Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Strange Pathways

It's my pleasure to welcome Linda Strattman to the salon today, with a fascinating look into spiritualism, by way of a Brighton detour...


Research, even for a work of fiction, can lead one down some very strange paths. When I first thought of writing a series set in Victorian Brighton about a young woman who debunks fraudulent spirit mediums, I hadn’t expected to be exploring the history of conjuring, early treatments for scoliosis, medicated vapour baths, chess automata, and the wallpaper in the Royal Pavilion, but so it proved. 

It is essential for me when setting a novel in the past, to understand the thoughts and beliefs of the time, and I read as much contemporary material as possible; books, periodicals, letters, diaries, records of public meetings, trials and inquests. This is where I can hear the people of the past speak. Some reveal their inner thoughts and conflicts, their struggles and discontent; others accept with varying degrees of success, the role that society has given them, and portray themselves as conforming to that role.

A good place to start one’s research in any area, however, is with a general overview of the field. The most useful will list references to follow up and also provide the important names and themes. Any history of spiritualism, however, should be approached with caution, since it will be written with the particular viewpoint and bias of the author. It is a field which invokes powerful emotions and beliefs. I have read works by dedicated spiritualists and by determined opponents. Balance is vital. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s History of Spiritualism is as may be imagined, one of the more readable, and this led me to follow up the histories of the mystics and mediums in whom he believed so passionately. Many of the mediums were caught out in fraud or confessed it well before Doyle wrote his history, but despite this, he continued to champion them. To read Doyle’s writings on spiritualism is to gain an insight into the minds of devoted believers, how they described their experiences, and explained manifestations, failures, and the exposure of practitioners by skeptic.

The author with the statue of Captain Pechell
The author with the statue of Captain Pechell

Closely tied in with the history of spiritualism is that of conjuring, since the techniques of stage magicians and fraudulent mediums are very similar. Only a few years ago, I would have had to spend many hours in the British Library making notes on the volumes I needed to read, but my first port of call is now the website, which provides scans of vast numbers of out of copyright works from reference libraries. In writing Mr Scarletti’s Ghost, a book which includes numerous seances, it was very important in every case for me to know exactly how the manifestations I described were produced. From time to time I do provide hints for the reader, rather than explicit explanations. 

Steam baths in Brighton
Steam baths in Brighton

Creating a strong independent heroine in a historical context presents some challenges. As with Frances Doughty in my Bayswater series, I didn’t want to go down the easy route of making her rich, titled or beautiful. I like a woman who can battle against the odds! Mina Scarletti, the heroine of my Brighton series is a diminutive lady — even smaller than me, 4ft 8in to my 4ft 11in. She is disabled by scoliosis, but has enough spirit and determination for ten people. One reviewer described her as a ‘pocket rocket.’ Having been told that marriage and children are not advisable she decides to live her life to the fullest of her abilities, and finds ways of using what might be seen as a restriction to her advantage. Mina has survived being told that her condition is her own fault, survived being encased in plaster and metal, and has fortunately escaped dangerous surgery. She is her own woman, resolute and courageous.

Sake Dean Mahomed
Sake Dean Mahomed

Setting my series in Brighton was one of my better decisions. Here is a town with a rich history, it’s own unique character, and a reputation as a place for regaining one’s health, which led it to be regarded as in itself, a doctor. The character of Dr Hamid who runs a therapeutic bath-house was inspired by Sake Dean Mahomed the Anglo-Indian surgeon who opened the first ‘Indian Medicated Vapour Bath’ in Brighton in 1814. Born in Bengal, he came to London in 1810 where he opened the first curry house in Britain. It wasn’t successful but clearly he started a trend!

Ajeeb the chess automaton
Ajeeb the chess automaton

For my second book in the Mina Scarletti series I delved into the history of the Royal Pavilion during its early development, its royal heyday and its use as a Victorian place of entertainment.  The Royal Ghost begins in 1871 with scandalous rumours of a sighting of the ghosts (dare one say the grey shades) of the Prince Regent and Mrs Fitzherbert enjoying each other’s company in a room where dragons and serpents writhe sensuously on red wallpaper. The vestibule is dominated by the sandstone statue of a deceased Crimean War hero, Captain Pechell; in another apartment, a chess automaton, the wondrous Ajeeb, towers over visitors like Frankenstein’s monster, while in the banqueting hall, an illusionist performs his famous Japanese butterfly trick. The scene is set for an invocation of the sprits. 

Linda Stratmann

Written content of this post copyright © Linda Stratmann, 2016.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Mirow: A Village Full of Castles

I'm delighted to welcome Julia Meister, who is your guide to Mirow!


The Lower Castle
The Lower Castle
Mirow is a small, sleepy German village located in the Southern part of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. With its 4000 inhabitants and rural atmosphere, all one expects to find there is nature and, since it’s located within the Mecklenburgische Seenplatte (a region famous for its many lakes), a lake or two. There is – albeit in a positive way! – nothing regal about Mirow, until, that is, one approaches Mirow’s very own Castle Island. Before one even sets foot on it, one is surprised to discover that the building located right next to the island was once a beautiful castle. Beautiful enough even to be deemed appropriate as the place of birth for a princess belonging to the House of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who ruled a small duchy in the North of Germany (another famous member of the Mecklenburg-Strelitz clan was Louise of Prussia, to whom we’ll come in another blog post!). After all, the little girl, born as Sophia Charlotte on May 19th, 1744 in the aforementioned castle (called the “Lower Castle”) in Mirow, was to become one of Britain’s royal leading ladies as the wife of King George III. Looking at the castle as it is now, it is hard to imagine its grandeur during the 18th Century. From the early 19th Century until 2006, it was used as a school. Sadly, it is now vacant and in dire need of renovation!

Moving on towards the actual Castle Island, one passes through a beautiful English landscape garden full of lush green trees. Hence, even judged by its surroundings, the Upper Castle seems much more worthy of royalty. This is due to the fact that a lot more care and effort is put into it, with lots of renovation going on inside. Built at the beginning of the 18th Century, it was mainly used as a widow’s seat by Duchess Elisabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen, who was also a Duchess of Mecklenburg-Mirow. The Upper Castle is open to visitors, who can take a look at Mirow’s famous hand-stitched tapestry from the 18th Century, as well as its magnificent Baroque hall. The castle also features in-depth information on its former inhabitants, as well as, of course, Queen Charlotte. Since the castle is located in a small village, one can often pass through its halls without the distraction of many other visitors: I had this experience one, and it made me almost feel like the hostess of the castle myself! 

The park and the bridge connecting Mirow's Castle Island to Love Island
I highly recommend visiting the so-called Love Island, which can be reached via bridge, and from where one has a beautiful view of the Mirower See (the Castle Island’s very own lake). What makes it even more special is the grave of Adolf Friedrich VI., who was the last Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He died in 1918 under mysterious circumstances: To this day, no one has ever really managed to find out whether he was murdered or committed suicide. This lack of clarity regarding his end lends a very special atmosphere to Mirow’s Love Island (and also makes one think that the name ‘Love Island’ and the fact that his tomb was placed here make for an interesting juxtaposition!).

The grave of Adolf Friedrich VI

Another gem to be found on Mirow’s Castle Island is the Protestant Lutheran Church, once the castle church of the House of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Make sure you visit the so-called Fürstengruft, the crypt where members of the Mecklenburg-Strelitz dynasty were laid to rest. One can catch a glimpse of 22 coffins, and it really gives one the shivers to be stood there in front of (unfortunately, deceased) royalty! The coffin of Duchess Elisabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen, Mirow’s longest inhabitant, can be found here. Another famous figure that can be found amongst the dead in the crypt is Landgravine Charlotte of Hesse-Darmstadt, who was brought up with Marie Antoinette at the Imperial Court in Vienna. The two of them kept up a lifelong correspondence as pen pals.

The steps leading up to the church

Mirow is very old-fashioned when it comes to public transport, and that’s what makes it even more charming: To get from Neustrelitz (the last train station you can reach via Deutsche Bahn) to Mirow, one has to travel by lovely little trains, known to insiders as railbuses. They have quite a cult following, and are still used by a train company in that area. While these railbuses may not date back to the times of Queen Charlotte, they certainly make getting to Mirow a rather nostalgic experience! 

Mirow Castle
Mirow Castle

About the Author
Julia Meister is an 18th/19th Century enthusiast, and is especially interested in the social history of women. She has a vast knowledge of royal mistresses and is fascinated by their political power. Whilst she loves British and French history, her main passion is the Habsburg Empire: When on holiday, she can most likely be found visiting a castle in within the former Austro-Hungarian region that has once been inhabited by Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Buda Castle, Gödöllő Palace and Vienna’s Hofburg are among her favourites). In 2016, Julia wrote and recorded the texts for Marienfließ Convent’s audioguide – the first female Cistercian convent in the Brandenburg area of Germany, founded in 1231. She is currently seeking new ways of indulging her passion for history and writing.

All content of this post copyright © Julia Meister, 2016.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Dead London Chronicles

Over at The Dead London Chronicles, our free Gothic tale continues…

As the sounds of chaos and some sort of pitched battle against god knows what raged around them, Faulkner and Alice found themselves squeezed into what really was a very snug priest hole, the lady the doctor had loved and lost perched somewhat intimately on his knee. Faulkner was far too aware of her proximity, her warmth, the fragility of her in his arms. He was also too aware of that earlier kiss, of the fact that  he wanted to kiss her again and really shouldn't, that somewhere out there the world seemed to be ending even as he was safe here, pretending it wasn't.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Jane Austen Goes to Gloucester

I am so thrilled to announce that I am appearing at Gloucester Cathedral this October, introducing a performance of An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe. I'll be chatting about the day Jane Austen almost crossed paths with the Prince Regent, before signing copies of Life in the Georgian Court!

22nd October, 7.30pm (VIP reception at 7.00pm)

Spend a magical evening in the company of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters from the comic absurdity of the Dashwoods, to the heartfelt passion of Wentworth and Anne, not to mention the charming duplicity of the notorious Mr. Wickham. Set in the magnificent surroundings of the Royal Pavilion’s Music Room the evening consists of duologues performed by actors Caroline Langrishe (Judge John DeedLovejoy) and Adrian Lukis (Mr Wickham in the BBC production oPride and PrejudicePeak Practice) alongside Regency-era musical entertainment from harpist Camilla Pay and soprano Rosie Lomas.
Author Catherine Curzon will introduce the performance and will sign copies of her book, Life in the Georgian Court, during the interval.
To book, click here!

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Strong John of Waterloo

Strong John of Waterloo

By Avellina Balestri

Old tunes, joyful tunes, weaving through the night
The rosy glow of faces beneath the candle light
North winds, cruel winds, howling at the door
The whirl of Yuletide dances across the wooden floor

And sitting by the fireside, amidst the revelry
Strong John takes poor weak Mary upon his bended knee
He’s young, bold, and handsome, a farmer’s strapping son
She’s young, frail, and sickly, with both her parents gone

His blue eyes flash like star-light, his red hair shimmers gold;
Her gray eyes mirror storm-clouds, her skin is pale and cold
But he finds her lips like honey, her hair like rich brown earth
And he whispers that he loves her beside the blazing hearth

Then “crash!” the door is broken in and cheer is turned to gloom
For soldiers in scarlet coats are standing in the room
They’re here to press bold young men to fight bold Bonaparte
And Mary cries, “Don’t take him, for it will break my heart!”

“If we put off our duty now to spare each lass’s heart
Then none would cross the raging sea to fight bold Bonaparte.”
They’ve taken hold of Strong John’s arms and dragged him to the door
And left his pale young lover sobbing on the floor

Brave tunes, haunting tunes, piping ‘cross the field
The stern and smoke-stained faces of men who will not yield
And John is the frontlines with other farmers’ sons
He hears the war drums beating, and the clatter of the guns

Their leader is a cold man, or so they all assume
He has a look of iron that penetrates the gloom
The air is damp and heavy; his eyes are quick and keen
He sees Old Boney’s horsemen advancing on the scene

The order then is passed around to form a British Square
John thinks of summer sunsets and Mary’s dark brown hair
He thinks of ale and cornbread, of Paradise and God --
Is there a place in Heaven for those who till the sod?

The officers are shouting; the noise drowns out their words
Old Boney’s men are coming; they draw their shining swords
The piper in the square is playing “Auld Lang Syne”
The redcoats prime their muskets, waiting for a sign

They see a sword flash downward; they fire in accord
The screams of men and horses across the field are heard
They keep the bullets flying, but they are out of time
A French sword flashes downward; John’s blood runs red as wine

Faint breath, gasping breath, Mary’s breath is gone
Her dying breath spent asking about the farmer’s son
Like Strong John’s scarlet coat, red blood has stained her dress
She coughed it up while clutching his letter to her breast

Her skin is white and ghostly; her figure worn and thin
Her lunges are drowned with fluid; her heart has burst within
Her lips are cracked and blood-stained, her eyes are sightless now
And tiny crystal droplets lay on her furrowed brow

This body would have borne him a daughter or a son
If he had but returned to her and they were joined as one
She sees the shadows parting, and views a gory field
Where gallant men in British Squares still refuse to yield

She sees the steel pierce through him, tearing flesh and bone
She sees the blood run freely; she hears his final groan
She flies across the distance, upon the field she stands
She kisses his pale lips, and squeezes his limp hand

His blue eyes flicker open; he sees her spirit there
He makes a final movement, and strokes her dark-brown hair
Her countenance is brightness, though all else fades away
They wake to find a Shining World, and greet a Glorious Day

The battle ends in victory; they find that John is dead
With lifeless Mary at his side, as in a marriage bed
None know where she came from, but together they are laid
And the Iron Duke sheds iron tears for the price that has been paid

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Mr Darcy, Faeries and Cowslips

It's my pleasure to welcome Brooke West and Beau North to the salon, with a tale of cowslips!


Thank you, Catherine, for hosting this stop on our blog tour and inviting Beau and me into your salon! 

If you have read The Many Lives of Fitzwilliam Darcy by now, then you understand why we are obsessed with cowslips! The cowslip scene (which I will spoil for you below -- you have been warned!) is one of the examples of how our Darcy’s hardships have transformed him. After working through his ordeal, Darcy begins to really look at the people around him and connect with them. He takes a small moment that many would have ignored and from that extrapolates a grand, romantic gesture to his beloved.

With their simple but undeniable beauty, cowslips are a fitting symbol for our Elizabeth. The cowslip is a common flower, sweet-smelling and low-growing but vibrantly colored and impressive in its profusion. They have been admired and used for centuries for their culinary, medicinal, and even magical qualities.

The flowers and leaves are mildly narcotic, which is why they have been used for making both a delicate wine and a calming sedative tea. I expect Darcy would attest to Elizabeth having an intoxicating effect on him!

Aside from medicinal purposes, the beauty of the cowslip has inspired some belief that the flower can imbue this quality on others. Nicholas Culpepper, a renowned 17th century English botanist, claimed that women could make themselves more beautiful by using a distillation or ointment made from the perennial. Indeed, it would not be an unusual ingredient to find in modern skincare due to the cowslip’s cleansing properties.

Cowslips were often associated with the faeries in England. Some say the faeries used the cowslips to become invisible, or that the presence of cowslips indicated the presence of faeries. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare invoked the cowslip as a favorite of the Fairy Queen, Titania:

And I serve the fairy queen
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
In their gold coats spots you see.
Those be rubies, fairy favors.
In those freckles live their savors.
I must go seek some dewdrops here
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear

Conversely, cowslips also were used to protect one’s home and cows from faeries. Even as belief in faeries died away, rural folk would keep cowslips by their door to prevent unwanted visitors.

The supposed magical properties of these flowers align with the lightly supernatural element of The Many Lives of Fitzwilliam Darcy. I like to think that cowslips always remind Darcy of the days in Hunsford, and that the following scene, which occurs on Elizabeth’s first visit to Darcy House, is the first of many times Darcy fills his house with the delicate flowers in honor of Elizabeth: 

She curtsied and said his name in an unsteady voice. He would not allow the brevity of her greeting to deter him and he was determined to make her feel welcome in his home.

“Miss Elizabeth, I am pleased to see you among the party tonight.”

She did not meet his eye, focusing instead on the vase to his right. Every vase in the house was bursting with yellow cowslips, the only tribute he could give her without openly declaring himself.

“Thank you for inviting us,” she said in a subdued manner.

And thank you, Catherine and her loyal readers, for indulging us in talking about our latest collaboration, The Many Lives of Fitzwilliam Darcy. We look forward to hearing from you and your readers!

Meet the Authors
Beau North is the author of Longbourn’s Songbird and a contributor to the anthology Then Comes Winter. Beau is a native southerner who now calls Portland, Oregon home with her husband and two cats. She attended the University of South Carolina where she began a lifelong obsession with Literature. In her spare time, Beau is the brains behind Rhymes With Nerdy, a pop culture podcast and website, and a contributor at the San Francisco Book Review.

Brooke West is a contributing author to the anthology Then Comes Winter. Brooke has a naturally creative soul that pulls her into myriad artistic endeavors.  While writing fiction always has been her life’s passion, Brooke also finds joy in silversmithing, sculpting, and costuming. Between projects, she runs and practices yoga.  She lives in South Carolina with her fiancé, son, and three cats.
Meet Brooke on Facebook, Twitter (@WordyWest and @BrookeWest), Goodreads and Amazon.


“He could no longer claim to be Fitzwilliam Darcy of Derbyshire, brother to Georgiana, master of Pemberley. In that moment, he was but a man. A man filled with more frustration than most souls could bear. A man torn asunder by his desperation, his fruitless dreams and desires.”
After Elizabeth Bennet rejects his marriage proposal, Fitzwilliam Darcy finds himself in the most unusual of circumstances. At first believing the extraordinary turn of events has granted him an inexplicable boon, he is eager to put the humiliating proposal behind him.
He soon discovers that he is trapped in the same waking dream with no end in sight and no possible escape. All that he holds dear—his name, his home, his love—remains ever out of reach. How will he find his way back to his normal life? Will one mistake haunt the rest of his days? It will take all of his fortitude to weather the storms of his strange new fate, and all of his courage to grasp the promise of his future.
 October 8/ My Jane Austen Book Club/Launch Post & Giveaway
October 9/ Just Jane 1813/Interview with Beau and Brooke
October 10/ Pemberley to Milton/Book Review & Giveaway
October 12/ Austenesque Reviews/ Excerpt & Giveaway
October 13/ Margie’s Must Reads/ Book Review & Giveaway
October 14/ Babblings of a Bookworm/ Book Review & Giveaway
October 15/ The Calico Critic/Excerpt & Giveaway 
October 16Obsessed with Mr. DarcyGuest Post 
October 17/ Diary of an Eccentric/Book Review & Giveaway
October 18/ My Kids Led Me Back to Pride and Prejudice/ Book Review & Giveaway
October 19/ More Agreeably EngagedFitzwilliam Vignette 
October 20/ So Little Time… So Much to Read/ Excerpt & Giveaway

For readers who wish to vote in our The Many Faces of Fitzwilliam Darcycontest, the choices are shown below:
To vote for your favorite image of Fitzwilliam Darcy from the images shown above, go to The Many Faces of Fitzwilliam Darcy Contest Link. The winning image and the winner will be announced on October 20, 2016, at our last blog stop, So Little Time… So Much to Read.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Anglomania, hats and English ladies of the 1780s

It's my pleasure to welcome Virginia Hill of for a look at hats and English ladies in the 1780s!
Joshua Reynolds, Lady Skipwith, 1787, Frick collection, USA. Lady Skipwith wears an English gown.
Joshua Reynolds, Lady Skipwith, 1787, Frick collection, USA.
Lady Skipwith wears an English gown.
There are moments in history when fashion and art just come together in the most splendid way imaginable. The period running from the late 1770s to the late 1780s is one of these. The art of portraiture was living a glorious epoch with the likes of Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney and Raeburn, and fashion was living its heyday of Anglomania. London was, for a brief moment, the international fashion capital  for women’s fashions. Paris was taking its cue from English tailors regarding the riding coat (la redingote) and the English gown (la robe a l’anglaise) but above all it was soaking up every aspect of English culture, from literature to politics, to the idiosyncratic ways of the British aristocracy.  
Attributed to John Downman, Miss Beloe, 1760s
Attributed to John Downman,
Miss Beloe, 17
The English upper class lived in the countryside and liked to dress sensibly for it (unlike their French counterpart who repudiated contact with nature in favour of the artifice of life at court). Hence the English lady took up wearing her riding clothes not just to sit on a horse, but also to go walking, shopping and do any practical activity which involved staying outdoors, requiring a certain degree of comfort in cut but also in fabric due to the uncertainties of the British climate. 
George Haigh, Countess of Effingham with gun and dogs, 1787, Yale Centre for British Art, USA
George Haigh, Countess of Effingham with gun and dogs, 1787, 
Yale Centre for British Art, USA

These clothes were not only practical they were also very masculine in nature. Their cut and fabric derived from the male coat and traditionally their construction was reserved for male tailors (i.e. the tailors of men’s clothes).
Print showing ladies practicing a  sport
Print showing ladies practicing a  sport
Henry Pickering, miss Dixie, 1750-55c, Nottingham Castle
Henry Pickering, Miss Dixie,
1750-55c, Nottingham Castle
The other very characteristic British element of fashion of this period is the hat. Continental women had not been particularly interested in hats in, in fact head coverings (especially wide brimmed ones) had been associated with the lower classes, particularly peasants working in the country side, up until this time.  English ladies made hat wearing an art in the second half of the eighteenth century. But from the 1750s onwards it became indispensable for a fashionable country lady to wear a light weight straw hat decorated with a coloured ribbon (later also feathers, flowers, etc.) . The trend soon spread to the city and hats were worn throughout the day. 

Even with the rising hairstyles of the later 1760s and the towering ‘heads’ of the 1770s, the hat wearing persisted. 
Thomas Gainsborough, Lady Georgiana Cavendish Duchess of Devonshire, 1787
Gainsborough, Georgiana,
Duchess of Devonshire, 1787
In 1778 Evelina, the heroine of the Fanny Burney’s delightful novel by the same name, comes up to London for the first time and is introduced to the delights of shopping by her more sophisticated hostess. Evelina is particularly taken aback by the experience of going to a classy milliner’s where she is surrounded by ladies so dressed up  “I should rather have imagined they were making visits than purchases”. But what really astonished her was the presence of  male shop assistants “such men! So fisical! So affected!” and their arrogance regarding fashion “they recommended caps and ribbands with an air of so much importance, that I wished to ask them how long they had left off wearing them” (a veiled criticism of their effeminacy should be noted here).  In fact Evelina had unknowingly walked into the new craze that would take over London and indeed the world over the next few years: hats!
John Hoppner, a lady, 1786c, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
John Hoppner, a lady, 1786c, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
By the 1780s hats were not just made of straw but of wool felt and beaver fur, the techniques generally used for male hat making were now applied to making huge, wonderful, show stopping creations for women. The bigger the better. 
George Romney, Lady Milnes, 1789c, Frick Collection, USA
George Romney, Lady Milnes, 1789c, Frick Collection, USA

Written content of this post copyright © Virginia Hill, 2016.