Writing

I’ve just collected a box containing nine books from the library of a ninety-three-year-old cultured and elegant lady I’d known for many years who died last year. She left a number of her books and runs of architectural magazines to various museums and institutions, and the rest were to be shared out among her many friends. A few months after the funeral, I got a book list of well over 1500 books – I could choose as many I liked and it was, more or less, first come, first served.

The experience of looking through the huge list, printed in minute 8pt, was a bit like exploring Aladdin’s cave, with dash of delving into a bran tub. All I had were the titles and author; I had no idea whether the book was large or small, paperback or hardback. They were divided into sections covering the Contessa’s areas of interest: Architecture, Italy, History (social and cultural), the Arts, European Royalty, etc. and a small selection of fiction.

THE ETRUSCANS: History and Treasures of an Ancient Civilization

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Jane Austen’s niece, Anna Austen Lefroy (1793-1872) was, as far as we know, her only relation who was also a novelist – though, in her case, an aspiring one. When she was nineteen, Anna asked her aunt various questions regarding her own novel Which is the Heroine? For example: does Dawlish have a decent library? Jane’s answer was that it was ‘pitiful and wretched’. What I found interesting was that Jane understood her niece’s concern to get things right. Both wrote contemporary novels and they both knew that accuracy was important.

 

Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, stipple engraving, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery

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I have posted 101 blogs since I began, rather hesitantly, back in 2016 and, my goodness, was that a steep learning curve. I see that I have covered a lot of subjects – from the frazzled: Dejunking One’s Life: The Cupboard of Doom; and the slightly bonkers: Napoleon’s Toothbrush; to literary criticism: Is Mr Rochester really a Woman in Disguise?; to travels abroad: The Park of Monsters (Italy); and visits to interesting places in and around London: A Visit to Kensal Green Cemetery. There are posts on Jane Austen’s novels: Jane Austen: The Power of Money; and visits to Art Exhibitions: Celebrating Artemisia Gentileschi; as well as posts on simple pleasures: The Rose Beetle (as seen by Gerald Durrell in Corfu, and me in Albania), and: I Love Cambridge Market.

Easter daffodils in my garden

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When I was fifteen, my mother gave me Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost for Christmas. It was a book she’d loved as a child and she thought I might like it, too. First published in 1909, it was republished sixty-one times, and, by the time the author died in 1924, more than 10 million copies of her various books had been sold. A Girl of the Limberlost was also turned into a Silent Film.

Gene Stratton Porter, courtesy of Wikipedia

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Is Charlotte Brontë’s Edward Rochester, the darkly sardonic hero of Jane Eyre, really a woman in disguise?

Was Sir Leslie Stephen’s 1877 Cornhill Magazine review of Jane Eyre which first suggested it, meant to outrage readers? He argues that Rochester, that archetypical Byronic hero loved by so many female readers, is, in reality, a ‘spirited sister of Shirley’s (Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous heroine from her novel of 1849) though he does his very best to be a man, and even an unusually masculine specimen of his sex.’

 

Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, chalk, 1850. National Portrait Gallery

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I write blogs, first and foremost, because I enjoy it. I’ve always been interested in history, travel, literature and the arts generally and I want to write about the places I’ve been to and things I’ve seen. I particularly love seeing places which the general public don’t normally see. As a novelist, what interests me are the stories. I want my readers to become involved, and for that, my writing must be both emotionally engaged with the topic but I must also retain my professional objectivity to ensure that what I say is accurate. It can be a tricky balance.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

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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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