Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy–or even when they visit a stately home here in the UK, there is little idea that the 18th century estate was a self-contained organic entity of agricultural industry.

For in the main, in our industrialised, urban society, we just don’t know what an estate was.  Or beyond looking pretty and impressing the neighbours–how it functioned nor what it accomplished.  We don’t even know what to look at in order to see it properly or as they would have done.

So when an estate is written about, it’s largely as a tablecloth setting for some story, proof that the owner had lots of dosh.  And not much else.  The workings (and the owner’s work) are unseen, unknown and uninvestigated.

So let’s start at the beginning.

When you look at estates, the big houses and the land or huge tracts of land surrounding them, including the landscaped gardens closest to the house, what you need to see is not just Nature wearing her best frock, but profitability and income.

Yes, the houses looked ravishing set amidst those glorious landscapes.  But even as these houses were sat there, radiating the aura of grandeur, influence and wealth which is certainly what they were intended for, they were equally the nerve-centres of their own individual communities and industry.

Think about it.

Often these estates are several or even many miles from the nearest town–this is particularly true in the counties and shires farthest from London.   There were no cars.  No lorries.  No trains.  So whatever was needed by that estate’s community had to be available there, on the spot.

So, if it’s daily dairy products–milk, cream, butter, cheese–there will need to be cows, a dairy, dairymaids, perhaps a cowman or three…

If there’s going to be daily exercise for the family, that too has to be provided within the confines of what is readily available.

There is nowhere else for the families in these big houses to go for entertainment or exercise, or even perhaps for food.  They must be self-sufficient.  They are their own entertainment.  They may invite guests for a week or a month to vary the interpersonal relationships, but they’re on their own for the most part.

So, for example, for the landowner and his family, who can’t nip off to the gym because the nearest thing to a gym is twenty miles away, riding the estate’s land becomes not only a great joy–they loved their horses and they loved riding as do many people today.  But it’s also good exercise, it gets one out of the house, and it’s a way of keeping track of the state of affairs, of their fences and fields.

Driving their carriages around the estate roads–ditto.  Walking…another good option.

So too, an estate undoubtedly has one or more large kitchen gardens and an orchard too, to provide fresh produce for the table–both for the family and the servants.  They’re very keen on this, having just discovered that fresh vegetables and fruit are the cure for scurvy.  But this also means there are of necessity several gardeners working and living on the estate.

And then there’s the surrounding acreage.

In England, land is king.  And unlike on the Continent where they have court centres such as Versailles, English landowners are fiercely devoted to the land and to their rural enterprises and for centuries the Tudors and Stuart monarchs have encouraged them so to be.

Remember too, that unlike on the Continent, particularly during the Seven Years’ War and Napoleonic Wars, there is no invading armed threat to the security of one’s land or property, no threat of ruination or pillage by marauding  troops…So there’s stability.  And this is key.

But land doesn’t manage itself.  Nor do farms left unattended produce their own crops.

Now, there are two significant types of great landowners in the 18th century–the aristocratic Whig grandees who pretty much spend their time running the country, but who are rather less hands-on in regards to their estates, and the vast majority of Tory land-owning gentry, who are very hands-on.

(Mr. Darcy, given what his housekeeper says about him being the best landlord and the best master, etc. is probably the latter. Likewise Mr Knightley, with his intimate knowledge of his tenants and concern for their welfare.)

And over the course of the 18th century, as these people seek to expand their estates and their political influence, more and more land was enclosed as these landowners consolidated and extended their holdings through Acts of  Enclosure–in layman’s terms, removed land from common or communal use.  Even roads or hamlets came under this change.

Before 1760, the rate of enclosures did not exceed 400,000 acres.  While over the next forty years, some 21 million acres were enclosed by statute.

(And if you’re thinking that’s an awful lot of land, and probably the smaller, poorer farmers lost out in all this, you’re right.)

Then too, the late 18th century was an era of substantial improvement in agricultural practice–much of it led by Thomas Coke of Holkham, in Norfolk.

Between the years of 1778 and 1793, he transformed his Norfolk holdings to the extent that the income of his estate grew from £5000 to £20,000 a year, mainly through his innovation of double-digging the underlying marl and spreading it over the sandy topsoil–and this process converted the land from heath to fertile cornfields.

His work fascinated the landowners of Britain and they copied his improvements and constantly applied to him for advice on what they should do.  Like I say, they were hands-on.  (George III was a frequent correspondent of Coke’s on matters agricultural…)

Subsequently then, as recent studies have shown, the landowners acquired more land, they used the land to its best ability, managing it as part of the home farm.  Or letting it out most often for grazing or mowing.

Chiefly because the rents from pasture were so much higher than the rents or income from arable land–the rate being as much as 50% greater for grazing than tillage.  (Which is a tremendous yield for any farmer watching his pennies.)

The income from pasture is steadier too, and less dependent on the weather–which given the mini-Ice Age which was holding forth at the end of the 18th century was no bad thing.  There were several bad harvests in the early years of the 19th century–the worst being 1811, when England had been forced to buy corn from enemy France.

But sheep are relatively unaffected by the weather–and the price of wool continued to hold steady–making them a safer farming bet.  They’re also multi-purpose–there’s the wool and then there’s the meat.  Cattle and deer are also less troublesome and prone to destruction by a fierce rainstorm or a late frost.

And this wholehearted engagement with the world of agriculture goes all the way to the top of society too.

I’ve mentioned George III already.  But Viscount Castlereagh’s letters to his father are full of his efforts to improve his herd of merino sheep at his farm in North Cray–you might have thought that being the Foreign Secretary he had more exciting things to discuss…but you’d be wrong.

Another vital element of the profitable estate was the production of timber.

Yes, the woodlands you see when you look out upon a landscaped park look lush and beautiful.

But most of the larger estates coppiced their vast woodlands and had their own sawmills (without the benefit of electric saws) which fed the constant demand for more and more lumber in the growing British economy.  Whether for shipbuilding for the Royal Navy or the merchant marine, or for housebuilding or furniture building.

Because you see, on an estate, everything is part of everything else.  The whole must work together in carefully managed harmony, and most things are multi-purpose.

So the woodlands served other purposes too.  They provided excellent cover for pheasant–which in turn fed the family after a good day’s shooting in the autumn.  And the woods usually had rides cut through them for the daily ride of the owner or his family, friends and visitors…(And the pheasants could usually be counted on to spook the horses, making for a little equestrian excitement.  Ha ha ha.)

Thus a stand of trees in the distance might provide a focal point for the panoramic vista as seen from the house, but it might shroud a cowman’s outbuildings, the pheasants raised by hand live amongst the trees, and one could have a riproaring zig-zag of a path cut through the wood for those who like their rides invigorating and perhaps a little edgy…

At the head of this business proposition then, this small world of agriculture and forestry, is the landowner himself.   The boss.

Yes, he collects rents which contribute to his income.  Yes, he sells the timber to the shipyards which again provides his income.  But when you weigh that in with his outgoings–keeping those big houses sound (and those tenants’ cottages too) with the roofs intact, meals on the table for himself, his family and all his staff, wages for his cowmen, his gardeners, his hands at the sawmill, his indoor servants…

Suddenly it looks like this chappie (call him Mr. Darcy if you like) is the head of a major agricultural venture, busily totting up how to keep afloat through the long years of war with the French (when taxes were very high, and income tax was first introduced), discussing the price of corn with his land agent or whether they should drain that field at Dander’s Bottom and use it as further pasture, worrying that rain will spoil the harvest and then they’ll all have a rough year ahead, assessing whether this year’s dry spring will indeed make for a good apple harvest and thus a good pressing of cider which will last the winter, and will he still manage to get away for a couple of weeks to Cornwall with his sister…

Oh, and the storm last week damaged the thatched roofs down on the tenants’ farms…and brought that old elm down right across Mrs. Baseley’s front doorstep.

Which brings me to my final and perhaps my most important point.  When the elm came down, it was the landowner and his agent, not Mrs Baseley, who would make good the damage.

With our urban viewpoint and a century of socialist history influencing us, it’s too easy to see the estate–and there are many who would like to force us to see it this way–as part of an iniquitous and unjust class system.

Yes, there were some bad landowners who treated their tenants and servants poorly and couldn’t farm for toffee.  But they were in the minority.  Frankly because the income of a badly managed property will hardly support the lavish lifestyle.  Or not for long.  And those who were bad landlords generally couldn’t hang on to their lands.  There’s also the inconvenient fact that managing a great estate properly is just too much constant hard work.

The great estates were not only whole communities but also the big local employers.  They provided the livelihood and the stability for both the landowner and a vast army of workers–tenant farmers, gardeners, cowmen, sawyers and shepherds alike.  (As well as providing employment for seasonal labourers like codders, harvesters, shearers…)

So the well-being of the landowner was inevitably and always bound up in the well-being of his staff, tenants and servants. (It’s no coincidence that Britain never experienced the kind of mindless and bloody class warfare of the French Revolution.)

And there was at base, in all their eyes, a sense of sanctity when they looked upon the acres and Downlands of “this sceptre’d Isle…this other Eden, demi-paradise…this blessed plot, this earth…this dear dear land…” 

This is therefore what they saw.  And it’s the reality of what Mr. Darcy and his father knew and lived.