Monday, 23 April 2018

Frances Hodgson Burnett's adult fiction, by Leslie Wilson

photo by Herbert Rose Barraud
I re-read 'The Making of a Marchioness' recently, a novel I first heard of via Nancy Mitford, in her 'The Blessing.' Like 'The Shuttle,' by the same author, it's published by Persephone books and I began to be curious about the rest of her adult output; I also got hold of Gretchen Gerzina's autobiography of Burnett.

Like most people, I expect, I first encountered her through her children's work; rather curiously, I heard of 'The Secret Garden' when I read Noel Streatfeild's 'The Painted Garden.' Clearly this was the wrong way round. I'd heard of Little Lord Fauntleroy, as a term of abuse and contempt, I'm afraid. I read 'The Secret Garden, then 'A Little Princess', and finally I found Fauntleroy, in an early 20th century edition, in a second hand bookshop on the other side of the river from where we lived in Kendal, when I was about thirteen. So I read Fauntleroy when I had almost left children's books behind, (you got an adult library ticket at the age of fourteen, and most of my books came from the library: I could never otherwise have financed my reading habit.)

Frances Hodgson Burnett had an interesting and difficult life, which I don't  wish to recount in detail, but in brief, she was born in Manchester, where her father lost all his money. The family then emigrated to Tennessee, where they lived in poverty. Like Louisa May Alcott and her fictional Jo March, Burnett began writing stories for magazines, and earned money for the family that way. She had an up-and-down financial life, but continued to be self-sufficient and to support her family. She had two sons, one of whom died young of TB, and two disastrous marriages. The first ended in divorce, after years of living apart; the second was an abusive relationship and her husband, an English actor, blackmailed her into the marriage. She finally got the courage to get rid of that second husband.
Out of an incredibly prolific output, I'm going to talk about four books. I shan't talk about 'Making of a Marchioness' because it's pretty well known, and if I do ever blog about it, I'd like to give it a blog all to itself.

'The Shuttle' deals with marriages between American heiresses and British aristocrats, and it begins with a rather ineffectual American heiress, Rosalie Vanderpoel, who marries a British aristocrat and waster, is taken back to his dilapidated house in the country and his horrific mother, and is bullied into signing over all her money to Sir Nigel. He also cuts her off from her family. Her younger sister, Bettina, is cast in a different mould; a strong woman, who, when she comes of age, announces to her father that she's going to England to find out what has happened to her sister.
She finds a woman who has been physically and emotionally abused, a shadow of the pretty sister Bettina once knew, However, with her father's money and her own force of personality, Bettina renovates the house for her young nephew, and when Sir Nigel returns, stays on to defend her sister against him. She also finds a love interest on her own account. That's enough about the plot, to avoid spoilers.

What interested me was that this subject matter could find readers in the Victorian era, and the issue of domestic abuse (which arises in 'The Making of a Marchioness' too, is in no way softened. One of the most powerful passages in the book occurs when Vanderpoel senior becomes aware that Bettina has fallen in love, which, given his eldest daughter's experience, cannot be called a risk-free option.
'If a man who was as much a scoundrel, but cleverer - it would be necessary that he should be much cleverer - made the best of himself to Betty - ! It was folly to think one could guess what a woman.. would love. He knew Betty, but no man knows the thing which comes, as it were, in the dark and claims its own - whether for good or evil. He had lived long enough to see beautiful, strong-spirited creatures do strange things.' Hodgson Burnett knew herself to be such a strong woman, and knew that even such a woman could fall into the hands of an abusive partner.

Burnett when older: Library of Congress
I found 'A Lady of Quality' much harder to read, partly because it's written in a rather ghastly pastiche of 17th/18th century language. Though Henry James apparently admired it. Tastes change. Rather too much 'twas,' and not at all the delightful, simple, yet powerfully frank voice which I enjoy in this author. It deals with Clorinda, the daughter of an English gentleman, the child of a downtrodden wife who dies after giving birth to her, who is raised as a boy by her father, but then decides to adopt women's clothing and women's manners after a rebuke by the curate. This is in no way an act of submission; rather of assertion and strategy. Of course the men come after her, but she has no dowry. A handsome young wastrel flirts with her, without any intention of marrying her. She's strongly attracted to him, but her pride won't let her show it too much. She then marries an elderly nobleman, and is quickly widowed. Meanwhile, she's found the man she really loves, but the egregious wastrel, Sir John Oxon, tries to blackmail her into marrying him. I'd better stop now, for fear of spoilers. Clorinda is almost terrifyingly strong and independent; she's balanced by her elder sister Anne, who adores her, but is physically weak and nervous. And yet Anne has her own strength, which Clorinda values. Pairs of women, one weak, the other strong, keep popping up in these novels, and it's hard not to suppose that they correspond to the two sides of Burnett's own character, particularly in regard to her second marriage.
From A Little Princess, my copy,
Again, it's staggering that such a devastatingly strong woman should have been a popular fictional character in the Victorian period, and it knocks into a cocked hat our ideas about demure Victorian heroines. A good thing, that.

'The Head of the House of Coombe' was published in 1922, Burnett's last novel. A feather-headed young woman from Jersey marries a young Englishman who has no money and, apparently, less sense. They have a baby, who she ignores. She lives a life of extravagance, fashion, and debt, and her husband then dies. The servants disappear and she's left on her own till one of her aristocratic friends, a rather strange Marquis, bails her out financially. The world then supposes she's his mistress. She isn't. Her neglected little girl meets a kindly boy in the Park, and plays with him several times, but when his mother discovers who little Robin is, she takes the boy back to Scotland to save him from the taint. Subsequently, Lord Coombe discovers that Robin is not only neglected but abused, and he dismisses her nursemaid and gets her a loving one, gets her educated, builds her a delightful extension to live in, still in the house of 'Feather', which is her mother's nickname.

One can easily recognise elements from the children's books here: Feather strongly resembles Mistress Mary's neglectful mother, and Robin, like Sara Crewe, is consigned to a garret till rescued by a masculine well-wisher, and installed in pleasant rooms, Coombe does not, however, adopt Robin. There's a second volume, apparently, but I haven't read it.

I was interested in this recurrence of the emotionally absent mother. Burnett was not a huge success as a mother; partly because she had to work so hard. Her boys were left behind, missing her, when she voyaged to England to promote her books. Letting it be known that her second son, Vivian, was the inspiration for 'Fauntleroy' wasn't the best move any mother ever made, either. When Lionel was dying of TB in Paris, she went away during his last days to refresh herself in England; she did get back before he died. I don't wish to be judgemental about that. But afterwards she wallowed in grief; remained in England while Vivian wrote letters to her begging her to come to him. He was naturally, grieving greatly for his beloved elder brother. What really stuck in my gullet was her letter to him, telling him that all his needs had always been met, and she had to devote herself to a foundation for poor boys that she had set up in London. Here, she sounds like Mrs Jellaby in 'Bleak House', and though much about Mrs Jellaby makes me wince, I can understand some of what Dickens was lampooning. I do wonder whether Burnett was aware of any element of 'Feather', or Mistress Mary's mother, in herself. Perhaps not. Neither Feather nor Mrs Lennox indulged in philanthropy.

The reason I haven't read the second volume of this novel is the hideous jingoistic subplot of the novel, complete with evil Prussian spies (one of whom wants to rape Robin, and she's rescued only in the nick of time.) Burnett, looking back, characterises the Germany of that time as a nation that believed 'that the world has but one reason for existence - that it may be conquered and ravaged by the country that gave them birth.' Flip back to 'The Shuttle' and consider this passage.
'I believe you would always think about doing things,' said Lady Anstruthers. 'That is American, too.'
'It is a quality Americans inherited from England,' she said lightly, 'one of the results of it is that England covers a rather large share of the map of the world.'
 Only of course, Hodgson Burnett didn't see the British Empire as anything but benevolent. I think further comment is unnecessary.

Illustration from 'That Lass o'Lowries'.

I approached 'That Lass o' Lowries' with some trepidation, because it's full of north-country dialect and though I'd found bits of it quite acceptable in 'The Secret Garden,' I wasn't sure how well I could manage large quantities of dialogue written in it. In fact, it didn't cause me any problems at all, and I honestly think this novel is the best of her adult work. It deals with one of the women who worked underground in the mines. At school I was shown pictures of them dragging trucks along rails underground, acting as beasts of burden, and they were represented to me as pitiable. Joan Lowrie, the heroine of the novel, is a different creature.

'The man's jacket of fustian, open at the neck, bared a handsome sun-browned throat' (though one does wonder how she managed to get it sun-browned, working long hours down the pit). 'The man's hat shaded a face with dark eyes that had a sort of animal beauty, and a well-moulded chin.'

Joan is a woman of character, though she is often physically abused by her no-good father. She shortly takes in an unmarried mother of a small baby who was seduced and kept, till she became pregnant, by the son of a local squire. Liz is one of those weak counterparts to the strong female lead who I've observed in other novels. Joan protects Liz, though she's sometimes irritated by her, and drives the pompous parson out when he comes to moralise at the poor girl.

'Does tha see as tha has done her any good?' she demanded, 'I dunnot mysen.'
'I have endeavoured to the best of my ability to improve her mental condition,' the minister replied.
'I thowt as much,' said Joan. 'I mak no doubt tha'st done thy best, neyther. Happen tha'st gi'en her what comfort tha had to spare, but if you'd been wiser than yo' are, you'd ha' let her alone.'' And she sends him off with: 'Howivver, as tha has said thy say, happen it'll do yo' fur this toime, an' yo' can let her be for a while.'

Joan Lowrie is one of several characters in the novel who can see patronising hypocrisy for what it is, and have no hesitation in speaking their mind about it. I did find the working-class characters convincing and well-drawn, though there are traces of patronage in the portrayal, but far less than one would fear to discover. Perhaps this is because Burnett herself had been desperately poor, and must have had to do with working-class children in Tennessee. But Joan is right up there with Elizabeth Gaskell's working-class heroines, or some of George Eliot's women. Tough, yet kindly, and less ferocious that Clorinda in 'A Lady of Quality,' she has a quality of genuineness, and you can't help but love her. I do recommend this book.

Photo: project Gutenberg

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style by Catherine Hokin

"Every object which you pass from your hand must carry an outspoken mark of individuality, beauty and most exact execution." Charles Rennie Mackintosh

 Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Glasgow is having a bit of a do this year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of architect, designer and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of the city's favourite sons and one of the most creative figures of the twentieth century. But who is not Frank Zappa, the moustachioed man who my daughter, despite having lived here for a year when she announced this loudly in the University gift shop, thought was printed on posters all across the city. Moving on. Mackintosh's influence is everywhere in Glasgow, from stylised roses to buildings as diverse as tea rooms and churches to the iconic Glasgow School of Art. There's a whole programme of events but the main draw is the exhibition running from now until the end of August at the (also iconic and only 10 minutes walk from my house which I still have to pinch myself about sometimes) Kelvingrove Art Gallery: Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style. 

 Kelvingrove Art Gallery: Daily Record
Glasgow was the birthplace of the only Art Nouveau movement in the UK . ‘The Glasgow Style’ is the term given to the design and decorative arts and craft work produced between about 1890 and 1920 by teachers, students and graduates of The Glasgow School of Art. At the centre of this style is the work of the Glasgow Four: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his future wife Margaret Macdonald, her sister Frances Macdonald and Frances’s future husband, James Herbert McNair, artists who were also part of a wider group known as The Immortals. Another nickname attached to them, because of the unearthly, ghostly quality of some of their designs (particularly the distorted female figures which were influenced by Aubrey Beardsley) was the ‘Spook School’.

The Glasgow Style draws on an eclectic mix of influences. It incorporates classical Greek elements which were the hallmark of a slightly earlier Glasgow architect, Alexander 'Greek' Thompson. Like much late nineteenth century art there is also a discernible love affair with Japan as that country's Meiji restoration period increasingly opened it up to the West. There is Celtic imagery, particularly round lettering but the strongest element which can be seen across all the different media the artists worked in was a twist on Gothic Revival.

 House for An Art Lover
That is not to say, however, that the style was backward-looking. The Glasgow Four were regarded by contemporaries as avant-garde. Mackintosh's work revolved round creating a balance between opposing forces: darkness and light, line and curve, abstraction and sensuality. He made use of devices such as creating contrasts between interior spaces, contrived by mixing white walls and pastel motifs with others that were dark, using stained wood. His exteriors are equally as challenging. Scotland Street School has two circular towers embedded in the front wall that look like the towers in old Scottish castles whose function is to contain dark and narrow spiral staircases. These towers, however, are formed almost completely from a glass window and contain an empty space which has no purpose at all except to fill the building with light. Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Oliver Wainwright described Mackintosh's designs for the 1901 Glasgow International exhibition as fantastical concoctions of domes and spires, featuring smooth monolithic towers crowned with skeletal lanterns and curvaceous pediments topped with wiry finials and flagstaffs. The Hunterian experts call it “very unorthodox and impossible to label stylistically”... I’d suggest fantasy-sci-fi-medieval: it could be a palace straight from Game of Thrones.

 Anne Macbeth Sleeping Beauty Embroidered Panel
Glasgow Style, however, is not only about architecture, or solely about Mackintosh. In 1890, a Government Act redirected alcohol tax into investing in technical and manual instruction for workers and Glasgow School of Art took full advantage of this new funding to extend its remit beyond the traditional arts such as painting and sculpture by opening a Technical Arts Studies department. This introduced a range of crafts for study including pottery, embroidery, metalwork, stained glass and woodcarving. At the same time some of Glasgow's industries such as iron were also developing new techniques, including cast iron moulding for ornamental use. All of these became part of the new design movement and all are included in the Kelvingrove show.

 The May Queen - Margaret MacDonald
An important aspect of the Glasgow Style, and too often overlooked but not by this exhibition, was the role played by women, including artists Frances and Margaret MacDonald, the illustrator Jessie King, metalwork designers Margaret and Mary Gilmour and the embroiderer Ann MacBeth. Margaret Macdonald, a wonderful artist in her own right, had an enormous influence on Mackintosh's work, which he was always the first to acknowledge: Margaret has genius, I have only talent. Although her name is not always next to his on completed projects, her curving sensual style can be traced in almost all of it, helping him to create the tension his work depended on. As Daniel Robbins, formerly curator of British Art and Design for the Glasgow Museums and project coordinator of a previous Mackintosh exhibition put it: She opened up to him a new intellectual world in which the artist is a self-conscious person.

 The Glasgow School of Art
The Glasgow Style was not a long-lived movement: the Four had gone their separate ways by the turn of the century and Mackintosh never secured another big building project after the Glasgow School of Art was completed in 1909. Tastes were changing and Mackintosh had no interest in the type of steel and glass constructions coming into favour via America, plus he had a terrible problem sticking to budgets. His end was a sad one, including a period of time spent in Suffolk during World War One in which he was treated with hostility by locals for having too many European friends. Plus ca change. Many of his buildings still stand but they fell into disrepair when he was out of fashion and are only more recently being given the attention they deserve. It is an awful irony that it was the 2014 fire in at the GSA which brought Mackintosh's name back to the fore through the destruction of his wonderful library. That fire certainly showed the depth of feeling Glasgow still has for 'Toshie' - I live very close by and my abiding memory is how many people, from all works of life, simply stood there and wept. Fingers crossed the restoration should be unveiled in 2019 - I think there might be another bit of a do. In the meantime get yourself up to Glasgow and marvel at the exhibition - I might even show you a couple of good pubs nearby.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth by Imogen Robertson

The weather today in London is so blissful, it seems odd to remember the Easter Bank Holiday was chilled and windswept. It was. So obviously Ned and I thought it was the ideal day to take our nephew to Great Yarmouth. Obviously we hit the pier (see above) and the arcades and I won a spectacular keyring on the tuppence cascades - only cost me a tenner - but it wasn't exactly hanging out on the beach weather. In a way I'm glad it wasn't, because the rain drove us into the Time and Tide Museum and what a particularly brilliant museum it is. 

There's a nice 30 second video to give you a flavour here:

The kids in the video are obviously having fun, but there is a great deal for middle-aged history enthusiasts like myself too.

The museum gives a full sense of the town and the deep history of the area, entertains while it informs and is packed with those small, evocative treasures you only find in local museums. I mean those artefacts which seem to give a concrete sense of a person, a place and a time. The museum used to be a smoke house, and they’ve hung little cardboard herring up among the blackened beams in one section. The wood still gives off the smell of smoke. You can also wander down a narrow Victorian street, see the old posters and knick-knacks of the peak tourist trade times of the fifties, and see what the local Romans had for their dinner. Unsurprisingly, there is also a lot about herring.

My favourite display though was one they have put together to celebrate the earliest known museum in Great Yarmouth, the Museum Boulterianum, the collection of Daniel Boulter (1740-1802), a collection, as the signage says designed to educate and intrigue. 

The collection which made up the museum were sold off, but I think Time and Tide have done a brilliant job of reimagining what might have been in it. They do have one of the original tickets to the museum though, look at these wonderful Georgians being intrigued and educated: 

My squiffy shot of the ticket on display...

The Museum Boulterianum opened in 1778, and you can read some more details about the original collection on the Norfolk Museums Facebook page. That page does say, at time of writing, that Daniel Defoe gave the museum a puff in his Tour of Norfolk of 1795, which does seem a bit dubious given Defoe died in 1731. I think they are referring to The Norfolk Tour 

The book also contains an excellent description of the herring being landed. 

Visiting reminded me of a similar museum which turns up in one of my books, Island of Bones, which was opened by Peter Crosthwaite in Keswick around the same time. The Keswick Museum still holds some of his original collection. Does anyone know if someone has done a general history of this sort of museum? The Cabinets of Curiosity put together by middle-class business men for public display rather than private study? Where they got their artefacts, their reception, influence and what happened to them? I am quite sure they have a great deal to teach us. Any one got any leads for me?

Friday, 20 April 2018

The complexity of medieval Soberton (1) by Carolyn Hughes

When, several years ago, I embarked upon writing the first of the "Meonbridge Chronicles", I read a lot of books in preparation. Most of the books were filling in the gaps in my knowledge of how ordinary people lived in the 14th century: their homes and clothes, their food and tools, what they did and what they thought. What, I now realise, I didn’t much investigate, was how the manorial society in which they lived was managed.
Of course, I knew something – I knew about the feudal system and that it was already beginning to break down by the time of the Black Death. I knew about lords and tenants, and manorial obligations. So in the first "Meonbridge Chronicle", Fortune’s Wheel, I imagined that my fictional Meonbridge had a “lord of the manor” (Sir Richard) and a couple of hundred tenants before the plague halved the population, all living together in a state of sometimes more or less harmonious equilibrium, sometimes uneasy tension. What I didn’t really think about was how Sir Richard had acquired his ownership of Meonbridge (and his many other estates across the south of England). Did he hold it (them) from an overlord, such as the king, or some ecclesiastical overlord, such as the bishop of Winchester or Beaulieu Abbey? Or perhaps he held it from his own “liege lord”, a fictional Sussex earl? I hadn’t worked that out, and, from the point of view of the story, it didn’t matter all that much.
But the third "Meonbridge Chronicle", which I am currently drafting, addresses matters of inheritance, and so it is interesting to consider how manors were held and passed on in the Middle Ages. So I’ve done a bit more reading…
My reading has been mainly confined to two sources: the Domesday Book, and one of my favourite resources, the Victoria County History (accessed from the British History Online (BHO) website, about which I have waxed lyrical on The History Girls before.
In that blog post, I talked mostly about Meonstoke, which lies about halfway along the length of the River Meon and is, in my mind, the village that “Meonbridge” aligns to most closely. What I read of Meonstoke’s manorial history was interesting and reasonably straightforward. This time, however, I chose to read about Soberton, a couple of miles downstream of Meonstoke, and the picture I have gained is no less interesting, but far less clear. The results of my reading have been both enlightening and confusing. I wanted to gain a general insight into Soberton’s medieval manorial structure and to discover some of the people who held, and disposed of, the manors. I have achieved that, more or less, but it is a complex picture.
This is the first of a two-part post about what I have learned of Soberton’s manorial arrangements. Because the picture is rather complicated, I have more information than I can possibly include in one month’s post. But I think it’s interesting enough to warrant telling all!

The parish of Soberton and Newtown is apparently one of the largest, geographically, in the United Kingdom. Today, the parish is still largely rural, or semi-rural, with several working farms, a few horticultural and industrial enterprises, and a population of about 1600. Its main church, St. Peter’s, was begun in the 12th century. A second church, in Newtown, was built in the 19th century, as was a Methodist Chapel in Soberton Heath (now a private home). The southern part of the parish (Soberton Heath/Newtown) contains a good area of the Forest of Bere, once a vast area of royal woodland stretching from Romsey, south towards Southampton, east to beyond the Sussex border, and as far north as Winchester. It is presumed that the Norman kings used Bere Forest for hunting, as well as the New Forest to the west in Dorset, and it is reputed that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I all hunted here. The oak woods provided timber for building, including warships and bridges, from the 13th to the 19th centuries. I have written more about the Forest in the wider context of “industry” in the Meon Valley, in an earlier History Girls post.
Most, though not quite all, of the modern parish lies within the boundaries of the South Downs National Park.
One of the constituents of the BHO website, the Victoria County History for Hampshire, provides extensive and fascinating information about the historical ownership, as well as the important buildings and features, of Hampshire’s manors. As I said in my earlier post about the BHO, it is intriguing to see how the ownership of quite small manors, or parts of manors, sometimes rested with quite famous individuals, like the bishops of Winchester, or the (in)famous third Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton,
portrait attributed to John de Critz [Public domain]
In the Meon Valley, many of the estates were originally owned by the Crown or by some illustrious ecclesiastical institution. But, as I have discovered, many of these estates were in practice held by aristocratic or knightly families, some of whom retained their manorial holdings for generations and centuries, although sometimes manors were subdivided to provide for multiple heirs, or sold off to meet liabilities. Families such as the Waytes, the  Newports, the de Venuz’s and the Wallops were long-standing “lords of the manor” in Soberton. In the case of Soberton, too, I have noticed how relatively often women seemed to inherit and hold – or dispose of – manors, giving the impression that, for several centuries at least, women had more power over their property than one might have thought.
I have discovered, too, how fascinating it is to see – or to try to fathom – how locations named in earlier centuries align with what we have now. I don’t know quite why I find this so absorbing… Perhaps it’s something to do with what I also said in one of those earlier posts: “It’s somehow wonderful, and somehow humbling, to remember, in these places where I take my walk, and where I sometimes stop to stand and stare, how very many men and women have been here in the centuries before me.” It’s about wanting to understand the shape of our ancestors’ lives.
According to the Domesday Book of 1086, Soberton (attached to the Meonstoke Hundred) had four main “estates”, which together had a population of about 35 households, or perhaps 150 or so people. There is also an entry in Domesday for [East] Hoe, which lies within the eastern boundary of the parish, with another nine households. Domesday also tells us of a place called “Benestede” (or Bensted), with 12 households, which lay on the western boundary of the parish of Soberton (the River Meon), though it no longer exists under this name. I am including a reference to it in this post largely because of its geographical proximity to the Soberton manors and it shares some of the same personalities.
The Domesday entries for Soberton "proper" show that two of the four estates belonged at that time to the king, William I. A major part of Soberton had, at the time of the Conquest in 1066, formed part of the estates of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. His son, King Harold Godwinson, made his father’s a crown estate. Domesday says:
“Harold took it from him and put it in his revenue; it is so still.”
These estates remained in the overlordship of the king.
The entry in the Domesday Book that refers to the estates once owned by Godwin.
A third Soberton estate at the time of the Conquest had belonged to “Wulfnoth”, who I assume was either Godwin’s father, Wulfnoth Cild, who held vast estates in Sussex and was possibly the thegn of South Sussex, or another Wulfnoth Godwinson, Godwin’s sixth son and Harold’s younger brother. By the time of Domesday, the estate was in the hands of Herbert the Chamberlain, who was chamberlain of the Winchester treasury.
The fourth Soberton estate was crown land in 1066 but, by Domesday, it belonged to Henry the Treasurer (about whom I know no more). 
[East] Hoe was again crown land in 1066 but, by Domesday, it had been transferred to Hugh de Port, a French-English Norman aristocrat who accumulated a great number of estates, perhaps as many as 53 by 1086, most of which were in Hampshire.
Bensted, which was located just outside Soberton parish, was owned by the bishop of Winchester both prior to and after Domesday, but the wealthy Hugh de Port held it (or part of it) in 1086.
So, that was the situation in 1086. But, in the decades and centuries that followed, it seems that the, perhaps initially quite clearly delineated, estates referred to in the Domesday Book became divided and subdivided, according to the practice of “subinfeudation”, by which tenants who held land from an overlord, including the king, sub-let or alienated part of it to heirs or others. As a result, says the Victoria County History, it became difficult to trace the subsequent history of some of the estates. The results of the “subinfeudation” in Soberton made its manorial structure really rather complex, and I have enjoyed trying – while not entirely succeeding – to tease out the details.
The manors of Soberton shown in relation to the existing settlements.
The dotted line is the parish boundary. © Author

From the information in the History, the five Domesday estates in Soberton parish were divided (eventually) into about seven manors:
  •   Soberton
  •   Longspiers
  •   Flexland (Englefield)
  •   Wallop’s Manor
  •   Russell Flexland
  •   Bere
  •   East Hoe 
The History doesn’t mention a Bensted at this location at all.
[As an aside, on a website called Manorial Counsel Limited, I have found that lordships of the following manors exist: Soberton, Russell Flexland, Wallop’s Manor, Bere, Longspiers, East Hoe, but also Faulkner’s Pluck and Huntbourne. None of these titles are available for sale (which is partly the function of the website), so whether this means someone actually still owns them all, I really don’t know!]

The Clere family held “a” (rather than “the”) manor of Soberton from the king from early times. In the reign of Edward III, the abbot of Beaulieu Abbey purchased “a” manor of Soberton. It seems unclear exactly where this manor (if indeed it was the same manor) was located, but perhaps it was where Soberton village is now, to the north of the parish, and maps to the two estates identified as belonging to the king in 1086? I can’t tell this from my reading of the History, but I suppose it is a reasonable conjecture.
Anyway, as early as 1229, the forests in Soberton that belonged to the Abbey were extensive enough to justify the king ordering the abbot to supply the royal navy with five hundred wickerwork baskets (cleias) and two hundred bridges. In 1359, the Abbey was granted free warren in Soberton, and in 1393 the king confirmed the right of common of pasture within the Forest of Bere for the animals of the tenants of Soberton. About this time, the Abbey began what seemed to be a common practice for overlords, to farm out the manor, and it was let to various tenants from then onwards. 
In 1411, the manor was leased to a Richard Newport and his heirs for two hundred years. This lease seems to have been equivalent to a sale, for no annual rent was mentioned in the indenture. In 1477, the manor was said to be the property of Henry Stafford, the second Duke of Buckingham, who was married to Catherine Woodville, sister of Elizabeth, the wife of King Edward IV.
Later in the 15th century, the manor and other premises in Soberton were passed to John Dale and Richard Kingsmill, apparently as trustees, rather than owners. Richard Newport’s grandson, John, who had inherited the manor, died in 1521 with no children to succeed him. John’s widow, Elizabeth, died six years later. They were buried together inside St Peter’s church, in a marble tomb that can still be seen in what was once called the Lady Chapel, and now the Curll Chapel. Elizabeth left fifty sheep, two cattle and ten marks in money to the church, and 3s. 4d. (about £70 or 5 days  wages for a skilled tradesman) to each of her Soberton tenants.
In 1544, William Dale, presumably a son or grandson of John Dale, and still a “trustee”, passed the manor of Soberton, together with those of Longspiers and Flexland Englefield (see next month’s post), to a Walter Bonham who, five years later, sold them to Thomas Wriothesley, the first Earl of Southampton. The earl died a year later. His grandson Henry, who inherited Soberton at the age of eight on the death of his father in 1581, became the infamous third Earl. Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Henry was drawn into the Earl of Essex’s conspiracy and was sent to the Tower when the plot failed. In 1601 he was convicted of treason (and presumably deprived of all his estates). However, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, had Henry’s sentence commuted to life imprisonment. But in 1603, he was released by the new king, James I, who also restored to him his Soberton manor (among many others, I presume!) and, four years later, granted him free warren, view of frankpledge, assize of bread and beer, and various other privileges. When Henry died on the king’s service abroad in 1624, his heir was his son Thomas, then aged sixteen.
Walter Curll, Bishop of Winchester (1632-1647)
However, within the next few years, Soberton was sold to Dr. Walter Curll, who was bishop of Winchester from 1632 to 1647. When, in 1645, the Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell captured Winchester, Walter went into exile to his manor in Soberton. It was said that he “led a retired life there in a sort of obscurity for a year and a half or thereabouts in a declining state of health. He was brought up to London for advice, but died 1647 about seventy two”. After his death, the manor was taken from the family but, in 1651, Walter’s widow and his son petitioned for its restoration. It was restored, and passed eventually to Walter’s grandson, another Walter. Then, in 1678, this Walter’s daughter, Anna, married Thomas Lewis, and brought the manor to her husband. 
And it wasn’t long before Thomas became the owner of nearly all the manors of Soberton parish.

I will continue Soberton’s manorial story in next month’s post.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Countdown to a Coup by L.J. Trafford

“Once killing starts it is difficult to draw a line.” 

So, said Tacitus about the 15th January 69AD. This was the day that Emperor Galba was overthrown by Otho. Thus giving what would be known as the year of the four emperors a very bloody start.
Galba had only been emperor since June the previous year. He’d only actually been in Rome since October 68AD. He was dead a mere three months later.

What in the Gods name had gone wrong?


On paper Galba had every credential necessary to be emperor. As Suetonius drily puts it “It would be a long story to give in detail his illustrious ancestors and the honorary inscriptions of the entire race, but I shall give a brief account of his immediate family”

Galba obtained the favour of Augustus’ wife, Livia whose influence promoted and enriched him. Caligula had made him Governor of Upper Germany, Claudius gave him the governorship of Africa and Nero bequeathed him the same position in Spain. He was illustrious enough to be considered a potential match for Nero’s mother Agrippina after she lost her husband.

At seventy-three years old he was experienced beyond all in governing an empire and had the respect of most. When Nero’s reign faltered and ultimately collapsed, Galba seemed to be the perfect step in.

As Tacitus notes “As long as he remained a subject he seemed too great a man to be one, and by common consent possessed the makings of a ruler." And then adds the kicker finish "Had he never ruled.”

Galba was a great man. He might have been a great emperor at the right time; 68/-69 AD was not that time. Right from his entry into Rome Galba wrong -footed in almost every sphere.
In more stable times his keenness to balance the books, to rebuild the machinery of government, to stamp control on the army and the Praetorian Guard might have borne fruit. Certainly, Vespasian tackled many of the same problems with not a little success.
Galba, however, suffered from the record set by his predecessor. Though Nero had not been popular with the Senate and upper classes, he was wildly so with the people of Rome and the provinces. Setting himself up as the antithesis of the popular, charming, glamorous Nero could only leave Galba noticeably lacking in Imperial qualities.

It also exposed him as a hypocrite for as he blanketed Rome in stern austerity his aids: Vinius, Laco and Icelus were busy enriching themselves. It is likely Galba was unaware of such corruption and theft from his supporters. He should have been.
As Galba selectively punished Nero’s closest lackies and attempted to claim back moneys given them, he declined to reward the Praetorian Guard who had made him emperor. It was certainly a grave error but not necessarily fatal, had it not been for the machinations of Marcus Salvius Otho.


Whereas Galba had chalked up a long, distinguished and incident free career as a public servant, Marcus Salvius Otho had obtained honours by a quite different method. After a wild youth that included that odd Roman adolescent pastime of going about the city at night beating up the populace (a favourite game of both Nero and Caligula, quite why is anyone’s guess) he aspired to a position in Nero’s court.

These youthful hobbies were clearly extravagant and notorious enough that Otho felt he couldn’t rely on a personal recommendation to secure a role at court. Instead he set about seducing an Imperial freedwoman of older years (decrepit as Suetonius not so tactfully puts it). This got him in. And when he was in he soon impressed emperor Nero (immorally according to some, by force of personality and similarity to the emperor by others, possibly a combination of the two by me).

So ‘in’ was Otho that on the infamous day Nero planned to murder his mother, Agrippina, Otho held a banquet for mother and son to deflect suspicion of the grim deed about to be enacted.

This imperial favour was not to last. The two friends comprehensively fell out over a woman: Poppaea Sabina. There was much speculation about the relationship between Otho, Poppaea and Nero. She married Otho, but was this just a favour to the emperor so that he might have easy access to the woman he desired?
Or did Otho genuinely love Poppaea and the emperor stole his wife from him?
Or was there some strange ménage a trois occurring that was wrecked by jealousy?
Whatever the truth, Otho and Poppaea divorced, Nero and Poppaea married and Otho found himself appointed governor of Lusitania (modern day Portugal).

Here Otho surprised all by being a competent Governor. Was this time away from court shenanigans the making of him? Had he finally grown into responsibility?

We shall never know. But what we do know is that Otho was one of the very first governors to side with Galba. His rush to Galba’s side indicates that his old pal Nero was clearly not forgiven for the Poppaea humiliation.

October - December 68AD
Otho travelled with the new emperor, Galba from Spain to Rome. He made a friend of Galba’s aid, Titus Vinius, perhaps using some of the charm that had won him Nero’s friendship. There was talk of cementing this friendship by way of a marriage between Vinius' daughter and Otho. Otho also set about winning the troops round:

 “Whenever he entertained the prince at dinner, he gave a gold piece to each man of the cohort on guard, and put all the soldiers under obligation in one form or another. Chosen arbiter by a man who was at law with his neighbour about a part of his estate, he bought the whole property and presented it to him. As a result there was hardly anyone who did not both think and openly declare that he alone was worthy to succeed to the empire.” Plutarch

Was this what he had wanted from the offset, to be Galba’s heir? Galba was 73, he was a widower (with a taste for sturdy, hard young men) and no children. Galba was no long time buddy of Otho’s; two more different men could scarcely be found. Galba was an old school stern patrician with an extensive career in dutiful public service. Otho was forty years his junior and had gained his governorship of a province by way of scandalously handing over his wife to Nero.
Why would Otho believe Galba would make him his heir?
Yet the sources are unanimous that he did. It is reminiscent of the adventurer spirit that had led to the younger Otho shamelessly to court a much older woman to get to Nero.
Otho was happily prepared to court the entire army, praetorian guard, city populace and Titus Vinius to get to Galba.
But of course this came at a price, a very high price. A price that Otho had no means to pay. Unless he had access to the Imperial treasury that is….

January 69AD
Galba had ignored all pressures from his advisers (Vinius heavily promoting Otho) to name an heir. He was far too busy sorting out the mess Nero had left behind. But then something suddenly changed
Coin of Galba
his mind.

News reached Rome that on 1st January the German legions had declined to offer the traditional new year oath of loyalty to the emperor Galba. They’d instead offered an oath of loyalty to their own governor Vitellius and declared him emperor.

This forced Galba’s hand. He needed to lay down a secured accession to meet this new threat.

The announcement was due to take place on 10th January.

Otho awaited with eagerness.

10th January 69AD
It was a dark and stormy day…. No really it was. Here’s Tacitus “The 10th January was an unpleasantly rainy day, abnormally disturbed by thunder, lightening and a threatening sky.”

Galba summoned his chosen heir and announced his decision.
This new Caesar was not Otho. It was a man named Piso Licinianus.

"As for Piso, those who were present at the scene and observed his voice and countenance were amazed to see him receive so great a favour without great emotion, though not without appreciation; whereas in the outward aspect of Otho there were many clear signs of the bitterness and anger with which he took the disappointment of his hopes." Plutarch

Otho had been so sure of his success, so completely and utterly convinced that Galba would name him as his heir. No doubt all those around him had been saying the same. It was a huge shock to his ego. It was also a huge shock to his creditors who'd been rubbing their hands with glee at getting their money back once Otho was Caesar.
Which put Otho in an awkward position. A position he needed to somehow escape from.

"He flatly declared that he could not keep on his feet unless he became emperor, and that it made no difference whether he fell at the hands of the enemy in battle or at those of his creditors in the Forum."

And so a plot was formed.

11th January 69AD
Otho set his freedman, Onomastus to the task. Working on the good favours Otho had already built up by personal charisma, Onomastus added further coinage and extravagant promises.

So successful was he with the soldiers that they decided they would carry Otho off immediately to their barracks and declare him emperor. But this was abandoned, according to Tacitus, because of the "difficulty of achieving coordination between men who were the worse for drink."

Which begs the question was Onomastus handing out wine skins as bribes?

12-14th January 69AD
We'll assume a lot of plotting was going on. Perhaps some charming. Maybe a bit less heavy drinking.

15th January 69AD
Dawn – Galba and a handful of notable personages, including Otho, were offering a sacrifice at a temple. The priest Umbricius examined the entrails of the sacrificial victim and declared, with a hint of drama I believe we cam assume, that "treachery hung over the emperor's head".
 Umbicius then proceeded to helpfully point to where he felt that treachery might be hanging from. His finger was directed straight at the man standing behind Galba, Otho.

There are no set rules, as far as I'm aware, as to how one ought to behave when accused by a priest in a temple full of people of high treason.
Plutarch says this was how Otho took it:
 "He stood there in confusion and with a countenance changing to all sorts of colours through fear."

There has to be some doubt as to Plutarch's version of this tale. If the prophecy was delivered so unambiguously why wasn't Otho arrested at the scene? Why was he allowed to just leave?
Leave he did, arm in arm with Onomastus to where he had been promised a force to declare him emperor

Morning - There were twenty three soldiers waiting to salute Emperor Otho. Though horrified by their lack of numbers, Otho did not back down. And anyway on the way to the praetorian barracks Tacitus says they picked up roughly the same number of soldiers. So forty six then.
Imperial palace overlooking the Forum

Whilst Otho settled into the Praetorian barracks with his forty six men news was fast reaching Galba on the Palatine Hill that something was afoot. News had also reached the general populace that something exciting was happening. They gathered outside the palace yelling death to the conspirators as if at the games.
Inside the palace Galba was caught between two courses; should he stay in the palace, arm the Imperial slaves and let this conspiracy fizzle out?
Or should they leave the palace and set to stamping it out forcefully before it could spread?

As the debate raged a messenger came with news: Otho had been murdered at the barracks by the Praetorian Guard.

Outside the palace the plebs cheered at this wonderful news. Galba buckled on his breastplate and was carried out on a chair to meet his loyal public and celebtrate the demise of the traitor.

Afternoon  - The thing was Otho wasn't dead. He was very much alive and his agents were the ones
who'd spread this very rumour with express purpose of getting Galba to leave the palace

It was a trap.

As Galba, along with heir Piso, were carried through the sea of spectators Otho ordered his (now many more than forty six) men to rush in. As the armed soldiers poured in panic ensued amongst the civilians and they hastened to evacuate the forum.

Galba found his chair bashed hither and thither. His panicked bearers dropped the chair and legged it. Galba fell to the ground. With the swords above him he bared his throat and told them to strike and be done with it. It was to be his last command as emperor.

Piso ran to safety at the nearby House of the Vestals. He was dragged out and hacked to death.

Both their heads were cut off, impaled and carried in procession about the Forum,

Forum at night
Evening - "The forum was still bloodstained and littered with bodies when Otho was carried through it to the Capitol and from there to the palace." Tacitus

Otho did not long enjoy the position he had so bloodily obtained. On reaching the palace he was given full access to the Imperial correspondence and the news that Vitellius had been made emperor by the German legions and that 70,000 men were marching to Rome to claim this throne.

Had he known that would he ever had enacted the coup of the 15th January? A sensible man would not but Otho I think we can say was an adventurer with a heavy reckless streak. Ultimately that streak was his undoing.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Cooking Up History... - Celia Rees

Cookery Books
Like many writers, I have lots of books: fiction, non fiction, biographies, books bought for research which could cover almost anything, travel books, history books, books about writing,  myths and legends. The list is endless. I have many book cases and book shelves but they are all stuffed full, so the books spill into piles: current reading, current writing projects, books I vaguely mean to read about things I vaguely mean to do. I need to get rid of some but like other writers, I find that difficult. I might need them. I know if I get rid of something, I will almost certainly have an idea which means I need to look at that very book.  Not only that, there's a deeper problem. I've had some of these books for a long time, since childhood, school, university. My own history is on those shelves.

No-where is this more apparent than on the cookery book shelves. I have a storage problem here, too. The bookcase in the kitchen which holds my collection is  jammed with spillover stacked around. Time for a cull, but once I begin to look at what's there, I feel reluctant to lose any of them. As Neil Young says: all my changes are there. Cookery books take you back to a particular time and place. Not only your own personal circumstances, but the society around you. I grew up in the fifties and sixties in a lower middle class household at a time when for most people (people like us) olive oil was sold in the chemist as a cure for ear ache, coffee came out of a bottle and spaghetti came out of a tin.
My mother was a very good cook, as her mother had been before her, but the food we ate was a plain, British cuisine. British food has been much maligned, perhaps because it is so familiar to us, or maybe because restaurant and hotel food used to do it so badly, but when it is done well, it is very good indeed. My mother could see no reason to go outside her extensive repertoire of traditional dishes. If she used a recipe book at all, it was Marguerite Patten.

As a child, I was happy enough to go along with this, I knew nothing else, but as an older teenager, I began to be aware that there were different kinds of food out there, the kind of things that people ate in books and in films. My first introduction to foreign food, as it was suspiciously termed, was Chinese. My brother took me to a Chinese restaurant in Birmingham for a Businessman's Lunch. After some initial caution, it looked so different, I tried a forkful of Chow Mein and I loved it! Deep Fried Banana - even better.  Not long after this, a boyfriend took me to an Italian restaurant in Soho. I burnt my mouth on the Cannelloni that I had chosen because I wasn't sure how to eat 'proper' spaghetti but I was determined to learn.

My first foray into 'foreign' cooking was when my brother introduced me to Vesta and a whole battery of exotic meals: Chow Mein, Risotto, Paella and Curry. I thought they were achingly sophisticated and they didn't tax my minimal (at this time) culinary skills.

My mother did not approve. She didn't object to the foreignness but she did object to almost everything else. The highly processed nature of it, all the goodness freeze dried out of it.  If my brother and I wanted to eat food like this, we would learn how to cook it together from fresh ingredients. She bought an international cookery book called something like Foods From Around the World, which to my lasting regret I no longer have, and we never looked back.

When I went away to university, this little book went with me - a gift from my mother. Wise woman, she knew the ways to a man's heart. I've had the book ever since, stained and dog-eared the pages browned and foxed. I still cook from it sometimes - there is an excellent recipe for Sweet and Sour Pork - and Goulash.

After university, I moved to Manchester and remember buying Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran's  Poor Cook in the bookshop in St Anne's Square. I forget the name of the shop but it is a Waterstones now. Manchester introduced me to different cuisines:  Italian, Greek, Mexican, Peking Chinese as well as different styles of Indian cooking. I had my first taste of Lasagna, Hummus, Moussaka, Peking Duck, Chilli Con Carne, Rogan Josh. I got the hang of eating spaghetti and mastered chopsticks. Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran not only taught me how to prepare different kinds of recipes but also told me about food, cookery and cookery writers. The ingredients were readily available: ethnic shops for vegetables and spices, hippy health food places for the beans, chick peas and lentils needed for vegetarian recipes (like those in The Cranks Recipe Book - what goes around comes around). Not every effort was a success, I remember my first attempt at Hummus had the look and consistency of quick setting cement, but I was hooked on trying different things and hooked on cookery books. I bought books on Greek Cookery, Indian Cookery, French, Italian. I discovered the great cookery writers, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson and read their books avidly. I found that a good cookery book is not just about recipes, it is about the places the recipes come from, the people who live there, what they eat and how they live. Cookery books like this make you want to travel, experience those places for yourself.

Nothing evokes the past more than a particular dish, a particular recipe and, for me, nothing conjures a time more than the book in which that recipe is to be found. From Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson through Graham Kerr, Keith Floyd and the Two Fat Ladies,  River Cafe, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, to Ottolenghi and Hemsley and Hemsley, these cookery books don't just catalogue a personal culinary history, they take us from the middle of the twentieth century into the new millennia. They chart changes in what we eat, and how we live. The market follows taste and demand. What was once a rarity is now readily available in any supermarket. One day, Ottolenghi and zahtah will mark a point in our history as clearly as Marguerite Patten and Camp coffee. That's why I can't get rid of my old cookery books. No matter how old they are, or what kind of state they are in, they speak of time and place and what the world was like then.

Celia Rees

Tuesday, 17 April 2018


“The Library was connected with the public wash-house by the municipal fumigation rooms, where books could be disinfected after an outbreak of disease and old clothes could be boiled for redistribution to the needy.”
This brisk description immediately captured a time when Public Libraries – as opposed to Subscription Libraries - were seen as slightly dangerous places and when books, borrowed by the great unknown public, were once objects of suspicion and possible infection in themselves and not just a worrying way of spreading ideas to the poorer classes. I recall a time when children’s hands and nails were inspected before they were allowed a ticket to borrow books from the library, though that continued much later than the setting of this book.

The description above comes from a delight of a novel and a treat of a novelist. THE GATE OF ANGELS, set in 1912, is a work of historical fiction. The author, as I’m sure many of you will know, is Penelope Fitzgerald, and the novel published in 1990. My weak excuse for not having reading her work before is that we share the same first name, which is hardly evidence of a sound critical judgement on my part. In mitigation, Penelope, with all its weight of marital fidelity, is a terrible imposition on a child.

Fortunately, THE GATE OF ANGELS surfaced from a pile of dusty paperbacks at about the same moment the title was praised somewhere else. Thank you, revered reader! So I set the battered second-hand copy (“brought to me by Woman’s Journal”) by my bedside. That night I opened the pages and read myself into an unimaginably violent gale, bringing havoc to Cambridge: colleges, townsfolk and landscape alike.

What a wonderfully brisk and compact piece of writing it is, sharp as the East Anglian wind. The tightly witty prose carries a strong sense of the author’s voice and a world-sharpened understanding. 

She does not offer history as a sentimental or stirring recreation but writes with an observant, lively bustle, choosing a moment when all manner of social relationships, newly proposed scientific theories and religious beliefs were there to be questioned.

The characters, young and old, feel the drive of the new era that is underway, welcome or unwelcome: there are aged academics within the College of St Angelus and elsewhere keen to preserve ancient, pointless traditions and idle young men caught by curious rulings of the Disobligers Society and forced to argue for subjects they do not believe. Indeed, the whole novel seems filled with questioning people, Fitzgerald delights, too, in pointing out the small absurdities and trials of human living:
“The fire was banked up like a furnace, dividing the room into dismaying areas of heat and cold. . . .The college had never been thoroughly dried out since its foundation, but Fred, who had been brought up in a rectory, saw no reason to complain.” I do so enjoy that use of  “dismaying.”

The plot is about a romance that strikes Fred Fairly, a brilliant young physicist and Fellow of the all-male St Angelicus College in the middle of his anxieties about the great debates about science, mathematical certainty and philosophy of that time. Fred’s life is clearly one of upper-middle class privilege, although his sisters nicely conspire to keep him in his place. There is a wonderful scene near the start where Fred returns home to his father Rectory, only to be greeted by a roomful of women – his mother, siblings and the housekeeper – too busy to pay him any attention because they are all sewing suffragette banners for a next march.

Fitzgerald may have inherited a sense of that time as she was born in 1916 and grew up in the Archbishop’s Palace in Lincoln. Her mother, an Archbishop’s daughter, was one of the first women students at Oxford and her father was editor of Punch. The famous Knox brothers: the theologian and crime writer Ronald Knox, the cryptographer Dilwyn Knox and the biblical scholar Wilfrid Knox – were her uncles and also the subject of one of her biographies.

At the start of THE GATE OF ANGELS, the amiable Fred has lost his Christian faith; he is also rather lonely while knowing that, by the terms of his Fellowship, he is forbidden from marrying, particularly women of an unsuitable nature. Quiet moments of humour illuminate his bleak bachelor life. Fitzgerald reminds us that, being brought up in a Rectory, Fred can withstand the lack of heating within the dank, damp Saint Angelus. Fred endures.
However, as he cycles up a country road, a horse and cart charge out from a farm drive and two – or was it three? – cyclists collide with the vehicle. 

Due to a misunderstanding, the unconscious Fred Fairly and the bold and practical heroine, Daisy Saunders – also unconscious - are lain down close together in the same room. Waking so physically close to this warmly attractive young woman, Fred is overcome with love and tenderness: how can he not dream of marrying her? 

A courtship of a kind begins, with Daisy very much a forthright thinker:
“Fred, quite honestly, did you never take a girl out before?” said Daisy.
He seemed to find this difficult but only for a few moments. “I’ve never taken a girl out I’ve wanted to marry before.”
“She mayn’t have known that though,”said Daisy.

Alongside, the reader hears the story of Daisy’s life and her hand-to-mouth childhood, flitting with her ailing mother through the mean terraces of South London. She is definitely not of Fred’s social class. Orphaned at sixteen, Daisy has tried to find and keep clerical jobs, despite horrid yet understated male harassment. Despite all this, Daisy’s energy and confidence are bracing; one is cheered by her practical, pragmatic and rational self and feels for her when, having reached the status of a nursing student, things go awry.

In Fitzgerald’s world, I suspect things often go awry. Although the couple enjoy a short relationship, that third cyclist’s disappearance leads to local rumours, to donnish tales of ghostly haunting, and on to word of a concealed murder and finally a full-scale investigation of witnesses and an uncovering of a very awkward truth for Daisy and poor Fred.

Even so, just as all seems collapsed into catastrophe, Fitzgerald ends the novel with a moment of hope: just a glimpse of brightness rather than any confirmation, a small optimism that breaks out despite all one expects, and typical of the mix of dark and light that made this novel so very different and such an unexpected surprise.

THE GATE OF ANGELS is the third of what are considered Fitzgerald’s four history novels. I have looked at descriptions of the other three novels. The first, INNOCENCE, is set in Florence in 1950, is a romance between an impoverished aristocrat’s daughter and a doctor from a communist family and introduces the Italian Marxist Grammaci. The second, THE BEGINNING OF SPRING, is set in 1913 and describes the world just before the Russian revolution through the struggles of a British businessman and his family living in Moscow. Her fourth and final historical novel, THE BLUE FLOWER, was published in 1955, and is about Novalis, an 18C German poet and his love for an odd child; the poet Goethe and philosopher Schlegel also appear in the novel.
Now I cannot say that the content, as described above, would have made me hurry to take these novels off the shelf – especially with my afore-mentioned name phobia -  but if the pages have anything of the skill, flavour and bright, quiet wit of Penelope Fitzgerald’s THE GATE OF ANGELS, I am sure these novels will be a delight too.

Moreover, as much of Fitzgerald's work has been newly published by Fourth Estate, it will be quite possible to find out.

Penny Dolan. 

Note: Fitzgerald’s earlier books were inspired on her own experiences: THE BOOKSHOP reflects her knowledge of helping to run a bookshop in Southwold; OFFSHORE draws on life among the houseboat community in Battersea; HUMAN VOICES comes from her war-time life at the BBC while AT FREDDIE’S depicts life at a drama school. Then, feeling she had written out her own life, Fitzgerald began writing about other places and other times. She said she enjoyed the research more than the writing. She died in 2000.