Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Palace of the Grand Master in Rhodes by Mary Hoffman

I'm a sucker for palaces. And castles. Forts, fortresses, towers, anything with crenellations, machicolations, battlements, arrow-slits, moats and portcullises. It's one of the great advantages of being a European that you don't have to travel very far without being in reach of one of these edifices.

As it happens, I was holidaying on the island of Rhodes this summer, so I course, I had to visit the Palace of the Grand Master in Rhodes Old Town. It was the second time I had been there but it was still a shock to be reminded just how big it is and how massive its walls.

Credit: Bernard Gagnon, Creative Commons
Rhodes Old Town is a medieval walled city and the Palace takes up about a third of it. In that respect, it's a bit like Carcassonne in the Languedoc, with its chateau comtal at the heart of it. It resembles it in one other aspect: the repairs done to it over the years, particularly the most recent one in the late 1930s when the palace became a holiday home first for King Victor Emmanuel lll of Italy and then the Dictator Benito Mussolini.

Much as I love castles, there is a line which is easily crossed into Disneyfication and what Eugène Viollet-le-Duc did to Carcassonne in the mid nineteenth century teeters awkwardly on it. But Vittorio Mesturini, the Italian architect who worked on the Palace of the Grand Master, didn't go too far.

Credit: Sailko, Creative Commons
Here is the massy entrance, the towers exhibiting both crenellations AND machicolations! The palace was first built in the late 7th century, as a Byzantine citadel.(The city had been there since four centuries before Christ).  It's in the north-west of the city, overlooking the little harbour of Mandraki, with its ship-building yards that endured till the end of the 20th century.

Five hundred years after it was built, the Knights Hospitaller took over Rhodes and some other Greek Islands and wasn't long before they decided that the citadel of Rhodes would make an ideal headquarters (and who could blame them?). 

Photo: author's own


It's built on the highest point of the island's north west region and makes an excellent fortified fastness. Then, as now, the area south of the citadel and between it and the outer walls was full of winding, narrow streets, where goods of all kind were sold. There were also gardens, workshops, warehouses, taverns and a market square. Orthodox and Catholic churches were scattered throughout the town.

The Knights Hospitallers captured the island in 1309 and remained in charge till Rhodes fell to the Ottomans (Turks) in 1522. They were the knights of Saint John of Jerusalem. They were the seemingly oxymoronic "religious-military Order" that had been going for about two hundred years before they became dominant in the Dodecanese.

It seems to have been founded by a man called Pierre Gerard in Jerusalem and named for John the Baptist. At the beginning, they were just Hospitallers and it was his successor, Raymond de Puys, who organised it into a miitary body. (They are not to be confused with the Knights Templar, beloved of Dan Brown and his followers - 377K of them on Twitter).

The Order was divided into three: knights, who were nobles; chaplains, who were priests and sergeants, who were the sons of free men. Grand Masters were always chosen from among the knights; he held the post for life. 

Credit: Piotrus, Creative Commons


The vast palace is arranged in a rectangle around a courtyard. Then were ten silos of grain sunk into the courtyard. Three are left, with well heads on top of them. The upper storey of the building bears no relation to anything that was there before 1937. This is what the Great Hall looks like inside Now:

Credit: Szilas, Creative Commons

And this is one of the fabulous mosaic floors, with the head of the Medusa, from Kos:

Credit: Wimpearl, Creative Commons

And a lovely leopard:
Credit: Sailko, Creative Commons


Do tell us your favourite castle or palace in the Comments.






Wednesday, 31 August 2016

August Competitition





To win a copy of Fay Bound Alberti's book This Mortal Coil, just answer the following question in the comments and then send a copy of your answer to maryhoffman@maryhoffman.co.uk





"Do you have a soul? If so, where is it?"

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Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Cabinet of Curiosities by Catherine Hokin

My chosen item for the cabinet of curiosities is perhaps not such an usual choice for a writer as it is a book, in this case a 1933 edition of the Arthur Rackham Fairy Book. It probably ranks as my prize possession and the first thing I would grab if we ever got hit by a fire - or more likely a flood given I live in Glasgow.

 Arthur Rackham Fairy Book
Firstly apologies for the photograph: the copy has been well-loved and its once white cover and gold lettering have faded badly; it also bears more than one set of grubby fingerprints. I'm glad of that - it is clearly no museum-piece and I hope it passed through many happy hands before landing, very recently, in mine.

Arthur Rackham was the leading illustrator in what was known as the 'Golden Age' of British book illustration which ran from roughly 1890-1914. He is particularly known for his fairy drawings with his most famous works including Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1908) and the posthumous Wind in the Willows (1940). He began his illustrating career in 1893 and was widely exhibited and bought in his lifetime. After 1918 the market for lavishly-illustrated books collapsed in Britain but Rackham's work is once again in vogue and editions of his work are highly collectible (and frighteningly expensive).

 Titania
I first came across his work when I was an impoverished student taking my over-active imagination and empty purse fantasy shopping in antique book shops. I fell in love with his fairies: they were mischievous, wicked and strong - no soppy Victorian fluff here. I was no artist (I learnt to appreciate his technique, which combined woodcut-style work with advances in colour-printing, much later) but I was entranced by the mix of pen and ink drawings, watercolours and line sketches he sprinkled liberally through the stories. I also loved his women - I once played Mustard Seed (as a silver-clad scouse punk, as you do) in a production of Midsummer Night's Dream and the director took his inspiration for Titania from the Rackham depiction of her striding away, chaos in her wake. It's still one of my favourite pictures and hangs in my study.

 Signature
So why is this edition special? It is hard to get complete original editions of Rackham's work anymore - most of them seem to have been dissected to feed the antique stalls in Portobello Market - so owning a copy of one at all is pretty good. But this is no ordinary edition, it has been signed by the great man  himself. There is something about a signed copy of a book that makes it intensely personal. As a writer, being asked to sign your novel is incredibly flattering - a real rock star moment. To be honest, I'm at the stage where I'll sign them whether people ask me to or not. So to own a book signed by someone whose work I've loved for years is thrilling and, with a book that has clearly been so well-loved, it is hard not to weave  stories round it. There is a pink smudge across the signature which I rather hope belongs to the Pamela Taylor who this edition was presented to in 1935. It looks suspiciously like lipstick and I want to imagine she was so excited, she kissed it. Which, I'm not ashamed to say, was what I did - I was probably meant to kiss the husband who was responsible for the gift, but he didn't seem to mind. 

 Self-portrait
The stories are wonderful, a mixture of traditional English and French fairy tales and the Arabian Nights, but it is the illustrations that make me go back to this book over and over again. They are witty and beautiful with just the right amount of edginess, the perfect Rackham mix and extend even to his 'self-portrait'. I love the work but I am also increasingly intrigued by the man. A little like our own Glasgow artistic hero, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret MacDonald, it seems marriage had quite an influence on Rackham's work. In 1903 he married the portrait painter Edyth Starkie who he apparently regarded as his most stimulating, if severest, critic. I fell in love with her most famous painting (The Spotted Dress) in the Musee D'Orsay without having any clue about their relationship until very recently. When you know the link, it's hard not to see a connection between their work and it's certainly something I hope to explore at some point in far more detail. My cabinet choice continues to feed my curiosity - now I've just got to find a way to pay for what could prove a costly addiction...  

Monday, 29 August 2016

This Mortal Coil by Fay Bound Alberti

Our August guest is Fay Bound Alberti, who with join us next year as a History Girl, posting on the 15th of the month, alternating with Marie-Louise Jensen after Y.S. Lee leaves us in November.


About Fay


Dr Fay Bound Alberti is a writer and historian specializing in Britain and Europe, 1500-1950. She has published widely on the histories of medicine and science, gender, the body and emotions. Dr Bound Alberti co-founded the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary College, University of London where she remains Honorary Senior Research Fellow. Other areas of interest include early modern illness and disease, the history and ethics of cosmetic surgery, the relationship between mind and body and gender politics – now and in the past. Fay’s most recent book is This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016)


I’ve always been interested in the body, and how we talk about it. When I was eight my mother explained to my brother how they had been connected in her womb through their combined umbilical cords: ‘mine attached to yours’, she said, which didn’t sound quite right to me. I could sense the determination in her words though, the sense of ownership involved in explaining their physical bond. At secondary school my sex education lessons, brutally indifferent to feelings, resolved that physical conundrum, but not the sense of wonder by which we – wriggling in embarrassment on high wooden stools – tried to imagine what lurked beneath our skin. At university, I learned how long men and women had been trying to understand the human body; to account for the gift of life as well as the those ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.’ (Hamlet, III, I, 1755) To this end Shakespeare was our ‘contemporary,’ at least according to Jan Kott; his characters experiencing their physical and emotional worlds as dramatically as we do. 

18th century allegorical depictions of the temperaments formed by the four humours: melancholicus. By: J. D. Nessenthaler. Credit: Wellcome Library.  

But there’s the rub. We experience the world differently from Hamlet. Our bodies are not viewed the same today as they were in Shakespeare’s time. Across seventeenth-century Europe came the arrival of tools like the microscope by which people could know the workings of the body through the only sense that came to matter: sight. The four humours that had explained health, disease and even personality for thousands of years fell from grace, though humoral treatments like ‘bleeding’ continued into the nineteenth century. The ‘mortal coil’ described by Hamlet, the political and social world we inhabit, was also transformed – the rise of democracy and secularism in the West and the end of the ‘great chain of being’ (a hierarchy that kept us all in check) giving rise to individualism and the modern, introspective self. Today it is the brain, not the heart, that is the centre of our feelings, memories and identities, though the symbolism of the heart survives. 
Valentine Card, 1928. Credit: Wellcome Library.
How did the brain come to dominate? Here as elsewhere, philosophical change accompanied technological and scientific change. The French philosopher René Descartes moved the soul from the heart, which had recently been confirmed as a pump by the English physician William Harvey, to the pineal gland, located behind the eyebrows. Mind and body were torn asunder; in time, ‘mind’ (which once described soul), simply meant brain. From the nineteenth century, scientific medicine gave rise to new ways of viewing the body through measurement and comparison. New norms were created. Gender and racial differences were etched into the fabric of our bodies – into the shape of our skulls, the structure of our skeletons, the thickness of our skins. Scientific medicine provided new rules to follow, new versions of the truth that were not driven by the imagination, folklore or symbols. But like any other narrative, it was a product of its time, creating stories that rationalised racism and sexism. 

Descartes: The Nervous System. Diagram of the brain and the pineal gland. From De Homine (1662). Credit: Wellcome Library.


Through a series of case studies into the history and meanings of the skin, fatness, the female breasts and genitals, the tongue and the skeleton, This Mortal Coil considers how we have invested each of our body parts with meanings that reveal the needs of culture, politics and society. Thus seventeenth-century women’s tongues were so dangerous in an age of political uncertainty that the ‘scold’s bridle’ was needed to keep them in check. From the nineteenth century, when the industrial age privileged efficiency, being ‘fat’ represented waste and inefficiency, heaping moral outrage on the (increasingly lower-class) obese. In the 1950s the possession of small breasts was redefined as a psychiatric problem, easily fixed by a new type of medical practitioner: the cosmetic surgeon. Today the threat of the female genitals, a source of terrifying power for Shakespeare as for Freud, is contained by language: how much safer is it to see the vagina as a ‘birth canal’ rather than a source of untamed physical pleasure? 
Belgian Iron bridle that fitted over the head of a woman sentenced for being a ‘scold’.

Portrait of Leicester jail keeper Daniel Lambert, (1770 –1809), once the fattest man in Britain and celebrated (not shamed) for his size. Credit: Wellcome Library.

Transparent, jelly-filled breast implant. Credit: Wellcome Library.

Metaphors matter because they shape our worlds, whether depicting the brain as a computer or the pubic hair as a lady garden. Illness is a battle we fight against invaders: we win or we lose, we live or we die. In conventional medicine we are divisible into separate systems and organs. There is no soul or immaterial essence. Yet many of us still believe in one. The heart might be a pump that beats 120,000 times a day, sending blood, nutrients and oxygen around the body. But some people maintain heart transplants move more than an organ, transferring the personality, habits and memoriesof the donors. Today the separation of mind and body suggests we can take control of our physical shell, disciplining it through exercise or cosmetic surgery in search of that perfect ideal. We regard our bodies objectively, as though distinct from the self that lives in our brains. Yet the incidence of mental illness is increasing. As is the demand for whole-body treatment. We are arguably more dis-eased about our bodies than ever before.

Ultimately, This Mortal Coil explores the stories we tell about the body. It does not demonise modern medicine. Nor does it suggest that we were all better off when we lived, like my mother, in a pre-modern world of imagination where we could each lay claim to our bodies without the intervention of science. But this book does ask whether the decline of holistic views of the body, that saw our minds, bodies and emotional worlds as part of a functioning, social whole, has done us a disservice. For surely we are more than the sum of our parts.


 Fay Bound Alberti This Mortal Coil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).


Sunday, 28 August 2016

Women's History by Julie Summers

Sometimes when I am asked what I write I say: ‘I write about people who get themselves into difficult situations and, by and large, get themselves out of them again.’ That usually gets a positive reaction. If, however, I say ‘I write social history about the Second World War and especially women on the Home Front’ people’s eyes tend to glaze over and they move to another part of the room. Same books, different packaging.

So today I thought I would share a little bit of what I do and why. I write because I love it. I can’t think of anything else I would rather be than a writer. I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was a little girl. I used to make up stories and tell them to my toys and later to my friends. I even used to write stories for my boyfriend in airmail letters when I was living in Vienna and he in London. We’ve now been married for 29 years, so the stories can’t have been too bad.

However, in the end I wanted to write about real people, not ones I had made up in my head. I find that the lives people lead are fascinating. There is no such thing as a typical person or a ‘normal’ reaction and that is what began to interest me. I was working in the art world but found myself more drawn to the artists themselves than to their work. I wanted to know what made them tick. I remember interviewing the sculptor Anthony Caro and his wife, the painter Sheila Girling, about their lives together as artists. Tony told me that it was Sheila who chose the colours for his early sculptures because she had a better eye for colour than he did. I was tickled pink by that, especially as no one had ever interviewed them together before, so the question was not one he had been asked. I like titbits like that. They are just a little quirky.

Anthony Caro's Early One Morning 1962 

When I am interviewing people for my non-fiction books I don’t use any type of recording device because that can be off-putting. I just ask questions and take notes. The interviews generally last about 45 minutes to an hour and in that time I get perhaps three or four sentences I can use, but those are usually gems. For example, I was talking to a lady called Jean Hammond whose story is told in Stranger in the House. Her father was in a German POW camp and when he came home, she told me, they never ate a meal indoors. They sat in the garden or, when it was raining or snowing, under the porch wrapped in blankets. She said it in a matter-of-fact way as if that was perfectly normal. But it was a new one on me. I asked her why and she said she never knew. She imagined it had something to do with his POW experience but as she was a child when he came back she just accepted it.

Jean Hammond with her two grandmothers c. 1940

In researching and writing Jambusters I constantly found women replying to my request for interviews with ‘oh, I won’t have anything interesting to tell you.’ When someone says that my ears prick up and I think: ‘oh, you don’t, do you? Well I think you’re wrong…’ And more often than not they tell me some glorious detail. A woman in an Oxfordshire WI remembered her father coming into the kitchen where members of the Produce Group were making vast quantities of jam. One of the ladies was complaining that she was wasting precious jam as she could not get every last drop from the bottom. So he took a wooden spoon outside to his tool shed and half an hour later returned with a spoon that had a flat side and a sharp point. This was ideal for scraping the jam off the bottom of the pan and everyone was delighted with the design. Needless to say it was copied. I find other gems in diaries, memoirs and in odd collections of notes in the Imperial War Museum archives. It was there that I found Mr Fagg, who worked in the Board of Trade in the war, supervising coupons and taking responsibility for the width of the gusset of women’s knickers, the amount of metal in over-sized corsets and the length of men’s socks. You literally couldn’t make it up. He is one of the key players in Fashion on the Ration.

William Buller Fagg in his Home Guard uniform 

I also found one of my favourite facts of all time at the IWM. Lord Nuffield, the great car maker and generous philanthropist, supplied all the women’s services with sanitary towels for the entire Second World War. These things were new-fangled and very expensive and he knew the young women in the services would not be able to afford them or indeed get guaranteed supplies. It was an act of immense generosity and far-sightedness on his part and no one knows about it. Except you do now! They were known as Nuffield’s Nifties. Writing women’s history is not always easy. There are a few of us who do it: Jane Robinson, Janie Hampton and Midge Gilles to name three I know well. We sometimes find it hard to get taken seriously by male historians who write about grave matters like tanks and planes and battles and generals with handlebar moustaches. In a list of the top 50 historians published last year there were just four women and of those I was the only one who writes about women.

Women are at the heart of my next book, too, but this one contains explosions and secret codes, radio operators and stealth. I wonder how that will be received?

Saturday, 27 August 2016

History Exercise in a Hammock by Janie Hampton



This month I offer readers tips on how to get fit, ready for all that calorie-burning reading of history books that you plan to do this autumn. At the end of August you are tired from your holidays. You need to get your mind and body ready, but slowly and gently. Back in the 1980s Jane Fonda put us all to shame with her 'Feel the Burn' exercises. Now, with my patent Hampton History Hammock system, we can all stay fit, practice history and keep cool.
This Swedish lady by artist Anders Leonhard Zorn fell asleep in 1882 .
Will she wake in time for her History Exercise?
The hammock is a historic device, designed for people of all ages, shapes and temperaments. A hammock cradles and supports the back, neck and especially the brain. Hammocks help to relieve stress brought on by computers, stacking dishwashers and taking holidays.

Choosing the right hammock is crucial: it must be long enough to lie straight out in, and wide enough not to fall over the edge. Cotton hammocks are better than netting, which allows bits of your body to bulge through, leaving strange patterns on exposed areas. If the cotton is organic you will also feel smug, which  probably increases your intelligence too.

Attach your hammock to one or two strong trees. It should hang no more than 4 inches above the ground at the lowest point, when you are in it. This ensures that should it collapse, you don’t have far to fall. If you don’t have any trees, do not attach to a wall without a full survey – walls are inclined to bury people alive.
Always lie in the hammock in the direction that gives the best view. This should be away from guilt-inducing objects like the washing line, the shed with the lawn mower or your study with that half-read book waiting in it.
Before you start, place beside your hammock:
A book, quite a heavy one with very long words printed in small type.
A glass of iced water.
Optional bowl of strawberries.

Now for some action: Sit in hammock with legs together outside. Lift legs up and into hammock, and out again, keeping legs together. Do this once or twice, ending with both legs in the hammock. Try and remember the date of the Norman Invasion. Don't try too hard. And, rest. 
This lady in a hammock painted by James Tissot in 1879 had the right idea.
She is in the middle of the first exercise. Image courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library.
 Warm up exercise: Lie down and feel every bit of your body go floppy. Think beautiful thoughts as you watch the clouds. Can you see an old man emerging? Does this remind you of the date of Napoleon's death? And, rest.

Oblique tummy stretch and underarm flattener: Keeping your legs straight, lean forward and touch your toes. If you can’t reach your toes, just wave at them, and say 'Hello'. Lift your arms up straight, and move them back over your head.
Do this a few times quite slowly. Or just do it once. Think of a number. Is it the same number as Henry VIII had wives? And, rest. 

Knee and bottom toner: Lift one bent leg and then the other leg up slowly. Pull back towards your head. Stop the moment it might hurt. Imagine you are a horse accompanying a Crusader. And, rest.

Waist curl trimmer: Pull knees up, and rock them from side to side. Roughly when was canned food first eaten? And, rest.

Groin and inner thigh strengthener: Bend knees. Pull legs up together, and then flop them apart. Wave your knees apart and together very slowly. Who first used chloroform during childbirth? And, rest.
This young lady has not read the instructions –
the Hampton History Hammock system
must always be carried out on your own. No man may help you.
Beating gravity with triceps stretch: Lift arms in the air and try to pull yourself up by grabbing the air with your hands. Admire the pretty patterns that the leaves make in the tree above you. What year was  an aeroplane first flown solo across the Atlantic? And, rest.

Nutritional exercise for energy boost: Without moving your body, allow arms to flop out of hammock. Wave them about until you make contact with the strawberries. Lift bowl of strawberries up and place on stomach. Now exercise your fingers: lift one strawberry at a time and place in mouth. Work those jaw muscles hard until the strawberry has disappeared. Repeat until bowl is empty. Think about the date when South American strawberries were first eaten in Europe. And, digest. 

This Wife of a British Colonial Officer should not have made these men carry her while she exercises. She should remain in one place, with her hammock attached to two trees.
Improved toner control for hamstring and bottom: Raise your legs in the air, and over your head, and touch the hammock behind you with your toes. Do this backwards and forward, very slowly. Or don't do it at all. Think of a year when Brazil won the World Cup. Just one will do. And, rest.

Warm-down exercise or biceps curl: Now lean out of the hammock and pick up your book. With bent arms, lift the book above your head and close your eyes. How many books are in the British Library? Lower your arms, and open your eyes. Lean out of the hammock, and place book on the ground. And, rest. And rest again.

Advanced cool-down exercise: Swing legs out of hammock and place feet either side of glass of water. Grasp glass firmly with both feet and lift back into hammock, tip glass towards face. Which year did Captain Scott reach the Antarctic? And, rest.

Final exercise to boost your will power: Get out of hammock, and return indoors. This requires considerable determination and commitment. It may take at least an hour to achieve and become more difficult with each Hampton History Hammock session.

In case of rain – do all exercises in your swimming costume.

Only do each exercise for as long as you feel like, and do not exceed 30 seconds. All these exercises require a positive attitude. Be persistent and you will succeed, possibly in time for the autumn.

To ensure success, make a graph showing how relaxed you have become. You can waste even more time by keeping a diary about your time spent in the hammock. Then, in 100 years your great grand-daughters can publish it. 
This luscious lady in pink by Irish painter John Lavery certainly knows how to relax.
She may even be learning some history at the same time.
Answer to questions: 1832; 8; 1810; Queen Victoria; 1927; 1714; 1958,1962, 1970, 1994 & 2002; 150 million; 1912.
Janie Hampton will demonstrate the Hampton History Hammock system of exercises on alternate Mondays, by appointment. 

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Novel that got Away by Sarah Gristwood


It’s the writer’s equivalent of the dress you can’t quite fit into - but, if you lose a few pounds, then maybe . . . Every author has that back-of-the-wardrobe box of unwritten stories; the ones you can’t quite bear to throw away. But we’re always being urged to de-junk our lives, aren’t we?

So let’s accept this is one historical novel I will never write - I would have called it The Valois Bride. Good title, do we think? A bit old fashioned, maybe?

Elisabeth de Valois

In December 1559, the 14 year old Elizabeth de Valois arrived on the Spanish frontier to marry King Philip II of Spain – a man twenty years her senior, and twice a widower already. We all know a version of the story from Verdi’s opera Don Carlos, itself based on Schiller’s play - though some of us (forgive me) remember it better from Jilly Cooper’s novel Score!. That set Cooper’s trademark Rutshire rumpy-pumpy against the shooting of a film version of the opera; and its trick of making the Spanish royals into Britain’s present day royal family - and the Inquisition into the tabloid press - worked rather well, actually.

There is no historical truth in Verdi’s fantasy of Philip’s son Don Carlos’ spying out the wedding party on their way to Spain, and there falling in love with the French princess destined to become not his bride, but his stepmother. Of Elizabeth choosing duty over love to make peace between their countries . . . Though she would called Isabel ‘de la Paz’, actually. And it’s true Elizabeth had originally been destined for the son rather than the father but, hey, that was tame, by the standards of the royal marriages of the sixteenth century.

Verdi's Don Carlos

But the real Elizabeth seemed more than content with a husband who was after all in a worldly sense the catch of the century, while Philip’s son and heir would soon be spiralling downwards into his brutal madness. The teenage bride awoke a response in her dour husband, and the extravagant chit who never worse the same dress twice was nonetheless allowed, just six years later, to represent Spain in official negotiations with her own formidable mother, Catherine de Medici.

Philip goes down in English history as a dutiful but essentially uncaring husband to his previous wife Mary Tudor, but when Elizabeth was giving birth, he sat by her bed clutching her hand through every pain. When Don Carlos died in 1568, incarcerated and insane, Elizabeth wept for two days, but ten weeks later she herself was dead from another childbearing, still only 23.

She was survived not only by Philip, but by two other women whose voices I might have used to tell her story. One of them was the Italian painter Sofonisba Anguissola, invited to Spain by Philip and given rank as a lady of Elizabeth’s court. The other was the Princess of Eboli, with her beauty and her patch over one eye. In Verdi’s version, she is Philip’s mistress and an arch manipulator. In real life she was a schemer indeed - widow to Philip’s first great minister, Ruy Gomez (more than twenty years older than she), whose intrigues only mounted after his death - but one who loved and mourned Elizabeth sincerely. Her involvement in a scandalous political murder saw her spending the last ten years of her life under house arrest in one of her castles from where, looking back (yes, cue a time-honoured writer’s device here!), she had no doubt her memories.

Sofonisba Anguissola self-portrait


So why won’t I ever write it? One reason is, I don’t know enough. My limited experience of writing historical fiction (and my far larger experience of writing historical fact) has shown me that the former is more demanding, in many ways. You don’t just need to know the great political events against which the character is placed - you need to know what someone of that age and rank, in that day, would have done when they go out of bed each morning. The sixteenth century court equivalent of switching off the radio and shoving a piece of bread in the toaster . . . And I don’t, for sixteenth century Spain, quite simply.

Could I research it? Maybe - though factual information on that kind of detail can be quite hard to come by. And the trouble is that with Spain, I don’t even have a gut feeling for the rhythm of the seasons or the way the light falls on the landscape - the things that don’t change through the centuries. Research might hack it, for a story set in England, or any country I know well. But I suspect the research would lie dead on the page if I were to write about a place still truly foreign to me.

The other reason is that I know too much. The real Elizabeth is making a very minor - but her mother Catherine de Medici a major - appearance in the non-fiction I’m currently writing: Game of Queens, about the chains of women and power running, from mother to daughter through the sixteenth century.
Catherine de' Medici


So I know about the stream of self-revelatory letters Catherine sent across the border to and about her daughter in Spain: I know that the last of them, a maternal warning as to what should be done about her daughter’s increasing weight, arrived only after Elizabeth’s death. I know that when the two met for that summit meeting, as queen regent of France and queen consort of Spain, Elizabeth would have felt the tug of loyalties known to so many a princess, between her natal and her marital country. ‘How Spanish you have become, my daughter’, said Catherine to Elizabeth, coldly.

I know that as a child in France, Elizabeth was set to sleep in the same room as that other little girl newly arrived at court - her future sister-in-law, Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve read the letters Mary wrote after Elizabeth’s death - distraught not just by the death of her old playfellow, but by the loss of a possible ally, who might have persuaded King Philip to help the Scots queen in her long English captivity.

Of course I’d love to explore these things further - but I’m not sure fiction is the way, for me. Of course anyone who were writing a Valois Bride would have read up on all this and much, much more - but I’m not sure I’d be able to get past the huge rock of facts I’m still discovering, to let the fiction fly free.

Though mind you, the madness of the historical Don Carlos did in the end lead him to an obsessive crush on his step-mother . . . Hmm. Maybe I was a bit quick to jettison this one, actually.

Thanks to Sarah Gristwood for this post. Carol Drinkwater will be back on 26th September.