Thursday, 11 February 2016

Magic, Witches & Devils at The John Rylands Library

Magic, Witches & Devils at The John Rylands Library

Ghosts, witches, sorcerers and demons: our fascination with the supernatural stretches back centuries. ‘Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World’ invites you to explore how supernatural forces shaped the lives of everyone from kings and queens to clergymen and maidservants.

This fascinating exhibition, housed within the gothic splendour of The John Rylands Library, reveals how magic, diabolical witchcraft and ghostly encounters inspired fear and curiosity on an unprecedented scale between the 15th and 18th centuries. 

Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic, Franconia, late 1500s. Copyright of The University of Manchester. The Compendium contains a set of instructions to summon eight evil spirits. This book was attributed to Michael Scot, whose infamy as a supposed magician was noted by famous Italian poet Dante.
Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic, Franconia, late 1500s. Copyright of The University of Manchester.
The Compendium contains a set of instructions to summon eight evil spirits. This book was attributed to Michael Scot, whose infamy as a supposed magician was noted by famous Italian poet Dante.

Curated by Jennifer Spinks and Sasha Handley from History at The University of Manchester, the exhibition presents rare books, prints, manuscripts and objects that illuminate the roots of our obsession with supernatural powers and reveal a world where the Devil was understood as a very real and present danger in daily life.

“One of the most exciting aspects of the exhibition”, according to Jennifer Spinks, “is how it looks at magical beliefs in European daily life while showing how similar fears and fascinations existed in other cultures, from Japan to the Islamic world.  With stunning local, European and non-Western examples from Manchester collections, this exhibition offers an exceptionally wide-ranging window onto the supernatural world.”

Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World runs from 21 January - 21 August 2016 at The John Rylands Library. This exhibition has been generously supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. 

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Caroline of Brunswick: Gothic Heroine

I am thrilled to welcome Hannah Moss today with the tale of a very real Gothic heroine!
Caroline of Brunswick’s Mysterious Warning
In her Gothic parody Northanger Abbey (1818) Jane Austen describes the perils and pitfalls of relating horrid novels to everyday situations with all the wit and verve we know and love her for. It’s all too easy to laugh at the craze for sensationalist Gothic literature when the shock and awe plots of novels churned out by the Minerva Press can seem so unrealistic, but Catherine Morland has a rather illustrious real life forebear in the form of Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821). The wife of George IV didn’t just read Gothic novels, she cast herself as the Gothic heroine of her own life story – and in many ways she had good reason to do so. The Hanoverians had far more family feuds, secret marriages, adulterous liaisons and illegitimate children than you’ll find in any eighteenth-century Gothic Romance.
Caroline of Brunswick
Caroline of Brunswick
It has to be said that Caroline was a surprise choice of wife for her cousin George, Prince of Wales. She may have fulfilled the requirements of being a Protestant German princess, but she was passionate, wilful and impulsive by nature. As a teenager her parents had practically kept her under lock and key to prevent her causing a scene in public, but without the social interaction required to polish her manners she lacked refinement. Caroline could hardly be described as an accomplished young lady; her English was bad and her letters showed a disregard for spelling and punctuation – even her personal hygiene was somewhat deficient, and it is rather telling that she remained unmarried at 27. However, Countess Eleonore von Münster, who had been brought in to teach the 15 year-old Caroline in 1783, did succeed on at least one level – and that was by nurturing her young charge’s love of literature. Caroline read voraciously, consuming a diverse range of books. Her literary tastes encompassed everything from religion and history to poetry and plays, but she developed a particular fondness for Gothic novels.
When Caroline arrived in England for her wedding in April 1795 the Prince barely took one glance at her before demanding a glass of brandy and leaving the room, claiming that he felt unwell. Neither of the pair made a good first impression. What’s more, the Prince was far too preoccupied with his latest mistress, the formidable Countess of Jersey (1753-1821), to be concerned with the woman he’d only considered marrying as a means of increasing his income to settle his debts. The Prince treated his mistress as a superior being, and this did not go unnoticed by his slighted wife. Caroline wrote to her mother to complain about Lady Jersey’s hold over her husband and say that she was afraid of what would happen. The Duchess of Brunswick duly passed on these fears to her brother George III, writing in October 1795: ‘I fear some black design, Lady Jersey turns every word the poor Princess says, and her whole thrust is to hurt her in your opinion.’ The Duchess went on to lament that her daughter was ‘frightened out of her senses.’ Did Caroline think her husband and his mistress were plotting against her? Was she scared of being locked away in a castle - or even framed for adultery? She certainly had the overactive imagination to believe it, fuelled by both her novel reading and real life events.
Caroline had every reason to be wary after what had happened to her older sister, Augusta (1764-1788). In a story worthy of a Minerva Press novel, Augusta had married Prince Frederick of Württemberg (1754-1816) in 1780, who at 6ft 11” and weighing 200kg towered over the petite princess and was, by her account, a violent and profligate husband. In 1786 - after having four children together - he cruelly abandoned his wife, blaming her licentious behaviour. However, Augusta’s version of events was that her scheming husband had actually arranged for a man to be caught in her room, but fearing such a plot she had insisted that her maid stayed with her at all times to prove her innocence. Augusta turned to the Russian royal court for sanctuary, but she later fell from Catherine the Great’s favour and was imprisoned for we know not what crime. Then in 1788 the family were suddenly informed of Augusta’s death. Precise details were not forthcoming and the body was never sent to Brunswick, giving rise to fanciful stories that Augusta had in fact escaped. No-one relished the possibility more than Caroline who delighted in recounting the various supposed sightings that were made across Europe, including an appearance in a box at the Genoa opera. The sad truth was that Augusta had actually died in childbirth. She had begun a relationship with Wilhelm von Pohlmann whilst in his custody at Lohde castle and had gone into premature labour with his illegitimate child. Not wanting to reveal their secret by seeking medical assistance, the baby was stillborn and Augusta died of blood loss. Caroline’s literary diet of Gothic novels had taught her to hope that escape was possible, but also alerted her to the dangers a similarly unhappy marriage could present.
Augusta of Brunswick
Augusta of Brunswick
The Prince and Princess of Wales had been married for a year and had a baby daughter by the time Eliza Parsons dedicated her 1796 novel The Mysterious Warning to Caroline – praising ‘the dignified features’ of the Princess’s character, which have insured ‘the affections of a grateful and admiring people’. The text is one of the seven ‘horrid novels’ which Isabella Thorpe recommends to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, and Parsons’ overriding message is one of filial obedience; marriage after marriage fails when entered into without parental consent. Given that the Prince had contravened the Royal Marriages Act (1772) by marrying the Roman Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert in secret makes the subject matter particularly relevant. Satirical prints, including Gillray’s ‘The Morning after Marriage’ (1788), had responded to the rumours that an illegal ceremony had taken place in 1785, but Parsons was more likely to have been interested in securing a fashionable patroness than in commenting on the unstable foundations of the Wales’ marriage in dedicating this work to her. Never the less, it is an interesting reminder of how life can imitate art, and vice versa. The plot twists of early Gothic novels definitely don’t seem quite so improbable when compared to the stories of family feuds, female incarceration, adultery and insanity amongst the Hanoverians!
Mysterious Warning
Mysterious Warning
Detested by her own husband and with a limited circle of females of her own rank permitted to see her, Caroline disappeared from view – her conspicuous absence from society  duly noted by Lady Palmerston, who described her as ‘our poor captive princess.’ Holed up in Carlton House, Caroline sought solace in reading and would initiate long conversations about literature with the sub-governess Miss Ann Hayman, who was employed to care for Princess Charlotte in 1797. In her letters Miss Hayman records how Caroline was full of praise for Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of the Abbey (1796), which she insisted on lending to her. Caroline may have been guilty of casting herself in the role of persecuted Gothic heroine, but her enthusiasm for such books also helped her to communicate with other women and a create a network of readers from a position of isolation. After all, part of the excitement of reading Gothic novels is undoubtedly sharing what you have read with others.

About the Author
Hannah Moss is a postgraduate student at the University of Sheffield with a research interest in eighteenth-century Gothic novels. In her spare time she is busy writing a biography of Lady Jersey.

Written content of this post copyright © Hannah Moss, 2016.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Jane Austen Festival Australia

Jane Austen returns to Canberra!
Step back in time and enjoy a weekend of delights in regency style.

The Jane Austen Festival Australia is an annual festival celebrating all things Jane Austen and Regency era including dancing, music, food, games, costumes and Jane Austen’s novels. This festival is now a regular part of the ACT Heritage Festival and Australian Heritage Week. Since it began in 2008, it has become regarded as a stand out Regency event Australia-wide. The 2016 Festival (15 – 17 April 2016) will include all of the favourites from 2015, along with exciting new additions to the program. 
The highlight of 2016 will be the now-famous Georgian Pleasures Ball, reliving an evening’s entertainment of the kind enjoyed at a Bath Assembly or Paris Opera bal public. Enjoy a Regency supper over candlelit tables, with dance performances, musical performances, and plenty of opportunity to be included in the dancing. If you’ve never danced before, then not to worry, the day of the ball will be filled with dance workshops for each of the dances in the evening. 
A true Regency weekend would not be complete with only a single ball. Each evening of the weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) will have its own Ball, with the relevant dance workshops during the day. 
If dancing is not for you, there will still be plenty of Regency events to fill your schedule. From Thursday, there will be a series of sewing masterclasses where you can make your own bonnet or gown, along with a number of smaller projects, such as lace making. Not into sewing either? Then come along to the selection of talks, presentations, classes, and game demonstrations that will have every member of the family entertained. For more information, and a detailed program, visit

What: The Jane Austen Festival Australia
Where: Albert Hall, Canberra
When: 15 – 17 April 2016
How much: Four days: $225; Single day: $85 - $125

Media contact: Aylwen Gardiner-Garden

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Fighting for Napoleon

It's an honour to welcome Dr Bernard Wilkin to the salon today for his expert take on fighting for Napoleon, in the words of the very soldiers themselves!


Book cover
I would like to thank you, madame, for having me here today. It’s always a pleasure to talk about my work in such a fine setting. As you probably know, Fighting for Napoleon has just been released by Pen and Sword. This historical study is a labour of love and a family affair. My own ancestor, Jean Lambert Wilkin, served in the French artillery and fought at the battle of Austerlitz. Admittedly, he deserted in 1808 after four years of service… 
Fighting for Napoleon is probably the first book in English entirely based around the correspondence of ordinary soldiers serving in the French army between 1799 and 1815. My father and I found more than 1,500 letters in the archives of Liège (Belgium). What makes this extraordinary body of sources essential is its lack of hindsight and its humility. Soldiers didn’t write for posterity and had no illusion of being important. They only wanted to keep alive a tenuous link with their family. French men wrote about everything. Battles, murders, food, uniforms and travelling were all common subjects. This correspondence tells us far more about the ordinary life in the French army than memoirs. French soldiers didn’t shy away from telling horrific stories of mutilations or brutal raids on civilian communities in Spain to their loved ones. This violence is not to be mistaken with coldness or inhumanity. French soldiers clearly had a different moral compass and felt that mistreating civilians was an inevitable part of warfare. All the aspirations of young men are represented in these letters. Money and family were important topics, but not as much as love. Far away from their fiancées, soldiers tried their best to keep the flame of romance alive. This is not to say that they didn’t seek romance with local girls or paid for sex. 
Fighting for Napoleon is divided in thematic chapters looking at essential aspects of the French army. Letters are carefully explained and their authors have been systematically identified.  I hope, madame, that you and your audience will enjoy reading this book. It is time for me to bid you farewell. Let me offer you, as a token of my appreciation, a love letter written by Augustin Moyarts, a young man who was conscripted in the artillery in 1809. I’m glad to say that he survived the Napoleonic wars.  
On board of the Trajan [A ship] 27 August 1812
My dear Marianne, this travel causes me displeasure because I am far from you. It seems to me that I have no interest in anything since I left you. Nothing interests me except if it relates to you. There is not even one thought that is about something else than you. I am not afraid because being away will not stop you from loving me, you said so yourself. I have such esteem for you that I cannot doubt the sincerity of your virtue. I feel perfectly safe about your fidelity but I am sad to be away. The reasons for which I love you are tormenting me. Miss, these days without you are lost. You must know how impatient I am to finish traveling. Your letters comfort me in my exile. I am your most faithful and tender servant. I received your letter on the fourth of this month. I was very pleased to know that you are in perfect health. I am well and we left for Antwerp. As soon as we arrived, we embarked again. I hoped to come home before embarking but I also hope to see you during winter. I end this letter by kissing you. With all my heart, I am for life your faithful friend. Greetings to your father, mother, brother and sister.

About the Author
Dr Bernard Wilkin is a military historian and a lecturer at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Fighting for Napoleon (Pen & Sword, 2015) and several articles on military history from 1799 to 1815. He can be contacted on twitter: @bernardwilkin

Written content of this post copyright © Bernard Wilkin, 2016.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Top 5 of January

As we gad into February, it’s time to settle with a cup of tea and take a look back at the most popular posts for the months just gone!

Mimi Matthews takes a look at a very useful accessory for fashionable ladies!

A trip north of the border with Alicia Quigely to discover the truth about tartan!

Join Rosy Cole and tread the scandalous boards…

A cheeky tale of bottoms from Suzan Lauder!

Don’t miss this fantastic new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Napoleon’s Smart Sister

It's a thrill to welcome the fantastic Shannon Selin to the salon today, with a tale of Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Napoleon’s smart sister. 


Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Napoleon’s smart sister
Elisa Bonaparte with her daughter in the Boboli Gardens,
Florence, by François Gérard, 1811
Not as well-known as her sisters, beautiful Pauline and treasonous Caroline, Elisa Bonaparte was more capable than either one of them. In fact, she was the Bonaparte sibling most like Napoleon, although she had the least influence over him. Napoleon himself said, “Elisa has the courage of an Amazon; and like me, she cannot bear to be ruled.” [1]
The ugly sister
Maria Anna Bonaparte – she did not adopt the name “Elisa” until she was about 18 – was born in Ajaccio, Corsica on 3 January 1777, seven and a half years after Napoleon. She was the fourth of Charles and Letizia Bonaparte’s eight surviving offspring, and their eldest daughter.
Since Napoleon moved to France to go to school when Elisa was just two years old, the two of them did not have a chance to become particularly close. The one anecdote we have of them together in Corsica does not reflect well on Elisa. She apparently allowed Napoleon to be whipped for having eaten a basket of a relative’s grapes and figs, even though she and a friend were the guilty parties. [2]
When she was seven, Elisa was admitted on charity to an exclusive boarding school at the convent of Saint-Cyr near Versailles. Her father died the following year. Napoleon, who was at the Royal Military School in Paris, kept an eye on her. A family friend recounts:
One day my mother, and some other members of my family, went on a visit to Saint-Cyr, and [Napoleon] Bonaparte accompanied them. When Marianne [Elisa] came into the parlour she appeared very melancholy, and at the first word that was addressed to her she burst into tears…. At length my mother learned that one of the young ladies…was to leave the school in a week, and that the pupils of her class intended giving her a little entertainment on her departure. Every one had contributed, but Marianne could not give anything, because her allowance of money was nearly exhausted: she had only six francs…. Napoleon’s first movement…was to put his hand into his pocket. However, a moment’s reflection assured him that he should find nothing there; he checked himself, coloured slightly, and stamped his foot…. My mother gave [Marianne] the money, and her distress was ended. [3] 
Elisa Bonaparte, Grand Duchess of Tuscany,
by Guillaume Guillon-Lethière
Elisa remained at Saint-Cyr until August 1792, when the French Revolution resulted in the closure of all religious houses. Newly promoted to captain in a French artillery regiment, Napoleon escorted his sister back to Corsica. 
The following year, Napoleon had a falling out with the Corsican nationalists. The Bonapartes fled to France. They wound up in Marseilles where, on 1 May 1797, Elisa married Félix Pasquale Baciocchi, a minor Corsican aristocrat and infantry captain 15 years her senior. Napoleon, who was by then a general, disapproved of the match. Although Baciocchi was a decent fellow, he had – as Austrian Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich put it – an “entire want of intellectual faculties.” [4]
For a while the couple lived with Elisa’s favourite brother, Lucien, with whom she shared a taste for literature and the fine arts. Elisa ran a salon in Paris frequented by the painters Jacques-Louis David and Antoine-Jean Gros, the writer François-René de Chateaubriand, and the poet Louis de Fontanes, who was said to be Elisa’s lover. In 1801, Lucien wrote:
Elisa is altogether taken up with savants. Her house is a tribunal where authors come to be judged. [5]
Though she was clearly intelligent, Elisa gained a reputation of being unattractive. arrogant and sharp-tongued. 
A harsh and domineering expression injured the effect of features which might otherwise have been pleasing, and her manner, which was abrupt and almost contemptuous toward inferiors, rendered her address distant and suspicious. Her bones were large and prominent, and her limbs ill-shaped: her gait was not graceful, and often subjected her to the playful mockeries of her sister Pauline. [6]
A benevolent despot
Elisa Bonaparte by Marie Guilhelmine Benoist,
about 1805
Like Caroline, Elisa was upset when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French and did not give her a title. In response, in 1805 Napoleon made Elisa and Baciocchi Princess and Prince of Piombino, a small principality on the west coast of Italy, opposite Elba. He soon added Lucca, north of Piombino, to their holdings.
While Baciocchi commanded their tiny army, Elisa governed. She took her duties seriously, ruling as a benevolent despot. She formed a court in imitation of the one in Paris, drew up a constitution, made laws, and saw to the interests of her domain within the Empire. In June 1806, she wrote to Napoleon:
If the public debt, the pensions and charges imposed on my States are not diminished, they will absorb more than half the revenues. Never in France, under the rule of your predecessors, did the debt exceed the quarter, while under your Empire it is barely a sixth of the proceeds. [7]
Lucca and Piombino prospered. Elisa promoted agriculture and industry, patronized the arts and letters, revived the marble quarries of Carrara, and opened schools and a new hospital. Niccolò Paganini became a court violinist. He gave private lessons to Baciocchi who, according to Lucien Bonaparte, could “scrape [the violin] passably, but so constantly is he at it that he ends by getting on the nerves both of his innocent instrument and his hearers.” [8]
Elisa did such a good job that, in 1809, Napoleon made her Grand Duchess of Tuscany, a place she had long had her eye on. She moved her court to the Pitti Palace in Florence, which she refurbished in competition with Caroline’s court in Naples. Baciocchi did not rise in rank and had little to do. As a general commanding the local military division, he remained under his wife’s supervision. The two lived apart and took lovers.
Franque Joseph
Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi by Joseph Franque,
Napoleon annexed Tuscany directly to France, so Elisa had less freedom of action there than in Lucca and Piombino, though she did her best to pretend that she was an independent ruler. She complained to Napoleon about interference from French officials. Napoleon sent her letters like this one:
You have the right to appeal to me against my Minister’s decisions, but you have no right to hinder their execution in any way. The Ministers speak in my name. No one has any right to paralyse, or stop the execution, of the orders they transmit. Will you, therefore, be good enough to recommence the carrying out of the Minister’s decision, and to revoke the prohibition you have issued? For the order you gave in this case is criminal, and, in strict law, an accusation against you might be founded on it. … You are a subject, and, like every other French subject, you are obliged to obey the orders of the Ministers – for a writ of Habeas Corpus, issued by the Minister of Police, would fully suffice to arrest you. [9]
Elisa was at least able to blame the imperial government for measures that proved unpopular. She took credit for the popular ones.
Elisa Bonaparte by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon
When Napoleon’s empire began to crumble in early 1814, Caroline’s husband Joachim Murat – who had joined the coalition against Napoleon – sent troops to occupy Tuscany. He allowed Elisa to remain as ruler of Lucca. Seeing that Napoleon was on his way out and hoping to secure her own position, Elisa too broke with France. She wrote to Napoleon in February:
Surrounded by powerful enemies, menaced by land and by sea, betrayed by the King of Naples who deserted your cause, I remain alone in the midst of numerous armies assembled against us. I am alone, without money, without troops, without munitions; in these desperate circumstances, what more can I do for Your Majesty? … [I]t is time that I look after my own interests, that I retain for my family the States that I owe them. [10]
The Tuscans showed no sign of attachment to their Grand Duchess. They hailed the invaders, who were soon joined by the British. Elisa and Baciocchi fled. They tried, unsuccessfully, to make off with the silver and furniture from several of the palaces. As they journeyed across Italy, seeking a place of asylum, Elisa gave birth to a son, Frédéric, on August 10, 1814, just – as one wag put it – “at a moment when she ceased to have need of an heir.” [11] Two earlier sons, born in 1798 and 1810, had died as babies. Elisa also had a daughter, Elisa Napoléone, born at Lucca on 3 June 1806.
When Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France in March 1815, the Austrians arrested Elisa and imprisoned her in the fortress of Brünn. She was released once Napoleon was safely on his way to exile on St. Helena. Elisa was given permission to live in Trieste, where she assumed the title of Countess of Compignano. Baciocchi acquired a comfortable villa, which Elisa furnished luxuriantly. She continued to patronize artists and the theatre. She also financed archaeological digs in the area. In June 1820 Elisa contracted a severe infection, from which she died on 7 August 1820 at the age of 43.
Félix Baciocchi by Joseph Franque
Félix Baciocchi by Joseph Franque,
about 1805

When the news of Elisa’s death reached Napoleon, he shut himself up alone for several hours. When he emerged, he said, “There is the first member of my family who has set out on the great journey; in a few months I shall go to join her.” [12] He died nine months later, on 5 May 1821. 
Napoleon told one of his companions on St. Helena:
[Elisa] was a woman of a masterly mind. Had I not been in existence, what is said of the Duchess of Angoulême, that she wears the breeches of the family, might with reason be said of her. She had noble qualities and a remarkable mind; but no intimacy ever existed between us; our characters were opposed to this. [13] 
Baciocchi moved to Bologna, where he had Elisa’s remains interred in the Basilica of San Petronio. He died in 1841. Their son Frédéric was killed in a riding accident in 1833, at the age of 18. Their daughter Elisa Napoléone married a rich Italian count, from whom she separated after a couple of years. Her only child, Charles, committed suicide at the age of 26. Thus Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi has no living descendants.
  1. Charles J. Ingersoll, History of the Second War between the United States of America and Great Britain, Second Series, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1853), p. 174.
  2. Laure Junot, Memoirs of Napoleon, his Court, and Family, Vol. 1 (New York, 1881), pp. 15-16.
  3. Memoirs of Napoleon, his Court, and Family, Vol. 1, p. 31.
  4. Metternich, Richard, ed., Memoirs of Prince Metternich, 1773-1815, Vol. 1 (New York, 1881), p. 309. 
  5. Joseph Turquan, The Sisters of Napoleon, translated and edited by W.R.H. Trowbridge (London, 1908), p. 22.
  6. Frank B. Goodrich, The Court of Napoleon (Philadephia, 1875), p. 260.
  7. The Sisters of Napoleon, p. 55.
  8. The Sisters of Napoleon, p. 14.
  9. Lady Mary Lloyd, New Letters of Napoleon I, edited by Léon Lecestre (New York, 1898), p. 150.
  10. Frédéric Masson, Napoléon et Sa Famille, Vol. 9 (Paris, 1907), p. 260.
  11. The Sisters of Napoleon, p. 77.
  12. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 250.
  13. Charles Tristan Montholon, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena, Vol. 3 (London, 1847), p. 142.

About the Author
Shannon Selin
Shannon Selin is the author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Napoleon had escaped from St. Helena and wound up in the United States in 1821. She blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at

Written content of this post copyright © Shannon Selin, 2016

Thursday, 28 January 2016

An Interview with Barbara Gaskell Denvil

I am absolutely delighted to welcome Barbara Gaskell Denvil to the salon today for a chat about writing, inspiration and her fabulous novels. Barabara has been a friend and champion of the blog from the very early days and it's a privilege to share a pot of tea with her!


It’s lovely to talk to you Catherine. I feel I’ve known you for years – and consider you one of the hardest working bloggers online. So thanks very much for the chance to chat.

1. Is it your love of history which inspires your writing, or is it your writing which inspires your love of history?

Each has always inspired the other. I come from a literary family and writing seemed the natural thing to do. As a child I never learned to ride a bike nor went on holidays to the beach, for all my gifts on Christmas and birthdays were automatically books, pencils, paints or pens.  But then my love of history, probably first prompted by a passion for Shakespeare on stage and film, combined with the writing and seemed to bring everything to life. There are so many historical periods and charters that I find endlessly fascinating, such as the English civil war and the following Restoration, Wellington and the Napoleonic wars, the relentless march towards French self-destruction and its poor victims such as Marie Antoinette, the rise and fall of Catholic power and the many eccentric popes, the battling Italian States and the English road onwards from Feudalism towards the end of the medieval period before the Tudors. I am immensely moved by the struggle and suffering of past eras and those attempting to escape disease and injustice, and all this haunts my dreams. In particular my passion finally took me to the winding alleyways of 15th century London. That seemed to absorb me so completely, that I have based most of my historical novels in that period.

2. Is all your fiction set in the late medieval, or have you ever written anything different? 

I also adore fantasy, and my latest novel, which will be published worldwide in both Kindle and paperback editions at the end of this month, is the first part of a fantasy trilogy. This book is entitled A White Horizon, and is set beyond the Arctic Circle during the 9th century. Still history then – but the plot is pure fantasy. 

I have always read and adored every single genre, but the novels which have influenced me most over the years have either been historical fiction – or fantasy. Certainly that is why those are now what I write myself.

My three existing published novels are historical fiction. So now comes the fantasy...

3. Well, clearly you have a favourite time period for your writing. Do you also have favourite characters amongst your own books? 

All my heroes, I’m afraid, are usually my favourite characters. And the one I love most is whichever one I’m writing at the time. I love my heroines too, but I usually identify with them – so they combine with me, and together we fall for the hero! But actually I love my minor characters and my villains too. I put so much into characterisation because I believe that is the heart and soul of every book, even more than the plot. So they all come alive to me, they move in and live with me, and are my very best friends while each book is being written.

4. Do you agree with those clichéd nuggets of advice most authors have heard a hundred times? Such as, “Write what you know”, and “Never write ten words when you could use five”

No, I think most advice given to authors is subjective, and also depends on passing fashions. I write novels with plenty of mystery, adventure, crime and danger set in the distant past and sometimes fantastical – so no – not at all the life I have lived myself. Writing ‘what I know’ would be very limiting. I suppose we all include elements of whatever we have learned and experienced in our lives, but in general I do not at all believe we should restrict ourselves to writing only what we know. I rarely enjoy the books of those writers who do. The contemporary short novels concerning people – invariably embittered women – who lead more boring lives than we do ourselves – do not interest me much. 

Nor do I believe in minimalism. We all write to the length our plots demand, and I tend to write long fast-paced novels crammed with variety.

I prefer the advice offered to us by Somerset Maugham: He said, “There are only three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

5. So has your own life inspired you at all? And do you live a quiet life, preferring the author’s supposedly essential isolation?

My own life has taught me a great deal, and I’ve lived through many changes, challenges, extremes and contradictions.  I’m half English, half Australia, and have three adult daughters including identical twins. I have lived at length in six different countries and travelled to many others as I lived on a yacht sailing the Mediterranean for many years. Widowed, I now live in rural Australia and am loving the peace. But not isolation. Authors need the quiet times to be alone with their imaginations and their computers, but we also need the opportunity to bounce our ideas off other people’s opinions. 

My life is certainly more peaceful than it was when I was younger, but too much isolation turns imagination to madness.

6. Introduce us to your three published novels.

SATIN CINNABAR starts on the battlefield of Bosworth, and is basically a romantic crime mystery. A family murder implicates the hero, who must prove his innocence while also coming to terms with a new king and enforced regime. History combines with fiction, and my characters go through some extraordinary adventures before they really discover their own bonds of love and friendship.

SUMERFORD’S AUTUMN is set just a little later during those early years of the dawning Tudor dynasty. Genuine history again leads into fiction, with coverage of the ‘Perkin Warbeck’ affair and subsequent treason, arrest and torture, with plenty of other adventures, threats and dangers combined with friendship, loyalty and romance. 

BLESSOP”S WIFE is set earlier around the time of Edward IV’s death. History again combines with many fictional characters, twists and turns. The romance is fundamental to the plot but there is a great deal more than that.

I don’t base any of my novels around the kings, queens and other genuine historical figures from our school books – although some of these make relevant appearances between my pages. But I prefer to follow the ordinary folk, and the lives of trouble and struggle which were endemic in those times.

7. What do you plan next?

My next published novel (due out soon) is pure fantasy! It  is the first of a trilogy, entitled A WHITE HORIZON. Quite a change of direction for me! It is still set against a historical background, although a very different one since I go back to the frozen north of the 9th century. But this book demanded far less historical research, and was a joy to write. I certainly haven’t finished with historical fiction and my planned fourth hist/fic (The Flame Eater) will be out in the not too distant future – but a little fantasy can be a delightful change from time to time and gives my inner inspiration free reign.

It’s been great talking to you, Catherine – I’ve enjoyed talking all about myself for once.!!

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Written content of this post copyright © Barbara Gaskell Denvil, 2016.