Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bostin books

Santa’s been and gone and I hope he has left everyone something they wanted, particularly in books. As usual, the old fellow has come up with the literary goods for me, as well as delivering some surprises. Biggest surprise of all has been a signed copy of Michael Moorcock’s Doctor Who novel The Coming of the Terraphiles. I never saw this one coming!

The only TV spin off novels I’ve ever read were about Stingray when I was a child; it’s not a genre I’ve ever explored as an adult. The rather ugly name for books based on stories that first appear in film or TV form is “novelisation”. According to the BBC’s h2g2 site, Doctor Who is the most novelised programme in history, with only five episodes not transformed to book form. Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks alone wrote over 60 of them. Other famous novelisations are Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and the original Battlestar Galactica (I am currently rewatching the superb remake with Edward James Olmos). Comments the author of the h2g2 entry, “Novelisations are often looked down on as a literary form, being considered commercial rather than art”.

I’ll confess that if you’d asked me to read a novelisation before I got this book I would have turned my nose up at it, so it will be interesting to see just how fair the judgement is, at least in relation to The Coming of the Terraphiles. It won’t be the first Michael Moorcock book I’ve read: I read some of his books many years ago and remember enjoying them (though I can’t now, alas, remember what they were). At least I know he can write!

Small connections: The Coming of the Terraphiles features a pirate called Captain Cornelius, who shares his name with Moorcock’s character Jerry Cornelius. M John Harrison wrote a number of stories about Jerry Cornelius which were published in Moorcock’s The New Nature of the Catastrophe. I’m currently reading M John Harrison’s unspeakably brilliant Viriconium stories in the Orion Fantasy Masterworks edition. In one of the stories Harrison refers to places called “Shifnal” and “the Wergs”. This made me laugh. Only someone from the Black Country could have heard of the Wergs, I thought. I looked Harrison up and discovered he was born in Rugby, Warwicks. Close enough! Then I came across this verse: “We are the Barley brothers./Ousted out of Birmingham and Wolverhampton”. I was born and brought up in Wolves, and I’m still chuckling at the thought of the town finding its way into any literary creation, let alone one as exotic as Viriconium. It’s just bostin’.

Science Fiction Novelisations,

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Beaus in tight breeches

A few days ago I went to the Thomas Lawrence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I was especially interested in Lawrence, many of whose paintings I had seen in books on the eighteenth century. It was Lawrence who captured a moment of radical history in his chalk sketch of William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft at their friend John Thelwall’s trial for treason in 1794. I had also read about the artist in his friend Joseph Farington’s diary, where (as I mentioned previously) he is described as “a male coquet”.

Lawrence was born in Bristol in 1769. The family moved to Devizes in 1773 and he was brought up in the coaching inn The Black Bear. Lacking formal education and training, he was something of a child prodigy who sketched and charmed many of the inn’s visitors, Frances Burney amongst them. When his father was declared bankrupt the family settled in Bath, where young Lawrence began his career as a portraitist. In 1787 he went to London and joined the Royal Academy schools, but did not stay there long. He went on to be an enormous success, the portrait painter of his age whose subjects included royalty, actors, bankers, soldiers, and even the Pope.

Despite his professional achievements, like many artists Lawrence suffered from the frustration of achieving success in one area while longing to shine in another. He wanted to be a painter of classical or historical subjects but attempts in the genre, such as Satan Summoning his Legions, were not well received. He was, he felt, “shackled” to the business of portrait painting.

Yet the paintings are marvellous. Standing in one of the exhibition rooms looking from paintings of wriggling children on one wall to stiff-fronted generals on the other I was filled with a sense of the painter’s tremendous empathy for his sitters. Every individual is vivid with his or her own life. The presence of Lawrence’s sitters is so intense I could imagine myself in the middle of an eighteenth-century crowd. I have always found paintings and photographs to be fantastic sources for characters in my stories. It’s not, usually, that I look at a painting and think “he will do as so-and-so” but more often that I see a painting and think “that is so-and-so” as I had already imagined them.

Perhaps I’d seen Lawrence’s painting somewhere and stored it up in my subconscious. I don’t know, but the thrill of recognition was intense. There was Charles Richmond, the London radical who is the main male character in the novel I am currently working on. To Lawrence he manifested himself as the Earl of Aberdeen. If anyone ever reads the novel who has also seen this painting, they will know exactly what Charles looks like.

I have not, however, found anyone I recognise in the quite startling painting of John, Lord Mountstuart, wearing some very tight trousers.

The National Portrait Gallery, Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance

Information on Thomas Lawrence from the National Gallery website -

The sketch of Godwin and Holcroft

National Portrait Gallery shines light on forgotten artist Thomas Lawrence, The Guardian 4 August 2010

Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance, National Portrait Gallery, The Daily Telegraph 18 October 2010

Gainsborough's forgotten rival Thomas Lawrence is recognised at last, The Independent 5 August 2010

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Little Sprite

I’ve just finished reading Janet Todd’s marvellous Death and the Maidens. The story of Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter Fanny is one of the saddest I have ever come across.

Fanny seems to have been one of those people who everyone took advantage of and no one cared for. When, at the age of 19 she committed suicide in an inn in Swansea, her body was unclaimed by the Shelleys or Godwins and she was given a pauper’s burial. Her relatives persisted in lying about her death – and indeed her existence – for years after. It was six weeks before her aunts in Ireland were informed of her passing. Godwin claimed that she had gone to visit friends in Wales and died of a cold. Her step brother Charles received a letter from his sister Claire a few weeks after Fanny’s death which did not mention it. Ten months later he wrote asking after her, and a year after that he had still not been told she was dead. In a memoir of Godwin her sister Mary (Shelley) left Fanny out of their father’s story, implying that she was his only daughter. Each had his or her own interests at heart; none it seems had Fanny’s.

It was a tragic outcome for the mother’s “little darling” who “grows every day more dear”, the “sweet child”, the “little sprite” who was “all life and motion, and her eyes are not the eyes of a fool – I will swear”. But Fanny’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving birth to Mary and was not there when Fanny needed her.

I was staying in Bloomsbury while I was reading Todd’s book, only a ten minute walk from Somers Town where Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin lived during their short marriage. I walked where Mary and Fanny had walked; passed the church where Godwin and Wollstonecraft married; the churchyard where Wollstonecraft was buried (her remains have since been moved to Bournemouth), and where Shelley and Mary met to plan their elopement. Their ghosts clutched at me as I hurried to and from Euston, so much so that one afternoon I decided to walk to Somers Town and see the wraiths close up.

I already knew that the terrace of eighteenth-century dwellings known as the Polygon had been demolished long since, remaining like a ghost of itself only in a street name. Gone, too, were the two fields across which the family would see their home drawing closer as they came home from an outing. On the council flats at Oakshott Court there is a brown, circular plaque recording that Mary Wollstonecraft lived in a house near the site. I don’t recall seeing any mention of Godwin. There is nothing here that Mary and Fanny set eyes on, except perhaps the sky, and no doubt that has changed as the quality of air pollutants has altered.

Even so, Mary Wollstonecraft was a vivid presence to me. I wondered how differently things might have turned out for Fanny, for all of the people at 29 Polygon, if Mary Wollstonecraft had lived. I wondered what, as a grand old dame of letters, she would have thought of having Charles Dickens for a neighbour when his family lodged at No 17. I wondered how she would have felt if she had been able to look back from the afterlife and watch her sweet child’s struggles. I wondered what she might make of the paths women have taken if she could see the sex shops and lap dancing clubs, the raucous, plaid-skirted girls tumbling out of school, the bag lady shuffling up the steps of St Pancras Church.

There are as many stories as there are people, and more, for lives are retold as the present requires, or as memories change, or as others bend them to their own will. Todd suggests that none of the people who surrounded Fanny were altogether innocent of her death. I am sure there are others who will not agree with her portrayals of Shelley, Godwin, Mary, or Claire. But it was not their stories I was thinking of last weekend. It was a memory of Mary and Fanny Wollstonecraft, mother and daughter, I carried with me along those Somers Town streets.

Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle, Janet Todd, Profile Books 2007

Mary Wollstonecraft: The Collected Letters, ed Janet Todd, Penguin Classics, 2004

Shelley: poet, predator and prey – review of Death and the Maidens, The Observer, 1 July 2007 -

Monday, November 22, 2010

Writing for Nobody

I love reading other people’s diaries. Obviously I mean the historical ones, which makes it alright to pry. Or, if I was interested in the living, then it would be fine to read a diary intended for publication by its author – which raises the question about how far any diarist intends his or work for an audience. Did Pepys, as he scratched the smutty bits in his secret shorthand, really hope that no one would ever read them? Did Frances Burney when she addressed her diary to “Nobody” really accept that only Nobody would read it?

I don’t know, but I do know that both diaries are terrific reads. Diaries are wonderful for all sorts of reasons. They are great for historians. They’re great for historical fiction writers. And they have a meaning all of their own, though what that meaning is is hard to define.

I’ve been reading the diary of Joseph Farington RA (1747 to 1821) for the years 1796 to 1798. Farington was a landscape painter, an active member of the Royal Academy, a husband, a member of the Society of Antiquaries, and an avid gossip. You follow him as he deals with artists whinging about where their paintings should hang in the Exhibition; lobbying the Treasury for tax breaks for artists; studying the reviews of his own work – which he has pasted into his diary; doling out charity to impoverished artists and their families. You follow him to friends’ weddings, to club meetings, to election meetings, to dinner after dinner – the last so important to him that he usually draws a little diagram of the table and marks where everyone was sitting. You listen to the advice he gives to his pupils, younger artists, women artists.

And above all you listen to his gossip. And how he loved to gossip! Hearsay was the ink he dipped his pen in, and nothing he heard was unworthy to be recorded. Thus you learn from him that: “Fox rises a little after 8 – breakfast at 1/2 past 9 – dines at 4 – Coffee & Tea at 6 – light supper at 10 – bed at 11 – drinks about a pint of Port at 9 after dinner – reads aloud 3 hours every evening after tea – a translation from Livy.”

What people earn and how they spend it fascinates him. “Emanuel the drawing master at Lynn asked…25 gns a quarter for 2 lessons a day”. Lady Mansfield “had £5000 a yr left her as a jointure by Mansfield part of which was to go away if she married again”. Two new swords cost “12 guineas”. Romney got “300 gs for a picture”. “Two fowls sell for Sixpence” on the Isle of Man. Slaves in Demerary fetch on average “abt £50 a head”.

You learn that Lawrence is “a male coquet”, that Fox and Mrs Armstead are inseparable, of Opie’s divorce and remarriage, Sir Brooke and Lady Boothby’s separation. You listen to Sam Lysons tell Farington that he heard at dinner last night that Mrs Dunnage’s brother-in law-found her in bed with Sir Thomas Turton, who is married and has five children. Later you follow the court case with all the interest of any Hallo magazine reader.

Farington chatters about royalty, politicians, artists, actors. He obsesses about his and his friends’ health. He enthuses about the discovery of a top-secret painting “process”, a technique supposed to have been employed by Titian. And on and on: there’s so much here it’s impossible to do it justice.

Marvellous stuff for anyone interested in the eighteenth century, but as I hinted earlier, far more than that. But what? What is it about diaries that is so gripping? What is this glamour that the dead exercise over our minds? Is it that their lives are done, their perplexities resolved, so that we who come after have the comfort of seeing, or imposing, patterns that they could not have seen when they lived? That in seeing how their suspense ended – that greatest suspense of all: how and when will I die? – we can for a while forget our own? That we can enjoy with them a special kind of relationship, one we cannot get through the exchange of words with the living where egos clash and muddy everything?

Then there’s the miracle of their survival: how many documents do not survive, how many stories are never heard? There’s the thought of that other person’s long-dead hand moving across the page, recording his or her thoughts and feelings so that we can discover them today and think and wonder. And there’s the past, that strange, unknowable, unfathomable past that for all the research in the world (and all the cant of “historical accuracy” in historical fiction) breaks like a bubble the minute we think we’ve grasped it.

Perhaps diaries exercise such a fascination because they are ghosts, and ghosts are marvellous things.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Free at Last

One thing I saved up from my mini account of what I saw of the Historical Novel Society’s Conference in Manchester in October was the workshop Creative Writing, Creative Reading: Bringing the Past to Life. What, I thought as I pondered the programme, is that about? I had no idea. So I went.

The session was run by Orna Ross, an Irish novelist and teacher of Creative Intelligence. Creative Intelligence: right. Well, Orna defines it as “the ability to own and hone our innate creative potential…by understanding how the creative process works and learning to apply it.” She believes that our formal schooling, with its obsession with measurement, analysis and efficiency, has stifled our creative intelligence. I picture this as the Gradgrindian world that Dickens described so wonderfully in Hard Times: the world where innocents are murdered by facts, by rules, by a pair of scales. I don’t think anyone has exposed this outlook any better than Dickens.

But doing is always better than talking about doing, so Orna set us an exercise which was an introduction to the technique of FREE Writing. She gave us a topic “money” and three minutes to write about it. We were to write as fast as we could, without worrying about the niceties (punctuation, spelling etc), and without stopping. The idea is that the technique allows you to resist the inner censor – you know, the one who’s always telling you to be sensible and get a proper job, not pretend you’re a writer. The benefits of the technique are numerous, for example it helps you connect both to your inner self and with the world around you.

After about a week or so of FREE Writing you take two coloured pens and you read over what you’ve written, and you highlight insights in one colour and actions with the other. You don’t have to translate the actions into a to do list; just recognise them. Eventually you will find yourself doing them, because intention and attention work together.

Orna’s work looks back to the earlier work of writers like Dorothea Brande and Julia Cameron. Brande’s Becoming a Writer is almost required reading and if you’ve got a copy it’s probably as well-thumbed as mine! The technique of FREE Writing is very similar to Cameron’s “morning pages”, when you sit down every day and write in the same uncensored, stream-of-consciousness way. The difference, Orna explained, is that Cameron hasn’t focussed on the “speed” aspect of this kind of exercise. But both techniques are a kind of meditation, a “meditation on the page”.

If my Brande is well-thumbed, I’ve already had to buy another copy of Cameron’s The Artist’s Way as my first one fell apart. I’ve used it for years and I go back to it again and again. I don’t do morning pages daily but I do use them during difficult periods or just whenever I feel the need. The FREE Writing technique is another tool to add to my creative armoury, and I’m grateful to Orna to introducing it to me.

If you want to find out more about Creative Intelligence visit Orna’s website
Orna Ross -

For more on Julia Cameron's The Artist’s Way see

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Catching Up Part 2

I’m gradually catching up with life! Here’s Part 2 to prove it.

Mary Sharratt, Historical Novel Society Conference, 17 October – I knew nothing about Mary or her book Daughters of the Witching Hill, but she gave such an interesting and engaging talk about the history behind the novel that I have added it to my reading list. Memorable moment: listening to her read – she has a lovely accent!

Manda Scott, HNS Conference, 17 November – Manda was supposed to be talking about author/publisher relationships with her publisher Selina Walker, but unfortunately Ms Walker could not make it. Instead, she gave us some wonderful – and funny - insights into how her writing career got started. Memorable moments: actually there are so many that I’m cheating and picking three. Manda said the f word. Thank god: it made me feel more at home. Manda told us how the gods told her to write her Boudica novels when she was on a vision quest. Manda told us how Christianity came into being and showed up Paul as the villain. Wild language, wild theories, wild woman – what’s not to like?

Hilary Green, HNS Conference, 17 November – Hilary was talking about love and war. Not big topics then, and all fiction can be fitted into them – there’s always love of someone or something, and there’s always conflict, if not actual war. Her books are set in WW2. Memorable moment: offering to sell us 4 paperbacks for £20 or 4 hardbacks for £25.

Jean Fullerton, HNS Conference, 17 November – East Ender Jean gave a talk about doing historical research. There wasn’t much I didn’t know already but it was well presented by a likeable speaker, and there’s never any harm in being reminded of things. Memorable moment: Jean showed us some old photographs of the streets where her stories are set and talked about how she sees her characters going about them. As a writer who also sees her characters moving about before her very eyes it was encouraging to see that you can appear perfectly sane and sensible (for so Jean struck me) while doing this.

Sarah Dunant, University of Bristol, 26 October – Sarah Dunant gave a wonderful lecture on how she used Renaissance art in her work and talked about the links between art and literature. She’s a great speaker, fabulously erudite, and is absolutely brilliant at giving a fascinating response to even the most unpromising questions. Memorable moment: Sarah included my favourite painting in her presentation – The Doge of Venice by Bellini. The hours I’ve spent in front of this sublime canvas!

Manda Scott on Rome, Boudica and shamanic dreaming -

Love and war - Hilary Green explains her theories and the history behind her books -

Visit the East End with Jean Fullerton -

Sarah Dunant -

The Doge of Venice -

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Catching Up Part 1

My poor old blog has been neglected lately. I’ve been horribly busy and struggling to keep on top of things, but now the house has been excavated from under tons of dust I can look about me and reflect on what I’ve been doing. Or, more accurately, who I’ve been seeing – and I’ve been very busy indeed seeing other writers! So, as I can’t write about every event in great detail I shall recall one memorable moment from each. Here’s Part 1; Part 2 to follow!

Howard Jacobson, Topping & Co Bookstore, Bath, 13 September – the author pre-Booker prize making us laugh in Topping’s much-loved (by me) book store. Memorable moment: Jacobson suggests that all novels should be comic novels.

Martin Jarvis, Cheltenham, 10 October – a reading of two Jeeves and Wooster stories under the gaze of the angels of the Everyman Theatre. Memorable moment: listening to his “out takes” as he read the same sentence two or three times to satisfy his Radio 4 producer, each time with a slightly different inflection, and realising what a jolly skilled reader the blathering blighter is.

Stephen Fry, The Forum, Bath, 15 October – an event organised by Toppings in the fabulous art deco former cinema. Fry and the building matched one another perfectly: stylish, classy, and bordering on national treasure status. Memorable moment: Stephen telling us how he fell in love with words when he was ten, watching a film version of The Important of Being Earnest and hearing “you are the visible personification of absolute perfection”. Well who wouldn’t fall in love with that?

Maria McCann, The Mechanics Institute, Manchester 16 October – the event was Pages Ago: Historical Readers’ Day, part of the Manchester Literature Festival, and a taster for the Historical Novel Society Conference at the same venue the following day. Memorable moment: Maria told us she still has a day job and writes on her days at home.

Andrew Martin, The Mechanics Institute, Manchester 16 October – still in Pages Ago, Andrew talked about how to create atmosphere in historical fiction. An intelligent speaker who’d prepared his material and talked to the point, with a great many interesting things to say about creating atmosphere using nature, weather, and darkness. Memorable moment: Andrew telling us “I like the crepuscular mode”. Crepuscular: one of my favourite words.

Howard Jacobson on how all novels should be comic -

Martin Jarvis on reading Jeeves and Wooster in 2007 -

The Forum, Bath -

Topping & Company Books -

More on Andrew Martin -

Friday, October 15, 2010

e-Make it so

E-readers do get a lot of publicity, don’t they? Virtually every Bookseller news round up has at least one article about them. There are websites and blogs devoted to them. Print journals carry articles about them. They’re big on the agenda at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising when you think that e-readers are in the hands of some of the most powerful technology and communications firms in the commercial world.

One wouldn’t like to accuse e-reader manufacturers of having a vested interest of course, but sometimes it does feel like a conspiracy to shove the things down your throat. Amazon can’t do enough to push its Kindle. They even have a link to the publisher on the webpage of books that are not available as an e-book so you can tell them you want to read it on a Kindle. That’s consumer power for you, isn’t it? Or perhaps it would be if the button also gave you the option to ask the publisher to drop the price, or to publish more books like this and less like that – or even to ask Amazon to shut the f up about its Kindle.

E-readers, we are told, are far superior to the printed book. The same size and weight as a paperback, but one e-reader contains scores of books. How great is that? Very convenient if I’m going on holiday; saves having to pack half a dozen bulky books. Unless I’m driving, in which case it doesn’t matter how many books I shove in the car. I don’t know about you, but I don’t go on holiday that often. The bulk of my reading-on-the-go is done on train or bus journeys, at lunchtimes, in waiting rooms, and I usually find one book in my bag is enough. I haven’t yet mastered the knack of reading more than one at a time.

Still if persuasion doesn’t work, then perhaps fear will. E-readers are making the printed book obsolete, along with newspapers and magazines. If I don’t buy an e-reader I won’t be able to read at all! In the United States one in ten Americans owns an e-reader and e-books already account for 15% of the books market. E-book sales are estimated to account for between 2-5% of total UK book sales. One estimate is that this will increase to 10% within the next four or five years.

Hang on. If one in ten Americans own an e-reader, doesn’t that mean that nine in ten don’t? If 15% of books currently sold in America are e-books, doesn’t that mean that 85% aren’t? And if the UK e-book market is going to expand at such a heady rate that 90% of books sold will be traditional print books, do I really need to rush out and buy an e-reader?

Well, perhaps I do if I want choices. It might be nice to have the option of buying a book in hard copy or e-copy. E-readers are funky machines and they’re getting better – and cheaper - all the time. So I’ve bought a Sony e-reader: it’s light, pretty, has a nice screen and supports a number of formats including pdf and word documents.

For therein lies the rub of the e-reader. Far from increasing my choices, it limits them. If I want to buy an e-book I’m restricted to a particular format. That means that many books just aren’t available to me. I can’t shop on Amazon as I don’t have a Kindle. The Sony comes with a list of bookshops I can shop at though, bizarrely, I’ve discovered that the Sony e-book store, with its hundreds of titles, is only available in Canada and the US. I don’t like being told where I can and can’t shop. If I want to buy a printed book I can go into any bookshop in the world – or on line - and end up with a product that is formatted and ready to use (with no risk that the batteries might run out while I’m reading it).

The retailer I can shop with is Waterstones, but they don’t go out of their way to make e-book shopping easy. The website is a horror: on one pc I can’t complete a sale because the “submit” button doesn’t show. This, they tell me, is because of my pc security settings. I change them. No improvement. On another pc I can complete the sale – but I can’t view the website properly; it comes out as a list and I have to scroll acres of white space to find any information. My husband reports the same viewing problem on another pc. So that’s 3 pcs on which I can’t both see and buy. But come on Waterstones: if every other e-retailer can manage to provide me with a useable website and working checkout why can’t you? Do I have this problem at John Lewis, Hawkshead, White Company, Amazon, et al?

And, friendly though my local bookseller is, I’ve never been asked to provide my name, address, job title, business address, and telephone numbers before I’m allowed to buy a book. If you shop for an e-book with Waterstones, you will be as you’ll also have to create yet another account and password (in addition to the one with the retailer) with Adobe Digital Editions before you can download your purchase. Once upon a time you could define people by the books they collected: in the future I suspect it will be by the log ins and passwords they collect.

Maybe I’m beginning to wonder if I should have bought a Kindle...or maybe I should just stick to what’s easy, convenient and readable. A book.

Stephen Fry has suggested that because of e-books bookshops could go the way that blacksmiths’ did when cars came in; their numbers will reduce, perhaps drastically. Maybe so; but we all know that horses didn’t disappear and that some people still ride for pleasure though it’s not a necessity any more. Thousands of people are still buying typewriters in preference to computers. Perhaps it’s true that in future more people will read on e-readers than will read printed books (though looking at the figures I can’t feel quite the same excitement as the e-reader manufacturers do – and if my experiences to date are anything to go by the e-reader really has nothing better to offer me than does a book). Captain Jean-Luc Picard often relaxed at the end of a long day on the Enterprise with a real, bound, copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare in preference to reading it digitally. And if it’s good enough for Captain Picard, it’s good enough for me.

Stephen Fry says Bookshops could go way of blacksmiths 16 September 2010 -

…but he also says the “paper book is not dead” Sky News 13 September 2010 –

E-books: the end of the word as we know it, The Independent 7 October 2010 -

Why typewriters beat computers, BBC, 30 May 2008 -

See also No typewriter for old men: Cormac McCarthy to part with beloved Olivetti -

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Unreadable books

One night when I was very young I was crossing a bit of wasteland in Sheffield when I said to my companion, “I never leave a book unfinished.” Struggling to explain myself, I added, “The author has gone out of their way to try and tell me something –to express something – it seems wrong not to read their book.” “That’s as deep,” returned my companion in broad Scouse, “as a muddy puddle.” For these were the sort of young men I went to university with.

Since then I have discovered, sadly, that there are unreadable books. It isn’t necessarily that the books are “bad”, though it might be. Occasionally a book is so bad I’ve flung it against a wall; once I even trampled on one. (And no, I won’t tell you which it was. It might be your favourite.) To qualify for this thankfully rare treatment a book must exhibit something cynical in the workmanship. It will be a smug, complacent, passionless piece characterised by sloppy thinking and lazy writing.

But most books have something to offer and I’m prepared to accept that even if I don’t like them, someone else will. This can be disconcerting, especially if I’ve just lobbed the latest big thing across the room, the books everyone’s reading, the Bookers and Oranges, the reviewers’ darlings, the book club choices. At times like this I doubt my literary sanity: What am I missing? Why can’t I see it? Is it me that’s mad or everyone else? In these cases it’s best to quietly slip the book into the Amnesty International pile and say nothing. Never, ever, criticise a popular book, my friend! It will only bring down wrath upon your head.

Badly written books aren’t necessarily unreadable books. In fact, a book by someone who hasn’t the least feel for language and only the weakest hold on grammar can be perfectly readable. Its badness might even be part of the pleasure of reading it. What a relief not to have to attend to the quality of the writing and just get on with enjoying a good story! (And if it is a good story is it a ‘bad’ book at all…?) A book may survive a preposterous plot, silly characters, and dialogue like this:-

“You’re just in time,” said Chloe, “we’re giving a dance next week.”
“A dance! How peerless! But I’ve nothing to wear.”
“Oh, that’s all right. It’s a ‘drency’.”
“That means fancy dress,” I explained to Peter. “When we all lurked together as students we had a lot of portmanteau words. ‘Prill’ means ‘pretty foul’, and it is a nice crinkle-your-nose-in-disgust word, isn’t it?”
“Ah, but our most useful word was ‘cuxt’,” said Jo.

F Tennyson Jesse’s The Milky Way (1913), scoring high in all three categories. In spite of it, I read the book. Fey, gushing, and downright daft, yet something in it appealed to me: the otherness of the lives and people, their passion for art, even its outmoded style. And tucked away amongst all the nonsense is some beautiful prose: descriptions of the sea, the south of France, sunlight on water. Of course, I know no one reads books for description these days. Words only exist to rush us through the plot or convey information; why waste time on seeing beauty in them as well?

Books I have no intention of reading may, for all I know, be quite readable. I read scores of book reviews but I buy only a fraction of the books mentioned. It’s just that the setting, story, characters, style, or genre of the rest simply don’t appeal to me. And there are already so many waiting on the shelves! On the other hand, an unreadable book is necessarily one I am drawn to.

Take Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. Here is a book I have wanted to read for years, Hardy’s retelling of the Napoleonic Wars written as an epic-drama meant for reading, not performance, intended says Hardy, “for mental performance, and not for the stage”. What an intriguing idea - what an exciting experiment – what a stirring subject! While Hardy is not one of my favourite writers I have enjoyed many of his novels and found his work and ideas interesting. Then, too, The Dynasts was a challenge. I’d heard that no one reads it. Ah hah! thought I, Bet I can.

I opened the book with excited anticipation. I began to read. I began to wonder. I began to realize. It is an unreadable book.

Yet how can this be? Here are passion, ideas, theories, vision, interesting characters, daring devices, and crafted writing. But what is one to make of this:-

Hold what ye list, fond unbelieving Sprites,
You cannot serve the pulsion of the Byss,
Which thinking on, yet weighting not Its thought,
Unchecks Its clock-like laws.

Or this speech from a Lady:-

Something uncanny’s in it all, if true.
Good Lord, the thought gives me a sudden sweat,
That fairly makes my linen stick to me!


These are the Prime Volitions, - fibrils, veins,
Will-tissues, nerves, and pulses of the Cause,
That heave throughout the Earth’s compositure.

If you want to explore Hardy’s philosophy then you must study this book. If you’re looking for a topic for a dissertation this is dripping with them. If you admire Hardy you will not cease until you have got yourself a copy and devoured every word. But it’s unreadable.

Or perhaps it’s my literary sanity that’s at stake. Michael Millgate in his entry on Hardy in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography comments that although “The verse of The Dynasts has come to seem flaccid, its structure ponderous, and the cosmic apparatus of the Spirits perhaps a little absurd” yet “at the same time, it remains highly readable”. Flaccid – ponderous – absurd. It all adds up to unreadable for me I’m afraid.

And so ends my unreadable blog.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Playing Away

Last Saturday I enjoyed seven plays, four of them at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond and three in the London Library.

The Orange Tree – a wonderful theatre I’ve mentioned before – had put on another staged reading of suffragette plays. This time we were treated to Edith by Elizabeth Baker, The Surprise of His Life by Jess Dorynne, and The Pot and the Kettle by Cicely Hamilton and Chris St John. In Edith a family gather to discuss the terms of the father’s will: to their surprise and horror he has left his retail business to his daughter rather than his son. In Edith’s absence they decide to sell the shop – but when Edith arrives she has other ideas. The Surprise of His Life tells the story of a young working class woman who is pregnant and has been deserted by the father: her father struggles to persuade the young man to marry her though he is a horrible piece of work.

Both had comic moments but the second was moving too as the girl faced her father’s wrath, confronted the ghastly young man, and learned of her mother’s and aunt’s experiences. The best for me though was reserved to last, with another delight from Hamilton and St John. A young respectable woman is charged with assault after attending an anti-suffrage meeting – only it turns out that she is an anti and her victim a suffragette!

Then off to the London Library for an afternoon in the reading room. I am very irritated by (mostly male I think) critics and writers who treat women’s fiction as if it is no more than a precursor to the superior and fully realised work of male authors. I am thinking, for example, of Eliza Heywood and Samuel Richardson. Having recently seen Sheridan’s The Critic I had Sheridan on the brain, and in particular his Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals. It’s often said that while he may have got the idea for a character who misuses words to comic effect from his mother, Frances – a successful writer in her own right – he vastly improved on it. Frances Sheridan’s prototype is Mrs Tryfort in her unpublished play A Journey to Bath. It was in order to read this play that I went to the London Library, finding it in an edition of Sheridan’s plays published by David Nutt in 1902 (edited by W Fraser Rae).

Well, dear sweet honied reader, I have to report that it is perfectly true that Richard Brinsley Sheridan took what was in his mother’s drama nothing more than the germ of an idea and made it into the glorious Mrs Malaprop of The Rivals. I had time to read two more of his plays: St Patrick’s Day which was laugh-out loud funny, and The Duenna, a droll and well-plotted piece in the tradition of Behn’s The Rover with closeted ladies, fiercesome duennas, Don Pedros galore, and some very comic songs.

Back then to the Orange Tree for the evening’s performance of Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Thunderbolt. I’d read two plays of Pinero previously, and admired them enormously: The Second Mrs Tanquerary and The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith. I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to see one of his plays performed but, once again thanks to the Orange Tree, here was another well-deserved revival. I’d tried to find a copy at the Library, thinking to read it before the performance, and I’m glad they didn’t have one. I was on the edge of my seat as events unfolded: discovery and counter-discovery as an unpleasant, greedy clan vulturise over the estate of their brother who has died intestate. The situation seems clear cut: the wealth will be divided amongst them. Then they learn that there is someone else with a right to the property. What follows is a most satisfying satire on greed and family relationships.

I love a good story, and The Thunderbolt certainly delivered that. There’s nothing like a will to get the fiction flowing. I hope to read some more Pinero in the coming months, and of course any more suffragette drama that comes my way.

The Thunderbolt by Arthur Wing Pinero at the Orange Tree Theatre –

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Speculating Other Lives

I’ve been reading two biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft: Janet Todd’s Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life, and Lyndall Gordon’s Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus (which I have only recently started). I do love a good biography and both books are enjoyable, painting very different pictures of Wollstonecraft (Todd’s unsympathetic portrayal of a moaning, nagging, inconsistent woman; Gordon’s “pioneer of character” scarred by her background of domestic violence).

I’m intrigued, though, by the way biography so very quickly moves into speculation, often on the slenderest grounds. Take Gordon’s theorising about Miss Mason, one of the teachers at the Wollstonecraft sisters’ school at Newington Green. Mary Wollstonecraft, Gordon writes, often referred to her as “‘poor Mason’, as though some misfortune were common knowledge”. Gordon informs us that “in most such cases the parents had lost their fortune, so that instead of fulfilling her destiny as a marriageable ‘lady’ the daughter was compelled to work as teacher or governess”. Miss Mason, we are led to suppose, is one such bereft marriageable.

Now, Gordon is perfectly right to mention that this was an all too common situation for poor daughters in the eighteenth, and indeed the nineteenth and early twentieth, century. However, touching though the image is, on what grounds is it the most likely explanation of poor Miss Mason’s condition? For all we know poor Mason may have walked with a limp, had a wall eye, or given birth to an illegitimate child and been abandoned by the father (another horribly common occurrence and one Mary Wollstonecraft herself suffered at the hands of Gilbert Imlay). Of course, in the last case it is unlikely that Miss Mason would obtain employment in a school, even given Wollstonecraft’s advanced views – she had a living to make after all - so we can probably rule it out. Even so, there are any number of explanations for the epithet “poor” that are just as likely as the one Gordon suggests.

Still, it’s a minor point about a minor figure in Wollstonecraft’s life (though no doubt what happened to Miss Mason was not a matter of minor significance to her). Things get a little bit more complicated in Todd, who speculates to such an extent that I began to think that “perhaps” was the most commonly used word in her book. Let’s look at the case of Mary Wollstonecraft’s brother Henry, indexed “Henry, uncertain fate of”. Henry, having been apprenticed in Beverley, suddenly disappears from the family correspondence. He may, Todd proposes, have run away from a harsh master. She doesn’t, however, think this accounts for the “complete silence [which] suggests something more extreme”.

A little consideration and she hits on the theory that Henry had gone insane, perhaps even tried to kill himself - “a common reason for incarceration”. This opens up the way to a page about the treatment of the insane in the eighteenth century, the number of asylums in Hull, York, and Hoxton, and madness in the Austen family. The fact that the Wollstonecrafts moved to Hoxton, where London’s major asylums were located, strengthens the case. We are therefore to believe that a family who out of embarrassment never again refer amongst themselves to their afflicted brother took enough interest in his fate to move to Hoxton with him. Unless they intended to visit him regularly this seems odd, particularly as Todd informs us that families “usually disposed of the defective very thoroughly”. If that were so, surely the best thing to have done with mad Henry would have been to leave him well out of the way in Yorkshire.

Well, of course Henry's insanity is perfectly possible. It’s also possible that the family letters referring to Henry, mad or sane, have been lost or destroyed. Perhaps the letters were burned because, along with news of Henry, they contained derogatory remarks about the drunken, impecunious head of the family. Or perhaps they were torn up (and Henry cut off by his relatives) because they referred to unspeakable acts carried out by the missing brother: he had contracted syphilis, or been seen going into a molly club.

The point is that there appears to be no evidence whatsoever to support the theory that Henry went insane and was put into an asylum. Even so, the theory is the foundation of a later speculation, when we learn that Wollstonecraft, Godwin and Joseph Johnson visited Bedlam in 1797 “perhaps to see an old friend or relative – possible even her brother Henry – or to provide Wollstonecraft with some background for her writing”.

There’s no harm in speculating, of course. It’s good to throw out ideas, provided it is perfectly clear that they are only ideas. Neither of these writers can be accused of trying to pass off theory as fact. Even so, some suggestions do seem to be based on the most flimsy reasoning, a sort of a + b = c where a = slender evidence, b = one of a number of possibilities, and c = conclusion. Dynasties have been founded on this kind of argument. Take Joan of Arc. Here we have:-

The woman who was burned at the stake in the Rouen marketplace on May 30 1431 was entirely covered by a penitent’s robe and hood (a – slender evidence).

The woman was not Joan of Arc but someone else in disguise (b – one of a number of possibilities). (She may have been swamped by the clothes because they were too big for her; she may have been badly beaten and her captors wished to disguise the fact.)

Therefore Joan of Arc survived the flames and went on to marry and have children (c – conclusion). Flimsy? I should say so. You’ll find more like it in Pierre de Sermoise’s Joan of Arc and Her Secret Missions.

But let’s be serious again. Todd and Gordon do not deserve to be mentioned in the same context as such crackpot theorising. It’s one thing to explore possible explanations of puzzling circumstances (why poor Mason? why no mention of Henry?) but quite another to invent puzzles and triumphantly solve them by rewriting the records.

These musings do make me wonder, though, about the role of speculation. Without it would biography be possible? If biographies confined themselves entirely to the known or recorded would they be very short and very dull? Would we miss opportunities to engage with the life and times of our subjects? Are biographers who speculate really historical novelists manqué? Like historical fiction writers they “fill in the gaps” and they imagine what people may have thought or felt in certain situations. The difference is they lack the skill to know what to put in and what to leave out (look, I’ve done this research on the treatment of the insane and I’m damned well going to include it). Should the skills of the novelist have any place in biography? What is the difference between fiction and history? What, for example, makes Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties fiction when it is just as possible that James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Lenin met in Zurich as that Henry Wollstonecraft became a Bedlamite? Must we stray into the fog of authorial intention? Can we only assess a text if we have the author’s (or someone’s) assurance of what it is (this is biography, this is drama)?

Yes, it certainly is fun to speculate. I haven’t any answers – but I shall be thinking about these issues as I continue with Gordon’s book and any biographies I read in the future.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


I am sorry to say it, people seem to go to the theatre principally for their entertainment!

So complains Sneer in Sheridan’s The Critic, and if that’s what people want that’s what they’ll get if they hurry down to the Chichester Festival Theatre and catch the double bill of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Sheridan’s The Critic. Since the National put the plays together in 1985, they’ve been widely recognised as a couple, and have even been taught as a pairing in schools. In some ways that’s a shame as it’s too easy to fall into the “compare and contrast” approach to literature (the characters of Richard vs Bolingbroke, images of war in the poetry of Brooke and Owen, etc, etc). They do make for an entertaining three hours, however.

I didn’t know the Stoppard play and I was surprised at how funny it was; the parody of the country house murder is wonderfully done. The comedy is spiked by a disturbing edge when the barrier between performance and spectator, here the critics Moon and Birdboot, breaks down. It’s a deliciously dizzying sensation to be an audience watching a play about an audience watching a play, especially when that play rounds on its audience and swallows them up. It made me think of the way many of us shuffle away from the front row whenever we go to a performance for fear of being picked on, of being sucked into the event and out of ourselves. It’s the terror of the child at the pantomime who dreads being called onto stage by some fearsome dame and made a fool of in some way she cannot understand.

I did, however, reread The Critic beforehand. This is a play in which the author hands it on a plate to the company. It’s funny on the page with, in the first act, some fantastic dialogue and even more fantastic characters. Who couldn’t make much of Sir Fretful Plagiary who, worse than a bad notice hates no notice; or Mr and Mrs Dangle, a couple who are weary of one another in private but pretend to be “loving and affectionate” in public for fear of being hitched into a story. Then there’s Mr Puff, who with shameless glee reveals the secrets of his profession, from the “puff direct” to the “puff by implication”. Lovely stuff, but the act is little more than the preliminary – the puff – for the main business of the piece, which is the rehearsal of Puff’s tragedy The Spanish Armada.

If the cast made great work of Act I, they really went to town for Acts 2 and 3. Puff’s dreadful play, made more dreadful because the actors have been given carte blanche to cut “whatever they found heavy or unnecessary to the plot” – which is just about most of the script – is hilarious. It’s rendered even more so by the mess the performers make of it. While Puff is lost in admiration of his work, the actors have nothing but contempt for it, “cutting and slashing” until not even Puff knows what’s going on. Who wouldn’t relish the role of the captive Spaniard Don Whiskerandos, who takes so long expiring that eventually the actor gets bored and stomps off grumbling “I can’t stay here dying all night”. Joe Dixon really does give the Don everything in a side-splitting performance – and yes, Joe, I did see you laughing beneath your comedy whiskers and I admire you all the more for it. Then there’s Tilburina who goes mad in white satin because that, says Puff, is the theatrical rule, with her confidante who goes mad in sympathy and is ordered by Puff to keep her “madness in the background”. Both were beautifully played by Hermione Gulliford and Una Stubbs.

It’s all there in the text and this wonderful production made the most of it. But Sheridan gave the best last. The stage directions ordain that the play ends with a battle between the Spanish and British fleets followed by a triumphal masque. The directions (I’m looking at the 1988 Penguin Classics edition, ed Eric Rump) are minimal: “Flourish of drums – trumpets – cannon, etc, etc…the fleets engage…music plays Rule Britannia…The procession of all the English rivers and their tributaries…etc begins with Handel’s water music – ends with a chorus”. What a gift: cannon – music – costume – marches – and etceteras! What follows is the most wonderful, barmy, chaotic, noisy, disastrous, and exuberant bit of madness I’ve ever seen on stage. I laughed until there were tears in my eyes.

I could tell you what I laughed at, but I don’t want to do spoilers. All I will say is that if I get a chance to see this production again, I’m booking front row seats (again: by a strange fate we were in the front row, and yes we were almost sucked into the performance when Mrs Dangle (Una Stubbs) asked Gerard to hold her champagne glass for her while she was dancing).

The two plays wonderfully parody their target genres: Stoppard and Christie’s The Mousetrap, Sheridan and the bombast of the eighteenth century tragedy. It’s a strange thing though, parody. We laugh at what we love: I did at any rate, for mock it how you will I still love a good fop, a witty woman, and a country house full of toffs bumping one another off. I never miss a Poirot (David Suchet’s marvellous creation), I wish they’d made more Inspector Alleyn, and I am an avid reader of eighteenth century drama. The affection shone through at Chichester, and especially in Puff, who the outstanding Richard McCabe made the butt of an affectionate fun. I love Puff: there’s a charm in his vanity, his enthusiasm, his pride and pleasure in what he has written, and the way he submits to the depredations of the actors while comforting himself with the thought that lop and top how they will, he will print every word. He is truly unaware of the awfulness of the piece: there’s a prelapsarian innocence in his complete lack of critical knowledge. Puff cares about his play, delights in his “trope, figure, and metaphor”, and it’s for that I love him.

For details of the production at the Chichester Festival theatre see -

Sunday, August 8, 2010

In St James’s Square

What makes the perfect library? Is it one that still spends money on books, not just computers and DVDs? One that nevertheless uses modern technology to its fullest extent to make the best research tools available to its readers? One that never throws out books? One that has reading rooms that are genuinely quiet enough to work in? One that lets you borrow books for as long as you need them? One that offers you access to on-line catalogues and research databases from your own home? One with membership open to all?

They’re certainly the things I look for in a library. Not one that periodically throws out books and journals. Not one where you’re trying to work against a background of chatter, the rustling of food packets, the blare of mobile phones. Not one that culls its reference sections and moves the much reduced collections into tiny corners of its premises. Not one that thinks the bulk of its budget is best spent on computers. Not one that has bought into some Gradgrindian ideal of providing “information” and thinks it’s done its duty when people can Google. A good library is unashamedly intellectual. That’s why I’ve decided to splash out on a subscription to the London Library in St James’s Square.

The Library was founded in 1841 after a successful campaign by Thomas Carlyle and others to establish a library in the capital from which books could be borrowed, a service which was not provided by the British Museum. Carlyle was sick of the “importunate distraction” of the public reading room: the “buzz and bustle…waste of time in coming and going; waste of patience in waiting; add discomfort, perturbation, headache, waste of health.” The issue of libraries and health was clearly one that haunted the Victorian mind: in 1891 an advocate for free public libraries described a method of vaporising books with carbolic acid to disinfect them. As far as I know the London Library hasn’t introduced any such scheme, although the books are housed in stainless steel stacks on grilled shelves which no doubt allows for the bracing circulation of air.

Carlyle himself, after passionately pleading the cause of a city that was worse off than “the wretched fishy village of Reykiavik” which had a “Public Lending Library, free to all Icelanders”, resigned from the Committee and in the main kept out of the business of running the Library once it was established. He was, however, a great borrower. He took out the novels of Balzac and George Sand, the Latin chronicle of a monk at Bury St Edmunds by Jocelin de Brakelonda, while his wife Jane borrowed Currer Bell’s Shirley because some people thought she herself had written the Jane Eyre books and she “was curious to know whether the new one was up to my reputation”.

The Library is undergoing a major redevelopment, some phases of which are already completed. It seems to me, however, that the spirit of the place can’t have changed all that much. For all the computer terminals, photocopiers, and modern lighting, it’s still the books that dominate. I feel that if I went looking for Shirley I’d find the very copy Jane Carlyle read all those years ago. In the London Library I’ll be walking in the footsteps of Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf; maybe sitting at a desk recently vacated by Tom Stoppard or Peter Ackroyd. Perhaps their shades will guide my pen, or at the least nudge my elbow when I’m typing. The London Library is not only a place to go and look up a few things or get a bit of today’s favourite commodity, information. It’s an inspirational place, and that is what makes a perfect library.

You can get some idea of what the London Library looks like by visiting

The London Library website is at -

And finally - and absolutely unconnected - who wants to see something amazing? One of the highlights of our recent holiday in Scotland was a visit to Loch of the Lowes where we watched nesting ospreys via a live webcam in the visitors’ centre, before going out to the hide to see the birds with our own eyes. It was an experience not to be missed. You can visit the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s website now and watch live footage of these beautiful birds -

Thursday, July 22, 2010


More poking about the homes of the literary great and the good this week with a visit to Walter Scott’s home, Abbotsford. Reminiscent of Walpole’s project, here is another attempt to recreate a Medieval atmosphere, this time by a man who fancied himself as a Scottish laird. It’s a lovely house on the banks of the River Tweed, which flows by wide and fast at the bottom of walled gardens. Inside is a harmony of stained glass, carved wood, bosses, finials, marble, ebony, swords and armour. There’s also a display of items Scott – rather gruesomely - picked up on the battlefield of Waterloo including a French eagle, a Polish shako, cuirasses. Tacky souvenir collecting is clearly not a new invention.

When I went to Monk’s House recently I was struck by a reference in the guidebook to Virginia Woolf’s light wearing of the mantle of literary greatness. This kind of hyperbole makes you shudder, but I suppose people do get carried away, especially when talking about their friends. (The remark was made by one of the Woolfs’ guests.) Imagine how much I quaked over the Abbotsford guide. Here I read of Scott’s “literary career without parallel”, learned that he is “the greatest of Scotland’s sons”, that his fiction was not only “to change the world’s fiction” but “transformed the way all subsequent novelists viewed the world”, and was told that he “pioneered both the historical and psychological novel”.

Now, I’m all for recognising genius where I see it but this seems to be doing it strong. Scott’s reading as a young man included Richardson and Burney. Are these novelists who had no grasp of the psychological? He also read the classics, including the Aeneid, which does not strike me as a text entirely devoid in understanding of the wellsprings of human behaviour. Perhaps Scott had not heard of fellow-Scot’s Joanna Baillie’s Plays on the Passions, published in 1798, in which she “attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind, each passion being the subject of a tragedy and a comedy”. It seems strange considering that he wrote the prologue to her play The Family Legend and that they corresponded for years. Baillie was as well-regarded as Scott, to whom she was compared by contemporaries. My guide book suggests that Scott “produced work on a scale far beyond that of...any... Scottish or British writer bar Shakespeare”. Baillie’s name too has been linked with Shakespeare. Harriet Martineau commented that Baillie had been told “every day for years...that she was second only to Shakespeare”. And if Scott invented the historical novel, what did Sophia Lee think she was doing in 1785 with The Recess, set in the reign of Elizabeth I?

I do not doubt that Scott was a great novelist and in fact I admire his work, having read a great deal of it over the years, and The Antiquarian in the last few months. What I object to is the idea of the Original Genius, the innovator who comes from nowhere and achieves wonderful things without any reference to the work of predecessors or contemporaries. Scott did not invent the historical novel, although he may, arguably (and I only say arguably mind; not having investigated the matter I cannot draw any firm conclusion) have extended its boundaries, or he may have pioneered a certain type of historical novel. Nor did he invent the psychological novel, whatever that may be. The term seems to me to be redundant: I have yet to read any novel that lacked any sense of the psychological. Nor (referring back to my guidebook) did he invent pathetic fallacy: since The Epic of Gilgamesh natural phenomena have mirrored and symbolised human crises. Nor was he the first writer in whom romance gave way to realism. Early women’s fiction is littered with romances in which the heroine ends up ruined, dead, or both and we are reminded that, dress it up how you will, love was a dangerous game for women. I’ll mention only Eliza Heywood, who (if we are to play the pioneer game) beat Richardson to it at “writing to the moment”.

I admit that this kind of gush is easy to mock, and of course I don’t expect a literary treatise in a guidebook. An enthusiast must praise his hero. But isn’t being appreciated for what one has achieved rather than what one has not the best form of tribute? Tell me that Scott took the historical novel in new directions, that he brought a particular insight to his delineation of character, that he described the interaction between humanity and landscape with a sensitivity all his own, and his stature as a novelist will make much more sense to me than that he is the greatest this or the pioneering that when I know perfectly well that such statements are either meaningless or not quite accurate.

For information on Abbotsford see

Friday, July 9, 2010

Happy Birthday Penguin

I had a fascinating day and a half last week looking at penguins. I wasn’t at the zoo, but attending as much as I could of the University of Bristol’s three day conference celebrating Penguin’s 75th birthday. Bristol, the birthplace of Allen Lane, is home to the Penguin Archive, which contains editorial files, correspondence, photographs, papers from the Chatterley trial, and a collection of Penguin books from 1935 to date.

It was an Aladdin’s Cave of bookery. I started with the Reading Penguin 1 panel. George Donaldson, of the University of Bristol, talked about the clash of academic and commercial interests between David Daiches, general editor of the Penguin English Library (also known as the Penguin Classics Library), and the company. Penguin wanted introductions that addressed the “general reader” rather than academics and students, whereas Daiches felt that it was important that the introductions were academic and authoritative. Daiches eventually resigned over the issue. An amazing history, which caused me to wonder who was this “general reader”? Penguin must have wondered too, for they soon left this elusive figure to his own devices and aimed the Classics at sixth formers and under graduates.

Andrew Sanders of the University of Durham, who edited a Penguin Classics Romola, characterised the Penguin English Library as a “golden age”, which he took to be aimed at the “intelligent educated reader”. The list shaped what he read, and covered a range of literature ranging from classics, gospels, histories, novels, and from the 80s more modern novels. He praised Penguin for bringing out texts such as Clarissa and Scot’s Waverley. In a later talk someone commented that the Penguin Clarissa was not a comfortable read because it was so big! I read the Penguin edition for my MA and remember getting looks of amazement in cafes and waiting rooms when I hauled it out of my bag – but it was a marvellous read and I’m grateful to Penguin for making this and other wonderful texts easily available to this particular reader.

The highlight of the day for me was Simon Eliot of the University of London who took us back to the time when the general reader might be an Amenhotep or Tutankhamun with their noses buried in a “parchment back”. For all book history, said Eliot, begins with a reader – “a real reader”. He went on to set Penguin in a long history of flimsy, cheap texts ranging from pro-forma style Books of the Dead, an attempt to mass produce Martial’s work, chapbooks, ballads, serial publishing, and lurid thrillers on cheap paper with floppy covers.

Eliot may have been my highlight – I’m fascinated by the history of the book – but Christopher Ricks wasn’t far behind in the beaming stakes. He gave a witty, learned talk touching on the theme of patronage, and described his time as an editor of some of the Penguin Classics. Add to this talks on poetry, and a Q and A panel of Penguin people and you can imagine what a day I had!

I was back in the morning for the Penguin Marketing Panel. John Hitchin, Penguin’s first Marketing Director, told us abut Penguin in the 60s, when they launched Laurie Lee, Edna O’Brien’s second novel, Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, the Penguin Poets series, and a host of other great works.

Dr Samantha Rayner, Senior Lecturer in Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University, gave an absorbing talk False Colours: Pan, Penguin and the Challenges of Marketing Historical Fiction. False Colours is the title of a Georgette Heyer novel, as if you didn’t know. (Actually, I didn’t.) Heyer, who was originally published by Pan, had strong views about her book covers. In the 50s the covers reflected the film genre, which was popular at the time. Covers in the 70s and 80s were more restrained with images in medallions, but incorporated contemporary hairstyles and makeup. Heyer herself liked the covers designed by Artur Barbosa – you can see examples of his work at several fan websites
( has quite a few images). When in 1966 Penguin took on False Colours Heyer was not impressed; she thought their first design was cheap and nasty. An abstract effort failed to win her approval; she objected that it gave no idea of what the book was about. (You can see more Heyer covers including Penguin’s 1966 effort at, which is a précis of an earlier talk by Dr Rayner.) Eventually Heyer went back to Pan.

Dr Rayner’s talk was followed by Shanyn Altman on The Hayseed Chronicles, a book which was the doubtful beneficiary of what seems to me the weirdest marketing campaign any publisher has ever launched. It included spoof newspaper items and a website full of fake information, which apparently fooled even a BBC presenter. Unfortunately the campaign flopped and the book has not sold well. I can’t think of a publicity stunt more likely to put me off a book than this one. Did Penguin really think that making a fool of its readers was the best way to make them feel well-disposed towards the book? However, mine is not a view shared by Shanyn Altman, who thought the campaign was “brilliant”.

The morning ended with the Reading Penguin 2 panel, which ranged across issues around paratext, censorship, and a look at the first ten Penguin titles, known as the First Batch. Then off for a tour of the Penguin Archive at the University, and into the heart of Aladdin’s Cave. I’ve been told that lists are an absolute no-no in prose. It’s a view with which I happen to disagree, and in the case of the Penguin Archive I don’t think anything I could say could convey the wonder of the collection. There’s only one way to share the magic and that is simply to list some of the things I saw.

Signed copies of the First Batch including books by Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie.

Grumpy letters from George Bernard Shaw.

A letter from Enid Blyton refusing to appear at the trial in defence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover because she didn’t think it appropriate for a children’s author – and her husband wouldn’t allow it.

A photograph of newly-weds Allen and Lettice Lane coming out of the church onto a path lined with Penguins.

A poem by Teddy Robinson in a book celebrating a Puffin anniversary.

Early copies of Worzel Gummidge and Barbara Euphan Todd’s editorial file.

John Lennon’s signature on a book of poetry.

For information on the Penguin Archive and the Penguin Archive Project see

For information on Artur Barbosa -

For information on Teddy Robinson (because - shamefully - none of the people I mentioned him to had heard of him!)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Votes for Women

The play is clever and witty, and it kept the audiences brimming with excitement and in roars of laughter.

So said the Pall Mall Gazette in 1909 of Cicely Hamilton’s and Chris St John’s How the Vote Was Won performed at the Royalty Theatre in London, and so say I of the same play given in a performed reading at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond in June 2010. The one act play is funny on the page, even funnier on the stage. I read it years ago in a collection of suffragette plays edited by Dale Spender and Carole Hayman, and I never thought I’d see it acted.

How the Vote Was Won is a very funny piece and, with Hamilton’s Pageant of Great Women, one of the most successful suffragette plays. Amongst the many feeble arguments put up against enfranchising women was the proposition that women did not need the vote because they had men to look after them. In the play women take men at their word, giving up their jobs and homes and turning to their nearest male relatives for support. Poor old Horace Cole, a clerk on £3 a week, finds himself with a houseful of female dependents – and they are funnier, smarter, and richer than him!

The play was put on in association with an exhibition at the Museum of Richmond, in collaboration with Aurora Metro Arts and Media. How the Vote Was Won, curated by Irene Cockcroft and Susan Croft, focuses on the role of the theatre in the suffrage campaign. The exhibition is on until 4 September 2010, and Aurora Metro will shortly be publishing the curators’ linked book Art, Theatre and Women’s Suffrage. (See

After a sparkling reading/performance Irene Cockcroft and Susan Croft spoke about the background to the play and answered questions and comments from the audience. It was a rare pleasure to engage in a discussion conducted in such a good natured and cooperative manner. The afternoon was pretty much crowned when the first person in the audience to speak told us that the Pankhursts and others had been frequent visitors to her childhood home: her mother was a suffragette. It was a salutary reminder of how recent our franchise is, and lest anyone is under any misapprehension about this we should remember that it was not until 1928 that the suffragette demand for votes for women on the same terms as it is or will be granted to men was actually achieved. (Personally I think the limited 1918 franchise was an insult: but that’s another story.)

One thing does puzzle me though. On a leaflet advertising the How the Vote Was Won reading we are told that it has been put on “to celebrate the original performance at Twickenham Town Hall in 1910”. According to Hamilton’s biographer, Lis Whitelaw, the play was first performed by the Actresses’ Franchise League in a matinee at the Royalty Theatre, London on 13 April 1909. Susan Croft repeats this date in a 2009 collection of suffragette plays published by Aurora Metro. A brief trawl of the internet suggests that there were two Royalty Theatres in London, one of which may have been called the New Royalty Theatre in 1909. So, I wonder, when and where was the play’s “original performance”? Or does the reference to its “original performance” here mean the first performance of many which took place at Twickenham in 1910? If that is the case, the wording is rather misleading.

This confusion didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the play, of course. If I were to write my own Pageant of Great Women Cicely Hamilton, actress, writer, suffragette, would be one of its leading characters. Sadly, Hamilton’s novels are not easily available, except for William: An Englishman, published by Persephone Books, who specialise in reprinting neglected classics, mostly by women, in beautifully designed paperbacks. It is an astonishing book about a young couple caught up in the outbreak of the First World War; their situation seems humorous at first but becomes increasingly nightmarish. I’ve only managed to read a reference library copy of Life Errant, Cicely Hamilton’s autobiography, but what a story was hers! She served with the Scottish women’s ambulance unit during the First World War, and after the war worked on The Englishwoman and Time and Tide. As well as novels, plays, and the feminist classic Marriage as a Trade, she co-wrote, with Lilian Baylis, a history of the Old Vic, edited the press bulletin of the British League for European Freedom, and never stopped campaigning for women’s rights. I wish more of her work was available.

It’s certainly time that the theatre woke up to the fact that George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde (wonderful as their plays are) are not the only playwrights whose dated plays are still worthy of performance and have resonance for us today. The Orange Tree Theatre deserves the highest praise for its support of a play that is only the tip of the iceberg of women’s theatrical legacy (and for many other reasons too – it’s a fantastic theatre). I only wish I’d seen their 2007 production of Hamilton’s Diana of Dobson’s; I hope it will one day make another appearance on their stage. There’s a chance that in autumn Orange Tree will put on a reading of another Hamilton one-acter, The Pot and the Kettle, which pokes fun at the “antis”. I shan’t miss it if they do.

You can read Hamilton’s and St John’s play How the Vote was Won in
How the Vote was Won and Other Suffragette Plays, ed Dale Spender and Carole Hayman, Methuen 1985
Votes for Women and Other Plays, ed Susan Croft, Aurora Metro 2009

Diana of Dobson’s is in New Woman Plays, ed Linda Fitzsimmons and Viv Gardner, Methuen 1991

Lis Whitelaw’s biography is The Life and Rebellious Times of Cicely Hamilton, Virago 1990

The Orange Tree Theatre -
Aurora Metro -
Persephone Books -
Museum of Richmond -

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Slumming in Sussex

I had a splendid day last Wednesday (16 June 2010) popping my proletarian nose into the houses and lives of the Bloomsbury Group. A fascinating programme of visits started at Berwick Church to see the Murals, then to Charleston, and on to Monk’s House. The outing was organised by the Friends of the Women’s Library. If you don’t know about the Women’s Library you are missing a national treasure. Situated in Old Castle Street, London E1 and now part of London Metropolitan University, it is a marvellous resource for women’s history. And – mark this all you university libraries whose mission seems to be to keep out as many people as possible – it is open to all. It’s an art gallery too and puts on some wonderful displays, including the most memorable exhibition Art for Vote’s Sake in 2003 which featured some of the beautiful embroidered banners used in women’s marches.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell’s work but I enjoyed the Berwick murals. The tradition of painting Biblical scenes in one’s own time and place is a time-honoured one, and it was fascinating to see Christ in Sussex. Naturally, the artists’ friends and family posed for the figures. The murals were done in war time and include figures of a soldier, airman, and sailor kneeling before Bishop Bell, who commissioned the murals, which rather depressingly reflect the link between church, state, and war. I thought it very forgiving of the church to turn to Grant, whose private life was not exactly orthodox, to do the work.

Charleston is a lovely house and, again, while I don’t have much feeling for the art I love the idea of it, the way that art and house are inextricably linked. This is a philosophy I associate with William Morris, who I love as artist and poet, and admire for his political commitment. It’s intriguing to see how the Bloomsbury artists used and re-used objects: an old beer crate, painted, becomes a box for logs, old blouses become lampshade covers. I must add that a most important aspect of any successful day out was provided for by the café which serves great lunches and wonderful cakes.

I suppose these houses are remarkable because of their art, but I suspect that many visitors go because of the people who once lived in them. It’s very odd, this rummaging around the lives of others. A friend of mine once remarked, when we were discussing the Pre-Raphaelites, that we know almost too much about them. I think the same could be said of the Woolfs and Bells. All those books by and about them, paintings by and of them, letters to and from them, the diaries written in the unshakable faith that their least thought or action is of infinite interest. I think of Leonard Woolf noting the gramophone records he and Virginia listened to after supper. Is dancing around the kitchen to the Four Tops worthy of such solemn commemoration I wonder?

How seriously they took themselves! How sure they were, too, of their privileges. We are told they lived a frugal life at Charleston, and of the discomforts of Monk’s House - guests complain of the cold. But it is the cold of the Big House, the frugality of wealth. I find this effort to underplay their privilege baffling. By what stretch of the imagination do country retreats, servants, and belonging to the society of lords and ladies, not count as privilege? I imagine what it must be like being able to get up in the morning and go straight to your desk, your easel. It is not only that your time and your energy are reserved for your art; it is the spiritual, the psychological, effect of knowing that art is your business. Let charladies and miners scrub and delve: you have your book to write, your painting to paint. You may struggle with your art, but you never doubt its seriousness. And this is part of their privilege too.

While the Woolfs were sitting in their sitting room at Monk’s House diligently recording their listening pleasures, Robert Lyon was putting paintbrushes into the hands of a group of Newcastle miners who were to become known as The Pitman Painters. Like Leonard Woolf, these men made records of their lives. They painted racing pigeons, their mates down the mines, their allotments, their wives making bread. But not for them getting up in the morning and going straight to desk or easel. They were working men with livings to make.

Now, I do not say that one mode of living is morally or artistically superior to the other. My personal preference would be for the life the Woolfs led: it sounds like heaven on earth, and like all earthly heavens it costs money. There are, on the other hand, artists who are happy to combine paid employment and art; for some of us this has not only practical benefits (we can afford to buy bread and roses) but artistic ones too (it feeds into our art; it gives us a break from our work; by concentrating on other tasks that mysterious creative bit of our brains is free to get on with having ideas).

There may have been Pitmen Painters who dreamed of devoting their lives to art. Others may have wanted to stay rooted in the lives they already had. There may have been people in the Bloomsbury Set who struggled to make ends meet: so-called genteel poverty (so movingly described by George Gissing in his novels, particularly The Odd Women) was a dreadful thing. Life - any life – is not easily reduced to a question of money or not money. It doesn’t matter whether someone is privileged or not, whether she’s Rosamund Lehmann or Ellen Wilkinson, Edith Wharton or Agnes Smedley. It isn’t being either rich or poor that makes an artist - which is not to say that being rich or poor doesn’t shape one’s art, and either state can stunt an artist’s growth. But I can see no point in pretending that one or the other condition does not exist - though in my experience it’s usually privilege that is downplayed. I really cannot listen with a straight face to talk of the Woolfs’ frugality!

For information on Bloomsbury in Sussex see

For Berwick Church Murals see

For the Women’s Library see

For Votes for Art’s Sake see

For the Pitman Painters see

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Topping times

David Mitchell: what’s not to like? He’s intelligent, critically acclaimed, charming, self-effacing, courteous, and if Cloud Atlas (the only of his books I’ve read so far) is anything to go by, an interesting and talented writer – and he watches Dr Who. He proved all this and more on Friday 28 May in Bath at an event organised by Topping and Company.

I’ve referred briefly to Topping’s before. I hope that when I die I go to Topping’s: it’s heaven. The independent book shop in Bath has got hand crafted bookshelves, probably more signed books than you’ll see in any other bookshop, and friendly and knowledgeable staff. If you go for a browse they’ll make you a pot of coffee served in pretty blue cups and saucers. If you go to an event they’ll pour you a decent glass of wine. If you tell them you’re looking for a book by what’s-his-name and you can’t remember what it’s about but it’s got scholars in it and you think the author’s Canadian they’ll tell you it’s the Cornish Trilogy and take you straight to the shelf where it stands.

No day out in Bath is complete without a visit to Toppings. In fact, we often go to Bath just to go to Toppings. And they put on the most fantastic programme of events. Just look who’s coming: Simon Callow, Christopher Ricks, Emma Donoghue, and the frabjously wonderful Stephen Fry. Sometimes you are squeezed into the bookshop for cosy readings, sometimes you’re literary lunching in St Michael’s Church, but for David Mitchell we were in the lovely church of St Swithin’s in the Walcot Parish.

This eighteenth century church is special to me because of its connection with my literary heroine, Frances Burney. She is buried here with her son Alexander, and her husband, le Comte D’Arblay, both of whom predeceased her. The church also has a connection with Jane Austen, whose parents were married here. William Wilberforce married here too. So David Mitchell was amongst very friendly ghosts.

Mitchell never stops wanting to improve his work. Even as he read on Friday he stopped to remark that this didn’t sound quite right, or he’d rewrite that if he could. He was particularly worried about “the guard stood by the garden gate”, muttering something about repetition, though personally I thought it worked quite well. He said that his latest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, had been conceived in 1994, but he’d had to wait until he was a better writer before he could tackle it. Finishing the book had almost finished him! He talked about clichés (not necessarily a bad thing and at least a marker of what not to write about: a book set in Nagasaki mustn’t have a geisha falling in love with a handsome American), the transmigration of souls, death. Death worries him more the older he gets, he told us, and referred to the Dr Who episode where Queen Victoria says that ghost stories are not meant to frighten us but to reassure us that there is continued existence after death.

But I won’t go on about what David Mitchell said when you can much more interestingly hear the man himself talk about his new book on the Guardian Books Podcast -

You can also read the discussion of Cloud Atlas which is currently the Guardian Book Club’s choice at

And for more on Topping & Co (who also have a shop in Ely) and their events see

For more on the history of St Swithin’s see

Monday, May 24, 2010

Stockingers and Croppers

The only good thing about having a fluey-throaty-coldy thing is that when you have gone past the unable-to-lift-aching-head-from-pillow-stage you can take advantage of the strangely emptied hours to read Very Long Books that under other circumstances might take months to finish. I’ve taken advantage of my not-yet-done-with-me cold to read several books connected with a novel I’m working on, and in particular the work of E P Thompson. I’ve galloped through Whigs and Hunters and enjoyed it enormously, and now I’m on Customs in Common, a collection of studies looking at how the customs and culture of working people resisted the march of what the ruling elite – and later historians - liked to give such names as enlightenment, reform, or progress.

I find Thompson a very refreshing read. It’s partly because it’s an antidote to the thing called Social and Economic History I was taught at school. It was not merely that this was dull – all those spinning jennies, mechanical threshers, and fattening pigs – but that I was troubled by some vague feeling that the whole thing was somehow fraudulent. In this history (as I remember it) everything was subsumed into the great scheme “progress”. Luddites and other rioters throughout the eighteenth century were silly fellows with no grasp of the significance of the events in which they were caught up. They rose up in the text books, burly chaps in corduroy trousers and big boots who moved and spoke very slowly. They pounded away ineffectually at the magnificent machines their superiors and betters had introduced and when they had done their backwards, blinkered worst those S and B, with patient benevolence, picked up the pieces and pressed on with their reforms.

It just didn’t ring true. I’d already done Roundheads and Cavaliers and the Battle of Blenheim. I knew there was always another side to the story. But not in the tale of Progress. Something was being left out.

It is thanks to historians like Thompson that that something has been put back in. His aim, he said, was “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”. In his marvellous, passionate, often satirical, sometimes angry prose he demands that we look a bit closer, dig a bit deeper, ask a few more questions. Ask: is that the whole story?

Take the case of Mary Houghton, wife of John, who in 1788 was prosecuted for trespass when she entered a farmer’s fields to exercise gleaners’ rights. The lawyers argued about property rights, Mosaic law, the limits of charity, and she lost the case. Yawn. But Thompson wasn’t convinced. He suspected there was a lot more going on than simple trespass on a farmer’s land. He dug a bit deeper and a complex and fascinating story emerged, a tangle of relationships and interests, power and vulnerability, loss and gain, a story that takes us from Timworth to Bengal. And if that sounds like the blurb on the back of a novel, it’s deliberate.

Historian Peter King took up Thompson’s tale and dug deeper still. Between them they pieced together something of Mary Houghton’s life. She lived in the parish of Timworth, Suffolk, which was almost entirely owned by Earl Cornwallis. She was the daughter of a local husbandman. In 1762 she had an illegitimate daughter. Two months later she married John Houghton, a shoemaker with dissenting connections from a neighbouring village. Through a small property owned by Mary’s father the couple had access to a number of common rights, such as pasture. They must have made enough to live on as they paid at least one rate and did not draw parish funds.

Then they made the fatal mistake of blocking Cornwallis’s enclosure plans. The court case followed; the legal costs ruined them. They fell into debt and were forced to sell their property. It was purchased by Cornwallis. The Houghtons lost everything: their land, their common rights and their home, which Cornwallis demolished as part of his enclosing programme. The last we hear of Mary is that she is a widow living on the parish. As for Cornwallis, as Governor General of Bengal he went on to impose on India the same pattern of property rights and ownership that resulted in the ruin of the Houghtons with, in Sir Charles Metcalfe’s words, the destruction of “hundreds and thousands of proprietors”.

Mary Houghton. What couldn’t an artist make of her! The novelist could give her madness, genius, illness, lovers, disappointing sons or beautiful daughters (though I don’t think such wild embellishments necessary). The painter could portray her as the Amazonian leader of rebellion marching at the head of her sisters to assert their rights in the land. The quilt maker could pay tribute with an ear of corn on a square tucked away in a harvest pattern. For Mary Houghton’s is a great story, and it is thanks to E P Thompson that we have it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Horace and Selima

On 6 May 2007 Professor Sir Christopher Frayling unveiled a blue plaque at the London home of illustrator Edward Ardizzone. He spoke of his “passion for illustrated books”, which he also described as “an under-rated art”. Almost to the day three years later in Bristol he proved with his latest book, Horace Walpole’s Cat, that if it is true that illustration is an under-rated art, it is unjustly so.

Frayling was speaking on 7 May 2010 at an event which was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. This intellectual bash had been long overdue for Bristol. Cheltenham has its festival, Bath has its festival, but until 2005 Bristol had nothing comparable. Now we do, and it really is worth having. Topics to come this year include religious faith, art in the First World War, feminism, capitalism and lying (I wonder if the last two go together?), and you can be sure that I’ll be going to as many talks as I can. Though, just to prove how highbrow I really am, my favourite event so far is still Gerry Anderson on Thunderbirds in 2008. I loved Thunderbirds (and Fireball XL5 and Stingray) when I was a child. They seemed to me like the first programmes that actually told children proper stories with goodies, baddies, danger, suspense, and explosions.

But back to Horace Walpole and his cat.

Horace Walpole’s Cat tells the story – or several stories – of Thomas Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. It’s a wonderful exercise in connections, criss-crossing the threads between Johnson, Gray, and Walpole; cats, dogs and fishes; Gothic design, Chinoiserie, and Georgian interiors; society, art and pornography. Frayling pounces now on one connection, now another, with gleeful, gossipy relish, the breathless did you know? of the enthusiast. Did you know that Hodge was a name typically applied to an English countryman? Did you know oysters were cheap in Johnson’s day? Did you know that tabby was originally a kind of silk?

What’s particularly charming about it all is that Frayling also makes connections with the personal. In his prologue he tells us how his own goldfish, leaving Walpole out of his thesis, and a college cat called Hodge are interwoven with the goldfish, Walpole and cats in the book.

Published by Thames & Hudson, it’s a beautifully produced book. The paper is pale cream and carries the aptly chosen illustrations well. The book reproduces illustrations to the poem by Richard Bentley, William Blake and Kathleen Hale, together with Frayling’s commentaries on these wonderful and very different responses to the text. (There’s a brilliantly weird drawing by Bentley, by the way, in the Victoria and Albert’s Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill exhibition which I wrote about last time – A Prospect of Vapourland – get a glimpse of it here -

After the event I asked Sir Christopher Frayling to sign my copy of the book and we chatted about Walpole, as you do. He’s a very entertaining speaker and if you get the chance to see him, take it. Failing that, buy the book and enjoy!

For the Bristol Festival of Ideas see website

For Sir Christopher Frayling on Edward Ardizzone see

Monday, May 3, 2010

Strawberry Hill for ever

Last week I went to London for a day to look at a couple of exhibitions connected with the eighteenth century. My morning was spent at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill exhibition. This was a wonderful display of objects from the Thames-side house, as well as fascinating drawings and plans of the property showing not only how it was designed but something of what it looked like when Walpole lived in it.

What struck me was the number of objects in Walpole’s collection that were wrongly attributed. Francis I’s gilt suit of armour was never worn by the French king; a painting of the children of Henry VIII actually depicts three children of Christian II of Denmark; a portrait of Frances Duchess of Suffolk and Adrian Stokes shows Lady Dacre and her son Gregory Fiennes; early sixteenth century ebony furniture dates from some 150 years later; and coins from the reign of Elizabeth I are fake.

Of course, Walpole didn’t have access to modern scientific methods and scholarship, and like modern collectors he could be taken in by dodgy dealers. An inscription on a medieval comb linking it to Saxon St Bertha, for example, was added in the seventeenth century. Still, the errors were curious. Walpole had an enormous library – 7,000 books – yet in spite of this resource he was still unable to date and identify many of the items in his collection.

I like to think that he simply preferred his own, more colourful descriptions. I imagine that Frances Duchess of Suffolk was a much more racy prospect than Lady Dacre. Mother of Lady Jane Grey, she married a man who was not only 16 years younger but was her master of horse into the bargain. Mind you, Lady Dacre’s husband was hanged for murder so maybe there wouldn’t have been much in it…

Walpole didn’t get everything wrong, of course. The black mirror that Dr Dee used to summon spirits did belong to the good doctor. It’s a fascinating object and there’s something genuinely disconcerting about it: when you look into it you see your own ghost. What Walpole didn’t know was that it was Aztec. I suspect he would have found the idea that it had belonged to an Aztec priest much more exciting than that an Elizabethan necromancer once owned it.

There are many other wonderful things to see – paintings by Hogarth and Peter Lely, miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard, Cardinal Wolsey’s hat. I loved the Rowlandson prints, especially the antiquarian starting in amazement at Strawberry House – or the two maids peeping over the wall. If you can’t get to the V & A to see the print you can look at it on line – see You can view many other items in this on-line catalogue of the Strawberry Hill Collection – this fantastic website has already been added to my favourites!

I watched a short video about the restoration work at the mansion, which reopens this autumn. I’m looking forward to visiting it, and will be keeping an eye on the Friends of Strawberry Hill website ( for updates. In the meantime, curbing my impatience, I pottered over to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the home of another renowned collector, Sir John Soane.

The particular attraction was their exhibition Mrs Delany and her Circle. Mrs Delany was a great friend of my literary heroine, Frances Burney. Miss Burney (as she then was) described her meeting with the old lady on 19 January 1783, when she was shown the “new art which she had invented”. This was the “staining paper of all possible colours, and then cutting it out, so finely and delicately, that when it is pasted on paper or vellum, it has all the appearance of being pencilled, except that by being raised, it has still a richer and more natural look. The effect is extremely beautiful. She invented it at seventy-five!”. Miss Burney adds “They are all from nature, and consist of the most curious flowers, plants, and weeds, that are to be found. She has been supplied with patterns from all the great gardens, and all the great florists in the kingdom.”

Beautiful indeed is the effect, and something more besides. Mrs Delany’s “paper mosaicks” as she called them are noted not only for their beauty but for their botanical accuracy. No longer regarded as a leisured lady’s time-filling pursuit, they are recognised as accurate studies, many of which were based on the dissection of specimens and the meticulous reproduction of their constituent parts. She annotated the pictures using the Linnaean classification. Sir Joseph Banks, who sent her plants from Kew Gardens, paid tribute to their accuracy when he said that he could learn exactly what a plant looked like from looking at Mrs Delany’s flowers.

The exhibition in the Soane Gallery sought to bring out this aspect of Mrs Delany’s work by placing her in a botanical tradition and allowing her work to transcend the level of feminine accomplishments. Truly, the works are striking and yet…I couldn’t help being a little dismayed by the image of a woman fussing with bits of paper, scissors, and glue, nor stop myself wondering why botanical paintings and sketches weren’t accurate enough depictions of plants without all this tiddling about. Heaven knows women’s art has been insulted enough, but if this “new art” was indeed meant as a serious botanical exercise I couldn’t see what advantage it had over pre-existing methods. Perhaps I’ll understand it if I read the book that accompanies the exhibition, Mrs Delany and Her Circle by Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts. One more to add to the reading list!

I have to confess, though, that I found it all a bit too prissy for my taste. By way of redressing the balance I went to have a look at the Hogarths. A Rake’s Progress and the wonderfully topical An Election soon restored my equilibrium. This done, I went to the Wallace Collection restaurant and treated myself to afternoon tea.

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill is on until 4 July 2010 – see

Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill Collection – on line catalogue –

For news about the restoration of Strawberry Hill see

Mrs Delany and Her Circle is on at The John Soane Museum until 1 May 2010 – see

Mrs Delany’s flower pictures were bequeathed to the British Museum in 1897 and you can see them on line – though flat images can’t convey the full effect – at¤tPage=2