Elizabeth

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In the early 19th century, every house of consequence had a shrubbery. Sometimes it was a simple grassy area with shrubs and a few trees; sometimes there was an attractive bench beside a winding gravel path where a young lady could sit and enjoy nature; and it could be as large or small as the owner wanted. In essence, it was the antithesis of the more formal parterres, geometrical shapes and clipped box hedges at the front of the house which proclaimed the owner’s status and control over Nature.

Formal gardens proclaimed the owner’s status

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Georgette Heyer’s Venetia was first published in 1958 and it is one of the books I turn to when things are difficult. It was one of Georgette Heyer’s own favourites, she called it (and The Unknown Ajax) ‘the best of my later works’. Lord Damerel’s journey from a cynical rake, gambler, drinker and profligate to a man who is worthy of the heroine, Venetia, is a long, thorny path with many twists and turns. He had had a difficult childhood with cold, censorious, unloving parents which turned him into dissolute libertine and a man who allows himself to be cast as a villain by others. It takes him much of the book to realize that its a role he’s outgrown.

Cover by Arthur Barbosa for ‘Venetia’ by Georgette Heyer, 1958

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March 17th is St Patrick’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland and, this week, I’m looking at a couple of places in Northern Ireland which he visited. St Patrick, whose family was Romano-British, was born in about AD 370, somewhere in Western England between the Severn and the Clyde. His father, a Christian, was a man of some standing in his community and owned a small estate. When he was about sixteen, Patrick was captured by pirates, taken to Ireland, sold as a slave and became a shepherd. Six years later, he escaped and, eventually, found a ship to take him home.

St Patrick’s Protestant Cathedral, Downpatrick. The poet John Betjeman declared it Britain’s loveliest small cathedral.

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Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), the only child of George, Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent and, later still, George IV) and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, had a short but tempestuous life. She was the only child of her parents’ unhappy and short-lived marriage, and heir presumptive to the throne. Sadly, she was destined to become a pawn in the breakdown of her parents’ disastrous marriage.

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817) by George Dawe, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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My late 19th century copy of Manners and Rules of Good Society by ‘A Member of the Aristocracy’ deals with everything a novelist or reader could possibly want to know about how Society operated and, as far as I can tell, the same rules applied in the Regency period. This week, I want to look at the knotty question of how one introduces somebody to someone else with regard to Jane Austen’s novels, or, indeed, any Historical novel set before the First World War.

‘Manners and Rules of Good Society’ by a Member of the Aristocracy. My copy is an 18th edition which dates from 1892

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This painting, ‘The Wounded Cavalier’ by William Shakespeare Burton, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856, has something about it which has always intrigued me. What’s going on? Why is the young Puritan looking down so disapprovingly. Why is the Cavalier lying wounded in the middle of a wood?

‘The Wounded Cavalier’ by William Shakespeare Burton (1824-1916), the Guildhall Art Gallery, London

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What must it have been like to be held in a prison where the gallows was always visible? Suppose that you had been condemned to hang and would soon be climbing those wooden stairs and feel the hangman put the noose around your neck. The very stones of the place must have smelled of misery and hopelessness – the thoughts jostled through my mind when I visited Downpatrick Gaol, now a museum, in County Down, Northern Ireland.

  1. The gallows in Downpatrick Gaol

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This week, I’ve been reading up on late 18th to early 19th century’s ladies’ underwear. What, I found myself wondering, was the difference – if any – between stays and corsets; or smocks, shifts and chemises?

I discovered that the Radical essayist and poet Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), had something to say about it.

The 19th century corset – constraining or revealing?

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I have long loved the stylish and witty novels of Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) and I know that I am not alone. The actor, playwright and composer, Noël Coward, also enjoyed her novels and admired her technique – especially her clever use of irony. The novelist A.S. Byatt itemized why Heyer’s Regency novels were so successful: ‘Paradise of ideal solutions, knowing it for what it is, comforted by its temporary actuality, nostalgically refreshed for coping with the quite different tangle of preconceptions, conventions and social emphases we have to live with. Which is what good escape literature is about.’  Heyer did her research properly; her Regency world may be limited in its social range but she undoubtedly had the gift of drawing her readers in, holding them spellbound, and making them laugh and feel better.

The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer 1951

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Every now and then my local library has a book sale and some years ago, whilst eagerly scanning the book titles, one of Virago’s familiar dark green covers caught my eye. It was High Albania by a woman I’d never heard of, Edith Durham, (1863-1944). First published in 1907, it was an eye-witness account of her hair-raising travels in the mountains of Albania. Intrigued, I bought it.

High Albania by Edith Durham

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