Day 9: The Witches by Stacy Schiff

“The panic began early in 1692, over an exceptionally raw Massachusetts winter, when a minister’s niece began to writhe and roar. It spread quickly, confounding the most educated men and prominent politicians in the colony. Neighbors accused neighbors, husbands accused wives, parents and children one another. It ended less than a year later, but not before nineteen men and women had been hanged and an elderly man crushed to death.Speaking loudly and emphatically, adolescent girls stood at the center of the crisis. Along with suffrage and Prohibition, the Salem witch trials represent one of the few moments when women played the central role in American history. Drawing masterfully on the archives, Stacy Schiff introduces us to the strains on a Puritan adolescent’s life and to the authorities whose delicate agendas were at risk. She illuminates the demands of a rigorous faith, the vulnerability of settlements adrift from the mother country, perched-at a politically tumultuous time-on the edge of what a visitor termed a “remote, rocky, barren, bushy, wild-woody wilderness.”With devastating clarity, the textures and tensions of colonial life emerge; hidden patterns subtly, startlingly detach themselves from the darkness. Schiff brings early American anxieties to the fore to align them brilliantly with our own. In an era of religious provocations, crowdsourcing, and invisible enemies, this enthralling story makes more sense than ever.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read The Witches?
thewitchesFor me, first off, I want to read this because this is ‘my’ period. I’ve written two book sets in the 17th Century – one in Paris and one in London – and it would make a lot of sense to continue by writing a novel about the Salem witches. But… I feel like it has already been done. Oh and then there’s the fact that I’m just polishing my third book which isn’t set in the 17th Century at all so maybe it’s not ‘my’ period any more!
But (again) I do have a fondness for anything with witches and particularly the Salem lot since my husband and I aged 14 or 15 had to act out the parts of Proctor and Annabel in The Crucible in English class – way back when we had of course no clue we’d get married and have 3 kids together. And then there’s my side project on sisters. The Towne Sisters are a definite for that piece of work and so Stacy Schiff’s book is near the top of my planned reading pile for 2019!

December 7th: Silk and the Sword: the women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly

“The momentous events of 1066, the story of invasion, battle and conquest, are well known. But what of the women?

Harold II of England had been with Edith Swanneck for twenty years but in 1066, in order to strengthen his hold on the throne, he married Ealdgyth, sister of two earls. William of Normandy’s Duchess, Matilda of Flanders, had supposedly only agreed to marry the Duke after he’d pulled her pigtails and thrown her in the mud. Harald Hardrada had two wives – apparently at the same time. So, who were these women? What was their real story? And what happened to them after 1066?

These are not peripheral figures. Emma of Normandy was a Norman married to both a Saxon and a Dane ‒ and the mother of a king from each. Wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II, the fact that, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, she had control of the treasury at the end of the reigns of both Cnut and Harthacnut suggests the extent of Emma’s influence over these two kings –and the country itself.

Then there is Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great, and the less well known but still influential Gundrada de Warenne, the wife of one of William the Conqueror’s most loyal knights, and one of the few men who it is known beyond doubt was with the Duke at the Battle of Hastings.

These are lives full of drama, pathos and sometimes mystery: Edith and Gytha searching the battlefield of Hastings for the body of Harold, his lover and mother united in their grief for the fallen king. Who was Ælfgyva, the lady of the Bayeux Tapestry, portrayed with a naked man at her feet?

Silk and the Sword traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play during the Norman Conquest – wives, lovers, sisters, mothers, leaders.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read Silk and the Sword?

silk and the sword1066, the Battle of Hastings, Harold with an arrow in the eye and the Norman conquest of Britain – that’s what I learned about at school. Definitely no women in the story and in fact I don’t really remember there being any women in the history I learned at school until Mary of Guise and Mary Queen of Scots in the 16th Century. Maybe that’s why I liked them so much!

But now things have changed. Reading this blurb I’m already feeling unhappy about the treatment of Edith Swanneck and Matilda of Flanders. No one deserves to get flung in the mud by their pigtails. Just think about how ouchy that would be!

Not only does this book look great, but Sharon Bennett Connolly has one of my fav history blogs – History the Interesting Bits – which is every bit as interesting as the name suggests.

Dec 6th: Inseparable: the original Siamese twins and their rendezvous with American History

“In this “excellent” portrait of America’s famed nineteenth-century Siamese twins, celebrated biographer Yunte Huang discovers in the conjoined lives of Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–1874) a trenchant “comment on the times in which we live” (Wall Street Journal). “Uncovering ironies, paradoxes and examples of how Chang and Eng subverted what Leslie Fiedler called ‘the tyranny of the normal’ ” (BBC), Huang depicts the twins’ implausible route to assimilation after their “discovery” in Siam by a British merchant in 1824 and arrival in Boston as sideshow curiosities in 1829. Their climb from subhuman, freak-show celebrities to rich, southern gentry who profited from entertaining the Jacksonian mobs; their marriage to two white sisters, resulting in twenty-one children; and their owning of slaves, is here not just another sensational biography but an “extraordinary” (New York Times), Hawthorne-like excavation of America’s historical penchant for tyrannizing the other―a tradition that, as Huang reveals, becomes inseparable from American history itself.” (Amazon blurb)

changandengWhy read Inseparable?

I’ve a big interest in anything to do with P.T. Barnum and his American Museum where Chang and Eng were ‘exhibited’ in the 1860’s. I’ve also had the dubious pleasure of seeing their conjoined liver on display in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. The Mütter is the museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and is well worth a visit. Where else could you go to see slices of Einstein’s brain?

Theirs is an extraordinary story by anyone’s reckoning. Born in Thailand in 1811, Chang and Eng came to America when they were in their late twenties. In 1843 they married two sisters, Sarah and Adelaide Yates, and between them they had twenty one children. According to wikipedia (of course I need to read the book to see if this is confirmed) they each had a house which they lived in for three days at a time. During each man’s three days in his own home the other would remain silent and allow his brother to make every choice about how they spent their time.

There is a novel about them Chang and Eng that I also want to read. Not enough hours in the day.

Dec 4th: Georgian London, Into the Streets by Lucy Inglis

“In Georgian London: Into the Streets, Lucy Inglis takes readers on a tour of London’s most formative age—the age of love, sex, intellect, art, great ambition, and fantastic ruin. Travel back to the Georgian years, a time that changed expectations of what life could be. Peek into the gilded drawing rooms of the aristocracy, walk down the quiet avenues of the new middle class, and crouch in the damp doorways of the poor. But watch your wallet—tourists make perfect prey for the thriving community of hawkers, prostitutes, and scavengers. Visit the madhouses of Hackney, the workshops of Soho, and the mean streets of Cheapside. Have a coffee in the city, check the stock exchange, and pop into St Paul’s to see progress on the new dome. This book is about the Georgians who called London their home, from dukes and artists to rent boys and hot air balloonists meeting dog-nappers and life-models along the way. It investigates the legacies they left us in architecture and art, science, and society, and shows the making of the capital millions know and love today.” (Amazon blurb)

georgianlondonWhy read In Georgian London?

Honestly, I love this kind of book. It’s meat and drink for me as a novelist. Often when I’m writing it’s the nit and grit of everyday life that’s needed to make a period come alive. I’ve no plans right now to write a novel set in Georgian London but, as a die-hard Georgette Heyer fan, I don’t want to rule it out. If I just happened to have this book on my bookshelves, who knows what might happen 😉

 

For The Road to Newgate, these two books in a similar vein were brilliant for writing about the 17th Century:

 

Dec 3rd: Ten restaurants that shaped America by Paul Freedman

“Combining a historian’s rigor with a foodie ’s palate, Ten Restaurants That Changed America reveals how the history of our restaurants reflects nothing less than the history of America itself. Whether charting the rise of our love affair with Chinese food through San Francisco’s fabled The Mandarin, evoking the richness of Italian food through Mamma Leone’s, or chronicling the rise and fall of French haute cuisine through Henri Soulé’s Le Pavillon, food historian Paul Freedman uses each restaurant to tell a wider story of race and class, immigration and assimilation. Freedman also treats us to a scintillating history of the then-revolutionary Schrafft’s, a chain of convivial lunch spots that catered to women, and that bygone favorite, Howard Johnson’s, which pioneered midcentury, on-the-road dining, only to be swept aside by McDonald’s. Lavishly designed with more than 100 photographs and images, including original menus, Ten Restaurants That Changed America is a significant and highly entertaining social history.” (Amazon blurb)

Why read Ten Restaurants that Shaped America?

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 8.05.23 PMI came across this book in research for The Girl Puzzle, my next novel, due out in the Spring. I was looking for some information about where my characters might eat out in New York in 1887 and again in 1920. Delmonicos, I thought. I need to know more about Delmonicos. Where was it? What was on the menu? Who went there and how much did it cost?

A little info… Delmonicos was established in as a pastry shop in 1827, opened by the Delmonico brothers, two young men originally from Ticino, an Italian part of Switzerland. John and Peter Delmonico (originally Giovanni and Pietro Del-Monico) had no formal training but by 1830 were successful enough to expand their pastry shop into the “Restaurant Français des Frères Delmonico”. Famous for high quality ingredients and expansive menu, Delmonicos various branches were visited by everyone from Oscar Wilde to Louis Napoleon, the Emperor of France.

Despite not being mentioned in the blurb on Amazon (odd since it is a picture of Delmonicos on the cover) I’ve loved this first section of the book. And while I’ve never heard of half the places mentioned above, I’m really looking forward to reading more and finding out about things that I don’t even know I don’t know about ;).

 

 

Dec 2: The Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker

“For 200 years after 1650 the West Indies were the most fought-over colonies in the world, as Europeans made and lost immense fortunes growing and trading in sugar – a commodity so lucrative that it was known as white gold.

Young men, beset by death and disease, an ocean away from the moral anchors of life in Britain, created immense dynastic wealth but produced a society poisoned by war, sickness, cruelty and corruption.

The Sugar Barons explores the lives and experiences of those whose fortunes rose and fell with the West Indian empire. From the ambitious and brilliant entrepreneurs, to the grandees wielding power across the Atlantic, to the inheritors often consumed by decadence, disgrace and madness, this is the compelling story of how a few small islands and a handful of families decisively shaped the British Empire.” (Amazon blurb)

 

Screen Shot 2018-12-01 at 9.34.06 PMWhy read The Sugar Barons?

This book was recommended to me recently by my father-in-law and he was really enthusiastic about it. Of course, I love the period – 17th & 18th centuries – and the transatlantic aspect really appeals to me as a Brit living in the States. I’m also pretty sucked in by the subtitle: Family, Corruption, Empire and War.

One of the reviews I read has this line which really is what I’m always looking for when I’m first getting to know a period/event:

What I really enjoy about Mathew Parker’s style is his ingenious way of getting you hooked with one or two personal stories of individuals and families; And once he has you, the process of historical extrapolation becomes much more readable.”

Definitely think this is the kind of book that might inspire a really fascinating historical novel…

Dec 1: The Sisters, the Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell

“This is the story of a close, loving family splintered by the violent ideologies of Europe between the world wars. Jessica was a Communist; Debo became the Duchess of Devonshire; Nancy was one of the best-selling novelists of her day; beautiful Diana married the Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley; and Unity, a close friend of Hitler, shot herself in the head when England and Germany declared war. The Mitfords had style and presence and were mercilessly gifted. Above all, they were funny-hilariously and mercilessly so. In this wise, evenhanded, and generous book, Mary Lovell captures the vitality and drama of a family that took the twentieth century by storm and became, in some respects, its victims.” (Amazon blurb)

Why The Sisters? Why read about the Mitfords?

For me it starts with Nancy. I read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate as a teenager and loved them both. They were like P.G. Wodehouse with the sharp edges left in. It was because of reading those books that I picked up Nancy Mitford’s non-fiction book about Louis XIV, The Sun King, one day, not long after I had my first kid. It was because of The Sun King, that I came to write my first novel, Charlatan.

Then there’s beautiful Diana, married to Oswald Mosely. And then there’s Unity – what a story – and that’s before I even to get to Jessica and Debo. Is that them all or have forgotten omitfordsne? Probably. Which is why I need to read this book.

Another reason is a little side project I’m working on – a book about famous sisters in history – and there might be another set of sisters (or two) featuring on my history wishes advent in the days ahead. Watch this space…

For those interested, there is a very watchable 45 minute documentary on Netflix right now called The Mitfords, a tale of two sisters. It focuses on Diana and Jessica (although the others are there to, making the title seem a bit silly). It features the history writer Laura Thompson who also has a book out about the sisters, but I’m picking Mary Lovell’s 2003 book because I’ve another book by Thompson on my Christmas list already.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has read either Lovell or Thompson’s Mitford books.

Or is there another must read book on the Mitfords that I should be reading first?

 

Parmesan Chese

History wishes is my Christmas Advent Calendar of non-fiction books I’d love to get my hands on. One book a day, every day until Christmas!

Kate xx

History wishes – a non-fiction advent calendar for 2018

Parmesan Chese

So tomorrow is the 1st of December and Christmas is officially open for business in our house. Child 3 has been trying to change that, embarking on a list for Santa designed on Canva (I kid you not) some weeks ago, but we have held resolute. On the side, however, I have been building up quite a list of books I’d love to get my hands on this year. All non-fiction and chosen for wildly different reasons, but all lined up and ready to share.

I’ll be posting one book a day. I’m excited to share my #historywishes and if you have read them already or are interested in any of the books I’m featuring, I’d love to hear from you.

Happy December!

Kate xx