Monday, March 31, 2014

The EHFA Blog Anthology Has Been Nominated for an Award!

Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors is nominated for the RONE Award. If you have read the book or even this blog from which it was taken and think it is worth a vote, please visit and help us win! We would so appreciate it.

If you have not subscribed to the InD'Tale magazine already, you will need to do so to vote--but it is free. Thanks to you all for your years of support!

The Book of Kells - The finest example of early Medieval Celtic Art

by Arthur Russell

Fierce is the wind tonight
It ploughs up the white hair of the sea
I have no fear that the Viking hosts
Will come over the water to me.
(Translated by F.N.Robinson from an old Gaelic poem; “The Viking Terror”)

These lines composed sometime during the 9th or 10th centuries by an Irish monk as he laboured over a manuscript in his monastery’s scriptorium, convey some idea of the terror that the threat of a Viking raid on the monastery held for the writer and his community on a daily basis. For them, a stormy night at sea offered some temporary relief from the ever present danger of attack from the fearsome raiders from Scandanavia; the most vicious terrorists of their day.

Compare those lines with the recorded account of the first Viking attack at Lindisfarne; which is considered to herald the beginning of the Viking Age.

In this year (793 AD) fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne”.

This first Viking attack on the British Isles actually occurred on June 6th 793 AD, against the monastery of Lindisfarne on the coast of the Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. Over the following years, monastic settlements in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as Continental Western Europe; quickly became targets for marauding sea-bourne Vikings who saw the unprotected monasteries of Christendom as sources of easy plunder.

The attack on Lindisfarne ushered in a period of chaos that impacted Britain and Ireland as well as much of Western Europe; bringing an end to the relative peace that followed the aftermath of the (so called) Barbarian invasions and the assimilation of new peoples into evolving European society following the demise of the once dominant Roman Empire.

“Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets”.

The Vikings in Ireland

Ireland’s first experience of Viking Terror was the raid on the monastery of Lambay Island on the east coast in 795 AD. This attack, a mere 2 years after the attack on Lindisfarne is a measure of the sheer speed and reach of the Viking attacks in North Western Europe. In truth, any location accessible to their longboats, were vulnerable to attack. This included not just coastal monasteries, but also inland foundations located on or near navigable rivers.

That peculiar Irish phenomenon, the round tower; dates from this period as many Irish monastic communities built massive stone round towers to protect their lives as well as their most precious objects from the Viking scourge.

The Viking attacks heralded the end, not just of the peace of both Britain and Ireland; but also effectively brought to an end further flowering of art and culture which the Celtic monasteries had created and developed over centuries. The art form, known as Insular; expressed itself not just in calligraphy but also in distinctive Celtic metal and stone work as seen in such objects as the Ardagh and Derrynaflan chalices, the Tara brooch and the many carved stone high crosses located on monastic sites all over Ireland. Other Insular works credited to Celtic monks in Ireland, Britain and Continental Europe of the period, include the Lindisfarne Gospel, The Book of Durrow, the Cathach of St Columba, the Ambrosiana Orosius, the Durham Gospels, the Lichfield Gospels, the Echternach Gospels, the St Gall Gospel Book and the Book of Armagh.

The Book of Kells (Leabhair Cheannanais)

Illustrations of the Four Evangelists
Possibly the most famous examples of Insular calligraphic art is the Book of Kells, which is on permanent display in the Library of Trinity College in Dublin.

The Book is an illuminated manuscript containing the Four Gospels of the New Testament, along with prefaces of texts and tables, all written on high quality calf skin vellum, using the best writing materials, inks and dyes available at the time.

It is possible that the Book may have been started in the Columban monastery of Iona in Scotland, before it was brought to be completed by monks in the relative safety of the sister house in Kells. Iona was not attacked by Viking raiders until 808 AD; after which it is thought the unfinished manuscript was brought to Kells. It is also thought that the book had a number of authors, possibly from different Columban monasteries in Britain and Ireland (including Lindisfarne, which was also a Columban foundation).

The illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells surpass that of other Insular Gospel books in extravagance and complexity. The decoration in its pages combines traditional Christian iconography along with ornate swirling motifs typical of Celtic art. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours, enliven the manuscript's pages.

The manuscript in the safe keeping of Trinity College, Dublin; now comprises all 340 surviving pages. Since 1953 these have been bound in four volumes. The manuscript itself is made of highest quality calfskin vellum. The ornamentation is characteristically Celtic on ten full-page illustrations which include the Four Evangelists as well as the Mother and Child Jesus. These, along with the associated text pages are considered to represent the very peak of Insular art. The text itself appears to be the work of at least three different scribes. The lettering is done in iron gall ink, with colours derived from a wide variety of substances, some of which had to be sourced from Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

History of the Book of Kells

The Book recorded in the Annals of Ulster to be present in Kells Abbey in the year 1007 AD. Around this time, it had been stolen and went missing for some months.

First page St Mark's Gospel
"the great Gospel of Columkille, (Columba) the chief relic of the Western World, was wickedly stolen during the night from the western sacristy of the great stone church at Ceanannas (Kells) on account of its wrought shrine".

The manuscript was recovered a few months later, minus its golden and bejewelled cover "under a sod". It is almost certain that the "great Gospel of Columkille" referred to here is the Book of Kells. This indicates that the book was in Kells Abbey in 1007 and had been there long enough for thieves to learn of its presence. The force of ripping the manuscript free from its ornate and (probably) precious gem encrusted cover, may account for a number of pages missing from the beginning and end of the Book of Kells.

Writing in the late 12th century, the chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis describes an illuminated Gospel Book he came across in an ecclesiastical building in Kildare (most likely this was the Book of Kells; as there is no record of a Book of Kildare, so it is assumed the manuscript from Kells was there on loan)

“This tome contains the concordance of the four Gospels according to St Jerome, with different designs on almost every page, all of them in a marvelous variety of colours. Here you can gaze upon the face of divine majesty, drawn with infinite grace. Here too are the mystical emblems of the Evangelists, now with six wings, now with four, and now two. Here you can find the Eagle, the Calf, the Man and the Lion, along with a host of other wonders. Look at them casually, with just a superficial eye, and you may think them rapid sketches, rather than the fruits of genuine labour. You may think them shallow, where all is subtlety. But if you take the time to examine them more closely, you may penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will see intricacies, so fine and subtle, so exact and yet so rich in detail, so full of knots and coils, with colours so bright and fresh, that you will not hesitate to declare that you have gazed upon the work, not of men but of angels".

The Book remained in Kells until 1654. In that year, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan cavalry was quartered in the church at Kells, causing the governor of the town to send the book to Dublin for safekeeping. In 1661, Henry Jones, who became Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath after the Restoration of King Charles II; gifted the manuscript to Trinity College in Dublin (where he had been educated). It has remained there ever since, except for brief loans to other libraries and museums. Since the 19th century, it has been and continues to be on display to the public in the Old Library of Trinity College.

Modern Reproductions of the Book of Kells

In recent decades there have been several excellent publications of the Book of Kells, reproducing all or a representative sample of pages – both text and illustrations. These have used the most advanced photographic technology available in an effort to convey the wonder and majesty of the work.

The most recent is the publication authored by Bernard Meehan, the custodian of the Book in Trinity College Library (Publisher Thames & Hudson). This presents high quality photographs of the entire manuscript, along with informed commentary and detail for any reader who wants to delve further into its mystery.

Trinity College has recently opened a website which allows digital access to each page, and is well worth a look. (‎)


Arthur Russell is the Author of ‘Morgallion’, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland (1314), by the Scottish army under the leadership of Edward deBruce, considered to be the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history.

‘Morgallion’ has been recently awarded the indieBRAG Medallion and is available in paperback and e-book form.

More information available on website -

Giveaway: May 1812 by M.M. Bennetts

M.M. is giving away an ecopy of May 1812. You can read about the book HERE. You will be prompted to return to this post to enter the contest by commenting below. Please be sure to leave your contact information.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

In a Pickle

by Lauren Gilbert

Being American, when I think of “pickle”, I think of pickled cucumbers heavy with dill and garlic. Pickled beets, too, are a favourite of mine. However, in Georgian England, a wide range of foods was pickled, as it was still a common method of preservation. Many exotic foods from other parts of the world became popular in a pickled form, as that was the only way they could be preserved for shipping.

Pickling, as in preserving via a brine or salt solution, has been known since ancient times. Some attribute it to the ancient Egyptians. China, Mesopotamia and India also used this method. (Pickled cucumbers were a favourite in ancient India.) Once disseminated to the Romans, the rest, as they say, is history. In one form or another, pickling has been used for centuries in virtually all cultures. The word pickle itself is supposed to derive from the old Dutch “pekel” which meant the pickling brine or a spicy sauce. Pickling was a common method of preserving seasonal food for later use. The item to be pickled was usually steeped in brine (usually water with a quantity of salt “enough to float an egg”) and then boiled in a mixture of vinegar, salt and other spices. The early cook books are filled with recipes for a variety of pickled vegetables and other items.

In England, pickles of various kinds have always been popular. However, it is important to realize that a wide range of foodstuffs were pickled, ranging from various vegetables, to eggs, fish, meats and poultry. Today, we forget that eggs and vegetables were once seasonal foods, and pickling was a favourite means of extending their shelf life. The addition of spices, sugar and herbs imparted a strong flavour that must have made dining much more pleasurable, especially during the colder months when pickled foods would have been consumed most frequently. Elizabeth I and Samuel Pepys were known to be fond of pickles and pickled fruits and vegetables of all kinds were commonly served on their own in pickle dishes or used in sauces.

A popular dish in England for centuries was puffin meat and, in the Georgian era, pickled puffin was quite popular. A sea bird whose diet is mainly fish, pickling not only preserved the meat but helped to reduce the strong fishy taste. The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies blog posted a recipe for pigeons “to make pigeons look like puffins” (this would appeal to someone who could not afford puffin meat which was a delicacy). This recipe includes boiling the meat in a mixture that included vinegar. While it was intended to be eaten right away, the recipe contains an additional step: “If you keep them anytime, boyle the pickle again & put it to them when cold.” (Eliza Smith also has a recipe for pickled pigeon which, when served, were eaten with vinegar and oil.)

“India pickle” was a popular pickle during the Georgian era. In Hannah Glasse’s cookbooks, the recipe for “Indian pickle” contains turmeric, garlic, mustard seed, “long pepper” (an Indian flowering vine which fruit is dried and used as a seasoning and is hotter than black pepper), and ginger mixed in vinegar in which two cabbages and two cauliflowers are pickled. In A Jane Austen Household Book, a similar combination of ingredients is used. This dish evolved to piccalilli which is still common.

Clearly a wide range of foods were consumed as a pickle. Eliza Smith, Hannah Glasse and others preserved recipes for pickled ham and tongue, nasturtium buds, quinces, asparagus, oysters and lobsters. Multiple ways to pickle walnuts mushroom and fruits were known. The spices and seasonings used evolved as availability and affordability increased. The term “pickle” had a much broader culinary meaning than most of us know today.


Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. (Facsimile of first American edition published in 1805, reprinted1997 by Applewood Books, Bedford, MA).

Hickman, Peggy. A Jane Austen Household Book with Martha Lloyd’s recipes.

Smith, Eliza. The Compleat Housewife. (First published 1758, published 1994 by Studio Editions Ltd., London, England).

The Food Timeline.

British History Online. Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, by Nancy Cox and Karen Dannehl, 2007.  In Depth Info on Pickles.  “Pickle History.”


Lauren Gilbert, author of Heyerwood, A Novel, lives in Florida with her husband.  Visit her website to find out more.  Her second book is due out later this year.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Britain’s Sea Evacuees: “The child, the best immigrant”

by Joan Fallon

Because children were young and malleable they were seen as the best category of immigrant - easy to assimilate , more adaptable and with a long working life ahead of them. The British Dominions loved them.

Something that only came to light a few years ago was the fact that thousands of children had been sent as child migrants to countries such as Australia and Canada from Britain and never knew their own parents. A social worker called Margaret Humphreys stumbled on this by accident in 1986, when a former child migrant asked her for assistance in locating her relatives. She has since formed the Child Migrant Trust and subsequently helped many people to be reunited with their families.

Throughout the late 19th century thousands of children were routinely sent out to the overseas British Dominions to start new lives, and this continued during the 20th century until as late as the 1960s. They were taken from orphanages run by religious and charitable institutions and despatched to Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Some were as young as four and five; others were teenagers. Most of the children came from deprived backgrounds and it was considered to be for their own good that they were plucked from poverty and sent to a country where there was good food and new opportunities for them. The receiving countries welcomed them - they needed people and children were so much easier to mould into their way of life than adults.

So when World War II broke out in 1939 there was already a precedent for sending children abroad to start new lives. June 1940 saw the start of heavy bombing raids across London and, with the threat of an enemy invasion becoming more and more real, it was then that the British government decided to set up the Children’s Overseas Reception Board to send children, whose parents could not afford to send them to safety, to the Dominions. They enlisted help from charities with experience of child migration, such as the Barnado’s Homes, Fairbridge Farm Schools, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church. However the plan was not warmly received by everyone - Winston Churchil thought it was a defeatist move and others warned of the disruption it would cause to families. Nevertheless within two weeks CORB had received over 200,000 applications from parents who wanted to send their children to safety. Parents often volunteered the names of relatives or friends who would look after the children in their new country and homes were found for the others by CORB representatives or the charities.

In the first few months CORB despatched over three thousand children to the Dominions. Then tragedy struck. All shipping traffic was subject to attacks from German U-boats and on 17th September 1940, the City of Benares, sailing from Liverpool for Canada with 197 passengers on board, was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic. Ninety of the passengers were children. It was a dreadful night, gale-force winds and driving rain - 131 of the crew and 134 passengers killed, among them seventy CORB children.

The reaction in Britain was one of horror and recrimination. It had already been suggested that it was too risky to send children overseas during the war; now the sceptics had been proved correct. It was decided that no more children were to be sent to the Domninions unless their ship was in a protective convoy. As there were not enough ships to use in the convoys that meant the end of the Sea Evacuee scheme. The children had to take their chance in Britain. Unlike other child migrants, most of the sea evacuees returned to Britain once the war was over. But child migration continued until 1967 when the last nine children were sent to Australia by the Barnado’s Homes charity.

In my novel ‘The Only Blue Door’, the three children are sent to Australia under the CORB scheme in one of the last ships to take sea evacuees to the Dominions. Unlike the other CORB children they are sent from an orphanage which had taken them in, believing them to be orphans.

If you want to read more about this topic I can recommend New Lives for Old by Roger Kershaw and Janet Sacks, Innocents Abroad by Edward Stokes and Margaret Humphreys’ book Empty Cradles.


Joan Fallon was born in Scotland, but spent most of her formative life in the south of England.    After a brief spell working in industry, she became a teacher and later a management consultant specialising in Behavioural Studies.  In 1998 she and her husband moved to Spain to live.  At last she could do what she had always wanted to; she took a creative writing course and began to write.  Her novels are aimed mainly at the women’s commercial fiction market and, almost invariably, centre on a strong female character and explore the emotions and relationships of the protagonist.  Being a History graduate, Joan enjoys setting her novels in a historical context, researching either English or Spanish history.,fallon-joan-9780957689138

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Curse of the Tichborne Dole: A Medieval Postscript to the Amazing Story of the Tichborne Claimant

by Pauline Montagna

Every Lady Day, March 25, (otherwise known as the Feast of the Annunciation) the villagers of Tichborne in Hampshire, UK, gather to collect the Tichborne Dole. Two tons of flour is blessed then distributed to the villagers who come bearing shopping bags, pillow cases or whatever they can find to carry home up to 28lbs of self-raising flour per family.

The Tichborne Dole 

The dole was established in the twelfth century and has been distributed ever since almost continuously except for one brief stint between 1796 and 1836, and therein lies a tale that would culminate in the famous case of the Tichborne Claimant as narrated in my last contribution on the topic.

To recap, in 1865, Thomas Castro, a bankrupt Australian butcher from Wagga Wagga responded to an advertisement enquiring after the whereabouts of Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to one of the largest fortunes in England and reported lost at sea in 1854. Only Sir Roger's mother would recognise this unlikely candidate as her son and after her death Castro took the family estate to court to claim the title. When his case collapsed, Castro was charged with perjury, served a prison term and died penniless, yet laying claim to the name of Sir Roger Tichborne until his dying day.

You may remember that the Tichbornes could trace their ancestry back to the Norman Conquest. Under the reign of Henry II, the incumbent baron was also a Sir Roger, a gruff and unsentimental soldier. His wife Lady Mabella, however, was a gentle and pious woman. As she lay dying of a wasting disease, she asked her husband to donate a piece of land to the parish in her name on which grain could be grown for an annual dole to the poor. Sir Roger was not a man to encourage idleness and at first refused her request.

Legend has it, however, that he eventually relented but only in so far as issuing his dying wife a cruel dare. He would donate the area of land she could encircle holding a burning torch. Lady Mabella, we are told, took up the challenge, ordering her bed to be carried outdoors. With blazing torch in hand she managed to crawl around a 23 acre field now known as 'The Crawls'. (This part of the story reads to me like a piece of retrospective mythologising, based on a place-name that most likely had a totally unconnected origin.)

Sir Roger finally, though grudgingly, agreed, but in order to pre-empt his rescinding after her death, Lady Mabella laid a curse on his descendents. If ever the dole was stopped, Tichborne House would crumble and there would come a generation of seven sons, followed by a generation of seven daughters after which the Tichborne name would disappear.

The dole continued until 1796 when the local magistrates decreed that it attracted too many beggars and ne’er-do-wells and had it stopped. They must have forgotten the curse, or perhaps dismissed it as medieval superstition, as the incumbent baronet at the time, Sir Henry Tichborne, was the father of seven sons. The first sign that Lady Mabella's curse was coming into effect was when a corner of Tichborne House collapsed in 1803.

Sir Henry was succeeded in 1821 by the eldest of his seven sons, another Sir Henry who had no sons, but seven daughters. As the second son, Benjamin, had died young and unmarried, the title passed onto the third son, Sir Edward Tichborne-Doughty, who had adopted his mother's maiden name after inheriting a fortune from her family. He had a son and a daughter, but Lady Mabella's curse struck again when his son died at the age of six in 1835. Reminded now of the curse, Sir Edward hastily reinstated the dole, but was too late to save the family from further disaster.

In 1853, the title passed to the fourth son, Sir James. Sir James had two sons, Roger, born in 1829, before the dole was reinstated, and Alfred who was born in 1839. Roger, as we have seen was lost at sea before he could inherit. Alfred, born after the reinstatement, survived to succeed his father, but died in 1866, after squandering most of the family fortune and leaving only an unborn child. Luckily the child was a boy, thus saving the Tichborne baronetcy from extinction.

However, the curse had still not played itself out entirely. That child's right to the title was challenged by Thomas Castro, and much of what was left of the family fortune, at least £90,000, was spent defending the case. The baronetcy finally expired in 1968.

How much of this story is true, how much of it was re-created after the facts, is hard to tell, but it certainly makes for a great yarn.

Strange Britain Tichborne Dole
Tichborne Dole

Pauline Montagna lives in Melbourne, Australia. She has published three books, The Slave, an historical romance set in fourteenth century Italy, Suburban Terrors, a short story collection, and Not Wisely but Too Well, a novel of the young Shakespeare and the first volume of a projected four volume series. You can find out more about her and her books on her website

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Two #Historicalfiction Authors Chat about costume, sewing and their latest books

Gabrielle Kimm and Deborah Swift in conversation about costume design, seamstresses, lace and their latest novels.

Gabrielle Kimm and Deborah Swift met when they were both shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers in 2007 and have stayed in touch with each other ever since to share their love of writing historical fiction.

G.K. You’ve told me before that you used to be a costume designer for the theatre. Can you tell me a little more about what you did?

D.S. A costume designer’s job is to enhance the character that the actor is playing through the messages conveyed by their clothes. These messages can be subtle – creased or carelessly fastened clothing can suggest a person who is not concerned with their appearance, even if it is a uniform identical to the one someone else is wearing on stage. So a designer’s job also includes suggesting to the actor how the clothes should be worn as well as what they should wear.

G.K. The creation of a piece of theatre is a really complex matter, isn’t it?  And for historical pieces such as Shakespeare, in particular, there must be a tremendous amount of research?

Shylock for His Majesty's Theatre
designed by Percy Macquoid 1908
D.S. Yes, but I used to love it. The best reference sources for costume designers are paintings. For Shakespeare in traditional dress paintings such as Moroni’s The Tailor are invaluable. (GK – Oh, I absolutely love that painting, and used it as a costume reference myself in my second novel) I used to relish finding curtain material (for example) that had just the right brocaded look for a 16th century bodice. Of course many of Shakespeare’s plays are now performed in modern dress, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need designing. The designer can take as much time drawing the right modern clothes as they would for a period piece. Even for a contemporary play actors like to see designs on paper because then they can visualise themselves, and it helps them in creating the role. The designer has often finished the designs by the time rehearsal starts. Often I was supplied with a photo of the actor to help me with the process, so I didn’t design something that would not suit the body shape of the actor. (By the way, these days ‘actor’ is the term given to both male and female members of the profession.) Actors have to get used to period costumes, so the actor is often supplied with a ‘practice’ skirt or corset, or practice shoes to get used to wearing them.
The Tailor by Moroni

GK – my oldest sister Fiona, who is an opera singer, often says just that - that she needs the shoes and the skirt (or at least the underskirt) to get the feel of the role in rehearsal) But I suppose in many ways the research for a theatre production is a similar process to the work we both undertake as novelists.

DS. Yes, to me it’s the same process but in reverse. I used to take a text and make it into images, now I take images and make them into text! It’s probably one of the reasons I write historicals. But I suppose costume design was radically different in the Renaissance. I know you’ve been working on a book about a seamstress in a travelling troupe. Did they have designers in the Renaissance or were theatrical costumes made by seamstresses to the actor’s orders?
G.K. The characters in Commedia dell’Arte are traditional – they are archetypes, if you like, and each character had a recognisable costume (and some had masks), with which audiences would have been totally familiar.  People would have been expecting, for instance, Arlecchino (Harlequin) to be in his diamond-patterned jacket and leggings, and Il Dottore (the Doctor) to be in full academic black robes with a skull-cap (later changed to a wide-brimmed flat hat).  So design was not really a feature in the same way as it is in the modern theatre. Some more elaborate garments might have been donated by satisfied wealthy audience members, other costumes would have been customised from everyday clothes already owned. 

The troupes varied in terms of wealth – some, like The Gelosi, were nationally adored, and were also favourites of the French court, so they would no doubt have had far, far more money to spend on their costumes and sets than a little up-and-coming troupe like my Corraggiosi.  My lovely actors work more on the ‘make-do-and-mend’ level !

D.S. One of the things I loved about theatrical costumes was that they were bespoke – often it was the only garment like it anywhere in the world. And today it is hard to think back to a time when everything was hand sewn. What sort of fabrics did they have in the sixteenth century, and does your character love her work or hate it?

G.K. Sofia does enjoy her sewing.  She is a seamstress when the story opens, but as the story begins, she is fleeing her home, falsely accused of theft, so we don’t see her at work at that point.  A little information leaks out about how tough her life has been, however – Sofia’s employer has not been an easy woman to work for. 

It’s perhaps worth mentioning that seamstresses in Renaissance Italy were really menders rather than makers.  The business of designing and creating new garments was largely done by men, and the women performed the more menial, but just as necessary, task of re-fitting, mending and darning.  You couldn’t wash those big heavy embroidered dresses (... not something we would feel comfortable with today!) so I imagine they wore through more easily once they’d picked up dust etc.  Sleeves were removable (fastened to bodices at the shoulder with laces) so those could be replaced or mended quite easily, which is just as well – how many times must people have accidentally dunked their sleeves in the soup, or had the baby be sick on them!

It is Sofia’s skill with a needle which enables her to join the acting troupe in the first place, and she happily settles down to mending and customising the player’s costumes, and is very happy in her new role.  She fairly quickly becomes interested in acting, though, which – for various reasons – rather takes precedence over her sewing ...

You ask about fabrics – linen of varying qualities was used in undergarments in the Renaissance (the finer the better – the aristocracy would have had their undergarments made in near-transparent linen lawn, while the more rustic would have made do with a cloth not far removed from sacking!)  Wool in winter, linen in summer for outer garments, and for the wealthy, all the various types and weights of silk would have been much in demand.  I came across a description of something called cypress gauze when researching – a totally transparent silk lawn.  It sounds absolutely gorgeous!  Other fabrics used - I’ve found doublets made from doeskin and leather as well as wool and silk.

Historical costume is fascinating, isn’t it?  I wonder if it’s partly the drama of the costumes which attracts women readers to historical fiction.  The covers of both our books would suggest that, perhaps.

D.S. I agree, but I try not to be too costume-obsessed in my novels. Obviously having the expertise is useful, but I suspect readers would get bored if I always described the clothes in too much detail. By the way, do you like the costumes on your covers? I  particularly liked the cover for ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’ – she has a very direct gaze!

Manet's Olympia
G.K.   I think it’s fair to say that when my first novel’s cover was designed, it was nothing like the ideas I had had in my head!  I had been thinking along arty lines, with grainy black-and-white images, etc.  But I loved the dress they found for my cover model to wear, so was quickly won over.  I agree with you about the direct gaze of the Courtesan!  When I discussed this cover design with my editor, I told her that I was very taken with Manet’s painting ‘Olympia’ - the model for which was prostitute (and artist) Victorine Meurent, and said I would like my cover model to have something of her confrontational stare – I think they obliged!

 I like your covers very much – the image for ‘A Divided Inheritance’ is particularly lovely, like a glimpse through a part-open window.  I’m guessing from the look of the cover that your new book is set earlier in history than your previous two books.  Did the change in era bring with it any research difficulties?

D.S. Yes it’s set in 1610, just after the Gunpowder Plot, so for me it was a whole new research adventure. One of my characters is a swordsman so I spent a lot of time researching sword-making and swordsmanship. And actually I was surprised that there were more women skilled with the sword than you would imagine. Afternoon fencing matches are described as part of the entertainment at Clerkenwell, with female fighters. 

forging a sword at
But for Elspet Leviston, my main character, I also had to research the craft of lace-making. Did you know that needle-lace was made by literally sewing individual stitches onto the ‘réseau’ - the net background? Once the net was fully embellished the background was painstakingly snipped away. So much work! Bobbin lace was equally time-consuming, with bone bobbins pinned to a straw-filled pillow upon which the lace was gradually braided and twisted together. It evolved from braid-making in Italy, but soon Flanders and Normandy became the centres of this type of lace-making, and thousands of women in Europe were employed in this craft because it could be done easily at home as ‘piece work’.

G.K. I didn’t know about the needle-lace.  It sounds incredible.  Sometimes I’ve wondered about people’s eyesight in these times.  Given that people only worked by daylight or candlelight, and spectacles were very much in their infancy, people must have strained their eyes so badly!  Your description of lace-making leaves me so keenly aware of the hours and hours and hours people spent on creating things of such beauty, at such potential cost to their own health.

D.S. I suppose labour was very cheap, particularly women’s labour. It makes me so glad we live when we do – where we are free to write and give voice to our stories, and where through the internet we have access to information about so many other people’s lives and cultures. I expect you find that life in the classroom has changed beyond all recognition.

G.K. It’s changed a lot since I trained as a teacher, that’s for certain - it was still chalk and blackboards back then!  The internet has totally revolutionised the way we as teachers are able to access and present material for lessons, which is wonderful (though it has also revolutionised the way the kids communicate illegally too!  Where we scribbled notes and passed them under the desk, they are all texting and Skype-ing and posting photos on Instagram ...).  As an English teacher though, the focus and fundamental core of my lessons is still the power of the written word, and I suppose that hasn’t changed at all.  Luckily..

We hope you've enjoyed our meandering chat and will forgive us our foray from England into Renaissance Italy! We can be contacted through our websites and or chat with us some more on Twitter @swiftstory and @gabrielle_kimm