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.




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.

An award of sorts…

Greetings earthlings.

I appear to have won an award of sorts.  Or have been nominated for one.  Or something.

(Yes, yes, as usual, interaction with the rest of the human race is leaving me bemused and slightly dysfunctional…)

Anyway, the deal is this.  I display this logo-ey-thing and tell you some rivetingly interesting stuff about self.  (No, there will be no pictures, not of me anyway…) And then do some other bits and bobs.

very-inspiring-awardSo.  Here we go.  Award logo:

And now the list of things I must do:

1. Display the logo on your blog.  Check.

2. Link back to the person who nominated you.  That kind (and possibly delusional) soul is Anna Belfrage.  (I should add that she’s offered me cake, Red Velvet cake, so I’m kind of partial to her…I’m sure you can see that…)

3. State 7 things about yourself.

4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for the award.

5. Notify your nominees.

So here’s the stating seven things about self.  (Are these meant to be intimate details, I ask myself?  Or things like, “I like broccoli”?  Hmn, tough decision.)

One–The greatest thing I’ve achieved is living and learning to walk again.  Two years ago, I was in hospital with a cornucopia of dread diseases and had no hope of survival.  By late March, I was back home and determined to live and walk again.  And I remember reading on FB people crowing about they’d written 200-million billion words that day, and I’d think, “Yes, but I took ten steps today.  By myself.”

Two–I subsequently learned to ride again.  Which was as hard or harder than the walking bit.  But I have the dearest most wonderful friends, who insisted that I could do this.  One got me on a dear and beloved horse I’ve known for years, and he walked me round and round the paddock.  I didn’t tell him–perhaps I didn’t need to–that my greatest fear was that I couldn’t dismount, having lost all the muscles in my back and shoulders.  It didn’t matter though, he lifted me off as though I weighed nothing and insisted I come again soon.  I owe him and that horse my life.  Without horses, I am nothing.

Other–so wonderful–friends insisted that I could and would hack out again.  So once I’d mastered the rising trot again (took a few months) and the dismounting issue, they took me out on the Downs.  And then there’s Tomtom, (he’s a horse, in case you hadn’t guessed.)  He has, throughout this fight back to life, been my brother, my friend, my greatest supporter, the one who’s said when my body says no, “It’s okay, I’ll carry you…we’ll get there.  Lean on me.”

Three–I don’t read German as well as I wish I did.

Four–I played the Pathetique Sonata by Beethoven when I was 13.

Five–I’m currently playing a lot of music by Einaudi.  It was his Una Mattina (on my iPod) that kept me dreaming, hoping, praying, breathing, and plotting during the months of being in hospital…it kept me praying that I would write another novel with Boy Tirrell in it; every time I hear it, he is conjured up.  So in so many ways, I owe Maestro Einaudi for, if not my life, then the return of my imagination and my literary ambitions.

Six–I really do like broccoli.  And carrots.  (Tomtom likes them more…)  And peas.  And cauliflower.  Love ’em. But I hate, hate, hate broad beans.  And hate more than anything asparagus!

Seven–Coming back to life is a very lonely place.  You lose lots of friends.  And the world you wake up to, the world you’ve fought like stink to be a part of again is rarely as you imagined it was.  But I have had the great gift, the great pleasure, the great kindness of those who have loved my books encouraging me, supporting me (though they didn’t know it) and cherishing me.  Thank you all so very, very much.  Bless you.

Item 4.  I don’t know 15 other bloggers.  Honestly.  But I’ll have a go listing those four I do know and admire–great friends and interesting authors.

Jonathan Hopkins.

Jenni James.

Terry Kroenung.

Piotr Mierzejewski.

5…I’ll just go do that now, shall I?



The Haut and Bas of it: Two Renaissance Virtuosi in Ferrara

 Tinney S. Heath.  That’s her name.  Remember it. 

I first encountered her when she got in touch because she liked my books. 

Which obviously made not just my day but my week.  But then…then I discovered she had a skill…a talent which was so amazingly wonderful, indeed so–to use John Donne’s word–sesquisuperlative, that I had to beg her to write a blog about it–any aspect of it, I didn’t care. 

Because you see, she is one of those truly splendid individuals who performs Renaissance music on original instruments.

Yes, this is up there with ‘Bennetts has died and gone to heaven…’ 

She’s also written a rather interesting work of historical fiction sent in the time of Dante’s Italy.  More on that later.  But now, please tuck yourselves in with a nice tub of Ben and Jerry’s to read about, to learn about the best of Italian Renaissance music and through her knowledge and her love of her subject, to see, to be in the room even, with Renaissance Ferrara’s finest…

So here she is, Tinney S.  Heath.

“Corrado de Alamagna.  He was a piffaro so skilled that his name was known throughout fifteenth-century Italy;  a shawm player who became the best-paid musician in the court of the Este family; a musician whom other Renaissance princes tried unsuccessfully to lure away from Ferrara to enter service in their cities. 

“For forty years Corrado was the unquestioned star of Ferrara’s haut, or loud, ensemble, which was described by contemporary chronicler Ugo Caleffini in 1476 as “the best in Italy.” 

“Pietrobono del Chitarino.  He was a lute player celebrated by poets and humanist writers but also by music theorists; a sublimely gifted improviser; a musician in the bas (soft) tradition whose talents were  coveted in other Italian courts, even if only on a loan basis; a man commemorated with a portrait medallion and raised to the ranks of the nobility for his skills. 

“Of him, the poet Antonio Cornazzano wrote “Whoever wishes to pass from one world to another, should hear Pietrobono’s playing.”

“First, a couple of definitions.  Piffaro (or piffero) refers to a shawm, or to a shawm player.  The shawm is a very loud double-reed woodwind instrument played in Europe from the 13th through the 17th century.  Ancestor to the oboe, descendant of the even more raucous instrument brought home by crusaders, it was typically played outdoors or in large halls, usually in the company of bagpipes (in the middle ages) or brass instruments (in the Renaissance).  It gained in refinement through those centuries, but did not lose its sheer power.

“And Pietrobono is “del Chitarino,” which suggests that he should be playing a guitar-like instrument, but all indications are that his principal instrument was the lute, and those who wrote about him playing a chitarino or a cithera were just being poetic.

“The parallels in the careers of these two undisputed musical geniuses are striking. 

“Both men entered the service of the Este court as young men, during the last months of the reign of Niccolò III d’Este.  They came into their own in the reign of Leonello which began late in 1441.  And both served throughout Leonello’s nine-year reign, throughout the 21-year reign of his brother and successor Borso, and well into the 34-year reign of Borso’s successor Ercole I, who ruled from 1471 to 1505 – Corrado on the payroll for ten years into Ercole’s reign, Pietrobono for 26 years.

“Both of them were well paid.  And both were valued by the Este rulers as the status symbols they certainly were, as well as for the undeniable pleasure their music provided their employers. 

“Both taught promising students, sent to them from Mantua and other cities. 

“Both had managerial responsibilities in their respective musical spheres, Corrado for his haut ensemble and Pietrobono for his tenorista, the player who provided the slow-moving melody line (probably on a bowed string instrument) for the lute virtuoso to improvise around. 

“Both received valuable gifts from their appreciative employers – a house (or use of a house) for Corrado, additional sources of income for Pietrobono in the form of revenues from a local import tax, grain and clothing and generous monetary gifts to both. 

“Both were sent on expeditions to faraway lands to recruit other musicians, or to perform other tasks for their Este employers.

“Both of them were capable of playing complex polyphonic compositions.  And both of them were gifted improvisers of polyphonic music, Corrado (and his ensemble) extemporizing dance music according to the rules of discant, and Pietrobono creating lute pyrotechnics around the steady basis provided by his patient – and not very well paid – tenorista.

“Yet today we cannot point to one single written note of music that we know with certainty either one of them played.

“There is a manuscript, Rome Casanatense 2856, called the Ferrarese wind band manuscript, which contains polyphonic music Corrado and his group probably did perform, though their performances would have abounded in ornaments and improvisations that are lost to us – were lost in fact the moment the notes faded away. 

“But much of the music the haut ensemble performed would never have been written down.  It existed at all only as a function of memory, a thorough knowledge of applied musical theory, and improvisational skill and imagination.  These musicians – both Corrado and Pietrobono – were quite literally making it up as they went along. 

“How is it that two such geniuses, almost exact contemporaries, came together in the Ferrarese court in a single year?

“One might assume that Ferrara was some sort of musical hotbed, some artistic center that drew such talent to itself, but it was not so. 

“Under Niccolò (and before him), Ferrara was actually something of a musical backwater, though this was to change dramatically, first under N’s illegitimate son Leonello and later under his next illegitimate son, Leonello’s brother Borso. 

“(Ercole was actually legitimate, though he had to wait his turn, and even then was challenged by a son of Leonello’s.  Perhaps Niccolò was sensitive to the plight of Ercole’s older half-brothers, having been legitimated himself.)

“It all started with Leonello though, a lover of music who played both organ and lute. 

“His investment in Ferrara’s cultural life was not limited to music.  He founded Ferrara’s university, gradually adding eminent scholars to its faculty.  He employed copyists to produce manuscripts, classical texts but also works in Italian and in French.  He launched Ferrara’s tradition of miniature painting and patronized studio painters such as Pisanello, who was regularly employed at court from about the same time Corrado and Pietrobono were.  

“By the end of Leonello’s reign, Ferrara boasted a roster of 14 instrumentalists:  five trombetti (these were the trumpeters who played fanfares and served a function more heraldic than musical), Agostino the trombone player, piffari Corrado di Alemagna and Zoanne de Alemagna, harpist Paolo Grillo, lutenist Pietrobono del Chitarino and his tenorista Malacise, keyboard player Leonello Fiescho, and a singer named Niccolò Tedesco, listed among the instrumentalists because he accompanied his own singing on a plucked string instrument (lute or cittern).

“Borso, in his turn, was responsible for two of the treasures of the Italian Renaissance:  the delightful frescoes by a number of different artists in the Palazzo Schifanoia (which means “banish boredom,” and well it might); and the magnificent “Borso Bible,” which contains over a thousand miniatures in dazzling colors and exquisite detail.  He also continued supporting the Ferrara court’s instrumental ensembles, including making every effort to keep Corrado and Pietrobono from seeking greener pastures elsewhere. 

“Pietrobono may have outlived his preeminence in the court of Ercole, who put a lot of emphasis on hiring excellent singers for his chapel, adding organists, and, later in his reign, building up an ensemble of viols.  As the aging lutenist approached the end of his life (he died at 80), younger lutenists came to prominence.

“The two virtuosos, despite all similarities, had very different backgrounds. 

“As his name suggests, Corrado de Alamagna was from Germany, or at least from a German-speaking country (Italians of the 15th century could be a bit casual about their national labels).  He was working in the court of Monferrato when he was recruited for service in Ferrara, serving the marquis Giovanni Giacomo Paleologo. 

“Monferrato existed in the shadow of Saxony, so it’s possible that Corrado’s first employment in Italy was not very far from his home.  At this time it was believed that the best haut musicians came from Germany, so Italian courts and cities did their utmost to attract German players. 

“Florence, for example, had a law on the books at about mid-century stipulating that all shawm players in the employ of the city had to be foreigners.  Shortly after taking employment in Ferrara, Corrado sent for his wife, who joined him there.  After only a few years he was granted Ferrarese citizenship, in recognition of his widely-admired skill. 

“Pietrobono is on record as serving as Leonello’s barber (a sort of personal medic as well as a hair-snipper) when he first appeared on the Ferrarese payroll, but he almost certainly was hired for his musicianship and was first and foremost a performer, even at the outset.  He was probably more of a valet than an actual barber. 

“He became a very wealthy man thanks to the many gifts and favors he received from his Este employers throughout the decades he served.  Yet he was still a servant.  For proof, see a letter from Ercole to his wife Eleanora, concerning a pending journey to Hungary:  “As for Pietrobono, who says that he can’t go, see that he prepares himself to go, and be sure that he goes in any case…”  Pietrobono was 69 years old at the time.

“Looking at just one sample list of monthly salaries (1456, a few years into Borso’s reign), we see a striking gap between the compensation of the two, with Corrado earning 30 lire marchesane and Pietrobono only 8. 

“It would be unwise to read too much into this disparity, though.  Pietrobono’s salary may have been more on the order of a retainer, and certainly it was augmented by lavish gifts and recompense on many occasions.  (Twenty years later the gap had narrowed, but was still there.) 

“The list shows that all trumpet players earned 10, as did the trombone player; the second shawm player earned 8, the organist 12, the harpist 4, and poor Malacise the tenorista earned only 2. 

“In comparison, the head cook earned 6, dancing master Domenico da Piacenza (famous in his own right) earned 20, and the court’s bird-handlers earned variously from 4 to 13. 

“Leading the pack was the well-known Renaissance physician Michele de la Savonarola, grandfather to the reforming Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola whose bonfires of the vanities and other attempts to render Florentine society more godly were to cause him to lock horns with the Borgia pope and meet his end by being burned at the stake in 1498.

“Were Corrado and Pietrobono friends?  They served the Este court together for forty years. 

“Were they rivals? 

“Were there ever occasions when they performed together?

“Could they have performed together? 

“Naturally, the Este-of-the-moment would have been eager to show off both of his musical treasures on special occasions, or when important visitors arrived. 

“But if you have a shawm and a lute playing at the same time, what you’re going to hear is a shawm solo.  The lute would merely look pretty. 

“Corrado was likely capable of playing other wind instruments, some, like the recorder, quiet enough to play with a  lute – but then it wouldn’t be Corrado on shawm, which would pretty much defeat the purpose.

“But I think it may have gone something like this:

“Let’s assume that Duke Ricco il Magnifico is paying a visit.  A politically and socially important, we-have-to-impress-this-guy kind of a visit.

“First, the trombetti add their fanfares to the party of dignitaries that welcomes Duke Ricco at the city’s gate.  It’s certainly possible that Corrado and his ensemble are with them, either on horseback or marching in procession.  If they are, they will be adding their power and volume to what the trumpeters are doing, or, possibly, playing in alternation with them.

“Or, they may be stationed somewhere prominent – probably on a raised platform — en route, ready to perform polyphonic music for the visitor, almost certainly from memory and enhanced by (carefully planned and rehearsed) improvisation.

“Either way, once Duke Ricco reaches the palace, he’ll be ushered inside, welcomed into the inner sanctum, and probably entertained by Pietrobono and his underpaid tenorista sidekick, playing something wonderful and showy for him.

“Perhaps then they’ll repair to the hall for a feast.  That, at least, will give us a chance to have the two superstars in the same room at the same time.  Corrado and his associates can take their places in the musicians’ gallery and play during parts of the feast, and the trombetti can blow their fanfares to announce the food as it is brought in.

“Then Pietrobono and his tenorista can settle themselves down near the head table and play for the distinguished guest and his host (never mind if no one else in the hall can hear them).  And while they’re playing, Corrado can either rest his embouchure, or, if Duke Ricco brought his own musicians with him, maybe Corrado and the Duke’s piffari can trade a little repertoire and swap ideas.  It’s a good opportunity for them, and they will want to take advantage of it.

“When the tables are put away and it’s time for dancing, the shawm band once again comes into its own. 

“But Pietrobono can’t pack up his lute and go home just yet; it’s very likely that the Duke will be treated to a little intimate late-night concert before he retires.

“I don’t know about you, but I like to think the two men were friends. 

“I believe they were each professional enough to appreciate the other’s skill, and they were not directly in competition.  Maybe their wives got along well, and their children played together.  Certainly the two of them grew old together, as they watched other musicians come and go.

“We’ll never know.  But maybe, once Duke Ricco and his Este host finally called it a night, the two musicians would kick back and relax, share some wine, and crack jokes at the expense of their august employers.

“At least, that’s what every musician I know would have done.”

For further information and fascinating insights, please visit Tinney’s website and blog:


One of the great joys of writing historical fiction is that there are no barriers.  No ‘this belongs to another faculty, like the Music faculty’ moments in the work. 

(Though I dare say this may hold true for biographers as well.) 

Because all these disciplines–music, art, literature, philosophy–are invaluable for understanding those who people the past, and their perceptions of their world.  And none, I think, is more effective for this than music.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, with music we get the rare chance to hear what they heard, and perhaps in that instant to understand something of the world in which they lived.  We experience with them what made them laugh, what made them weep.

Which brings me to the utterly delicious and delightful composer of early 19th century opera, Gioachino Rossini.  (I went to hear his Il barbiere di Siviglia just last month…and it was heaven!) Continue reading

With best wishes for this Christmas 2011…

I’ve been trying to think of a nifty post for you.  Something festive and rich in the comfort and goodwill of the season. 

But the fact is…well…the fact is that I’ve been so busy, what with decorating the Christmas tree and baking and eating Christmas num-nums (emphasis on the eating…) and generally overcoming all those insurmountable trifles that the holiday season seems to bring…

And then there’s the music. 

Which shouldn’t be a problem. 

And it isn’t.  Not really. 

Except that my preferred Christmas music is all from the Renaissance (sung by the Tallis Scholars or the Boston Camerata) and is in French or Latin, sometimes German. 

And preferred is the wrong word, of course.  Beloved is closer to the mark.  

Because they still had such a sense of delight and awe over the whole thing in the Renaissance, you know.  And everything, but everything was thrown into the lyrics.  Like this one, an absolute favourite:  

Or vous tremoussez pasteurs de Judee
Or vous tremoussez pasteurs de Judee
Chantez parmi le preau nolet nolet nolet
Chantez parmi le preau nolet nolet nau…

Un joli muset in oyseau embroche
Et puis qu’en j’ai fait de ma grand garoche
Un fromage a l’enfanteau nolet nolet nolet
un fromage a l’enfanteau nolet nolet nau…

Hurtault lui donna un quignon de beurre
Tienurine bailla un bouchon de feutre
Floquet bailla son tourteau nolet nolet nolet
Floquet bailla son tourteau nolet nolet nau…

(Make merry, shepherds of Judaea, Sing in the field the new, new, new Noel.  The child is as sweet as a bird on the branch, so I made him a cheese with the milk of my great nanny-goat, new, new, new Noel.  Hurtault gave him a mound of butter, Tienurine gave him a bale of straw, Floquet gave him his cheese-cake, new, new, new Noel…) 

None of which is a genuine problem except that once I’ve switched into thinking in another language for the purpose of singing along (I sing very badly and no, there will not be a YouTube rendition…)  Well, you see, then, the fact is, I have trouble then switching back to English. 

And anyway, I trust you’re all busily wrapping and baking and getting caught up in the delight of the season.  And that’s as it should be. 

(But if you’re not, I had the great privilege of being interviewed by J.A. Beard this week…and does he ask good questions!)

So it remains only for me to wish you all the very best Christmas–full of light, laughter, promise, joy and wonder.

Knowing what one’s readers don’t know…

I’ve been following the virtual book tour of the very knowledgeable on-all-things-Stuart Gillian Bagwell recently, because well, she is knowledgeable on the most arcane and intriguing bits of trivia this side of Antonin Careme’s sugar palaces.  And I simply can’t resist. 

(She did a fascinating piece on pillion saddles in one.  With pictures!)

But on the blog where she had posted her latest musings–this time on the subject of miniature paintings–the blog-mistress complimented her because she’d included several miniatures and remarked that it was wonderful to see what a miniature looked like at last…

Which kind of stopped me in my tracks. 

Because I can’t imagine not having seen a miniature.

You see, I live here. 

That is to say, I live in Great Britain–here where so many historical novels are set–in a small out of the way place in the south of the country, but I am, inevitably, surrounded by all this…well, we refer to it as junk.  Or stuff. 

Like miniatures and ancient buildings and swords and old bits of horse tack…It’s all just there.  It’s inescapable. 

I’d been reading another blogpost too–this one about the Tower of London.  A place which I don’t think about very much.  By the time of my period of speciality it was used as a menagerie for all the wild animals that had been given as gifts to the Crown.  So people went there to see the lions and tigers and suchlike. 

But there again was a comment about there’s nothing like the Tower of London in the US.  Which is obviously true.  The place is roughly 1000 years old.  But here’s the thing–so is the Abbey in the town where I live and where we go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. 

And it’s not so much that we take these buildings or artefacts for granted, it’s just that they are familiar to us from childhood.  They are part and parcel of the fabric of our beings. 

Which then can make it tricky to write historical fiction–particularly if one is thinking/hoping there might be an international-ish market for one’s work. 

How do I know what the reader doesn’t know? 

This was all brought home to me years ago when I was up in a rather rich suburb of London–driving through, as you do, on the way to someone’s house or something.  

Anyway, there we are, driving along this fiendish road, and I’m looking out the window and laughing at the names people give to their houses.  This one’s Little Croft.  The next one’s Middle Croft… And the thing is, these houses are stonking great neo-Tudor mansions.  There’s no ‘croft’ about it! 

A croft, for those who don’t know, is a small, sometimes with only one room, stone cottage, often whitewashed, often with a thatch roof, (absolutely bloody freezing in winter and none too warm in summer), up in the Highlands of Scotland.  The smaller of the crofts were inhabited by crofters–maybe today we’d call them subsistence tenant farmers–who farmed the land a bit, kept the sheep, and lived impoverished and isolated lives. 

So you can see, I think, the anomaly in calling one of these massive modern mansions–some of them with their own gyms–any kind of croft.  One would be surprised if the owners had ever even met a croft, frankly. 

All of which got me thinking–how do I convey, for the reader say in Tucson who has never been outside the US, how grimy London was in 1813?  How thick was the fog. 

Do they know that the women (and men too) used wax to keep their curls in place–not unlike today?  Have they any idea how to take snuff one-handed?  And how that gesture would set a man apart in an age when others were doing it two-handed? 

Do they know what a miniature looks like?  (I’d never even thought of that before this morning!)

And Paris?  Which was radically altered during the Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon.  How do I explain that there wasn’t an Arc de Triomphe?  That it was only a quarter built and then abandoned when Napoleon abdicated in 1814?  Or that all the streets had a kind of glaucous black muck, inches and inches deep, the combination of the horse droppings and the household rubbish that houses put out on the corner, but which never got taken away, and so it was all trampled down into this permanent sludge…

Or what if they don’t know that English dinners weren’t served in several or many courses?  But that there were two courses, during both of which sweets and savouries were placed side by side on the table…

Or that orchestras didn’t practise together before performance?  The players just turned up, got handed their music, and got on with it, so the performances–even of great works like the premiere of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony–weren’t rehearsed.  They were messy…at best.

How do I know what to say and when to just shut the heck up?  Even though I do believe in historical accuracy and all that–and I want my readers to be able to envision a thing as much as possible as it was, hear what they heard, know what it smelled like (okay, maybe not so much)…

But should I tell them that blowing the yard of tin or the post-horn was a mighty tricky business?  That you had to have lungs like an ox and it takes a good bit of skill, even for a horn-player, and that they often played a bit of a tune when coming into town?  Or that many post-horns are jointed in the middle, so they can be taken apart into two pieces…

How do we know what our readers do and don’t know?  And where to draw the line between writing ‘setting’ and just being a walking encyclopaedia of our period? 

I wish I knew…