Confession. I have never been to Norway. I have never been to Shetland. Normally I would have done both. When writing and researching a book I like to do as much ‘on the ground’ research as possible. But this year it just wasn’t possible, because of the virus.
This book takes place in Nazi-occupied Norway, and though I could have visited Norway, my experience of it wouldn’t have been the same as those who lived through the occupation by the Nazis in WW2. In one sense, the past can never be revisited, and every historical fiction author must supercharge their imagination to conjure the past into being. In this instance, I relied on archive material, books, websites, memoirs and facebook interest groups, as well as a native Norwegian to guide me through the research.
Shetland was a lot closer to home, but visitors from the mainland UK, especially virus-ridden Lancashire, were still not exactly welcome. So, I was indoors much of the time finishing my research from my desk, and watching videos of men fishing in the Northern waters, or Shetlanders farming the windswept Shetland hills. In depth research is as much to do with the quality of attention that you pay to it, and how you use it, as to do with what you actually see.
One of the pleasures of writing historical fiction is that you learn so much about the events of the past that might have been forgotten or overlooked, and you can bring these back to life for other people to marvel at and enjoy.
So The Lifeline is out today, published by Sapere Books. I hope it will give people an insight into what life was like for ordinary teachers caught up in the Nazi indoctrination machine, and how they risked their lives to rebel against it.
And I hope more people will get to know about the brave Norwegian men who risked their lives in bringing arms and intelligence to the Resistance across icy waters and under enemy fire.
I have read another couple of books by Clare Flynn and always enjoyed them so I looked forward to the chance to read and review this new release. Sixteen year old Jasmine is unhappy with her adopted parents in Kenya, and longs to return to her childhood home of Penang. By coincidence her old teacher needs help with her new baby, so Jasmine returns to Penang, unaware of all the changes that have happened whilst she was away. Jasmine is soon out of her depth, with confusing love interests, a country that has underlying tensions she doesn’t understand, and her own insecurities about her family.
The novel is framed as a romance, with a couple of love interests along the way – handsome Howard Baxter, an ex-pat employee in the rubber plantations, and Bintang, an enigmatic Malayan who has suffered atrocities at the hands of the Japanese and is deeply suspicious of the Brits and their motives for ‘helping’ Malaya.
The novel is more than just a romance though, with attention paid to the historical background and the unfolding difficulties of a colonising force attempting to solve another country’s problems, along with all the uncertainties and dilemmas that brings. Penang at this time is home to a seething melting pot of conflicting interests, including the British who want their rubber and natural resources, and the Chinese, including the Triads, who want to wrestle away that control. All this is well-detailed by Clare Flynn, who does a great job of giving us all the background without overwhelming the reader.
The book starts slowly but builds into a gripping climax once the fuse of rebellion is lit and the Chinese shoot the ‘tuans’ or masters of the plantations in a co-ordinated attack. This novel has a bit of everything – a coming-of-age romance, adventure, immersion in another culture, and you don’t need to have read the other books in the series to enjoy it. If you like well-researched historical sagas with depth, you will enjoy this.
Clare Flynn is the author of twelve historical novels and a collection of short stories. A former International Marketing Director and strategic management consultant, she is now a full-time writer.
Having lived and worked in London, Paris, Brussels, Milan and Sydney, home is now on the coast, in Sussex, England, where she can watch the sea from her windows. An avid traveller, her books are often set in exotic locations.
Clare is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of The Society of Authors, Novelists Inc (NINC), ALLi, the Historical Novel Society and the Romantic Novelists Association, where she serves on the committee as the Member Services Officer. When not writing, she loves to read, quilt, paint and play the piano. She continues to travel as widely and as far as possible all over the world.
For those that are looking for news of my books, The Lifeline will be published just into the new year on 5th January. It is already live on Amazon at its special pre-order price. A paperback and audiobook will follow.
My new 17th Century novel, The Poison Keeper is finished and edited and awaiting release. The second in this Italian series, The Silkworm Keeper is still in the construction phase. The initial research is done, and right now I’m about three quarters through the first draft.
Just to keep my followers up to date, here’s a round up what I’ve been up to online in recent weeks.
Today I’m with Charlie Place on her writers podcast for an in depth interview about my WW2 fiction. It was great to have the chance to record this, and if you’re looking for writers talking about their work, do check out her other interviews too. On the podcast we talk about how real stories inspire my books, why I introduced Ruth Ellis into Past Encounters — she was the last woman to be executed in the 50’s. We also talk about the unsung heroes of WW2, the Prisoners of War.
The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. —Nellie Bly
Elizabeth Cochrane has a secret.
She isn’t the madwoman with amnesia the doctors and inmates at Blackwell’s Asylum think she is.
In truth, she’s working undercover for the New York World. When the managing editor refuses to hire her because she’s a woman, Elizabeth strikes a deal: in exchange for a job, she’ll impersonate a lunatic to expose a local asylum’s abuses.
When she arrives at the asylum, Elizabeth realizes she must make a decision—is she there merely to bear witness, or to intervene on behalf of the abused inmates? Can she interfere without blowing her cover? As the superintendent of the asylum grows increasingly suspicious, Elizabeth knows her scheme—and her dream of becoming a journalist in New York—is in jeopardy.
A Feigned Madness is a meticulously researched, fictionalized account of the woman who would come to be known as daredevil reporter Nellie Bly. At a time of cutthroat journalism, when newspapers battled for readers at any cost, Bly emerged as one of the first to break through the gender barrier—a woman who would, through her daring exploits, forge a trail for women fighting for their place in the world.
Nellie and her female companions are on their way to the ferry bound for Blackwell’s Island…
The day was gray and raw. It had rained overnight. Wet leaves littered the flagstones, the smell of damp earth sharp in the air. How was it the weather had been so glorious just days ago, when I’d walked with Fannie and Viola in Central Park? How the space of a few days had changed things. I was no longer an independent woman working as a newspaper correspondent but a madwoman bound for an asylum.
I was first into the wagon, the attendant pushing me through the door with a mighty shove. I landed in a tangle of skirts on the bench opposite with my valise in my lap. I moved down to allow the others room. Once my companions were all inside, I assumed we would set off and at least have the privacy of a short drive to collect our thoughts. Instead, one of the men climbed in after, clutching a folder. How I would have liked to have a look at the paperwork tucked inside, but I was thwarted from thinking on it further when the door was slammed shut from the outside. The sound of the bolt sliding home was a loud, metallic bang that seemed to go off in my head. With a whistle from the driver, the horses lurched forward. The sickening sweet smell of whiskey quickly permeated the air in the wagon. Apparently, the job of a Bellevue attendant did not require sobriety. Nor did it require cleanliness; the beast was in bad need of a bath and a shave. His beige overcoat was stained with dirt that no amount of laundering would ever banish. I tucked my nose into the collar of my coat and sank deeper into the corner.
Through the windows on either side, I could see that we were moving in a wide arc around the grounds, slipping in ruts the rain had pounded to mud. We passed the main compound, and then, quite suddenly, the main gate loomed large. Two men stood on either side, and as soon as we passed through, I heard the great iron doors groan closed. The wharf was a short distance away, on the other side of the broad avenue that fronted the river. After a few turns, we came to an abrupt halt near the water.
The bolt was thrown back and the wagon door swung open, admitting the foul odor of filthy sea water and decaying fish. A policeman glanced inside, giving the attendant a curt nod. I wrapped my shawl around my head, fearful even now that I might still be recognized. I waited for the other women to get out. When at last my turn came, I stuck my head out of the wagon and felt the firm grip of the attendant’s hand on my arm. I threw him a look of loathing and shook him off. Though it was not easy to disengage myself from the wagon with my skirts, I preferred it to his brutal manhandling. My boots sank into mud as soon as they touched down. Light rain and a brisk wind bit at my face as I turned to the water, a churning blue-black mass that stretched for less than a mile to Queens. To the left, somewhere upriver, lay Blackwell’s.
A cluster of people stood near the shoreline. More curious onlookers, hungry for a glimpse of ill-fated creatures worse off than themselves. When it was clear no other inmates were withdrawing from the wagon, they began to press closer, and the uniformed officer moved to block their way.
“Ah, come on, let us have a proper look!” someone shouted.
“There’ll be none ‘o that now,” the policemen shot back in a thick Irish accent. “Ye make trouble, and ye’ll be going over the river too.”
“There’s no harm in looking,” another called.
“Long as that’s all ye do,” the policeman replied.
My companions and I walked single file down the bank and onto the dock. At the end, a small, shabby-looking ferry bobbed in the water, connected to the dock by a weathered plank. One by one, my companions disappeared into the interior. I took one fleeting look behind me and saw the pale faces of the men, women, and children who had come to witness our departure, a motley group dressed poorly, wearing the hard expressions of those who had not lived easy lives. Like the crowd at the police court, not one face held a shred of sympathy.
I was not prepared for the darkness or the stench that awaited me when I entered the cabin. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, I discerned two women on either side of the entrance clad in nurses’ caps. My four companions had taken a seat on a low bench. There was no other place to sit. In the wan light coming through the windows, I made out a small makeshift bed in the corner. An old woman with wild gray hair and what looked to be a basket filled with bread and scraps of meat stood next to it, staring into space. I stepped farther inside and heard a moan. There, under the filthy blankets of the bed, lay a young girl. She moved her head from side to side and moaned again, and the motion brought the scent of musty linen, body odor, and urine to my nose. I forced my eyes shut to subdue the bile rising in my throat and stepped away.
Just then, the brawny attendant entered the cabin and thrust the folder at one of the nurses.
“They give you any trouble?” the shorter of the two asked.
“Nah, but that ‘un there,” he pointed at me, “she’s got some spirit. Keep any eye, mind.” He turned his fearsome gaze on me, his beady eyes full of malice. “You’ll get your come-down soon enough where you’re going. In the meantime, they ain’t above throwing you in the drink to dampen your temper.”
The low rumble in his throat must have been laughter, for the nurses joined him.
“Remember that scrawny git bound for the workhouse?” the short nurse said. “All high and mighty, mouthing off about there bein’ no way she was goner abide in a place like that?” She slapped her hip in glee. “We threw her in and let her flail, and by the time we fished ‘er out, she was ‘bout as lively as a dead cat.”
Their laughter continued until there was a shout from the captain and the engine sputtered to life. With a nod and one last glowering look at me, the attendant darted out the door.
I heard the plank come up and shortly thereafter felt the boat sway as we moved off from shore. Mrs. Shanz started to stand to look out a window but froze when one of the nurses, the tallest of the two, pointed a finger at her and said sharply, “You can sit yourself down now, missy. There ain’t no standing unless there’s no seat for you to sit.”
Mrs. Shanz looked at Mrs. Fox, a question in her eyes. Mrs. Fox tugged on her sleeve and padded the bench. Mrs. Shanz resumed her seat and lowered her gaze.
If not for the caps they wore, I would have mistaken our chaperones for convicts or lunatics themselves. Both were cut from the same mold: coarse-looking, sharp-featured, and unkempt. They were bundled in shabby coats, below which peeked sodden skirts that wanted mending. Suddenly, the tallest of the two made a low sound in her throat and expectorated tobacco juice. I had never seen the like. The brown glob landed in the middle of the cabin floor amongst what could only be its cohorts.
Through the window on the far side of the cabin, the East River churned under an angry sky. Across the water, the low buildings and docks of Hunters Point slid into view. When we had advanced another mile or so, a jut of land appeared. A self-contained island all its own. Blackwell’s. On its southernmost tip rose a grand-looking multistoried building with a mansard roof. The ferry approached a dock a minute later, and the shorter nurse scurried out to lower the plank. The other hauled the wild-haired woman with the basket from the cabin.
When the first nurse returned, she bent over the girl on the bed. “Get up! Get up now ye lazy cur.” She slapped the girl twice. There was no response. It took all my resolve to remain silent and not reprimand the nurse for behaving so cruelly to a poor, sick girl. Anne and I exchanged glances. I saw in her eyes the same question I had: was this treatment what awaited us at the asylum?
Just then, the other nurse returned, and together, both women pulled the girl from the bed. Her feet were bare and black on the bottom, and she wore only a thin, ragged dress. Oh, the stench that arose when the girl stirred. I covered my nose with my hand and watched the nurses wrap each of the girl’s thin, wasted arms around their necks and drag her from the cabin.
I approached the window, using my glove to rub a clear spot in the glass. We were docked on the southwest side of the island. The two women who had left us must be headed for the charity hospital, the mansard-roofed structure that sat resolutely in the rain. In the near distance, I saw the nurses carrying the girl up a walk toward the building. Perhaps she would get the care here she needed. Or was I being a fool? Blackwell’s Island wasn’t known as a place of rest and healing, of sanctuary and hope. It was where the sick, poor, mad, and criminal were sent, many for the rest of their lives, and I had contrived to come here. I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry. Do not put yourself at risk for the World Elizabeth. I beg you. I shook my head, trying to banish the words, the image of McCain’s hand on my arm.
Ten days. A little more than a week. I could do it. I had to.
A few minutes later, the nurses returned, and soon we were moving again, the ferry lurching and bringing forth more fetid odors from the sea. Just beyond the charity hospital, a long brick structure came into view. This castle-like beast, with its crenellations and towers, was the penitentiary. So vast were its wings that it seemed an age before it disappeared from view. For the next several minutes, there was only wild brush and trees with brief glimpses of lower buildings beyond: the men and women’s almshouses, most likely, where the disabled or those otherwise unable to work were housed. Then, suddenly, another large building loomed, longer even than the penitentiary: the workhouse, a place where, it was said, thousands of men were incarcerated for petty crimes, living out shorter sentences than those housed within the penitentiary.
With each new sighting, my dread grew, dread that manifested itself as an ever-tightening knot in my stomach. My companions exchanged wary glances, and then they, all of them, looked at me. What did they expect me to do? Give them an encouraging smile? I, the woman who had lied her way to Blackwell’s? I had not come to make friends. Their situations were no concern of mine. I had come to observe, to fool everyone for the sake of a job. It was as simple as that.
My last glimpse out the window before we docked was of a distant circular tower partially obscured by trees. As we neared the shore, however, it was eclipsed by other trees and scrub along the beach. I felt the ferry slow. We had reached our destination . . .
Today I welcome guest author Mercedes Rochelle with this really interesting post about Richard II and a last minute betrayal.
Rebellion, rumour, revolt – this story has it all!
When Henry Bolingbroke took the crown, he was beset on all sides by well-wishers who urged him to put Richard II to death. After all, it was understood that disgruntled nobles and troublemakers could easily stir up rebellions in favor of an ex-king. And it didn’t take long for that to happen. Just three months after Henry’s coronation, the first revolt nearly cost him his life. Richard was secretly isolated in Pontefract Castle, a Lancaster stronghold in the north, but his favorites—generously pardoned by Henry IV—planned to kill the king and his family during the tournament scheduled for the Epiphany (Jan. 6) at Windsor Castle. They would use Richard’s look-alike cleric as a figurehead until the real Richard could be released. Only a last-minute betrayal derailed their plans.
Alas for Richard, this revolt sealed his fate. Or did it? In reality, no one knew what happened to the ill-fated ex-king. Rumors abounded. Finally, the first week of February, the great council attempted to resolve the question once and for all (or were they making an oblique suggestion?). They said, “that if he was still alive—as it is supposed that he is—he should be secretly guarded, but that if he were dead this should be demonstrated to the people”. Since Richard was already secretly guarded, it seems a little strange to me. All of a sudden, by February 17, it was announced that he was dead and on his way back to London. Just for the record, Richard’s death was recorded on February 14, though this seems to be a convenient date lacking any confirmation. Why? No one even knows how he died. If there were any witnesses, their lips were sealed.
There are at least four stories regarding this crucial event—and they are as far apart as you can get. The first, recounted by Shakespeare, was that King Henry sent an assassin, the otherwise unknown Sir Peter Exton with seven henchmen. The murderers burst into Richard’s cell and the king grabbed one of their weapons and put up a good fight, killing four of them before Exton smashed him in the head with an axe. Most historians disbelieve this story, especially since, upon exhumation in the 19th century, Richard’s skull was not damaged. The second story was that, hearing of the failure of the revolt and the death of his friends, Richard fell into a depression and stopped eating. At the very end, a priest convinced him that suicide was a mortal sin, and he tried to eat; but his condition was so far gone that he was unable to swallow and so expired. The third story is that Henry ordered him to be starved to death and he lingered for fifteen days in agony. Needless to say, the new king didn’t appreciate being called a regicide!
The fourth story is the most controversial of all. It was said that Richard escaped before the rebellion started and made his way to Scotland, where he was kept in honorary confinement for the next nineteen years, first by Robert III, then after the Scottish king’s death by the Duke of Albany. Needless to say, King Henry and the government scorned this assertion, but the fact remains that somebody played the part of the king in exile. Whether it was Richard himself or a pretender called Thomas Ward of Trumpington, his presence in Scotland was to harass Henry IV for the rest of his reign and into the next. According to this story, King Richard died at Stirling Castle in December 1419 and was buried at Black Friars in the same town.
In order to convince the people that Richard was truly dead, King Henry staged an elaborate procession where the body—encased in lead except for his face from the eyebrows to the throat—was set on a bier and drawn on a carriage from Pontefract to London, exposed for all the populace to see. A solemn funeral was held for two days at St. Paul’s Cathedral which was attended by the king. Afterwards, the corpse was taken to the royal manor of Chiltern Langley and handed over the Black Friars, who privately buried him in the church; the only witnesses were the Bishop of Lichfield and the Abbots of Waltham and St. Albans. Richard’s tomb at Westminster Abbey was finished and waiting for his royal body, but the usurper didn’t want to draw attention to such a royal setting for a deposed king.
So if Richard was still alive, whose face was on the funeral bier? Why, Maudeleyn, of course, his look-alike cleric who had been decapitated after the rebellion. From a distance, who would have been able to tell the difference?
Almost immediately, reports of Richard’s escape proliferated throughout England. Repercussions were quick to follow. In 1402, a priest from Ware was drawn and quartered for spreading such rumors. Not long afterwards, eight Franciscan friars were hanged in London for asserting that Richard was still alive. But the most damaging to Henry came in 1403, when Sir Henry Percy, aka Hotspur, raised a rebellion predominately from Chester, swearing that King Richard was returning from Scotland to lead his army. At the last minute he admitted that Richard was dead, but apparently he was able to rely on the soldiers’ fondness for the late king—or maybe he used coercion—because they went on to fight a horrific battle at Shrewsbury that nearly toppled Henry from his throne. The potential for Richard’s return continued to inspire disgruntled rebels, though eventually, the cry was that they fought for Richard if he was still alive, or else the Earl of March if he was dead. (March was the heir presumptive and kept in Henry’s custody for years.)
When Henry IV died in 1413, the first thing his successor did was transfer Richard at great expense from Langley to his real tomb at Westminster Abbey, thus symbolically putting Richard to rest and establishing Henry V as the rightful successor to the throne. Rumors were to follow him for the next couple of years, but by then they had lost most of their influence. The last time Richard was invoked was during the Southampton Plot in 1415, and it was March himself who exposed the conspiracy.
Read Mercedes’ story of Betrayal, along with many more!
Betrayal is a fantastic new anthology of historical stories by top-class authors: Judith Arnopp, Cryssa Bazos, Anna Belfrage, Derek Birks, Helen Hollick, Amy Maroney, Alison Morton, Charlene Newcomb, Tony Riches, Mercedes Rochelle, Elizabeth St. John, and Annie Whitehead.
Thank you to Mercedes for this fascinating post about Medieval Kingship. Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she received her B.A in Literature at the University of Missouri before moving to New York to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended. Today she lives in Sergeantsville, N.J with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
My new novel, The Lifeline is now ready to pre-order, and is the third in my series of WW2 books. I became interested in it because I discovered a book about The Shetland Bus in a second-hand bookshop when I was browsing the WW2 shelves.
I had never heard of The Shetland Bus, but started to research, and find out more about the brave Norwegians who helped their country by supplying the Resistance with arms and intelligence from Scotland.
You can find out more about The Shetland Bus here at the Scalloway Museum There is a video and a documentary on their website which explains how the men who operated these small fishing boats between Shetland and Norway were recruited and trained, and about the dangers they faced. Enemy fire, mountainous seas, dark cold winters with below freezing temperatures – all in a night’s work for these courageous men who were a vital part of Norway’s resistance against the Nazis.
As the story developed I realised that I wanted to include a male point of view character, as I had in my previous WW2 books. My main male character in The Lifeline is Jorgen Nystrom, a Norwegian wireless operator trained in Scotland. He becomes involved with the Shetland Bus missions, and eventually must set off to rescue his girlfriend, Astrid, from Norway.
Other male chracters I enjoyed writing were Isaak Feinberg, a German Jew who came to Norway to escape the Nazis, but now finds himself trapped by them once more. And finally, Karl Brevik, a Norwegian agent for the Nazis.
Karl Brevik was interesting to write because he’s a mercenary – a man with a shifting moral compass, who has learnt how to win through competitive ski-ing, and to him, winning and survival is all that matters, and at any cost. He’s a man easy to admire, but hard to understand.
Writing an untrustworthy character relies a lot on the use of body language. What Karl says, and what he is thinking are often at odds with each other, so his true intentions need to be conveyed in a way other than words. The fact he makes others uncomfortable, for reasons they can’t articulate, also helped me to make him more believable.
People lacking any moral compass are also hard to empathize with, but I did want readers to empathize with Karl, and for him to form some kind of friendship that would have value for him. For me, writing WW2 fiction is all about exploring moral boundaries, on both sides.
My female characters are Astrid, a teacher who resists teaching the Nazi curriculum, and is persecuted for it, and Morag, a secretary working for the Special Operations Executive in Shetland.
The Lifeline will be published by Sapere Books on 5th January 2021. but is available now at a special pre-order price.
I’m delighted to welcome Marie Macpherson to my blog today with a fascinating wintry excerpt from her novel The Last Blast of the Trumpet. First, here’s the blurb to entice you!
1564: Conflict, Chaos and Corruption in Reformation Scotland.
He wants to reform Scotland, but his enemies will stop at nothing to prevent him.
Scotland 1559: Fiery reformer John Knox returns to a Scotland on the brink of civil war. Victorious, he feels confident of his place leading the reform until the charismatic young widow, Mary Queen of Scots returns to claim her throne. She challenges his position and initiates a ferocious battle of wills as they strive to win the hearts and minds of the Scots. But the treachery and jealousy that surrounds them both as they make critical choices in their public and private lives has dangerous consequences that neither of them can imagine.
In this final instalment of the trilogy of the fiery reformer John Knox, Macpherson tells the story of a man and a queen at one of the most critical phases of Scottish history.
Publisher: Penmore Press
Chapter 12 – Hogmanay
Coldingham Priory, December 1562
An ice storm at the solstice heralded the start of winter. It smoothed the muddy earth with a silver glaze, creating a winter wonderland. Frozen crystals sparkling like crushed diamonds sprinkled the bare branches of trees and turned bushes into pillars of salt. The low winter light glinted on spiders’ webs as if spinning them into delicate lace on a christening shawl.
As they left the priory chapel, Elisabeth took Lady Morham’s arm. ‘It’s slippery underfoot,’ she warned. The giddy grandmother was sliding about the ice yet refused to hand over her precious bundle to his wet nurse.
Behind them, the queen stopped on the threshold and inhaled deeply. ‘It’s heavenly to breathe fresh air. Everything here seems so pure and clean and white. Perfect for a christening.’
Confident that no one would pursue her in this treacherous weather, Mary had stolen away from Edinburgh with the four Maries and a handful of bodyguards to be godmother at the furtive Catholic baptism of Jean’s new-born son, Francis. The atmosphere at court where she was surrounded by spies and critics all too eager to cram Knox with intelligence about her. was stifling, she confessed. Everything she did was sharply censured. It was sinful to celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas; it was wicked to shoot at the butts, to listen to music or poetry, to bring needlework to the council chamber, to play chess, to dance and be merry.
‘However much they goad you, never let the dour Calvinists quench your zest for life, madame,’ Elisabeth had said.
Now a helpless giggle escaped Mary’s lips. ‘Look at those two bairns.’
Elisabeth followed her gaze. The proud father, Lord John, and his brother, Lord Robert, were fencing with icicles they’d broken off the overhanging eaves. In the silent, falling snow they loomed like the wraiths of ancient warriors.
‘It’s a pity Bothwell couldn’t be here to stand as the bairn’s godfather,’ Elisabeth said, ‘but at least he’ll be safe in France, far from Moray’s clutches. Thanks to you, madame.’
‘And you, dear prioress. He’s been the victim of great injustice.’
Their eyes locked in mutual understanding. For over two months, Bothwell had been cooped up in the dank, dark dungeon of Edinburgh Castle in conditions worse than the caged animals in the palace menagerie. Moray had stripped his sister of her only loyal supporter and kept him in prison without a trial. Disgraced and friendless, he suffered a living death.
Unable to thole the rank injustice any longer, Elisabeth had sought clemency for Bothwell, telling Mary some stark truths. While sympathetic to his plight, the queen regretted being powerless to release him, adding that he should do the best he could. Taking this as tacit royal approval, Elisabeth had anointed the palm of a jailer to open gates for her nephew while she organised a boat from Aberlady to take him safely to France.
After the christening feast, the family huddled by the hearth to wait for midnight to bring in the new year. Like All Hallow’s Eve, Hogmanay was a magical time of the year when the auld year gave birth to the new, and Elisabeth couldn’t let it pass without telling scary stories of ghosts and bogles, roasting nuts and fortune telling.
‘You break the ice, Isabelle,’ she said. ‘Tell us the gruesome tale of St Abbe and the nuns of Coldingham.’
Their curiosity aroused, the eager listeners hunched forward, and Isabelle began, her voice a low whisper. ‘A long time ago, in the time of the king of Alba, a raiding party of frenzied Norsemen landed at the coast near Coldingham abbey and went berserk. Terrified the heathens would violate their virginity, the abbess urged the sisters to maim themselves. They slashed their noses and lips, hoping to slake the lust of the marauding pagans and keep their vow of chastity.’
‘What happened to them? Were they saved?’ Mary asked, wide-eyed.
‘Nay,’ Isabelle replied. ‘They were all murdered but went to their deaths singing like angels.’
‘Rejoicing for losing their maidenheads, I wager,’ Lord John sniggered. ‘Virgins no longer.’
Scowling, Isabelle snapped back, ‘But martyrs in the eyes of God.’
Mary bent forward, leaning her chin on her hand. ‘Womankind are always at risk. I wish I were a soldier. In the highlands, I envied their freedom. I never felt more alive than when I slept on a bed of heather, wrapped in a woollen plaid. The spice of danger, the nearness of death is exhilarating.’ Her pale face glowed in the firelight. ‘Yet I’ve no stomach for bloodshed: it gars me grue.’ She rubbed her hands and held them out to the flames. ‘My ghastly tale took place in the highlands not so long ago. Doubtless you’ll have heard about the Gordons’ treasonable conspiracies to abduct me and how we had to daunt them at Corrichie.’
‘And how the Cock o’ the North suddenly fell off his horse, stone dead,’ Lord John said.
‘His son John’s execution was even more grisly. It will torture me to my dying day.’ Mary wrung her hands in agitation. ‘My brother forced me to witness it. Before he put his head on the block, the condemned man cried out that he loved me and would marry me.’ Her hands flew to her face. ‘The ham-fisted headsman was clumsy at his task. He took several strokes, hacking at his neck, sawing through the bone. Thon rasping sound echoes in my nightmares.’ She caressed her neck. ‘It wasn’t an execution but butchery. I broke down in a fit of sobbing and then fell into a swoon.’
‘Did he die for love of you, madame?’ Jean asked.
‘Love!’ Elisabeth spluttered. ‘How could he love her? John Gordon never knew her. He was in love with the idea of becoming a royal consort, if not king.’
As most men vying for the queen’s hand would be. Moray had successfully cut down a potential rival. Under the cloak of law and order and piety, he was carrying out personal feuds against the Huntlys and the Hepburns to carve a path to the throne.
‘Sometimes I think James is testing my mettle against his,’ Mary said quietly.
‘Forgive me for being plain-spoken, madame,’ Elisabeth said, ‘but your brother is doing his utmost to destroy the power of Roman Catholics in Scotland.’
‘Knox is Auld Clootie and Moray is his familiar,’ Lord John piped up. ‘Perched in his crow’s nest pulpit, the hooded cleric croaks and squawks six feet above criticism and contradiction.’ Standing on a chair he waved his arms up and down to give a comical impersonation of the ranting preacher.
Though she chuckled, something tore in Elisabeth’s heart. Despite everything, Knox was still her son. Nevertheless, she rued the day she’d breathed life into those heretical lungs.
Set in Elizabethan England in 1536 this is a well-written and absorbing romantic novel. Alyce Bradley, returning home after being a lady’s maid in a grand house (which turns out to have been not so grand) comes into conflict with her father over her future. His father’s journeyman has ambitions to marry her but Alyce cannot bear him. (And neither can the reader!) Instead she opts for a more dangerous choice, Thomas Granville. Thomas is an older more worldly man, and has a reputation of a man with an eye for the ladies, and as a privateer. At first wary, the pair start to develop a relationship of mutual respect, against the jealous ill–will of Alyce’s sister Isabel, who wants to keep Alyce at her beck and call during her pregnancy.
Alyce’s grandmother was accused of witchcraft, and when Thomas has to go away, these accusations come flooding back. Alyce has always been outspoken, and though this makes us warm to her as a reader, it gets her into a lot of trouble.
I won’t spoil the plot, but suffice it to say there is a wealth of historical background here, of Spain’s Armada, and of the rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Conditions for women at the time are faithfully rendered, and there are historical notes at the back of the book to add to your enjoyment. If you like to read about the lives of ordinary women in the Elizabethan period, you will find this novel gives you plenty of evocative detail wrapped up in a page-turning plot.
Today I welcome David Ebsworth to my blog to tell us about one of the fascinating buildings he came across during his research for his ‘Wicked Mistress Yale’ Series. Over to Dave:
‘I thought it was just coincidence,’ he said. A friend for the past sixty years reading the first part of my Yale Trilogy, The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale. ‘You set the story in Fort St. George – and guess what? That’s the name of my local.’
We checked it out. Mike’s favourite pub sits on the south bank of the River Cam, Midsummer Common. It’s supposed to be one of the oldest in Cambridge itself and it’s usually just known as the Fort. A footbridge crosses the river there, the Fort St. George Bridge. The place is supposedly named for its resemblance to Fort St. George in old Madras, modern Chennai. But a quick glance at the pub sign hanging outside lends the lie to this.
I know because, for the best part of a year, it felt like I lived at the original Fort St. George, while I was writing The Doubtful Diaries.
Fort St. George in old Madras – the start of the Raj
It had been built in 1639, the very first British fortification in India, constructed by what was then the Honourable English East India Company. Fort St. George therefore stands almost as the prologue in the story of the British Raj, warts and all. And it was built on virtually uninhabited land, bordered by two tiny villages – Madraspatnam on one side, Chennapatnam on the other. The population of the two villages no more than a few hundred souls, on the south-eastern Coromandel Coast of India.
The great thing? Much of it’s still there, the walls intact and many other reminders of those early days remain standing. Of course, it’s now dwarfed by the metropolis that’s grown around it, a present population of over 7 million, and the name changed from Madras to Chennai back in 1996, the capital of Tamil Nadu.
Fort St. George and Catherine Hynmers Yale But let’s go back to 1670, and the arrival there of nineteen year-old Catherine Hynmers with her older husband, Joseph, a senior official for the East India Company. There, they moved into a substantial house on Middle Gate Street. The gate is still there – and so is the street, though it’s seen better days.
Catherine gave birth to four boys, possibly five, but in 1680, Joseph was taken by a fever. No wonder, for one in every five of the European population of Fort St. George died every year.
Joseph was buried inside an impressive mausoleum, beneath a tall pyramid – and his tomb still stands, complete with an inscription that confirms his status. But Catherine now had a difficult decision to make. Four surviving children, on the far side of the world, and in 1680 the far side of the world was very distant indeed. At least a six-month stinking, cramped and hugely perilous voyage, with only one stop on the way. She chose to look for a second husband, settled on an unlikely choice, a junior clerk called Elihu Yale. They were married at the newly consecrated St. Mary’s Church.
St. Mary’s stands too, in almost pristine condition, and the record of Yale’s marriage to Catherine still viewable in the parish register.
Yale, of course, gained much of Joseph’s wealth from the marriage, used it to furnish himself with not one mistress, but two – and to set them both up in a specially constructed villa, a “garden house.”
Meanwhile, Catherine had given birth to four more children, three girls and another boy, David Yale, who died while still a baby and was buried in the same mausoleum as Joseph Hynmers. David’s inscription can be seen on the tomb, too.
Fort St. George and the Indian Ocean Slave Trade
Yale himself had now risen to the position of Governor at Fort St. George and, in that position, he supervised the Company’s new and highly profitable trade in slaves – Indian slaves.
How do we know all this? Because, for all their sins, the East India Company kept meticulous records, minutes of every single, daily meeting that took place – the Consultation Books for Fort St. George. And, from those minutes, we see that each vessel bound for the English colony on St. Helena was required to carry ten Indian slaves, for there was then a great demand for slaves in that colony. In one month alone, over 600 Indian slaves are recorded as having been dispatched, either to St. Helena in the west, or to Sumatra in the east.
By 1689, Catherine – a woman of strong Dissenter beliefs – could stand the situation no longer and returned to England with her brood of children, and that’s where the Yale Trilogy leaves Fort St. George and Madraspatnam behind, more or less. Yale would eventually bequeath his name to one of the world’s great universities, though to Catherine he left nothing in his will but the slur of branding her a “wicked wife.”
But that, as they say, is another story and, clearly, it certainly wasn’t the end of the fort’s own saga.
Fort St. George and Later Celebrities
In 1744, another junior clerk arrived there. Robert Clive. Over the following nine years he distinguished himself in the East India Company’s army and, in 1753, married Margaret Maskelyne and they lived together in the fine mansion still known as Clive House. He would distinguish himself still further, of course, at the Battle of Plassey and elsewhere, and he would literally finish the work begun at Fort St. George a hundred years earlier – the establishment of British India and the British Empire.
Later still, the young Arthur Wellesley had a house in Fort St. George and it was within its walls that Major Stringer Lawrence laid the foundations for the Indian Army.
Apart from the buildings and the fortress walls, the Fort St. George Museum is still a great repository for almost four hundred years of British involvement and history in Madras, with all its contradictions.
Fort St. George – the Cambridge Connection
But what is the connection between that original Fort St. George and the pub in Cambridge? I have a favourite theory that it’s all connected to the story of Colonel Sir William Draper, who successfully defended Madras and its fortress, in 1758, against a siege by the French during the Seven Years War. Draper had close connections to Cambridge and, at the end of the conflict, he presented the colours he’d taken – both in India and the Philippines – to his old college, King’s College, Cambridge. The presentations apparently occasioned great celebration and hence, perhaps, Fort St. George itself became celebrated and fêted in the town.
If readers have other theories, or if you’ve visited the Fort – either in Chennai or in Cambridge – it would be great to hear from you.
Thank you to David Ebsworth for this exploration of one of the great historical buildings in India. If you’d like to contact him for more information you can find him on his website
“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” – Desmond Tutu
Mr Swiftstory and I have been watching The Secret History of Writing on TV. If you live in England you can watch this programme on ‘catch up’ and it’s well worth a look. One of the things that surprised me was how places like Turkey changed their written language from Arabic letters to Latinate letters overnight, and how this affected their society. Writing meant the unstoppable spread of ideas, and to me as a writer, this is its first appeal.
The Permanence of Speech
But it’s not only the printed word that is permanent. Yesterday I gave a zoom chat along with some other authors and discovered afterwards that it had been posted on Youtube here. It made me realize that now, even the words you speak – far from being transient, are now indelible on the internet for everyone to see/hear. So they have gained a kind of longevity. (But no-one knows for exactly how long). Making a gaffe could be painful, and worse, it could be around for very long time. So now, instead of the written word being recorded, the spoken word is also being made less ephemeral through podcasts, youtube and other types of recording equipment.
The Urge for Permanence
When we write books, often we are looking to give our words some weight and permanence, and this is why authors love to be published in a paperback or hardback edition. Digital words are only on loan to us, and so the kindle versions of books might be lost to us if no physical copy ever exists. So why do we want our words to be permanent? One obvious answer is, as a salve to the ego. A sort of proof that you were here on Earth and had made a big enough impression to leave a physical object behind.
The Inside Story
Yet its more than that, because books actually come from INSIDE us. They are a form of direct transmission experienced like an intravenous drug from one vein to another. And the fact you have experienced that journey is evidenced by the physical object, the book. This is why we can’t bear to part with books that have meant something to us, even if we never read them again. A novel transports us from the surface to the interior of who we are, and helps us understand why others behave the way they do.
It isn’t just the words but the story they carry. The novel can be a record of lived experience. In fiction the experience is an imagined one. This often makes it more of a reality for the reader than a non-imagined history. When writing A Plague on Mr Pepys, I turned to Daniel Defoe’s book Journal of the Plague Years, even though it was written years after the event and he must have had to re-imagine it all. The re-imagined history was stronger than the bare facts.
Historical fiction seeks to render realities of the past into present lived experience. But will historical fiction be permanent?
Archivists will probably not save historical fiction from the fire or flood. They have to decide which documents contain intrinsic value for future generations and so deserve permanence, and often this decision is based on whether the documents are ‘true’ or ‘first-hand’ accounts, and so there becomes a hierarchy of sources:
“One word in the archival lexicon used repeatedly without reflection is the word permanent. Archivists speak almost instinctively of their collections as being the permanent records of an individual or entity. The materials in archives are separated from the great mass of all the records ever created and are marked for special attention and treatment because they possess what is frequently identified as permanent value. Whether by accident or design—and the distinction is at the heart of the modem idea of appraisal—certain materials are selected by archives for preservation into the indefinite future. They are in that sense permanent.’’
On the Idea of Permanence – James M O’Toole American Archivist 1989
Our interpretation of the past shifts with every generation, so historical fiction needs to tap the archives anew for new fresh ways of re-presenting the same stories from history and then by making sure those interpretations are as widely available as possible.
In the programme The Secret History of Writing, much was made of the impact of printing on the permanence of ideas.
The Massachusetts Historical Society declared in 1806:
“There is no sure way of preserving historical records and materials, but by multiplying the copies. The art of printing affords a mode of preservation more effectual than Corinthian brass or Egyptian marble.”
So by printing multiple copies, we ensure that our re-presentations of history are never lost, even if archivists don’t save it, and despite any dystopia where there is no wifi, electricity, or wind-up radio.