As a reader and writer of historical fiction, I always love the real history behind the stories and often read ‘around’ the novels I’ve enjoyed. No surprise then, that this post from Bookbub was right up my street:
If you click on the photo, you can read the article and see 9 well-known historical novels paired with a non-fiction counterpart. You’ll see The Paris Wife on there, a book I really enjoyed a few years ago. It’s paired with Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I did read that after finishing The Paris Wife, as well as The Sun Also Rises and as I’d never read Hemingway before, I’m happy to say I got an extra benefit from picking up Paula McLain’s novel.
Of course this got me thinking about my own book pairings. I have a shelf of research books for each novel so choosing just one is not easy, but if I had to do it, here’s how I’d pair each of my 3 books to date:
Find out more about Charlatan here, and The Affair of the Poisons here.
And about The Road to Newgate here and The Strange Death of Edmund Godfrey here.
And finally take a look at The Girl Puzzle here and Nellie Bly, Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist here.
I’m SO tempted now to post a photo of the main non-fiction source for my current work in progress…. but I’m holding that back, at least for now 😉
The minute I saw the call for submissions for the Dark London charity anthology I knew I’d be submitting a story. London is so rich in history and plenty of it is dark.
I’ve already spent much time there – in my head and on the page – when I wrote The Road to Newgate (Crooked Cat, 2018) and my mind jumped to Newgate prison and Jack Ketch’s kitchen. As I wrote back then, “most people give little thought to the bodies returned to Newgate and delivered to the kitchen. That’s where Jack Ketch completes his work; he is not only a hangman. He’s also responsible for stripping the bodies, and poaching heads and limbs in his kettle to better make them last out on those spikes and gibbets, and keep the birds away.” I had an idea about a daughter, living in the prison, facing some unknown threat. And so I thought about that for a bit. But the idea didn’t really take off.
Initially I’d thought it would be good to use my knowledge and prior research, but instead I decided to explore some other part of London’s history. The Blitz, I thought. WW2 is so popular in historical fiction these days. So I did a little research and came across the story of Gordon Cummins, known as the Blackout Ripper, who murdered four women and attempted to murder at least two others in 1942. I even read a book about the murders… but still… I wasn’t quite committed.
Then – an idea. Out of nowhere. I thought of this…
Evie and the Sea Monster started to take shape. Here’s another note from that first spark of an inspiration that became pretty important:
Of course I needed a time period and historical context for the Evie’s story. I needed real locations in London and characters busy living historically accurate lives, wearing appropriate clothing and so on. And that’s when I came across this TREASURE of a primary resource for anyone wishing to learn about 19th Century London.
Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) was a London journalist, a co-founder of Punch, and a social researcher. London Labour and the London Poor began as a series of articles for the Morning Chronicle where he surveyed, interviewed and described the poor people of London. It’s highly readable and remarkably thorough. Here’s just a snippet from a section I found useful. It’s about mudlarks:
“On questioning one, he said his father was a coal-backer; he had been dead eight years; the boy was nine years old. His mother was alive; she went out charing and washing when she could get any such work to do. She had 1s. a day when she could get employment, but that was not often; he remembered once to have had a pair of shoes but it was a long time since. ‘It is very cold in winter,’ he said, ‘to stand in the mud without shoes,’ but he did not mind it in summer. He had been three years mud-larking, and supposed he should remain a mud-lark all his life.”
I hope that has you rushing out to order your copies of Dark London! There are two volumes due for release in paperback and ebook on June 25th and July 2nd. All proceeds from sales will go to two London-based charities and all the writers have contributed their services for free. It was great fun to write mine and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading both books. I’m sure you will too!
I was a big fan of Lisa Wingate’s last book, Before We Were Yours – about the scandalous adoption agency run by Georgia Tann in the 1940s – and jumped at the chance to review her new book for the Historical Novel Society.
So this is not a review – because that’s for the HNS magazine – but instead its a taster of some of the history behind the story in The Book of Lost Friends.
This is a dual timeline novel, set in Augustine, Louisiana in 1875 and 1987. The earlier story concerns a young woman, born into slavery, called Hannie Gossett. Hannie is eighteen in 1875, but when she was six her family were sent to Texas for the duration of the Civil War. Enter a scurrilous nephew of Hannie’s owners who sells off the slaves as they travel, separating Hannie from her eight siblings and mother. Now eighteen, Hannie is free, but still tied to the Gossett family, trying to earn a portion of land. All of her family members are still missing.
Here’s the real-life Lost Friends advertisement, written by a woman called Caroline Flowers, that inspired Wingate’s story about Hannie. It’s chilling to read and think about people being treated like objects in this way, not to mention the longing and uncertainty they endured not knowing what had happened to their relatives.
One way these individuals tried to find answers was by advertising. The Lost Friends database, where Wingate found and was inspired by this and other stories, is a project run by The Historic New Orleans Collection – a website to lose yourself in for a few hours if ever there was one.
Within that, The Lost Friends database is an easily searchable record of nearly 2500 advertisements placed in the Southwestern Christian Advocate (a methodist newspaper published in New Orleans and distributed to preachers, post-offices and thousands of individual subscribers) between 1879 and 1900.
Many advertisements are much shorter than Caroline Flowers’, but all have the same polite and restrained sense of yearning for answers. And of course they are not lost friends being sought here, but real, flesh and blood, lost families. Written by sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles – each one is a real human story of loss and suffering. Here’s just one that caught my eye with the poignant lines, “I left two or three other sisters behind, but I can not think of their names. I was small when I left…”
I’m still reading The Book of Lost Friends so I don’t know how Hannie’s fictional journey to find her lost family will turn out. But I’m now interested in reading this book:
In it, Heather Andrea Williams “follows those who were separated, chronicles their searches, and documents the rare experience of reunion.”
This Monday, I’m excited to share news of a two-volume anthology of dark short stories set in London that will be released in ebook and paperback at the end of the month. I have a story in Volume One called Evie and the Sea Monster. Its historical (no surprise there) but not based on real events which is my usual m.o. I’ll be back to write more about the story and the research and inspiration about it very soon!
Please rush to Amazon and pre-order both volumes today ;). I have heard from a lot of people that with so much going on in the world, reading a whole novel can feel like a mountain to climb. Well, these are short stories – and really good ones too!
But why am I so, so excited about these two volumes? Well because my brother has a story in Volume Two!! It feels very special to be book buddies together.
In celebration of the fact I got onto our mum to find a cute photo of us together. Here we are aged five and seven in a place that definitely gets a mention in Alan’s story, Finding Victoria, in Volume Two. Is it just me or was everything a bit browner and fuzzier in the 1970s?
I’m reading The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel right now and one of my favorite characters across the trilogy is the painter Hans, the younger Holbein. Throughout the books, Hans is busy painting portraits and I thought it would be fun to bring together the paintings referenced in the novels.
One of my favourite parts of Wolf Hall is when Thomas Cromwell gets to look at his own portrait, as painted by his good friend Hans. Perhaps he might have felt a bit better about it if he had looked at Hans’ self-portrait too. As it is, Cromwell has to content with himself with his son, Gregory’s casual surprise that his father hasn’t always known he has the face of a murderer.
By book 3, Gregory is old enough to be married and his busy father pairs him up with no less than Queen Jane’s sister, Elizabeth. Here they are:
Which takes me to other royal women. Here’s a Holbein sketch believed to be Anne Boleyn and his portrait of Henry’s fourth wife (for all of six months) Anne of Cleves. Now I am only on p579, but I’m pretty sure this portrait will rate a mention before the story is complete.
Anne of Cleves
And what about Henry, the ‘mirror and the light’ I believe (or at least the mirror anyway… Cromwell might be the light. Again, I’ve not finished the book yet.) Here he is in all his familiar glory…
Holbein’s time spent painting this next picture (or as it was then, mural, on the walls of Whitehall) also comes up in The Mirror and the Light. Even though the original (as well as the portrait of Henry above) was destroyed by a fire in Whitehall in 1698, thankfully there was a strong tradition of copying famous and well-loved images. Here then is a copy of Holbein’s mural of Henry and Jane, imagined with Henry’s parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
But where I started all this today, was with a description in the novel of Holbein painting of someone who is barely a character at all. Meeting the new French ambassador, Marillac, Cromwell mentions a previous ambassador, Dinteville, now disgraced. He “thinks of the ambassador, muffled in his furs, splendid as Hans painted him: the broken lute string, the skull badge he retained in his cap.” Here he is on the left:
With under 200 pages to go, I wonder how much more I will hear or see of Hans Holbein? If anything comes up, I’ll be sure to come back and update this post!
….. and I’m back! I flew through the last chapters and have a couple more Holbein portraits to add for the record. First here’s Christina of Denmark (also somewhat confusingly to my mind, the Duchess of Milan) who Henry seems to favour in looks over Anne of Cleves. Not sure I’m seeing what he was seeing but you can make your own mind up…
Christina of Denmark
Anne of Cleves
And lastly here’s Henry’s son Edward, whose painting gets a mention when it is presented to the King as a gift. Yet another incredible painting!
Okay. New week, new plan. Every Monday I’m going to post something about a book I want to read/want to recommend/have on my mind.
And so I’m kicking off with a new piece I have up on the Historical Novel Society website, based on a Q&A I was lucky enough to do with historical novelist Stacey Halls. I’ve read both Hall’s books now and am a definite fan. There are so many great books about these days, but I’d put her very high on my list of go-to authors. The Lost Orphan (The Foundling in the UK) is one of my favourite books so far this year.
Forced to abandon your child into public care with only a token and a number to trace them again by, what token might you choose?
You can read my write up by clicking here:But here is the full set of my questions and Stacy’s answers:
What was the original spark for the novel?
I get my story ideas from places, and this one came to me when I visited the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, London. I wasn’t looking for a story idea – in fact I’d just finished the first draft of The Familiars the week before – but I was so moved by the museum and the concept of the Foundling Hospital, which was established in the 1730s for babies at risk of abandonment. I was particularly moved by the tokens left by mothers who hoped one day to claim their children – they were like secret deposits that only the mothers knew about, and would describe to prove their identity if they ever found themselves in a position to claim their son or daughter however many months or years down the line. They are all worthless objects like scraps of fabric, coins, playing cards, made priceless because of their significance; they were the only things connecting the mothers with their children. The idea came to me to write about a woman who has saved enough to buy her baby back, as a fee was payable for the care the child had received at the hospital – only to be told her daughter has already been claimed.
You have two very different narrators, both flawed in some ways. How did they come to be and how do they help you explore themes of motherhood, nature v nurture etc?
I’m not a writer who dreams up a character and feels compelled to write a story about him or her – all my characters develop from my story idea, or rather I create them to fit into the story. The problem is then they do take on a life of their own – I feel as though all my characters, particularly my main ones, have their own souls, and don’t always do what I want them to, and they often surprise me. I knew that the two narrators in The Foundling – Bess and Alexandra – had to be very different, each providing different things for their daughters. Bess is straightforward and Alexandra complicated, exhibiting characteristics we would now associate with mental health disorders including OCD, PTSD and agoraphobia. Saying that, she was the easier one for me to write; I felt as though she was channeling me and I was just a medium for her voice. I’ve never written anyone quite like her before.
Historical fiction is sometimes criticized for a lack of diversity in its characters but you have people of colour and immigrants feature in this story. Was that a conscious decision, a natural result of your research, or a bit of both?
A bit of both. I wanted the London in the book to reflect the London I live in now, and the city in the Georgian period was just as diverse as it is now. It was a few decades before mass immigration, but I think there’s a preconception that London was white until 1945, and that’s just not the case.
This is such a vivid picture of mid 18th century London. Did you have any research highlights?
Loads! London has taken on many personalities in its lifetime but the Georgian city was particularly rich, with new wealth from the empire and overseas trading. The book might have been set 250 years ago but there’s so much that we would recognise: the theatre, gin, magazines, hot chocolate, shopping. But as well as that, it was also a place of crushing poverty that led directly to high mortality – in London, 75% of children died before their fifth birthday. It was also much smaller then, with a population of about 750,000 at the turn of the 18th century – it’s ten times that size now – and its boundary was much smaller. Where the Foundling Hospital was located in Bloomsbury was the very edge of the city, with countryside beyond, and Lambeth (where I live) was completely rural.
The book is called The Lost Orphan in the US and The Foundling in the UK. Do you have a view on that, or a preference of one over the other?
The Foundling was the working title of the novel while I was writing it, and was changed for the American market because I think the word foundling is less known there.
You have jumped period from The Familiars – early 17th century – to mid 18th. What’s next?
My third novel is set at the turn of the 20th century, which feels like a huge leap forwards in terms of modernity – they had cars and phones then, so it feels almost contemporary to me!
Reading this book and chatting with Stacey made me really want to visit the Foundling Museum in London. I love these tokens and the part they play in the novel.
Thanks for joining me for my first Monday Bookishness post! Have you read The Lost Orphan/The Foundling? What did you think? Any views on the different titles and cover styles? I’m leaning toward the American version on this one…
I’ll be honest… I’ve always read as a form of escapism. It’s the quickest and easiest way to get out of the day-to-day and forget any worries – major or minor – that I might have.
So I was thrilled that my publisher Darkstroke/Crooked Cat wanted to make lots of our titles free to download over the Easter weekend.
The Girl Puzzle and The Road to Newgate are therefore FREE to download this weekend. Please grab them for free and know that when you read them, Amazon will pay me royalties (double win!). If you already have them, tell your friends! The more the merrier!
And if historical fiction is not your thing, please do look at all the other books that are FREE this weekend. I’m tweeting as many as I can at HERE.
I’ve loaded a few on the kindle myself for the long, quiet weeks ahead.
I’ve very excited today to share a brand new shiny cover for The Road to Newgate. I so love these characters and their story, so it’s great to see the book get this awesome new look.
As with The Girl Puzzle, each ‘slice’ has been chosen with care. Here’s the low-down on each one, and how they relate to the novel.
I first came across Titus Oates in a newspaper article about the ten worst Britons ever – one for each of the last 10 centuries. Titus, quite rightly, ‘won’ the 17th century and totally deserves to be known as one of the greatest liars in history. In our current times of fake news, wild claims and counter-claims, the story of The Popish Plot is alarmingly relevant.
Politics isn’t at the heart of The Road to Newgate though. It’s far more a story about how larger events effect everyday people, and in particular, my lovely married couple Anne and Nat Thompson and their excellent friends William Smith and Henry Broome.
As with The Girl Puzzle – and with all good historical fiction where real events and people come out to play! – the written word is an important factor in the story and in the lives of my characters. Nat Thompson is a writer, based on a composite of two real political writers of the late 17th Century, Nat Thompson and Roger L’Estrange.
L’Estrange was a real thorn in the side of Titus Oates, particularly with his newspaper, The Observator.
In the edition pictured here, and used on the cover of The Road to Newgate, you can see how L’Estrange used a Q&A format to create mock interviews to test out – and undercut – the claims of his opponents. Printing and the written word are important to many characters in the novel, not least Nat’s wife Anne.
Speaking of Anne…
Although Anne Thompson is not a real historical figure, she’s very important to all aspects of The Road to Newgate and I was very keen to signal that on our new cover.
This is in fact Frances Brooke (1640 – c1690). She’s slightly older than Anne, who in my head was born around 1658, but she fits my image of Anne perfectly and is pictured here in a portrait painted by Peter Lely, as part of his Windsor Beauties series.
And last but not least, there is a slice of this wonderful map:
Not only do I have this map hanging on my dining room wall, but it was an incredible resource as I sat thousands of miles and more than two centuries away from Restoration London, writing The Road to Newgate. This map is interactive, made available by Briish History Online here, and can be zoomed in and out with amazing clarity. All the key central London locations in the novel are on that map… Nat and Anne’s home, Henry’s print shop, Smithfield, Sam’s Coffee House by the Royal Exchange and, of course, Newgate Prison. I’m delighted to keep the map in this new cover and can’t wait for paperback purchasers to see the wonderful back cover. I love it almost as much as the front!!
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GIVEAWAY?
Almost forgot! The other great news is that The Road to Newgate ebook is free for this weekend only. I hope you’ll take a look!
Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum – a pivotal location in The Girl Puzzle – was designed in 1834 by famous American architect Alexander Jackson Davis. His plan was for a U-shaped building near the tip of Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island looking across toward Manhattan, roughly level with Seventy-Ninth and Eightieth Street, but only a portion of the building was ever erected, with two wings stretching out at right angles from a central octagonal tower.
There was already a prison on the island, opened in 1832, and the addition of the asylum was part of a policy decision to locate institutions on ‘quiet islands’, including Blackwell’s, Ward, Hart, Randalls and Long Island. With more construction on Blackwell’s Island – including a Penitentiary Hospital, a Charity Hospital, an almshouse, a Smallpox Hospital and more – by 1872 there were eleven institutions operating on the Island. It’s not hard to imagine that these islands were a convenient place to confine undesirable elements of society, notwithstanding the grand and costly architecture.
This 1853 illustration appears tranquil at first glance. The scene is pastoral with a dog frolicking and a couple sitting under a tree. The asylum looks like a museum more than anything else. But what about that building on the left of the picture? What is that?? Is that the Lodge? Or the Retreat? – gentle, caring names for buildings that were anything but those things. As Stacy Horn writes in “Damnation Island – poor, sick, mad and criminal in 19th Century New York”, things at the lunatic asylum “went south almost immediately.” On the day that it opened, June 10th 1839, 116 men and 81 women were transferred there from Bellevue. That’s 197 patients from day 1. The place was only supposed to house 200. Additional structures were added. Horn describes the Lodge, built in 1848, and the Retreat:
“The Retreat was built to house chronic cases, those who were suicidal and generally too “noisy” and unhinged for the main Asylum, but not as violent as the people sent to the Lodge.”
By 1868, 190 women were housed in the Lodge (and there would still have been male inmates too). The building’s capacity was 66. (2)
Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in the Madhouse
When a new asylum for the insane was built on Ward Island in 1872, Blackwell’s Asylum became an all-female establishment. Nellie Bly carried out her undercover work there in September and October of 1887 and brave though she was, Nellie was not fool enough to get herself sent to either the Lodge or the Retreat. Here’s one of her descriptions:
“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. I had intended to have myself committed to the violent wards, the Lodge and Retreat, but when I got the testimony of two sane women and could give it, I decided not to risk my health – and hair – so I did not get violent.”
Nellie’s expose, detailing cold baths, dreadful food and the violent conduct of some staff had immediate effects. Doctors and nurses in the asylum read her articles and improvements were made, even before a Grand Jury was summoned to visit the Island and inspect the premises.
Entertainments in the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum
In her 1887 expose, Nellie Bly described hours of tedium with women confined to hard benches with little to occupy them. Mild patients, according to her report, could work in a scrub-brush factory, a mat factory, and the laundry. Patients were expected to do housework, including keeping the wards and nurses bedrooms tidy. An important component of the daily routine was a walk in the asylum grounds but this was wholly weather dependent and strictly monitored by staff. Unruly patients walked roped together to keep them under control.
Other entertainments included dancing and a carousel. Nellie Bly reports that staffed danced with patients and both Halls she was placed in during her stay had a piano. This excellent post by Ephemeral New York, describes an annual Lunatic’s Ball reported by Harper’s Weekly:
The one entertainment that Nellie Bly reports she heard much about, although never experienced due to poor weather, was a carousel. The following image is of the Central Park Carousel, built in 1871, so perhaps the Blackwell’s Island one looked something like this:
It’s hard to imagine a group of grown women in their ill-fitting striped asylum dresses, shawls and battered hats riding round and round, but that’s what they did.
Closing Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum
Following Nellie Bly’s expose, changes were made in the asylum. Improvements were made to food and bathing arrangements as funding increases were approved. But in 1894, the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum was closed and its patients dispersed into other facilities, particularly the on Ward Island where space became available after the opening of immigration facilities on Ellis Island.
The building, after significant renovation, became the Metropolitan Hospital, specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis. The hospital operated until 1955 but afterwards the building fell into disrepair. Today, only the original Octagon remains, but it has been restored. The building is an apartment complex and can be toured. More information here. If only the walls had words… imagine what stories they could tell.
Roosevelt Island today – The Octagon
I visited the Octagon in October 2018, and although the inside was closed so I didn’t get to see the spiral staircase, just being on Roosevelt Island and seeing the building in person was wonderful. There are scenes in The Girl Puzzle that definitely benefited from that research trip. Here’s my then & now photos of the asylum:
My photo, October 1918
Jacob Riis, 1880s (approx)
Sources & further reading:
“Images of America – Roosevelt Island”, Judith Berdy and the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.
“Damnation Island – poor, sick, mad and criminal in 19th Century New York”, Stacy Horn
It’s Nellie Bly’s birthday this weekend and in her honor, not only is The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly being unleashed on the reading world, but I’m also gathering all my Nellie Bly knowledge and sharing it on my blog. In March I wrote my first 5 lesser known facts about Nellie post but I could have easily kept going. Here are 5 more facts about the amazing Miss Bly that I’m excited to share…
1. Nellie Bly was hoping for a female president of the United States as long ago as 1913
March 4th 1913 was inauguration day for a new president – Woodrow Wilson. Nellie Bly, in D.C. for the Women’s Suffrage Parade the day before (she rode in horseback in the parade AND reported on the event for the New York Journal) slipped up onto the inauguration platform just minutes before the new president was sworn in. In her newspaper report the following day she described her thoughts. “Will you and I,” she wondered, “ever see a woman stand there and take the oath of office?”
2. She organized a day trip/picnic to Coney Island Luna Park for 750 New York orphans on June 1st, 1920.
“Bly said the day was perfect.” That’s biographer Brooke Kroeger’s account of Bly’s characteristically confident self-appraisal of this feat of organization and planning. A feat it certainly was – involving the donated transport services of The Twentieth Century Brown and White Taxicab Association and the Manhattan Tourist Company to transport 750 children, and presumably some supervising staff, from Manhattan to Coney Island. Food was supplied by The Nedick Company and Mayor Hylan waved the 750 orphans off on their day trip from City Hall.
3. She was an early fan of motoring and even got caught speeding
Here’s clipping from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on October 5th 1909. The report details how Nellie and her chauffeur Albert were pulled over for speeding on their way to a stock-holders’ meeting. Although arrested for traveling at 40 miles an hour, it later seemed that the arresting officer had ‘bungled’ the job, and the car was in reality only going at 21 miles an hour. This change in the story may well have had something to do with the status of Albert’s passenger. In the article, Nellie is described as “a business woman clear through… she can give spade and clubs to many men of financial astuteness and beat them at their game.” It is also noted that “she is extremely comely and was the center of considerable attention in court today.”
4. Nellie Bly admired her fellow feminists most – when they were well-dressed
In January 1896, Bly reported on the National Women’s Suffrage Convention and did not pull her punches when describing how poorly she felt the women were dressed. As well as the quote above, she wrote: “I never could see any reason for a woman to neglect her appearance merely because she is intellectually inclined. It certainly does not show any strength of mind. I take it rather as a weakness.”
Still, she was happier some twenty-four years later when reporting on the Republican Convention in Chicago of 1920. She greatly enthused at the involvement of women in politics, but was as keen as ever to stress the importance of keeping up appearances. Of the women she saw there she wrote: “They are the cleverest and brainiest of their kind. That is why they have not neglected their appearance. For while they have fought and won the battle for equal rights with men, they did not forget that man is a creature of his eyes.”
5. Her love life remains something of a mystery
Nellie Bly’s private life is much less easy to follow than her professional one. She did marry, but her choice was surprising to some, and she was also romantically linked to several other men, including one of the doctors she encountered during her daring stay in the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum in 1887. Here are a few of the key men in her life:
From left to right – Arthur Brisbane, James Stetson Metcalf, Dr Frank Ingram and Robert Seaman.