Elizabeth Hawksley

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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This year is the poet William Wordsworth’s 250th birthday. So why should we celebrate him?

From a 21st century point of view, the problem with William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is that it’s difficult to label him neatly. He was an early Romantic poet who held radical views. His fellow-poet contemporaries, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, who knew him personally, all predeceased him by at least twenty-five years. We cannot know how Byron, Keats and Shelley would have turned out if they had lived, but Wordsworth, unromantically, became an Establishment figure, one of the nation’s most loved and respected poets, and ended up as Poet Laureate.

William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1842. The poet is standing under the brooding mountain, Helvellyn, as darkness falls. Photo, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. 

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I have a nineteenth century screen in my sitting-room. It comprises four hinged panels: one side has a scarlet background, and the other has a black one. It was a popular pastime for ladies to buy cut-out and varnished pictures to paste onto the screen, or perhaps into a scrap book, and create their own customized art-work.

The Spanish lovers

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I first met the quagga when I was about seven in an aquatint dating from 1804 by the painter Samuel Daniell in a book in my grandfather’s library called African Scenery and Animals. There was something about it which appealed to me – it looked a noble animal, standing in the South African veldt with wildebeest in the background – almost a creature of legend. I liked its unusual name, for a start. And it wasn’t quite like anything else I’d seen; almost a zebra with stripes at the front but becoming a sandy colour at the back, with a white underbelly, legs and tail.

Quagga by Samuel Daniell, 1804, in ‘African Scenery and Animals’

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One Christmas, when I was a teenager, I was given a present of a five year diary. As each year was allotted only five lines, I decided it was useless and chucked it to the back of a drawer.

Waterlow Park: how can you remember what winter feels like in May?

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I have often wondered where the archaeologist Howard Carter, of Tutankhamen fame, actually stayed whilst excavating in the Valley of the Kings on the trail of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922. I imagined a dusty tent, perhaps with a flickering hurricane lamp, and mosquito nets over an uncomfortable camp bed somewhere nearby.

 Howard Carter (1874-1939) Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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At first glance, Mrs Bennet seems to have nothing whatsoever to recommend her as a mother. Jane Austen, who had a sharp tongue when she’d a mind to, tells us that, ‘She was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper.’ This harsh judgement is corroborated by Mr Darcy, in his letter to Lizzy, where he doesn’t hesitate to point out  Mrs Bennet’s ‘total want of propriety’. And poor Lizzy herself, ‘blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation’ when her mother showed up her ill-breeding when she came to Netherfield when Jane was ill.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

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