Elizabeth

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The Charterhouse has to be one of the most interesting buildings in London. Its story begins with the arrival of the Black Death in 1348, continues through the upheavals of the Reformation, the ups and down of educating schoolboys for nearly two and a half centuries, not to mention a direct hit from an incendiary bomb in May 1941. It’s a wonder there’s anything left of it at all.

Entry to the Charterhouse from Charterhouse Square

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I have long been fascinated by the Victorian age. It was a time of huge contrasts, as well as social mobility- certainly for men. But what about women? At the beginning of the Victorian age, they had no legal existence, they couldn’t vote, nor have a bank account, and what work opportunities they had, in factories or shops, say, were were less well-paid than men. As for any more professional position – forget it. The choice of jobs for most middle-class women was being a governess or lady’s companion for, at most, about £35 a year, or, for a few talented writers, actresses, artists or musicians, you might be able to make a decent living, if your father or family were also in the same profession.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 William Holman Hunt, Tate Gallery

However, there was an alternative – a shocking one; become a mistress.

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Open House weekend in London happens once a year, in September; when all sorts of buildings which you can’t usually see inside, both public and private, are open to the public – for free. This year, my niece and I decided to visit the tomb of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), Victorian explorer, soldier, linguist (he spoke at least forty languages), scholar and prolific author and translator who had long been a hero of mine.

Sir Richard Burton’s tomb in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen’s in Mortlake

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Lord Byron (1788-1824), Romantic poet; a man fatally attractive to women; a friend of many literary figures of his day, including the atheist poet, Shelley; a fighter for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire; and an intrepid traveller, was a man who tended to leave scandals in his wake. In 1809, when he was twenty-one, he left England for the continent on what he called a ‘pilgrimage’. In effect, it was a Grand Tour, taking in Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Albania and Greece, and it seems to have involved a lot of drinking, stupendous scenery, and sex.

Ancient Apollonia, the Agonothetes Monument; a reminder that Albania was once part of Greece  

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I have a wonderful book of advertisements in ‘The Times’ from the 1870s. As well as being a mine of information about everyday life in  London at that date, there is also a section of personal advertisements, many of which could be the basis for a novel.

Looking for a plot? How about:

C.C.C.C. Do not despair, my Marguerite. Only have patience. I hope we shall meet on the 3rd at P. Be cautious and attend to all the advice I gave you. Do write to the London address if you possibly can, and tell me what has happened that prevents your writing. If I wrote in l.j. it would betray us. Thine for ever, B.B.B.B.

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I recently visited the excellently-presented exhibition: Roman Dead: death and burial in Roman London at the Museum of London Docklands. I knew that Romans were taught to face death unflinchingly and expected to be stoical, but, wandering round the exhibition I began to question this. I came to the conclusion that, in spite of their general bloodthirstiness as far as death in the arena or wholesale slaughter on the battlefield went, the Romans had a surprisingly uneasy attitude towards death on a personal level. Death was seen as polluting, and the house where a person had died became a polluted space. Until the proper burial and cleansing rites had taken place, the dead person’s soul could not rest in peace. And an unquiet soul who was vengeful or upset could seriously affect the living.

Teenage boy buried with a baby and a 4-year-old child, probably his siblings. Research shows that he was brought up in a Mediterranean country. Unusually, there are a few grave goods like the pottery jar.

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When I was about six, my Great-Aunt Eliza gave me this nautilus shell. It was kept on top of a high chest of drawers in the West Room – a big spare room with a four-poster bed so huge that it had to be sold with the house. I wasn’t allowed to have the shell in my own bedroom until I was about eleven, so I only glimpsed it occasionally but the knowledge that it belonged to me always gave me a thrill.

Great Aunt Eliza’s nautilus shell

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I came across this little garden next to Embankment tube station one icy day in March and I was struck by the number and variety of statues and fountains. Why was a languorous bronze female draped up the side of an obelisk in an attitude of extreme grief? And what was the statue of a soldier riding a camel commemorating? Not to mention Sir Wilfrid Lawson, Bt, whose friends erected his statue ‘in loving and grateful remembrance of his splendid leadership and of his pure and unworldly life’? I vowed to return with my camera when it was warmer.

The Antique Bronze van; John and William complete the statues and monuments’ annual clean

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Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes(1936) was one of my favourite books as a child and I suspect that many other girls have also loved it because, eighty-two years later, it is still in print. My own, very worn, copy has the original illustrations by Ruth Gervis (1894-1988) which I’ve always thought were just right.

Noel Streatfeild (1895-1986) Courtesy of Wikipedia

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