Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Madame Gilflurt's Georgian Gallimaufry: Dr Samuel Johnson

Today, the estimable Mr Gareth Southwell and I are proud to reveal the first name to be honoured with a place in Madame Gilflurt's Georgian Gallimaufry. We threw open the salon doors and asked readers for their nominations and one character in particular proved popular. A gentleman of words, singular habits and legendary status in the history of English language, we are proud to welcome Samuel Johnson and the tale of his 1755 masterwork, A Dictionary of the English Language.

A man of letters who lived a most eventful life, Dr Johnson had already known a somewhat checkered few years when he was approached by a group of immensely influential publishers and invited to write an exhaustive dictionary of the English language, in order to finally lay to rest the numerous incomplete works already in existence. In return, Dr Johnson would be bound by a contract worth 1,500 guineas (some £210,000 today) ​and in June 1746, the debt​-​ridden lexicographer signed that same contract with a promise that he would deliver the book before three years had passed. This proved to be a somewhat optimistic aim but nevertheless, Johnson's dedication did not waver.

At the start of the process, Johnson wrote his work, A Plan for a Dictionary of the English Language, under the patronage of Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield. The Plan set out his methodology and goals and clearly set out the reasons behind the work. Alas, his relationship with the Earl was not a happy one as Johnson saw little of his illustrious patron and received little or no assistance from him. Finally, seven years after their relationship began, Johnson wrote to Chesterfield and asked him famously, "Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?" 

For nine years, the dedicated gentleman worked tirelessly to complete the work for which he had been commissioned and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the impact on his home life was not a happy one. Johnson's eleven year marriage to Elizabeth Jervis Porter, known as "Tetty", had not always been harmonious and the disruption of the Dictionary proved somewhat unsettling to the household. Tetty, by now suffering from the illness that would kill her, was concerned that her home would be disrupted by Johnson's noisy copyists and assistants but a move to Gough Square placated Tetty and provided valuable extra breathing space for all concerned.

Tetty died in 1752 and the devastated Dr Johnson worked on, filling the void left by his beloved wife with words and toil. Thousands of hours were devoted to the compilation of the book, with 42,773 entries populating 2,300 densely-packed pages. Johnson's personality is writ large throughout the Dictionary and he never missed a chance to stamp his mark on the definitions therein, with the entry for own profession of lexicographer famously reading, "a harmless drudge".

On 15th April 1755, some nine years after Johnson began work on A Dictionary of English Language, his monumental work was finally published to enormous acclaim. Not only was it vast in terms of the scope of the project, but physically too, and the sheer size of the book meant that it came with a hefty price tag. Yours for the princely sum of £4 10s​ (more than £400 today)​, Johnson's work would not see a profit for years.

Original illustrations featured in Madame Gilflurt's Georgian Gallimaufry can be purchased direct from Gareth Southwell. To find out more about Gareth and his work, please visit him at www.patreon.com/woodpig and www.woodpig.co.uk.

Monday, 22 September 2014

"I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country": The Execution of Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale (Coventry, America, 6th June 1755 – New York, America, 22nd September 1776)

Statue of Nathan Hale

Once again today we find ourselves in the land of my colonial gentleman's birth and, in fact in the very state from which he hails. This is not a happy occasion though, as we are here to mark the execution of Nathan Hale, a Yale graduate executed by the British for espionage after being apprehended during an intelligence-gathering mission that ended in failure.

Apprehended by the British whilst seeking information, Hale was brought before General William Howe. A cursory search of the Captain revealed sketches of fortifications, notes and other intelligence information and Hale admitted to his mission, knowing the game was up. Immediately upon learning of his purpose, General Howe sentenced Hale to execution by hanging the following morning and the young man was taken to his temporary prison.

In fact, he spent the night before his execution held in a greenhouse at Beekman House, Howe's Manhattan home. With no hope of clemency, he awaited the coming dawn with stoicism, preparing himself for that final day. The prisoner's requests first for a clergyman and then for a copy of the Bible were refused and instead Hale resigned himself to a long, no doubt unhappy night.

Early in the morning of 22nd September, 1776, Hale composed two final letters, writing one to his mother and one to a fellow officer. As eleven o'clock on that Autumn morning he walked along Post Road to the Park of Artillery with dignity and composure. Here he made a short speech, the content of which has been discussed ever since, went calmly to the noose and passed into American history.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

A Salon Guest... David Ebsworth and The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour

Today I welcome a guest to the salon once more as David Ebsworth joins us to to tell the tale of the remarkable women of Waterloo and how two in particular inspired him to set pen to paper and write The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour.


On the bloody fields of Waterloo, a battle-weary canteen mistress of Bonaparte’s Imperial Guard battalions must fight to free her daughter from all the perils that war will hurl against them – before this last campaign can kill them both.

I enjoy telling stories that I wish somebody else had written for me but which have so far been overlooked. They are therefore generally set outside the most “popular” periods of historical fiction. Yet, with the bicentenary of Waterloo coming up – and the Napoleonic era remaining one of my personal favourite periods of history – it was inevitable that I would be drawn towards setting my fourth book around this most famous and important of battles.

But from which angle? I like the view that the role of historical fiction writers should be to “identify the gaps” and then fill them. 

So it became instantly obvious to me that, while there have been several famous novels with Waterloo settings written by foreign writers (Les Misérables and The Charterhouse of Parma, to mention just a couple), I wasn’t really aware of any English-language tales of the battle from a French perspective. And yes, I know that this will probably invite a whole pile of brick-bat responses to correct my ignorance, but such was my perspective – that there was a “gap” for readers wanting to know how the Hundred Days campaign might look from a French viewpoint. I was personally intrigued by this too, and it didn’t take me long to realise that the perspective is very different indeed. For one thing, even the best of our English-language historians pay scant regard to anything except the three “main” battles, at Ligny, Quatre Bras and Waterloo itself. But what about the other battles fought by the French armies over the same four or five days? At Charleroi, Gilly, Genappe and Wavre? Barely a word.

Similarly, there are plenty of classic novels that put women at the centre of their Waterloo stories. These are typically plot lines about English camp followers, or aristocratic lovers of Wellington’s officers. Nothing wrong with any of that, but hard to see a “gap” that might need filling. Yet what about French women who may have actually fought in those battles? How might they have seen things? In the wake of French Revolution, for example.

Hence the basis on which I began writing The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour.

And I love this story. It was really inspired when I read a factual account of French Napoleonic cantinière, Madeleine Kintelberger, who served with Bonaparte’s 7th Hussars during the Austerlitz campaign and was caught up in fighting against the Russian Cossacks while protecting her children who were also with her on the battlefield. Her husband had been killed by cannon fire and Madeleine held off the Cossacks with a sword that she had picked up, losing her own right arm in the process, being slashed and speared by lances on several occasions, and being shot in each leg. She was pregnant with twins at the time. The Russians took her prisoner and she eventually returned to France with her children, where she was received in person by the Emperor and awarded a military pension. Yet the most astonishing aspect of all this was the fact that Madeleine was simply one of hundreds of women serving in such positions in the French army’s front lines, many of them with similar incredible tales and yet largely ignored in fiction and non-fiction alike. Madeleine did not serve at Waterloo, but other cantinières, like Thérèse Jourdan and Marie Tête-du-Bois certainly did so.

And then, almost immediately afterwards, I also came across the real-life exploits of Marie-Thérèse Figueur who had joined the French revolutionary army in 1793 in her own right as a woman and who served with distinction in various Dragoon regiments through most of Bonaparte’s major campaigns until 1814 when she retired and opened a table d’hôte restaurant in Paris. Once again, her story was not particularly unusual. She also did not fight at Waterloo but we know, for example, that at least one or two women soldiers died on the battlefield – including the unidentified “beautiful” woman whose body was found in the aftermath of the fight by Volunteer Charles Smith of the 95th Rifles.

So the proposition was simple. What if two fictional women, but based on the real-life characters of Kintelberger and Figueur, were brought together by something more than a simple twist of fate during Bonaparte’s final campaign, in June 1815, that culminated in the Battle of Waterloo? And what if that “something” had a mystical element that would have been very typical of the age’s flirtations between the scientific and the spiritual?

In addition, since I was thinking about the battle from a French perspective, I began to consider bringing into the tale some of those characters from French literature, as I’ve already mentioned, who also have a Waterloo connection. So you may find the Thénardiers (from Hugo’s Les Misérables) or Fabrizio del Dongo (from Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma) wandering through these pages also. I hope you can forgive their intrusion and my presumptions! Indeed, if you should notice any other cameo appearance that may or may not resemble an additional literary figure or two, I hope you might forgive that also. 

David Ebsworth

David Ebsworth has published three previous novels: The Jacobites’ Apprentice, Finalist in the Historical Novel Society’s 2014 Indie Award; The Assassin’s Mark, set during the Spanish Civil War; and The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War. Each of these books has been the recipient of the coveted B.R.A.G. Medallion for independent authors.

More details of David’s work are available on his website: 

The Last Campaign of Marianne Tambour is due to be published on 1st December. As an indie author, David uses a crowd-funding platform, Pubslush, to help finance his projects. His campaign page contains lots more information about his own background and information on the novel itself. It’s possible to pre-order copies, to support the crowd-funding process, gain some special rewards, or simply become a fan.

Written content of this post copyright © David Ebsworth, 2014. 

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Star Spangled Banner Flies Over Baltimore

As regular salon visitors will know, I share my tottering abode with a colonial gentleman and on occasion, his limited influence results in a story with an American flavour. Today is one of those days as I combine my gent's county of origin with one of my passions, music, to tell the tale of an important moment in publishing.

In 1814, amateur poet, Francis Scott Key, found himself so moved by events he had witnessed at the Battle of Fort McHenry two years earlier that he set pen to paper and poured out his feelings in the poem, Defence of Fort M'Henry. I have never been a poet and hold a certain regard for those who work in the medium, so I am hardly surprised that Key was pleased enough with his composition to pass it on to his brother-in-law, Judge Joseph H Nicholson.

One of two surviving copies of the 1812 broadside
One of two surviving copies of the 1812 broadside

Now, I have dear brothers-in-law of my own but I doubt that any of them would have made the connection that Nicholson did when he read the four stanza poem by Key. He noticed that the words fit perfectly to the tune of The Anacreontic Song, a work written by John Stafford Smith in the 1760s, a melody that had already known various lyrics and versions. So imposed was he by Key's work that  Nicholson had anonymous broadsides of the poem printed and distributed in Baltimore on 17th September 1814.

However, it was three days later on 20th September that The Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the verses once more, noting that they should be sung to the tune of  The Anacreontic Song. The poem became wildly popular and within days Thomas Carr in Baltimore published the words and music together under a title that would become legendary and, form humble beginnings, The Star Spangled Banner was born.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Maria Anna of Savoy: A Quiet Queen

Maria Anna of Savoy (Maria Anna Carolina Pia di Savoia; Rome, Italy, 19th September 1803 - Prague, Czech Republic, 4th May 1884)

Empress Maria Anna of Austria by Johann Ender
Empress Maria Anna of Austria by Johann Ender

On this day we mark the birth of Maria Anna of Savoy, a lady who attained a few somewhat impressive titles throughout a life that was, by any standards, long-lived. Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, Bohemia, Lombardy and Venetia, Maria Anna did not actively seek the limelight and enjoyed a long, happy marriage which I cannot say for all my guests!

Maria Anna and her twin, Maria Teresa, were born in Palazzo Colonna in Rome, Italy, to Archduchess Maria Teresa of Austria-Este and King Victor Emmanuel I of Sardinia. As we have seen so many times before, the girls were both prepared for a noble marriage and at the age of 27, Maria Anna was married by proxy in Turin to King Ferdinand V of Hungary, who would one day be crowned Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria. The couple met on 27th February 1831 in Vienna and were married in person, beginning a union that would last over four decades.

Ferdinand suffered from a variety of neurological problems that led his physician to pronounce that he would not be able to consummate the marriage and though the couple were to remain childless, they were happy together. It was not necessarily passion at first sight but as the years rolled on, the couple did indeed come to love one another deeply, swiftly discovering that they were an ideal match.

When Ferdinand succeeded to the throne as Emperor of Austria in 1835, he benefited greatly from the devoted support of his wife. With his epilepsy worsening, he took great strength from Maria Anna but their reign was not to last and, in 1848, ended in revolution. Following Ferdinand's subsequent abdication, the couple took up a peaceful residence together in Hradčany Palace, Prague, where they settled into a sheltered domestic life.

Here they remained for the rest of their days together and when Ferdinand died in 1875, his widow was bereft. She followed her husband less than a decade later and the couple now rest together in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna, united once more.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Great Fire of Moscow

On this day over two hundred years ago, the terrible fire that swept through Moscow for days finally calmed, leaving behind vast swathes of utterly destroyed city. The true cause of the blaze remains unknown but the fact that the blaze coincided with the departure of Russian forces and the arrival of French led a lot of people to suspect that those retreating soldiers had set the fires themselves, leaving a warm welcome for the new arrivals.

On 14th September 1812, the Governor General of Moscow, Count Feodor Rostopchin prepared to lead his troops out of Moscow and apparently gave orders that all major public buildings should be burned or otherwise destroyed, whilst he ensured that the fire services had been relieved of any firefighting equipment that might vex his plans. At the same time, several smaller and unexplained fires began to spring up around the city as they had for several days leading up to the Russian retreat. However, the fires set on Rostopchin's orders were not helped by further, smaller blazes started by the Grande Armée as they set up camp in Moscow.

French in Moscow, 1812
French in Moscow, 1812 

The French built campfires all over the city and as these began to burn out of control, the city was soon on fire.  Although the majority of citizens had already left the city ahead of the French arrival, thousands had no choice but to stay behind and as these people fled their homes, looting broke out and seen the streets were in chaos. Napoleon watched the city burn from the Kremlin until, with concerns for his safety growing, he left Moscow to take refuge outside the city.

More than 6000 homes, 800 shops and 100 churches burned, whilst 12,000 people died in the conflagration, with many precious buildings and treasures also consumed by the fire that Rostopchin was adamant he had not ordered. The process of rebuilding was slow and expensive and for years thereafter, the city and its people continued to count the cost.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Musical Theft: The Death of Francesco Geminiani

Francesco Saverio Geminiani (Lucca, Italy, 5th December 1687 – Dublin, Ireland, 17th September 1762)

Francesco Geminiani

Our tale today tells of the death of Francesco Geminiani, an Italian violinist and composer. Nicknamed, Il Furibondo (the madman) by his pupils due to his all-consuming methods of composition and performance, his enormously successful career ended on a sad note during a trip to Ireland.

Geminiani enjoyed the support of numerous most illustrious patrons in Europe and travelled the continent assuming high profile positions and sharing his skills with pupils who often went onto celebrated careers of their own. He wrote books on the theory of violin playing and composition, and composed for that instrument in addition to others.

As suggested by his nickname, Geminiani was devoted to music to the point of obsession. He would spend long hours labouring over his work, seeking perfection in every endeavour and he taught his pupils the importance of striving for perfection.He moved to Dublin in 1760 and spent his time working on an exhaustive book of musical theory, devoting many, many hours to this new manual and pouring himself into it tirelessly.

Disaster struck when a domestic servant, in the pay of an unknown party, stole the manuscript whilst in Dublin and made so good her escape that the book was never recovered. Geminiani sank into an unhappy decline from which he did not recover and he died a broken man in 1762, unable to mentally deal with the loss of his life's masterwork.