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Tuesday 28 February 2017

Getting around in the 1880s

by Antoine Vanner, my Tuesday Talk Guest

I was in London last week and walked along the Strand. For those who don’t know London, it’s one of the major thoroughfares that links Whitehall – which from medieval times has the centre of royal and political power – to the City of London, which was, and still is, the centre of banking and commerce. It starts at the west at Trafalgar Square and leads on through a straight succession of variously-named streets, past beautiful Wren-designed churches, to St. Paul’s Cathedral.  I know the Strand well since my secretary’s first-floor office looked on to it when I worked in London in the mid-1980s. It was busy then, but traffic flowed easily.

Last week however, just before midday, all traffic along the Strand was at a standstill – as it so often is nowadays. Walking from Lancaster Place to Trafalgar Square, a distance of 700 yards, I passed at one point nineteen red double-decker ‘busses nose to tail, without a single other vehicle between them. They were virtually stationary, edging forward intermittently one length at a time. A traffic light half-way, at the entrance to the Savoy Hotel, allowed one ‘bus past each time the light turned green. Not only was I faster on foot – so too could have been a toddler barely able to walk. The Strand is an extreme case, but many other London streets are little better. I’ve been in some 55 countries worldwide, and only in Lagos, Nigeria, have I seen a transport system loaded to, and beyond, breaking point in a way that’s comparable to London.

What struck me most as I walked was the contrast between the present gridlock and the greater ease with which one could move about in some cases, but not all, in the 1880s. This is the period in which my latest novel, Britannia’s Amazon, is set and its heroine needs to undertake extensive travel not only around Southern England, but within London itself. A concern for me during the writing was building in realistic durations for this.

Piccadilly Circus, London 1896
The first point to note was that travel between urban centres was rapid and efficient in the 1880s. The railway network was in place and improved steam-locomotive design ensured speeds of travel comparable with that of today – and in some cases perhaps better. The vast number of branch lines – which would be scrapped in the 1960s – connected even very small towns into the system. Outside major towns, where cab services were available if one could pay for them, the problem arose of getting to and from the station. For the affluent middle classes, a privately-owned light vehicle and a horse to pull it, was a cumbersome and expensive solution. If care of the animal was not to absorb a major portion of the owner’s time, and if it was to be available at short notice, then it was essential to employ a groom to look after it and to have it ready when needed. Accustomed as we now are to going out to our cars, turning the key and driving off, it is hard to imagine just how much time was taken up by harnessing and unharnessing horses. When I was a boy in the 1950s my grandmother had her own pony, Charley, and a trap – a splendid two-wheeled vehicle. Going with her to a town ten miles away was a splendid treat for me but catching Charley and getting him harnessed was a lengthy business. Once in town – where my grandmother would spend the day – Charley would be unharnessed and lodged at livery stables (all a bit like in a Western movie!). Getting home again involved the same processes in reverse. The actual travel time was probably 50% of the total duration of the journey. [Helen: and that is not factoring in the possibility that Charley - or any pony - might not want to be caught from a leisurely afternoon grazing in the field. Ponies are notorious little so-and-sos for not wanting to be caught!]

A cab stand – misery for man and horse alike
Vast numbers of horses (and donkeys) lived in major towns and cities in the late nineteenth century and, apart from cab-drivers, large numbers of people were employed to care for them. Grooms were well-paid and valued employees (Sherlock Holmes an expert at disguising himself as one when he wanted to gather information). Working conditions for both cab drivers and for their animals were grim however, especially in winter – a situation so heart-breakingly described in that most poignant of Victorian classics, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Yet lower down the scale the homeless and unemployed picked up meagre tips by holding horses’ heads while the owner had gone in somewhere on business. (The poet Francis Thompson was reduced to this extremity). Other wretches often ran after cabs to as to earn a pittance by offloading baggage at their destinations.

Typical trap (at the service of Holmes and Watson)
Horse-drawn trams and ‘busses had made their appearance by the 1880s, offering a cheaper alternative to cabs. As in so much to do with Victorian Britain class awareness played a role – affluent boroughs grudgingly tolerated ‘busses passing through but not trams. The latter demanded laying of track, which could not be easily removed, whereas ‘bus routes could be stopped with immediate effect should the transportation system bring “undesirable people” – typically the poor on their way to and from work – through the area. Motor and electrically-powered ‘busses and trams were still some two decades away in the 1880s and the vast numbers of animals used for traction created a massive problem of droppings on the streets – hence the occupation of the crossing-sweeper who would clear a path for ladies in long dresses. Some futurologists of the period theorised that the limiting factor in further urban growth would be ability to cope with this very unpleasant problem.

Horse tram, 1880s
By the 1880s London possessed an added advantage – a growing underground railway network. By the middle of the decade most of the main railway terminuses had been linked. Its drawback – especially for ladies – was that it was still steam-locomotive hauled. The atmosphere in the tunnels and stations was generally stifling, smuts and sparks were common, and even a short journey could result in hair retaining the smell of smoke. Ladies who could afford it avoided the underground and trusted themselves to cabs instead. Today, if one can at all manage it, it is also better to stay out of this system, but for other reasons. The degree of overcrowding is now comparable to that for which Tokyo alone was once notorious and is often bad not only at rush-hour but at most times of the day.

London Underground 1880s – note the steam engine
One is struck, when looking at old photographs, by just how uncongested streets in large cities were in the Late Victorian era. This is not however surprising in the case of Greater London when one learns that the population was 4.7 million in 1881 compared with 8.17 million in 2011.

And the price of this growth has been a return to speed of movement that is little better – and maybe worse – than in the late Victorian era.

Have we indeed progressed?

Discovering Diamonds Review click here 

Antoine's Brief Bio: 
"My Dawlish Chronicles novels are set in the late 19th Century and reflect my deep interest in the politics, attitudes and technology of the period. I've been lucky to have had an adventurous life in every continent except Antarctica and this had fed my interest. History is a driving passion for me and a major concern in my writing is to make my characters people of their time rather than 21st Century people in re-enactor costume. This is especially true of my latest novel, Britannia's Amazon, in which the constraints that Late Victorian society laid on intelligent women is a major theme." 

Links to website & blog are: and

Link for Britannia's Amazon is:

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Pulling at a Thread...

My Tuesday Talk Guest - Jan Harvey

I was brought up in Puritan household, straight-laced doesn’t come close to describing it. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to me to be writing about the nefarious activities of a brothel and its 'ladies' in occupied Paris during World War II for my debut novel, The Seven Letters.

Estimates suggest that almost a hundred thousand Parisian women turned to prostitution when their men-folk were interned in work camps in Germany. An occupying force of soldiers, who had left wives and girlfriends behind, besieged the city and it was therefore inevitable that women, who desperately needed to feed their children, would meet the demand for sex.  

The Nazi High Command, however, had other ideas. Not for them a dirty street corner on a foggy night, they took over the finest of the Maison Closes, some twenty well-known Parisian brothels, and made them exclusive for their own use.

Before the invasion French dignitaries, actors (some the most famous names in Hollywood) and top civil servants frequented the houses. They were luxurious places boasting rooms so opulent they could have been in Versailles or the Palaces of India. The women were exquisite and highly paid for their work and, funded by Nazi money, they had everything they desired. It would often take a whole week’s salary for a night with one of the women, but the German officers were insatiable.

When I wrote The Seven Letters, I knew I wanted to feature The French Resistance, but I was unsure where in France to set it. Finding out about the most famous of the Maison Closes, The Chabanais, gave me my starting point. I decided to place my heroine, Claudette Bourvil, inside the brothel where she would be spying on the patrons. I also reasoned that she must be an innocent to experience the shock of what she was encountering. In those days a girl from the country would have found it very hard to handle the situation, which made for tension.

The book had to be researched of course and so I made trips to Paris to experience the relevant settings and learn more about the city at that time. I found the original Chabanais, now a faceless office building, and wondered if those people working inside had any idea of what went on in there in times gone by. 

My husband and I ended up in the Musée de l'Érotisme near the Moulin Rouge and I assure you that what we saw in there would have had my Puritan aunts spinning in their graves. It is not a venue for innocents and it was quite unsettling in places! The very helpful curator told us where to find what we were looking for, so we made our way up to the fourth floor where we were able to study photographs of the brothels and prostitutes and, of course, the Madams who ran them. 

I had pulled on a little known thread of history and now the whole book was coming together in my mind and the characters were introducing themselves to me one by one. After two years of thinking I needed to get writing and, actually, I sat down and finished the whole book in six weeks. It just came out, line after line and, because I had so deeply researched the subject, I found I could insert the historical aspects of the Occupation and Liberation in the relevant places. I saw them as pegs on a washing line securing the chapters into place.

I would not claim to be an historian, but I am an author who loves social history and I really enjoyed digging deep into the work of the Resistance and the Special Operations Executive in France during the war, not particularly for the military aspects of that time, but more to understand the social history and the impact of living under the rule of an alien and hostile force. How would we cope today, how much would we collaborate to survive? I often wonder that.

Of course, those who have read The Seven Letters know that it does not end well for Claudette. Her dreadful treatment at the hands of her own people is heartbreaking, but then no one has ever said that war is pretty. Her downfall comes from another set of images, which have been burnt into my soul. They show, in terrible detail, man’s inhumanity to woman and yet these things still go on today in many places right across the globe.

I hope that anyone reading Claudette’s story will mull over the hardships and horrors that women like her, together with their male comrades, suffered to free France and maybe further understand why protecting our freedom at all costs is absolutely essential.

Jan Harvey

“When Claudette Bourvil is recruited to the French Resistance the last thing she expects is that she will be sent to work in the heart of Paris to spy on senior Nazi officers.

Claudette learns how to survive in a city ravaged by war, where the citizens are murdered on the whim of the occupying force. Constantly under threat of discovery, and in danger of losing her life, Claudette risks everything when she falls in love with the wrong man, the worst kind of man.

Over seventy years later, in rural Oxfordshire, Connie Webber discovers seven letters linked to a famous playwright, Freddy March. The letters will eventually lead her to Paris where she discovers the horrific reason behind Freddy’s lifelong depression. As his mother’s story unfolds Connie uncovers a dark past that the city has tried to erase from history.

The Seven Letters is a debut novel by Jan Harvey. 
It received a Discovering Diamonds Review here: Seven Letters Review

It is available on Amazon, on-line, from all retail outlets and signed copies can be ordered from you can email Jan through the site too.

Please visit Jan’s facebook page and give it a 'like' for competitions and up to the minute news.   Twitter @thejanharvey 

Monday 13 February 2017

Romance is in the air today –

Tuesday Talk: posted on Monday, on the eve of a Romantic Day... 

Valentine’s Day. Frankly I think it’s a huge commercial con, with cards costing a fortune and roses costing an even bigger fortune. Isn’t it funny how the cost of flowers goes up two or three-fold a couple of days before February 14th?

OK, I’m a grump… *laugh*.

But what do we really want from ‘romance’ in fiction? Particularly Historical Fiction? The genre is quite broad, from blatant erotic (which often has very little historical content apart from quite a few bosoms heaving out of tight-laced corsets, and semi-clad six-pack men wearing tight breeches) to relationships between real people from the past.

ah for a comely wench...
Is Pride and Prejudice, and all Jane Austen’s novels, ‘romance’? What about Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy? Is an Elizabeth Chadwick romance? She has received several awards from the Romantic Novelists Association, after all, but her latest trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, given the hatred between her and Henry II – he had her locked up for ten years – is hardly the stuff of red roses and boxes of chocs! So those are not romance (but by heck what bloomin’ good reads they are!)

I watched Captain Corelli’s Mandolin on TV a few days ago. Hadn’t read the book, hadn’t seen the movie. Romance? For a war film that towards the end was quite shocking (and very sad)? On the other hand, the passion between the two lead characters absolutely sizzled. Chocolates would melt for sure!

And why do we read romance novels anyway? For the ‘ah that was nice’ factor? Because we love ‘weepies’, because we’re making up for the lack of romance in our own humdrum lives with our predictable Other Halves who never even get round to taking the trash out, let alone thinking of buying flowers.

Anyone remember Nigel in the Radio Drama The Archers? The Nigel of ‘He who fell off the roof on New Year’s Eve’ fame? I liked Nigel. I more or less stopped listening after his demise (bad move on BBC Radio’s part, I felt, to bump him off.) Why did I like Nigel? Simple. He was a romantic. 100%. A bit of a drip at times (hence going up on a roof when it was slippery with ice) but he did romantic -sweep-you-off-your-feet sort of things. Well, he was rich, so I guess he could afford exotic surprises.

But another question. Does ‘romance’ in novels or TV drama or movies, or whatever, have to include sex? Especially explicit sex? (Or even worse, badly-written sex?) Sometimes, is it not just as romantic to leave the ‘romance’ to the romantic couple concerned by  permitting them to firmly close the bedroom door, and leave what happens beyond to our imagination?

Romantic moonlight on the sea,
a handsome pirate and his beautiful lady.
Of course if my other half reads this (which I know he won’t) especially the bit about the trash, I’ll have completely scuppered any chance of a bunch of daffs and box of Malteasers. Still, I might, if I’m very lucky, get a cup of tea in bed… There again, I bet I’ll have to get up and make it…

Where’s my heart-throb pirate, Jesamiah Acorne when I need him? Hmm, I doubt he’d bring me a cuppa either…

a splash of romance -
me dancing with OH at our daughter's wedding.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

History vs Fantasy: East meets West

by Joanna Courtney

At first glance it would seem that historical fiction and fantasy fiction are at opposite ends of the publishing spectrum. They are east and west, for one is almost fanatically rooted in facts and truths where the other deliberately eschews them to create a world far removed from reality. And yet, when it comes to writing in these genres they have a great deal in common.

The research process is clearly worlds apart. The writer of historical fiction will need to spend many hours pouring over texts and maps and manuscripts and, if they’re lucky, diaries and first-hand accounts of that crucial ingredient – what actually happened. The writer of fantasy, in contrast, has only the pages of their own vast imagination to consult. But by the end of this preparation stage, both writers aims are the same – to establish for their readers a world that their characters can viably and convincingly inhabit.

From there on in, their writing task is also very similar. They must plunge their readers into a world that is almost always alien to them, be that sixteenth century England or thirty-first century Mars, and they must do so with enough detail to make it clear without seeming to provide any detail at all. The reader must be able to step out with the protagonist and see what they are seeing, whether that’s a plague-ridden prison or a post-nuclear city. They must be able to easily grasp smells and tastes unfamiliar to their twenty-first century palate, as well as absorbing the social and cultural norms governing the characters’ lives, whether they have been established by research or created from scratch.

It matters little to the reader once they are gripped by the characters’ stories whether or not the world they are lost in ever did truly exist or ever will truly exist, for in the moment of reading, it does exist. If the writer has achieved that in either genre then they have surely done their job.

Amazon Author Page

Of course, it would be naïve to say the two genres are the same, or that they appeal to the same audiences because that is manifestly untrue. At the risk of gross oversimplification, historical fiction is most often read by middle-aged, middle-class people with a bias towards women. Fantasy, in contrast, is predominantly read by a younger group and definitely more by men. This is not to typecast or exclude, simply try and pick apart my own argument. East may meet west in terms of writing techniques, but they are still poles apart when it comes to the final product.

It must, in the end, come down to whether readers see fact as an enticement or a burden. I love historical fiction because I relish the way that I am opening a door into the past. In the same way as I am fascinated by who sat at my own cottage’s fireside a hundred years ago, I love the element of learning about the people who walked this earth before us in my fiction. For me it gives the book an added element. It is definitely not that I feel in some way ‘educated’ or, God forbid, ‘improved’ by historical fiction, just that the lives of our ancestors fascinate me.

But then, fantasy readers must feel the same fascination in the lives of our as yet unborn descendants. Historical fiction readers seek to understand our own times in terms of where we’ve come from and fantasy readers in terms of where we might be heading. There can, clearly, be no ‘facts’ in futuristic fiction but the technologies, cultures and attitudes must be believably extrapolated from what we already know.

In essence, both genres involve the author offering their interpretation of a different time, be that uncomfortably close to now or intriguingly far distant in either direction. Both can, and often do, lead to much debate. Did Anne Boleyn sleep with her brother as suggested in Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl? Might we harness women’s fertility as in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? Readers of both genres will happily read different authors’ interpretation of the same period and enjoy the contrasts because they understand that writing outside of the current reality is a game. It may feel real when you are deep in the plot but you know it is not once you step out of it and back into normal life. And that is half the fun.

Of course these days even the boundaries between the two genres are blurring. This has happened most notably with the infamous Game of Thrones, which is perhaps best defined as fantastical history. It is set in a time clearly intended to precede our own but not one that ever actually existed. It is a masterstroke by George RR Martin – history without the research! It combines the intriguing cultural contrasts of history with the extravagances of fantasy and it’s a winning combination.

But it’s not just Game of Thrones that breaks boundaries. Steampunk, for example, is set in neo-Victorian times with not yet invented technologies. And then there’s alternative history where we start from a basis of historical fact and turn it on its head so that imagination and extrapolation of a known starting point replace what ‘really happened’. Robert Harris does this brilliantly in Fatherland and Kate Atkinson dabbles with it fascinatingly in Life After Life. Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series conjures up a modern world as if the Roman Empire had never collapsed and the collection 1066 Turned Upside down of which I was  part, plays with the events of 1066 as if they had happened another way. All this is, hopefully, both entertaining and thought-provoking – it’s playing the fiction game.

e-book available here
In the end, the differences between historical and fantasy fiction come down to simply whether the author is trying to create something that did happen or play with something that might (or, indeed, might have). As a result historical fiction is on the whole filled with its fair share of grit and grime where fantasy trades more on technology but they belong on the same continuum. Both depend on their readers’ willing imaginations to travel through time. Both are world-building and both should be cherished as such.

Maybe time is circular. Maybe if we go far enough we’ll come right back round. Maybe the end of the third millennium will bump up against the start of the first and east will truly meet west. Or maybe not… But, hey, it’s fun to imagine as, wherever an author derives their core ideas, imagination remains the fundamental root of a really good story.

About Joanna

Ever since I sat up in my cot with a book, I’ve wanted to be a writer and I wrote endless stories, plays and Enid-Blyton-style novels as a child. My favourite subjects at school were English and history, and at Cambridge University I combined these passions by studying medieval literature.

Due to the pesky need to make money, I didn’t have time to pursue my dream of publication until, married and living in Derbyshire. I wrote short stories in the sparse hours available between raising two children and two stepchildren. I had over two-hundred stories and serials published in women’s magazines before, finally, I signed to PanMacmillan for my three-book series ‘The Queens of the Conquest’, about the amazing wives of the men fighting to be king of England in 1066.
My fascination with historical writing is in finding the similarities between us and them - the core humanness of people throughout the ages – and my aim is to provide a lively female take on an amazing year in England’s history.

I’m passionate about my period and about writing and I teach creative writing in courses around the country and for the Open University.

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