September is harvest month and allows little time for anything else. We generally spend most of the month at our house in Herefordshire, inherited from David’s parents. They built this when they retired, in a pretty village near the Welsh border (handy for the bookshops in Hay-on-Wye). When David and his brother inherited it, his brother wasn’t interested in keeping the house, but we were, urged on by our children, who had been spending holidays there for years, so we bought out David’s brother’s share and have continued to enjoy our Herefordshire links and friends ever since.
Having been burgled once, we keep nothing valuable in the house, but it is an ideal place to relax, away from day-to-day demands on time and energy. We find it a good place to write, as well, though lack of broadband can be trying, particularly if one wants to do some research online.
The soil in this part of Herefordshire is astonishingly fertile, which means that, although weeds flourish when we are not here to garden, so do crops of fruit. Originally there were some very ancient apple trees and a pear tree in the garden. Old photographs show that they were already large trees in the late nineteenth century. Sadly, we have lost several over the years, partly from sheer old age, partly after a run of dry summers, and partly from the insidious attacks of mistletoe, which abounds in this part of the country. However, there is still enough of a harvest to keep us busy every September.
Last year was dreadful, as everyone knows, and our one remaining apple tree produced just three apples, the crabapple tree none, and we lost our James Grieve. However, the damson tree I planted a few years ago yielded twenty-two and a half pounds, despite the terrible summer. Surprisingly, this year it was only twelve and a half pounds. Those have been duly picked and frozen.
Here they are, picked and washed:
Then stripped off the stems with a fork:
Then stewed and strained:
As I don’t have a supply of empty jars in Herefordshire, the juice had to be frozen, ready for the final stage to be completed in Scotland.
Having let us down last year, the apple tree decided to make up for it this year:
Here are the initial windfalls, AFTER three large batches of stewed apple had been made from them and frozen:
Wind brought down more windfalls after this picture was taken, and there have been boxes of apples picked from the tree, even though some of the best ones were out of reach, despite using our telescopic apple-picker. We think this apple may be a Blenheim. It makes the best baked apples you’ve ever tasted, and is delicious in pies, crumbles and stewed. When it has been kept for a while it is also an eating apple.
So that’s a good many winter puddings taken care of! We were too late for the rhubarb, but various family members who have stayed during the summer were able to use it. During our September stay, two of our children visited with their families and were able to relieve me of some of the apples. I can see a good deal of work ahead in October, with more apple preserving, chutney making, jam and jelly bottling, and so on. Not to mention the three apple, two pear and one damson trees in Scotland. My quince and sweet chestnut still haven’t produced anything. Perhaps it’s just as well.
Sorry to go on at such length, but it takes over my life at harvest time!
After the writing marathon reported last month, I’ve been doing little apart from editing and revising, and some future planning. I’ve previously mentioned here The Secret Life of Christoval Alvarez, my novel set amongst the Portuguese Marrano community in London in the late sixteenth century, where the central character is a physician as well as working for Walsingham’s secret service. After reading it, Rosie de Courcy, senior editor at Head of Zeus, felt there was too much packed into one novel and encouraged me instead to turn it into a series. The initial book of this series was the second of the two books I wrote in my exhausting less-than-four-month stint of writing, mentioned in my last newsletter. It takes place in 1586, at the time of the Babington Plot. The second novel in the series will be set in 1587-8, covering the Armada and its aftermath, which was not quite as glorious as we tend to believe; the experiences of the sailors and soldiers were pretty terrible. The third book will be set in 1589, when the disastrous counter Armada to Spain and Portugal took place. (The more I learn about Drake and the Earl of Essex, the more appalled I am.)
One cannot simply pull apart an existing book and turn it into a series. Although I used the original first chapter, I had to buckle down and write what was effectively a fresh book for the first in the series. Clearly, the pace is different, and it entails going into much more detail over the time covered, with new episodes, new characters, new themes threaded through. In other words, it meant writing a new novel, though with the central characters already familiar. Many new characters walked in, however, including a horse who was determined to play an important role. I’m not the only writer who finds it amazing, the way characters one hasn’t deliberately invented simply appear. It’s one of the things which makes writing fiction so exciting, and helps to compensate for the pure hard slog, which non-writers don’t always understand.
A bonus in writing a series, of course, is that one body of research can underpin several books. Up to now, I have always done a great deal of new research for each new book. I really enjoy the research, but I do a LOT, and it is very time-consuming, so the idea of writing more than one book using background which is already very familiar is quite new to me, and should mean being able to write each book more quickly.
This matter of research is illustrated by the first of the two books I’ve written this year, the one I’ve been calling ‘my seventeenth-century book’, provisionally titled Flood, until I can come up with something more eye-catching.
Flood required about a year’s research before I could even begin to write. It is set in the fens of Lincolnshire in the mid-seventeenth century, during the lull between the two phases of the Civil War, when the attempts to enclose and drain the fenland began again after a temporary lull during the early war years. This was a scheme effectively to steal common lands from the local people by undertaking drainage schemes which upset the natural cycles of flooding and drying out. These cycles nourished the local arable land with silt, while the wetlands provided fish and waterfowl. Dutch engineers were brought in by the speculators, but the drainage schemes of the period were mostly disastrous, being undertaken by people who did not understand the local ecology. It was only much later (mostly in the nineteenth century) that the current drainage schemes actually worked. In the meantime, local people lost their sources of food, pasturage, arable land and fuel (from the peat bogs), as well as being attacked by the speculators and frequently being flooded by the misconceived schemes. Also Dutch and French settlers were brought in and established on the common lands, setting up their houses and small-holdings on the land which had belonged to the fenlanders for centuries. These settlers then paid rent to the speculators.
This was also the period when Matthew Hopkins, ‘witch-finder general’, was rampaging through East Anglia, condemning hundreds of innocent people to death as witches. The army, not disbanded and also not paid, was quartered on the locals, who had to feed them. And licensed iconoclasts went around smashing up churches and beating up clergymen who retained the traditional practices of the Anglican church, as established under Queen Elizabeth I. My novel concerns a family and a village caught up in the middle of all this.
As a ‘taster’ I’m putting an extract from Flood on my website, so to read it, click on Flood Taster.
For a long time my friend Prue Batten has been urging me to put my backlist on digital. You met Prue in my newsletter/column last month, and she has been very successful publishing in ebook format. I do have The Anniversary available in Kindle format – it was my first book published by Random House.
However, I haven’t really pursued this any further, but I think I will now follow Prue’s advice and put all four of my backlist on a variety of digital formats – when my harvest labour is over! Once it is done, I’ll announce it. There is also my non-fiction study of the fantasy novel, In Defence of Fantasy. It has been out of print for a long time, but is cited in over forty works and is still regularly used in university and college courses. I don’t have it on computer, but if I can get it scanned into Word format, I might consider converting that to digital format too. It would be useful for both students and writers of fantasy fiction.
There is no space to mention everything I’ve been reading for the last couple of months, so I thought I would just discuss three novels by Sarah Dunant.
All three are set in Renaissance Italy, which Dunant captures vividly, down to the smallest detail. The first, The Birth of Venus, was a reread. I was planning on reading Sacred Hearts (intended to do so for some time) and Blood and Beauty (just published), but decided to go back to The Birth of Venus and read them in sequence. They are not intended as a ‘set’, but there are some overlapping issues, which makes it interesting to read them like this.
The Birth of Venus is set in Florence, during the period when Savonarola came to power, instituted a reign of moral terror, then fell spectacularly. The central character in a young girl, Alessandra, who is artistically gifted and longs to become a painter, though it seems impossible at the time. In fact a few women, mostly the wives or daughters of artists, wereable to defy convention and become professional artists in their own right. Alessandra’s father is a wealthy self-made cloth merchant, just the kind of man who is sensitive about his social position. His two daughters will be married off to suitable husbands. His two sons are out of control, roaming the streets at night and mixing in bad company. Their father, too absorbed in business, is unaware of their antics.
A painter is hired from northern Europe to decorate the family chapel with frescoes which will include portraits of all the family members. He is a mysterious character, brought up as an orphan in a monastery, reclusive, terrified of social contact, secretive, but hugely talented. Alessandra is fascinated by him, begs him to teach her to be a better artist and – inevitably – falls in love with him. She is married off to a much older man who is the gay lover of one of her brothers. Circumstances within the family are difficult enough, but in the city huge changes are taking place. The Medici family is driven out and the ‘mad monk’ Savonarola, a powerful preacher, seizes control of Florence. He and his followers impose their tyrannical rule over the citizens’ lives in a way that parallels modern fanatic movements like the Taliban. All luxuries are banned. Books are burned. Women are forcibly stripped of their jewellery. Vigilante groups patrol the streets (including Alessandra’s other brother). There is the famous Bonfire of the Vanities. Until, in the end, the citizens are pushed too far and turn on Savonarola and his cronies.
In the course of the book, reference is made to the fact that dowries had become so inflated amongst the upper class that they could normally only afford to marry off one daughter. The others would be installed, at far less expense, in a nunnery. This peculiarity of the times is the basis for Sacred Hearts. Moreover, the Savonarola period in Florence coincides with the Borgia pope in Rome, also mentioned in The Birth of Venus. And Blood and Beauty is the story of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, and his children. In Blood and Beauty, Savonarola is mentioned, so there are links back and forth between the three books.
The second of these novels, Sacred Hearts, tackles the subject of women placed in convents as a convenient method of disposing of them, whether or not they have a vocation (in most cases, not). The two central characters are two such women. One is Zuana, the brilliant and skilled daughter of a physician and apothecary, whose relatives, after her father’s death, put her into a convent because they don’t know what to do with her. After many years she has come to terms with her incarceration, despite her initial rebellion, and has made a place for herself as the convent’s herbalist and infirmarian. The other is a young girl, Serafina, forced into the convent to separate her from the man she loves, while marrying her sister off to the man originally intended for her. Her screaming rage sets the whole convent in an uproar and destroys their peace. The convent is famous for its music (as the Ferrara convents were at the time) and the girl has a spectacular singing voice which at first she refuses to use, but with the help of Zuana she eventually agrees to sing as part of their plan for Serafina’s escape – which has some elements of the ‘poison’ plot inRomeo and Juliet about it.
Significantly, both women have been given new names on entering the convent, part of a process to suppress their identities. There are two sides to the view on convent life. Clearly for some it is a refuge from a harsh world of forced marriages, multiple pregnancies and the high risk of death in childbirth. As long as the convent continues to make beautiful music – some of it composed by one of the nuns – and to put on plays – some of them written by another – many of the nuns can live quite contented lives, even having a few little luxuries. But for those forced into the convent as a form of incarceration, it amounts to a life sentence in prison. Moreover, this is the period when stricter regulations were being imposed upon the nuns. Soon they would be deprived of their music. No longer would they be able to receive members of their families in a comfortable parlour, where they could play with small nieces and nephews or embrace their parents; contact would only be permitted through iron grills. Small items of personal property, mementoes of their former life, would be taken away. It is a grim picture.
In Blood and Beauty, Dunant tackles the complex subject of the Borgia family, probably the most notorious in history. A Spanish family fighting to make its way and sustain its position in a hostile Italy, it was ruthless and often cruel, but it was a ruthless and cruel world. Dunant’s portrayal of these long-vilified people is detailed and convincing. Rodrigo, Pope Alexander VI, father of four children, two of whom are especially gifted, has a fierce sense of family loyalty. His blatant promotion of his illegitimate three sons and one daughter was not unusual at the time, though it has been relentlessly condemned ever since the family’s fall from power. The two younger sons were not particularly notable, but were established in excellent marriages. The focus of the novel, inevitably, is on Cesare and Lucrezia.
Dunant starts her story when Lucrezia is thirteen and about to be married off by her father and brother to the first of her three husbands. Every alliance is part of a complicated network binding together the independent states of late fifteenth-century and early sixteenth-century Italy. Lucrezia, despite her beauty and brilliance, is regarded as little more than a pawn in the chess game being played by her male relatives. When an alliance with one of her husbands is no longer politically useful, it is terminated, by fair means or foul. When she finds brief happiness and love, it counts for nothing.
The portrayal of Lucrezia is warmly sympathetic, that of Rodrigo tolerant. But Cesare is a terrifying character, as he must have been in real life. His cruelty and ruthlessness come near to tipping over into madness, and his physical obsession with his sister only contributes to the horror. After he contracts syphilis, his behaviour becomes even more extreme, an historically accurate detail. In the early years after the disease was carried from South America to Europe it was exceptionally virulent, often leading to mental instability and violence in its later stages. It has been suggested that it was the cause of Henry VIII’s increasing cruelty and we see Cesare following the same path. The book ends with Lucrezia, torn from the son she bore to the husband she loved, shipped off to her third husband. Dunant has promised a sequel to cover the rest of the story – let’s hope it comes soon.
Reading the three books one after the other enhanced the experience, for me at least. If you haven’t read them, I’d warmly recommend you to do as I did, for a rounded picture of Italy at one of the most extraordinary periods in its history. I have yet to read In the Company of the Courtesan.
One non-fiction book I want to mention is Castles, Customs and Kings. This massive 514-page paperback is a collection of essays by members of the Facebook group English Historical Fiction Authors, covering topics from Roman Britain down to the early part of the twentieth century.
The essays were originally blog posts on fascinating information the authors discovered in the course of research for their own novels – everything from food and fashion to crime, social customs and major events. And much, much more. It is a goldmine for writers of historical fiction, but also for anyone interested in the curious byways of our past. Highly recommended for the sheer fun of reading it!
On a much lighter note, I’ve been taken to task for not showing any of my craft work for several months, so here is a selection. First, a jersey I made for David:
I have an ancient Beehive knitting book which contains patterns in DK, four-ply, and Aran, for jerseys, cardigans, sleeveless pullovers, etc., in sizes from small children’s up to large men’s. Each pattern has a number of variations – some of them frankly weird 70s styles – but the basic forms are great to use as a basis for one’s own designs. I’ve done this one before, using a simple DK design, with a front cable panel from an Aran pattern.
I hate sewing things up. Completed jerseys often sit around for weeks (months? years?) because I don’t get around to sewing them up. So lately I’ve been doing a lot of no-sew patterns. This is a great book:
One of the patterns I’ve done from it is this (not well photographed):
There are NO seams in this. This tunic top is worked from the top down and flares out very full at the bottom by using increasingly larger needles (i.e. no knitted increases), with the simple but effective feather and fan pattern at the bottom of the body and sleeves. The only thing I didn’t like was the very low neck – draughty at the back – so I picked up and knitted a neck band, raising it at the back by using short rows.
I then made the pattern again in another yarn:
This yarn is Moonlight Sonata by James C Brett, a combination of mohair, wool, acrylic and metallic. You probably can’t see it in the photo, but it has a subtle glint. It is also incredibly light – a 100g. ball has a length of 500 metres, which means that this tunic top took just less than three balls. As it isn’t an expensive yarn, this is a stunning top at an extraordinarily cheap price. In this case I designed a small frilly collar, again raising the back. I’ve worn both versions many times – and oh! the joy of no sewing up!
Last one. In the Herefordshire house there was an old pouffe, perfectly sound but with a very tatty cover (I should have taken a ‘before’ picture). Anyway, when I wasn’t dealing with fruit, I decided to make a new cover. I found a pattern, but it was for a larger pouffe, so I had to do some maths to get it right. Luckily it worked out. It’s knitted with three strands of Aran wool held together, knitted on a 9mm circular needle. It’s a great improvement, and very comfortable to sit on or rest your feet:
Enough, enough! The apples call.
Until next month,