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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

For the time of year you can't do better than this stunning debut by Eowyn Ivey. The Snow Child is a beautifully written novel of longing and loss, and the battle of human beings to make their place at the edge of habitable nature.

In the wilds of Alaska Jack and Mabel build a snowman - a girl - on the night of the first snowfall. After this a little girl mysteriously enters their life. From the book I gather the Russian myth of the snow girl was collected by Arthur Ransome (of Swallows and Amazon's fame), and this myth has been skilfully interleaved with the narrative in Ivey's book.

The tale borders on the mythic and shifts between what is real and what is imaginary, and this is what gives it its uncanny power. The snow child herself is like nature, not easily tamed, and for most of the book we are not sure whether they are taming the girl or nature herself. For example Jack and Mabel's speech is in speech marks, but the snow girl's is not. This gives a sense in which we almost imagine we are hearing her voice, that it half-blends with the background. Masterful.

The book portrays the realities of survival, the killing of animals and the sheer hard work with an unflinching eye as Jack and Mabel eke out an existence where neighbours can mean the difference between survival and failure. I enjoyed Esther and George, the rumbustious neighbours, and the portrayal of Garrett, the boy who turns into a man before our eyes.

For me the star of the book is the landscape, reflected beautifully in the bare-boned prose.

Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Creation of a Master-piece - Guilds in England

From the 14th century right up until the 18th century in England, no master-craftsman could set up in a particular craft unless he became a member of its Guild.

So what were these Guilds that had such a stranglehold on craftsmanship and production?

The Guilds were controlled by a self-elected oligarchy, or confraternity of craftsmen, a system greased by bribery and favouritism.

Above, a bootmaker from Northampton shows his wares.

Guild Laws restricted a man to the manufacture of only one article, for example weavers were not allowed to dye their cloth, shoemakers were not permitted to mend shoes and bowyers could not make arrows for their bows, only the fletchers could do that. This was supposedly to protect each craftsman's job, but in practice led to much dispute and difficulty.

If you became a member of a Guild you would have to make your goods from specified materials, employ a specified number of apprentices, and sell at the Guild's fixed prices. If you failed to do this, or produced shoddy goods or work not approved by the Guild you would face penalties such as a fine, punishment in the pillory or imprisonment. Each Guild had a Court, and cases not satisfied in the Court would go before the Mayor who would arbitrate.

Only freemen of a particular town could join the Guild for their craft. Even if you had been a Guild member in another town, you still had to serve 5 years bound to a recognised master in the new town before you could prove yourself by making your "master-piece" and finally being admitted to join.

No one was allowed to sell their goods by candlelight, in case of passing off faulty workmanship under cover of darkness, and no work could be done after eight o'clock Saturday night until Monday morning, to respect the Sabbath.

Guilds were social as well as business institutions, and concerned themselves with the welfare of their workers and founded schools and alms-houses, even occasionally in some crafts supplying dowries for poorer women workers. Each Guild had its own Chaplain to conduct the services, and its own patron saint - St Anthony for grocers, St Patrick for saddlers, St Clement for tanners, St Stephen for weavers, and so forth.

Crafts were highly specialised, there were Guilds of longbow-string makers, salters, horners, patten makers, quilters and pin makers. Above you can see the Guild of Painters, of 1695. As you can see they are all dressed alike. Each Guild had its own costume, with variations for the different ranks. Apprentices wore blue cloaks in the winter and blue gowns in the summer. Nobody was allowed to wear cloaks below calf-length until they reached old age.
Many of England's finest buildings are the Guild Halls quite a few of which survive. The one pictured is Leicester's Guild Hall, a fine Elizabethan example.

"a haberdasher and a carpenter,
A webber, dyer and a papicer
Were with us eke, clothed in a livery
Of a solemn and great fraternity.
Full fresh and new their gear apyked was,
Their knives were ychaped not with brass,
but all with silver wrought full clean and weel.Their girdles and their puches every deal.
Well seemed each of them a fair burgess
To sitten in a Guild Hall on a dais"

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

A gentle undemanding stroll through an English Village

This small undemanding guide to the English Village would make an ideal gift for a townie or visitor to England just before they drive off into our rural byways. Divided neatly into 10 chapters, each section conveys a sense of the traditions and formation of the features of a typical english village. The Village green, the pub, the church and the big house are all here. I particularly enjoyed the section on the big house - the legacy of manor houses has been frequently undervalued and Wainwright makes us understand what they contributed and underlines the appeal of such series as Downton Abbey or Cranford.
Simplistic black and white woodcuts serve as illustrations - colour pictures would have helped bring the text to life (my only quibble). As will be apparent from its size, this is more of a general guide than an in-depth examination, but it packs a lot of information into a small space.
And talking of houses - I highly recommend Simon Jenkins paperback book England's Thousand Best Houses, a brick-shaped county by county guide to the big houses referred to in Wainwright's book. Jenkins is chairman of the National Trust and gives succint descriptions of each house's history, quirks and claim to fame.
Each house warrants at the most a couple of pages in this paperback, but again it is surprising just how much information can be compressed into such a small space. For historical fiction writers, this is your best guide to where to see period houses. All the houses in the book are open to the public and helpfully graded with stars to denote their importance. Oddly enough, I have often found the houses rated 1 star such as Lancaster's Cottage Museum to be more interesting than those rated with 5 stars, an accolade reserved for edifices such as Windsor Castle.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell

Only another historical fiction writer could appreciate the amount of research that has gone into Gillian Bagwell's novel "The Darling Strumpet". And as I have researched a book in the same period I hope I could have spotted holes in the historical background had there been any - but the detail was impeccable, no holes here!
The way the historical fact blended with the characterisation and story was excellent.

I am fascinated by Nell Gwynn and her journey from rags to riches via the English Theatre. I used to lecture students on a theatre course about the Restoration, so of course I could not wait to read this novel. Those interested in this aspect could do worse than visit the current National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of actresses - the scale of the portraits brings you quite literally face-to-face with Nell Gwynn.

But, back to the book -

Nell begins this novel poor and hungry, but soon realises she has a commodity she can sell. Her first encounter does not go entirely to plan, but we all know that she will end up in the bed of a King. Gillian Bagwell is skilful at keeping the reader's interest although of course we all know what will happen to Nell. In an age where violence was the norm, it is no use being coy about sexual relationships, and these are dealt with frankly. Most of the explicit encounters are at the beginning of the book and they lend the book its necessary earthy tone. The whole point of Nell Gwynn was how she used her 'charms', after all.

Once Nell Gwynn is established as a royal mistress the book examines how she is still, as a woman - not to mention the King's whore, excluded from all the decisions and intrigue of life at court. In many ways Nell was better cut out for the role of aspiring courtesan than established mistress. Gillian Bagwell draws these contrasts nicely, and I admired the way she did not let the reader's interest flag.

The novel gives you the sights, sounds and smells of Restoration London and brought Nell's journey vividly to life.

Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Jazz Age of the 17th Century

Under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, there had been little spending. No gambling on horses, no visits to the theatre, no music or dancing - even Christmas Day was banned. One of the broadsheets of the time lamented,

We are serious people now and full of cares,
as melancholy as cats, as glum as hares.

But after ten years of gloom, how did England celebrate? Well, with an intensification of all the old delights. Fashion was at its most outrageous, with new styles brought from France and Spain, in an outburst of feverish spending.

Charles II tried to bring in a standard costume for men at court, described by John Evelyn in his Diary of 1666 as "Eastern fashion of vest, changeing doublet, stiff collar, bands and cloake", but Pepy's wagered that it would be less than a year before the court was back into French frippery, and he was right.

The country was tired of restraint and wanted ostentation - the more extreme the fashion, the better. Clothes were adorned with ribbons and lace and plumes. Wigs came in, and the carrying of fancy-hilted dress swords.

Pastimes became not only frivolous but positively juvenile. A favourite indoor sport of the young townspeople was pillow and cushion fighting.
Pepys reports:

"anon to supper; and then my Lord going away to write, the young gentlemen to flinging of cushions and other mad sports till towards twelve at night."

Another popular pastime was playing cup-and-ball - see all the ladies and gents playing it at the head of this page. Blind-man's buff was a fashionable indoor game, as was building houses of playing cards. The second Duke of Buckingham was apparently very skilled at this, and would spend hours erecting his elaborate "card palaces".
(left 18th century painting of a boy with cup and

Dancing was no longer stately as it had been before Puritan rule. Nobody wanted the dull old dances any more. New italian jigs and corantos were danced at a more lively tempo. It must have been the equivalent of the Jazz Age in the twenties after the staid waltzes of the Pre-war era.

And all at once three new beverages - tea, coffeee and chocolate, were imported within a few years of each other and at once became extremely sought after, despite their expense. Coffee houses became fashionable places for men to meet and discuss state affairs, so much so that the King became scared of what might be being said behind his back, and issued an order to ban them. But so numerous and popular had they become that enforcing the order was impossible and the King finally gave up the attempt.

And thank goodness, for we still use coffee shops as a place to meet and gossip with our friends, or to discuss the latest news.