Why Historical Novelists need Dorothy Hartley’s Books

So, who was Dorothy Hartley (1893-1985) and why do historical novelists need her books? Miss Hartley was a highly intelligent, talented, empathetic and thoughtful country woman; she was also a writer, an historian, an artist and a teacher concerned with keeping alive the knowledge of the old ways of running a household, cooking, growing food, preserving it and much, much more. She was a well-respected expert in her subject and an unusually readable one – as thousands of readers have discovered. Her books were praised by professors as well as by critics: a Sunday Times review called Food in England as ‘Food scholarship at its best’ … even though there were no academic footnotes.

Food in England by Dorothy Hartley

The width and depth of her knowledge is her hallmark: not only can she tell you how to cook the most delicious bread – she knows how you should behave at a Medieval banquet, and how to construct an outdoor privy – with carefully detailed illustrations so that you can see exactly how it works. Her most famous book, Food in England, came out in 1954 and has never been out of print. Not only is it readable – it’s unputdownable! As Dorothy herself wrote in the Introduction: ‘Please consider this book as an old-fashioned kitchen, not impressive, but as warm and friendly place, where one can come in at any time and have a chat with the cook.’  And hundreds, if not thousands of people have been delighted to do just that.

How an efficient range can fit inside the space of an old open fire.

The book crosses many genres. It a domestic history of how a home worked from Medieval times onward; yes, it has recipes, but also it tells you exactly how an old fashioned kitchen range worked; how to pick the best lamb, chicken, cow etc; how to make your own ink – or broomstick – and we get all the stories, too. It’s the nearest thing we’ve got to time travel.

Do you need to know how to make a rush-light? How to create a smoke house for bacon or fish – with clear illustrations? Food in England will teach you.

I’m sure you can see why her books are gold mines for Historical novelists.

Water in England by Dorothy Hartley

The moment I’d finished reading Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England, I wanted to find out what else she’d written. The next book I found was Water in England and it was just what my novel at the time needed – my heroine had plans for a well in the village….

There is an amusing episode in Water in England featuring two farm workers setting about digging a well which is typical of Dorothy Hartley’s approach.

‘(Two workmen) turned up on Monday morning with two shovels, two buckets, one pick and a piece of string. After courtesy greetings they walked to the place. One pushed a piece of stick into the ground, tied the string to it and scratched a circle. Then both brooded a bit. Then one laid a shovel across the circle and said, ‘Hum?’  The other slowly wound up the string, stowed it in his pocket and said, ‘She’ll do.’ After this conversational outburst they proceeded in methodical silence and complete accord. Both got inside the circle and dug it out. ‘

I loved the laconic way the two workmen went about it. And Dorothy Hartley goes on to describe how they dug it and how they made sure that it was safe as they dug deeper.

My heroine’s well is her opening salvo for improving things for the villagers (her mother-in-law disapproves ; she doesn’t believe in ‘coddling the lower orders’). Dorothy Hartley is excellent at explaining how things work, and I learnt about the importance of having a bucket for the well which curved in at the top, like a barrel, to stop the water from splashing out, as it would with a traditional pail.

How to construct an outdoor privy

Her ability to describe how things work, and her wonderful line drawings enabled me to create a credible background for my novels without ‘info dumping’. And, of course, knowledge of well-digging eventually led, in the early 20th century, to the installation of pipes for running water, taps, baths, lavatories (though the Medieval ‘long drop’ privy sounded a bit alarming – but useful if your hero needed to escape) and proper drainage – all of which Dorothy Hartley covers.

The Land of England by Dorothy Hartland

The next Dorothy Hartley book I found was The Land of England, described as a book where ‘Dorothy Hartley presents the life of ordinary English country-dwellers month by month as they went about their tasks before mechanization came to the fields, barns and byres.’

The tools you need to fell trees: note the barking axe, to strip the bark off trees for the tanning industry.

What I found really helpful is what happened when during the farming year. The first 50 pages of the book covers the medieval world background. And then we get the farming year from January to December: for example, we learn what happens in April.

April is the last month when work could be done in the woods.  Once the frosts stopped, dragging heavy timber with oxen through woods or fields after tree-felling, would destroy any land already in cultivation. But timber was needed: bark was used for tanning, and specially-shaped pieces of wood were needed for house building, for example.

However, most of April was taken up with dairying and lambing. And it could be dangerous. As Dorothy Hartley reminds us: An angry horned cow still suckling her calf is capable of attacking an intruder and goring as fiercely as any bull.’ 

Various bee hives – see paragraph below.

July is about hay, flax and hemp; there is also a long section on bee-keeping and how to deal with a bee swarm; honey and beeswax, mead and bee hives. I loved the illustrations of how to make a bee hive from an Anglo-Saxon one of wattle and daub (top left) to the experimental hexagonal Victorian one with glass windows so that inquisitive Victorians could watch them at work. And so on.

I’m sure you can see how useful having this sort of information at one’s fingertips could be.

How to stuff Falstaff into a buck laundry basket in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’

In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, the amorous (and portly) Falstaff who has been up to no good with two of the ‘merry wives’, is pushed into in a laundry basket to escape from their outraged husbands. Dorothy Hartley shows us exactly how an Elizabethan buck laundry basket could do just that.

‘Made in England’ by Dorothy Hartley

The last book I found was Made in England. The contents page shows us what the book covers: there are chapters on wood; on straw, reed, grass and willow; on stone; on metal; on bricks and pottery; on leather and horn; and lastly, on wool and feathers.

Take the chapter on Leather and Horn. The opening sentence ‘In England and Wales there are about 36,000 tanners and leather dressers, one tenth of whom are employers, managers and foremen’ reminded me that the book was first published in 1939; it would be a fraction of that number today – about 80 years later. One has only to watch Susie Fletcher in The Repair Shop to understand how much skill is needed to make or repair leather – and what a useful commodity it is.

Straw bed used by a birthing mother or a shepherd whilst lambing

If you need a women, in the 18th century say, to have a country skill: what about straw work? Thatching was usually done by men, but women made a variety of straw baskets, straw mats – very long-lasting; or straw beds. The Regency expression ‘a woman in the straw’ meaning a woman giving birth, refers to the straw bed a pregnant woman slept in. (More hygienic for childbirth). Shepherds, too, made straw beds to sleep in during the lambing season, and Dorothy Hartley tells us how they were made and shows us what they looked like.

Marram grass was used for making whitewash paint brushes. The osier (a sort of pliable willow) as Gervase Markham tells us in about 1620, ‘serveth for making baskets, chayres, hampers and other countrey stuffe.’ Dorothy Hartley offers a whole range of objects which could be made from ordinary materials, like feathers, stuff that was naturally around in the farmyard or the woods and fields.

At some point, I usually find myself consulting one of Dorothy Hartley’s books for most of my novels and I wouldn’t be without them for the world. Not only are they useful; they are also wonderful reads.

Elizabeth Hawksley

I am delighted to say that Tempting Fortune is now out in e-books.


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8 thoughts on “Why Historical Novelists need Dorothy Hartley’s Books”

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. I am 100% confident that you will love her books.

    1. I have a feeling that, if you look at Lucy Worsley’s website, there may be a link to her TV programme on Dorothy Hartley. It’s well worth seeing.

  1. What an amazing resource! I am going to keep my eyes peeled for reasonably priced copies. Thank you Elizabeth for yet another fascinating snippet.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Penny. I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble. ‘Food in England’ was first published in 1954 and my copy dates from 1975 and is the 5th reprinting! I inherited my copy from my aunt; the others I bought as and when I saw them and they only cost a few quid each.

  2. Thank you again Elizabeth for a wonderful post! As I’m currently researching the later 18th/early 19th century for my next venture, these will be invaluable. I shall certainly try to hunt them down.

    1. As I’ve just said to Penny, I don’t think you’ll have a problem finding reasonably-priced second hand copies. If you look at Lucy Worsley’s website, I think there might be a link to her fascinating 2014 TV programme on Dorothy Hartley – Lucy is a great fan – and quite right, too!

      Good luck with your next venture. If I can help, let me know.

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