The Magical Mount Stewart Gardens

Today is Valentine’s Day and I want to celebrate it by taking you to what has been voted one of the world’s top ten gardens: Mount Stewart Gardens in Co. Down, Northern Ireland. It was created by Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry from 1921 on as a place to ‘be lived in and enjoyed’.

A garden needs a lot of upkeep as represented here by the full wheelbarrow. Lady Londonderry loved splashes of colour – the more brilliant the better.

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The Brontës and Wycoller Dene

Back in 2012, I visited the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time. It was all wonderful but the garden which really touched me was The Brontë Garden, created by Tracy Foster for the tourist agency, Welcome to Yorkshire. Not only did it win a gold medal, it also, deservedly, won the People’s Choice for the best Small Garden.

So I thought that a touch of countryside beauty – with a literary association – might be cheering.

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The Story of Samson and Delilah

Last week, when writing my blog on Girls’ First Names, I discovered that Delilah was no. 76 in the top 100 girls’ names for 2019 – which surprised me. Did the parents of all those baby Delilahs know that the original Delilah was a high class courtesan who managed to wangle the secret of Samson’s superhuman strength out of him and then betray him to his enemies, for which she was paid a huge amount of money?

From Cecil B de Mille’s Samson and Delilah, 1949. Hedy Lamarr as Delilah, Victor Mature as Samson.

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Names: Girls’ names from 1600 to 2020

Last week, when I was looking into the history of male names during the Protestant Reformation in the 1530s, I decided that my post would be to long if I included female name, too. But what happened during the Protestant Reformation and afterwards with regard to girls’ names is, I think, equally interesting, so this is what I’m looking at today.

Sarah Siddons, actress, by Sir Thomas Gainsborough, 1785

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Names: The Rise and Fall of ‘Thomas’

I’ve always been interested in names, what they mean, when they became popular and why they fell from favour and ‘Thomas’ is a particularly interesting example. Thomas was one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, called ‘doubting Thomas’ because he refused to believe that Jesus had been resurrected until he saw Jesus for himself. The main New Testament male names, (Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, Simon and Paul) were largely ignored as names people were actually called. In England, they were seen as religious names and set apart.

The most common boys’ names in the 12th century were William, Robert, Ralph and Richard – all of which had arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066 and swiftly supplanted the Anglo-Saxon names, with the exception of Edward and Edmund, both names belonging to Anglo-Saxon kings who were also saints.

Canterbury Cathedral: the setting for a horrible murder

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The inspirational Margaret Llewelyn Davies

Margaret Llewelyn Davies (1861-1944) was, from the 1890s to the 1930s, an inspirational campaigner for women’s causes who has, quite undeservedly, been allowed to slip almost into oblivion. Fortunately, a new book, Margaret Llewelyn Davies: with Women for a New World by Ruth Cohen, has just been published which sets the record straight. So what did Margaret do that we should remember her?

Margaret as a young woman: attractive, energetic, persuasive and with a great deal of charm; her friend Virginia Woolf remarked that she could ‘compel a steamroller to dance.’ 

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Leigh Hunt: poet, essayist and critic (1784-1859)

James Henry Leigh Hunt, to give Hunt his full name, was one of those people who everyone who was anyone in either politics or the arts knew, or at least knew of. In 1808, aged only 24, he, together with his older brother John, set up The Examiner, a weekly political paper which prided itself on its political independence; it was liberal and reformist in its opinions and it attacked, ferociously, whatever Hunt felt deserved it.

Leigh Hunt by Benjamin Haydon, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

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The Curious Story of ‘Dirty Dick’ (1735-1809)

The story of Nathaniel Bentley, otherwise known as ‘Dirty Dick’ is a curious one. He was born in 1735, or thereabouts, into a well-to-do City of London merchant’s family. His father owned a successful hardware business with a house, a shop and a well-stocked warehouse in Leadenhall St in Bishopsgate, and he saw to it that his son was given a good education, as befitted his status as a gentleman. Mr Bentley, senior, died in 1760, when Nathaniel was about twenty-five-years old, leaving his son a successful business.

Nathaniel Bentley, also known as ‘Dirty Dick’

So far, so good.

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In the Footsteps of St Patrick

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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Georgette Heyer: Re-reading ‘The Quiet Gentleman’

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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