Thursday, November 14, 2019

John Maynard Keynes and the Dahlia

By Judith Taylor

Possibly the greatest economist of modern times, John Maynard Keynes (1883 - 1946), was born with a silver dahlia in his mouth and grew up in very affluent circumstances. He was the elder son of John Neville Keynes, an economist at Pembroke College, Cambridge and a lecturer in moral sciences at the university. Keynes’ mother, Florence Ada, née Brown, was intellectually and socially active, ultimately becoming the mayor of the city of Cambridge. Most dons had only been allowed to marry since 1871 but at some colleges it was later than that.

John Maynard Keynes

Professor Keynes grew up in Salisbury where his father, also John Keynes, owned a very successful nursery. At one point the father was mayor of the city. The basis of his fortune lay with the dahlia. Keynes had a very good sense of what was popular and profitable. Dahlias became both quite early after their introduction into England and remained so during his lifetime. A semi-tropical flower from Mexico seems like a very fragile basis for wealth and when John Maynard grew up he examined his grandfather’s business affairs very closely.

Neville Keynes
He found that his grandfather had taken the profits from the nursery and invested  shrewdly in land. His investments happened to coincide with the growth of the railways and many of his holdings were in strategic parts of the country where the railways had to     buy land for their tracks. With that under his belt John Keynes also went into banking.

The result was that after the grandfather died and the business was wound up his son Neville inherited an annual income of £800 a year, very serious money indeed. It allowed him to live comfortably and educate his sons at the best schools. John Maynard’s younger brother Geoffrey was a very innovative and distinguished thoracic surgeon. Their sister, Margaret, did what was expected of her by marrying a first class chap, Archibald HiIl.

Like at least two other gorgeous plants from Mexico, the poinsettia and the marigold, the history of the dahlia in England comes down to us shimmering with myth. The facts are a little more prosaic but it is hard to resist a story that the empress Josephine of France had a monopoly on the dahlia and as soon as someone wanted to grow it elsewhere threw one of her alarming tantrums. She threatened to tear out all the plants and burn them. Alas, that is not true.

The first European to record the flower we now know as the dahlia was Francisco Hernandez, a physician/botanist dispatched to Mexico in 1570 by Phillip II of Spain to collect as many useful plants as he could. The local people, Aztecs, showed him three varieties of the plant they called “acocotli, cocoxochitl and acocoxochitl", ie “water pipe”, ”hollow-stem flower” and “water pipe flower”. Each had a specific use. The Aztecs ate the edible bulbs. They used the hollow stem ones as pipes. The flowers did not interest them particularly. They were pretty but that was all. This was all included in Hernandez’s report together with line drawings.

Live seed did not reach Europe until 1789.  Abbé Cavanilles at the Madrid Botanical Garden planted it and everyone was stunned by the tall handsome flowers. He shared the seed with colleagues in Germany and named it Dahlia for Anders Dahl, a Swedish botanist who worked in Berlin. The German scientists sent seed to Paris and from Paris it reached England in 1798.

It shows the power of collegiality among plantsmen that in that apocalyptic decade they were still able to stay in touch with their “enemies” and exchange seed. “Mrs Fraser of Sloane Square” was credited in 1804 with growing the first dahlias in England, Dahlia coccinea, the red dahlia.

Dahlia coccinea

The field was rapidly enlarged by new finds. Alexander von Humboldt sent seed of species he found in the Mexican mountains, much shorter in height and thus more manageable. In London the Horticultural Society sent its own man, Karl Hartweg, to find even more new species. All this allowed the often fanatical breeders to come up with many more colours than just red.

At that stage dahlias had some of the mystique of seventeenth century tulips in The Netherlands or orchids for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the 1840s a rich iron master in Birmingham might pay two hundred guineas for a unique tuber such as ‘Yellow Defiance’. That was at the time when a kitchen maid in a big house was lucky to earn ten pounds a year.

One of those breeders was John Keynes, 1805 -1878. As noted above he was a very astute businessman who had not wanted to go into his father’s brush factory. He enjoyed gardening as a youth, even winning a prize for the pinks he had grown. Dahlias caught his imagination. He began working with them in 1833. In 1841 he held a one man show of his new cultivars at Stonehenge. It was a sellout. When a winner came up he focused almost entirely on propagating that and did not waste time or effort on other less valuable plants.

Even after John Keynes died the firm continued to introduce new cultivars, suggesting they had a professional hybridizer.

At that time Stonehenge was privately owned and had not yet come into its own as the unique archaeological treasure it is considered to be now. Here is the earliest known picture of it, painted by Lucas de Heere in the mid 1570s.

While John Keynes used it as a setting for his dahlias the local people casually used it for many humdrum purposes.

The flower could have double petals, come in many colours, be tall or short, even miniature but for several decades the general impression of them en masse was “’footballs on stalks”. By the end of the nineteenth century the gardening world was ready for new shapes. The plant explorers obliged. D. juariezii also came from Mexico but had graceful recurved petals and was the first of the “cactus dahlias”.

Other British nurserymen began to develop and grow new kinds of dahlias too. Charles Turner in Slough is best known for his roses and carnations but he and Keynes collaborated on setting up the first National Dahlia Show in London in 1858. The National Dahlia Society was not formed until 1882 but dahlias were on show at the Great exhibition.

The flowers are now part of the standard gardening repertoire of any amateur and the corms are easily available at any garden centre. They make a very bold statement and remain dramatic, not unlike John Maynard Keynes himself. He was an undergraduate at Kings College, Cambridge and became a fellow there too. Keynes was a member of the secretive Apostles at the university, most of its members becoming famous later in life. Many of them were gay and he seemed to be so too yet in 1925 he married a Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, one of Serge Diaghileff’s teenage company, Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo from the 1920s and remained very happy with her for the rest of his life. His former lover Duncan Grant was best man.

John Maynard Keynes was 6 feet 7 inches tall. Lopokova was just about 5 feet. He played an important role in the negotiations after the first world war and wrote a seminal book, “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” (1936), explaining why governments had to supply money to replace the failing demand of the impoverished pubic in times of crisis. That was the only way to get factories rolling again and business running.

Keynes also seemed to have inherited his grandfather’s head for business. He built up a private fortune and invested in art among other things. Oddly enough he failed to foresee the Great Depression of 1929 and lost most of his money only to recoup it later. It is a great pity he left no children. His ideas had helped millions of people around the world.


Skidelsky, Robert  1983   John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed 1883 – 1920  vol 1
London      Picador 

Taylor, Judith M.  2014   Visions of Loveliness: great flower breeders of the past
Athens, Ohio            Ohio University Press


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989.
Dr Taylor’s web site is:

Monday, November 11, 2019

British Amazons

by Maria Grace

As the Georgian period drew to a close, an increasing fascination with the medieval past led to a revival of the English archery tradition. (Sounds nothing like what we do today, does it? SCA friends, I’m looking at you!) The privileged gentry class, not required to work for their living, had time to indulge in pastimes like sporting activities. And indulge they did.

While most sporting activities effectively barred women from participation—exertion, sweating, running and all the odd postures that might be necessary were decidedly unladylike— archery was not only considered an acceptable pastime, but an activity where women could show off their grace and ‘feminine form’ without risk of being considered vulgar. (Vulgarity was considered the kiss of death in polite society.)

 “The acceptability of women practicing and watching archery was rooted in their presence adding to the pastime’s aesthetics. This was something frequently remarked upon by observers: ‘The beauties in the circle of carriages which surrounded the enclosure upon the Heath, out-numbered and out-shone those of any assembly we ever saw.’ … As one writer put it, archery could not fail to display ‘the graces of the female form, in a considerable degree’. …
The male archers no doubt admired and enjoyed such elegant and graceful female forms. Parallels can be drawn here with the new public cultural venues that were being built in many towns of the period and which were notorious as forums for sexual spectatorship and courtship. Indeed, this was part of the very raison d’être of the assembly rooms, pleasure gardens, theatres and halls.…
Archery, complete with the romantic associations of Cupid and his bow and arrows, offered men and women an opportunity to meet, view and enjoy their social equals.”  (Johnes, 2004)

Archery Societies

Against this backdrop, in 1781 Sir Ashton Lever and Thomas Waring formed the influential Toxophilite Society in London. The organization was dedicated to the sport of archery and to socializing. The society would later gain royal patronage in 1787 with the attention of the Prince Regent (ultimately King George IV), becoming the Royal Toxophilite society, which still exists today.

 The success of this society inspired the development of other archery organizations throughout England.  Initially, the societies were male-only clubs.  Some permitted female guests of members to visit to shoot. One thing led to another and soon many had female members. In 1787, the Royal British Bowmen became the first archery society to allow women as full members. Interestingly, the Royal Bowmen had a reputation for being one of the most serious archery clubs of the period. They saw archery was a sport to be mastered, not an excuse to party.

Other societies were a bit less serious and more social. The clubs, like modern leisure organizations, had their own rules, and uniforms, and often used their common interest as an excuse to throw lavish parties and socialize among their peers. (Since club dues, uniforms, and equipment were expensive, the lower orders were effectively barred admission.) “In 1787, ‘several young ladies’ who shot with the Royal British Bowmen were said to have ‘added to their conquests the hearts of young gentlemen of honor and fortune’ and thus the society was responsible for the marriage of ‘not a few happy couples’.” (Johnes, 2004)

(Pride and Prejudice fans may find it interesting to note that in the late 1700’s Hertfordshire had an archery club that did admit women. Derbyshire had a club as well, but it is not clear whether or not it included ladies.)

“Female archers in Lewisham even organized a club of their own in 1788, called The British Amazons, the name referring to the mythic female archer-warriors of antiquity, mentioned by Homer in ancient Greece. A news-cutting from 1789 refers to:
"The elegant and beauteous assemblage of Ladies Archers established last Summer at Blackheath under the name BRITISH AMAZONS, on Saturday last gave a splendid supper and Ball to a Society of Gentlemen who practice the science in the vicinity. Not much is known about The British Amazons as they have no preserved records or regulations.” The society seems have been connected to The Kentish Bowmen. (Arnstad, 2019)

Women Archers in practice

When shooting with their societies, women wore the uniform associated with their group. The Hainault Foresters’ uniform as described in their rules:

Nankeen great coat, black silk collar, dark green silk cape; lappels, cuffs, and pockets, bound with black; full green sleeves down to the elbow, tied with black ribbon in the middle of the arm; a single row of uniform but¬tons, the front of the coat bound with green: black beaver hat, plain green band round the crown, buttoned up on the right side with uniform button and gold twisted loop, with green cockade and feathers. (Arnstad, 2019)

A brace to protect the arm from the bow string and a three fingered shooting glove were worn by participants. A belt to hold a tassel for cleaning arrows, a grease box to anoint the glove and brace and a pouch for arrow also made up the uniform. A quiver was not used for target shooting.
Ladies usually shot at a distance of about fifty yards, men often shot at distances up to one hundred yards. Two targets are placed opposite each other and the archers would then shoot from one to the other. When all the group finished shooting at one target, they would walk up to it, gather their arrows, and shoot back to the one they came from, minimizing the effort spent in retrieving their arrows.

Score was kept with printed cards where hits and their location were registered with a pin instead of pen and ink which would have been difficult to manage on the archery ground. Prizes were often awarded based on scores for where the arrows hit and for the hit nearest the center of the bullseye. (The young lady’s book, 1829)

Despite the acceptance of women in archery societies, including Princess Victoria, who later ascended to the throne as queen, it is noteworthy that the birth of the Olympic movement and modern sports in the 1900s suddenly made women’s participation in the sport controversial.


Arnstad, Henrik. The Amazon Archers of England: Longbows, Gender and English Nationalism 1780–1845. Master's thesis, Stockholm University, 2019. Accessed May 10, 2019.

Beard, J.A. Mr. Beard’s Regency Tour Day 3: The Ghosts of Agincourt and the English Artemis, Archery in Regency England. J.A. Beard’s Unnecessary Musings. October 8, 2011. Accessed June 13, 2019,

Beard, J.A. Robin Hood, Agincourt, and Gender Equality? Archery in late Georgian England. English Historical Fiction Authors. August 30, 2012. Accessed June 13, 2019.

Johnes, Martin. Archery, Romance and Elite Culture in England and Wales, c .1780–1840. St Martin’s College, Lancaster. 2004. The Hstorical Associatioin and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.  Accessed May 10, 2019.

The Young Ladys Book: A Manual of Elegant Recreations, Exercises, and Pursuits. London: Vizetelly, Branston, and, Fleet Street, 1829.

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, November 10, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Enjoy this week's English Historical Fiction Authors round-up. Never miss a post - subscribe for updates via email, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

by Diana Birchall

by Kimberley Jordan Reeman

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Eyewitness to History

By Kimberley Jordan Reeman

When I came into this Country, it was my only view to do all in my power for your good and safety. This I will always do as long as life is in me. But alas! I see with grief, I can at present do little for you this side the water, for the only thing that now can be done, is to defend your selves.
Charles Edward Stuart, April 1746, after Culloden

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 16, 1746, 11 a.m. A raw morning, with a bitter north wind scything up from the Moray Firth, bringing heavy showers of rain and sleet. Two armies, some fourteen thousand men, although perhaps only three thousand will engage, are manoeuvring two and a half miles apart on this sloping, boggy ground six miles from Inverness, which adjoins Drummossie Moor and climbs from the elegant parks of Culloden House, owned by Duncan Forbes, the Lord President of the Court of Session.

The Jacobite army, under the command of the Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, who even in these final, fateful hours radiates the charisma and optimism of his ancestor Mary, Queen of Scots, stumbles into some order of battle with a confusion and disorganization that reflects the rifts, quarrels and indecision of its generals. The British army, under the command of William Augustus, H.R.H the Duke of Cumberland, the charmless, corpulent third son of George II, deploys with a silent purpose that moves a French officer to remark to Charles that ‘he feared the day already lost, for he had never seen men advance in so calm and regular a manner’.

Charles Edward Stuart - Public Domain Image

The onslaught of sleet assaults them all: princes and peasants, volunteers and conscripts, the criminals and the idealists, the men of noble blood and the butchers, gardeners, apprentices; and the veterans recalled from Flanders and the War of the Austrian Succession, professional killers whose service is for life, and whose ages range from seventeen to fifty-four.

The Jacobites stand ankle-deep in water, with empty bellies, sleet beating on their backs: volatile, exhausted, ill-fed. Many have deserted because there is little food and less pay: because their fields are lying unsown; because they fear for their families; because they sense the animosity and dissension among their leaders, who cannot agree on anything from the ground on which to fight what they know will be their final battle to the order of precedence to be accorded to the clans. Some have deserted because prescience has warned them that their cause is lost, and they have foreseen their deaths.

They are not all Highlanders, although there are many Gaelic-speaking clansmen, conscripted and threatened into service by chieftains or landlords. There are also Lowland Scots, many conscripted; volunteers; deserters from the Scottish militia regiments of the British army or enlisted from among those prisoners taken after Charles’s victory at Prestonpans. Two infantry battalions and a squadron of cavalry are French, as well as artillerymen, engineers and volunteers: these are the ‘Wild Geese’, the Irish Brigade of the French army, whose red coats among the coarse homespun of the clansmen are clearly visible across the moor, as are the blue coats of the Royal Écossais, a Scottish unit of the French army raised in 1744.

The wind is now northeasterly. Five hundred yards away, across ground laced with streams and springs, drystone walls and scattered cottages, the standards and colours of the British regiments snap and billow, blowing forward: the wind is at this army’s back, and the smoke of battle will blind the enemy. Many of these officers are Scots, many Anglo-Irish: the 1st, 21st and 25th Foot are Scots regiments, as are the Gaelic-speaking Argyllshire Militia, the Duke of Kingston’s Light Horse, and the regulars of Loudon’s 64th Highlanders. There are many here who wear Highland dress, many for whom the ranting slogans and skirling pipes of the rebel clans are echoes of a culture shared.

The Battle of Culloden, oil on canvas, David Morier, 1746

The sleet stops abruptly: the sky is torn with blue. A little after one o’clock, the Pretender’s artillery opens with irregular fire. The royal artillery, carefully sited, responds with a devastating, sustained barrage aimed at the massed ranks of the Jacobite army. Mud spatters the mounted Charles’s face: behind him a groom is decapitated. The roundshot is followed by canister, sweeping the field with a hailstorm of grape and reaping a terrible harvest. Blinded by the smoke and by unbearable rage and anguish, eight clan regiments break into the charge. At a range of fifty yards, the hardened veterans of the British front-line regiments, Barrell’s, Munro’s, and the Scots Fusiliers, open fire with muskets, inflicting carnage. The shock of the Jacobite charge splits Barrell’s and engulfs it: of four hundred and thirty-eight officers and men, both English and Scots, seventeen are killed and one hundred and eight wounded, many grievously: the colonel of Barrell’s, Robert Rich, falls with a severed hand and serious head wounds; others are dismembered. The naked courage of the Highlanders imprints itself so forcibly upon the mind of a young aide de camp to Cumberland that in Quebec on September 13, 1759, that man, now Major-General James Wolfe, will unleash its fury himself against the forces of the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham.

Of Wednesday, April 16, 1746, no man could know, as he shivered in the prelude to battle, that no British regiment would ever bear Culloden among its honours, or that its very name would become synonymous with infamy. No man, neither prince nor apprentice, could perceive that he was ‘only a mote of dust, and of as much consequence’ in the affairs of nations, and that Culloden was only a footnote, albeit scrawled in blood, across the vast canvas of the eighteenth century, a microcosm in which the hereditary enemies, Britain and France, grappled for supremacy. A turbulent century, which sees America’s bloody and protracted struggle for independence, the insurrection and revolution which will convulse France, and the tragic repercussions, for a people and a culture, which haunt Scotland still.


About Kimberley:
Kimberley Jordan Reeman was born in Toronto, graduating from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts (hons.) in English literature in 1976. She worked in Canadian radio and publishing before marrying the author Douglas Reeman in 1985, and until his death in 2017 was his editor, muse and literary partner, while pursuing her own career as a novelist.

About Douglas (Alexander Kent)
Douglas Reeman was born in Thames Ditton, Surrey, England in 1924. With the outbreak of war, and despite belonging to an army family, he joined the Royal Navy without hesitation at the age of sixteen. In June of 1968 To Glory We Steer was published under the pen name Alexander Kent. Douglas Reeman died in January of 2017. Today, the exploits of Richard and Adam Bolitho feature in twenty-eight Alexander Kent novels.

Buy Coronach on Amazon (Universal Link) :

Douglas’s Website

Monday, November 4, 2019

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun—A Brilliant, Adventurous French Portraitist During Jane Austen’s Era

by Diana Birchall

In Jane Austen's novel, Northanger Abbey, we are told that Catherine Morland was a naïve young girl, her mind “about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.” Fond of “horrid novels,” as Jane Austen termed the scary tales of the period, Catherine fancied that visiting Northanger Abbey, home of Henry Tilney, the clever, delightful young man she admired, would involve all sorts of delicious, romantic Gothic thrills. Instead she learned, with Henry pointing out to her, that such imaginings could not be real, not in a modern, Christian England; yet she still had to discover that people of ill will could be as troublesome as anything that sensational fiction could produce.

Catherine is, in my view, a true heroine. Therefore, I have longed for a portrait in which she might look out at us in what is called a speaking likeness. Where better to turn than to the beautiful female portraits painted by the famous French artist of the period, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun? As she lived from 1755 to 1842, she encompasses Jane Austen’s own much shorter lifetime (1775 – 1817) and although Vigee Le Brun was French, she was by no means confined to France, as Jane Austen was to England, but lived an extraordinarily wide-ranging, adventurous, and remarkable life for a woman of her period.

Self portrait of Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1790

Louise Elisabeth Vigee was born in Paris, daughter of a portraitist and a hairdresser. Her father died when she was twelve, and her mother remarried a jeweler, who exploited the young girl’s precocious artistic talents. Trained by her father, by the time she was fifteen she was a popular and prodigious painter, producing portraits highly sought by fashionable aristocrats, who saw her as a phenomenon. In 1776 she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, an artist and art dealer. Her star continued to rise, and by 1779 she painted the first of some thirty portraits she made of her patroness, Marie-Antoinette. This sealed her reputation and won her acceptance into the Academie Royale de peinture et de sculpture. Her talent for painting luminously flattering portraits of women in lovely Neoclassical fashions, was prized among courtiers. At the height of her fame, in 1789, with the arrest of the Royal Family and approach of the Revolution, Vigee Le Brun fled danger with her young daughter, Julie. Her husband remained in France during the dozen years of her exile and was obliged to divorce her. She traveled widely, in Italy, Spain, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Russia (she spent six years in St. Petersburg and painted Catherine the Great), Switzerland, and England. She was wildly feted and famed both as a painter and in high society everywhere she went, having as brilliant a career abroad as at home, and except for a brief sojourn in her homeland under Napoleon, she did not return to live in France permanently until 1805. She painted many famous people along the way, including Lord Byron, Madame de Stael, and King George IV as the Prince of Wales. After the death of her husband and then her daughter, she settled in Louveciennes, continued to paint, and wrote her gossipy, name-dropping memoirs, Souvenirs.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1783

Vigee Le Brun is a fascinating figure among 18th/19th century personalities, radical in her behavior and her professional independence, her life was a striking contrast to that of the more retiring Jane Austen. The two never met; Jane Austen visited none of the countries where Vigee Le Brun travelled. They had only very slight, tangential connections in common, such as Vigee Le Brun painting Emma Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s mistress, and Jane’s brother Frank serving with Nelson. Or Jane’s cousin the Comtesse Eliza de Feuillide (whose French husband was guillotined) once writing a letter home to England about having seen Marie Antoinette at court, though there is no way of knowing if she ever came in contact with the Queen’s artistic friend. In her memoirs Vigee Le Brun tells an amusing story of spending time with an Englishwoman who spoke no French, while she spoke no English, and they determinedly each spoke for hours each in her own language, not understood by the other. Had Jane Austen ever met Vigee Le Brun, she might have done better, knowing at least some French; but she who refused an introduction to the clever worldly Madame de Stael, author of Corinne, might have been no more eager to meet the French woman painter.

Looking over a gallery of Vigee Le Brun’s works, searching for a face – one face, the face of Catherine – one is struck by how little the two artists’ worlds intersected. The painter was not only French but one who moved easily in aristocratic circles, a courted, public personality wherever she went. The faces she painted were mostly not English middle class or country family people such as are portrayed in Austen’s novels and letters. Moreover, we sense a faint disapproval of French culture in Austen, even apart from the fact that the two nations were at war for most of her life. The right-thinking Mr. Knightley disapproves of Frank Churchill in Emma, saying, “No, Emma, your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English. He may be very ‘amiable’, have very good manners, and be very agreeable; but he can have no English delicacy towards the feelings of other people: nothing really amiable about him." And when young Catherine Morland comes despondently home from Northanger Abbey, her mother anxiously chastises her for talking too much about “the French bread at Northanger.”

Portrait of Madame de Stael as Corinne, 1809

By the end of her life Vigee Le Brun had dropped in fashion as a painter; her portraits probably seemed to hark back to the days of the Ancien Regime, and she mainly painted historical subjects. Nevertheless, during the years when she was painting lovely young women who were contemporaries of Jane Austen’s heroines, we do see a few faces that might have come out of Austen’s novels; and I recognized 'Catherine' as soon as I saw her. This young lady happens to have been exactly of an age with Catherine, painted in 1800 when she was eighteen, at just around the time as Austen was writing her early version of what became Northanger Abbey. The image in question is not however that of a naïve English country girl, but a French aristocrat, Corisande Armandine Leonie Sophie de Gramont (1783 – 1865). Corisande was a granddaughter of the Duchesse de Polignac, the favorite of Marie Antoinette, and she married an English Member of Parliament, Charles Augustus Bennet (there’s an Austen name for you!), 5th Earl of Tankerville, and settled in England.


Diana Birchall worked for many years at Warner Bros studios as a story analyst, reading novels to see if they would make movies. Reading manuscripts went side by side with a restorative and sanity-preserving life in Jane Austen studies and resulted in her writing Austenesque fiction both as homage and attempted investigation of the secrets of Jane Austen's style. She is the author of In Defense of Mrs. Elton, Mrs. Elton in America, Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma, and the new The Bride of Northanger. She has written hundreds of Austenesque short stories and plays, as well as a biography of her novelist grandmother, and has lectured on her books and staged play readings at places as diverse as Hollywood, Brooklyn, Montreal, Chawton House Library, Alaska, and Yale. Visit Diana at her Austen Variations author page, follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads

The Bride of Northanger is now available for purchase through Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, November 3, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Enjoy this week's English Historical Fiction Authors round-up. Never miss a post - subscribe for updates via email, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

By Michael Ward

By Caroline Miley

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Sex, Swearing and Humour in the Regency Period

By Caroline Miley

History is full of facts, but Catherine Morland is probably not the only reader who sometimes found them a little trying: “I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page.”(1) Facts are, of course, of primary importance. But it's one thing to discover, for instance, that the Duke of Wellington's birthday was May Day, and quite another to know how it would have been celebrated - and the way life was lived is often far more interesting, but harder to discover, than reigns and dates and public events.

Thomas Rowlandson ‘Soldiers on a March’ 1808

Fortunately, in the late Georgian era there's a mass of contemporary material, ranging from newspapers, letters, diaries, memoirs and military dispatches to essays and novels. Not only are these full of useful information, they show clearly how people used to write and express themselves.

There's an idea that the Regency was full of people saying 'Demme, m'Lud, I do protest..' and so on, but a glance at Jane Austen's prose shows that ordinary people didn't speak like that at all. One of the things evident in reading a wide range of contemporary material is that educated people often used two quite different modes of expression, depending on what they were writing. There's the everyday, which is plain and unadorned. Clear, elegant prose was what the Georgians aimed for. Military dispatches, for instance, are models of concise statement. Here is the Duke of Wellington (in recorded speech): “All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don't know by what you do; that's what I called 'guessing what was at the other side of the hill’.”(2) So too with letters, including those Jane Austen gives in her novels. But when describing scenery in memoirs, writers sometimes break into a special 'literary' form: 'When we attained the crest of the hill, what a vale of Elysian delight opened before us! Fair Venus herself would not disdain to dwell in the exquisite groves...' and so on. But they didn't talk like that. It was a poetic mode considered suitable for literature.

The real problem for anyone wishing to learn not only the facts but the feeling of an era, is the vast amount of material that never appears in print. At the forefront of this is sex and swearing. Neither subject is ever mentioned, although there must have been a great deal of both. We can know quite a lot about sex at the time, but less of how people talked about it, and therefore what they thought. It was not a subject for polite conversation, so remained hidden. Fielding’s novels (Tom Jones, The History of Moll Flanders) and contemporary plays show that, as might be expected, people were keen on sex and thought about it a lot. There are hints about sexual desire under the text of Austen’s novels and letters – Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, and other seductions, must have been motivated by libido, and there are occasional comments that ‘I could not like him in that way’. It is noteworthy that the Georgians were a great deal less squeamish about sex than the later Victorians. The fact of Colonel Brandon’s having an illegitimate daughter, for instance, doesn’t make him an unsuitable husband for Marianne. But when it comes to details of what people did and how they did it, if it were not for Fanny Hill (3) and Rowlandson's numerous, often very graphic erotic drawings, I don't know how we'd get on at all. As it is, these two sources provide almost too much information!

Swearing also doesn't appear in print, except the occasional genteel 'by G- sir!' Naval and military reminiscences give a few more clues - one of my favourites being the officer who recalled that he had been several days as a midshipman on his first ship before discovering that 'Damn your eyes!' was not a form of greeting. But I think it is safe to assume that there was a great deal of swearing among men and the lower classes of women, and that it centred, then pretty much as now, around the common ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sexual words in use today and blasphemy. In sharp contrast to today, though, a gentleman certainly did not swear in the presence of a lady.

Which brings me to the final category: humour. I've not been able to find any joke books of the period, but irony and satire there were in plenty, and I have to assume that broad fall-on-your-face humour was as likely to raise a laugh then as now. Again, the multitude of lampoons and caricatures of the period give us the best clues to this category. Thomas Rowlandson’s ‘The Stare Case’ depicts a crowd on the notoriously narrow staircase of the Royal Academy at Exhibition time. Plump ladies are tumbling down, their skirts hiked up to show their rounded bottoms (no underwear in those days), while some dirty old men (and the sculptor Nollekens) ogle them from the foot of the stairs. A similar idea animates his sketch of ‘The Line of Beauty (a concept in art), in which some Royal Academicians (4) have positioned themselves strategically to take in the more intimate charms of the nude model reclining before them.

Thomas Rowlandson  ‘R.A.s of Genius Reflecting on the True Line
 of Beauty, at the Life Academy Somerset House June 1, 1824’ 

There is a great deal of pictorial humour along those lines, as well as poking fun at stereotypes, such as fat greedy men shoving food into their faces and elegant dandies tight-lacing their corsets and padding their skinny hips. One of my favourites, ‘On the March’ which typically combines information with comedy, shows a line of soldiers and camp followers crossing a stream. All are burdened with various things; one man bears his wife on his back; a frolicking dog (a Rowlandson trademark) holds a bundle in his mouth, and at the rear a sturdy wife carries her officer husband, too refined to get his feet wet, on her back.

Thomas Rowlandson ‘The Stare Case’ 1811

But lampoons are not the place to find the more subtle wit that really characterised the age.  Here is Austen at her best, in her letters, where she spoke less guardedly than in her published works: “I do not want People to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”(5) And for a feast of raillery, as it was called, it’s hard to go past Sheridan, the noted wit and satirist, who thought that “There's no possibility of being witty without a little ill-nature”(6). His plays are full of comedy, and he must have been a formidable opponent as an MP. To understand late Georgian humour, you can do a lot worse than to read contemporary plays. The wit is often surprisingly modern, my favourite being this riposte by Goldsmith’s Tony Lumpkin, when his mother suggests that he doesn’t want to disappoint his friends waiting at the tavern: “As for disappointing them, I should not so much mind; but I can't abide to disappoint myself.”(7)

These are not the great affairs of State (or affairs of Statesmen) that are the staple of so much history. But if we want to get inside the lives of ordinary people and find out what they thought and how they lived, then nothing is more important than humour, sex and swearing.

(1) Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, London, 1817, Chapter 14
(2) Quoted in The Croker Papers: The Correspondence and Diaries of the Late Right Honourable John Wilson Croker, LL.D F.R.S, Secretary of the Admiralty from 1809 to 1830 (1884), edited by Louis J. Jennings, Vol. III, p. 276.
(3) Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland, London 1748.
(4) Plate 32 from Charles Molloy Westmacott's "English Spy" 1824. Each artist's easel is initialled for identification: B.R.H. for Benjamin Robert Haydon, M.A. Shee for Martin Archer Shee, T.L for Sir Thomas Lawrence, B.W. for Benjamin West, R.W. for Richard Westmacott, J.J. for John Jackson, J.F. for Joseph Farington, and F.C. for Francis Chantrey (courtesy Met Museum).
(5) Letter to her sister Cassandra, December 24, 1798.
(6) The School for Scandal, Act 1, Scene 1.
(7) She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith, 1773, Act 1 Scene 1.


Caroline Miley is an art historian and author of literary historical novels set in the late Georgian era. Her debut novel, The Competition, won a Varuna Fellowship and a Fellowship of Australian Writers award, and was selected by the Royal Academy of Arts for its 250th Anniversary celebrations. Her latest novel, Artist on Campaign, was inspired by wondering what would happen if a rake of an artist was obliged to put up with the British Army, and vice versa.
Her interests are art, both as a practitioner and a viewer, books, films, history, travel and gardens.

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Monday, October 28, 2019

Stuart London - A Time and Place for Discovery

By Michael Ward

Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I’m often attracted to historical research that produces surprises.

Discovering that Isaac Newton, the father of modern physics, had a deep interest in alchemy certainly raised an eyebrow. As did finding out that people used to believe swallows hibernated in mud, rather than migrated, over winter.

But why wouldn’t they? The idea that such a small bird could fly as far as southern Africa would have seemed far-fetched indeed to someone in the 1600s, assuming they had any notion where southern Africa was.

Over time I’ve come to realise that my research ‘revelations’ have said more about me and my 21st century assumptions, than the people of the period I was studying.

Nowhere has this been truer than my examination of England in the mid 17th century. Of course I knew about the civil war, Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the Great Fire but I still expected to learn much on my voyage of discovery. However, I had no inkling of just how many ‘oh really?’ moments I would encounter along the way, such as burrowing birds and Newton’s alchemy.

My first surprise was that so much change was compressed into such a short period. In just over 25 years, the country experienced civil war, regicide, a republic, and a restoration of the monarchy.

Any one of these would have produced sufficient shock waves to reverberate for a decade. But to have experienced each in rapid succession, followed by 1666, a hellish year of fire and plague, meant that, for Londoners in particular, it must have been both a formative and terrifying time to be alive.

Consider experiencing the politically divisive furore of five or six consecutive Brexits between now and 2040 plus a conflict that accounted for proportionally more of the country’s population than World War One, followed by a pandemic that wiped out a quarter of the people in London and a blaze that consumed much of city. Then take away the ability to know what was happening and why, and you begin to get an inkling.

As my research continued, I realised this period also witnessed fundamental changes in science, medicine and commerce, as well as politics and religion. Beliefs firmly held for centuries were now being challenged, almost on a daily basis, by a constant stream of newly discovered, empirically driven knowledge, forced to the surface by an unquenchable spirit of enquiry.

Public Domain image of the type of printing presses
which would help transform 17th-century England

There was a swathe of new thinking. I’ve already mentioned Newton, the ‘father of modern physics’. Historians have enjoyed using such titles, with many paternity suits still argued on behalf of the sciences in particular. Nevertheless, the 17th century had more than its fair share of claimants: Galileo –the father of modern science (according to Einstein, no less), Francis Bacon - scientific method, Francesco Redi – experimental biology, Robert Boyle – modern chemistry, Marcello Malpigi – microscopic anatomy, and so on, leaving supporters of Rene Descartes and Pierre de Fermat to fight over analytical geometry.

My third realisation was that the key players of this period did not always behave to type. Several of the grandest lords in the kingdom, such as Essex and Warwick, were early and powerful advocates of the Parliamentary cause, as were a number of leading merchants, including some within the more conservative Merchant Adventurers. Equally, kings were seen as guardians of the status quo yet radical thinkers in science and medicine benefitted from their patronage.

William Harvey is a case in point. At the start of the 17th century, the views of Galen, a Greek physician born in 210 AD, still dominated medical practice throughout Europe, and his anatomical theories, including the body’s circulatory system, were largely uncontested. In 1628, William Harvey published ‘De Motu Cordis’ demonstrating that people had a single blood system which circulated continuously throughout their bodies. This flatly contradicted the accepted Galean doctrine that organs consumed blood which had to be replenished by either the liver of the heart, and each had their own circulatory networks.

William Harvey, demonstrating his theory of circulation
of Wellcome. Click HERE for image attribution

Harvey expected a storm of opposition and he wasn’t disappointed. Yet it only took 30 years for his ideas to become more widely accepted, and Galen’s 1,400 year grip on medicine to be broken, such was the iconoclastic spirit of the age.

Yet it was King James I who supported Harvey’s research by allowing him to join his court when hunting game, so that Harvey could dissect fallen animals immediately, in situ, and observe their blood flow. (However, James’ son Charles 1 later extracted a favour in return, requiring the eminent physician to dodge the musket fire at the Battle of Edgehill where, as the King’s ‘Physician in Ordinary’, he is said to have looked after the two royal princes while tending the wounded.)

As I delved deeper into the plethora of 17th century discoveries and developments, I began to notice a form of symbiotic relationship between some, despite being in different fields. I would often pull at, then follow, a thread of research in, say, scientific advances, only to discover its impact on something completely different, such as religious belief. In the 17th century, it seems one new way of interpreting the universe often led to another.

So, from Galileo onwards, many of the advances in astrology were driven by the fervent search for improved navigational tools by the expanding merchant sector. Improvements in printing technology led to a proliferation of unlicensed printing presses in London which came to have a major impact on political discourse and the spread of radical ideas, before and during the civil war. Again it is notable how quickly this development was understood and seized upon, this time by political activists including the King’s supporters, in this age of experimentation.

Another example can be found in the dramatic population shifts of this period. In just 15 years, from the late 1620s to the early 1640s, some 80,000 people sailed from England’s shores, with up to 60,000 of them crossing the Atlantic, an enormous figure for that time. A significant number of these were Puritans, wishing to found a New World where they could practise their religion freely.

Puritans left England in large numbers to set up colonies in the New World to practise their religion.
This Public Domain image shows Puritans burning a book they deemed to be heretical in Massachusetts Bay. 

One would expect such a rapid depopulation to have a concentrated impact in London, by far England’s largest city, especially when combined with its high mortality rate. Yet simultaneous advances in commerce meant that London’s growth did not stall. It actually increased, the rising economy driven in no small part by the expansion of merchant trade to all points of the globe including the Caribbean and the Americas. Each week hundreds would arrive from the surrounding counties, eager to share in the city’s new found wealth.

This more than compensated for the mass emigration partly fuelled by religious change. However, many of the new arrivals soon discovered the streets of London to be paved with something far less pleasant than gold. The city’s existing housing stock and barely rudimentary sanitation were overwhelmed by the needs of newcomers and much of London descended into a disease-ridden squalor.

This, of course, added more fuel to the political unrest, and so interlocking cycles of change and challenge continued to drive the English 17th century into the uncharted depths of civil strife, setting brother against brother and father against son.

Further reading

Adamson, J. (2009). The Nobel Revolt. London. Phoenix.

Brenner, R. (2003). Merchants and Revolution. London. Verso.

Evans, J. (2018). Emigrants. London. Orion.

Rees, J. (2016). The Leveller Revolution. London. Verso.


Michael Ward is a former BBC journalist and academic. His debut novel “Rags of Time” is set in 1639, with England sliding into civil war. Spice trader Thomas Tallant returns from India to find the overcrowded streets of London seething with sedition. Soon he is sucked into the city’s turbulence, accused of murder.

The book follows his desperate attempts to find the real killer and clear his name, helped by the enigmatic Elizabeth Seymour, astrologer and mathematician whose thirst for knowledge is only matched by her addiction to tobacco and the gaming tables. Can Elizabeth untangle the web of deceit threatening to pull Tom under?

Early reviews of ‘Rags of Time’ have described it as “a wonderful debut” with an “outstanding story”, noting that “…the author has clearly done all the hard work by researching the period and manages to impart that knowledge without any big information dumps.”

The sequel is now under development.

Connect with Michael: Amazon page Rags of Time

Amazon US 

GoodReads book page

Author’s email:

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, October 27, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Contributors to English Historical Fiction Authors bring us posts that delve into various aspects of British history. Enjoy these fascinating stories, and never miss a post on EFHA when you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or via email.

by Lauren Gilbert

by Judith Taylor

Friday, October 25, 2019

Eleanor Sleath: Gothic Heroine?

By Lauren Gilbert

With Hallowe’en fast approaching, it’s appropriate to look at scary subjects. Gothic novels were extremely popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although some were written by men, many of the most popular of these novels were written by women. Jane Austen wrote NORTHANGER ABBEY which satirizes these novels and their readers. In volume I, chapter 6 of NORTHANGER ABBEY, Isabella Thorpe gives the heroine Catherine Morland a list of these novels, now known as the “Horrid Novels”: CASTLE OF WOLFENBACH, CLERMONT, MYSTERIOUS WARNINGS, NECROMANCER OF THE BLACK FOREST, MIDNIGHT BELL, ORPHAN OF THE RHINE and HORRID MYSTERIES. THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE was written by Eleanor Sleath, who achieved a certain level of popularity at the time but is fairly obscure now. For some time, little was known about her, but that has changed. Available data appears to indicate that Mrs. Sleath suffered as many tragic losses, trials and tribulations as any heroine in a novel.
Title Page from the First Edition of Jane Austen's

Eleanor Carter was born the youngest of five children to Thomas Carter, an attorney, and his wife Elisabeth Cousins Carter. Her date of birth is unknown, but she was baptized October 15, 1770 at All Saints Church, Loughborough, Leicester, England. Her father died in 1773. Little is known about her family except that they seem to live comfortably on income generated by properties owned by the family. Eleanor’s writings indicate that she was well educated. In September of 1792, she married Joseph Barnabus Sleath, a surgeon and apothecary with connections to the militia in Calverton, Buckinghamshire. Joseph’s birth date is unknown but it appears he was about 4 years older than she. Not long after their marriage, the couple had a son, whom they named for his father. All circumstances point to the expectation of a happy family life. Sadly, the child died in September of 1794. Shortly thereafter, Eleanor’s husband also died at the age of 28, leaving her extremely in debt. She returned to her family home in November of 1794 to care of her mother. With the help of her family, particularly her brother John Edward, her debts were paid off between 1794-1795. Eleanor experienced ill health during this time as well.

Sometime in the late 1790’s, Eleanor began to write for publication. It is unknown if she wrote for personal satisfaction or from a desire to generate her own income. Her first book was the afore-mentioned THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE, which was published in 1798 by the Minerva Press. The reviews were rather lacklustre, citing the influence of Ann Radcliffe so apparent in her story. Subsequently there was also speculation that Eleanor had a pro-Catholic bias (if she wasn’t actually a Catholic). However the novel became quite popular. During this time, Eleanor and her family developed strong friendships with an intellectual circle that included Susanna Watts, who wrote poetry, did translations, and wrote the first tourist guide for the city of Leicester. Other members of this circle included Reverend John Dudley and his wife Ann. Reverend Dudley was the vicar of Humberstone and Sileby.
Cover of the reprint edition of
THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE from Valancouort Books

In 1801, the family moved to Scraptoft Hall near Leicester. It was close enough that Eleanor was able to maintain her friendships, and she and her family mixed with local society. In 1802, Eleanor’s second novel, WHO’S THE MURDERER?, was published, also with Minerva Press. Over the next few years, Eleanor visited and was visited by her circle of friends, and they even travelled together. As members of the same circle, Reverend Dudley and Eleanor became friendly and wrote together. Things rather came to a head when, in 1807, Eleanor’s sister-in-law (her brother John’s wife) made a sarcastic remark in company about Eleanor’s friendship with Reverend Dudley. This ignited a scandal that resulted in Mrs. Dudley becoming jealous and hostile to Eleanor, and the previously close circle of friends taking sides.

A period of great upheaval ensued, with several results. Reverend Dudley and his wife began living separately. Eleanor, in the meantime, wrote and published 3 more books: THE BRISTOL HEIRESS, or The Errors of Education, published in 1809; THE NOCTURNAL MINSTREL, or The Spirit of the Woods, published in 1810 (and was considered by some to be her best work); and THE PYRENEAN BANDITTI, published in 1811, all with Minerva Press. In 1813, Eleanor’s brother John died. Their mother died 6 months later. As sad as these deaths were, Eleanor did inherit sufficient means to support herself. Although her whereabouts are unknown through much of the period 1814-1816, she wrote her 6th book, GLENOWEN, or The Fairy Palace A Tale, which was published in 1815 by John Harris and Black & Co. This book is different to her other novels. While still in the gothic vein, it was intended for children. It is known that she returned to Loughborough, where she bought a house in December 1816 and was able to live as a widow of independent means. There is no indication of her writing, or at least publishing, after GLENOWEN.

John Dudley and Eleanor continued to be friends throughout the years. Ann Dudley died in February 1823. John Dudley and Eleanor Sleath were married April 1st, 1823 in Loughborough. Eleanor was 52 years old. The couple settled in the rectory in Sileby, where she would have taken up her duties as the vicar’s wife. She died at home on May 5, 1847 of liver disease, after a period of ill health.

Sileby Parish Church taken by Kev747 April 14, 2006

Austen, Jane. THE OXFORD ILLUSTRATED JANE AUSTEN. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion Vol. 5. 3rd Edition. Northanger Abbey, Vol. 1, Chapter 6, P. 40. Oxford: Oxford University Press, reprinted 1988. NEW ELEANOR SLEATH BIOGRAPHY. “The Real Eleanor Sleath,” by Rebecca Czlapinski and Eric C. Wheeler. Posted May 8, 2011. HERE. Garside, Peter, and O’Brien, Karen, editors. THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE NOVEL IN ENGLISH Vol. II English and British Fiction, 1750-1820. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. HERE.

English Historical Fiction Authors. “Northanger Horrid Novels” Thoughts from Regina Jeffers. October 8, 2011. HERE. “The Nocturnal Minstrel” by Ian Taylor. February 2, 2012. HERE.


Title page from the 1st edition of NORTHANGER ABBEY and PERSUASION from Wikimedia Commons HERE. Public domain.

THE ORPHAN OF THE RHINE cover from Valancourt Books HERE.

Sileby Parish Church, Attribution: Kev747 at en.wikipedia GNU Free Documentation License. See HERE.

Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life.  Lauren has a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History.  A long time member of JASNA, she has presented various programs at meetings of the South Florida region, and presented a breakout session at the Annual General Meeting in 2011.  She lives in Florida with her husband.  Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is available.  A second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is finally due out later this year.  A long-time contributor to this blog, some of her work is included in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is also researching material for a biography.  For more information, visit her website at HERE.