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Posts Tagged ‘Historical Novels’

Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Rowlandson, The Comforts of Bath, The Pump Room. Wikimedia image.

Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” opens with the sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is one of the best written and best known opening lines of any novel. It is also one of the best examples of “comic irony” because, as Austen makes clear throughout the novel, it is primarily the women (or more particularly their mothers) who are desperately in search of a rich single man as husband-material.

Historically Bath was undoubtedly one of the most favoured locations for such match-making, both in fact and in fiction. Though the city is relatively small today, it had grown faster than almost any other in Britain during the 17 th Century.  In 1801, when Jane moved to the city it was the ninth largest conurbation in England with a population of 35,000. Its spa facilities and entertainments were renowned throughout Europe and visitors flocked to the city for “The Season” (roughly from the beginning of May to mid-September). This was the ideal time for husband-hunting.

There were balls and gatherings, concerts and card games in the Upper and Lower Assembly Rooms. Each day people met in The Pump Rooms (see Rowlanson’s image above – Wikimedia) to see who was newly arrived in the city, to make introductions (and to be introduced) and perhaps most importantly to exchange gossip, and arrange social events. The theatre too, was well attended with a continually changing programme of popular contemporary productions, drawing some of the finest actors and performers of the age.

People also entertained at home, and yet one of the most favoured social events (weather permitting) was simply “promenading” in the popular shopping areas like Milsom Street, or the many purpose-built, Parades and Parks, like Jane’s favourite, Sydney Gardens. These were the places to see and be seen, the places where accidental meetings might be expected, or could be contrived. As Catherine Morland remarks in “Northanger Abbey”

a fine Sunday in Bath empties every house of its inhabitants, and all the world appears on such an occasion to walk about and tell their acquaintance what a charming day it is.

It would be easy to be swept away by images of “beautiful people” in a social whirl of high society events, set against a back-drop of some of the finest Georgian architecture in the world. Indeed that is the world that Jane Austen seems to present in her novels, yet that was not the whole truth, at least for Jane. The notorious British weather certainly often made promenading, or even attending events or visiting friends, difficult. As Jane said in a letter to her sister, Cassandra,

“We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”

 It must also be remembered that Jane lived in Bath continuously (throughout the years) from 1801 to 1805, and the city was a very different place, out of Season. Being primarily a Spa, many of the resident population of Bath were of retirement age and not always in the best of health. As for eligible young men, only 39% of Bath’s population were male in 1801, and it is safe to assume that relatively few of these were eligible, and that even fewer were young. As Sir Walter Elliot observes in “Persuasion” –

“There certainly were a dreadful multitude of ugly women in Bath; and as for the men! they were infinitely worse. Such scarecrows as the streets were full of! It was evident how little the women were used to the sight of anything tolerable, by the effect which a man of decent appearance produced.”

Many of the eligible young men were of course in the army or navy and away fighting the Napoleonic Wars for much of the time that Jane was living in Bath. And while officers in the services were expected to be at least literate, they came from vary varied educational and social backgrounds. Contrary to popular opinion, although an officer was supposed also to be a “gentleman”, this usually referred to an expectation rather than a predisposition. And often officers fell short of those expectations, which perhaps accounts for Jane’s portrayal of characters like George Wickham, the ne’er-do-well seducer in “Pride and Prejudice.

I’m sure there were lots of George Wickhams in Bath. It was, and still is, the perfect setting for a novel. It was a place where, given enough money or access to credit, all the trappings of wealth and position could be rented or hired or borrowed for The Season, and where people were often not who they appeared to be. As Jane observed in “Persuasion

“Sir Walter had at first thought more of London; but Mr Shepherd felt that he could not be trusted in London, and had been skillful enough to dissuade him from it, and make Bath preferred. It was a much safer place for a gentleman in his predicament: he might there be important at comparatively little expense.”

Very few of Jane’s letters survive from her time in Bath and some say that she wrote very little while she was there. Yet it’s well known that Jane was a consummate editor; writing and re-writing, polishing and refining her work until she was satisfied it was good enough. She may well have been working on drafts of her later novels even then. She was certainly observing and remembering what she saw.

We do know that Jane wrote the beginning of her unfinished novel, “The Watsons” while in Bath. Some say it remained unfinished because it was a time of upheaval in her life (with the death of her father). Others believe it so clearly mirrored her own experience (particularly the financial precariousness of the family) at the time that she found it too painful to continue. And perhaps the chapters that she did complete lack some of the refinement and polish of her later novels, yet I find them very poignant and touching. I can’t help thinking that someone of Jane’s intelligence and sensitivity must at times have been hurt by a Society where people were judged so much in terms of title, wealth and appearance; as opposed to their true nature and accomplishments.

In my novel, “AVON STREET” I have tried to explore aspects of the City of Bath that lay hidden and forgotten behind its romantic Georgian image. Jane Austen recognised that all was not always as it seemed in the City. Perhaps it’s little wonder then that she makes such good use of comic irony.

This piece was kindly hosted on the Jane Austen’s World blog on May 11th 2013.

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Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath by Thomas Rowlandson

Formal Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath  – Painting by Thomas Rowlandson from  Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

In 1811 King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his place. On his father’s death in 1820, the Prince was crowned King George IV. Coincidentally, Jane Austen’s novels were all published during the Regency period, between 1811 and 1818 .

So popular and enduring is Austen as an author, and so frequently have her novels been adopted for the screen that the images she created have now come to define the Regency era. Yet there is a danger that we begin to accept fiction as fact, to confuse the lives of her heroines with her own life, to interpret the lives of the few, as being the same as the lives of the many. And in that process there is also the risk that we lose sight of her skill and imagination as a writer. She was without doubt a keen observer, but the settings and people she describes, come as much from her imagination as from what she saw or experienced.

Jane chose to set two of her novels, “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” in Bath. She lived in the city between 1801 and 1806 and it’s still possible to retrace her footsteps, to see some of what she saw. The pattern of roads is largely unchanged in the older part of the city. Many of the places she would have frequented are still there; The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. It is easy to imagine these places as she depicts them in her novels, yet it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. For example, in “Northanger Abbey” we read;

 “They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.”

Yet Jane also records in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, on May 5th 1801, her own “first impression” of the city;

 “The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Again in “Northanger Abbey” she describes a formal ball held in the Upper Assembly Rooms;

“The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves. With more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protégé, Mrs Allen made her way through the throng of men by the door, as swiftly as the necessary caution would allow; Catherine, however, kept close at her side, and linked her arm too firmly within her friend’s to be torn asunder by any common effort of a struggling assembly.”

Yet her own experience was somewhat different, as she reports in letter to her sister on May 12th 1801;

“By nine o’clock my uncle, aunt, and I entered the rooms, and linked Miss Winstone on to us. Before tea it was rather a dull affair; but then the before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple. Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath.

After tea we cheered up; the breaking up of private parties sent some scores more to the ball, and though it was shockingly and inhumanly thin for this place, there were people enough, I suppose, to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies.”

They say you should write about what you know and Jane Austen certainly knew about people, but was her life really comparable to those of her heroines?  True, she attended dinner parties, suppers, formal balls and had some insight into high-society.  Yet that society was very stratified with rigid conventions and social etiquette. Those rules defined who was on a level with whom, and Jane was certainly not part of its upper echelons.  Though she was undoubtedly part of “Society” in truth she was fairly low down in the “pecking order.” Her Uncle and Aunt were wealthy and lived in the Paragon. They might have provided her with opportunities to glimpse their way of life, but they do not seem to have been over-generous to Jane or her family.

When Jane’s family moved to Bath they leased a house at 4, Sydney Place (now luxury apartments). It was a fine house in a good area, near the popular Sydney Gardens, but it was not a prestigious address in comparison with other parts of the city. And when the lease ended they moved to a house in Green Park Buildings. This was an area the family had dismissed when they first moved to the city and it’s easy to see why from Jane’s description;

“Our views on G. P. (Green Park) Buildings seem all at an end; the observation of the damps still remaining in the offices of an house which has been only vacated a week, with reports of discontented families and putrid fevers, has given the coup de grace. We have now nothing in view. When you arrive, we will at least have the pleasure of examining some of these putrefying houses again; they are so very desirable in size and situation, that there is some satisfaction in spending ten minutes within them.”

Before leaving Bath the Austen family also lived for a while in 25, Gay Street. (The Jane Austen Centre is nearby at 40 Gay Street). It was a “good address” but by then, after the death of Jane’s father, they were reduced to “taking rooms” as boarders, rather than occupying a house as owners or tenants. But by then the family were largely dependent on the charity of relatives.

It’s obvious too that Jane was well aware of the plight of the genteel poor. In “Persuasion” Sir Walter Elliot refers to Westgate Buildings as,

“Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations.”

Westgate Buildings was by no means the worst of streets but it was situated on the border of the Avon Street slum area.  My own novel Avon Street  has an opening scene in Westgate Buildings and explores the darker aspects of the City.

Opinion is divided on whether or not Jane Austen actually liked Bath, but she certainly knew how to use it as a setting. Jane Austen created an image of Regency life which still survives today. That is a testament to her imagination and skill as a writer.  She chose to depict a way of life in her novels that did not always reflect her own everyday experience. Indeed it was not representative of the lives of most, yet it pleased her readers then, and still pleases many more readers today.

Bath is a beautiful city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of the places Jane Austen visited are still there and remain largely unchanged – The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. And it is still possible to retrace her footsteps and imagine the City she depicts in her novels. But it’s also worth imagining what life was really like for a country girl of limited means in a bustling city, where appearance was everything.

Much of this piece was first hosted at the “Jane Austen’s World” Website on September 8th 2012.

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Like our own era, the Victorian age was a time of great change. For some it was an age of  prosperity, for others it was an age of desperation. This was the first age of consumerism and the Industrial Revolution was in many ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. Mass production and increased international trade made more and more products available and affordable for those who could pay.  And with the growth in industry and trade, the middle classes grew in number and wealth, and wanted to buy as much as possible of what was on offer.

These first lines from “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens are certainly amongst the best openings to a novel ever written. But not only do they set the tone and atmosphere of the book and give a flavour of what is to come, they also capture a taste of the challenges and uncertainties of the Victorian era.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

While the Wealthy and the new Middle Classes prospered in the Victorian era, the Working Class did not.  Work, whether in factories, sweat-shops and mines was invariably dirty and dangerous; hours were long and poorly paid. Children had to work, in order for families to survive, and working conditions were often worse for children than they were for their parents. Towns and cities grew quickly to house the workers, but much of the housing was poor quality and overcrowded. Vast slum areas sprung up, putting pressures on water supplies and the disposal of waste. Coal fires and factories filled the air with smoke and other pollutants. The reaction to living conditions and the gap between the haves and have-nots generated rebellion  in many parts of Europe, as people fought for basic human rights in bloody revolutions. In Britain any signs of revolution were ruthlessly suppressed.

Drunkenness was common amongst the working poor, as alcohol was one of the few affordable escapes from hard lives. It was seen by the better off as a reason for poverty, rather than a symptom. Meanwhile opium and a range of other drugs were used by brewers to strengthen beer while keeping down costs. Drugs were also readily available in Victorian times for the better-off. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes injects cocaine when there are no stimulating cases to occupy his mind, much to the disapproval of Dr Watson. Opium dens also feature in Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Yet the real drugs “problem” in Victorian times was not with the illicit drugs that were largely frowned upon, but the propriety medicines that were consumed in great quantities, but little spoken of. Numerous popular household remedies and tonics contained substantial amounts of opium and yet could be bought over the counter. These included “Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne” a general nerve tonic, “Dover’s Powder” used to treat a wide variety of common complaints and “Godfrey’s Cordial” which was commonly given to children and infants to “help” them sleep – and of course the ever popular, “laudanum.”

Nowhere were these contradictions in Society more obvious than in the Morality of the Victorians. They say the Victorians invented Childhood, treating the child as someone who needed to be protected and nurtured, and yet children as young as five were working in mines and factories, quite legally, during much of Queen Victoria’s long reign. Women too, in the middle-class household were regarded almost as saints, “protected” from anything that might offend or morally corrupt. Yet they were often little more than prisoners in their own homes with few freedoms in terms of what they could own, or how they could behave; while  outside the home, prostitution and pornography were rife.

Great play is made of the philanthropy of the Victorians and the fine public buildings often financed from private fortunes; and indeed there were many genuine philanthropists. Yet this philanthropy also masks in some ways the incredible wealth-divide between the haves and have-nots and the terrible working and living conditions of the vast majority of the population. Yet gradually awareness of the plight of the poor spread. Not least of the factors in this growing awareness was the writing of Charles Dickens. Dickens’ novels had an undoubted impact on Victorian society by giving faces and voices to the poor and proclaiming their humanity. He perhaps more than any other writer changed his world and helped shape the future.

Over the course of Victoria’s reign Britain changed; the right to vote was extended and with greater democracy came improvements in working conditions, housing and education. Yet it leaves me wondering how much of this was down to “Victorian Values” as opposed to the long and sometimes bloody struggle for the basic human rights, that we now sometimes take for granted. We are now in the midst of a Technological Revolution, a new age of consumerism. the world is shrinking again as communication and transport get ever faster. And yet looking around that shrinking world it’s obvious that many millions are going through the worst ravages of the Victorian Industrial Revolution. The opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities” remains as relevant now as it was when it was written.

Much of this post was hosted on the FLY HIGH website on 26th June 2012, but I thought I’d post it here too. In writing my first novel, “Avon Street,” I have tried to bring the Victorian era to life, with all its contradictions and its similarities to modern life. “Avon Street” takes the reader on a journey behind the fine Georgian facades of Bath to expose the darker side of the city.

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In the relatively short history of the Novel many have changed the lives of individuals, but (in my opinion) few have changed the world, or at least helped shape and change Society’s attitudes and values.  These are the novels that have, for the most part stood against persecution, de-humanisation and the exploitation of the many by the few. They have perhaps helped us evolve a little and remain as relevant today as when they were written.

I have drawn up a list of 20 novels. They are largely of my own choosing though I must thank Reine and Dovegreyreader for their valuable suggestions of titles I would otherwise have missed.

 

  • “Robinson Crusoe” (1719) –  Daniel Defoe – Many books can lay claim to being the first novel and for shaping what came after, but “Robinson Crusoe” certainly popularised the form. By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of western literature had been so widely translated or been printed in so many different versions, and the adaptations  still continue today. The novel also had a moral compass which challenged many of the commonly held values of the day.
  • “A Christmas Carol” (1843) – Charles Dickens – Collectively Dickens’ novels had an undoubted impact on Victorian society by giving faces and voices to the poor. He perhaps more than any other writer changed his world and helped shape the future. Many of his novels could be included here, but I have chosen this novella because it is here that Dickens’ overall message is expressed most succinctly, at least for me, particularly when the Ghost of Christmas Present  reveals the two children and says, – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
  • “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1851) –  Harriett Beecher Stowe  –  This book was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century. It increased awareness of, and help change attitudes to slavery, eventually helping to bring about the abolition of slavery.
  • “Ulysses” (1922) – James |Joyce – Probably the most definitive work of modernist fiction, not least for its use of stream of consciousness writing. It may not have changed the world, but it certainly changed the world of literature.
  •  “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (1928) – D.H. Lawrence – The novel that changed the laws of censorship. Penguin second edition, published in 1961 carried the following dedication,  “This edition is dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ and thus made D. H. Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.”
  • “Brave New World” (1931) – Aldous Huxley – The novel demonstrates the loss of individual identity that can come through assembly line production, indoctrination and the abuse of technological “advancement.”
  • “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1929) –  Eric Maria Remarque – One of the major themes of the novel is the difficulty of soldiers to revert to civilian life. Commenting in the preface Remarque says that  he,  “will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” The book was banned and burned by the Nazis prior to the Second World War.
  • “Testament of Youth” (1933) – Vera Brittain – Not strictly speaking a novel, but “Testament of Youth” was a biography that gave whole generations of “civilians” a new understanding of the impact of War. Up until its publication many still viewed war as a wholly heroic enterprise, without contemplating its effects on those who went through it, nor the suffering undergone by their families and loved ones.
  • “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) – John Steinbeck – The book was subject to many  public book-burnings,  but Steinbeck changed attitudes on the plight of the poor and migrants following the great depression. Steinbeck wrote, before writing the book: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this the Great Depression and its effects.”
  • “The Citadel” (1937) A.J. Cronin –  Exposed the inequity and incompetence of medical practice at the time. In the novel, Cronin advocated a free public health service in order to defeat the wiles of those doctors who he said “raised guinea-snatching and the bamboozling of patients to an art form.” It played a major role in the development of the National Health Service in the UK.
  •  “The Little Prince” (1943) Antoine de St Exupery – There are many novels which could be cited as providing guidance on a way of living or “spiritual” awareness. I chose this one because it is my favourite and because it communicates across generations and age groups.
  • “Diary of a Young Girl” (1944) – Anne Frank – Ann Frank’s Diary stands as a symbol and reminder of the effects of persecution on ordinary lives and still communicates with young readers.
  • “If This is a Man” (1948) – Primo Levi – Not just a testimony of suffering and cruelty in the concentration camps – but also a demonstration of how mankind can be dehumanised through degradation.
  • “1984″ (1949) – George Orwell –  Gave us the concepts of “Big Brother” and “Doublethink.” Revealed the dangers of Nationalism, Censorship, Surveillance, Manipulation through propaganda and alerted people to the dangers of an over-powerful state and totalitarian government.
  • “The Catcher in the Rye”  (1951) – J.D. Salinger – Adopted by generations of youngsters as the book that speaks to them and for them.  The anti-hero, Holden Caulfield, searches for a sense of belonging, and identity, in a Society in which he feels alienated.
  • “Atlas Shrugged” (1957) – Ayn Rand – This book is not to my taste, but it has to be included because it helped found and sustain the new economics, which rejects ethical altruism in favour of unfettered capitalism, and  puts the concept of self, before society. Rand termed her philosophy “Objectivism”, describing its essence as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life.”
  • “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) – Harper Lee – Deals with issues of race and class discrimination, but in a way which is almost uniquely accessible to younger and older readers alike.
  • “Catch 22” (1961) – Joseph Heller –  The novel plays with time-lines and perspectives in a very individual style and demonstrates better than many other books, the insanity of war. It also perhaps shows, that if not for their own absurdity and inefficiency mankind would have wiped themselves out years ago.
  • “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962) – by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Never before had an account of Stalinist repression been openly distributed in the Soviet Union. This book also forced Western countries to acknowledge their hypocrisy in ignoring breaches of  human rights behind the “iron-curtain.”

 

  • “A Novel” (1962 to Now) – Unspecified because perhaps only time can judge which novel written in the last fifty years will have helped change the world and shape our futures?

 

 

 

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Painting by William Hardwick from Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Drownings in the River Avon were relatively common in Bath in the middle of the 19th Century. Many were accidental, or at least that’s what the Coroner’s Court often concluded. A substantial number though, were suicides. They were regularly reported as such in the local paper, but were rarely seen as newsworthy by the national press.

The people who had taken their own lives in the River Avon were for the most part un-newsworthy because they were usually poor. They were part of the nameless, faceless masses exploited by the Industrial Revolution, routinely marginalised and vilified in the press. Popular opinion was that they were lazy, ignorant and dirty; given to drinking too much, and begging, or they were itinerants, migrants without roots, who did not want to work and were content to live in squalor.

Yet it was in “The Times” newspaper archive that I first read of the incident that now forms the prologue to my book – an incident so tragic, abhorrent and pitiful that it was reported nationally. On Sunday 6th February 1850, in the early hours of the morning, Thomas Hunt drowned himself and his young daughter.  The Coroner’s Court determined that Hunt had taken his own life and found him guilty of the murder of his daughter.

I knew when I read the piece that I would include their story somewhere in my book. It seemed somehow to summarise the tragic lives of many who survived in the Avon Street area of Bath. It was the darkness and despair that existed at the heart of the city – the secret that was kept hidden behind the Georgian facades – the lie that lay behind the carefully contrived and protected image.

I had initially intended to use the incident as an anecdote somewhere in the book, perhaps brought up in conversation between the characters, but the story of Thomas Hunt and his daughter, would not leave me. Eventually it became a lynch pin, something that brought the characters together, or drove them apart. It played a big part in determining the plot and came to influence atmosphere and settings, as I tried to explore the two very different worlds that co-existed in the city.

There was nothing in the newspaper records to indicate that Thomas Hunt was in debt (as he is in my book) but debt and loan-sharks were a way of life for the working class at that time, as they are increasingly  now. Their story came almost to define what life must have been like for many of the residents of Avon Street and though prologues are unfashionable and may even put some people off reading a book, their story (or my interpretation of it) now forms the prologue of “Avon Street” – because that’s where it needs to be.

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