Unto This Last in certainly a great big brick of a book, but trust me every word of it is solid gold. I’ve been a fan of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites since my teens and have many other books about their works and lives. Unto This Last is different – it’s a painstakingly constructed fictional account of Ruskin’s life, researched from his correspondence and archive material. It centres on his infatuation with the child Rose La Touche, who starts the book as one of his pupils, and the novel tracks this relationship through the following years until she is an adult.
Uncomfortable reading? Given that Ruskin is thirty years older than Rose you might think so, but one of the strengths of the book is its examination of love in all its forms. It is not afraid to question, to analyse, and allow such things as cross-generational love to exist without censure.
The novel shows Ruskin as a flawed individual, obsessed with the idea of nature’s superiority over industry, with his own struggles to find a place for craft to still exist in this new factory-driven world in which he finds himself. His search for beauty gives the places he visits great texture and beauty in this book, as we experience them through his eyes on his Grand Tour. Rebecca Lipkin does a superb job of weaving impressions from his existing artworks and writings into a descriptive narrative we can understand.
The novel has many well-known characters of the era coming and going in its pages – Mr and Mrs Carlyle (the latter who dies during the book), Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt, the young painter Millais, and of course Effie Gray, to whom Ruskin is married. Lipkin does not flinch from the pain Ruskin caused her during their marriage. When in Venice, Ruskin, rapt with the vision of the past, calls it the ‘paradise of cities’ , whereas Effie, whom he does not understand and is virtually ignoring, takes ‘warped delight’ in throwing cold water on all his enthusiasms. The marriage is of course eventually annulled, to great scandal.
Rose La Touche takes centre stage again in Part Four. She must cope with a mother who was obsessed with Ruskin herself, and a father who is a religious pedant. Of course Maria La Touche objects strongly to the idea that Rose might marry Ruskin, for reasons all sensible mothers might – he is old, and made his first wife desperately unhappy. Rose too is suffering, both from a kind of mystical religious feeling, and from her fragile mental health.
I will not mention how the novel concludes, but urge anyone with an interest in the period or the history of art to read this. The amount of research in itself is astounding, but more than that, it is a tour de force, written with sensitivity, depth and insight. I’d be happy if this was what I was leaving to posterity. Very highly recommended.
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 . . .
I’m delighted to Welcome Tom Williams to my Blog today to tell us about how he came to write the Burke series, described succinctly by Paul Collard as ‘James Bond in Breeches.’ Over to Tom:
Why James Burke? Would it make any sense to say I did it for the money?
If I’m being honest, it can’t really have been for the money, because I know that writing fiction (and particularly historical fiction) is never going to make you rich. But I started writing about Burke as a (sort of) commercial exercise.
Let me explain.
My first novel was The White Rajah. It was based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Like most would-be novelists with my first book, I desperately wanted to write the Great British Novel. I was fascinated by Brooke’s character and the history of how he had come to rule his own kingdom in Borneo and I tied this in with ideas about colonialism and the morality of British rule around the world. Just in case I hadn’t weighted the book down with enough “significance”, Brooke was almost certainly gay and there’s a whole subplot about that. And, as the cherry on the cake, the whole thing is written in the first person and (given that this first person was writing in the mid-19th century) not in the most accessible language.
Despite this, I got an agent! And the agent got rejections from every major publisher he approached. It was, they all claimed, “too difficult” for a first novel. “Why don’t you,” he suggested, “write something more accessible? Still historical, but more the sort of thing people are going to want to read?”
I was stumped. I asked friends for ideas. I even asked Jocelyn, an Alaskan tango dancer I’d met in Buenos Aires (as you do).”Why don’t you,” she said “write about the early European settlers in South America? They have some brilliant tales to tell.”
Jocelyn does not like stories with a lot of violence. I think she was looking more at the explorers and the politicians, or even the ordinary people who left Europe in vast numbers to build a new world in the New World. But when I started randomly looking for European figures in the early colonial history of South America, the one who caught my eye was James Burke.
Burke was a soldier, but we have good reason to believe that he spent most of his time as a spy. The first book I wrote about him, Burke in the Land of Silver, is very close to his true story. Sent to Buenos Aires to scout out the possibility of a British invasion, he explored what is now Chile, Peru and Bolivia, returning to Buenos Aires to assist with the British invasion when it finally came.
I’ve obviously never met Burke, but the little we know about him still gives a strong idea of his character. He was an Irish Catholic who had joined the French army because the British Army did not offer an impecunious Irishman much possibility of advancement. We know he was something of a snob, at one stage changing his name to something that sounded more prestigious than Burke. He ingratiated himself with rich and powerful men, but he does seem to have been good at his job. In any case, there was a James Burke on the Army list long after the Napoleonic wars were over, so he did seem to be kept busy doing whatever it was that he was doing.
It’s this uncertainty about his career that makes him an ideal candidate for a series of books. (If you want to sell nowadays, it’s best to write a series – like Deborah’s excellent trilogy based around Pepys’ life.) He was a spy. He moved in the dark and nobody is quite sure what his missions were. So I can make them up. And what a brilliant period of history it is to make up spy stories about. I’m in a long tradition of sales of derring-do about spies during the wars with France, from the Scarlet Pimpernel to O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin and Iain Gale’s James Keane.
Each Burke story is set around a different Napoleonic campaign. After the British invasion of Buenos Aires (Burke in the Land of Silver) we see him in Egypt’s during Napoleon’s invasion that country (Burke and the Bedouin) and in Paris and Brussels during Napoleon’s textile and returned to power (Burke at Waterloo). The latest story (though not told in chronological order) finds him fighting in the Peninsular War, specifically around the battle of Talavera.
The Burke of Bedouin and Waterloo is entirely fictional, but his adventures in the peninsula are based on another real-life spy, Sir John Waters. In all the books, whether Burke’s adventures are entirely fictional or based on fact, the military and social background is as accurate as I can make it. In fairness I can’t make it all that accurate, but I have gradually found a network of people who really understand the Napoleonic Wars and who have been generous enough to share their understanding with me.
I like James Burke as a hero because he is often far from heroic. Cynical, snobbish, and an inveterate womaniser with an eye for the main chance, it’s easy to dismiss him as an arrogant officer who relies on the solid good sense of his servant, William Brown, to achieve anything. But Brown will be the first to disagree with you, pointing out that when the chips are down Burke will, often reluctantly, always do the right thing. The fact that the right thing isn’t always what his military masters would want him to do, just makes it more interesting. When push comes to shove, he is not only physically but morally brave.
I have come to be quite fond of James Burke. His next adventure will see him in Ireland in 1793 where he is charged with infiltrating the Irish nationalist movement. Perhaps this early mission explains much of his cynicism, for it is his darkest and most morally dubious adventure in the series. But that’s to come. For now, we can relax and enjoy the fun as his schemes, fights, and romances his way through the chaos that is the Peninsular War.
Burke in the Peninsula will be published on 25 September. It is available on Amazon at £3.99 on Kindle and £6.99 in paperback.
I knew nothing about Walter Ralegh, except the legends I’d been told at school; about how he lay down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth I. Was this legend true? Read more here on History Extra to find out.
In his novel, Fortune’s Hand, R N Morris treats us to a visceral interpretation of Ralegh’s life. This is an extraordinary novel. We experience it from multiple points of view, from the acorn that will grow to become the oak timbers of the ship he will sail in, to the teeming life within an old ship’s biscuit. Much of Elizabethan life on board ship is ugly and brutal. We are shown a thief having his hand cut off, and later we witness a massacre in Ireland, and wince at the way a horse might pick its way across a corpse-strewn field. Yet the writing of it is always lyrical, and Morris gives these events a strange kind of beauty. What impresses is that Raleigh experiences these things as part and parcel of his life – to him they are every day occurrences. We are really treated to the mind-set of an Elizabethan man.
Ralegh is of course obsessed with gold, and we see his ambition and his turbulent relationship with the Queen. Yet his literary ambitions are also on show – the novel includes a whole scene after a tennis match written in blank verse, where the dialogue zips back and forth like a tennis ball as if we are in a Shakespeare play. Above all, this is a novel that explores what it is to be a historical novel. It is unlike any other historical novel of the period, and its skilful research and execution are much to be admired.
I’m delighted to welcome J.G Harlond today, for a post about memory and research, and the writing of her cosy Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries.
J.G Harlond is a British author of historical crime novels. After travelling widely, Jane and her Spanish husband are now settled in rural Andalucía, Spain. Do grab a coffee and sit to enjoy this interesting insight into a writer’s process.
Over to Jane:
Like Deborah, I write fiction set in the 17th Century and World War Two. I enjoy the hard work that goes into writing about both epochs, but I have to admit my new story, Private Lives (set 1942), has been challenging. On the surface, writing a cosy historical crime with a touch of black comedy should have been easier than writing The Chosen Man Trilogy, for example, but it wasn’t.
Ludo da Portovenere’s wicked adventures in Europe and India in the mid-seventeenth century are all based on documented history. Each story includes facts, researched social and commercial data, plus a few lesser known historical details such as what happened to some of the most valuable English Crown Jewels during the English Civil War: what happens to Bob Robbins in Devon and Cornwall during the nineteen-forties also includes researched data and surprising facts, but Bob’s stories also draw on personal memory. Not that I lived through the Second World War: I’m not that old! The background and ambience of Local Resistance and Private Lives, however, rely to an extent on how I interpreted wartime life from my parents’ and grand-parents’ references and anecdotes. This in turn involves a certain amount of speculation on how other ‘ordinary’ families lived in small towns, rural and coastal communities.
In my mind’s eye, while I am writing, I can see what is happening in those days: the hand-knitted cardigans and walnut-laminated wireless sets, wooden draining boards and rolled newspapers fanning flames out of a few bits of coal. I was a post-war baby, born while the war and food rationing were a recent memory. Little was said in my hearing about the war itself, but the Home Front, that was a different matter. Tales about how goods fell off the back of a lorry, reminders to wear something white at night (to avoid getting run over in the black-out), to make do and mend; anecdotes about fire-watch duties, poker games and local dances . . . These must have settled into the back of my mind the way popular song lyrics do.
Nobody belittled the difficulties they endured, but in the daily struggle – and it was a struggle – there was a lot of humour. Life was dangerous and unpredictable, even in rural or coastal areas where a random bomber might dump unused bombs on the way back to base. This happened. I remember distinctly being told about a primary school where the only child to survive had been at home in bed with a sore throat.
People were stoic, but not passé, although a survey conducted in London in November 1940 revealed only 40% of the population went into an air-raid shelter on a regular basis. Most Londoners preferred to risk sudden death in their own beds. Anderson shelters constructed in back gardens were chilly, relatively flimsy affairs, and must have been very unpleasant on winter nights. Morrison shelters, large steel tables with inbuilt cages that took up most of the floor space of the average sitting-room were preferable, but offered only limited safety. Larger homes created well-prepared refuge rooms in basements. Londoners who had access to none of these installed themselves in underground Tube stations, where there was no sanitation or comfort beyond the company of strangers. The inhabitants of Plymouth pushed blankets and thermos flasks into babies’ prams or garden wheel-barrows and trekked out of the city to sleep under the stars on Dartmoor.
Think about that for a minute: how did mothers with young children cope? How did the elderly cope with the long walk and discomfort? Yet cope, they did.
In both town and country, people relied on the black-out to keep them safe. Thick black curtains were hung at all windows: no home, no car or bicycle could show a beam of light for fear of attracting enemy bombers. Road accidents on winter evenings were commonplace.
Daily life, the basic domestic round, goes on under the most extreme of circumstances everywhere, of course, even today. Children have to be fed and educated; homes need to be clean and kept warm. Parents in every country involved feared for their offspring at the front between 1939 and 1945, and they themselves had to get to work in appalling circumstances after sleepless nights. But life went on.
In Britain, there was the added, critical risk of imminent invasion. Cinema news reels showed footage of Poland, the Netherlands and Channel Islands: this could happen in Britain. It was a terrifying thought. Something modern film-makers and writers frequently overlook. The detail about the German U-boat surfacing off the Cornish coast to take on fresh water in Local Resistance was taken from a German sailor’s account. I didn’t invent that.
With all these threats and challenges, how on earth did the British maintain a positive outlook, or morale as it was called then? The answer lies largely in our idiosyncratic sense of humour and capacity for self-mockery, bolstered by light entertainment on the wireless and at the cinema.
Mrs Miniver demonstrated how even the most polite of middle-class women can be as tough as steel when a Nazi appears at their door.
All this, family anecdotes, academic research, and a particularly English brand of humour slips into my Home Front mysteries. How a Cornish fishing village called on its ancient smuggling tradition to evade rationing while preparing to defend their country when ‘Jerry’ landed forms the background to Local Resistance; how people as diverse as Land Army girls and unemployed London actors coped with the daily drudge three years into the war underlies the shenanigans and criminal activities in Private Lives.
The Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas has a wonderful line in the opening of his memoir about growing up in Wales during the Great War: beyond his Wales, he says, “lay England, which was London, and a country called ‘The Front’ from which many of our neighbours never came back”. The Front was obviously perilous, but how life went on in unoccupied Britain, how people coped in the face of incessant difficulties and dangers required its own form of bravery, which deserves to be celebrated.
PRIVATE LIVES – Cozy crime with a sinister twist in wartime England.
While reluctant wartime detective Bob Robbins is enjoying a few days’ holiday he becomes involved in a shooting incident on a derelict farm. An elderly farmer lies injured, then disappears. A young man is found dead in the barn. Bob reports the incident to the local police but they are so over-stretched with Home Front duties he finds himself in charge of the case. In urgent need of assistance, Bob requests the help of the young police recruit Laurie Oliver. They take rooms at Peony Villas, an unusual sort of guest house where a troupe of London actors are in residence, and where Bob soon finds himself involved in yet another peculiar mystery.