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!
Who reads audio books? Up until this week, not me. But with the big news that The Girl Puzzle is going to be made into an AUDIO BOOK I thought it might actually be a good idea to listen to one.
Here’s my very first pick, recommended by a friend:
A twisty, compelling new audiobook about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in death…
From the moment Lucy met her husband’s mother, she knew she wasn’t the wife Diana had envisioned for her perfect son. Exquisitely polite, friendly, and always generous, Diana nonetheless kept Lucy at arm’s length despite her desperate attempts to win her over. And as a pillar in the community, an advocate for female refugees, and a woman happily married for decades, no one had a bad word to say about Diana…except Lucy.
That was five years ago.
Now, Diana is dead, a suicide note found near her body claiming that she longer wanted to live because of the cancer wreaking havoc inside her body.
But the autopsy finds no cancer.
It does find traces of poison, and evidence of suffocation.
Who could possibly want Diana dead? Why was her will changed at the eleventh hour to disinherit both of her children, and their spouses? And what does it mean that Lucy isn’t exactly sad she’s gone?
Fractured relationships and deep family secrets grow more compelling with every chapter in this twisty, captivating new audiobook from Sally Hepworth.
I LOVED IT! Loved the book, loved the whole listening experience. It made me enthusiastic to do laundry! And walk my dogs (although I like that anyway) and do the washing up (a major occupation right now as we are having our kitchen redesigned and have no sink or dishwasher).
It’s definitely a different experience from reading but I found it perfect for keeping my mind busy when my hands were doing something. The only downside was when I sat down I didn’t feel like just listening but I wanted to know what would happen so I probably got more jobs done than I usually do… maybe that’s not a downside at all. There were certainly moments when if I’d had the book I would have sat down and read the whole thing and felt frustrated. And in some ways the experience was longer than I wanted it to be (I can read much faster than I can listen)… but it also meant I could have more than one book on the go. Right now I’m reading this for research:
And I’m also reading this for pleasure:
And I’m so thrilled with this audio experience that I’ve started this, which I have in hard copy but think I’m going to really enjoy listening to for the next week or so (it’s 18hrs long!)
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
“Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. Thousands of fans flocked to multi‑day events, and cities vied with one another to host them. The pilots themselves were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face. Well, the men were hailed. Female pilots were more often ridiculed than praised for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly, and deadly, pursuit. Fly Girls recounts how a cadre of women banded together to break the original glass ceiling: the entrenched prejudice that conspired to keep them out of the sky.
O’Brien weaves together the stories of five remarkable women: Florence Klingensmith, a high‑school dropout who worked for a dry cleaner in Fargo, North Dakota; Ruth Elder, an Alabama divorcee; Amelia Earhart, the most famous, but not necessarily the most skilled; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at the constraints of her blue‑blood family’s expectations; and Louise Thaden, the mother of two young kids who got her start selling coal in Wichita. Together, they fought for the chance to race against the men — and in 1936 one of them would triumph in the toughest race of all.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read Fly Girls?
Again I’m going to point to the subtitle of the book as I big reason for my interest. It reads: “How five daring women defied all odds and made aviation history.”
There. Who wouldn’t want to read about that? Daring women defying the odds is always a killer of a sales line for me.
This one definitely has me intrigued. I don’t know much about Amelia Earhart and could definitely learn more and I like that fact that these other women get a look-in too. Yup. I’m going to be reading this one for sure.
“From the great courts, glittering palaces, and war-ravaged battlefields of the seventeenth century comes the story of four spirited sisters and their glamorous mother, Elizabeth Stuart, granddaughter of the martyred Mary, Queen of Scots.
Upon her father’s ascension to the illustrious throne of England, Elizabeth Stuart was suddenly thrust from the poverty of unruly Scotland into the fairy-tale existence of a princess of great wealth and splendor. When she was married at sixteen to a German count far below her rank, it was with the understanding that her father would help her husband achieve the kingship of Bohemia. The terrible betrayal of this commitment would ruin “the Winter Queen,” as Elizabeth would forever be known, imperil the lives of those she loved, and launch a war that would last for thirty years.
Forced into exile, the Winter Queen and her family found refuge in Holland, where the glorious art and culture of the Dutch Golden Age indelibly shaped her daughters’ lives. Her eldest, Princess Elizabeth, became a scholar who earned the respect and friendship of the philosopher René Descartes. Louisa was a gifted painter whose engaging manner and appealing looks provoked heartache and scandal. Beautiful Henrietta Maria would be the only sister to marry into royalty, although at great cost. But it was the youngest, Sophia, a heroine in the tradition of a Jane Austen novel, whose ready wit and good-natured common sense masked immense strength of character, who fulfilled the promise of her great-grandmother Mary and reshaped the British monarchy, a legacy that endures to this day.
Brilliantly researched and captivatingly written, filled with danger, treachery, and adventure but also love, courage, and humor, Daughters of the Winter Queen follows the lives of five remarkable women who, by refusing to surrender to adversity, changed the course of history.” (Amazon blurb).
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about 17th Century women over the years – from Madame de Montespan in Charlatan to Anne Thompson in The Road to Newgate but I realise I know very little about these lovely ladies – the granddaughter and great-granddaughters of Mary Queen of Scots.
This fits right in with my interest in famous sisters (have I mentioned that lately??) and, of course, my love of Scottish History.
Will be reading this one sooner rather than later!
“In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery and shows how it was transformed by advances made in germ theory and antiseptics between 1860 and 1875. She conjures up early operating theaters—no place for the squeamish—and surgeons, who, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and brute strength. These pioneers knew that the aftermath of surgery was often more dangerous than patients’ afflictions, and they were baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high. At a time when surgery couldn’t have been more hazardous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon named Joseph Lister, who would solve the riddle and change the course of history.
Fitzharris dramatically reconstructs Lister’s career path to his audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection and could be countered by a sterilizing agent applied to wounds. She introduces us to Lister’s contemporaries—some of them brilliant, some outright criminal—and leads us through the grimy schools and squalid hospitals where they learned their art, the dead houses where they studied, and the cemeteries they ransacked for cadavers.
Eerie and illuminating, The Butchering Art celebrates the triumph of a visionary surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read The Butchering Art?
Hmm. Why do I want to read this book? I’m drawn to some of the gruesome stuff in history, I’ll admit. I’ve read some pretty grim stuff about torture and executions that I’ve used in my novels. But I think this appeals because of my roots in Edinburgh and growing up on stories of Burke and Hare grave-robbing and murdering to supply the anatomist, Robert Knox.
Lindsay Harris is someone I follow on twitter and her book has received some great reviews and prizes since it came out last year. Definitely on my Christmas list.
“The story of how and why a group of prominent and influential men in New York City and beyond came together to help women gain the right to vote.
The Suffragents is the untold story of how some of New York’s most powerful men formed the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, which grew between 1909 and 1917 from 150 founding members into a force of thousands across thirty-five states. Brooke Kroeger explores the formation of the League and the men who instigated it to involve themselves with the suffrage campaign, what they did at the behest of the movement’s female leadership, and why. She details the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s strategic decision to accept their organized help and then to deploy these influential new allies as suffrage foot soldiers, a role they accepted with uncommon grace. Led by such luminaries as Oswald Garrison Villard, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and George Foster Peabody, members of the League worked the streets, the stage, the press, and the legislative and executive branches of government. In the process, they helped convince waffling politicians, a dismissive public, and a largely hostile press to support the women’s demand. Together, they swayed the course of history.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read The Suffragents?
Lots of reasons. For one, this book is by Brooke Kroeger. I’ve just used her biography of Nellie Bly extensively in writing my new novel, The Girl Puzzle. Her research is thorough (the index and references/sources are amazing) and her writing style is a pleasure to read. Then there’s the subject matter. I definitely feel that suffragette stories have great novel potential. I’m not sure I’m the woman to do one, but what some of these women went through should be celebrated and remembered. When the 2016 US election was going on my tween/teen kids were SHOCKED to find out that women only got the vote in the US in 1920 and 1918 in the UK (although only for women over 30). I’d love to see some new suffragette movies or books to keep us all aware of how short a time its been since women had equality at the ballot box.
“Underwear — practical garments with a utilitarian function or body coverings that serve an erotic purpose? As this fascinating and intelligently written study shows, the role played by underclothing over the last several centuries has been a varied one.
In a well-documented, profusely illustrated volume combining impressive scholarship with an entertaining, often humorous style, two distinguished clothing historians consider undergarments worn by the English over the past 600 years. Beginning with the Middle Ages, the authors cover centuries of clothing history, including the Tudor period, the Restoration, the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the twentieth century up to the eve of World War II. Drawing on extensive, research, the Cunningtons illuminate the role and function of underwear: it protected the wearer against the elements, supported costume shapes, served as an erotic stimulus, symbolized class distinctions, and fulfilled other social, sanitary, and economic functions.
Enhancing the detailed, comprehensive text are more than 100 period illustrations and photographs depicting a laced-up bodice of the twelfth century, embroidered linen drawers of the sixteenth century, a hooped petticoat support in bentwood (c. 1750), footed long drawers (1795), nineteenth-century bustles, early nineteenth-century corsets for men, “Frillies for the Tiny Lady” (1939), and much more. A bibliography, appendix, and index complete a valuable reference work that will appeal to costume historians, sociologists, and other readers.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read The History of Underclothes?
Do I even need to answer that? I can’t wait to read this book. Even if I’m not planning on mentioning my character’s underwear, I really think I ought to know what’s going on (or not) in this department. I’ve recently ‘jumped’ period and been writing a novel set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries so I’ve had a lot of new stuff to learn. One of the things I like about this new book is that the two time periods – although only thirty years apart – are quite different. Think cars, the telephone, electric light. But also think goodbye corsets and hello bras. I’ve had a lot of ground to cover and definitely think I could do with this book to make sure I’m not making any major gaffes. Plus what if I jump period again? Maybe back in time, I’m thinking. Way back. Watch this space…
“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)
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: