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.

Slainte!

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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 http://www.fuschiafilms.com/jane-austen-film-products-and-events/.

For more on Fuchsia Films see http://www.fuschiafilms.com

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

and www.facebook.com/JaneAustenOvercomingPrideAndPrejudice

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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*

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“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 www.fuschiafilms.com or Jane Austen facebook pagewww.facebook.com/JaneAustenOvercomingPrideAndPrejudice

“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 http://www.fuschiafilms.com/jane-austen-film-products-and-events/  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…

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Castles, Customs, and Kings…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slainte!

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.

The inimitable Georgette Heyer…

It would seem I’ve been procrastinating…but that’s not actually the case.

What is the case is that I’ve got so much on my plate that any multi-tasking capabilities I may have possessed have run for the proverbial hills, leaving me with about three half-written blogs, piles of reading on Russian foreign policy circa 1812, half a sonnet frollicking about in my head, and too many characters from the next books standing in the wings, tapping their feet, waiting for their cue to come on.

[And the answer to “Ha ha, how do you sleep well at night?” is “Not very well really…I wake up at about four and…”]

Anyway.

Recently, I was reminded by a friend’s complaints about the cheesiness of much of today’s literary marketing of a letter I received from a literary agent, a female of the species.  Which actually, in retrospect, amused me.

blokeI had sent this individual the opening chapters for my novel, Of Honest Fame, you see, along with the usual charming, banterful letter and a synopsis.

Then, after the obligatory wait of several months, said agent had returned the sample chapters along with a rejection letter in which she compared the work to the novels of Georgette Heyer–novels for which, she assured me, there was no market.

From this fatuous comparison, I deduced she had either been drinking…and/or was terminally stupid…and most assuredly had never read any of Heyer’s work.  [Even since her death in 1974, Heyer’s works have NEVER been out of print.]

Hence after my incredulous, “What?” you will understand that my uppermost emotion was relief at the lucky save!

[Exactly what about a boy setting a corpse alight and later getting the basting of a lifetime could possibly remind anyone of a novel by Georgette Heyer still eludes me.  But then, I fear I am too literal in my understanding of these things.

What I’m guessing this creature was dim-wittedly trying to say was that the novel was set in the early 19th century, quite possibly the Regency, and therefore something or other…And I confess, one longed to meet the dotty female and say, “Yes, dear, the novel is set in the early 19th century.  And so is War and Peace.  Or can you not spell that?”]

But lately, you know, I’ve been seeing Miss Heyer’s name splashed about a fair bit–usually on the cover of some allegedly Regency novel  [just like Georgette Heyer, the endorsement gushes] a term which was coined to describe some, though not all of her work–and this has actually made me want to spit teeth.

1812_greatcoatFor this comparison can only be based on the crudest and most simple-minded assessment of Heyer’s work–although, interestingly enough, in Heyer’s lifetime, critics of her work dismissed it with the words, “another Georgette Heyer.”

And perhaps this is the problem.  And it’s an ongoing one.

Because both of those statements about Heyer reveal how little the author/reviewer knows or understands of Heyer’s work, whilst at the same time committing  the absolute bimbonic folly of fancying that a novel’s quality can be deduced from what the characters are wearing and where/when the thing is set..

To imagine that a novel is nothing more than a plotline, a time period and a few stock characters–thus anyone who writes a thing set in the early 19th century must of necessity be writing like Miss Heyer–is to wholly underestimate and undervalue the extra-ordinary talent, apparently effortless prose style, and wit of this quintessentially British author.  It’s like saying all bars of soap are the same.

Or put another way, it is to be criminally stupid and terminally, intellectually myopic.  Ehem.

(Just as when I see contemporary authors comparing their own works to hers, I mark them down as delusional.)

Because Georgette Heyer is inimitable.

There is no one like her.

Just as no one is like P.G. Wodehouse.

Heyer was a one-off, an original, a woman of tremendous talent who backed up every book with oodles of hard work and endless research, at a time when the historical novel–light, dark or in-between–hardly existed.

She was a pioneer.

Both Wodehouse and Heyer were authors of a certain era, who because of the tremendous ease with which they created their fictional worlds, their prodigeous talent for making prose flow like rippling, streams of wit, dominated the literary scene for more than five decades of the 20th century, without equal.

Like Wodehouse, her sentence and paragraph construction are peerless.

Highgate Tunnel Mail coachAnd like Wodehouse and the world of Blandings Castle, Heyer created a parallel Regency London and initially Sussex (where she grew up)–one without politics, the nastiness of war or assassination or Napoleon, one where the West End and Mayfair were clean and bright and rarely raining [we wish!] and most people rubbed along tolerably well.  And it is against this delicious confection of a backdrop that she set her tales, many of which were plays on the traditional favourite, the Cinderella story.

You know the drill, poor female requires handsome rich prince to see through the tatters of her shyness and the ashes of her genteel poverty, her lower position in society, and recognising her true merit, her lovely laughter and wit, sweep her off to a happy, rich, life…Yadda yadda yadda…

And certainly given that during the early 19th century and indeed looking honestly at the career opportunities for women in the early 20th century, the Cinderella story is a fitting one–without a man, particularly a rich one to provide, life didn’t offer many choices, and even fewer bonuses.

Equally, unlike in real life, in Heyer’s world, the aristocracy and gentry were plentiful; the male of the species were witty, urbane, amused, well-dressed and loaded–all alpha males with a sublime sense of humour, great shoulders and a starched cravat.

But this, my friends and companions, is where Heyer gets interesting.  Because she is not writing the standard Cinderella story in as many permutations as she can manage.  Rather she is subverting the genre even as she is creating it.

Georgette Heyer was born in 1902, in Wimbledon.  She lived through and remembered all her life that period of turmoil when women got the vote, when at last they were allowed into universities like Oxford and Cambridge, when a certain equality with males appeared possible.  For women, the world in which Heyer grew up was one of new, untried and unexplored horizons.  And Heyer, rather than writing the same old same old took that standard formulaic romance, broke the mold and turned it upside down, bless her.

If, as the Arab saying has it, “stories teach people how to live”, then Heyer was writing the template for the new millenia’s women.

Indeed, from the outset, Heyer’s females were not the simpering, swooning simpletons beloved by her fellow pioneers of historical fiction, Baroness D’Orzy and Raphael Sabatini.  [Recall, Heyer’s first published work, The Black Moth, came out in 1921.]  Instead, she started as she meant to go on and in her works, it was all to play for.

tea on the lawn-sandbyThe Masqueraders, published in 1928, gave the female protagonist the lead male’s role and gave to her brother the role of pantomime princess, beautifully dressed and undetected in female garb.  And whilst this may have been a play on the history of the Scottish uprising of 1745 and the fact that Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped from Scotland dressed as a servant woman, and equally, the British stage has a long tradition of males in female roles, I cannot begin to imagine how this played in 1950’s America.  If it played at all.

The Corinthian, published in 1940, took the Cinderella lead and gave it to the rich hero.  Sir Richard Wyndham is rescued (he says it himself) from the onerous duties and ties of family and financial expectation by the young rebel, Pen Creed–the ashes of his wealth and the tatters of his fine clothes seen through by this rebel-child of a girl with decided opinions, a wicked sense of humour and wearing boy’s clothing, thus ensuring Richard’s future happiness.

The Grand Sophy (1950) takes matters even further.  Sophy isn’t just masterful, she masters the whole family–who admittedly need it.  But there is nothing shrinking or feeble or swooning about her.  She’s about as far from the Victorian virgin-ideal as one could hope to get.  And reading her, I have no doubt, empowered a whole generation of young women, engendering in them the belief that they could surmount any and all obstacles, even as it encouraged them to be amusing, wise and formidable, and still be lovable.

(Since girls of the 1950s were still being encouraged to laugh at a bloke’s jokes, even when they weren’t funny, to shut up and listen and hide their own intelligence, this is probably a great deal more subversive than we might today think.)

tomkinsVenetia (1958), Frederica (1965), A Lady of Quality [Annis Wychwood] (1972), all provide further proof of her talent for upending convention.  None of these main female characters are blushing debutantes.  They are all older, wiser, savvier, pragmatic, with good, sound heads on their shoulders, shouldering burdens that the men in their lives have shied from.  They are vibrant, confident, self-assured, the intellectual equal if not superior of their male counterparts, with a self-knowledge to rival that of a seasoned philosopher.

And none of them want rescuing.  Indeed, often it is they who are more likely to mount the white charger and ride to the aid of their men…

But while Heyer may be mounting a subterfuge of a campaign on behalf of capable women everywhere, she does so with such finesse, such charming irony and delicious wit, that what might be a provocative storyline of female empowerment is couched in a flow of easily digested, apparently innocuous delight.

And yet, what an ironic wit she had.  Her authorial voice was unique.  Delicate, graceful, laced with genial good-humour, and without the cruelty of some of Austen’s observations, Heyer poked fun without poking anyone in the eye.

Listen to this:  “Fashion was not kind to George…”  Or she will write of a lady “enjoying ill-health”–how much more tolerant than Austen’s descriptions of Lady Bertram?  That lightness of touch has more in common with Wodehouse, surely.

And she is, I will be honest, quite possibly greatest though when she writes of sisters, aunts and mothers.  She captured these relationships with all their  invisible, manipulative, endearing and powerful strings attached as no one before her or since.  She writes them all honestly, graciously, humorously, with her tongue firmly fixed in her right cheek…

Her prose is as smooth and effortlessly elegant as the unfurling of silk pennants in the breeze–like “drowning in honey, stingless”–and is unmatchable and unrivalled.

And behind of and in back of all this was the strength of her unending research, her notebooks filled with slang, with details of dress, of society, family, invention and history.

Interestingly too, unlike the current craze for implausible aristocratic titles that one may encounter between the pages of contemporary historical romances, as she grew older, Heyer came more and more to favour stories of the gentry and professional classes.  

Almacks CruikshankBlack Sheep, A Lady of Quality, Frederica, Charity Girl, The Nonesuch, Cotillion, Arabella, The Toll-gate…whether she was playing to the new ideal of meritocracy and equality in the 20th century or whether she was sidestepping the Labour-inspired class warfare issues, I cannot tell you.  But these novels are most assuredly not filled with scenes at Almack’s, tales of the ton, or tired witticisms allegedly spoken by George Brummell–the cliche-ridden world of so-called Regency romances.

If Heyer has a failing at all, it is in her male protagonists–too many of them read exactly the same and might be carbon copies of one another:  bored, well-dressed, sporty, self-indulgent.  And they become invariably soppy at the end–which I personally find sick-making.  But that’s just me.

Still…when I recounted the sorry tale of my rejection to a friend, an Oxford don (male), his reaction was as far from mine as could be.  “She compared you to Georgette Heyer?” he said.  “No one has ever paid me a compliment like that.  If they had, it would have been the greatest compliment of my life!  I would give anything to be compared to her…Wow!”

Which also makes me laugh.  For truth is, I know how hard she worked and I respect her too much to even dream of aspiring to be her equal…

Yes, I’m ranting…

Yes, I am ranting.  Rant, rant, rant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to Brummell. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pause for more of that breathing manoeuvre…

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

Hello? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ehem. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, shut the **** up.