Monday, 23 April 2018

Gadding About Again: Two New Events

Whether you're in the north or south, I have two brand new events coming up in May and I'm rather excited about both!

On 18th May I'll be a guest at Museums at Night at the glorious Kenwood House. Explore this historical site after dark to the sound of period music, browse one of the finest art collections in the country and join me for tales of 18th century courtesans.

For more details, click here.

On 25th May I'll be in Yorkshire at Almondbury Library to chat about the shocking love life of the Prince Regent, a man who never really did subtle. For more information and tickets, contact Jill on 01484 301510.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Frost Fair of 1814

It's a pleasure to welcome Amy D'Orazio, author of A Short Period of Exquisite Felicity, to the salon to guide us through the Frost Fair of 1814. Congratulations to Patty, Angelina and Beatrice, prizewinners!


Okay, so this might not be the best time to be talking about cold weather. For many of us in the US and England, as well as many other places, it was a long, hard winter. From where I sit in the northern US, we are even now, in mid-April, anxiously contemplating the possibility of a historic snowfall — Winter Storm Xanto — which might drop as much as two feet of snow in some places. Yikes! 
And yet no matter how severe this past winter has been, it has still been milder than the historic winter of 1814.  The winter of 1814 began with record cold; on the 27th of December, it was below zero and temperatures remained below zero until the end of January. The average temperature during that time was 3C (26F). There was a slight thaw during the second week of February, but then the cold returned and remained until the end of March, with temperatures hovering around 0C the entire time. Snowfalls were heavy and frequent throughout. In contrast, the coldest winter in the past 100 years has been the winter of 2010 during which average temperatures were around 4C (39F).
It was the first week of February, with ice thick on the part of the Thames that stretched from the London Bridge to Blackfriars  Bridge, that the final Frost Fair was held. Frost Fairs were not entirely unknown to England then, held in 1683-4, 1716, 1739-40, 1789, and 1814. They were, in essence, bacchanals, with the primary objective being to have as much fun as possible without breaking through the ice. 
The lightermen and watermen — whose usual jobs were to ferry people and goods across the river and who therefore lost their income when the river was impassable — usually kicked off the festivities. The fair of 1814 was one of the largest and best-attended frost fairs, although it was also the shortest, with thousands of people visiting daily. It was a boon to the watermen who charged twopence or threepence per person and demanded a tip on leaving — some made  £6-7 daily. 
On the first of February, seemingly overnight, a veritable city had been born on the frozen river. There were rows of tents, each boasting some delight to the fair-goers, from food and drink of every sort imaginable to toys, books and souvenirs. 

Food and drink were both plentiful. One of the main culinary draws was the roasting of an entire ox. Though an entire ox would have taken about 24 hours to cook when it was done one animal would have fed as many as 800 people. There was also sliced mutton and mince pies, gingerbread, hot apples, and oysters, as well as hot chocolate, tea and coffee among the delicacies. 
The tents selling alcohol were among the most popular. Called fuddling” tents, they sold a variety of particularly potent gin-based drinks, including Old Tom a sweet, light, but undeniably potent drink. Purl was a watermans favourite; served hot it was a combination of gin, spices and wormwood wine. Mum was another popular beverage in the fuddling tents, being a spiced ale concoction. 
Along with food and drink, there were amusements in abundance. People played games such as rouge et noir, te-totums, wheel of fortune, the garter, and skittles.  Swings were set up for the children, and dancing barges were filled with young couples dancing reels while fiddlers kept up merry tunes. Several eyewitness accounts also say that one day an elephant was led across the ice near Blackfriars Bridge. 
Pedlars and tradesman rushed to set up their shops amid this atmosphere of gay hedonism. Their wares included everything from books to toys, all of which bore a label saying something on the order of bought on the Thames” which increased the value of them many times above what it would have been otherwise. As is seen today, souvenirs were very popular, some as simple as a printed sheet describing the festivities. One enterprising publisher set up a printing press and cranked out copies of a book he wrote, titled Frostiana, for the fair attendees. 
By the end of the fifth day, temperatures had risen above freezing, and cracking sounds alerted the festival-goers that the ice was growing too thin to support the celebration. Some accounts say that no one died from falling through the ice while others say many did. One report said a plumber carrying lead sheets across the ice was the first to fall in; others say it was two ladies who slipped through but were rescued by the watermen. The tide turned soon after that, and enormous chunks of ice began to break loose, in one case carrying two men with it. Several of the dancing barges escaped their moorings and were quickly wrecked. By the 6th day, the makeshift town had disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived and to date remains the last of its kind.  

Could the Thames freeze again? It isnt likely and climate change isnt the only reason. While its true that the winters have become milder since the end of the Little Ice Age, the primary reason that the Thames doesnt freeze is the bridge itself. In 1831, the old bridge was destroyed, and a new one with five wider arches was built in its place. The new design allows for improved tidal flow and therefore the water doesnt freeze.  

The Frost Fair features in my most recent release, A Short Period of Exquisite Felicity, as the scene of reconciliation for Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. An excerpt is below — hope you enjoy! I would love to have a comment from you — I will choose one person from the comments to receive an ebook copy of A Short Period of Exquisite Felicity. Thank you! 

The wind bit at them as soon as they exited the bookseller's tent, stinging Darcys cheeks and stealing his breath away, but he thought nothing of it. There was a warmth within him that he knew only when he had Elizabeth by his side. How easy it was to forget anything was amiss when she was with him! How little anything else mattered when he could look down and see her gloved hand on his arm. 
They returned to the City of Moscow fuddling tent. Elizabeth looked around her, rising on her toes to look down the City Road, seeking her lost companions. 
The gentlemen bid us wait here. Alas, I did not heed their directive.
The fuddling tent was not spacious, and being less occupied than previously, there was no difficulty in confirming that Sir Edmund, Jolly, and Miss Bingley were not within. 
They exited the tent and spent several minutes searching the surrounding area. Darcy rather hoped he would not catch a glimpse of them; he was determined to make the most of this unexpected interlude with Elizabeth. He noted with satisfaction that she also seemed rather unconcerned. The crowd swelled with more and more people pressing their way onto the ice, though none of them appeared to be acquaintances of either hers or his.
What was your next planned destination?
Elizabeth shrugged. Miss Bingley wished for gingerbread, but I believe that is sold by the strolling vendors.
Perhaps we would do best to ramble about,” he suggested. No doubt we shall come upon them in due time.
No doubt,” she agreed. Darcy offered his arm again, but this time, she hesitated. 
My sister and Mr Bingley probably remain at the dancing barge. If you would kindly escort me there, I can relieve you of the burden of protectorship.
It is not a burden to me. Indeed I…”
He stopped, unsure what was better to be said or left unsaid. Their last meeting lay between them like a physical being. Her eyes were questioning as she sought his gaze, and at length, she bit her lip. He imagined that the recollection of their last meeting and the violent argument remained fresh in her mind. She had no idea where she stood in his regard, just as he did not know where he stood in hers. Neither of them was of a mind to speak plainly, certainly not here in the midst of a fair, surrounded by drunkards and laggards.
If you wish to go to your sister and Bingley, I shall by no means suspend that pleasure. We can go there at once.” He extended his arm in the direction of the barge, indicating she should precede himif she wished to. Or we could continue to walk about in hopes of finding the others.
She did not move. Her eyes searched his face, and he wondered what she saw or hoped to see. 
My only wish is that I not be an obligation to you.
It is my pleasure to attend you. Truly, it is.
It is my pleasure,” she said in a voice so quiet he could scarcely hear it, to be attended by you.
She blushed and looked away, directing his attention downriver. We came from that direction, so perhaps we should go towards there.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Release Day: The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper

The Captain and the Cavalry Trooper, co-written with Eleanor Harkstead, is released worldwide today.

As the Great War tears Europe apart, two men from different worlds find sanctuary in each other’s arms.

Captain Robert Thorne is the fiercest officer in the regiment. Awaiting the command to go to the front, he has no time for simpering, comely lads. That’s until one summer day in 1917, when his dark, flashing eye falls upon the newest recruit at Chateau de Desgravier, a fresh-faced farmer’s boy with little experience of life and a wealth of poetry in his heart.

Trooper Jack Woodvine has a way with strong, difficult stallions, and whispers them to his gentle will. Yet even he has never tamed a creature like Captain Thorne.

With the shadow of the Great War and the scheming of enemies closer to home threatening their fleeting chance at happiness, can the captain and the cavalry trooper make it home safely? More importantly, will they see peacetime together?

Buy It Now

Amazon UK
Amazon US

What Reviewers Are Saying
"If you're a fan of historical romance, soldiers in uniform, beautiful English prose, then I highly recommend this book." - CF White

"This is wonderful, a haunting tale of love found in the most unexpected and dangerous places between two characters, who are sensitive and courageous. " - Frankie Reviews

"The book was remarkably written, funny, witty and full of unique and interesting references to the period. The dialogue was quick, flirtatious and intriguing and the descriptions were beautiful." - Ruby Scalera


Northern France


The wagon carrying Jack Woodvine bumped and jerked along the poplar-lined lanes, a fine spray of mud rising up each time the huge wooden wheels splashed through a puddle.

He had given up checking the time and, even though the journey was far from comfortable, tried to doze as he passed along under the iron-gray sky. A chateau, they’d said. Different from the barracks he’d been in when he was first deployed. Doubtless it would be a dismal old fortress, but was it silly of him to hope for bright pennants fluttering from a turret?

Finally, the wagon drew up at a gatehouse of pale stone. As Jack climbed out, dragging his kitbag behind him, sunlight nudged back the clouds and turned the gray slate of the roofs to blue.

“You the new groom?” A soldier appeared from the gatehouse. His cap was so low over his eyes that Jack couldn’t make out his expression.

“Yes—Trooper Woodvine. Jack Woodvine.” He took a letter from his pocket and held it out to the man. “I’ve been transferred from another battalion. This is the Chateau de Desgravier?”

“Yes, Trooper! Turn left at the bottom of the drive for the stables. Quick march!”

The last thing Jack wanted to do was march, quickly or otherwise, but he shouldered his kitbag, jammed his cap onto his head and marched down the tree-lined avenue.

It was thickly leaved, but through the branches he could see the white stone of the chateau ahead. He rounded a bend in the driveway and he saw it—Chateau de Desgravier.

An enormous tower rose up in front of him, its roof reaching into a delicate point. Jack sighed, the spots of mud on his face cracking as he smiled. It might not have had pennants floating from it, but it was exactly like something from a fairytale. Beside the tower were the stone and brick and filigreed windows of what looked to Jack like a palace. Who would ever think that the front was only a few miles to the east?

Quick march!

Jack continued on his way, turning to his left just as he’d been ordered. The path here bore evidence of horses—straw, manure, the marks of horseshoes. Ahead, an archway, figures at work. A lad of Jack’s age maneuvering a wheelbarrow, another leading a horse out to the paddock.

This wouldn’t be so bad. It seemed to be a peaceful place, and easy work for a lad like Jack. He raised his hand and grinned at the grooms as he headed under the archway and into the vast stable yard.

Then he heard singing. In French.

Jack dropped his kitbag and looked round. The voice was that of a man, yet heightened slightly, giving it a teasing, effeminate edge, and Jack couldn’t help but follow it like a sailor lured by a siren, pulled along the row of open stables toward that lilting chanson. Inside those stables young men labored and sweated, brooms swept and spades shoveled, yet one of the boxes at the far corner of the yard seemed to have been transformed into an impromptu theater.

Jack hardly dared glance through that open door, yet he couldn’t help himself, blinking at the hazy darkness of the interior where half a dozen grooms lounged in the straw, watching the chanteur in rapt silence.

Right in front of Jack, his back to the door, was the figure of a young man, clad in jodhpurs, polished riding boots and nothing else. No, that wasn’t quite true, because he was wearing something, the sort of something Jack didn’t really see much of in Shropshire. It was some sort of silken scarf, a shawl, perhaps, that was looped around his neck twice, the wide, dazzling red fabric decorated with intricate yellow flowers. They were bright against the pale skin of his naked back, as bright as the tip of the cigarette that glowed in the end of a long ebony cigarette holder that the singer held in his elegant right hand. He gestured with it like a painter with his brush, making intricate movements with his wrist as he sang, his voice a low purr, then a high, tuneful trill, then a comically deep bass that drew laughter from his audience.

He moved with the confidence of a dancer, hips swinging seductively, head cocked to one side, free hand resting on his narrow hip and here, in this strange fairytale place, he was bewitching.

The singer executed a near-perfect pirouette yet quite suddenly, when he was facing Jack, stopped. He put the cigarette holder to his pink lips, drew in a long, deep breath and blew out a smoke ring, his full lips forming a perfect O.

“Well, now.” He sucked in his pale cheeks and asked, “Who on earth have we here?”

Jack blinked as the smoke ring drifted into his face.

“Tr-trooper Woodvine, reporting for Captain Thorne. I’ve been transferred—I’m his new groom. I don’t suppose—”

The words dried in Jack’s throat. As enthralling as this otherworldly figure was, with his slim face and high cheekbones, there was an unsettling glint of mockery in his narrow blue eyes.

“Sorry.” Jack took a half-step backward. “I interrupted your song. I should…”

The singer moved a little, just enough that he could dart his head forward on its slender neck and draw his nose from Jack’s shoulder to his ear, breathing deeply all the way. They didn’t touch but the invasion, the authority, was clear. However lowly their station, Jack had wandered innocently into someone else’s domain.

When the young man’s nose reached Jack’s ear he threw his head back and let out a loud sigh through his parted lips, arms extended to either side. Then he finally spoke again, declaring to the heavens, “I smell new blood!”

Behind him, his small audience tittered nervously and his head dropped once more, those glittering blue eyes focused on Jack.

“Trooper Charles, sir!” He executed a courtly bow, the hand that held the cigarette twirling elaborately. “But you’re so darling and green that you may address me as Queenie. Aren’t you the lucky one?”

Jack reached for the doorframe to casually prop himself against it and essay the appearance of calm. Queenie?

“You may call me Jack.”

He extended his free hand to shake. A handshake showed the mettle of a man, his father was always telling him so. A good, firm hand at the market and a fellow would never have his prices beaten down.

Queenie’s narrow gaze slid down Jack like a snake and settled on his hand. He didn’t take it, didn’t move at all for a few seconds as the silence between them grew thicker. Then, in one quick movement, he placed his cigarette holder between Jack’s fingers and said, “Have a treat on me. Welcome to Cinderella’s doss house!”

Jack brought it hesitantly to his lips, smiling gamely at the grooms who made up Queenie’s audience. He pouted his lips against the carved ebony and inhaled.

The cough was so violent that Jack nearly dropped the holder, but an instinct in him born of a lifetime on a farm of tinder-dry hay meant he clamped it between his fingers. As he heaved for breath, he stamped on the nearby straw, suffocating any sparks that might have fallen.

The other grooms laughed and Queenie’s head tipped back to emit a bray of hilarity as a strong hand walloped Jack’s back.

A friendly Cockney burr chirruped, “Cough up, chicken—there’s a good lad!”

“We have a new little chicky in our nest,” Queenie told his audience, turning to address them. “I want you all to make him terribly welcome, or he might burn down our stables and then where would your Queenie sing?”

The stocky lad who had rescued Jack from his coughing fit was a head shorter than him. He pulled a face that could have been a smile or a sneer and took the cigarette holder from his fingers. He passed it to Queenie, all the while fixing his stare on the new arrival.

“Trooper Cole. Wilfred, that’s me. You’re Captain Thorne’s new boy, aren’t you?”

He laughed, then turned his head to spit on the floor, pulling a skinny roll-up from behind his ear.

“I’m Jack Woodvine. I mean…Trooper Woodvine.”

“I s’pose me and Queenie better take you to your quarters?”

“That would— But…oughtn’t I to introduce myself to Captain Thorne?”

“I’d say that’s a bit difficult, seeing as he’s not here at the moment.” Wilfred picked up Jack’s kitbag as easily as if it were spun from a feather. “Come on, soldier. Your palace awaits!”

“Captain T is an angel.” Queenie draped one arm sinuously around Jack’s shoulders and walked him back across the stable yard, his naked torso pressed to Jack’s rough tunic. “You’re going to have a bloody easy war, he’s soft as my mother’s newborn kitten.”

He glanced back at Wilfred and asked, “Wouldn’t you say so, Wilf?”

“Not half!” Wilfred laughed, striking a match to light his cigarette. “You couldn’t find a nicer bloke in the entire regiment.”

Jack grinned as they headed up the creaking wooden stairs above the stables. New quarters and new friends, and he wouldn’t have to rough it in a tent. Maybe there’d even be warm water for a bath.

“Well, that’s good to know. The officers were a bit…brusque at my last place.”

“Brusque?” Wilfred raised an amused eyebrow. “That’s a fancy word for a groom!”

“Ignore our lovely Wilf. Strong as an ox, bright as a coal shed.” At the top of the stairs Queenie turned to address Wilfred and Jack, his pale hand resting on the crooked handrail. “Thorny is adorable, not brusque at all. Welcome to our little slice of heaven!”

With that he lifted the latch and threw the door open, directing Jack to enter with another low bow.