Category Archives: history

Winchester, Jane Austen, Rifles and Rain

Winchester cathedral

By, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

On a recent visit to Winchester — which, to my shame, I hadn’t visited before, even though I lived in Hampshire for 20 years — I felt duty-bound to pay homage at Jane Austen’s grave in the cathedral.

Jane Austen’s Gravestone

It’s a plain black stone, set into the northern aisle of Winchester cathedral, among dozens of others. If you weren’t looking for it, it would be easy to walk over and past it. The cathedral, though, knows it’s a tourist draw so they’ve made quite a display of it, with several stands that tell visitors about Austen’s life, and about her early death in 1817.

Jane Austen's gravestone, Winchester Cathedral

The gravestone makes no mention of Jane Austen’s writing. Women at that time (and later) were usually described by their virtues and by their relationships with men; as daughters, wives, mothers, aunts. So it was with Jane. The inscription (composed by Jane’s brother, James) reads:

In Memory of Jane Austen
youngest daughter of the late Revd George Austen
formerly Rector of Steventon in this County.
She departed this life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41,
after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian.
The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her
and the warmest love of her intimate connections.
Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable,
but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope
that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable
in the sight of her REDEEMER.

Women’s unacknowledged talents?

Women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rarely had agency over their lives. They often weren’t allowed to follow their talents, even when those talents were enormous, because a woman’s role in life was seen to be marriage and motherhood. And for those who didn’t marry, like Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, life could mean the bottom of the social pile.

Think of Fanny Mendelssohn, born in 1805, many of whose compositions were attributed to her brother, Felix (conveniently also F. Mendelssohn on the scores). She did marry.

Fanny Hensel nee Mendelssohn 1842

Fanny [Hensel] in 1842

Fanny Mendelssohn 1828

Fanny Mendelssohn 1828


But Fanny’s father epitomised the prevailing view when he wrote to her in 1820:

Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.


Clara Schumann, 1878, by Lenbach

The celebrated pianist and composer Clara Schumann (born Clara Wieck in 1819) was an exception to the rule, a child prodigy brought up by her divorced father.

Even after her marriage to Robert Schumann she was always the main breadwinner of the family. And she was widowed young (with eight children). So she had little choice but to keep earning her own living.

Clara Schumann accompanies Joachim 1854

The painting (left) seems to me to show the face of a woman who’s had a hard life.

She’s shown right in a drawing from 1854 (when her husband was already confined in the asylum where he died in 1856).

Austen acknowledged…eventually

If Jane Austen had married, would she have become a published author?
How many of her masterpieces might she not have written?
I leave that for you to decide.

Winchester Cathedral, plaque to Jane Austen

At the time of her death, Jane Austen was not acknowledged as the author of the novels, but her name was included in a biographical note in the 1818 published set of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. In the cathedral, though, there was no mention of her writing until her nephew Edward erected this brass plaque on the wall by her grave, in 1870. (He paid for the plaque with the proceeds of his book about his aunt.) It says:

Jane Austen
Known to many by her writings, endeared to her family by the varied charms of her character and ennobled by her Christian faith and piety was born at Steventon in the County of Hants, December 16 1775 and buried in the Cathedral July 18 1817.
“She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness”

Jane Austen window, Winchester cathedralLight from Jane Austen window, Wincester cathedralJane’s popularity increased over the nineteenth century. It shows.

Above the brass plaque, there is now a memorial window by C E Kempe, paid for by public subscription and erected in 1900. The head of the window features St Augustine (thought to be a pun on the name Austen).

The central light in the upper row shows David with his harp and bears the legend (in Latin) Remember in the Lord, Jane Austen together with her date of death.

Rifles and rain in Winchester

Winchester cathedral altar

Winchester cathedral is full of memorials, many of them to dead soldiers from The Royal Hampshires, The Kings Royal Rifle Corps and The Rifle Brigade. You find yourself treading on them in the aisles. And their rolls of honour are there to be consulted, in modern digital form:

Winchester is also the spiritual home of St Swithun who was buried (and reburied) in the cathedral but whose remains were swept away during the Reformation. This is his current memorial.Winchester cathedral, St Swithun memorial and iconostasisIn the background, you can see the nine icons painted in the 1990s by the Russian iconographer, Sergei Fyodorof. St Swithun’s icon is at the extreme right (partly obscured in this image by the canopy over his memorial).

It wasn’t raining during my visit. But there’s a nod to rain in the embroidered inscription on the edge of the canopy. It’s one that many of us learned at our mother’s knee:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain • for forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair • for forty days ’twill rain nae mareWinchester cathedral, St Swithun memorial

Being a history nut, I was happy to look at memorials to real riflemen. But for fans of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books — and of the irresistible green Rifle Brigade uniforms — I’m pasting in some Sean Bean eye candy that wasn’t available in the cathedral. Enjoy!


Joanna Maitland, authorJoanna

PS There was also a fantastic exhibition in Winchester cathedral: Kings and Scribes: the Birth of a Nation. Definitely worth a visit. Sadly, photography wasn’t allowed so it’s difficult for me to blog about it. However the link above includes official stills and video. Maybe worth a look?

Sarah Mallory: Living and writing in the Scottish Highlands.

Those who know me from Social media will probably realise that I have moved. A big move. Massive. After 30 years in one house I have moved to the Scottish Highlands.   To Wester Ross. It has been described as Britain’s last great wilderness, and with good reason. Moving here is not just another country, it is another life and a very different one. The language is almost the same. Almost, but not quite. One has to think more about it. No one asks where you live, it is where are you staying, as if you are just passing through.

Hospitality is generous, tea, cake or biscuits are often offered as a matter of course. Which means I need to brush up on my baking skills.

Okay, I doubt I will EVER bake anything this good!

The Scottish Highlands from a writer’s point of view

I travel through this land with my writer’s hat on. The landscape feels old. Continue reading

On the Beautiful Blue … Nile? Temples, Gods…and Balloons

Listening to the New Year concert from Vienna, and in particular to the lilting Strauss waltz, On the Beautiful Blue Danube, I was struck by a subversive thought: the Danube isn’t BLUE.
Danube at Budapest and text: on the Beautiful Blue Danube?

(The image above isn’t Vienna either, it’s Budapest. But that greeny/brown river is the Danube.)

And I was reminded of a trip on a river that is actually blue and which has inspired many stories over the centuries. This was my subconscious providing the inspiration. Again.

On the Beautiful BLUE … Nile?

Continue reading

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night party by PhizI am posting this on Twelfth Night. Well, at least, what my family have always called Twelfth Night. That’s the 6th January. It is a family birthday in our house, so it kind of sticks in the memory.

Only — maybe Twelfth Night is 5th January. The Anglican Church think that’s the right date.

SO WHEN is Twelfth Night?

Continue reading

Altering History : is it OK in Historical Fiction?

cranium silhouetted against question markAltering History. In other words, changing what actually happened into something that didn’t happen; or didn’t happen in quite that way; or happened at a different time…
Is it OK for an author of historical fiction to do that?

Always? Sometimes? Never?

Does it depend on what the alteration is? Some think it’s OK to alter small things, relating to minor characters, but not decisive things relating to really important characters.

Some might say an author can do whatever he or she likes, provided the reader knows what the author has done. In other words, the author has to come clean.
Others don’t care, as long as the end result is a good read.

Altering History : a Big Deal for Queens

Continue reading

Roman Soldiers on the Frontier : Tough or Tedious?

Hadrian's Wall Roman frontier

Hadrian’s Wall : Britannia’s northern frontier

The Roman Frontier? We Brits immediately think of Roman soldiers stationed at Hadrian’s Wall to defend the empire against painted marauders (the Picts or picti) from the barbarian north.

We imagine their life was cold and wet and miserable. Some of them certainly sent letters home to Rome to ask for warm woollen socks. Clearly northern Britannia was not a place for short tunics and sandals.

Hadrian's Wall Roman frontier

Hadrian’s Wall: not exactly warm and cosy?

On the German frontier, the weather was warmer than Britannia, especially in summer. Short tunics and sandals would have worked just fine.

But guarding a frontier against a potential enemy — who (mostly) didn’t attack — was probably 99% boredom.

So how did the soldiers fill their time? Continue reading

Armistice Day

Today is very special because it is both Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. It is, of course, also the centenary of the end of fighting in the First World War.

“Armistice” is an interesting word. It is a temporary truce during which warring parties meet to discuss possible peace. I remember my grandmother telling me that, before she told me anything else. I was very small. Armistice Day - old radio

The emotions coming out of the radio into the small suburban sitting room awed me. And so did those of the two elderly ladies, tough as old boots in my previous experience, who were both damp-eyed.

From them I picked up a terrible sense that we had made peace at the very last moment. And that we might not have. It has stayed with me ever since. Continue reading

Roman Germany : Dark and Dangerous? Or Delightful?

Roman Germany? What picture does it conjure up for you? Mile after mile of dark, trackless forest with a hostile warrior behind every other tree, waiting to kill you?Roman battle against Germanic tribes from film Gladiator

Yup, that was what I thought, too.

Varus Massacre (Varusschlacht), Otto A Koch, 1909

Varus Massacre (Varusschlacht), Otto A Koch, 1909

Probably I’d been watching too many films like Gladiator with that opening forest battle [above] and all those barbarian attackers.
Or reading about Falco’s bloody struggles in Germania in AD71 in The Iron Hand of Mars. In that story, Falco finds links back to the massacre of the legions in AD9 where up to 20,000 Romans died.

The massacre is depicted in this painting [right]. You’ll note Germanic warriors complete with winged and horned helmets.
It’s by a German painter, too 😉

For me, that battle always conjures up an image of Augustus butting his head against the wall and crying, “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions.”

So partly because of those cultural influences, I had assumed, without giving the question much thought, that Romans in Germany would always be watching their backs and that their lives would be pretty basic. Continue reading

La Dolce Vita and Blonde

La Dolce Vita Movie poster, blondeThis Monday I was lucky enough to go to a lecture on La Dolce Vita by Professor Richard Dyer. I say lucky advisedly. It was pure chance that I went.

I never enjoyed this 1960 movie very much and, apart from its iconic status, remember little about it. But one of my best friends invited me. I wanted to see my friend. And so I went – and got so much more than I expected.

La Dolce Vita by Richard DyerProfessor Dyer is the sort of enthusiast I could listen to for ever. Moreover, he loves La Dolce Vita. Not uncritically, you understand. He wrote the British Film Institute’s guide to the movie – which I immediately ordered – and he clearly continues to research its creation and ponder its message(s). Above all he is just wonderful on the gossip that surrounds the movie.

Indeed, a major part of his thesis is that the movie is precisely about that gossip: how it arises, how it is delivered, how it is received. Continue reading

Magic of a Georgian Library

The last couple of weeks I have been contemplating the magic of a Georgian Library. As a result I have been researching libraries in general and, in particular, libraries I have known intimately. There are a surprising number of them scattered through my career. My spiritual home, maybe?

Georgian Library

Grand Library at Osterley Park, not like my poor house at all!

Partly this must be due to the novel I am currently editing. It stars a distinctly down-at-heel stately home. Its library was put together in the eighteenth century on the basis of some sketches by the Adam brothers and a certain amount of DIY on the part of the servants and the cash-strapped owner. A classical frieze in the library, indeed, was constructed out of clever paint effects and paper mâché. I’m rather in love with that frieze. Continue reading