I am thrilled to announce the launch of The Belvedere Tower in e-books on Monday, October 5th.
‘The Belvedere Tower’ by Elizabeth Hawksley, e-book, 2020
Novelists need magpie minds – and I am no exception. So today I am looking at some of the elements which inspired me when writing The Belvedere Tower.
I visited Sissinghurst Castle Garden, the home of the diplomat and author Harold Nicolson and his wife, the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), and I was very impressed by the Elizabethan belvedere tower there. It dates from 1560, and it was built to allow the family and guests to follow fox or deer hunts from the tower’s flat battlemented roof (belvedere means ‘beautiful view’). Instantly, a picture popped into my head of two people locked in combat on that roof – one of whom I knew was going to meet a nasty end.
Vita Sackville-West herself had used the tower as her writing retreat and the rooms were spacious, high ceilinged and had substantial fireplaces. One could be comfortable there … and that triggered another thought.
My heroine Cassandra would live in a belvedere tower like the Sissinghurst one and, in a flash, I had a picture of her, her hair tucked into a sort of turban, her sleeves rolled up, a sacking apron covering her dress, painting the walls with frescos depicting knights and ladies from the medieval tale of Flores and Blanchefleur by Boccaccio.
Romantic towers are all very well, I thought, but she would need to be warm – and I had just the book to tell me how to do that.
Home Fires Burning by Lawrence Wright
Cassandra would delve into Home Improvements (Regency style) and discover Count Rumford’s brilliant kitchen stoves and fireplaces designed to cook food and heat rooms both efficiently and economically.
I don’t know what it is about doing up a house – it must be deep in the female psyche – but it’s something which attracts many women. My readers would be interested! Now who could tell Cassandra about Rumford stoves? Ah! at once the comfortable figure of, Mrs Freese, the vicar’s wife appeared – no chilly vicarage for her, I felt sure!
A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer
I’ve always enjoyed novels where the hero and heroine come from widely diverging backgrounds. Georgette Heyer often uses this theme, for example, in A Civil Contract, where the heroine, Jenny, is no beauty but is extremely wealthy; secretly, she has always loved, the hero, Adam. Adam, Lord Lynton, is a proud young aristocrat but he has no money – and his beloved family home will have to be sold. Marriage to Jenny would save his home and allow him to support his sisters. But he loves Another! Can true love etc., etc.
The Belvedere Tower also features two very different people. Cassandra is the orphaned great-niece of the gambling and spendthrift Earl of Lavington of Juniper Park, the last of his line. She is intelligent, determined and artistic – but she doesn’t always think clearly – and the results can be disastrous.
My hero, Daniel, is the son of a Radical Yorkshire stone mason. Daniel was orphaned as a child. He vows to make a fortune, and once he’s made his fortune, he will marry up; he will bring money to the marriage, she will bring the class and connections. But he will never love again – losing his family was just too painful.
Both Cassandra and Daniel have a lot to learn.
Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) ‘The Gamekeeper at Home’ and ‘The Amateur Poacher’
However, back to the bones of my story. I discovered that I needed to know, in detail, how to poach, silently and successfully; what time of year to catch what; how to sell the game so that no awkward questions are asked, and so on. Daniel discovers that game is very scarce on the estate. Why? Who is poaching? Richard Jefferies’ books were invaluable for giving me the low-down on how to catch a hare with a simple hay noose set at exactly the right height on one of the paths that hares used.
Another strand in The Belvedere Tower is the Romany strand; the Burton family (I used a well-known Romany surname) arrives twice a year at Juniper Park as they have done for the last hundred years or so. Juniper Park has just been bought by Daniel, and Uzzell, his gamekeeper, has warned him that the gypsies are notorious poachers. But is this true? Daniel doesn’t wait to find out. Instantly, he orders them off his land.
They move into Cassandra’s orchard next to the Belvedere Tower. Cassandra welcomes them and Daniel is furious.
When I was a child, a Romany caravan (a traditional one with a curved roof) appeared once or twice a year in a green lane near where I lived. I was fascinated by the pot hanging from a hook stuck in the ground at an angle over a fire, the lurchers, and the brightly coloured shawls of the women. Later, quite coincidentally, I came across Richard O’Neill, a Romani storyteller, one of whose tales, Ossiri and the Bala Mengro, was beautifully retold for children by Katharine Quarmby. I read and reviewed the book, and Richard and I had a short correspondence about it. It turned out that the Romanies I saw as a child in that green lane belonged to his own tribe who used to travel round that area.
Coincidences, for me, usually indicate that I am on the right track.
George Borrow’s (1883-1881) Lavengro and its sequel The Romany Rye were also extremely helpful when it came to researching Romany life. Borrow was a brilliant linguist and travelled widely; he was particularly attracted to the Romany life and studied their way of living and their customs.
Then Mrs Chickno, the formidable matriarch of the Burton Romanies appeared in the story – and grabbed my attention; she had an important role to play – that of the wise guide. She might be ancient and do little more than sit by the camp fire, wrapped in colourful shawls, but she knows things … and she gives Cassandra a warning – which Cassandra ignores.
‘Life in the French Country House’ by Mark Girouard
Then there was the fortress of Verdun. Early on in the book, Cassandra marries a French exile, Claude de Tessy, and they take advantage of the 1802 Treaty of Amiens between France and England to return to France. Most of Claude’s family were executed during the Revolution, but he hopes to persuade his aged cousin, Madame de Flagy, to make him her heir … Cassandra begins to settle down in the chateau and discovers some wonderful medieval wall paintings from Boccaccio’s tales in the north wing – and begins to do scaled drawings of them. The chateau is cold and it will keep her warm, at any rate.
Mark Girouard’s book is brilliant at explaining how the French lived when in the country, which is almost exactly the opposite to what the English did. The English upper classes were formal when in Town and informal in the country; the French did things the other way round. Girouard writes beautifully and I always enjoy reading his books.
Unfortunately, the Treaty of Amiens came to an abrupt end in 1803 and Cassandra and Claude find themselves incarcerated in the old fortress of Verdun, which was now turned into a civilian British prisoner of war camp.
Escape from the French: Captain Hewson’s Narrative, 1803-1809
I needed to know about camp life in Verdun, so I applied for a reader’s ticket to the National Army Museum library, which deals with things military up to 1914. Verdun fortress swiftly became a ‘Little England’ for the British incarcerated there. They played cricket and set up horse racing. There were balls, soirées, picnics – exactly like the Season in London. The museum had useful maps, too, and the names of prisoners who were there and why – all of which was extremely helpful, as well as Captain Hewson’s book, of course.
Then Abednego arrived, a Cornish fisherman with relations in Brittany. He is also a travelling packman; a smuggler; and he works uncover for British Intelligence. He speaks Breton, and French but with a Breton accent. Cassandra used to buy little tin toys from when she was a child. There is one point when Abednego knows more about what is really going on in the smuggling fraternity, the Foreign Office, and something very shady which could affect Cassandra herself, than anyone else. But he knows when to be discreet.
And, naturally, I consulted my books on costume, travelling abroad, the Dictionary of Historical Slang, and so on.
So getting out The Belvedere Tower in e-books gives it a new, improved incarnation, and I’m delighted to give it the chance of finding a new readership. It’s a book I enjoyed both researching and writing.
And, of course, I could never have got into e-books without the help of Janet Gover and John Hocking. Not only did they do the essential bits backstage, they also prodded, supported and cheered me on when necessary. I owe them a huge debt of thanks.
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