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How the Great Plague might change your writing

For a writer, no experience is worthless, however bad. No more immune from tragedy than the rest of us, writers can at least share that experience with readers, hoping that by doing so they may dull their pain, or that of others. Shakespeare lost his only son and in her enthralling novel Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell suggests it inspired him to write his greatest play, Hamlet.

Not long before Covid hit, I was reading another historical novel set during London’s Great Plague outbreak in 1665. Growing up in the UK I had learnt in primary school of the bare facts, the date, the Great Fire which followed in 1666, but it had no particular emotional significance for me. And reading that novel in the heady days of 2019, the worst outbreak of bubonic plague since 1348 was no more than an interesting backdrop to a murder mystery. I shuddered at gruesome and heart rending facts, thrown in as historical colour- the mass burials, the nailing up of doors of infected houses, condemning the healthy to die with the sick. But it had happened so long ago in another world. Nothing lingers in British folk lore other than (perhaps) a grim glimmer of memory filtering down the centuries through the prism of the nursery rhyme “Ring a ring of roses”.

And now, in the stark light of this 2021 day? I picked up my first novel The Welsh Linnet recently and reread the sections on “camp fever” (probably typhus) in 1643 Oxford.

“Stanley’s small and gloomy room stank of sickness… I would not have recognised Matthew … His eyes were immense in his face with the fever. There were tell- tale purple spots on his chest and arms. He felt very hot to the touch... As it began to grow dark, … the sick man spoke his first coherent words. “Nicholas, don’t die. Hold on, I’m here.” 

The Welsh Linnet by AJ Lyndon

The deadly sickness brought by armies to Oxford during the civil war was a convenient tool I used for development of the characters’ personal relationships, but if I were writing the book now, I believe those nursing the sick would be more fearful; and would spend time brooding on the random nature of the pestilence and praying for its end.

Perhaps it is natural that the reality of outbreaks of dangerous contagion, common throughout the world until discovery of vaccines, should have been forgotten by most people, even those born before the last polio epidemic in the 1950s.

Somehow I doubt that when this war against the 21st century plague is over, those of us who lived through it and survived will spend time reminiscing about the “good old days” of Covid. But for those of us who write fiction, whether we choose to omit any reference to these events from our fictional worlds or include them as a backdrop to thriller or romance, I do not think our stories will mirror those we might have penned in that parallel universe where Covid-19 did not exist.

It’s not only memories of diseases which disappear from collective memory. I have often wondered why the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, the usual subject of this blog, have been forgotten more completely than Plague or Fire, almost as if airbrushed from history. They killed a greater percentage of the British population than the First World War.

Was it fear that dredging up any talk of the recent conflict might reignite the smouldering embers of discontent and revolution? Might bring back the days of daily fears – that today would be the day that brought death or starvation to their town or village in the shape of marching troops from either side. Or was it relief that with the Restoration of Charles II it was all over and best forgotten? An “enemy” had been defeated, but it was an enemy within and a brief flirtation with republicanism – the short-lived English Revolution which preceded those in America and France by a hundred years, had failed.

A literary critic, writing during the Franco era, dismissed George Orwell’s passionate account of the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia with the comment that “the Spanish are a fine people” and it did not do to dwell on the past. That patronising comment made me cringe. Yet I think I am a little more able to understand than I was 18 months ago, why those in England, Wales and Scotland who lived through the horrors of brother killing brother and friend friend, wanted only to resume whatever remained for them of “normal” life. Why they kept their memories to themselves and did not pass them down the generations.

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Book review -Essex Tudor Rebel by Tony Riches

Genre – Historical. This is the second book in Tony Riche’s Elizabethan series.

The story is set in England during the later years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1. It follows the life of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, from his father’s death in Ireland in 1576, leaving him “the poorest earl in England” to his own death in 1601.

It is peopled with a wide range of historical characters including Robert’s cold, distant and ambitious mother, his sisters Penelope and Dorothy and his younger brother Wat. Queen Elizabeth herself, an ever-present background threat, is onstage at times, along with Drake, Raleigh and the queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who becomes the young Robert’s stepfather and friend.

Each chapter is from a different time period, chronicling every twist and turn of Robert’s life, year by year. It describes in great detail his childhood separation from his family, his increasingly difficult relations with the powerful Cecils, his warm relationships with his sisters and supporters such as valet Anthony Bagot and lifelong friend Gelly Meyrick.

As the growing boy becomes a young man, he transforms from impoverished ward of the Cecils to an ambitious young courtier who quickly supplants his stepfather in the dangerous position of the queen’s favourite.

From the first chapter, I was impressed by the everyday details of 16th century life from lace coifs and beeswax candles to manchet bread and the steps of the galliard.

“After three quick hops with alternate feet, on the word cadence, Robert jumped, landing with one leg ahead of the other, in a move called the posture.”

Every intrigue Robert participates in throughout his life is described, from the ongoing military campaigns and plotting by and against the Spanish, to the many court intrigues and rivalries of the Elizabethan court.  The end result is a wealth of convincing detail which left me with a much greater knowledge of this famous nobleman, courtier and military general.

Despite being surrounded for most of his life by those who seek to guide him, Robert remains prey to others who, jealous of his position at court, seek to profit from him or to oust him. Somewhat surprisingly for the modern reader, having been born the poorest earl in England leads Robert, in the author’s portrayal of him, into a lifelong and fruitless quest to restore his fortunes. He is hampered by his inherited love of gambling, by his fondness for beautiful women, and by the cynical use the queen makes of her leading courtiers. In his anxiety to please her, Robert is led further and further into debt as he repeatedly raises troops at his own expense to fight military campaigns.

I could not fault the historical detail.  The author resists the temptation of describing only the romantic side of the era. London’s Strand is already dominated by great houses, but St Paul’s cathedral has only a broken spire and the sound of bear-baiting drifts across the Thames. Yet Robert Devereux himself remained elusive. Despite the many dramatic events described, it was only in the closing scenes that I felt the emotion behind this doomed and tragic figure.

Like many established historical novelists, Tony Riches sticks closely to the facts and includes as much as possible about his subject. It might be interesting if he adopted a slightly different approach, focussing on a few of the major episodes. This would give him the opportunity of bringing each event to life, even if it means taking chances, rather than risking it being overshadowed by a swift transition to the next. This is the first novel I have read by this successful author, but it will probably not be the last.

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Why churches are better than pubs

Nothing to do with praying although, back in lockdown for the sixth time in Melbourne, we could all do with a little prayer. But this is, of course, about writing. And, specifically, about recreating the past. Most churches, especially in Europe, have been there a very long time, 5,6, 7 hundred years and more. There are quite a few old pubs too but, unlike the pubs, churches usually retain their original names.

Cue repeated moans about the Globe Inn, Lostwithiel in Cornwall. Definitely old, 16th century without dispute. Was there when the roundhead army of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, arrived in 1644 in the middle of the civil war. Next to the bridge over the Fowey. Appearing in my second book as itself. But had to be “the inn by the river”, because the owner told me it had only been The Globe for a couple of hundred years. Then there is The Reindeer in Banbury, dating from 1570. In the absence of evidence of a name change I have assumed The Reindeer is the original name. But I have my doubts, and feel a little anxious whenever I reread the scene in my first book, The Welsh Linnet.

Even churches can be problematic. I have found quite a few that were rebuilt at some point. Usually the tower which may now be square and previously had a spire, that sort of thing. Fonts and pulpits may look ancient- but are they the originals? If only all churches had been left untouched with the original bullet holes, like St Lawrence in Alton.

Civil war damage from shot St Lawrence Alton (author photo)

As for the changing shape of old houses- probably one of the most famous is Hampton Court which has a Tudor front and a William and Mary back. Two totally different styles. Many owners of stately homes decided to improve and modernise, losing all trace of the original features in the process. In the late 17th century (Charles II era) a wave of Restoration optimism (or the damage of the civil war) caused the knocking about of many gentlemen’s houses. The better off remodelled and expanded (Boconnoc House for example) while many others such as Loseley House demolished a wing, either through dilapidation or to cut costs.

Basing House, pulled down on Cromwell’s orders after its capture in 1645, was ironically, falling down at the time. Its owner the Marquess of Winchester had been living elsewhere and only moved back into the immense Basing House when the civil war made him seek a more secure and defensible residence.

Using Boconnoc House as a setting for part of the plot would have been impossible if it hadn’t been for the kindness of the present owner and a recently written book on the history of the house. Writing a novel set in 1644 entailed reconstructing a house which faced west rather than east and was s-shaped with towers instead of square with no towers. But it is still surrounded by the deer park which was clearly visible on a contemporary map.

The mass of the house, a tower at each end, loomed as a dark and silent presence in the night…Gabriel and the remaining men crept in single file up the southern slope from the deer park (The Tawny Sash)

Sometimes I strike gold. The staff at Loseley House showed me a painting of the house with the west wing intact. The details of the layout are quite clear so that I was able to write things like

First removing their shoes so they would not make a clatter on the wooden floors, the brothers crept through the door from the west wing into the stables. They were crowded with tenants’ horses and wagons. (The Tawny Sash)

At Cardiff Castle a helpful guide was a bit surprised when I showed very little interest in the beautiful rebuilding and decoration from the 19th century but insisted in climbing to the top of the spartan but intact Norman keep and taking photos of it from all directions.

Terrain can be just as frustrating. Google maps is wonderful (especially satellite view) and where possible I tramp or drive around a location. But even visiting a location doesn’t always help. Trees for example are a perennial problem. The view from Edgehill in 2016

View of battlefield from Edgehill (author photo)

Apparently in 1642 there was a good clear view from the top. Sometimes a river has silted up (Fowey in Cornwall) or a canal has been driven through an area (Basingstoke Canal at Basing House in 1794). After all the mucking around in the Basingstoke area over the last 200+ years, the River Loddon is little more than a stream. But in 1644, wider, deeper and dammed to stop the enemy crossing, it would have been different. How different? After all the research, in the end I must fall back on my imagination.

This was no great stretch of water like the Severn. In summer it ran clear, and children picked the wild watercress, but not since damming the river had muddied its crystal waters, not since the war began. (The Tawny Sash)

Why Flavius Ferox left Vindolanda: The Fort by Adrian Goldsworthy

BY AJ LYNDON

Adrian Goldsworthy studied at Oxford, where his doctoral thesis examined the Roman army. He became an acclaimed historian of Ancient Rome, author of numerous works of nonfiction including Caesar and Hadrian’s Wall. But it is as a novelist, author of the Vindolanda trilogy, set in Roman Britain, that he has gained fame among readers of historical fiction – those who want the historic background to be a major player, not just light window-dressing.

In his new novel The Fort (Head of Zeus Ltd 2021), Goldsworthy once again features fictional Roman centurion and Prince of the Silures, Flavius Ferox, along with his usual entourage of “Vindex, Enica, Philo and co.” But this time the action takes place during the Emperor Trajan’s Dacian wars (modern-day Romania).

While Goldsworthy was an academic first, he says that he has always enjoyed adventure stories and historical novels. His first attempt at writing a novel was after finishing his doctorate – “a cold and damp winter when I had lots of energy and no money”. Ten years later he got the urge again, but he was told there was “no market for historical fiction, which never sounded right.” That second novel got him a literary agent “and a better class of rejection letters from publishers”, before, a few years later, he succeeded in having a novel published. Surprisingly, the story was set not in the Roman world but in the Waterloo era, another period which fascinated him. “Ultimately,” he says,” I write the sort of books that I want to read, but that do not exist – you just have to hope other people like them as well”.

In the meantime, Goldsworthy taught and wrote nonfiction, becoming so successful that he gave up teaching to become a fulltime writer. His aim as a historian was always to “convey why history is exciting, and to look at the big figures and the big events”.

When planning the Vindolanda series, Goldsworthy “was careful to set the … stories so that they just preceded the Dacian Wars”. In other words, the concept of adventures for Ferox in other parts of the Roman empire was there from the start, although it was decided to keep the initial trilogy in Britain.

One of his themes, he says, is “what it meant to be a Roman”. Ferox is a prince of the Silures, but educated in the Roman empire, a citizen and a centurion. In The Fort, the first of a second trilogy featuring Ferox, Goldsworthy lets Britons, specifically the Brigantes, “loose in the wider Roman empire, trying to get to grips with … the way the empire worked when they’re caught up in a conflict that they do not really understand.”

Adrian Goldsworthy, Author, Broadcaster, Historical consultant 

He decided to stick with Ferox and other central characters in the new trilogy “because there were more stories I wanted to tell about them”. But while they feature Ferox, Goldsworthy has tried to write them so that they stand alone, rather than being an obvious continuation of the Vindolanda series. The idea behind The Fort was to explore sieges in the Roman world. Goldsworthy enjoys the opportunities of playing around with ideas about how the Romans might have done things. Whereas a historian’s duty is “to say when we do not know something”, a novelist can have fun filling in the gaps in history. He has just finished writing the second story, THE CITY, which sends Ferox off to the east. The third one will be called THE WALL!

Goldsworthy’s fascination with Dacian culture is an important element of the book. Frustratingly, he says, while the “Dacians clearly were a remarkable and militarily formidable people”, little evidence survives about them, or the wars fought between Dacia and Rome. He wanted them to be different to the Britons, and also from the Sarmatians who appear in The Fort.

While most chapters are told from Ferox’s point of view, The Fort also includes chapters from the viewpoints of up- and- coming future emperor Hadrian, and Brasus, a fictional Dacian nobleman. As a central part of the novel is about a siege, Goldsworthy wanted it to show events from both sides. He also wanted the Dacians “to be human and not just faceless enemies”. Brasus is “a decent man, young and a little naive, who is forced to challenge some of the things he has been taught.”

Hadrian on the other hand is portrayed as utterly ruthless. Goldsworthy says that while Hadrian was “probably a very good emperor”, he was, like many successful leaders, “not the nicest person”. He says that Hadrian was clever and capable, but “could not resist showing off”. Goldsworthy has tried to reflect the negative commentary on Hadrian that is apparent in the few literary sources about his reign.

Hadrian received rapid promotion around the time of the outbreak of the Second Dacian War, but the reason is unknown. The war took the Romans by surprise, so that Trajan only reached the Danube after a good deal of fighting. It gave Goldsworthy “enough leeway as a storyteller to create the scenario in The Fort.” His fictional version of events offers a compelling reason for Trajan’s sudden decision to promote Hadrian. Goldsworthy says that he always tries to make the story “something that could have happened and does not conflict with any of the evidence”.

Goldsworthy’s complementary passions for history and writing fiction are obvious to anyone who reads his novels. “You do not write well about something unless you care about it,” he concludes, “and unless the world you create seems real to you”.

About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She writes historical novels and short stories, mainly set in 17th-century England during the English Civil War. She has recently completed her second novel, The Tawny Sash. You can follow updates on her blog.

This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website. https://historicalnovelsociety.org/why-flavius-ferox-left-vindolanda-the-fort-by-adrian-goldsworthy/

A turd in your teeth (and other colourful insults)

Image by reki-woo- Unsplash

I came upon this pungent epithet in a book by Ruth Goodman on renaissance Britain. Roughly translates as “eat shit”! Many people know that popular swear words like “struth” originated in the more religious times of pre Reformation England when “shock factor” in swearing came from using sacred words to add colour and emphasis to speech. (“God’s truth”). That one evolved (or lingered?) in Australia. Anyone heard this being used elsewhere in the English-speaking world?

Parts of the body on the other hand – those parts which now are regularly used as insults were once used quite matter of factly, and were not considered “rude”, resulting in common place names like “Gropecunt Lane” in Cheapside, London. There was a wide variety of puns in use for body parts as well. Arse was the usual term for backside, which everyone knows today, but perhaps not “postern” as in postern gate (an entrance), stern (as in the back of a ship) or (my favourite for being totally obscure) caudel, which was a popular hot drink for pregnant women and invalids, because “cauda” is Latin for tail.

Sex acts naturally spawned (sorry) a wide range of jokey terms and euphemisms. “Riding St George” was an imaginative term for sex with the woman on top, while “milking” was sex-for-one.

I was surprised to learn that the term “bobtail” meant not only a horse with its tail docked but a loose woman. Gave a somewhat different meaning to the bedraggled and defeated army in Tawny Sash arriving at Basing House.

The drums, silent for much of the night, started up again so that the tag, rag and bobtail crowd might march through Garrison Gate like soldiers.

What the heck – I decided to leave it in. And “ladybird” apparently means the same as “bobtail”. Which the nurse calls Juliet… but of course everyone knows the nurse is not sweet and innocent. Makes me wonder though why a dear friend gave me a teacup covered in ladybirds.

Image Vincent van Zalinge – unsplash

First wipe your spoon

He took a last mouthful of potage, wiped the worst of the mess off his spoon and replaced it in his purse.

The Tawny Sash

I may have mentioned before the common misconception (born of Hollywood) that table manners were non existent during the times of the Tudors and the Stuarts. Wrong! Sitting down to eat with unwashed hands was an absolute no-no.

But it was only when I started researching the civilian aspects of 17th century life that I discovered cutlery was pretty much BYO. Only in the houses of the wealthy were you likely to find cutlery for your personal use (possibly silver) beside your trencher.

If you were incredibly lucky, you might have encountered knives with musical notes on the blade, known as notation knives. This would enable grace to be sung before and after the meal. The one in the possession of the Victoria and Albert museum was the inspiration for this scene from The Tawny Sash.

Did you ever see the singing knives from Italy?

No, Father.”

“Nor will you, for they are gone. The first Marquess bought them. Fine silver knives, the blades engraved with musical parts, with Latin prayers. They are a part of the birth right of the present fifth Marquess. They have disappeared and who would take them but one of the Protestants in the garrison, for their private gain?”

You were unlikely to encounter forks except in the grand houses belonging to a handful of “early adoptors” – gentry who had seen them in France. Forks, for those who used them, were for pinning down your food while cutting it with your knife. Nobody at that time thought you should put the fork, if you had one, in your mouth!

The use of forks was similarly frowned on in the American colonies in the 1630s, but the gradual increase in their use, combined with the change in the shape of knife blades, led to different fork etiquette evolving on each side of the Atlantic during the 17th and 18th centuries. Americans cut food up and then switch the fork to their right hand, while Europeans “hang on to their knives” as an American character in a novel complained.

Knives and spoons, on the other hand were in universal use, but that did not mean they were necessarily provided by your host. Carrying your knife and spoon was like carrying your mobile phone today. Soldiers carried them on campaign. Civil war armies supplied their soldiers with snapsacks (a kind of kitbag) but no cutlery.

Roundhead soldiers screamed abuse at other men rifling through their handful of belongings, while their comrades tried to drag them away. Horn spoons, eating knives, odds and ends of match and ribbon, a cup, a wooden fife, a small soldiers’ bible and a tattered blanket, all strewn in the mud.

(The Tawny Sash)

In the Great Hall of a manor or castle, everyone ate together in the sense of under a single roof. What we now call share plates were the order of the day. People ate in “messes”, usually of four. The word “mess” has survived in this context for the military.

Everybody ate from their own plate, but if a bowl of soup or stew was brought to the table it was shared between the four people, who all ate from the same dish with their spoons. At the end of that course, hygiene consisted of wiping your spoon on a napkin before reusing it for the next course.

As to the idea that floors were covered in dirty rushes and dogs chewing bones, contemporary books of etiquette prohibit throwing bones on the floor (or spitting). Left overs from each person’s plate were placed in a “voider” which was removed, and the table cloth brushed, at the end of each course. Diners were to wipe their messy hands and mouth on their shoulder napkins, not on the tablecloth!

And after dinner and supper “the place to be swept and kept clean and sweet, with perfumes, flowers, herbs, and boughs in their season,” instructed the young Viscount Montague in his “book of orders and rules“, a last ditch attempt to make his sloppy household staff behave properly.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-notation-knife/

Book review- Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair

This historical romance, by the Scottish author of The Mermaid and the Bear, continues following the Monteith family. Sinclair’s second novel is set in the 1740s during the fateful years leading up to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion and its aftermath. Beginning in the castle near Aberdeen, the action quickly shifts away from Scotland however, with most of the story taking place on a tobacco plantation in Pennsylvania.  The Scottish heroine, Lady Elizabeth Monteith from “the castle” is kidnapped from her native Scotland and views its tragedy from the far-off American colonies. She is sold as an indentured servant, cook to an enlightened, mysterious “master”, Michael.

The novel is written in the first person with Beth relating the events in chronological order. Elizabeth, or “Beth” as she becomes, is a warm, likeable and very determined character. Her humanity and sense of humour rarely desert her. It is only in the aftermath of Culloden when she hears of the Jacobite defeat that her resilience flags and she succumbs to depression. Wisely, Sinclair chooses not to second guess the events of Culloden. Although most readers will already know the outcome of the Jacobite rising, Beth does not and a suitable period of time rolls by until the news crosses the ocean from Scotland.

The story follows Beth’s transformation from scared teenage captive to a capable and confident, practical young woman as she adapts to her new situation, ultimately leading to a decision between the old life and the new. It is set against the background of slavery, the social inequalities between free whites, indentured servants, native Americans and black slaves. Beth has a disarming acceptance of all races which today might be dismissed as “colour blindness” but in the context of an 18th century character is refreshing. Relations between the different racial and social groups are handed sensitively, even if it is sometimes a little difficult to believe in Beth’s naïve and childlike views.

There is an interesting range of characters from the evil (historical) Alexander Young, first mate on the ship which transports Beth to her new life, to the central figures of Sarah, the unpleasant Mrs Sauer, the elderly man Comfort and the two men in Beth’s life. Peter, her young companion in captivity, a fellow Scot, disappears from the story for much of the book, while Michael, the manager of the estates, emerges from the shadows in a series of revelations and surprising twists. 

The sense of time and place is well drawn; and the modest sprinkling of Scottish dialect words adds to the authentic voice of the narrator. Despite the central themes of slavery and racial intolerance, the occasional savagery of a scene (the pregnant Nivvie being whipped by the foreman) and the references to the brutal traitors’ deaths of the captured Jacobites, this is a gentle, hopeful and entertaining book. The plot keeps the reader guessing its outcome until the very last page.

(And) when did you last see your father?

When Did You Last See Your Father? - History

The Victorians have a lot to answer for. I love this famous 19th century painting by Yeames, with all its colourful, misleading detail. The bad guys are dressed in black with tall hats. The good guys (who are mainly damsels in distress) wear lace, velvet, satin. Unfortunately for the story, it is somewhat spoiled by the fact that King Charles I, the doomed commander of The Other Side also sometimes dressed in black.

Yes, Puritans wore clothes in dark, subdued colours, but so did many people, and the wealthy wore black as a sign of wealth. Black dyed cloth was very expensive. Hats with tall crowns were popular, whatever your political leanings.

But we shouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. The Victorians were romantics and so the image of the ‘romantic’ cavalier, heroes dressed always in silks and satin, was born. Sadly this contrasted with the reality which on closer investigation was often plundering troops, drunken officers who turned a blind eye.

The king’s nephew, the handsome, brilliant cavalry commander Prince Rupert, paid so little attention to the niceties of how to treat civilians that he was nicknamed “Prince Robber”. Disorganised royalist supply chains partly explained the plundering; and a haphazard approach to medical care which often left the sick and wounded royalist soldier at the mercy of the goodness of the local populace. Parliament on the other hand set up some proper hospitals for their own forces.

He pushed past her to see two malignant soldiers… setting down a make shift stretcher on the floor of his parlour. On it lay an unconscious man, presumably an officer, ashen faced. His white shirt and pale blue breeches were soaked in blood. A young officer was bending over the stretcher … Seeing the minister he gave a stiff nod.

“Sir, I require you to allow our Captain to be tended here. He is gravely wounded. … I understand you are the minister for this village and I have judged your house the most proper place …”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

And returning to the vexed question of military attire – this is how cavalry on both sides dressed on the battlefield. And yes, it got very confusing at times.

Cavalry uniform 1640s Britain

A mass of Horse ahead, men fighting, dimly seen through smoke-drenched air. The din like a thousand tinkers mending pots that was the clash of swords, the steady beat of drums, screams from man and horse alike… an officer riding right at him, an enemy officer. But no, that could not be, for Will had seen the white paper in the man’s helmet, the token that declared him a king’s man. “Hold!” That had been his own voice. Flinging up his left hand and dropping the reins. “God with us” he had shouted, but the man struck with his sword.

(From The Tawny Sash)

And not a plumed hat in sight!

Tracking the Real Virginia: The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck’s sixth novel The Invisible Woman (PenguinRandomHouse 2021), is something of a departure from her previous works. Robuck is best known for “wife-of-famous-male-writer” plots, as the author herself describes it.  Ernest Hemingway’s wife Pauline in Hemingway’s Girl (Berkley 2012) and Zelda Fitzgerald in Call me Zelda (Penguin Group USA 2013) are typical examples. In 2014, Robuck was named Annapolis’ Author of the Year.

In her latest novel, Robuck once more chooses a real-life story featuring an American woman of the 20th century, but this time the woman, Virginia Hall, World War II spy in occupied France, is the centre of the story. The man in her life, who she later married, is only introduced towards the end of the book. “Paul came late to the war and their story began after most of her work was complete,” Robuck says. “It felt like a breath of fresh air that she would meet him when she did.”

Robuck is constantly seeking “extraordinary people from the past who come from places familiar to me, or to whom I feel a personal connection”. Virginia hit the mark on both counts, growing up in Robuck’s home state of Maryland and being such an extraordinary woman that Robuck suggests she could launch a subgenre of “husband-of-famous-woman” books. Virginia was an unlikely choice for an undercover spy in a foreign country. Although, as her niece described her to Robuck she was “intimidating and scary-smart” she came with two great disadvantages – one was that despite being fluent in French she spoke it with a strong American accent. The second was that she had lost a leg below the knee following a hunting accident in her twenties.  Her wooden prosthetic leg (nicknamed Cuthbert) gave her a pronounced limp. Once the Gestapo discovered her existence, they called her “The Limping Lady”.

Robuck overcame a number of challenges writing the book. First was the difficulty of writing it in the Covid year of 2020 which ruled out her travelling to the site of the events of the novel. Virginia Hall’s work covered in the story took place in France, while Robuck lives in the USA. For settings, she relied on Youtube, firsthand accounts, and her video treadmill that allowed her to “walk” and “hike” the paths Virginia traveled.

Fortunately, a great deal of material exists about this woman who was not only a much-decorated war heroine, but an early member of the CIA. Robuck researched her subject using periodicals, biographies, buried mentions in war memoirs, even Virginia’s declassified personal files at the National Archives to get the details of her missions. Some of the source material was written in French. She was thrilled at being granted access as a researcher to the museum at CIA Headquarters in McLean, Virginia. Among the exhibits are Virginia’s Distinguished Service Cross, one of her passports, and a wireless transceiver, tricks of the trade (including rat “letterboxes”), and a painting of Virginia Hall with one of her maquisards—“Les marguerites fleuriront ce soir” (the daisies will bloom at night).

Perhaps more important to Robuck’s research was Virginia’s niece Lorna in Baltimore who Robuck met with many times. Lorna coloured in the details behind the “black and white sketch” Robuck had built up, “with her photographs, artifacts, and remembrances of her ‘Aunt Dindy’.”

author photo by Catsh Photography

Next came the task of making this brilliant and forceful character, the ultimate strong woman, into a heroine that readers of a novel could sympathize with and wish to succeed. Robuck confesses that this was difficult. Multiple readers gave feedback that she needed to make Virginia more likeable. Even Virginia’s landing partner on her third mission did not think highly of her because of how she cut him off from the network. Several leaders of French resistance fighters had contentious relationships with her. The dangerous rivalries between groups reminiscent of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and the insubordination from male resistance leaders resentful of having a female commander imposed upon them, all contributed to Virginia as an unapproachable figure. It was Robuck’s editor, Amanda Bergeron, who suggested a solution to the problem might be giving the reader a look at young Virginia in a prologue. Robuck took her up on the idea, showing Virginia before the war and all its losses—not only before the amputation—and the early days of Virginia’s love affair with Paris.

The last major challenge was deciding on which parts of Virginia’s life to focus on. After training by the British she spent 13 months in France in 1941-42, working for the United Kingdom’s clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE). She organized spy networks, ran safehouses, and delivered important intelligence to the British government – all while staying one step ahead of the Gestapo. After narrowly escaping from France, she returned in 1944 shortly before the D Day landings, this time working for the Americans.

It took two and a half years and four iterations of the novel, to find the story that needed to be told told, Robuck says. She began writing the book as a dual period novel including a female Iraq War veteran. The second version was a dual protagonist novel with another SOE agent, but Virginia “insisted this was all about her”. Robuck started the novel again, set during Hall’s first WWII mission to France, but decided that was all backstory. Finally, she wrote the novel as it is, set during Hall’s second WWII mission to France, overcoming the guilt and trauma of having survived the destruction by the Nazis of her first network, conquering her demons as she builds, arms and trains a new network. It was a painful exercise to chop all those pages, Robuck says, but the sacrifice has clearly been worthwhile.

About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She writes fiction set in 17th century England during the English Civil War. Book 2 The Tawny Sash will be released in 2021. You can follow updates on her blog.

This feature by AJ Lyndon first appeared on the website of the

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Ghostly warriors

“Would Byron’s men haunt the Down in years to come, a restless and wild eyed horde charging into the guns of Waller’s army for evermore?”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

Visiting battle fields is a melancholy, but addictive, pursuit. At some places the air remains thick with the ghosts of the dead. I visited Culloden at the age of 11 with my parents and I still recall the shivers which ran down my spine as we inspected one weather-beaten clan memorial after another. In the days before the existence of a visitors’ centre, we were the only visitors on a summer’s day among a host of highland warrior war dead.

Since then (but sadly not in 2020) I have visited other battlefields, particularly those of the English Civil War.  Thanks to Zoom (and a certain amount of very early rising due to the time difference between the UK and Australia) I am currently able to participate in Battlefields Trust and National Army Museum talks on everything from Boudica to my personal consuming passion, Basing House. The other Zoomees clutch glasses of wine, while I hold a mug of coffee and wear a sweatshirt hastily tugged on over my PJs. It is an unexpected, beneficial side effect of the Plague Year.

But writing historical fiction about battlefields is so much easier when you have climbed the hill to appreciate a particular vantage point. Despite being partly obscured by trees, the view from Edgehill’s 700 ft high ridge of where the fighting took place below gives wonderful perspective.

“From his position high on Edgehill, Rafe … could see empty fields stretching before him, far down below…

So distant they could have been pieces on a chessboard, Rafe saw the forces of the enemy streaming onto the fields below the ridge. As he watched, the antlike columns assumed the shapes of men and horses. Regiments were taking their places, the patterns changing as they moved from marching order into battle formation.”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

View of the battlefield from Edgehill

In other places both view and landscape have remained the same. I was so haunted by the carpet of poppies on Roundway Down above Devizes, with its associations of the Great War overlaying those of the 1643 cavalry battle between the forces of King and Parliament, that the photo became my screensaver for many months.

“He shuddered at the thought his corpse might be left upon the Down to rot…until nothing remained of him but bones bleaching among the poppies.”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

Roundway Down, Devizes

As I discovered when I began writing historical fiction, and searching for “what really happened”, the location of a battle is not always clear. Those present at the battle were not generally concerned with pinpointing the location for future generations. “Facts” in their reports were obscured by clouds of gun smoke, their inability to see the entire battlefield from where they were fighting, and the desire to portray their own performance in the best possible light.

They would refer to “a little hill”, a wood, or rising ground. Sometimes archaeologists come to the rescue when a dig uncovers civil war ammunition. This may pinpoint where the action took place, and what types of soldiers were fighting. Musket balls mean infantry or dragoons, while pistol suggests cavalry. A complete lack of any pistol (or musket) balls suggests the battle took place in a different location. If they are lying thickly in the ground it is evidence of heavy fighting (but beware, it might also mean the baggage train, with its stores of ammunition, was waylaid at that point).

For a writer of fiction, a dispute is not necessarily a bad thing – it gives us more wiggle room. But it can be fantastic to get an indisputable feel and proof of how an event went horribly wrong.  Walking the site of the battle of Cheriton (March 1644), I became lost in the maze of narrow lanes the Royalist cavalry had charged down. So narrow I could touch them with both hands, no wonder the cavalry were beaten for the first time in open battle.

“Bramdean Lane was so narrow that it scarcely permitted the passage of two horses side by side. The enemy would pick his men off as they filed into the open two by two like the animals into Noah’s ark…

Behind him, the riders were forming up in two files, their movements hampered by the confinement of the lane and the musketeers crouching in the hedges.

… Ahead were confused sounds of fighting from the unseen battlefield, the clash of sword play, gunfire, screams of man and beast mingling with the urgent beat of drums.”

(From forthcoming novel The Tawny Sash)

Cheriton battle field

The best illustration for me was when visiting Chester in 2018. King Charles I was said to have “watched the battle” of Rowton Moor, which lay outside the city, from a tower on the city walls now known as “The King’s Tower”. My guide took me inside the tower where I inspected the view from the window. Then she drove me out to the site of the battle which, even today, remains well outside Chester’s suburbs. I tramped across the rising ground (now farmland) and agreed with her that even with a telescope (which did exist in 1644), It would have been totally impossible for the king to watch the battle. That particular battle is yet to feature in my writing, but watch this space…

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