A Week of Questions. Pick one (or more) answers and write a comment.
Which of these comes closest to describing your relationship with books?
You sit in your sofa and look at your shelves and think…
a) – So many books, they are like old friends.
b) – So many books, and so many I’ve not yet read!
c) – So many books! So much dust!
d) – Books do furnish a room – I need more… and more shelves.
e) – Now all my books are on my e-reader I have much more space for my collection of porcelain plates with pictures of kittens.
Last week, one of my fellow Blogg52ers, Pernilla who blogs at SVXRT40, was taking part in a chain response to a series of questions about books and reading. She concluded her entry for the week with a set of new questions that she passed on to any readers who felt challenged. I felt challenged.
(Let me just say I’ve made the executive decision to interpret “books” to exclude reference books or history books. Otherwise we might have a much longer text.)
The first question was Vart läser du helst? – Where do you read for preference? I like to read in a quiet sitting room with good light and table nearby where I can stand a drink. What I like to read (changing the question) depends a great deal on how I’m feeling at the moment, but I think generally speaking and for entertainment I reach for either detective stories or science-fiction. Joy is finding a book that combines both successfully. I’ve just finished reading China Miéville’s The City and the City, which I picked up when I was in London at the end of March. A wonderful fusion of noir, detection, thriller and existential science-fiction.
Gillar du att prata om böckerna du läser? Do you like to talk about the books you’re reading?
Sometimes I do and sometimes don’t. I’m not a member of any book club, but it’s fun to talk with people I know, if they’ve also read the same book. Just the moment I’m reading The Broken Road, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s final, posthumous account of the walk he took as an eighteen-year-old from London to Constantinople in the early 1930s. In this volume he is crossing Bulgaria. Bulgaria is where my wife and I met. Though fifty years separate Leigh Fermor’s visit and ours, it’s still fun to read out loud his descriptions of places we both know. I hope she’ll want to read the book too and maybe we can talk more about it then.
Vad tycker du om riktigt tjocka böcker?
What I think about really thick books – I think thick paperbacks are a bloody nuisance! Heavy to hold, with spines that are easily broken. There was a time when I thought they were good value – so much packed into them, but then I read a few that weren’t very well written and I came around to the perspective that thickness is no guarantee of a good read. Most of the thick books that I now own are either survivors from my youth or hardback replacements for good, thick books that fell apart (The Lord of the Rings, for example). Or, of course, some of them are reference books or history books — but we’re not talking about them!
Hur vill du ha det runt omkring för att läsningen ska bli trevlig?
I like it to be quiet around me when I’m reading, at least to start with. Once I’m into whatever I’m reading, if it’s caught my attention, I can tolerate music and even conversation around me if it’s not too loud. The most disturbing noise is conversation in English if I’m reading English or conversation in Swedish if I’m reading Swedish. That really disrupts my concentration. I like to be sitting comfortably, but I can read on the tram and I enjoy reading on a train. I’m not very good on long distance buses though. It’s nice to have a cup of tea or coffee to hand (see my answer to the first question), but if I’m really deep into a book I’m likely to forget about the drink and discover it tepid or cold when I eventually emerge.
Hur mycket tid anser du att du behöver ha fri för att börja läsa?
It’s hard to say how much free time I think I need before I start reading. It used to be, I’m almost sure, that my answer would be “None.” Nowadays, though, I’m very conscious that I’m more likely to pick up a smart phone to check news headlines rather than a book to read, if, for example, I have a shorter journey into town or maybe 20 minutes before I have to start making food. Picking up a book to read is far less of a natural spontaneous thing to do than it used to be. I’m not sure when that happened, but I think it must have been in my 30s when work — work that involved a great deal of reading — came to occupy so much more of my attention. In other words, I think I had already lost the spontaneous reading habit even before I became intimately acquainted with the Black Dog. I miss it, which perhaps is a sign I might rediscover it in the future.
När läste du en hel natt senast?
It is a very, very long time since I was so excited by a book that I sat up all night to read it. I don’t think I’ve done that since my student days. Another experience is closer to hand: being unable to sleep and getting up in the middle of the night and sitting with a book, often a book of poetry, and reading for two or three hours or until the dawn comes up.
Vem skulle du vilja ge ett boktips? Vilken bok skulle du tipsa om då? To whom would you like to recommend a book? Which book would you recommend?
I don’t recommend books much, though it happens — usually on the spur of the moment. This week – tomorrow in fact – people in Britain are going to the polls to elect a new parliament. As ever, the new parliament will consist of a mixture of hacks elected for the umpteenth time, career politicians who have climbed the rungs of party politics and now get to play with the big boys and girls, and a small group of individuals who don’t fall into either of these categories but who’ve joined in and campaigned out of the burning conviction that they might be able to make a difference or to protest against the other candidates. I’ve been wondering what book or books I might recommend to this last group.
I’m feeling cynical, so I recommend The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. Not only is this an admirable guidebook to the practicalities of politics and power, you might also use it to help you spot when you are being manipulated and perhaps help yourself to avoid some of those pitfalls.
Vilken bok borde alla ha läst? Which book should everyone have read?
That’s a hard question to answer. In Britain a very long-running radio programme called Desert Island Discs asks guests which one book they would take with them to a desert island assuming they already have copies of The Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare. This is because most Brits of the sort likely to be invited as guests on Desert Island Discs, if not limited by this proviso, would almost certainly say either The Bible or Shakespeare — which would make for a very predictable list. They’re good choices though. If you’re familiar with The Bible you’re familiar with a significant foundation for Western literature, and if you’re familiar with the works of Shakespeare then you are familiar with a significant foundation for English literature. In both cases you get a huge number of stories as well. But let’s go right the way back, why not? I think everybody should have read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the oldest piece of literature in the world, and a cracking good story!
Senaste bok du ångrar att du läste ut? The latest book you regret having read through to the end?
Hmmm, nowadays I rarely regret wasting my time reading to the end books that don’t work for me. If a book hasn’t revealed itself in the first fifty pages or so to be interesting, intriguing, exciting, funny or whatever, I might give it another fifty pages, but usually I give up. In this way I have saved myself from the pain of reading, for example, anything by Dan Brown but the first hundred pages of The Da Vinci Code.
Hur ser du på böcker du lånar ut?
I have a very sad affliction that means I find it hard to lend books. It’s not that I don’t want to encourage other people to read good books, it’s that if I lend a book I expect it to come back – preferably in the same condition I lent it. This just doesn’t happen. Nowadays I try not to lend books, but to give them away. A book given away is not a book one hopes to see again. Sadly this doesn’t always work and I am right now thinking about a copy of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm — a hardback Folio edition in a slipcase with beautiful illustrations – that I lent more than two years ago. Is it ever going to come back to me? I begin to doubt.
Thanks Pernilla, answering those questions was fun. It’s inspired me to run a similar book lover’s questionnaire and I just spent this morning putting it together. There are seven questions. Rather than present them all here though, I shall publish a separate question each day for the next seven days, both here and on my Facebook page. I’m interested to see what answers I get — if any. I’ll summarise the response in my next Blogg52 entry. (Which consequently may be a day late.)
Sometimes when I’m stuck for a story idea, I revisit a series of books I enjoyed as a child. (Also, it seems, when I’m stuck for a blog entry.) The books are the stories of Dr Dolittle.
In several places in the books when the doctor and his “family” are killing time, someone is sure to ask the doctor for a story and he usually says that he can’t think of one, but then turns out his pockets. His pockets are full of all sorts of things that he’s picked up here and there over time and there’s always something he can tell a story about.
It’s a good technique, and you don’t have to fill your pockets with odds and ends. Just look around and let your eye light on something. If you’re at home you might look at the pictures on your walls, the things on your shelves, the furniture or animals in your room, or what you can see out of the window. If you’re out, look at the people passing by or the decorations on the buildings, adverts, snatches of conversation, smells, insects, rubbish. Ask yourself, Does thing this have a story to tell me? Why does it look this way? Who used it? Who threw it away and why? Or did they drop it – is it lost? Who is this person? Where is she going and how do I know?
I’ve even used this technique when I’ve been teaching English conversation as a hook to start people talking, telling stories about themselves or their surroundings.
If you search for Dr Dolittle on the Internet, as I’ve just done, the majority of the hits you get take you to the Eddie Murphy films from the turn of the recent century or to the 1967 film with Rex Harrison as the doctor. But Dr Dolittle is much older than that. The author, Hugh Lofting, wrote the germ of his Dr Dolittle stories in letters to his children from trenches and battlefields of the First World War. Of all the writing and pictures to come out of the First World War, surely the illustrated Dr Dolittle stories were the most unlikely.
Hugh Lofting was British but married and resident in the USA when the war broke out. In 1916 he was called up, travelled back to Britain and saw service on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918. His experiences in the trenches were, he said, by turns too horrible or too boring to put into letters home to his young family – his daughter was four years old in 1917, his son two. Besides, his children wanted stories and pictures.
Lofting looked around and his eye lit on the animals that were conscripted to fight in the war alongside the humans. Years later he wrote:
If we made the animals take the same chances we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded? But obviously to develop a horse-surgery as good as that of our Casualty Clearing Stations would necessitate a knowledge of horse language.
And so the idea came to him of a country doctor, disillusioned with human society, who prefers the company of animals and who learns to speak with them in order to be able to take care of them.
The illustrations are by Hugh Lofting and taken from the edition of The Story of Dr Dolittle“Digitized for the Microsoft Corporation by Internet Archive in 2007 from New York Public Library”. Hugh Lofting died in 1947, so his works are under copyright in Europe for another two years – but Microsoft claim the book is out of copyright in the USA as it was published in 1923. If anyone from the Estate of Hugh Lofting objects to my using these illustrations, please get in touch and I will remove them. But I hope you won’t.
As regular visitors here will notice (I hope), I have carried out a revamp of At the Quill.
I’m in the process of building a new website. (It’s going to be called Stops and Stories and will be a forum of me to write about my travels – more on that later.) Anyway, for the new website I looked at a number of themes and I was rather taken with WP’s in-house theme TwentyFifteen. After I’d decided to use it for the new website, I heard the news that Google are changing the way they choose to display websites in their search results. (Journalists are calling this “Mobilgeddon”.) Apparently Google are going to favour sites that are responsive (adapt to different mobile devices) and that give users an easier viewing experience. Various tech journalists have estimated that “millions” of websites will be downgraded (for example, here).
Well, TwentyFifteen is a nice clean theme and seems to me to be both easy to read and very responsive. (I’ve tried it out on a number of different devices – thank you Gothenburg’s Media Markt and El Giganten.) That’s why I chose it for the new site. But then I got to thinking – in the lurid light of Mobilegeddon – that perhaps At the Quill would benefit from a facelift too. So, that’s what you see!
There’s one drawback with the new theme though – the header text and navigation buttons appear in the column to the left (on a computer screen) and there’s no space for my rotating banners, so I’m going to retire them. Before I say Adios, though, I thought I could give them an article to themselves and say a little about each of them. It also gives me an opportunity to test the responsive photo gallery plug-in I’ve added to the site as well. (Click on the pictures to see what I mean.)
Let’s start with this one – as the blog is nominally about reading and writing. This is a photo of some of the books on my bookshelves, taken a good many years ago now. I tried out a single shelf first of all, but I decided having the books at an angle was more dynamic. I also decided that applying a raster effect (the dots) anonymised the books and made them more of an abstraction.
The second banner – which I think of as the cartoon faces – is a piece of cloth from IKEA that I photographed when it was being used as the wall of a tent. The bearded chap in the glasses, I though, looked a bit like me. To help the one figure stand out from the others, I applied a radial blur in Photoshop.
This one comes from a series of photos I took of what I suppose is a kind of graffiti. The artist, Joakim Stampe, finds faces in the exposed natural rock beside roads and footpaths. He uses paint, mostly in a monochrome scale, to bring out the faces he finds. You come across his art here and there around Gothenburg. Writers, I believe find stories in all sorts of unexpected places, so it seemed a very appropriate illustration. (Here’s a little gallery of some more of Joakim’s faces.)
This is another piece of graffiti – a regular horse coloured in like a Dalecarlian horse. It was on a grey electricity junction box. I’m all for redecorated electricity junction boxes (ugly rectangular things) and I liked the idea of a horse painted orange and patterned.
This header – the muses – I only used for a short period. It’s a wall painting from the South Bank in London. I really liked the painting – I liked that it was made of words and that it named the muses. However, the only angle at which I was able to photograph it gave great prominence to Urania muse of astronomy and Polyhymnia muse of song. The next one along is “my” muse – Clio muse of history – but it’s difficult to make out her name, so I decided to take this picture out of the cycle. But I’ll let it in here, now, for one last fling.
Finally this is a picture of my waving shadow – together with my wife’s waving shadow. It seems appropriate to end with this as we are now waving goodbye to these banners.
The falling quills – actually a drawing of a goose quill I picked up a couple of years ago – remain as the wallpaper behind the left sidebar (on a computer – on a smart phone they’re in the header). I haven’t decided yet whether to add a logo to the sidebar – and if I do, what it should be. Another stylised goose quill perhaps (as on the banners) or perhaps my SC-in-a-circle logo (which is doing service on some of my other sites). Or something else? Any suggestions?
Henceforth each blog entry here will have it’s own Header image (similar in size to the one gracing this entry). Henceforth until the next revamp, I mean. 🙂
On this morning, at a little after 7 o’clock, the tall man who lay diagonally across the bed because he could not fit on it any other way, gave up his last breath and was pronounced dead. Shot in the back of the head as he sat to watch a theatre play, his body had struggled for 15 hours against the inevitable. The doctors who surrounded him, volunteers from the theatre audience as well as his official doctors who had hurried to his side when news of the attack reached them, could do little but relieve some of the symptoms. They took blood clots from his brain, which seemed to help him breathe more easily.
Supposedly, Abraham Lincoln had foreseen his death. Ten days before the assassination he woke from an evil dream in which he walked about a White House filled with the sound of sobbing to find a guarded catafalque set up in a state room. In his dream he asked one of the soldiers on guard, “Who has died?” The soldier replied, “It is the President.” Others who knew Lincoln intimately – including his wife Mary – testified that he’d had similar nightmares on and off for years, so though you might say he had foreseen his death it was hardly evidence of prescience.
On 15th April 1865, the USA was in the last stages of its civil war. For four years the country had been torn. Something between 600,000 and 850,000 people had died, mostly men between the ages of 25 and 40. Lincoln felt a moral responsibility for this and as a man of peace it must have been a heavy burden to bear.
The civil war broke out over the question of whether member states of the United States had the right to secede (leave) the Union. But of course, that was not the real reason.
In November 1860 Abraham Lincoln, who was well-known as an advocate of the abolition of slavery, was elected President. His support came principally from the north and west of the country, from the “free” states where slavery was not permitted. He was opposed by four other candidates, and won less that 40% of the popular vote throughout the country, but in the north and west – the greater part – he won by more than 60%. Under the USA’s two-tier electoral system in which voters elect a college of electors who go on to choose the President, he was the out-and-out winner.
Lincoln’s most compact opposition came from the “slave” states of the south. The 11 states that eventually broke away to form the Confederacy had a combined population of just over 9 million people, but more than a third of that number, 3.5 million, were slaves. (The population of the rest of the USA numbered 22 million of whom, in fact, nearly half a million were also slaves.)
The slave states were wealthy, but their wealth came from plantations of cotton, tobacco, sugar and other cash crops. It depended on slave labour. The plantation owners who, as the richest men in their states, dominated local political life, feared that President Lincoln would abolish slavery which would undermine their wealth and reduce their power. There is little evidence to support their fears. On the contrary, in a published letter (from 1862) Lincoln said he had been prepared to allow slavery to continue if that would have saved the Union without war. The slave states, though, chose not to trust him and instead adopted an issue that had been circulating since the United States was first formed – the issue of whether a member state had a right to leave the Union.
With Lincoln on his way to the White House, advocates of slavery took up the slogan, “The Union without slavery, or slavery without the Union.” Slave states began to secede from the Union (January) and formed the Confederacy (February) even before Lincoln could be sworn in as the new President (March). War broke out on 12th April 1861 when Confederate soldiers attacked loyal Union troops at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
In the 1860s warfare had yet to impinge mortally on civilian populations, however most of the deaths occurred not on the battlefield, but – like Lincoln’s own – after the event and as a result of disease and complications.
I say that warfare did not impinge mortally on civilian populations because humanity would have to wait till the 20th century before armies developed the technology to reach civilian populations behind the lines – and before the warmongers developed the mindset that would allow them to target civilians as well as soldiers. However the war was a civil war and certainly did affect the civil population, especially in the South. The concept of total war adopted by the combatants meant that property was destroyed and populations driven to flee in order that the enemy would be deprived of economic value and material support. So, Union General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” and the Confederate’s scorched earth retreats.
In April 1865, the war was nearly at an end. At the beginning of the month Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, had been abandoned and set on fire by the retreating southern army and had surrendered to the Union on the 3rd. On the 9th the army that had fled, itself surrendered. The struggle continued in other parts of the country, but the war was effectively over and the South had lost. The murder of President Lincoln was a last, desperate attempt to change the result. It failed, and created a martyr for the victors – though Lincoln’s modern hero status would likely have been just as great even if he hadn’t been assassinated.
It is interesting, though not very edifying, to read many of the comments on Lincoln, his assassin John Wilkes Booth and the Civil War being made currently on American websites commemorating the 150th anniversary. I’m reminded of Civil War historian Emory Thomas’s description of the shifting and contradictory way in which Confederacy presented itself to foreign public opinion in 1861 and 1862.
The Southern nation was by turns a guileless people attacked by a voracious neighbor, an ‘established’ nation in some temporary difficulty, a collection of bucolic aristocrats making a romantic stand against the banalities of industrial democracy, a cabal of commercial farmers seeking to make a pawn of King Cotton, an apotheosis of nineteenth-century nationalism and revolutionary liberalism, or the ultimate statement of social and economic reaction.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that racism and greed were the foundation on which everything else was built. On 11th April 1865, Lincoln gave a speech at the White House. He chose to speak of peace, reconstruction and the readmittance to the Union of the defeated states. It was not a victory speech and he did not dwell on slavery (for slavery was still practiced in some of the Union states), but he did speak of giving the vote to all liberated slaves.
John Wilkes Booth was present and heard the speech. Or at any rate, heard what he wanted to hear. His reaction (reported by his co-conspirator Lewis Powell) was, “That means nigger citizenship… That is the last speech he will ever give.” Depressingly, after 150 years, Booth’s feelings about “nigger citizenship” seem to be shared by numbers of Americans, many of whom appear to be serving as law enforcement officers.
Lincoln’s body lay in state in Washington DC for six days and was then taken on a long and circuitous train journey, stopping for memorial ceremonies in many cities before reaching Springfield, Illinois, where it was buried.
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags, with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil’d women, standing,
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit – with the silent sea of faces, and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn;
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs – Where amid these you journey,
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang;
Here! coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.
From “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman.
This little essay is a sidestep from what I usually write here, but today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death and I was dreaming about it when I woke this morning. If this was an academic essay I would speckle the text with footnotes, but you’ll have to take it on faith that I have done my homework (as well as the Internet will allow). It’s not all from Wikipedia 🙂
All the characters in a novel need to have names. Generally speaking they need to have names that readers will recognise as names and be able to pronounce. For minor characters it might be possible to get away with labels (the guard, the governor, the nurse) but for your main characters a real name is essential. As I’ve mentioned before, names are handles which allow readers – but also the writer – to get a grip on a character. They are also boxes that contain information about the character. Some of this information will derive from the name itself, but most you will add when you introduce the character and as you develop the story and give the character room to act. If you’ve done this successfully, when your character’s name comes up further on in the story your reader will associate a whole slew of information with the character which you won’t need to repeat. So choosing names for your characters – especially for your key characters – is important.
Sometimes names come very easily, sometimes it takes a long time to find them. Last week, my fellow Blogg52er Anna Hellqvist took up this issue and described how long it took her to find the name of one of her characters. I’ve had a similar problem.
In the first part of Elin’s Story I needed an extra point of view character who would be a bit older, more knowing and stand to one side of my heroine. This character offers an alternative perspective on events that otherwise come mediated through Elin. The character also provides a critical view of Elin herself. The character needs to be very close to Elin and this meant I had to make her female and put her into a very similar position, allowing her to share much of Elin’s experiences.
As I am writing an historical novel and my cast of characters includes “real” people, I already have a list of names I have to use. This is both an advantage and a bit of a straitjacket. The historical Elin travelled from Sweden to England in the company of Princess Cecilia and the names of almost all the company are in the historical record. Arriving in London the Princess and her women made an impression and are described – at least, their dresses are described – by eyewitnesses. The Princess had six women in her entourage. Elin was one, and four of the others are named, but it was the unnamed sixth that caught my eye. She would be my extra p.o.v. character.
But what to call her?
I already had an idea of her personality. I had decided she resembled the character of Becky Sharp in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Becky is a subsidiary character and not a particularly attractive one, but she is very astute, very sharp (and so we see Thackeray also choosing his characters’ names with care). Many people find Becky more memorable than Vanity Fair’s principal female character, Amelia. Obviously I don’t want to create a subsidiary character that is more engaging than Elin, but Elin will not be modelled on Amelia. However I do want some of Becky’s acidity.
My first thought was to call my character Rebecca, but a bit of research showed me that this name did not become common as a Christian name until the 1600s. My novel is set in the middle of the 1500s and this character had to have been born in the 1540s. My back story for her gives her an uncertain ancestry, but not a Jewish ancestry. Rebecca was simply not possible.
Popular Swedish women’s names of the period were Kristina, Anna, Margarita, Birgitta and their variants – indeed, among the Princess’s women I already had two Kristinas, one Anna and one Brita. I could have gone for something more exotic – I considered a Polish name or a Dutch name – but eventually I decided I needed a name that was plausible and did not draw attention to itself. I settled on Johanna.
Johanna has a similar biblical quality to Rebecca but is a possible Christian name in the period, perhaps especially in Germany. It wasn’t too far removed from Anna but far enough for there not to be a confusion. (I was already trying to find a way of distinguishing the two Kristinas and didn’t want to go out of my way to create a similar problem.) Johanna it was, and she has grown into her name very nicely.
Johanna is an orphan. She was a ward of the court of King Sigismund of Poland and placed by the King as a maid in the court of his sister Katarina. This is the Princess known to Swedish history as Katarina Jagellonica. In 1562 Katarina married Johan, Duke of Finland, and took her women with her to Åbo. Following Duke Johan’s arrest and imprisonment for treason against his brother King Erik XIV in 1563, Princess Katarina was interned with him and her entourage was forcibly reduced. Some were sent home to Poland, others were “redistributed”. Johanna was added to Princess Cecilia’s court.
A first name is not enough however. At this period in Sweden almost everybody, including aristocrats, identifies themselves with their given Christian name and their patronym – their father’s name. So my heroine is Elin Ulfsdotter, her father was Ulf Henriksson and her mother was Agnes Knutsdotter. Even the Princess Cecilia might be called Cecilia Gustavsdotter after her father King Gustav Eriksson.
Although Johanna’s father was a mercenary who fought for various German princes before taking service with King Sigismund in Poland, Johanna claims he was a descendant of the Norse Earls of Orkney. This means she can also reasonably follow Scandinavian practice. She calls herself Jarlsdotter.
It is an open question whether her father was actually called Jarl or was indeed descended from the Orkney Earls. Johanna tells different stories about him, some of which don’t seem to add up. When challenged she usually turns the question back on the questioner, but sometimes she admits that she was very young when her father died. She has no memory of her mother.
Even though 16th century Swedish aristocrats commonly use their first names and patronyms, they were still very conscious of their membership of certain families. Family relationships were the social networks of the age – a source of pride, assurance, influence and aid. Princess Cecilia was very proud of her family name, Vasa. When Ulf Henriksson died leaving his wife Agnes Knutsdotter to take care of six children under the age of 18 – and four of them girls – Agnes fell back on her family connections. She was a member of the Lillie family and Ulf a member of the Bååt. It was almost certainly through these connections that Agnes was able to place Elin as a maid at the court of Princess Cecilia.
Johanna has no family connections in Sweden, she cannot call on her family for help but must live by her wits. However, she must still have a family name to be proud of and use from time to time to underline her claim to be an aristocrat.
Having been thwarted in my original plan to link Johanna’s character to Becky Sharp with the same Christian name, I decided to explore the possibility of giving her a familial connection instead. I decided that Johanna’s family name would be some variant on sharp. One modern Swedish word for sharp is vass (it can also mean reed), in Icelandic and Faroese – the two languages closest to Norn, the dialect of Orkney – I find hvass, hvassi and vassur. I decided to make Johanna a member of the Vassi family. Vassi seems just about possible as a family name (though I’ve not been able to find it anywhere). It also seems a bit made up. I think it suits Johanna.
And so, I present to you Johanna Jarlsdotter Vassi!
It was a dark and stormy night, though more so the night before last. We caught the edge of the storm that swept across central Europe from the North Sea to the Alps and left in its wake destruction and even death, so the BBC tells me. Here in Brussels it was less dangerous, but yesterday the streets were strewn with leaves and twigs and branches — and rubbish — and every so often the windows were blasted with a shattering of raindrops that seem to be trying to squeeze through the glass. Yesterday, in the late afternoon, through the living room window, the cloudscapes against the setting sun were dramatic and ever-changing.
It’s quieter this morning, calmer, though just now as I was making myself a cup of coffee there was a shower of hail, brief but distinct, beating a tattoo on the balcony and for a moment turning the lawn white down there.
Here on the fourth floor I have a grandstand view of the crown of a chestnut. I discovered it was a chestnut only last week. Before it was just a tree, winter-bare against the sky. When I got back from England the buds on its branches had swollen and coloured, and now they are bursting and the little candles are appearing. This is the tree in which a couple of magpies have been building a nest, fighting the intrusion of a couple of crows who are also nest-building in a lower-standing birch a little further off.
At first I thought the crows had decided to squat in the magpies’ nest, then that they were determined to demolish it. Now I think they were just using it as a handy source of nesting material for their own effort. The magpies were determined and resisted, but while two magpies can force one crow to flee, two crows have more muscle and perhaps more cunning than two magpies. Whether by strength or guile, the crows won and stole what they wanted from the magpies and I thought the magpies would give up, seeing all their nest removed twig by twig. However, the crows now seem satisfied with their extraordinarily ragged nest in the birch and the magpies have rebuilt their nest in the chestnut.
I stand at the window watching the birds through my binoculars and my wife says “You have become your mother!” It’s true my mother can spend hours watching the birds in her handkerchief-sized garden, and true I’m beginning to appreciate the fascination, but I take issue with “have become”.
“Not yet,” I insist.
I had all sorts of vague ideas about what I might write for this week’s blog entry, but in the end I let the weather steer me. Today is 1st April and I felt for a time that I ought to be concocting an April Fool’s prank, but I couldn’t think of one – or at any rate not one funny enough to perpetrate. At least I got to start this blog entry with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Which means I have to use a picture of Snoopy. (Apologies to the shade of the late Charles M Schultz.)
The illustrations are borrowed from the work of Charles M Schultz. They are not out of copyright, though widely available across the Internet (search: “dark and Stormy” + Snoopy). If anyone representing Schultz wants me to take them down, just drop me a line – use the contact form – and I will do so at once.
My journey around London took me through Baker Street Underground station. Baker Street is one of the original stations of what was the world’s first underground railway when it opened in 1863. Today’s Baker Street has 10 platforms at different levels, but the photo below is from the station on the Metropolitan Line level – the closest level to “London above” and the oldest part of the station.
Travelling around the Tube nowadays I can’t help but think of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, though I don’t think any part of it was actually set at Baker Street. Of course, the literary character most associated with Baker Street is Sherlock Holmes, commemorated in the tiles on the station wall.
But I was just passing through London. My real objective (apart from trying out the Eurostar for the first time) was to visit family in Northampton. Outside Northampton in Holcot village (where my sister lives) the former public telephone box now does duty as a free library. Villagers can borrow a book and replace it with another.
On Friday morning (20th March) I tried to take a photo of the partial eclipse of the sun. I failed. Tried every setting on the camera but – nada. The curious thing was, with my naked eye I could see the shadow of the moon and the crescent of the sun through the clouds. (I snatched quick glances not wanting to blind myself.) Only in this picture below can you see I captured, not the eclipse itself, but the mirror image of the sun’s crescent caught in a lense flare.
It’s funny how information leaps out at you when you have been sensitised to it. Although I must have read it more than once, I’ve only just realised that the Earl of Bothwell was in Brussels in August 1565. James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell and Hereditary Admiral of the Scottish Navy is a character I want to use in the fourth book of Elin’s Story, and I’ve been looking for a way to bring him into the novel at least tangentially earlier on so his reappearance won’t be too much of a surprise.
Bothwell, in the title of one of his biographies that I have in front of me, was The Queen’s Man – the Queen being Mary Queen of Scots, whose tragic story of utter incompetence is a foil to the story of her hyper-competent cousin Queen Elizabeth of England. Although Bothwell was nominally a Protestant and Mary a Catholic their mutual interest in a Scotland independent of England overrode religious differences and Bothwell seems to have tried to support the Queen as Scotland’s best hope.
That said, in truth navigating Bothwell’s motives is tricky not least because – as with Mary herself – his biographers tend to be highly partisan. He is the villain who murders Mary’s second husband Lord Darnley, gets away with it, and then forces Mary to marry him as her third husband after having kidnapped and raped her. Alternatively, he is her loyal man of action who rescues her from her loveless marriage and finally sweeps her off her feet.
Neither story ends well, of course. Mary loses Scotland, lives for years under house arrest in England and is eventually beheaded in 1587. Bothwell, fleeing Scotland by sea, washes up in Norway where his first wife (yes, really!) accuses him of adultery among other things and has him incarcerated. Moved to Copenhagen, he eventually dies in the dungeons of Dragshölm, probably insane, in 1578.
The fourth book of the Elin’s Story series is going to be partly a tale of spying and mistrust. It’s set in the middle of the 1570s and one feature of it will be a plot to spring the Earl from prison in Copenhagen in order to have him lead a Scottish army into England to liberate Mary. I want my heroine to have met the Earl beforehand. In August 1565 Elin was a 15-year-old maid in the service of Princess Cecilia Vasa who had just reached Emden in the north east corner of the Netherlands and was staying there as she waited for a formal invitation to visit England.
Fortunately, very little is known about the Earl of Bothwell’s movements in August, beyond the fact that he visited Brussels for a meeting and presumably took a boat from somewhere on the coast of the North Sea, because he made landfall in Scotland on the 17th September 1565. So, plenty of scope to bring him north to Emden.
Meanwhile, the Princess Cecilia and her “family” – as the party are called in the records – were enjoying the hospitality of the Lady of Emden, Katarina Vasa, married to Count Edzard II of East Friesland. That must have been awkward at times. Cecilia and Edzard’s brother Johan had had an affair in Vadstena soon after Katarina and Edzard married and Johan had been caught with his pants down. Literally. He was severely beaten and very possibly castrated by Cecilia’s brother Erik, now (in 1565) King of Sweden. (All this went down in Swedish history as Vadstenabullret – which I think is best translated as “the Vadstena Brouhaha”.)
Of course East Friesland was pretty solidly Protestant – in fact Calvinist – at this time, and unlikely to be an easy place for Bothwell to drum up support for his cause. Also Princess Cecilia was in 1565 still infatuated with Queen Elizabeth and all things English and so not likely to be interested in entertaining Bothwell’s ambitions. On the other hand Cecilia certainly had an eye for handsome men and Bothwell must have had a magnetic personality to go with his good looks. In less than a year, Cecilia had swung around to hatred of England and the English and later in life even converted to Catholicism for political reasons. Could Bothwell have planted a seed? Conviction could be fluid in the 1500s. (As indeed today.)
But I don’t have to take Bothwell all the way to Emden. The capital of the Spanish Netherlands – the political unit that included the modern Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in 1565 – was Antwerp and I know that the Princess and her family, with Elin as one member, passed through Antwerp on their way to Calais at the end of August. They were five days Antwerp, so here is another place where their paths might have crossed with Bothwell’s.
All this research. What a lot of fun! But wouldn’t it be better to get on with the bloody story?
The original of the illustration, a miniature painting on a copper medallion, is held by the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. This jpeg is taken from the collection at the Google Art Project here.
One of the things I learnt from Writing Historical Fiction, the book I reviewed in my last article, was that there is a puzzling – not to say disturbing – visual cliche on the cover of a surprisingly large number of books of historical fiction which have a woman as protagonist. Celia Brayfield writes about what she calls “the headless woman” phenomenon on pages 50 through 53 of the book. It’s not just that women’s heads are lopped off, they can also be hidden, turned away or blacked out. It’s difficult to know what goes through the heads of publisher’s art directors when they make this choice. Brayfield uses this as one illustration of “the tensions that an author has to resolve when creating a female protagonist in a historical novel”. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what she means – not that I misunderstand her words, but I don’t understand how the headless women illustrates what she wants to say.
My gut interpretation is that publishers’ art directors assume that these books will most appeal to women, that they assume women read historical fiction to vicariously experience life in another time, and that if the face of the heroine is unidentifiable it makes it easier for the reader to identify herself as the heroine. I’m not saying I believe this to be the truth myself, but it’s the only interpretation I can find that seems to make sense. Because it is absolutely true that an astonishing number of novels of historical fiction with female protagonists are illustrated on their front covers by women whose faces are invisible.
The five book covers I’m using to illustrate this article were taken from the first few pages of Amazon UK’s current historical fiction lists. I picked the ones that seemed more or less “Tudor” but I could have included others from earlier and later historical epochs. Not all books with female protagonists set in historical contexts are illustrated like this, and there are a few (a very few) books where a male protagonist is similarly illustrated, but the broad tendency is very obvious.
What this cliche illustrates unintentionally (and I think this may be what Celia Brayfield is getting at too) is the way that women’s lives and experiences have for centuries been ignored – hidden – in history books. When I first came across Elin’s story, which forms the core of the novel I am myself attempting to write, I was astounded that I had never heard of it before. A young woman travels from Sweden to England in the 1560s, becomes a Lady in Waiting at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, marries the Queen’s step-uncle and ends up as the senior English female aristocrat and mourner at Elizabeth’s funeral in 1603. When I looked in the sources, I found her, but as I had studied Tudor history at school and at university I couldn’t understand why I was learning about this only for the first time. More than anything else, discovering Elin’s story made real for me the criticisms feminist historians have been making for years about the way in which history has been distorted by male historians.
It also illustrated what I had been teaching in my periods as a history teacher: that the history we know is the story that was told to us; that everybody – even the most well-intentioned and scrupulously balanced historian – is prejudiced in some degree and allows their prejudice to influence the story they tell; that everybody ought to be wary of prejudice – of the prejudice others and of their own prejudices; that there is so much more in the source material; and that every generation comes to the same material with new questions, new perspectives and new interpretations, and comes away with new stories.
And you can – should – apply this thinking to stories in the news and the tales you are told by people around you as much as to stories from history.
Not sure how much of that came across – here, now, or to my students back then – but I live in hope.