Writing

Some years ago, at a Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, I heard Professor Jenny Hartley give a talk on popular Women’s Fiction – she was researching it at the time. At the end, after the questions, she said, ‘I’d now like to ask you a question: how many of you have read Katherine by Anya Seton?’

Katherine

Cover of ‘Katherine’ by Anya Seton (1961)

A forest of hands shot up. The entire conference had read it. I myself read it as a teenager and loved it.  First published in 1954, it’s the story of a herald’s daughter, Katherine Swynford, who was first the mistress and then the third wife of John of Gaunt, a marriage which scandalized all Europe. It is one of English History’s great love stories and it truly changed the course of history; for Katherine became the ancestor of the Tudors and thus of Queen Elizabeth II.

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I’ve always loved the novels of Georgette Heyer for their wit, well-researched period detail, terrific story-telling and escapist fun. And I am not alone. When, in June 2015, I attended the Blue Plaque ceremony at 103 Woodside, Wimbledon, where she was born, Stephen Fry, a great fan, did the honours, opened the red curtains to reveal the plaque and spoke enthusiastically of Georgette Heyer’s stylish and witty novels. He’d discovered them at school and has loved them ever since; he finds them great comfort reading if ever he’s under the weather.

Georgette Heyer Howard Coster 1939

Georgette Heyer by Howard Coster, 1939, National Portrait Gallery

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I am a huge fan of public libraries; I’ve had a library card since I was six. And, nowadays, they offer you far more than just books. With my various library cards, (I have library cards like other people have credit cards) I can access the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (the DNB) – really useful for research – with my library card number, or read The Times or The Guardian online, and much more. And libraries are currently suffering from ferocious budget cuts.

Library 2

Me and Tony Brown, the Stock and Reader Development Manager

So, when I became the UK Children’s/Young Adult Book Review Editor for the quarterly Historical Novel Society Review, I decided to offer the ex-review copies to my local library. Every few months, when my floor round my desk has once more disappeared under books, I email Tony Brown, the Stock and Reader Development Manager of my local library, label the email: Books looking for a good home, and send him a book list. Would he like any of them? So far, he has always said, ‘Yes, please,’ to the lot.

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Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals was a favourite teenage book, and it introduced me to the rose beetle. Soon after he arrived in Corfu in 1935, Gerry met the rose beetle man, an itinerant pedlar wearing a floppy hat covered in feathers, and a patched, pocketed coat, bulging with knick-knacks for sale. Bamboo cages holding a variety of birds bounced on his back, and he held ‘a number of lengths of cotton, to each of which was tied an almond-size rose-beetle, glistening golden green in the sun, all of them flying round his hat.’

 Durrell

My much loved copy of ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell

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In this post, I want to look at the curious fact that none of Jane Austen’s heroines (whose ages range between seventeen and twenty-seven) or her heroes (whose ages range from about twenty-four to thirty-seven) have living grandparents. Indeed, that older generation of, say, sixty plus, seems to be missing. Can this be true? And, if so, what difference does it make? To answer these questions, we need a bit of background information about life expectancy in the early 19th century. Edwin Chadwick’s ground-breaking 1842 survey on public health, tells us that the life expectancy of a member of the gentry or professional class in Rutland (chosen as a typical rural location) was fifty-two; and for an artisan or labourer, it was thirty-eight. There are, of course, a number of factors to be taken into account: infant mortality rates, for example, but for the purpose of this post, I’m staying with the basic facts, as near as we can get them.

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870

after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870

The only young lady in Jane Austen’s novels with a living grandparent is Jane Fairfax in Emma who has the aged Mrs Bates, ‘a very old lady, almost past everything but tea and quadrille.’ I’ll be looking at how old Mrs Bates actually is later.

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A Child’s Day through the Ages by Dorothy Margaret Stuart was one of my favourite books as a child. I particularly liked the story A Garland Over the Door, set in Athens in 438 BC, about the arrival of a baby brother to ten-year-old Ageladas and his little sister, Doricha – and it inspired me to try out something dangerous ….

Syracuse Mus pottery lion

Greek children’s toy: pottery lion

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