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Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Christmas with Maggie

"So shrewd, so kind, so amusingly unkind, so sharp, such fun, so naughty."
"Maggie Greville? I would sooner have an open sewer in my drawing room."

Maggie Greville was one of the most celebrated Edwardian society hostesses but, as the above comments reveal, opinions were sharply divided over her character. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Scottish brewery millionaire, William McEwan, and a lodging house keeper, Helen Anderson, but many years after her birth, the pair married. Maggie remained very close to her father who lived with her in his latter years. He left her his fortune, the equivalent of £65 million pounds in today's terms.

In addition to her London house, Maggie owned a beautiful mansion in Surrey, England, by the name of Polesden Lacey. Under her reign, Polesden became a mecca for high society. Lucky guests enjoyed weekends filled with entertainment, sparkling conversation and delicious food in surroundings that rivalled a luxury hotel.

Marriage to the aristocratic Ronnie Greville launched Maggie on her meteoric rise in society. She was an inveterate snob and collected the rich and famous with ruthless efficiency. (She once remarked she was only interested in rich people.) Visitors would find themselves hobnobbing with prime ministers, maharajahs, film stars or even King Edward VII himself accompanied by his mistress Alice Keppel. At Polesden the first two rules were, "Have fun" and "Anything goes"; but the third was even more important - if you wanted to be asked again, you had to remember that, just as in Vegas, what happened at Polesden Lacey, stayed at Polesden Lacey.

Maggie's taste in interior decoration could be over the top, but the marvellous collection of paintings, furniture, ceramics and textiles in the house testify to her good eye for lovely things. The house is shown off with particular magnificence at Christmas when its present owner, the National Trust, decorates in style as Maggie would have done, even using household record books to recreate the Christmas dinner for a particular year with the table set with silver and crystal along with place cards giving the names of the fortunate guests.
On her death in 1942, Maggie left all her fabulous jewellery, including a diamond necklace which was reputed to have belonged to Marie Antoinette, to the Queen Mother and it all remains in the Royal Family. One notable item is the beautiful tiara often worn by the Duchess of Cornwall.
If you're ever in Surrey, why not go and see Polesden for yourself? Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy these few pictures of the ultimate Edwardian Christmas. 

Guess which one is the butler who was too fond of finishing the port

Sunday, 20 November 2016

A Treasure House

I can't think of a better pastime to brighten up a dreary November day (here in the UK at least) than looking through my photos from my last visit to the Wallace Collection at Hertford House in London.

Portrait of society beauty Nelly O'Brien by Joshua Reynolds
Beginning in the 18th century, the collection is the work of the Marquesses of Hertford. The first Marquess purchased works by Canaletto and Reynolds and was followed by his son who added to the collection with more works by Reynolds, as well as his rival portrait painter in fashionable circles, Romney, and fine examples of French furniture and art.

Miss Jane Bowles by Reynolds

The third Marquess, an unpleasant man who was mainly interested in leading a dissipated life did, fortunately for us, find time to collect more treasures, especially  the start of the collection's Dutch and Italian works, including a Titian and Rembrandt.

It was the fourth Marquess, however, who collected on a grand scale, adding magnificent examples of French furniture and works by French, Italian, Dutch and British artists. Among these are many of the highlights of the collection, for example The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals and Fragonard's famous The Swing or as it's rather cheekily known, The Best View in the House.

 After the fourth Marquess's death, the collection, and much of his vast fortune, passed to his illegitimate son, Richard Jackson, whose name was eventually changed to Wallace. Richard Wallace, who was a philanthropist as well as a man of great taste, preserved and increased the collection, indulging his love of Renaissance and medieval art and his interest in armoury.

Medieval cup made of  crystal quartz

His widow then took charge and after her death, Hertford House became a museum. There, the richness of the collection is matched by impressive architecture and sumptuous interiors. A visit is a treat at any time of the year, and particularly as the dull days of winter advance.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Golden Folly

The blog has been quiet for a few weeks as I've been away on holiday - a trip to Italy that included a stay in Rome and a memorable visit to the Domus Aurea, the Emperor Nero's 'Golden House'. Nero is legendary for his wild extravagance, depraved cruelty and appalling relations. He was reputed to have fiddled while Rome burned in 64 AD; a story that doesn't stand up to examination as violins hadn't been invented in Ancient Roman times, but he certainly did nothing to help his  stricken subjects.
Instead, he razed what remained of the buildings on parts of the Esquiline, Caelian and Palatine Hills and built a gigantic palace where he held luxurious entertainments. Archaeologists are still excavating the Domus Aurea and no one is sure exactly how big it was but what has already been uncovered is vast. Its decoration shows that the palace would have outshone anything else of its time and much that came afterwards. Walls were covered with expensive marbles in a multitude of shades; with gold leaf and even with precious stones. The entrance hall was arranged so that rose petals would fall from the ceiling to greet guests, whose senses were also beguiled by perfume shot into the air from invisible sources. The dining room floor revolved so that all the dinners could enjoy the magnificent views from the windows.
The grounds were equally vast, embellished with many fountains fed by water drawn from the hills around and a huge artificial lake. There were also hunting grounds and a private collection of exotic animals from across the Empire.
The palace seems, however, to have had no bedrooms or permanent kitchens and it's believed Nero only used it for entertainment while still living in his old palace on the Quirinal Hill.
When the Romans finally had enough of Nero and forced him to commit suicide, his successor, Vespasian, drained the lake and built the Colosseum in it's place. A later Emperor, Trajan, built public baths over the palace, using it as foundations.
The Domus Aurea became a fading memory until Renaissance times when a young man crossing the site slipped into a crack in the ground. He found he had entered a magical world from antiquity.
He was followed by many curious visitors, including Renaissance artists such as Raphael, all of whom were prepared to risk life and limb in their eagerness to see what  remained of the fabled palace and its artwork. 
The task of unearthing the Domus Aurea has many more years to go but it was a great privilege to see how far the project has progressed.     

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Jane Davis Gets Confidential

I’m delighted to welcome award-winning author, Jane Davis, to the blog. Jane is the author of seven novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise. Her 2016 novel, An Unknown Woman won Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year Award. Compulsion Reads describe her as ‘a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’ Her favourite description of fiction is 'made-up truth'.

Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey, with her Formula 1 obsessed, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she is not writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

I grew up close to Wimbledon, best known for its association with lawn tennis. These days, Wimbledon is in one of London’s most expensive post codes, but back in those pre-DIY days, it wasn’t nearly so affluent. Apart from the fact that I can longer afford to live in Wimbledon, I haven’t moved far and the changes I’ve seen, both demographically and architecturally, interest me. My novels are set in my personal geography, and so it already has many strata. I’ll let Ron explain. (Taken from an Unknown Woman)
‘There was something transportative about living in the same city all of your life; walking around familiar geography, knee-deep in the history of the place. And superimposed over a street map carried both inside and outside his head (the then and the now), were the milestones of his own life.’
When you write characters into what is already your personal backdrop, you create yet another layer. Recently I found myself in St Mary’s Church in Beddington lighting a candle for my mother-in-law’s anniversary, but I also felt the presence of Jim and Aimee, two on my characters from A Funeral for an Owl.

What kind of subjects do you write about and why do they interest you?

Big subjects: I’ve tackled the influence that missing people have on our lives, how parents react when their teenage daughter claims to be seeing religious visions, what life is like for the daughter of a prostitute, what it’s like to lose your home and everything in it. I give my characters almost impossible moral dilemmas. To be honest I throw them to the lions.  

As for why, I’m hugely interested in cause and effect. One of my favourite authors is John Irving and the first novel of his that I read was A Prayer for Owen Meany. Irving overlays the story of Owen Meany, (a boy brought up to believe that he was the product of a virgin birth), with the somewhat dull present-day life of his best friend, John. Talk about cause and effect! One of the reasons authors write is because they want to create a world with logic, with order, with consequences, sometimes doling out justice, sometimes giving people second chances. All authors are playing God to some extent. 

Most of the events I write about are based in truth, albeit slightly unexpected ones. What inspired me to write These Fragile Things was the discovery that a woman in Surbiton – close to where I live – claims she has seen visions of the Virgin Mary every day for the past thirty years. When challenged recently that that there were too many coincidences in I Stopped Time, I referred the reviewer to the biography of model-turned-photographer-turned-journalist Lee Miller. I see myself as a magpie. I collect obscure facts and think, how can I recycle them?

Do you have a special place where you like to write?

My writing desk is the dining room table. At least, I think the table is under there somewhere. It is littered with notebooks, notes written on the backs of envelopes, Sellotape, my diary, a calculator. I can work in chaos - so long as I have silence.  

It’s definitely not an ideal environment - I don’t live alone and the dining room is the highway to our kitchen and the bathroom! However, Stephen King describes in his book, On Writing about how he used to write at a small desk under the eaves, and it wasn’t until he had his first office that he first suffered from writers’ block. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

What was the first thing you wrote? Was it any good?

My first novel was called After Hilary. It didn’t get as far as being a book, but did earn me the services of a literary agent and the words, ‘Jane, you’re a writer’, which sounded far more glamorous than ‘Jane, you’re an insurance broker’. I’d call that four years well-spent. There was a draft contract from a small publisher, but the small publisher was eaten up by a big publisher before the ink was dry. In retrospect, I’m rather glad it was consigned to the bottom drawer reserved for all first novels, because like most first serious attempts, it contains semi-autobiographic elements that would have come back to bite me. I have published seven novels since then. None of them are remotely autobiographical, but this doesn’t stop members of my family from claiming that they recognise themselves.

Tell us a bit about your latest release.

My Counterfeit Self tells the story of a radical poet and political activist called Lucy Forrester, who’s a cross between Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood. It starts on the day of the funeral of her literary critic and on/off lover of 50 years, Dominic Marchmont. Having been anti-establishment all of her life, Lucy is horrified to find that she’s been featured on the New Year’s Honours list. (This is list prepared by the Queen for people who have made a considerable contribution to British life in some substantial way – arts, culture, business, charitable works and so on).


What conflicts shape the story?

Lucy knows exactly who she is. Rebel, activist, word-wielder, thorn in the side of the establishment, not a national treasure. Initially she sees the fact that she’s been nominated for an Honour as an insult. Perhaps it’s an act of revenge, or a cruel joke. But husband Ralph suggests that perhaps Dominic – the man they both loved – has left her an opportunity? Lucy’s job is to work out how best to use it.

Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

To be honest, the idea of writing about the life of a poet came directly from reader reviews. Several comments that my prose was like poetry. I had no idea if I could actually write poetry but this gave me confidence that I might be able to convince readers that I could see the world as a poet does.

How did you research your story?

Authenticity’s very important to me. I started by reading a number of biographies: The Life of Kenneth Tynan, by Kathleen Tynan; Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius, by Richard Greene; Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, by Andrew Wilson, Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley and Vivienne Westwood by Vivienne Westwood and Ian Kelly. 
Because Lucy was struck down by polio at the age of nine, I needed to understand how childhood illness creates ambition, and was surprised by just how many famous people had suffered from polio: Martin Sheen, Donald Sutherland, Joni Mitchell, the ballerina Gwen Verdon – in fact Gwen was encouraged by her mother to dance as therapy.

With the internet, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips, but when you find conflicting information, it’s difficult to pin down which version is correct. Sometimes you have to go with the majority. The main issue I find is that it is easy to find the ‘facts’ (and I’m going to use inverted commas), it’s more of a challenge to know what my characters would have known at the time. That’s why I refer to newspaper headlines. I can be certain that this level of detail was in the public domain.

My final research required bare-faced cheek. I needed to know what a person would have to do to get arrested outside Buckingham Palace, how long it would take for someone to react, and what warnings would be given, and the information wasn’t available on-line. This wasn’t something I could afford to get wrong so I went to the Palace and asked the duty policemen and guards.

Does the story echo your own experience in any very concrete way?

Not in a concrete way, but indirectly. It’s unavoidable for a writer to draw on their own experience. In writing about the life of poet, I’ve drawn on my experiences as a writer. How it feels when you show your work to someone for the first time. How you fear that people may like you less when they understand what’s going on inside your head. I suppose you could say that I’ve drawn on my experience of winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award. After my competition win I received several reviews that said I didn’t deserve to win, that the result was a fix, or that I must have been related to the judges. I wanted to say to those people, ‘I didn’t enter with any expectation of winning.’ You see, I entered out of sheer frustration. I had an agent but my manuscript had been sitting in her in-tray for six months and she hadn’t found time to read it. With winning, there’s always a sense of giving with one hand and taking away with the other, ignoring the fact that at the centre of the controversy is someone vulnerable and real.

Do you think the book’s message is a hopeful one?

My philosophy is ‘arrive late, get out early’. I’m writing about a real issue that has yet to be resolved, so I can’t finish the story, but yes, I’d say there is a triumphant note.

Saul Bellow once said ‘You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.’ Do you agree?

Occasionally, to write the first draft of a tired and emotional scene, it helps to be tired and emotional, so that you can use an emotion that’s already there, rather than having to recreate one. I might set the alarm for the middle of the night so that I’m at least halfway there. But I always have to edit.

Do you have hobbies aside from reading?

I have three main passions: walking, photography and the British countryside. I am very lucky in that I am surrounded by parks so walking I do daily, but I can combine all three. I discovered mountain-climbing when I was eighteen and find it hugely rewarding to push myself physically. The top of a mountain is also a great place for thinking and putting things in perspective.  

What’s the first book you remember reading?

I can remember that I was a huge fan of The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. I also loved Anne of Green Gables and anything written by Alan Garner, whose writing is dark, peculiarly British and blends fact with folk law, myths and spirituality.

Do you have an all-time favourite book?

My list of favourite books may change but it’s always topped by The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. It has everything. Family secrets, flawed characters, opportunities for redemption. I return to it time and time again and always find something new. Odd though it may seem, I have never read another book by Pat Conroy. The Prince of Tides is so perfect, I’d be afraid that I would feel disappointed.

What are you working on now?

I’m very superstitious about talking about what I’m working on. I don’t know if I have a book on my hands until I hit the 50,000-word mark and I’m not there yet. But I was very moved by the Hillsborough documentary about how the families of those who were killed finally achieved their goals after dedicating their entire lives to the fight for justice. While it ended on a celebratory note, my thoughts were, what on earth do you do now? So that’s what I hope to explore.

My Counterfeit Self is available to pre-order on Kindle until the launch date of 1st October at the special price of 99p/99c. After this, the price will be £2.99/$3.99. To order or buy follow the link

For details of her other books, visit:

Newsletter (Sign up to receive a free copy of her novel, I Stopped Time. Jane promises not to bombard subscribers with junk. She only issues a newsletter when she has something genuinely newsworthy to report.)



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Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Chasing a Dream

September 1st marks the 146th anniversary of the Battle Of Sedan, an event that crushed the belief of France's glittering Second Empire that it was the major power in Europe. It's a matter of debate among historians whether the war was engineered by the powerful Prussian chancellor, Bismarck, or whether he simply took advantage of the situation when France challenged Prussia over a diplomatic incident involving Spain. 
At Sedan the victorious German federation, led by Prussia, defeated the armies of France in a mere six weeks. The blow to France's pride was as great as that dealt by Wellington and his allies in the much more famous Battle of Waterloo 55 years previously.
Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, fled into exile in England and a new Republican government was left to struggle through the terrible winter of the Siege of Paris before admitting defeat and surrendering the city to the Prussians. The French were forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty in the Galerie de Glaces at Versailles, where once the Sun King had reigned in splendour.
The story of the war plays an important part in my coming-of-age novel, City of Dreams. Anna, my heroine, has come to Paris from Russia on her marriage to dashing Frenchman, Emile Daubigny, looking forward to a happy and exciting life in the city she has dreamt of being part of, but fate has something else in store. As Paris fights for her life, Anna has to struggle with her own demons, always hoping for better times for herself and the city she loves.
City of Dreams is currently free on Kindle, to download your copy, click on the cover image to your right.
'Loved the story and the author's voice - really enjoyable.' 5* Amazon reviewer, Monette.
'It was a great, great read.' 5* Amazon reviewer, Dr Milton Burnett.    
Harriet Steel's latest novel, the murder mystery, Trouble in Nuala, is just out on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon. Recommended by Omnimystery News, it's a great read. Look for the purchase and Goodreads Giveaway links in the right-hand sidebar. There are  five signed paperback copies to be won.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Never Judge a Book by its Cover?

It's a piece of advice that 's been around for a long time, but is it true? These days when people have less and less time and tend to make quick decisions about what they want to read, the cover of that book you've spent so many hours lovingly crafting has become a vital marketing tool and, however much you love the writing process itself, a book that has no readers is a sad lost opportunity.
When I get to the stage of thinking about a cover for a new book, the first thing I like to do is create a mood board. That may sound pretentious, but  it really is worthwhile and actually very simple. Just spend a little time looking at covers for books in your genre to see what appeals to your eye. Think about the atmosphere your book creates and the world it evokes. Is it a gritty crime novel or a fantasy saga? An historical romp or a poignant romance?
Unless you're a technical wizard in the graphic design department, I can't stress too highly the importance of finding yourself a really great designer. That way you shouldn't make beginner's mistakes like having text that's hard for potential readers to decipher in Amazon thumbnails or using poor quality images.
My new murder mystery is set in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the 1930s. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the country last winter and found it an inspiring experience. In essence the book is a light-hearted, relaxing read, reflecting the colourful nature of the country in which it's set. (If you like your murder mysteries dark with alcoholic detectives who have broken marriages then I doubt it will be for you!) I wanted a colourful, fun cover to reflect the mood so, with that in mind, I started to collect images. Some of these helped me to decide the basic colours for my cover, others expressed the fun.
It took a few conferences with my wonderful, and very patient, designer before I felt we'd achieved exactly what I wanted but now I believe I have the perfect cover for the book. Here it is with a few of the images that inspired it.
Vibrant green on a walk to a lake 

More green in the paddy fields. This was telling me something!
One of many wonderful sunsets
And lastly - the fun element!

The cover for Trouble in Nuala was designed by JD Smith Design (
Trouble in Nuala is available in Kindle or paperback from Amazon - find out more and buy your copy by clicking on the cover image in the right-hand sidebar above, or follow the short link


Friday, 8 July 2016

Don't let the Facts Spoil a Good Story.

At the moment, UK politics resembles Shakespearean drama more each  day. A by-product of this has been the discussion of Boris Johnson's father's comment on his son's political assassination - those famous words from Julius Caesar,  'Et tu, Brute?' 
Several commentators have been quick to point out that according to the chronicler, Suetonius, Caesar probably said 'Kai su, Teknon?' - Ancient Greek for 'You too, my son?' Plutarch adds the words 'So fall Caesar'.
Shakespeare would obviously have been keen to choose the most dramatic and succinct line. 'Et tu, Brute' is certainly memorable and even though many educated people of his day would have swapped between Greek and Latin easily, it would have been more likely to be widely understood.
Of course we'll never know the truth. Maybe as one wag recently suggested, Caesar's last word is far more likely to have been 'arrrrgh!'

If you love a good mystery set in the Golden Age of Shakespeare, my novel Salvation is on Kindle Countdown until 15th July.

Friday, 17 June 2016

A not so Bleak House

It was a great treat to visit Charles Dickens' home at Bleak House in Broadstairs,  Kent this week. The house was formerly called Fort House and occupies a position on the headland overlooking Viking Bay.

Bleak House in Broadstairs where Dickens finished writing David Copperfield

In Dickens' time the house was surrounded by cornfields where birds and butterflies abounded. He described it as 'my airy nest' and when he wasn't writing, loved to go for long walks on the cliffs. Inevitably the area around Bleak House is now built up but the front windows still command wonderful views. A truly inspiring place.  

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Girl-less, Cuss-less Telephone

A hundred and four years ago this month, the small town of Epsom in Surrey in the United Kingdom made history as the first place in the UK to use an automatic telephone exchange.
Luckily for Epsom, this was a free trial or the cost would have been astronomical. As it was, three hundred and fifty homeowners signed up for the privilege of dialling direct the numbers they wanted to reach, rather than having to wait for the operator to connect them.
The equipment had been patented by an American inventor, Almon Strowger who opened his first exchange in Indiana with seventy-five subscribers. He advertised it as "the girl-less, cuss-less, out-of-order-less, wait-less telephone" because you no longer had to wait to be connected by the operators (almost invariably women) at the central hub.
Epsom was chosen as it was considered to be a typical suburban neighbourhood. The system was finally adopted as standard in 1922. It changed the way we communicated forever, and in its day was probably as much of a revelation to people using it as the mobile is to us. 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Echos of History

Readers often ask what inspires my novels. I've written elsewhere about the inspiration I've found in Impressionist paintings so here, I want to say something about the political situation that caught my imagination and led me to write City of Dreams.

Many writers of historical fiction are drawn to the medieval or Elizabethan periods, both fascinating, but in City of Dreams I wanted to explore a period that is less well known.
I wove the story of Anna, a Russian girl who comes to Paris with her new husband, into the history of that city in the second half of the nineteenth century. I wanted to explore a period that is not so familiar to most people but nevertheless extremely interesting. 
For many years Paris was the most fashionable and envied city on earth, but in 1870, diplomatic wrangling over rival influences in Spain catapulted France into the Franco-Prussian war. It was a war that France never expected to lose and the consequences of defeat were dramatic.
Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew) went into exile, leaving a shaky government that had to pilot Paris through a terrible siege and then a struggle for power with the leaders of the Commune, the political movement that foreshadowed the advent of Communism in the 20th century.
The historical importance of the struggle is best encapsulated for me by the fact that when the first three-man team of Soviet cosmonauts went up in Voskhod in 1964, they took with them into space three sacred relics: a picture of Lenin, a picture of Karl Marx and a ribbon from the Communard flag.
Yet however interesting the historical detail, I'd be the first to agree that a novel needs a good story to drive the narrative forward. I believe the number of 4* and 5* reviews City of Dreams has received on Amazon show that new readers won't be disappointed.
City of Dreams is free on Kindle at present. To go to  the page for more details, just click on the cover image in the sidebar. 

Friday, 22 April 2016

Dressed to Kill

A piece of excellent news this year is that Emma Rice has been appointed artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London. It will be exciting to see how the work of the traditional home of Shakespeare's plays develops with her direction. In an early interview, she indicated that she would be casting female actors in some of the major male roles. The idea is not entirely new - there have been female Hamlets from Sarah Bernhard to Maxine Peake - but no doubt Rice will expand the repertoire.

It's no surprise that men got the biggest share of the lines in Shakespeare's day. It was a male dominated society, and outside the comedies, the women don't get much chance to drive the action forward. There are exceptions of course, for example Lady Macbeth. By a happy accident, I was thinking of this when I came across a reproduction of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Ellen Terry in the magnificent beetle wing gown she wore in the role.

In 2011, after five years and more than 700 hours of meticulous restoration work, it went on display again at Terry's last home, the National Trust property Smallhythe Place in Kent. After a tempestuous life, it deserved some tender loving care . Terry had a reputation for arriving late and dressing in a hurry, thereby damaging the delicate wings. It also showed the marks of snagging from the spectacular jewellery she wore on stage; being trampled on by other actors and snagging on scenery. The production ran for more than six months to packed houses, and the costume was reused on many later tours, crossing the Atlantic at least twice.

In the painting, the sea green fabric shimmers with the iridescent wings of 1,000 beetles. The replacements for  the damaged ones were donated by an antique dealer in Tenterden. (Fear not, these jewelled beetles shed their wings naturally.)

The gown caused a sensation when Terry wore it as Lady Macbeth in 1888, transforming the beautiful flame-haired actor into a cross between a jewelled serpent and a medieval knight. After the first night, Oscar Wilde, recalled the impact of Lady Macbeth arriving in a taxi: "The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets."

Another smitten male visitor to Terry's dressing room recorded: "There before me was Lady Macbeth in the glorious robe of green beetle wings. Her face was wreathed in smiles, and almost the first words she said were 'Is not this a lovely robe? It is so easy, and one does not have to wear corsets.'"

How practical.


Monday, 4 April 2016

Brother and Sister

Anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with English poetry is likely to be able to recite a few lines of William Wordsworth's famous poem,  I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. The entry in his sister, Dorothy's, Lakeland Journal for 15th April 1802, the day that they saw the daffodils together, is less well known, although William himself gave her credit for being an inspiration to him when he said of her in old age that "She gave me eyes; she gave me ears."

As it's daffodil time, I've just re-read what Dorothy wrote. It's so evocative, I'd like to share it with you:

"When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park, we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more, and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones and about them; some resting their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing . This wind blew directly over the lake to them. there was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers a few yards higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway."

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

Mark Twain's famous words also apply to short stories.
These hardy little creatures battle on, in spite of the doomsayers who prophesy their extinction. They remind me of the daffodils in my garden, determinedly growing again after being checked by snow and ice.
Short stories may not sell in vast numbers but a good short story often stays longer in my mind than many a novel. The EDF short story prize is one of the most lucrative in the literary world and less prestigious competitions still attract hundreds, even thousands of entries. 
So, to celebrate the short story and the very welcome arrival of spring, I've made my varied collection free for the weekend. Do take a look and if you decide to download, I'm confident you'll find something to amuse you. To download a copy to your Kindle, follow the link or click on the cover image in the right-hand bar.

Monday, 7 March 2016

A Victorian Queen of Hearts

Readers often ask how I came across the story of Lola Montez, the Victorian adventuress who features in my biographical novel, Becoming Lola.

I first noticed Lola on a visit to the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. She was for a time the adored mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria who had her portrait painted for his ‘Gallery of Beauties’ there. Ludwig wanted the gallery to be a record of the women he considered the most beautiful of his day. I was just thinking that his taste ran to rather doll-like lovelies when I reached Lola’s portrait. Her face, with its amazing deep-blue eyes and air of vitality, grabbed my attention. The caption gave the barest of information, but I scented an intriguing story that might make an excellent subject for a novel. Back at home I set to work to find out more.

 I discovered she had been born Eliza Gilbert, the daughter of a junior officer in the British Army and his wife, Elizabeth, who was the illegitimate daughter of an Anglo-Irish baronet. At seventeen, Eliza eloped with one of her mother’s admirers to avoid an arranged marriage. The man married her and the scandal might have been buried but Eliza was unhappy and left him. Not long afterwards, she re-invented herself as Lola Montez and claimed to be the widow of a (fictional) Spanish war hero.

Sexy, clever and ambitious, with a total disregard for convention, she went on to become the nineteenth century’s most notorious adventuress. By the time she died in 1860, (of pneumonia, her lungs fatally weakened by the cigarillos she loved to smoke), only Queen Victoria eclipsed her in fame. Her life gave rise to hundreds of novels and plays and endless gossip. Thackeray probably used her as his model for Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair


With all that, it’s hard to understand why today, Lola has been almost forgotten. Books on her are not easy to track down and the few people who recognize her name usually do so from Vanity Fair or her colourful appearance in George MacDonald Fraser’s Royal Flash, where she was the femme fatale who delivered Flashman into the clutches of the dastardly Otto von Bismarck.

So what happened? The number of Lola’s lovers was legendary but to the straight-laced Victorians, that made her all the more fascinating. Many famous courtesans – Diane de Poitiers, Nell Gwyn, Madame de Pompadour and Mata Hari to name a few - have come down to us in history, why not Lola?

I believe the answer is to be found in other traits in her character. She loved to live on the edge of danger and her restless temperament abhorred compromise. Full of ambition and independence of spirit, she was determined to direct her own life, even if a lover provided the money. Her sexuality was also predatory and couldn’t be contained within the conventionally discreet role of a mistress, let alone the framework of virtuous domesticity. Thus, she was a woman who represented a threat to a male dominated world. Perhaps it was society’s revenge that she should be forgotten.

Cartoon of Lola and Ludwig

I spent a long time reading everything and anything I could find about Lola and concluded that my first instinct had been correct: her story would make a great novel. It was such a shame that time had obscured her memory. As I went on, however, I realised that successfully turning fact into fiction was going to be a challenge. Lola packed enough into her forty years to fill several lifetimes. If readers were not to give up, exhausted and bewildered by her whirlwind existence, I had to be extremely selective about the episodes I used, while still constructing a satisfying narrative flow.

The second problem was that although Lola was a charmer if she chose to be, she could also be capricious, selfish and evil-tempered and as her celebrity increased, these qualities came to the fore. My readers didn’t need to like Lola unreservedly – after all many people find heroines like Dickens’s idealized women terribly bland and dull - but I didn’t want to forfeit all sympathy for her. My solution was to focus on the period of her life when she was establishing herself and growing into the persona of Lola. That way, I could write about the feisty, courageous girl who took on the world in her search for happiness and fulfilment, before celebrity devoured her.

Writing Becoming Lola was lots of fun and the interest the book has generated has amply rewarded my efforts. She would be remarkable in any age. In her own she was a phenomenon. I’m glad to have played a part in rehabilitating her memory. 

Contemporary cartoon Lola escaping to France after being charged with bigamy.

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Friday, 26 February 2016

The Romance of History

Every so often, I'm reminded of why I love history and why I find historical novels, both reading and writing them, such a joy. This time the occasion was a visit to the lovely medieval city of Lincoln in England's fen country which brought home to me once more the romance of history and the sheer fun of discovered quirky little stories and details that had a big impact, or simply tell us interesting things about humanity.
Medieval stained glass window showing the burial of Hugh of Lincoln.
Lincoln is a very old city, dating back to Roman times, but a cataclysmic earthquake in 1185 destroyed many of its buildings including all of the Norman cathedral apart from the West Front. After the disaster, King Henry II, still consume by guilt over the murder of Thomas Becket, sent for a monk called Hugh of Avalon, a Burgundian who was at the time the prior of a Carthusian monastery in Somerset. Hugh (later St Hugh) had the reputation of being a great administrator as well as a very devout man. On Henry's orders he set about rebuilding the cathedral with tremendous drive and vision. It was completed in the Gothic style and was regarded for a long time as the largest covered space in Europe.
A tour of the cathedral reveals many stories including the history of the Lincoln Imp, a gargoyle who watches you from his vantage point high in the vaulted ceiling. The story goes that in the 14th century, Satan sent two of his imps to Earth to do mischief. When they reached Lincoln Cathedral they started smashing up the pews and treasures and tripping up the bishop. When an angel appeared from a hymn book and told them to stop, one escaped, but the other was turned to stone.
The Lincoln Imp
Centuries later, a Lincoln jeweller called James Usher made a tie pin in the shape of the imp and presented it to Edward VII (then still Prince of Wales) on his visit to Lincoln. Not long afterwards, Edward's horse Persimmon won the Derby. When admirers congratulated him, he pointed to the tie pin which he happened to be wearing and said all the credit for his luck should go to the imp. There was a mad rush to buy the tie pins and Usher became a millionaire! Subsequently, he founded the city's art gallery.
Edward VII with Persimmon
Another interesting story associated with the cathedral is that of George Boole, the inventor of Boolean logic which is at the heart of most of the computer programming codes used today. He is regarded by some as one of the fathers of the computer. Boole married a niece of George Everest, the explorer and conqueror of the Himalayas, who seems to have had the same robust attitude to life as her uncle. When Boole caught a chill after walking to give a lecture at his university in a heavy rainstorm then remaining in his wet clothes, she decided that the thing that had made him ill should also be used to cure him. Possibly he would not have survived anyway but I feel that having buckets of icy water poured over him didn't help. His memorial stained glass window is in the cathedral's nave.
Memorial to George Boole
Standing in the cathedral at Lincoln, I closed my eyes and imagined the sounds (and smells) of those medieval people who would have come through its doors to marvel at the great open space. The cathedral wasn't just a place of worship, it was a place where people met their friends, exchanged stories and even goods. If they had ridden to town on a valuable horse or had some other valuable animal with them, they might bring it in rather than leave it outside to be stolen.
Lincoln Cathedral is truly a place alive with the echoes and romance of history. I hope to have the chance to return.