Category Archives: history

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

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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

Historical Costume 1800-1820: a spencer for a skimpy gown?

In BBC's 1995 Pride and Prejudice, Mary and Jane wear spencers, Lizzie wears a shawl, and Lydia wears…er…nothing

In BBC’s 1995 Pride & Prejudice, Mary and Jane wear a spencer, Lizzie wears a shawl, and Lydia wears…er…nothing

What to wear if it’s cold? A spencer?

replica Regency gowns with spencers

Replica spencers (BBC’s Persuasion)

As the Pride & Prejudice picture shows, the high-waisted Regency gown needed a particular kind of outerwear.
A normally-waisted coat would have ruined the shape of the lady’s silhouette. So fashion called for something special. The answer was the spencer.

From about 1804, the spencer was a short-waisted jacket with long sleeves. It could be prim and proper, buttoned up to the neck, as modelled by Mary Bennet (above). Or it could be rather more risqué, accentuating the bosom, as Jane Bennet’s does.

But why was it called a spencer? Continue reading

Historical Costume 1800-1820 : the simple Regency gown?

1807 white muslin wedding dress © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A Regency gown might not be so simple?

1807 wedding dress asymmetric embroidery on front

A Regency gown might look simple but the wedding dress shown above clearly is not. Mainly because of the hand-embroidered muslin, rather than the fairly standard design.

That stunning dress was worn by a seventeen-year-old bride, Mary Dalton Norcliffe, for her marriage to Dr Charles Best in York on 11 June 1807. It’s made of Indian muslin and the V&A suggests the embroidery was done in India, too. Not only is there beautiful embroidery all round the hem and train, there is asymmetric embroidery across the front of the skirt, recalling the classical toga. You may find it easier to see the white-on-white embroidery in the close-up, shown left. Continue reading

Historical Costume 1780s : Caraco. But what IS a caraco?

What is a Caraco?

Striped silk sack-backed caraco, 1760-1780

Striped silk sack-backed caraco, 1760-1780

Caraco isn’t a word that many of us are familiar with. It’s not in many dictionaries, either. It is in Wikipedia, though, along with this illustration of a lovely caraco jacket, dating from 1760 but altered in the 1780s. The original is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

So… what is a caraco?

It’s a woman’s jacket, usually waisted and thigh length, with a front opening. It could be worn as the bodice of a gown and was termed a “caraco dress” when it was complete with a skirt. Some simple versions had high waists even as early as the 1780s.

According to Wikipedia, the original French caraco was often worn with a stomacher to fill the front opening, as with the silk one in the picture above. The English version was designed to meet in front and didn’t need a stomacher. Which is a pity, as stomachers can be truly beautiful, like these from earlier periods… Continue reading

Historical Costume 1780s : Polonaise Gown

Polonaise not Panniers!

1780 polonaise replica

1780 polonaise replica

1787 polonaise original

1787 polonaise original

This blog looks at the lovely Georgian polonaise gown, as a follow-up to my earlier blogs about the hard work of the seamstress and the lady’s maid. We marvel at these gowns in museums — and most of us know that every stitch was hand-sewn — but do we stop to think about the detail of the process?

Shown left is a modern replica of a 1780 polonaise gown, made in plain white fabric to show off the detail of construction. Shown right is an original gown dating from the late 1780s and with the back only partly lifted.

Normally, the back of the polonaise would be lifted in two or more places to show the petticoat beneath, as shown below. Continue reading