Saturday, 19 August 2017

Who was Livia, first lady of Rome? By Alison Morton

At seventeen, running through a burning forest in 41 BC, nearly betrayed by the cries of her baby son, Livia Drusilla fled through Sparta with her husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, a supporter of Mark Anthony. Pursued by Octavian’s forces during the two warlords’ bitter struggle, they barely made it to safety.

Livia carried the blood and prestige of both the Livii and the patrician Claudii, families long accustomed to power. Politics was in the very air she breathed. She’d married within her aristocratic circle to Tiberius, whom Cicero described as ‘a nobly born, talented and self-controlling young man’ and who had risen to the rank of praetor, a senior magistrate. Unfortunately, he had backed the wrong side in the wars following Julius Caesar’s death. 

Livia Drusilla, Museo della Civita Romana, author’s photo
During an amnesty between Octavian and Anthony, Livia and her husband were able to return to Rome in 39 BC, doubtless relieved after a life on the run. Stripped of three-quarters of their assets for their disloyalty, the patrician couple accepted this was the end of Tiberius’ political career. But 39 BC was the year Livia began as a political exile and ended as the consort of one of one of the most powerful men in the world at whose side she stayed for over fifty years.

Livia was introduced to Octavian in autumn 39 BC when she was six months pregnant with her second child, Nero Claudius Drusus. Legend says that Octavian fell immediately in love with her, despite the fact that he was still married. He divorced his wife, Scribonia, on the very day that the latter gave birth to his daughter, Julia. Livia’s husband, Tiberius, was ‘persuaded’ to divorce Livia who then moved into Octavian’s house. On 14 January 38 BC Livia's child was born; Octavian and Livia married on 17 January, waiving the traditional waiting period. Fantastically enough, Tiberius, her divorced husband was present at the wedding giving her in marriage ‘just as a father would’!

The importance of the patrician Claudii to Octavian's cause, and the Claudians’ own political survival provide more rational explanations. Octavian, a rising star but from a middle rank equestrian background, needed connections with aristocrats like Livia to provide an aura of Republican respectability to his growing power. As for Livia's feelings, at 20 years old she was probably content to be joined with a younger man of 25 with such overwhelming promise. The 47-year-old Tiberius, newly pardoned by Octavian, did not have a real choice, but he was aware that it did not hurt to bestow his wife on Rome's ascendant power. Everyone gained. 

By all accounts, Livia played the role of a loving, dutiful and even old-fashioned wife. When Octavian rebranded himself as Augustus, Livia cooperated with his idea that upper-class women should behave in the austere fashion of earlier times, so she and other female members of his household spun and wove (at least some of) his clothing.

Dupondius depicting Livia as Pietas
By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0
Livia's image appears in ancient visual media such as coins and evolved with different styles of portraiture that promoted imperial propaganda and the cult of Augustus. Becoming more than the "beautiful woman" described as in ancient texts, Livia served as a public image for idealised Roman feminine qualities and symbolised the renewal of the Republic with the female virtues of pietas and concordia that were supposed to set the public pattern for future imperial women.

She ignored Augustus’s notorious womanising; Tacitus called her an "easy wife". But this was not unusual. The goal of a Roman marriage was the formation of a household and the production of children not sexual gratification which could be found elsewhere. Unfortunately, Livia never bore Augustus any living children. It demonstrated the strength of their relationship that Augustus did not divorce her because she failed in that respect. The two were a partnership; with her intelligence, connections and influence, she served him as a trusted confidante and advisor, even accompanying him abroad.

The perception that Livia schemed and was ambitious for Tiberius, her son with her first husband, fed the idea of her complicity in Augustus's death in AD 14. She supposedly smeared poison on figs, then guided him to pick one of these for himself while she selected untainted ones. Although implausible, the accusation shows how strongly she came to be perceived as championing her offspring at any cost. 

Suetonius describes a loving and trusting relationship between Livia and Augustus at the end. The emperor's last words were 'Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell’. He died as he kissed her. This detail is probably no more accurate than the poisoned figs story, but it represents Livia’s double role: dutiful wife and ambitious schemer. 

Livia remained an influential figure even after Augustus’s death. Gaius, her great-grandson who followed Tiberius in the principate as Caligula, lived with her when he was young. He called her Ulixes stolatus, (Ulysses in a matron's dress), a strong and manipulative woman. 

Livia died in AD 29 at the advanced age of 86. She received a public funeral, although a relatively modest one, and was buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Gaius (the future Caligula) delivered the eulogy. When he became emperor, he paid the bequests that she had provided for in her will that her own son Tiberius had ignored. Her grandson Claudius would oversee her long-deferred deification in AD 42. Women were to name Diva Augusta in their oaths; she received an elephant-drawn chariot to convey her image to the games; a statue of her was set up in the temple of Augustus; races were held in her honour. The woman who played an important role in two principates joined the imperial pantheon at last. Tacitus's obituary calls her "An imperious mother and an amiable wife, she was a match for the diplomacy of her husband and the dissimulation of her son", a concise statement of the reputation that she left behind.

Further reading: 
The First Ladies of Rome: The women behind the Caesars, Annelise Freisenbruch

Friday, 18 August 2017

Kenilworth Castle - Celia Rees

Kenilworth Castle from the remains of Mortimer's Tower (the main medieval entrance)
Last week, an old friend from New Zealand came to visit. We were thinking of places to go and I mentioned nearby Kenilworth Castle. By coincidence, Kenilworth was the first castle she'd visited when she came to the UK as a student to study at Oxford. It was the first castle she'd ever seen and she remembered marvelling at the size, the age, the beauty of the ruins. Although I only live a few miles away, I'd rather taken it's proximity for granted and hadn't actually visited for many years.  

Kenilworth Castle is one of the great historical sites. A royal castle for most of its life, it is one of the finest surviving monuments of its kind. It's big and impressive. Built of the local red sandstone, it sits on rising ground, on the outskirts of Kenilworth town, at the meeting of two ancient trackways and the confluence of two small rivers. 

The Great Tower
The oldest part of it, the Great Tower, was built by Geoffrey de Clinton in the 1120s. It was added to significantly by King John who dammed the two streams, flooding the low lying land around, so the castle was surrounded by a wide body of water called 'the mere'. The top of the dam was widened to become a tiltyard, used for jousting and tournaments. 

John of Gaunt's Great Hall. 
Leicester's Building
The castle changed hands, as castles do. It  was granted to Simon De Montfort who then lost it after his defeat at the Battle of Evesham by Henry III. Kenilworth was an exceptionally strong fortress, surrounded by water, with an Inner and Outer Court and high curtain walls. Some of De Montfort's followers withdrew to the castle and withstood the longest siege in English medieval history only to be defeated by starvation and disease.  Henry  III granted Kenilworth to his younger son, Edmund, who became the Earl of Lancaster. The Lancastrians set about making it even more impressive, John of Gaunt adding a Great Hall. 

The castle remained in Lancastrian, then Tudor hands until it was granted to John Dudley by Henry VIII in gratitude for services rendered. 

Kenilworth then came to John's son, Robert, Earl of Leicester and favourite of Elizabeth I. In a bid to impress the Queen and to improve his rather shaky social status, Robert Dudley embarked on extensive improvements to the castle, adding the tower block known as Leicester's Building specifically to provide private lodging for the Queen on her visits in 1572 and 1575. 

He had the mere re-flooded, so that she could go boating and created a Privy Garden for her private enjoyment. The garden has recently been restored by English Heritage. It was surrounded by high hawthorn hedges to protect the queen from prying eyes and furnished with a marble fountain, obelisks and an aviary. The parterre is set out with beds planted with herbs and flowers. Each bed has a central standard holly. In the language of flowers, the holly bush symbolises deep desire. A subtle, or not so subtle, message from Leicester to his queen. 

Leicester also added a new Gatehouse, the only part of the castle to survive intact the 'slighting' it got by the Parliamentarians after their victory in the English Civil War. The Gatehouse became a private dwelling, remained so until the 1960s and has only recently been opened to the public. 

Leicester's Gatehouse
After its 'slighting', the castle became a Romantic Ruin and an early tourist destination, popularised by Sir Walter Scott's Kenilworth, painted by J. M. W. Turner, visited by Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria. It was rescued from completely falling down by bouts of restoration in the 19th and 20th centuries but Romantic Ruin is how I remembered it before this recent visit. English Heritage took over the care of the castle in 1984 and the extensive work that they have undertaken has transformed it, not only preserving and restoring the fabric of  the castle but making its history come alive. 

Sword play in the remains of the Collegiate Chapel 

Celia Rees

Thursday, 17 August 2017


The bit marked “History” in my head is a bit of a muddle. It feels full of significant images that get added to, or overridden, or shuffled about somewhat, or coloured in more clearly and accurately. Moreover, the process isn’t a tidy one: the various new phrases, images and facts don’t present themselves in correct time-order. The “new” essential fact or story arrives as a surprise, and suddenly a question I hadn’t known to ask is answered.

Please excuse the simplifications but, in my mind, WWII buzzes with images of aerial warfare, partly because of RAF links within my family.  I think of fighters and planes and bombing raids and the Blitz raining down on London, where my grandparents had lived, and across the face of Britain. 

I know WWII is much more: the British soldiers, Dunkirk and the Allies, the Nazi atrocities, the bombing raids, conflict across Europe and the East and so on and so on, but WWII often seems a time when, through the use of aircraft, war arrived here on British soil.

WWI, by contrast, seems as of it is our soldiers over there,  shelled and blasted while they waited in the trenches and went over the top in France and Flanders. Yes, there’s more: the industrial-level war, the generation of men that did or did not return, the changing roles of women, the economic seeds laid for further trouble, and so on. But my first image of WWI are often iconic photos, like that which inspired the final scene in Blackadder.
Then, last weekend, I heard a new story. I was visiting Scarborough Castle, a ruined keep whose dominating headland sticks out into the North Sea.  Scarborough Head has been an invaluable look-out point since the Bronze age: the observer can see out across a wide horizon, and watch over the curving beaches that stretch North and South from the foot of the cliffs. Some of the retaining walls remain but the keep itself rises like a shattered hand. 

It was there, standing by the ruined stones, that I heard the story that changed my perception about the start of WWI.

Scarborough has always been a harbour, but during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it grew into a popular spa and resort. In 1815, the railway arrived, bringing visitors to the flourishing boarding houses and small hotels. In 1867 the Grand Hotel opened; with over four-hundred bedrooms, it was the biggest hotel in Europe, attracting many distinguished guests. (The Grand Hotel can be seen in several Victorian paintings, such as this dramatic work by Ernest Roe, showing the shipwrecks after the Great Storm of 1880. The hotel is on the right.)

Scarborough with its aquarium, pier and many entertainments was widely considered a place of idle pleasure and recreation. Even the ruined Castle, mostly used as pastureland, was leased by the Town Council, becoming another of visitor attraction and even, in 1912, the venue for an impressive historical pageant.  

Suddenly, in 1914, Scarborough became famous for a less welcome event. In July, war had been declared. The months that followed seemed peaceful to the population at large, and attention was focused on news from across the Channel.  

However, at 8am on the morning of 14th December, two German warships, the Vann Tann and the Derfflinger, suddenly appeared out of the mist just off Scarborough Head, with guns aimed at the town. For over thirty minutes, shells hit several buildings, including the Grand Hotel and the barracks within the Castle walls. There were reports of damage, deaths and injury and, fearful of another onslaught, guests and inhabitants crowded Scarborough station, trying to escape.

The two warships were part of the great German fleet moving steadily up the North Sea towards Scapa Flow. Sailing northwards, the pair shelled Whitby and Hartlepool, butthe bombardment of Scarborough, a defenceless non-military seaside resort, was what caused the greatest national outcry. Suddenly, the reality of war with Germany had come much closer to home.  I can’t help feeling that the attack on Scarborough must have had a similar effect on the national consciousness as the London July bombings.

Among the newspaper reports displayed in the Art Gallery is the funeral procession of the one territorial soldier killed in the attack, shown as further evidence of a despicable attack on a civilian population. There was no garrison at the Castle, though the name may have suggested otherwise.  The mechanical might of WWI had arrived here, not “over there” and the possibility of further bombardments from the sea must have haunted all those living by the coast throughout the war, and for the following decades.

As the news spread, questions were asked in Parliament about the whereabouts of the Royal Naval fleet, which lead to a different, more complicated story and the troubles of Admiral Jellicoe.

Meanwhile, as the way is with these incidents, the army was quick to seize the German bombs to encourage more conscripts. The shock and anger felt at the time blazes out from the famous recruiting poster, with its ringing exhortation:


Once, years before, I’d come across this phrase quoted in a book, and passed over it. However, standing on the empty grass below the ruins of Scarborough Castle, hearing this story, I suddenly understood the impact and meaning of those words: 
War on British soil, over here, as well as over there.

 Penny Dolan

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

David Douglas, plant-hunter: 1799-1834 - by Sue Purkiss

This is the latest in my series of posts about those dashing adventurers, the plant-hunters. The previous one is here, and that has links to the earlier ones.

David Douglas, a Scot born in Scone, near Perth, in 1799, seems to have been even more indefatigable than his fellow plant hunters. He needed to be, because he had more than his fair share of bad luck, dreadful weather, and very unpleasant accidents.

Unlike the character in my forthcoming children's book about plant hunting, Jack Fortune, Douglas was interested in gardening and botany from a very early age. At the age of eleven, he became an apprentice to William Beatty, head gardener to the Earl of Mansfield at Scone Palace, later moving to Sir Robert Preston's gardens at Valleyfield, near Culross in Fife, where he also immersed himself in study in Sir Robert's library. In 1820, he began a new job at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, where Sir William Hooker had just become Professor of Botany. (Sir William's younger son was Joseph, who later made the journeys to the Himalayas on which my Jack's travels are based - though Jack's adventures take place much earlier than Joseph's. Sorry if this is confusing...)

The Horticultural Society of London (now the RHS) had recently been set up, and when they asked Sir William if he could recommend a suitable botanical collector to work for them, he had no hesitation in suggesting Douglas.

Douglas, delighted, hastened off to London, expecting to be sent to China. Unfortunately, political unrest brought about a change of plan, and instead he was sent to New England. Following a pattern which was sadly set to continue, he endured a dreadful crossing with bad weather and a shortage of food, only to be told on arrival by immigration officials that he was too scruffy, and wouldn't be allowed to land till he'd bought some new clothes.

Vast tracts of America were as yet unexplored by settlers, so when Douglas set off into the interior - near Lake Eyrie - he was pretty much venturing into the unknown. He was thrilled by the wilderness and plunged happily into collecting lots of seed, despite his horse bolting (it turned out it only understood French), his cart driver stealing his possessions and abandoning him, and almost sinking on his way back to Buffalo in one of the violent storms which seemed to positively pursue him.

Somehow he got safely back to London, where the Horticultural Society was delighted with the species he'd brought home, which included a wide variety of fruit trees - perfect for the walled gardens of Britain's country houses.

His next trip was to the Pacific North-west of America, which entailed travelling all the way round the tip of South America and up the other side - it took eight and a half months. Living at Fort Vancouver, the base of the Hudson bay Company, he came to know and admire the Native Americans and use them as guides. Doubtless amused by his plant-hunting activities, they called him 'Grass Man'.

Flowering currant

Here he came across the flowering currant, which graces and scents so many gardens in spring, and the majestic fir which bears his name. He travelled by canoe up the Columbia River, and explored the countryside, battling with challenging terrain, hot sun, exhaustion and hunger.

Returning to Fort Vancouver, our unfortunate hero intended to catch a boat back to England, but missed it by an hour after being delayed by an abscess in his knee joint, caused when he cut himself on a rusty nail. So he stayed, and the following spring climbed the Blue Mountains, naturally encountering terrible weather. Partly as a result of snow-blindness, and partly due to sand which got in his eyes in the desert, he began to have problems with his eyesight.

The Douglas Fir, which can live for over a 1000 years.

So it went on. He continued to collect plants and seeds, despite falling down a ravine, encountering grizzly bears, and almost getting drowned in Hudson Bay.

Not surprisingly, when he returned to London, he found it difficult to fit in. Two years later, he set off again for North America. He revisited the Columbia River and then headed south to California, popped in to Hawaii and then went back north. He wanted to visit Alaska and then head home via Siberia. (!) However, with his usual luck, he lost all his possessions, his plant collection and his journal, when his canoe ran on to rocks in the Frazier river and he was thrown into the water and caught up in a whirlpool.

Understandably disheartened and in poor health, he decided to return to Hawaii. It was to prove a disastrous decision. Whilst staying with a local man named Ned Gurney, who trapped wild cattle for a living, using covered pits to trap the animals. At some point, Douglas apparently heard the cries of a bullock which had been trapped in a pit, went to investigate, fell in, and was gored and trampled to death; only being found some hours later.

Obviously, this was a tragic end for such a courageous man. But he had achieved a great deal. Britain has only three native conifers (the yew, the Scots pine, and common juniper): a great proportion of the conifers which form part of Britain's garden landscape today were introduced by him, as were the trees which later formed the basis for forestry enterprises all over the world. If you've ever despaired of the rows of conifers marching over British hills, you might have mixed feeling about this; but I don't think we can blame Douglas for the way his introductions were used - and we can only admire his dogged courage and persistence, in the face of a barrage of bad luck and unfortunate accidents.

(I am as ever indebted for my accounts of the plant hunters to 'The Plant Hunters', by Musgrave, Gardner and Musgrave - a really fascinating book.)

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Heart and Soul at Apothecaries Hall by Fay Bound Alberti

Apothecaries Hall, Blackfriars, London

On Thursday 29 June I gave a keynote lecture at the Geoffrey Flavell symposium, held at the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, in Blackfriars, London. If you haven't visited, do check out the website and learn about the activities of the Society. It is 400 years old, having been founded as a City Livery Company (incorporated by royal charter in 1617); a major centre for the manufacture and sale of drugs at the Hall (1671-1922); the founder of Chelsea Physic Garden (in 1673) and a medical examining and licensing body since 1815. The beautiful building was partly burned down in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt; as an early modernist by training, I was delighted to discover that the symposium itself was being held in the space where Oliver Cromwell's armies had once bedded down for the night. Apparently, they made quite a mess. 

To get back to the theme of the symposium, Geoffrey Flavell was a highly respected cardio-thoracic surgeon. Born in New Zealand, he completed his training at Bart’s in London. In 1939, he became the resident surgical officer at the Brompton Hospital. And he worked, during the Second World War with Sir Archibald Mcindoe, of Guinea Pig fame, in treating severely burned patients. Flavell was appointed consultant at the London Hospital in 1950, where he worked for 30 years.

In keeping with Flavell's specialism, the title of this year's Symposium was ‘The Heart, Health and Culture: An Exploration in Medicine and the Humanities’. It gave me a chance to revisit my earlier work on the history of the heart, in health and disease. My book Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine and Emotion (Oxford University Press, 2010) explored the meanings of the heart as both symbol and organ. It looked at why we have two very different ideas about the heart in our culture: the heart as a Hallmark symbol sold on millions of cards every year and the heart as a pump, responsible for the circulation of the blood.

In my book, and in my paper, my theme was this: for centuries, medical practitioners in the West held the heart to be the centre of emotion, thought and feeling. Before the rise of the brain qua mind, the heart was the most important organ of the body, which was frequently viewed in cardiocentric ways: the heart was all that mattered in the end. With the rise of scientific medicine and neuroscience, the decline of religious explanations for our existence (and the decline of the soul in the material tradition), the heart became a material object. It might beat excitedly when we see a loved one, but not because our soul was moving through the heart. It might feel like our hearts would break, but not because our hearts were overwhelmed by the melancholic humours of the ancient world. Hormones began to offer a new explanation; hormones produced by the new emotional centre of the body: the brain.

Of course, the heart still continues to thrive at the level of popular culture. The brain governs emotions in name only. Nor is the brain the only contender for the title of emotional organ par excellence, as my book This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016) argues. Other organs – notably the gut – are coming into their own. Like the heart, they are seen as sites of hormone production (and even, more controversially as systems of cellular memory). We are listening to the body more and more, though as we do, we must acknowledge the gaps in scientific medicine; the ways in which narratives of healing are leaving holism behind.

These are the themes I talked about at the symposium, reflecting my enduring interests in the history of the body and the history of emotion. How do we explain what we feel, and how has that changed over the centuries? Why are some organs given more importance than others? Why do heartfelt emotions and gut feelings have so much sway? Or really: why shouldn’t they? We feel with our gut and our heart, after all.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the symposium for me – a day that brought together historians and theologians, surgeons, GPS and ethicists – was how emotional our attitudes towards the body are, even for surgeons. Making a choice as a transplant specialist for instance - to operate or not operate - involves all the surgeon's clinical training, of course, but it also impacts on his and her emotional experience. Patients are not just bodies, but living, breathing people with families and loved ones. We want surgeons to be coolly efficient, but we also need them to be human.

The ways we intellectualise the body in medicine, talk about it, take it apart physically and metaphorically, doesn’t take away from the fact that we exist and experience the world, for good and ill, in our bodies. We feel emotional about what happens to our bodies (and those of our loved ones) just as we did in the past, albeit for different reasons. One of the themes that crosses boundaries between scientists and non-scientists is the question of what makes us quintessentially human. We might talk about the word ‘soul’ (and most of us believe we have one), though there is no agreement on what it is, or what it does.

In the 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes’ time (he of the 'I think therefore I am' doctrine), things were simpler: the soul lurked behind the eyebrows. It was the space where the physical body met the emotional and spiritual body. It was also why so many emotional expressions involved the raising or furrowing of the brows. Today the soul is often placed in the brain (and sometimes seen as synonymous with the mind and consciousness). Far more often it exists as a nebulous, free-floating entity that is, and yet is not, linked to our religious beliefs.

Sometimes, the soul is still placed in the heart. When I ask people to point to their minds, more often than not they point at their heads. When I ask them to point to their ‘selves’, they point to their heart. The heart remains an emotional centre, then, and not just in language. The heart remains a symbol of our inner selves, of truth, of passion. Outside the narrow confines of medical textbooks, it can’t ever be reduced to a pump.

A Victorian Valentine's card from the Wellcome Images collection

Monday, 14 August 2017

A kimono by any other name ... by Lesley Downer

Writing about old Japan, there are many words which are very difficult to translate. The architecture, customs, clothing, even hairstyles are so different that the words simply don’t exist in English. For the entirety of Japanese clothing, as diverse in terminology as our blouse, skirt, dress, etc, we have only ‘kimono’ and maybe ‘robe’ and ‘gown’ that come remotely close.

In Japanese ‘kimono’ just means ‘something worn’, ’clothing.’ It’s come to mean traditional Japanese clothing, usually women’s wear.

Maiko and okami-san (house-mother): 
2 sorts of 'kimono' 

Not surprisingly in pre-modern Japan, the period I write about in The Shogun’s Queen, the different parts and types of clothing all had different names. The basic garment which we call a kimono was a kosode. Then there was the uchikake, a rich brocade overgarment (‘brocade’ - does it really communicate the rich silk?) with a quilted hem that trails on the ground behind you. I tried calling it an ‘over kimono’ and finally settled on ‘mantle’ though ‘mantle’ evokes something quite different from an uchikake.

Young unmarried girls including maiko (teenage trainee geisha) wear furisode, kimono with long swinging sleeves, while one of the markers of the fully qualified geisha is that she wears a kimono with shorter sleeves.

As for the obi, do readers understand the Japanese word or should I translate it as ‘sash’ or cummerbund’?

And how to describe tea ceremony? Does ‘bamboo scoop’ or ‘bamboo spoon’ evoke the tiny exquisitely shaped artefact that you use to take two scoops of green tea? Does ‘bamboo whisk’ conjure up the delicate shaving brush-like implement you use to beat the tea?
Chasen, chashaku, chawan (bowl), natsume (caddy)

Then there’s traditional architecture. When you visit someone you slide open the door and step into an area I call the vestibule, the entry way or the entrance hall. It’s where you leave your outdoor shoes and is a good step below the level of the main floor of the house. There you’re still outside, you haven’t intruded into the house proper, so you call out. And when you’re invited in you’re actually invited to step up. But do vestibule or entry way or entrance hall sufficiently communicate all this? And does it matter?

My YA author friend Victoria James has been busy changing the language of her novel to make it comprehensible to American readers. Do Americans understand ‘nobble’? And what do they understand by ‘biscuit’?

This probably all seems very simple. Of course writers should be as understandable as possible, should do their best to make even the most foreign of cultures accessible. My editors naturally want me to make my text as comprehensible as possible.
Maiko in furisode

But what is the best way to take the reader on a journey to another place and another time? To what extent do we need to hold the reader’s hand?
Following the rule of accessibility I might write, ‘She put on her kimono and over it her mantle and went to the entrance hall and slipped her feet into her wooden geta clogs ...’ But supposing instead I wrote ‘She put on her kosode and over it her uchikake and went to the genkan and slipped her feet into her geta ...’

Supposing I used chashaku instead of bamboo spoon and chasen instead of bamboo whisk and genkan for the entrance hall of a Japanese house?

In Sea of Poppies Amitav Ghosh is completely unforgiving. He peppers his sentences with foreign words. Some you understand straight away from the context, for some you have to flip back to the last use of the word and some you never understand. You just have to glide over them. He uses no italics and there is no glossary.

For example:: ‘... this was no ordinary ship bearing down on him but an iskuner of the new kind, a ‘gosi ka jahaz’, with agil-peechil ringeen rather than square sails. Only the trikat-gavi was open to the wind and it was this distant patch of canvas that had woken him as it filled and emptied with the early morning breeze. Some half dozen lascars sat perched like birds on the crosswise purwan of the trikat-dol, while on the tootuk beneath the serang and the tindals were waving as if to catch Jodu’s attention.’
'Sash'? 'Cummerbund'?
The green garment is the ends of the tayu (courtesan)'s obi,
knotted at the front to indicate that if you are rich, lucky
and bold enough you might be allowed to untie it. 

Speaking in New York he said that growing up in India he’d read English literature voraciously. He’d read, for example, the word ‘marshmallow’ and though he didn’t know that it was soft and white he knew it was edible and that was enough. He argued that it wasn’t necessary for the reader to understand every word but that the use of authentic words of the era created white noise, a phrase which evokes rather wonderfully the creation of atmosphere in fiction - though some might argue that he does take it rather far.

To me it raises very interesting questions. How do we write about a very foreign culture? How many foreign words can we include? Do they give atmosphere or hold up the reader? Following Ghosh’s example, could I use kosode and uchikake, and if not, why not? Ghosh’s language is actually quite difficult but that doesn’t stop you reading.

To quote him: ‘Language in novel works differently from language in journalism — it establishes atmosphere and background. Each good novel has white noise — filmmakers do it through visuals. Novelists do it with words, and so one must throw as a writer everything into the mix.’

Lesley Downer's latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, is now out in paperback. For more see

Sunday, 13 August 2017

DISCOVERING NEW HISTORICAL FICTION – Elizabeth Fremantle outlines the 2017 HWA Debut Crown Shortlist

The HWA Debut Crown shortlist for 2017 demonstrates that there is a wealth of fresh and exciting historical fiction from new writers out there and that historical writing is very much alive and kicking. 

1645. When Alice Hopkins' husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.

But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women's names.

To what lengths will Matthew's obsession drive him?
And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

When seventeen-year-old Abigal Walker, the youngest of four sisters and desperate to escape her mother´s oppressive house and her tedious factory job in the East, responded to the ad, Man in Territory seeks correspondence with adventurous gal, she thought she had found her ticket to love and freedom. 

She falls in love with a man named Henry through the lovely letters he sends her about his home in the West and she agrees to travel there to Shakespeare to become his wife. 

But instead she finds herself lured to a rough mining town and twice-deceived. The first surprise she discovers upon arrival in Shakespeare is that she is the sole woman to have ever set foot there.

India, 1919. Desperate for a fresh start, Captain Sam Wyndham arrives to take up an important post in Calcutta's police force.

He is soon called to the scene of a horrifying murder. The victim was a senior official, and a note in his mouth warns the British to leave India – or else.

With the stability of the Empire under threat, Wyndham and Sergeant 'Surrender-not' Banerjee must solve the case quickly. But there are some who will do anything to stop them...

The writing's on the wall for Harry Kvist. Once a notorious boxer, he now spends his days drinking, and his nights as an enforcer on the streets of 1930s Stockholm a city where the rich rule and the poor freeze. But one biting winter's night he's sent to collect from a debtor named Zetterberg, and when the man is found dead shortly afterwards, all eyes are on Kvist.

Kvist's struggle to clear his name will lead him from the city's criminal underworld to its opulent elite. It will bring him face to face with bootleggers and whores, aristocrats and murderers, and force him to confront his own darkness. It will be the biggest fight of his life.

Francesco has a memory of his father from early childhood, a night when life for his family changed. From that night, he has vowed to protect his mother and to follow the words of his father: Non mollare. Never give up.

As Francesco is herded into a camp on the island of San Domino, he realises that someone must have handed a list of names to the fascist police. Locked in spartan dormitories, resentment and bitterness between the men grows each day.

Elena, an illiterate island girl, is drawn to the handsome Francesco. Sometimes, she is given a message to pass on. She's not sure who they are from; she knows simply that Francesco is hiding something. When Elena discovers the truth about the group of prisoners, the fine line between love and hate pulls her towards an act that can only have terrible consequences for all.

On her first day at a new school, Lily befriends one of the daughters of infamous painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are trying to escape the conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live at their home. Lily becomes infatuated with this wild, bohemian lifestyle and longs to truly be a part of the family.

But as the years pass, Lily observes the way the lives of these artists come to reflect their art. Yet it's not Evan, but his own daughters, who pay the price for his radicalism. Almost 30 years later, Lily contemplates the ordinary path her own life took, how she has played it safe, but does freedom come at a cost?

Brought together once more, this is a story of the impact of loss, devotion and obsession, and the demise of one family.

Elizabeth Fremantle's latest novel The Girl in the Glass Tower is published by Penguin