Category Archives: Social History

Why I love Victorian paintings

I grew up with this picture:

The Travelling Companions

On Saturday mornings, while my sister was at youth orchestra, my father and I would often have a quick scour round the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It was the galleries devoted to Victorian painting that I always loved the best and I was lucky because Birmingham had one of the best collections in the world. For me it was magical.

I loved those big necked Rosetti women with their flaming hair and pouty lips, (and possibly thyroid problems.) I loved  ”Christ in the Carpenter’s shop in Nazareth” by Holman Hunt and I loved Ford Maddox Ford’s “Work”, where the figure of a man dressed in women’s clothes slinks down the side of the composition to hide from the police. I loved the “Death of Chatterton”, with the chalk -faced poet stretched out on the couch beneath his attic window, looking so beautiful and romantic in death and I loved “The Last of England”, with the baby’s hand reaching out from under the mother’s wraps as the parents look mournfully out, surrounded by cabbages for the long voyage to goodness knows where. A terrible, sad tale indeed, but I never tired of looking at it and wondering.

The Last of England

I realise now these pictures turned me into a storyteller. They are seared in my brain. I can recite their contents like poems learnt off by heart. And those two sisters in grey silk by Egg, one asleep, one with her book – how I wondered who they were and where they were going. Were they sisters? Did they mind being dressed the same? What is she reading? Of what is the other one dreaming? The same questions still throw themselves at me and I long to answer them. Maude and Florence? Lucy and Susan? Mary and Kate? Who are you and what is your story? Do you love the same man? Does your mother favour one of you over the other? Have you enough money to last you through the winter in Rome?

Now I look for the people in the stories I write in Victorian paintings. Sometimes I even find them.

May I introduce to you Felix Carswell, the young hero of The Butchered Man?  I found him staring out at me in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I hope he approves of my biography of him.

The Butchered Man – buy here on Kindle, Smashwords and now in paperback


The best Edwardian country houses in Scotland

Wondering where to go to get a glimpse – with a distinctive Scots accent – of that seductive Downton Abbey lifestyle?  These houses were not necessarily built in the Edwardian era but they all have glorious interiors characteristic of the period, and, in some cases allow a glimpse of the servant’s quarters.

1. Hill of Tarvit

My favourite: a beautiful eighteenth century house tarted up by Sir Robert Lorimer for the Shairp family. Complete with the original kitchen, butler’s pantry and a fabulous Edwardian bathroom with sanitary fittings by Crapper, no less. The bathroom also features an interesting display of taxidermy frogs above the lavatory which is a quirky note in a house otherwise distinguished by great good taste.

2. Lauriston Castle

This is a sleeping beauty of a house, tucked away in a suburb of Edinburgh. It’s an old Scots Tower house, extended in the nineteenth century and then restored and refurnished by a wealthy Edinburgh couple, the Reids. He had made a fortune from supplying gas fittings to the Pullman Company and railway carpets, no doubt got at a good price, are featured in the house along with their eclectic collections. The Reids were particularly kind to their household staff and it is worth trying to make a visit when the domestic offices are open.

3. Manderston

Manderston is  a bit of TV star, having featured in a living history experiment, The Edwardian Country House.  It owes its present grandeur to former owner, Sir James Millar who was anxious to show he could rival  his aristocratic father-in-law’s house, Kedleston, a Robert Adam masterpiece in Derbyshire.  With a silver-plated staircase and a dedicated ball room, the results were opulent if a trifle on the vulgar side.

4.Hill House

Built for the publisher Blackie and his family, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Hill House in Helensburgh represents the other end of the style spectrum. This the country house at its most advanced and artistic. As well as being uber modern it still has its roots in all those old Scottish Tower Houses.

5. Fyvie Castle

Fyvie Castle is another restoration job – bought by millionaire Andrew Forbes-Leith  in 1889. He had made a fortune in the US in steel and added a tower (as you do) as well as sprucing up the interiors.  The house is a tour-de-force in Scots baronial luxury and a great showcase for Forbes-Leith’s astonishing good collection of paintings.

6. Skibo Castle

Another American fortune, but this time Skibo was built from scratch by Andrew Carnegie.  Skibo. Operating now as a very exculsive country house

hotel, Skibo is probably the closest one can get to experiencing the Edwardian luxury lifestyle. It’s on my to do list.

7. Ardkinglas

This is an entrancing Robert Lorimer house on Loch Fyne. I’ve never been but from the website it looks completely magical. Lorimer is often called the Scot’s Lutyens – and with good reason.

8. Pollock House

Next to the peerless Burrell collection, Pollock House is an eighteenth century mansion house with a fascinating servants basement to explore. You can also have your tea in the magnificent turn of the century kitchen. Sir John Maxwell inherited the house in 1888 and brought it up to scratch, including creating a magnificent billiard room – an essential spot in the Edwardian Country House.

Keywords: billiard rooms, billiards, mansions, National Trust for Scotland, neo-classical, Pollok House, Pollok Park

There are also Highland Cattle in the country park which surrounds Pollock. These are not particularly Edwardian, of course, but count as an added bonus.


Novel Landscapes: Green Grow the Rushes

I have just seen the trailer for what looks a wonderfully naff film about the burgeoning romance between a certain Kate and William. What strikes me about it is the complete lack of sense of place – in this case St Andrews, which really ought to be the star of the piece as an all round very romantic place.

This got me thinking about place in my work and how I like to use places that I know or visit as a jumping off point for my imagination. I have talked a bit about this process here for The Daughters of Blane, so I thought it would be fun to have a look at some of the other locations I’ve used. Being your own location manager is one of the best bits of writing fiction and much easier than fanatasy casting.

I shall try not to give away too much of the story as I do this, in case you haven’t read it.

Green Grow the Rushes starts in the Scottish Borders, in a country house called the Quarro. The location and general setting of the The Quarro is Traquair House

but the house described in the book is Errdig, near Wrexham.

Errdig is a complete time capsule of a house with all the staff quarters beautifully preserved and has the most extraordinary other worldly quality to the place which seemed perfect for the opening phase on the novel, when the characters all fall in love with the wrong people.

The next phase of the story is in Edwardian Edinburgh and I had my heroine Jessie and her new husband set up home in a flat in Marchmont Road that actually belonged to some friends we had at the time. But the best place to get the idea of a middle class flat in a Scottish city of the time is to go to the Tenement House Museum in Glasgow.

Ralph Erskine and his family live on the other side of Edinburgh in Rothesay Terrace, in a house that was in fact built for the owner of the Scotsman newspaper.

It is now the Melvin House Hotel and currently being refurbished. I shall go and have a look when it is done!

Alix, Ralph’s sister goes off to study at St Andrews University, where she lives, like many respectable women students of her day in the all female hall of residence, University Hall.

I lived here myself for 2 years. When my mother (ex Newnham College) dropped me off for my first term she remarked “This is just like Newnham” which is what the founder, also ex-Newnham, intended.

The Erskine family decide to retire to Fife and buy an old mansior near Cupar, which they hire Philip Winterfield (the architect hero of my first novel) to remodel for them. This house is called Allansfield and is inspired by the very wonderful Hill of Tarvit, also near Cupar.  Sadly, because of financial squeezes, the house is now closed but the gardens are still open.

In fact, I love this house so much I have included it in my only contemporary novel so far, The Wild Garden, (coming soon as an ebook) and the house still belongs to the Erskine family.

It features a wonderful, state of the art Edwardian kitchen and adjoining Butler’s Pantry (with a wooden sink) as well as some incredibly beautiful rooms for the family to live in. It is terribly sad that it’s closed and I can’t send you all off for a day trip there.

If any of this takes your fancy you can find out more about where to buy Green Grow the Rushes here.


Pictures and Conversations

On Saturday afternoon at the Kingston University annual publishing conference at the end of my talk about ebooks,  I nailed my colours to the mast, came out of the closet and embraced literally scores of well know phrases and sayings as I made a public declaration about Naked Angels.

I told the audience that this is the serialised historical novel which I had just started writing  but which I have decided to go public with  episode by episode, rather than store it all up and then dither about what to do with it. It has been, so far a quite a liberating experience, and making this somewhat public commitment to carry on with it

I’ve talked about why I am doing this in here, but since then I have begun to see that there are many other advantages to this form. One of which is that I can chose appropriate illustrations for it.

One of my favourite bits at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland is the bit where she discards her sister’s book because it has no pictures or conversations. “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” she thinks.

Alice has here picked up on one of the great conventions of popular fiction; there should always be plenty of dialogue in a story. As a novelist, I always enjoy writing dialogue :it is to be to be a great way to move the story along, to create character, to build up the tension. And I certainly love to read novels where the dialogue just whisks you along through the narrative and entertains you at the same time. If I throw down a book in annoyance it is usually because I feel “people just don’t talk like that.”  It is not easy to do well. It requires lots and lots of rewriting, and muttering over the keyboard, and sometimes the adoption of silly accents to get the rhythm and sentence construction right. One person ought to talk quite differently from another. This is probably not something I always achieve, but I do attempt it.

People in fiction, no matter what their socio-economic background, are of course far more articulate than people in real life. Sometimes they are dazzlingly funny. They are never short of that wonderful put down we only think of three hours after the awful meeting. Elizabeth Bennet for example never says the wrong thing.  Even people saying the wrong thing are funnier in fiction than they are in real life. Such are the joys of dialogue in fiction.

So much for conversations. What about pictures. In Alice’s day, grown up novels as well as children’s books often had illustrations, often by quite distinguished artists. Millais for example did a series of gorgeous illustrations to Trollope. It was clearly regarded as part of the package of a piece of fiction, and there is still something rather pleasant about looking through old books to see if they have pictures.

Some even had coloured frontispieces. I have some Edwardian mass market novels, which would probably today be branded as chic lit today. They have wonderful coloured plates at the beginning, a little like this one.

Now obviously I can’t commission an illustrator at this stage, but I can throw in a few pictures to set the mood of the story, and it is quite a pleasure (and an act of procrastination, no doubt) finding the perfect image to reflect each episode. They can act as visual footnotes. For example in an episode other day the Frazer family were eating shape for pudding, because it was Wednesday.(see I was able to find a lovely illustration of a Victorian blancmange mould, complete with recipe on the side, so that you too, can make shape.

I am sure this is exactly the sort of dull, economical food that Mrs Frazer would serve, and that such a mould (perhaps got free by cannily saving coupons) sits on the dresser waiting for Wednesdays. You will note it can be served with jam or marmalade, but I wonder if they would go so far. It would have been too enjoyable.

Naked Angels,  if you are interested in catching up can be found here:  Please subscribe, and comment if you find it of interest. I am still keen to hear from anyone who has any ideas about what might happen next.


The Servant Question

Update: Downton Abbey is now in Season 2, having picked up a clutch of awards, and is scheduled for a 2 hour Christmas special. Whatever one thinks about the actually quality of the writing, (and I have to say I am very underwhelmed by it) the popularity of the show, especially its glamorous look and feel, shows that the hunger for nostalgic escapism remains unabated.

Coming to ITV this Autumn. A major new drama production written and created by Julian Fellowes. Julian is best known for 'Gosford Park', 		  which won a plethora of awards, not least an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2001.

Lovers of period drama are in for a potential treat this coming autumn with the BBC and ITV going head to head with star studded slices of costumed loveliness, with the BBC reviving Upstairs Downstairs, with Jean Marsh as the housekeeper, and the ITV offering, pictured above.

How successful these two offering prove remains to be seen, but it reminded me I had reviewed a previous revival of this particular genre, which we might the period domestic soap opera. This was Servants, written by Lucy Gannon.. Servants, if you don’t remember it, was an attempt explore the life of domestic servant in the nineteenth century in a very radical way, and ran for only one series. My article below suggests some reasons for its failure. I shall be watching with interest to see how the two new autumn offerings deal with their subject. It was written in 2003, and there has been a lot more tv drama and living history that has flowed under the bridge since then, but I stand by many of my original observations. I am intending to cover some of the more recent attempts to deal with history on television in a future post. Continue reading