I was chatting yesterday with a friend – who is a Very Famous Author, I might add, and I’m not going to tell you who they are but I have known them for some considerable time. I say that so you appreciate that this was a most informed and erudite discussion and did not in any way involve discussions about poo.
Anyway, the purpose of this discourse (yes, of course I’m writing one of the new Russell books: he’s catching, like the mange) was talking about writing style. I was being interviewed for a blog as apparently I’m an extreme pantser. We decided this was a most undignified manner of description as my friend is also a pantser, to a lesser degree, and we much preferred the term discovery writer.
This conversation seems to have uncorked something and it’s ten to nine on a Saturday morning, my house needs cleaning, there’s a cat on my foot but I need to set down a certain relation concerning a shiny new ship called the Fair Thomazine and the blustering shyster who’s allegedly had her on the blocks in the Blackwall Yards these last twelve months. (Henry “Surely Some Relation” Johnson, as it happens.) And it prompted me to think a bit more about how the book currently known as “Kitchen, Or, Russells 0.5” is being written. (Today is the anniversary of King Charles I’s execution, and someone has just passed the title of a 1649 pamphlet across my radar, and the book has quite literally just got a title – A Conscientious Exercise. You read it here first.)
There are bits of it, as I said to my friend, all over the damn’ place. Possibly even over two laptops, and that’s extreme. It had started as a short story that had been written because I wanted to know what happened – partly, as I often joke, because a certain crazy blond lieutenant still needed his Happy Ever After, but partly (and more reasonably) because there was unfinished business at the end of the Civil War series and that troubled me because I don’t like loose ends.
So there was going to be a theme to the series: that, if you like, was going to be the string of the necklace, the series was going to be set around the Russells’ courtship and marriage. And this is where the discovery-writing thing comes in: there was no way either of them were ever written to be conventionally romantic. That was always going to be in the background, but it wasn’t going to be – to continue the necklace metaphor – the pearls.
Sometimes I know what year the book is set – because chronologically it has to be, in their personal timeline: I know they weren’t in London during the Plague, for instance, and only tangentially involved in the Great Fire – and I can work backwards from there. What happened in 1671? Pick anywhere in Europe? And sometimes something will pop up on one of my social media feeds from one of my 17th century academic friends, a snippet of research, a name, a date, and I think – but what if….? And sometimes those things start out as just a couple of hundred words, or a scribble. One notebook per project, no order necessary, just bits and pieces of inspiration as they arrive which may – or may not – find their way into a Word document and be worked up into a scene. Which may – or may not – be then slotted into the working-draft copy, or may end up as the inspiration for a short story, or may end up being a whole new book in their own right, as they feel most fitted.
Thinking about it, I don’t think I am a pantser. I have a map in my head for the beginning and the end, and I’m led by the characters as to how they get there. I’d not like to be the author to dictate to Thomazine Russell that the plot dictates she must have an affair with another man, as an instance – she’d not, and that would be the end of that particular plot device: see you back at the drawing board! I’m not sure I’m entirely a discovery writer either because they’re not discoveries, they’re things I already know. I’m applying how I know my characters will react, to developing situations.
If anything I think I might be an organic writer, or a pearl writer (in my head, the Major does one of his unconvinced sniffs and says nothing, very pointedly, about oyster-snot) but things grow, organically, layer on layer. I can train ’em to grow in the direction I want, and sometimes I have to just let them grow as they see fit and prune them back into shape afterwards. I have a seed of a concept, and it turns into a thing over time, and it’s only once it’s become an actual thing that I can start working with it. I can’t make it coherent until it’s grown up enough to be independent, and I suspect Colonel Hollie would be drawing parallels with breaking in a young horse at this point. He’d get it. Sometimes you get what you get, and you have to stand back and let it grow a bit to see what it will be most fitted to become before you start trying to make it into something it maybe isn’t fitted to be.
All this being diversion, of course. I’m a pearl-writer, but the oyster is currently the Blackwall Yards in 1665 and my hero has an appointment with a coffee-house, an elderly Sicilian salami, and Henry Johnson Junior – in that order of importance.
So astonishingly enough, it seems I’m still alive, still writing, and Hollie’s still stuck in Yorkshire but he’s got an end in sight. Mostly the end of Scarborough Castle, and poor lamb, he has no idea what the New Modell’d Army has got in store for him next year, but – at least he might get to go home for a bit soon.
(He might also have to take the boy Hapless with him, if nothing else because the bloody idiot is hell-bent on spending his off-season lurking around the Rosemary Branch tavern in Islington writing seditious pamphlets. But that, as they say, is a whole other story…)
So I was chatting last night to my friend Paula Lofting, who writes the Sons Of The Wolf series, set in the eleventh century. In civilian life Paula’s a psychiatric nurse – which explains why Wulfhere and the nest of snakes in his head is so sensitively and honestly drawn.
Despite being buff, bellicose, and blond, he’s a thinking, feeling, tormented hot mess. The hero of my series is broken, mildly bemused, and about the only thing Wulfhere and Thankful For His Deliverance Russell have in common on the face of it is hair colour.
Or… is it?
Paula managed to catch up with the man himself recently – I think getting him to open up about the traumas that have made him what he is, has been like nailing jelly to a wall: always difficult to write about a man who tells you nothing – and my boi chipped in to be unhelpful, because it’s what he does best.
Well, Wulfhere, have you had a drink this morning like I told you not to? – your eyes look a bit glazed?
Oh, get off my back – I’m trying, all right?
Wulfhere, you’vebeen trying as long as I’ve known you.
Then you should know how hard it’s been, right?
Yes, and you never used to be like this? Lately it’s been poor me, poor me –
Aye, I know, poor me a drink. Do you have any, by the way? The old devil looks at me with that old glint in his eye, but it still worries me.
Wulfhere! No! Here, somewarmed buttermilk.
I was joking. God I cannot even make anyone laugh anymore.
I haven’t seen you laughing or joking for a long, long time, Wulfhere. I can’t remember that time. Not since Ealdgytha left. And actually, probably long before. Long before Wulfwin too. I know I’ve touched a nerve here; the blue eyes suddenly look grey.
Thanks for the reminders.
I’m sorry, I know it hurts but maybe if you talked about it more, you’d get it off your chest and not have to get drunk every day to manage your emotions.
Well, I’ve never been any good with those. But I’m here now.
So, you want to talk?I mean about stuff? And why you’ve been such a prick lately.
Am I really that bad?
Yes, you are.
Christ’s blood, I never mean to be, I just feel better if I’m angry.
As I said, you never used to be like this. When you were young, you put up with a lot from your father. You said you would never treat your children the way he treated you and your brother, Leofric. What happened?
He seems to be pondering. He sits down on the porch outside the longhall, looking defeated.
Which one? – there are two women you’ve tortured throughout this story!
That’s not fair! They haven’t been exactly easy to get along with.
I can’t help but burst out laughing. And I don’t think those ladies are the only bad thing that’s happened to you, there’s a few people that you can blame the way you are on, Helghi for one. Earl Harold for another.
I can’t lay the blame at Harold’s feet, he was just doing what he thought was right.
I’m inclined to agree with him, however he hasn’t always thought that way and I can’t blame Wulfhere for feeling resentful. Come on Wulfhere, you know he’s made your life difficult and you can’t deny you have felt aggrieved by him.
This is true. I have. I shouldn’t have given in so easily to him. And now I feel guilty. My father wouldn’t have.
Don’t beat yourself up, whilst Harold was only trying to keep the peace in his precious Sussex, he could have listened to your concerns more, after all you were the best of friends once. And another thing, you’re not your father.
I’m not my father, nay. As for Harold, I did think at first perhaps his idea of Freyda wedding the son of my enemy would help solve things between my family and Helghi’s. The earl has always had the knack of making you think he is doing the best for you. But I can’t help think that my father would have stood up to him more.
Wulfhere, that’s not true. None of his men have ever defied the earl as much as you have over this. You married Freyda to Leofnoth’s son instead, if that’s not standing up to him, then I don’t know what is. Then when Harold ordered that Winflaed should marry Helghi’s son, you did all you could to stop that from happening. It wasn’t your fault that in the end Win decided to offer herself as a bride for Edgar.There are tears in his eyes now at the thought of his darling little girl in the hands of Helghi. You did your best.
Ealdgytha didn’t think so. Nor Wulfric. He told me I am a coward. But he doesn’t know how hard I tried to stop her from going to Helghi’s.
So there, you feel guilty. And I can understand that. It’s the job of a father to keep their children safe, and you’ve lost two already because of this feud.
It’s notthebest time for a crazy blond from the 1660s to join the party, but there is never a good time for Russell, really. (Also, he stopped drinking a long while ago, when it stopped agreeing with him. He’s a coffee man, and he doesn’t like the look of mead. Or warm buttermilk.)
Children are precious, no? He looks thoughtful, or terrifying, depending which side of the scar you’re looking at. I have all this to look forward to, you understand. My boys are two and four. Hellions, the pair of them, but too young to be considering such matters. Your father was, I think, a harsh man, but fair? For myself – I was reared by my sister. Who was harsh, and not fair. She told me I was worthless, and wicked, and that I deserved for the Lord to punish me. It was my own fault that she could not love me as a child deserves to be loved, apparently, and she must hurt me for the good of my soul. She said. You are not your father, Wulfhere, any more than I am my sister – but before God they make us what we are, still.
I see my Wulfhere looking very strangely at this weird looking guy from another time as if he’s gone mad, then he smiles, showing off his own horseshoe scar from a sword swipe on his cheek as though it’s a scar competition.
My father was harsh. He is looking at Russell. He took no prisoners and he brooked no fools. And he hated seeing me and my brother in tears over something he considered childish. He once whipped my arse bloody because I lost the first blade I was ever given. I was twelve. I was supposed to be a man, and the seax was to signify my free status. Men don’t shed tears, my father barked at me. After he’d finished, I went to my bed and spent the next moments sobbing. He came into my chamber, dragged me out, and whipped me again, just for crying. After that, I tried not to show my feeling. Then I met Ealdgytha and Aelfgyva.
Very sensibly – and most uncharacteristically – Russell says nothing, shivers as if something has walked over his grave, and lets Paula carry on uninterrupted…
So you grew up thinking you had to be harsh too? You never touched your children. Never. If anyone was punished it was Ealdgytha who did that… until Tovi.
Oh God, Tovi. I didn’t want to do that. But he slapped his mother, and I couldn’t let the boy do a thing like that. Not to his mother.
No, I can see why you felt you needed to belt him. But my point was that no matter what your children did, you never laid a finger on them. You threatened them enough times, but you would never have done that.
There was a time when I would have rather cut my sword hand off than hurt my children. I always said I would not do what my father did to me. But that day I broke my oath because my son hit my wife, and that was unacceptable. Believe me I hated that, but today I know that wasn’t the worst thing I ever did to him.
What was, then?
I sent him away. Took away everything he ever desired in life. So you see, it’s not always the pain that you inflict on flesh that hurts the most, but the harm that words and actions can do.
Russell, leaning up against the longhouse wall, is nodding fiercely in agreement.
Look what I did to Ealdgytha? Time and time again I made promises I couldn’t keep, betraying her for another. Then that thing happened with the child. I led her to believe my own bearn by another woman was a foundling left in a byre. Who does that to their own wife? And Aelfgyva, I let her down. I promised I would never abandon her and I did that twice.
And now you feel sorry for yourself.
Look at me. One son is dead, killed by my enemy. Wulfric hates me. Aelfgyva took our child away from me. I haven’t seen Tovi in three years and may never see him again and I long too. I’ve lost my little bird, Winflaed, to Helghi – I’ll never hear her wittering away at me again. Freyda is married and has a life of her own, and Ealdgytha has gone and taken the smallest one, Gerda, with her and who can blame her. And all of it is my fault.
And that is why you are constantly off your trolley?
Off your face. Out of your skull. Drunk.
Oh. Aye. I have come to that conclusion.
Good, now we’re getting somewhere.
We are? So, getting off my face, so I can forget what an idiot I am, what a bad man I am, is a good idea, right?
Of course not, but at least we understand why you are drinking. After all, drinking to oblivion is generally something people do when they don’t like the way they feel.
I didn’t realise that was why I do it. But I like feeling as though I don’t care. I like it when I am drunk and angry.
Nay, that usually comes before the drinking.
Hmmm, I don’t know. I have seen you maudlin and drunk.
Yes, I have. Look, now that we know why you drink, I want to ask you about Ealdgytha.He looks devastated at the mention of her name.
I thought you would.
How, Wulfhere? How could you be so stupid? You had her in the palm of your hand, and you messed it up again!
You could have started over. She would have come round. But then you had to go and call her bloody Aelfgyva!
It’s hard. I’ve thought about this so many times, and all I can think of is that that woman cast a spell on me! She has cursed me. Even Ealdgytha thought that too.
Now don’t do that, Wulfhere. You know I come from the 21st Century. I’m not going to let you do that. It’s not even right for an 11thc person to blame something that is their fault on witchcraft.He gives me that sullen, ‘you bitch’ look. Don’t do that either, young man.
I’m 38 going on 39.
Ooh! Same age as me! – sorry….
That’s young in my world. Right. You know why you called the woman you were trying to convince to stay with you the name of your lover, don’t you?
Do you think I meant to say it? I tell you she has me in her –
Nope! We are not doing it. Listen, I believe you when you say you didn’t mean it, but come on. You have to face the truth, you loved her. You have always loved her, Aelfgyva, I mean. She is as much a part of you as you are yourself. And when you can’t have someone, you obsess about them.
I loved them both. Is that so wrong?
It is when you have a wife!
Many men have mistresses, and their wives accept it.
Hah! Mine would put my balls between two bricks, were I so foolish as to stray from her bed. Ah. Sorry. I’m not being helpful, am I?
Russell, shut up! I’m frustrated by Wulfhere’s misogyny, but I have to accept that things were different back then.Wulfhere, you are not like them. Those are the sort of marriages where there was no mutual attraction. They marry for convenience or their family. You and Ealdgytha had a beautiful alliance. You were so happy together. She loved you and you loved her. She never looked at anyone else and nor did you. You went everywhere together, you even took her to court. Then your children came along and you had everything. A lovely home, your horses, your place at court. You were doing well. Then Aelfgyva. Why did you turn to her? What went wrong?
Ealdgytha started nagging. She had always been happy… I think it was when she went to visit her sister, to show her the children. Her sister was married to an important thegn, much more important and wealthier than me. She was never the same when she came back. She was different. She started telling me I needed to aim higher at court. Start pushing myself forward. That we had so many children we needed more land, more wealth. I told her that wasn’t me. I knew what went on at court. The more you have, the more they expect of you. And the jealousy and rivalry that went on – I didn’t want to be part of it. I was happy with my lot. My friends were the same. I had all the wealth I needed. I have plenty of wealth and property, just not a lot of land, only five hides, but it’s enough. The money I have will be enough for the children to buy their own land when it comes to it. I just wanted to be left alone.
You toldher, I take it.
Of course. She’d always known this. But her sister had reminded her who her grandfather was. “Tovi the Proud would not have been pleased to see a granddaughter of his living so humbly.”
He was Cnut’s standard-bearer, right? A very wealthy man. And I understand her other side of the family are moneyers?
Yes, and she was often apt to remind me, but just light-heartedly, until then. She started rubbing my nose in it. I was a Sussex thegn, with a mere 5 hides. That made me a ceorl in her eyes.
I put on my mental health hat, And how did that make you feel?
Worthless. Just as my father had.
But you never told her that. Not at first?
Aye. I never said a word. But I told her I was not going to be the man she wanted me to be. I had been good enough for her when we married. Then I should be good enough now.
I understand that. Is that why you went looking for someone else?
He looks at me sharply. You would too, if it were you.
I have to admit, I might have done. Possibly, but I would try to fix it with her first.
I was too hurt by the things she said. I would never have said those things to her.
What sort of things?
That I was stupid, I was only good for fighting and making children. I’d had no education like she’d had. I couldn’t speak French and Latin. I hadn’t gone to a stuck-up nunnery school. I could barely read. And all this she would say in front of people. The worst thing she ever did was speak to me like I was dirt on her shoe, in front of the children. I wanted to kill her for that. I could just about take what she said when it was people I knew around, but not my children. That was sacrilege. Aelfgyva made me feel enough.
I’m shaking my head.I never knew, Wulfhere. I’m sorry…. You have made Ealdgytha suffer too, though. Humiliated her with the whole child in the stables thing, imagine how she felt when Aelfgyva came here to take back the child and Ealdgytha realised who the babe was.
Wait what, you meant to pass off your mistress’s child as a foundling for your wife to take in? Are you out of your mind altogether, man?
I know, I would never have wanted that to happen. Aelfgyva’s servants to bring the bearn to me. She thought she was dying after giving birth to the wee thing. I couldn’t turn the poor little mite away. And then Ealdgytha discovered a child had been left in the stables, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her who she was. We had not long lost our youngest daughter, and Aelfgyva’s child was like a gift from God to Ealdgytha. She was so happy, I couldn’t pour water over her joy by admitting the babe was mine.
Yes, that was a pickle you got yourself into. And it got worse didn’t it? Because Aelfgyva didn’t die. And when she was stronger, she came back for her baby. And Ealdgytha was broken.
It broke me to see her like that.
Imagine how she felt.
I tried to apologise-
Yes, I know, but you have to understand, she has been hurt over again. And for Ealdgytha the pain was a double-edged sword. Aelfgyva was her friend..
He sits there for awhile and I can see that the tears are welling in his eyes. He wipes them away and sniffs, cuffing the snot from his upper lip. I can feel his desperation to not spend the tears. Can you see why she left you? Can you understand why Aelfgyva wants nothing more to do with you?He nods. So, you have to make amends to them both.
How can I?
It’s not for me to say. It’s up to you.
But I will never see either of them again.
Well. you can start by stopping the drunkenness for a start.
It won’t help them.
It won’t help you, either. I tried drink – when first I was hurt – mostly what it got me, was regularly beaten up by my superiors. And a more or less perpetual headache. It is no answer.
Aelfgyva, maybe not, but it’ll help Ealdgytha to know you are acting like a grown up for a change. You’re looking after what’s left of her kids remember.
Wulfric? Well, he looks after himself. Besides, he hates me.
He still needs you. He lost his twin brother, you know.
He has a wife to look after him.
There you go, wanting to abnegate your duties. Stop it! Pull yourself together.
Thanks for the empathy, you’re a great nurse.
Look, you’re damaged. I get it. But most of this is stuff that you brought on yourself. It won’t get better by drinking. I know you feel bad. You hate yourself for the way you treated those women. You loathe yourself because you let your daughter down, so, you’re a bad father. You let Tovi down when he needed you to be strong for him. And ok, you feel guilty because you weren’t able to stop Wulfwin from getting killed. You, my dear Wulfhere, are on one huge guilt trip which becomes bigger every day, because you’re using it as an excuse to get smashed out of your brains-
Aye, I am. I’m a dirty worthless drunk. A useless husband, a bad father who might as well be dead.
If you were, you wouldn’t be able to put things right, now would you?At this point, I want to hit him with a sledge hammer. So, what are you going to do?
You’re right. I’ll stop drinking.
Thank heaven. Just take it a day at a time. Because you are going to have to pull yourself together like nothing on earth! Those children of yours are going to need you at some point soon and you will need to be Wulfhere the Brave again and not Wulfhere the Weakling.
There’s one thing though.
He is smiling. That huge grin that used to light up his handsome old face and crinkle his blue eyes melts me. Oh yeah?
That’s going to be up to you too, you’re the one who writes this bloody thing.
The crazy blond looks at his fingernails.
Book-women, hm? A monstrous regiment of book-women. Well, by God’s grace they may yet write us our respective – what is it? – Happy Ever Afters, so with that we must rest content.
He does not smile. Possibly he thinks he’s freaked Wulfhere out enough already for the one day without that unsettlingly lopsided and toothy grin. He does, however, pat him on the shoulder, carefully.
All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Ah. Sorry. She’s a bit after your time, Dame Julian, but – aye, her. That. And good luck.
Paula Lofting has always had a love of history since she was a little girl and it was her dream to one day write a historical saga set in the medieval period. This dream was eventually realised when she published her first novel in the Sons of the Wolf series and then the second, The Wolf Banner, and is now working on the third, Wolf’s Bane. Paula has also collaborated on a historical fiction ghost anthology, Hauntings, and is also participating in Iain Dale’s latest book on Kings and Queens.
She is also a founding member of the History Writers Forum and has participated in historical discussion panels on zoom, the next one being on January 29th about the identity of the mysterious lady on the Bayeux Tapestry.
By day, Paula is mum to three grown up children, a granddaughter, and little grandson, and also a psychiatric nurse. She hopes that her third novel in the Sons of the Wolf saga will be published later this year. The first two can be found here –
I was reading a review of a Bernard Cornwell novel this morning and once again I am inspired to set fingers to keyboard (around the cat, who is demanding cuddles with menaces)
Once again, you see, I cannot do the dashing white knight on his trusty steed thing.
Sharpe. Let’s take Sharpe. (Please, someone, let’s take Sharpe.)
You know when you open a certain genre of book, or a book by a certain author, pretty much to the last semi-colon what you’re going to get. You’re going to get an infallible hero, who may be wrong-footed but never fail. He will come good in the end – he will get the girl, kill the baddies, and save the entire planet. Laughing in the face of doom, and clearing tall buildings with one bound.
And, you know, that’s kind of nice. It’s all soft and comforting and cosy. No nasty surprises.
But history is full of nasty surprises.
After the battle of Naseby, the godly Army of Parliament hunted down and massacred over a hundred Royalist camp followers for the unpardonable sin of speaking their own native Welsh language, and therefore being suspected of being either whores, witches, or dangerous Irishwomen.
After the siege of Bolton, the Royalists massacred anything between eighty and two thousand people, both soldiers and inhabitants including women, making it reputedly the worst massacre on English soil.
That’s not nice stuff. On either side.
My Babbitt is anything but indestructible. He spends most of the books wrong-footed, miserable, irritated, wishing he was anywhere else but tagging on the back of the Army of Parliament. Periodically taking a pasting and then, being middle-aged, hurting. Not being irresistible to the fairer sex, even if he wanted to be. Missing his wife and wanting his supper, mostly, and wondering when he’s next going to get paid. And how he’s going to manage to run a troop till Parliament gets round to paying them.
A superhero, he is not. (He had a cape when he was seventeen, bought for the express purpose of impressing his first wife, but he never got the trick of not catching his sword hilt in its swirliness and Margriete told him he looked a tit in it, so he never really took to cape-wearing after that.)
Hollie’s a decent man, fighting a war he doesn’t want for a cause that’s shafted him fairly thoroughly, and committed to it for the sake of six troop of horse who expect him to stand their corner because he’s the only bugger stupid enough to open his big mouth in company.
Luce is a ditherer, a dreamer and a romantic. Luce is a nice boy who ought not to be let out of the house without directions. (Luce is not, bless him, officer material. But you work with what you got.)
Russell – well, Russell’s a bipolar functioning alcoholic with anger management issues, and certainly not someone you want to be on the wrong side of.
The Army of Parliament had a bad habit of not winning glorious victories. Powick Bridge – lash-up. Edgehill – no-score draw. Naseby – not the finest moment in Parliamentarian history, gentlemen. No glittering triumphs. No moral high ground.
No heroes. No villains.
Ordinary men – and women – on both sides, people of honour and principle, as well as ruffians and rogues: people fighting to defend their freedom of conscience, or just to stay alive from one week to the next. People not too dissimilar to me and you, standing up for what they thought was fair. A good cause, fought by good men, badly.
Now I ask you. Sharpe and his like – men of honour, or principle? Sexy, maybe, if you like that kind of thing. Love ’em and leave ’em, almost certainly. Daring and gallant and swashbuckling, probably.
So, meh. More people read the adventures of Sharpe et al, knowing what they’re getting, than read the misadventures of one plain russet-coated captain of horse circa 1643, where believe me, they do not.
Be nice if millions of people read the Babbitt books. I’d like it. (He’d like it, the smart-mouthed Lancashire bugger. Be thrilled to bits, he would. In a sort of not-admitting it kind of way.) But…. Would I rather write books that make people laugh out loud on public transport, and three chapters later make them cry?
Where people tell me off because it can’t end like that?
(Google Burford, 1649, and work it out.)
Ah, hell, yeah, I would. Because Hollie Babbitt is real. He’s all the lads in 17th century history whose names never made it into the books, the ones that did their duty and stood their ground, that weren’t glamorous or poetic or noble or well-connected. He is what he is and God willing, the lad will remain a joy and a sweary, scruffy, appealing maverick from now until the end of the Civil Wars.
It occurred to me, rather suddenly, that the Eve of All Hallows and Edgehill fight were not so very far apart. Luce Pettitt – being twenty, and knowing it all, as twenty year-old men often do – doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a rational young man.
But in October 1644, he might be about to reconsider that opinion….
It was October, and the mists curled up like woodsmoke from the sodden ground, and the nights drew in cold and cheerless in the Vale of York.
They were, however, a company who had been together in some guise or other these three years and more, and they could scratch cheer on a bare rock if need arose. There was a fire, and there was a jug of ale, and when you got more than three soldiers together on a dark night you had a choice of talk: horses, battles, women, or –
“Ghosts,” Colonel Hollie Babbitt said, and the corner of his mouth twitched without humour. “I don’t talk of what I’ve seen, gentlemen. Or rather, heard, but not seen…. ”
– Drew Venning’s dog, under the table, shifted uncomfortably. Tinners didn’t like this talk, where voices grew strange and ominous
Luce Pettitt rolled his eyes. “Oh, not this story agsin…..”
“What? If you’d ha’ been there, instead of under some lass’s skirt, you’d not be half so cocky! I heard what I heard, and I saw what I saw, and that I will hold to till my dying day. ”
“No faces,” Luce said. ” You said. ”
“No faces. A company of lads, marching north. And no faces under their helmets.”
” How d’you see ’em, then? If there was no -”
” Oh fuck off, ” Hollie growled, “taking the piss, think you’re a bloody hard nut, I tell you what, you wouldn’t be talking so big if you’d seen -”
” Or not seen, what with the lack of faces, ” Luce murmured, and someone cackled. Hollie growled again. “Smart-arse. No, it didn’t bother me, Lucifer. Decent enough drilled lads they was, from what I could hear, and a sergeant not unlike your man Cullis at the heel of it giving them holy hell on. Whoever they were when they were living, gentlemen, they were trained soldiers from head to heel just like me and you -” his eyes rested on Luce, off duty with his coat unbuttoned and his hair a bed-tangle, ” maybe more professional than some of us, Cornet Pettitt. Who was it this time, Margaret or Elizabeth?”
“Sarah,” Luce said, and yawned. ” – For variety’s sake. ”
“Jesus Christ I despair. No, the idea of a company of soldiers at their duty don’t trouble my sleep, so long as their duty takes them up the North road and not under my window at stupid o’clock in the morning. Wiser to be scared of the living than of the dead, if you ask me. ”
“Meaning the wench you’re married to?” Drew Venning murmured, and the colonel looked at him sidelong.
“Especially the wench I’m married to. When a ghost can see to getting your tap stopped, captain, I’ll start paying heed to the buggers. Until then I reckon you can keep your bogey-tales. And with that, gentlemen, I’ll bid you a good evening.” He stood up and stretched, and then kicked the fire up again. “Bunch of old women. Don’t frighten yourselves.”
And with that, he was gone, swirling his cloak about himself into the darkness.
Lieutenant Russell, who had said nothing throughout this exchange, sniffed as the door closed and curled his lip. “Superstitious nonsense, fit for credulous fools.”
“You could just say bollocks, Hapless. It’s quicker. ”
“Kiss my arse, Cornet Pettitt.”
They were off duty. They could talk to each other how they liked, off duty. Most of the company were aware of the odd, careful new friendship between the officers of its company. “Do you not believe in ghosts, then?”
“I fear nothing from dead men, ” the lieutenant said cheerfully, with his mad slanted grin. “Only the ghosts in my head trouble me. They never leave by sunrise. But the past never really dies, does it?”
” Huh? ” – it had been a long day, and Luce Pettitt had spent most of it trying to direct idiots using nothing but a yard of silk whilst mounted on a shatterbrained mare, and he was tired. And then he remembered why particularly they spoke of ghosts and dark fancy – because in a week, it would be the Feast of All Hallows, the night when the dead came back to watch the living.
And two years ago this day, or thereabouts, the lieutenant had lost his beauty and a good deal of his wits at the great battle at Edgehill. And Luce – who was still, mostly, beautiful, and who retained most of his common sense – thought that it must indeed cast a long shadow. And possibly why his friend was odder, and spikier, than was customary even for him, this night.
It did not make him any the more comfortable company, but then most of the company was minded to be bleak. It was late autumn, it was cold, it was wet, it was miserable, the better part of them were boys out of Essex and Suffolk and they missed their homes. And the bloody war went on.
It had ever been thus. York had been a city when the legions had marched into Britain – oh, and some of them had marched out. That was one of the stories they told around the fires at night. (And scared the shit out of Hollie Babbitt, who would rather die than admit it. But the Ninth. Who had never gone home to Hispania. Whose nailed boots had gone thump thump thumping into the mists at York, and had never come back. Swallowed up by the dark and the mists. You heard them, they said, sometimes. Their hobnails ringing on the cobbles, their sergeant barking out the orders to march out –
But you never saw them. You heard them. A company of foot, making ready to march North into Scotland. That was the bit that had rattled Hollie, alone in the dark: the thought of being advanced on and overtaken on the road by a company of foot who was not there. )
“I am not good company, this night,” Russell said, sounding sad about it. ” I think – were I to stay and drink with you – it would not end. ”
“Prettily?” Luce suggested , and the lieutenant dipped his head.
“I am not like to end prettily, Pettitt. I am minded to brood, I think. Tonight. I think it best that it is done sober. And alone.” And then, not being much in the way of a dissembler even when honesty did him no credit, he corrected himself. “Best done sober…but probably won’t be.”
” I’m not cleaning up after you, ” Luce said, and meant it. “If you must puke, open the window. And Hapless?”
The marred boy stopped with one arm in the sleeve of his coat.
“Leave it open, if you’re minded to be sicky, eh?”
It was, Luce thought, a night for seeing unquiet souls by. And how it would be, if you did – if they were sad, or angry, or pitiful – if they knew they were spirits, even, or if they were simply outside and afraid and wondering why you could not see them or hear them or talk to them: greedy for what you had enjoyed, being living, and yet set aside from it for all eternity.
“It’s a horrible thought,” he said, and the young blue-bonneted ensign passing by him at the time jumped about three feet in the air.
There was little supernatural about Connell, and Luce knew the lad by sight. He mostly looked terrified, presently. “Don’t tell me you’ve seen a ghost as well,” he said, ” what with Rosie being annoyingly mysterious about it, and bloody Russell stalking about being slightly more alarming than the dead people -”
The lad shook his head, bemused.
“Sit down and have a drink and don’t tell me about it, then. Particularly if it was the Ninth Legion with no faces under their helmets. I hate that story. ”
” No faces. Colonel Rosie reckons -”
Connell shook his head blankly. “But that iss folly, how could they keep their helmets on without heads?”
– the boy was a Highlander, Luce reminded himself. Hence the heathen superstition and the sibilance. “No faces, I said. Do keep up. Heads with nothing on the front of them.”
” Dead people in tunics marching about, Ensign Connell. Lots of them. It’s not normal, sir. ”
“It iss perfectly normal where I come from,” the lad said – and grinned, as if it was funny, “- we haff the Second Sight, on the islands, it is pairfectly commonplace, that off which you speak.”
“Oh. Oh, I thought you were – you know, the Highlands -”
Connell’s level black brows raised, no more than a fingernail’s width, but his point was made. “Sorry,” Luce said feebly.
” My grandmother. She had the Sight, now. She told my father he would be drown’t in the sea and so he wass, in the great storms, and he not even in his boat in the water but drawn up for repairs on the beach, and a great wave came up from the deep.waters and took him -” the ensign’s voice had dropped to a low croon and all the hairs stood up on Luce’s neck, “- but I, she said, I was not born to die in water, I.wass born restless in my mother’s belly and here I am, rootless yet. She said I wass born with the wanderlust on me and I should not rest easy till I had my own plot of earth and maybe not even then, hm?” And then he laughed, a sudden boy’s giggle. “This is not a cheerful thing to speak of, with the mist coming in under the door and the wind making unchancy noises in the chimney! ”
“Let’s stop,” Luce said, with enthusiasm. ” How’s your arm? ”
“Marvellous, I thank you,” Connell said, and rolled his shirt sleeve back obligingly to show the great purple patchwork where the medics had pieced him back together, after the great battle at Hessay Moor. “Ass good ass new. A pox on Malignant gunnery, I say…I shall be wagging my flag ass bravely ass ever, soon, and kiss my arse to His Majesty.”
“I’m glad.” – and Luce meant it, for it had been touch and go for the young ensign, and after those first hectic days when any man who could wield a bone-saw un a straight line had been hard at it, he had not seen the ensign. (The Scots commander, my lord Leven, and Hollie Babbitt, having served together in Europe and sometimes on the same side, preferred not to be in the same place at the same time.) “You must be very new healed, though?”
The ensign nodded ardently. “I am, so. I am like a new man.”
“Well, much though I hate to sound like an old graybeard – or your mother, for that matter – as a medical officer, even a very junior one, I would commend that you get in out of the night air. Falling-damps are not healthy, especially in a weakened state.” He closed his eyes, the better to.remember the most modern scientific theory about bad airs.
“Quite,” a much more familiar voice said, ” God knows what I’m doing stood here in it.- Lucey, who are you talking to? ”
“Ensign Connell, from Leven’s company – you remember, the young man who had his arm brake by shot at midsummer, and then the wound was poisoned and we had it all to.do again? Do you remember – well, really, Hollie, what are you doing here, for that matter? ”
All muffled up in his scruffy old cloak, Hollie shoved mist-damp hair out of his eyes and grinned ruefully. “I remembered the date. The boy Hapless tooled up clasping a bottle of brandy like it was a long-lost girlfriend, and I counted on me fingers and rearranged the duty rota. What I don’t want is our bright lad out tomorrow with a hangover and a fierce desire for attitude adjustments, if you get me. So he’s got his hands full taking out a sentry patrol that’s jumping at shadows – on grounds that idle hands are the Devil’s playground – and I’ve come to get you before you get bored without the company and start likewise.”
” Don’t be ridiculous, ” Luce sniffed. “I’m not that much of a child. Ensign Connell was very impressed by my expertise.”
” Connell, ” Hollie said, very carefully, after a brief pause, “has been dead a week. He died before we left York, brat. I should know – they borrowed the old bastard to preach over him. I don’t know who you been prosing on to, but it weren’t Connell. ”
Luce stared at him, a cold ripple running down his spine. “But it was, Hollie. He showed me his arm. I’d know my own handiwork anywhere. He was the first man I’d worked on – really had to fight for, I mean. He can’t be dead! His arm – it was healing, it had healed, beautifully, he would have had the full use of his fingers sgain – he can’t be, I saw him! He was looking forward to taking up his old post again!”
Hollie gave him a smile that was oddly shy. “Aye. And maybe that’s why he came, then. It wasn’t his arm that took him, brat. God knows what it was. He just never woke up. Maybe he knew it mattered – he mattered – that it would trouble you, if you thought it was summat you could have done. ” And ducked his head, and muttered, “I used to dream of Margriete. Sometimes. After she died. Or she came to me. Dunno. But that she was all right, that I hadn’t- ”
“Yes.” Of course. It explained why Hollie was quite so casual about ghosts, then. He had his own. Of course. But of all men, he understood, and did not laugh, or cross his fingers.
“Come on, then, brat. I’m not so bothered about running into dead men walking. I’m more bothered about the live ones, who’ve still got half a watch to cause havoc tonight if they’ve a mind to.” He put his hand out, and touched Luce’s shoulder gently. “He’ll be all right, Luce. If you were worried. I don’t reckon as he’ll want for company, you know?”
They could have been talking about Thankful Russell. They were not, of course. Both of them knew that. “No,” Luce said, and swung his cloak over his shoulders. ” No, I imagine they can always find a space for a keen officer. Wherever he comes from. “
Sharing a taste for the Victorian gothic and the spine-shivering stories of M.R. James, Linda Stratmann is my guest to talk about the world of the spiritualists – the world of the heroine of her mystery series, Mina Scarletti…
In the 1870s, the decade in which I have set my Mina Scarletti mysteries, spirit mediums were a popular diversion. Hardly any serious investigation had been made into their claims, and the field was open for charlatans to make a living and sometimes a fortune, out of the curiosity and grief of others.
The spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century began in 1848 with a game played by two bored sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, aged 12 and 15 in Hydesville New York. They created bumping and tapping noises using an apple on a string or cracking their toe joints, and claimed that they were in touch with spirits. The sisters became a sensation and began to give séances before large audiences. It wasn’t long before other people suddenly discovered that they too had mediumistic powers.
By the early 1850s spiritualism had arrived in the UK as an exciting novelty and party entertainment. Rappings and knockings conveyed important messages on the subjects of love and money. The fickle Victorian public was always looking for something new, however, and the next craze was for table tipping. This was rather more dramatic than bumps and bangs since the tables around which the visitors sat seemed to take on a life of their own, trembling, tilting and even rising up into the air. Spirits, who seemed to be crouching underneath the tables usually in the vicinity of the medium’s foot, would also convey messages by knocking the table legs.
This new diversion became so popular that the celebrated physicist Michael Faraday subjected the animated furniture to rigorous testing, and established that the lifelike motion was caused by unconscious movements of the sitters. On occasions when tables actually rose into the air it was thought that they had been given a little lift with artfully concealed wires and the help of an accomplice.
As the years passed, interest waned, and the public was hungry for new excitement. The time was ripe for the arrival from America of 22-year-old Daniel Dunglas Home in 1855. Home was a talented clairvoyant and medium whose speciality of levitation soon brought him fame, and he was deluged with gifts and given free accommodation. Importantly, Home knew that knockings and tappings just weren’t enough any more. His sitters wanted visual stimulus; they wanted to see the ghosts. For these effects it was essential that séances were conducted in near darkness. Home produced glowing spirit hands and looming faces that his clients recognised as lost loved ones. His reputation was severely dented however, when an elderly widow took him to court in 1868 after he had induced her to make over her considerable fortune to him. The court ordered him to return the money and he decided to continue his career abroad. There was however, no lack of mediums willing to take up the luminous mantle.
The ultimate in ghostly appearances was the full body manifestation and was a particular speciality of the female medium. She would retire to a cabinet or behind a curtain, and the sitters would then be encouraged into the lusty singing of hymns. The purpose of the singing was supposedly to reassure onlookers of the religious purity of the proceedings. Its actual purpose was to mask the sound of the medium changing her costume. She would emerge, radiant in the draperies she had previously concealed under her voluminous skirts, diaphanous fabric that glowed in the dark due to an application of oil of phosphorus. Sitters were easily deluded into believing that they had seen a spirit dressed in gorgeous robes. There was an important warning however. Under no circumstances should anyone attempt to light the gas lamps, or take hold of the figure. The divine creature, it was explained, was actually composed of material drawn from the medium’s body. She might speak, even take tea with the sitters, or offer kisses to the gentlemen, but any excessive light or attempt to take hold of the figure could cause the spectral material to rush back into the medium’s body so fast that she would die. When sceptics who were determined to expose imposture did try to grasp the apparition, they found it to be all too solid and the medium very much alive.
The professions of medium and stage magician were not far different and before long special equipment was being manufactured for the production of supposedly supernatural effects. In 1864, American brothers Ira and William Davenport toured Britain with a sophisticated new act. They had a specially constructed cabinet, and were securely tied up inside together with some musical instruments, which were heard to play and even seen to fly through the air.
A watchmaker called John Maskelyne saw the Davenports’ performance and felt sure that with the aid of a trick cabinet he could easily duplicate their act. He was so successful that he went on to become a highly celebrated stage illusionist.
Most scientists were skeptical of psychical phenomena and did not wish to involve themselves in investigating them, but there were a few who embarked on serious studies. These early investigators felt that there was a possibility that they were seeing evidence of a wholly new branch of science, something that would one day be validated and accepted. The thrill of potential discovery could well have made them a little too eager to believe what they were unable to prove. Those mediums who later admitted that they had defrauded the public said that scientists, with their enquiring minds and keenness to understand phenomena, were the easiest subjects to dupe. In1882 the Society for Psychical Research, which included both believers and sceptics, was formed ‘to conduct scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.’ It still exists today.
It is tempting to think that the Victorians were gullible, but they were looking for certainty in an uncertain environment. The eye is easily deceived in darkness, and they had no means of recording events, relying instead on memories of fleeting glimpses, unable even if they dared to try, to cast a rapid bright light on the proceedings. The Victorian dark séance did not survive the invention of the pocket torch.
Isn’t it reassuring to know that all those heroines of historical fiction, who found that they just weren’t maternal, or meek, or submissive enough – that they identified themselves more strongly as masculine, that they cut their hair, or wore breeches, or climbed trees – they were all sweet, frilly girlies, really: because with the right man, you can get better!
Five hundred years ago – three hundred, two hundred years ago – women weren’t allowed to identify with masculine gender stereotypes. We conformed, to the Gospel according to St Paul; we learned in all subjection, we were respectful, we covered our hair and our bodies as we were taught, or we paid the price of social ostracism.
You know the old chestnut of the girl who dresses as a boy to follow her soldier lover to war and bring him home safe? Don’t get many of them in the 17th century. In fact, there are very few examples of a woman who enlists as a soldier during the English Civil Wars – maybe that’s because women were following the drum anyway, in the guise of camp followers, or maybe it’s because until the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 no one was looking, or maybe it’s because many 17th century women were more than capable of fighting the good fight in skirts, viz. Lady Derby, Brilliana Harley, Elizabeth Lilburne, I’ll stop now but I could keep going all night. The 17th century highwaywoman Moll Frith lived and dressed as a woman – as attested by her nickname, Cutpurse Moll – and anecdote reports that at one point she robbed Thomas Fairfax, shot him in the arm and killed two of his horses. Which must have pleased him no end…s
(An aside: Dr Mark Stoyle has done some recent fascinating work into the female soldier of the civil war period, covered in a recent Guardian article)
But it’s not really till the 18th century that we start to see the “mannish” woman appear – Kit Ross, who followed her man into Marlborough’s Army and then decided that she quite liked the Army life and lived as a soldier for the better part of ten years, serving in two different units undiscovered; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, that pair of unglamorous pirate captains, who were as fierce and merciless as any of their masculine counterparts – what’s interesting is that most of the 18th century women who disguised themselves as men disguised themselves successfully, and lived within close male communities undiscovered – or undeclared – for long periods, but that they also were considered as equals of their male counterparts. Kit Ross was officially pensioned off, despite the discovery of her gender; Anne Bonney and Mary Read were sentenced to an equal punishment to their male counterpart, Calico Jack Rackham.
So, you know, there are hundreds of years of history of women living successfully as men, competing with men, existing forcefully in a male-dominated society. Succeeding, on their own terms, against men. (If piracy is your thing, obviously.) Being acknowledged as comrades and peers, by men. Women in Restoration England were running their own businesses, their own coffee-shops, although they weren’t permitting female customers in those hotbeds of political discourse and dissent. Women in 1649 were presenting petitions to Parliament saying…”Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?”
And now, four hundred years later, we’re still seeing this denied in mainstream historical fiction.
The tomboyish heroine, that old romantic favourite, who’s not satisfied by a life of conventionally girlish pleasures, and who finds freedom and self-expression as an equal in masculine company – she changes, of course, when she meets the right man. (He “makes” her a woman, as often as not. *shudders*)
All those strong women, who lived and worked and loved as women in their own right, who ran businesses and ships and companies of soldiers in their own right – they just needed a man, to make them want to give up their independence and be hobbled by skirts again?
I was talking to Kim Wright from the arts programme Art2Art on Swindon 105.5 FM a while ago (just thought I’d drop that one right there, me on the radio, not swearing, not once. Hardly. Much. At all) – he had the idea that this sudden gender conventionality in fiction was a reaction against women’s freedoms in World War 2, where women were suddenly doing men’s work, men’s equals, threatening established masculine domains, and the womenfolk had to be groomed a little into getting back into their boxes after the war. And, you know, perhaps the reason for the popularity of that aggressively masculine, Chandleresque stuff was that a lot of women were comfortable within those boxes, too.
And that’s fine, if that’s what works for you, but it’s not right for everyone. We’re still promoting the idea of binary genders – of girlie girls and butch men – and pushing the myth that if you are not a pink princess, or a brave hero, you can’t have romance, you can’t have adventure, you can’t be successful. That to be atypical, in fiction, makes a character a curio, a freakshow. There was a Paul Verhoeven film called “Flesh + Blood” in which Rutger Hauer’s mercenary band contained, amongst others, two sniggering and not always very kind best mates, who were rough and tough, who always had each other’s backs, who were a pair of loutish young gentlemen always spoiling for a fight.
At the end of the film one of them is killed and you realise, by the response of the other, that these two testosterone-fuelled hooligans were a deeply loving and long-established couple.
And it’s not relevant to the plot, it’s just a throwaway scene where actually, these two brawling roughs are seen to have a capacity for deep emotion – but it’s two men who are in love with each other.
Does that matter? Yes. They’re a pair of aggressive street bravos who’ve systematically gone through life as their own two-person gang, and now all of a sudden one of them is alone, and we see a vulnerable, frightened side to him.
Does it matter that it’s two men? No. Or it shouldn’t. As Het Babbitt points out to Hapless Russell in “A Wilderness of Sin”, “There is, in my opinion, an insufficiency of people loving each other in this world, dear. As if it were something to be ashamed of.”
Takes all sorts to make a world, as they say in Lancashire, but if you’re going to write, the world is at your fingertips. Women, and men, in history fought hard to live outside convention, knowing they faced exposure, ridicule, social ostracism, even death, for disclosing themselves. And they still do, we have not yet come so far.
We owe it to readers to write those men and women back into historical fiction, not as plaster saints or wayward sinners, but as real, rounded human beings. Just lke us.
As I have been banging on about of late, I’m upping my 17th century game and I’m doing marvellous things with my everyday wardrobe.
This morning I slipped on a lovely olive green and white print blouse and my first thought was – ooo, low-slung tits, girl, pull ’em up a few notches. How unflattering. How dowdy. How –
How right for the shape of the blouse and the design period?
Convo I often have with a mate who is similarly built, but why would I aspire to have two rock-solid semi-spheres clamped to my ribcage, unless I happen to be involved in 1770s re-enactment? What with – as one Regency fashion commentator described – the “disgusting fleshy shelf”? See this lady here with her low-cut bodice – a lady of ample chest, by the look of her – is she rocking the teetering titties, or are they sensibly secured?
Occurs to me that the eye of the beholder is so wretchedly attuned to what we consider beautiful now, that anything that doesn’t conform to the right shape, regardless of size, looks wrong to us. We often see tavern-wench bodices, even when we should be working Lady Fanshawe’s discreetly low-cut charms, because we think up-and-at-’em is the look that women must have aspired to.
(Do we? Should we?)
This is me starting a revolution, right here, right now. The discreet charm of the boobs-goisie. Lower-cut and flatter. (Surely we’re not thinking that mature ladies might be represented as having aspirational mature figures, instead of fake porn-star tits?)
A sort of conflation of ideas whizzing about today.
A conversation about 17th century re-enactment over on Facebook – about being too authentic, becoming intimidating, becoming contemptuous of those who don’t count stitches, or who use wool-blend fabrics. Now for myself, as an author, I consider re-enactment as research for my writing and vice versa. Thomazine’s snapped stay-bone in Imperfect Enjoyment – I’ve done that. (I still have the scar, too: I had to wear the things for the rest of the day, and it didn’t half bleed.)
I haven’t belted anyone in the face with the guard of my sword, but I have considered it. I digress.
And I admit it: I’m one of the stitch-counters. And what I find is increasingly it fills me with a horrible inertia. I have linen to make s new jacket, but I need silks to embroider it. Embroidery silks aren’t good enough: I need silk thread. I need metal spangles. I need – I need – I need.
And till I have, I do nothing.
Actually, I made a conscious decision with my polychrome coif, and my spangled jacket – not to make them period-correct, but to make them touchable, holdable. Hundreds of pounds worth of metal spangles on a jacket, and I’m going to let strangers pick it up, stroke it, hold it up, try it on? Or keep washing my coif after a couple of hundred grubby little fingers have stroked the ladybird or opened the peapods? But that’s what they’re for – to be touched and delighted in, not just admired from a distance. That was what the originals were for: to be worn and used and to give pleasure to their wearer as well as the people who saw them.
It’s the same with my new wardrobe: I want wool, I want silk, I want…I want to not start till I have all the things, rather than to use things I have that are not quite right.
My first thought in the authenticity debate was that it’s necessary, because what’s it for, otherwise? But I’m not sure now. I think it’s more the desire of the moth for the star, than a desirable outcome. I think I could spend my whole life not wanting to do better, but wanting to do nothing. Waiting for the perfect set of circumstances – all the aces, metaphorically, in my hand – before the time is right to do anything at all.
And then you get to be dead, and all the time is used up, and it’s never happened. That book half-written in your head but never started, that jacket you loved…all gone.
In my wanderings throughout the internet I came across this splendid gem on a website called “The Foods of England”. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if it were true?
“There is a curious story that roast veal in Orange Sauce was Oliver Cromwell’s favourite dish, and that when no oranges were available, his wife Elizabeth used beans instead, saying something along the lines of “You should have thought about orange sauce before you declared war on Spain.” This tale is told at Cromwell’s House in Ely, in ‘Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine’ by William Carew Hazlitt (1902) and may originate in a spurious little cookbook titled ‘The Court and Kitchin of Elizabeth, Commonly Called Joan Cromwel, the Wife of the late Usurper, Truly Described and Represented’ published in 1664.”
This cookbook was originally written by triumphant Royalists with a perverse sense of humour, intended to show Elizabeth Cromwell up as a frumpy provincial housewife, more fitted to life on a backwater country estate than at Whitehall – and just as a by the by, this was published in 1664, and she died in 1665, so I hope she thought it was as funny as I did. I love the idea of the Lord Protector of England’s foreign policy being dictated by what his wife wanted on the table, though. And oranges, believe it or not, are quite popular in 17th century cooking, although normally with capon or fowl rather than veal. Perhaps Mrs Cromwell didn’t like chicken?
The Good Huswife’s Jewll for the Kitchen (1594) suggests that Mrs Cromwell should… “take red wine, Synamon, Sugar, Ginger, the grauie of the Capon, or a little sweet butter: slice an Orenge thin, boyle it in the stuffe, when your Orenges be tender, lay them vpon your sops, mince some of the rynde and caste on the sops, and so serue them.”
To boil a capon with oranges, after Mistress Duffield’s way, …“take a Capon and boyle it with Veale, or with a mary bone, or what your fancie is. Then take a good quantitie of that broth, and put it in an earthen pot by it selfe, and put thereto a good handfull of Corrans, and as manie Prunes, and a few whole Maces, and some Marie, and put to this broth a good quantitie of white wine or of Claret, and so let them seeth softly together: Then take your Orenges, and with a knife scrape of all the filthinesse of the outside of them. Then cut them in the middest, and wring out the ioyse of three or foure of them, put the ioyse into your broth with the rest of your stuffe, then slice your Orenges thinne, and haue vpon the fire readie a skellet of faire seething water, and put your sliced Orenges into the water, & when that water is bitter, haue more readie, and so change them still as long as you can finde the great bitternesse in the water, which will be sixe or seven times, or more, if you find need: then take them from the water, and let that runne cleane from them: then put close Orenges into your potte with your broth, and so let them stew together till your Capon be readie. Then make your sops with this broth, and cast on a litle Sinamon, Ginger, and Sugar, and vpon this lay your Capon, and some of your Orenges vpon it, and some of your Marie, and towarde the end of the boylin”
There’s also a thickened version of Mistress Duffield’s recipe in the same recipe book, using egg yolks to thicken the sauce into a sort of Christmassy custard. I’m happy to say that Robert May in “The Accomplish’t Cook” gave a much plainer and simpler recipe: “Take slices of white-bread and boil them in fair water with two whole onions, some gravy, half a grated nutmeg, and a little salt; strain them together through a strainer, and boil it up as thick as water grewel; then add to it the yolks of two eggs dissolved with the juyce of two oranges.”
On the other hand, there’s mutton with lemons. When your Mutton is halfe boyled, take it vp, cut it in small peeces: put it into a pipkin, and couer it close, and put thereto the best of the broth, as much as shall couer your Mutton, your Lemmons being sliced verie thin, and quartered, and Corrans, put in pepper grose beaten, and so let them boyle together, and when they be well boyled, season it with a litle Uergious, sugar, pepper grose beaten, and a little sanders, so lay it in fine dishes vpon sops. Jt will make three messe for the table.
This version sounds a little less – festive, sorry Oliver – but in the early 17th century (and earlier) sanders, ie sandalwood, was used for colouring rather than flavouring. It’s red, but I’d be inclined to replace with a little saffron, just to give it that slightly aromatic, musky taste.
So – apologies to the Lord Protector, but I’m with Elizabeth on this one. A much better use of oranges can be found: Take your orenges, and lay them in water a day and a night, then seeth them in faire water and hony, and let them seeth till they be soft: then let them soak in the sirrop a day and a night: then take them forth and cut them small, and then make your tart and season your Apples with Sugar, Synamon and Ginger, and put in a peece of butter, and lay a course of Apples, and betweene the same course of apples, a course of Orenges, and so course by course, and season your Orenges as you seasoned your Apples, with somewhat more sugar, then lay on the lid and put it in the ouen, and when it is almost baked, take Rosewater and Sugar, and boyle them together till it be somwhat thick, then take out the Tart, and take a feather and spread the rosewater and Sugar on the lid, and set it into the Ouen againe, and let the sugar harden on the lid, and let it not burne.
And failing that, you can always use them to make marmalade – after all, everyone in the 17th century knows of the aphrodisiac properties of marmalade, don’t they?
There are times when you’re just in the right place at the right time.
It’s a funny thing. You might have noticed but most of me is pretty firmly rooted in the 17th century, almost all of the time.
I occasionally venture into the field of Dark Age re-enactment but it’s strictly domestic: half the time I’d be pushed to tell you what century I’m in, although I could probably tell you what I’m cooking while I’m doing it.
But anyway – I’m possibly less femme when I’m in Anglo-Saxon kit than when I’m in the 1640s, but, you know. That’s where we are.
And as you probably also know, for the last couple of years I’ve been rather idly working on a period herb garden. Which is coming on beautifully, thank you, and I think you’ve probably all heard about the various trials and tribulations of Russell Lovage, who came to me as a little sprout something like seven years ago and has refused point-blank to die on me ever since. (I’m very fond of Russell Lovage – yes, of course that’s why he’s called Russell, he is as grimly indestructible as the fictional version – and he has now rewarded me with a crop of little Lovagelings, most of whom will be going to loving forever-homes over the next few weeks.)
And I thought that was going to be it, that was going to be me swishing decoratively through the lavender bushes in a neat coif and a big skirt stooping to break a twig here and a leaf there, inhaling the scents of clove carnation and balm and considering my still-room….
And then someone asks if the re-enactment group we belong to want to be involved in planning and creating an Anglo-Saxon garden at Escot – Edcott, rather, I might say: the Anglo-Saxon village – to which the answer is HELL YEAH. I don’t love my fingernails that much.
It’s damp, it’s overgrown, it’s going to be hard work. I’m looking at a tray full of heart’s-ease – banwort, to the Saxons, and wild pansy to us now – that would love a new home in a shady wood, and obviously the Lovagelings, they could go feral out there. I’ve got woad seeds – though maybe they need to be renewed: I’ve had them for a while without the room to plant them.
I have visions of enough space to grow strewing-herbs: meadowsweet and woodruff and mint and costmary and probably fleabane to keep our little friends at bay when one is ankle-deep in rushes.
To be able to give our resident herbalist a sufficiency of exotic herbs to physic most ailments: tansy and feverfew for headaches and dill for colicky bellies and the nine herbs of power – Mucgwyrt, Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and Attorlaðe (identified as cockspur grass (Echinochloa crus-galli) by R. K. Gordon; partially defined by others as betony (Stachys officinalis) and Stune, Lamb’s cress (Cardamine hirsuta) and Wegbrade, Plantain (Plantago) and Mægðe, Mayweed (Matricaria) and Stiðe, Nettle (Urtica) and Wergulu, Crab-apple (Malu) and Fille Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and Finule Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Cooking and washing and beautifying herbs – the pot-herbs, marigold and soapwort and nettle for cordage and wrapping cheese -the vegetables, Good King Henry and fat hen and purslane and ramsons, all the forgotten green vegetables that would have heralded spring to people who lived on what they could store and grow.
What it’s not going to be is my lovely, mannered, 17th century herb-garden – which exists and is real. It is an actual thing and I go out and cut things from it to use, and it has lovely things in it like primroses and violets for candying, and gillyflowers for scent. I suspect that the Edcott garden will be a much earthier, and probably swearier place, where a whisper is not the sound of a silk skirt on the gravel but is more likely to be the sound of a grubby small child wondering if parental eyes are still on the ripe strawberries.
(I am told there will be pigs. There will also, I feel, be sage – and this is not an idle threat – the first snout that uproots my Lovagelings is likely to find itself stuffed with an apple and spit-roasted. Just, you know, saying…)
It’s going to be fun, and a voyage of amazing discoveries. That’s all what I’ddo, if anyone were daft enough to give me free rein. Fortunately they’re not or we’d be knee-deep in lovage and mint, and if anything happens at all I’ll be being restrained and encouraged by friends with strong backs and common sense.
Watch this space. No – not that one: the green one, there.