Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In and Out of Jane Austen's Window

by M.M. Bennetts

We do love our period costume dramas, don't we?

I mean, what could be more restful than slipping back into a slower age, a more peaceful idyllic age, when horses clip-clopped their ways across the country, the corn was green in the fields, they wore elegant clothes that looked soft and weren't all black, and society was stable and one found one's Captain Wentworth or John Thornton in a garden of yellow roses? Or driving a high-perch phaeton with scarlet-wheels, wearing an eight-caped greatcoat, with a team of matched greys?

And that must be how it was, mustn't it, because Austen for one never mentions a world beyond that charming and charmed existence, does she?

But here's the thing, we tend to forget that Austen was actually--and this may come as a bit of a shocker--quite an experimental novelist. That is to say, without exaggerating, in many ways, she must be credited as one of the inventors of the novel.

And when she was putting quill to paper, there were no rules. Such a thing as a how-to-write-a-novel manuals hadn't even been imagined! She wrote what she chose. No one was there to tell her differently. And if she decided not to write about the realities of her existence and the daily life about which she knew everybody already knew, who was there to criticise or complain?

(And let's be honest, those gardens, those carriages, those clothes and the great houses do make for excellent cinematography.)


One of the great surprises/shocks to me as I've researched the period of the early 19th century in England has been how many people walked everywhere. And no, I'm not just talking about the working classes and rural poor. I'm talking everyone. We think they had horses coming out of the wazoo and of all those photogenic carriages. They actually walked.

There's an account of a young doctor from Ireland who was training in Edinburgh and when the peace came in 1814 with Napoleonic France, he was accepted for further study at the Sorbonne in Paris.

How did he get to France? He had the money. So did he take the stage or mail coach to Dover? No, he bought himself a stout pair of boots and he walked there. 960 miles in six weeks. And as he walked the length of Britain, he wasn't alone. Never alone. Not by a long chalk.

Every road and pikeroad upon which he trudged--about twenty miles a day--from north to south was chock-a-block with of every description of person: itinerant labourers from every county--hedgers and ditchers, tinkers, drovers with their flocks, ballad-singers, harvesters, preachers, pedlars...

And not only but also, during the early 19th century, when Britain was on a full-war footing against Napoleonic France, a great deal of the training of the thousands of soldiers and militia included marching hundreds of miles from county to county.

Imagine it...

Thus our young doctor encountered on every not-quiet lane, a press of people walking, always walking. Because everyone, unless they were wealthy or very fortunately placed, had no other option.

Yes, there were coaches, but they were expensive. And the early 19th century was a period of immense inflation due to the war (taxes--war costs so much more than anybody really wants to contemplate). Also the weather which was abominable--they were in the midst of a mini-Ice Age though they didn't know it--with failed harvest after failed harvest, sending the cost of food sky-high.

And betwixt and between this mass of trudging humanity, there were of course the farmers and their carts bringing their produce to the nearest market town or perhaps to London where the prices would be better.

But again, it's not like in the films--carts were employed to transport heavy loads--everything from coal to produce to road-building materials either long or short distances. The horse--usually a heavy cob or pack-horse pulling these carts--walked at foot-pace, no clip-clopping merrily, straining on the inclines (and England is covered with hills and Downland) with their masters walking alongside, one hand on the harness and in the other a whip or goad.

(Walking was also the new Romantic pursuit of choice. It wasn't just William Wordsworth who bought himself, yes, a pair of stout boots, to walk in and much admire the hills of Cumbria. Viscount Castlereagh, husband to one of Almack's patronesses and a powerful politician in his own right as Foreign Secretary, loved nothing better than buying a pair of stout boots and walking the hills and peaks of Northumberland whenever he could get away.)

(I'm still working out how they dried out their sopping wet clothes after all the rain--probably every house and inn from John o'Groats to Land's End stank of wet, drying wool all year long! And wet dog.)

But what of inside?

Those candlelit scenes look lovely on-screen, don't they? So flattering and soft--everyone looks great. But, for example, reading by one candle or oil lamp is not so great. And if that's the only light in the one room where everyone is gathered because that's the only room with a fire in the grate, well, that's pretty dark.

Also, what is so easy to forget is just how far north Great Britain lies on the lines of latitude. During the winter months, darkness falls (earlier in the north) by half past four. Daylight comes trickling in somewhat eight-ish. So there are a great many unlit by sunlight hours...And again, due to inflation and the war, the price of candles was sky-high. So one economised. As certainly Miss Austen and her mother and sister would have done at Chawton.

But another thing that I didn't really recognise until one day a few years ago when I was visiting the mediaeval manor owned by the National Trust, Cotehele. Now this house is just a mediaeval beauty! But it is unlit by modern technology. And on this particular day, a black thunderstorm came over the Tamar Valley and obliterated all light--and they are a common feature of this island.

I was in this oak panelled hallway and it was obsidian as a coal shaft! So what if one were myopic in an age without good eyeglasses? (Servants?) Well, one would be bumping into everything! And then I understood even more--how did the Puritans cope--and no wonder our ancestors loved colour and light clothes--it meant they could at least make out the other figures in the room in all that darkness.

Moreover, all those single candles, all those candelabra on the tables, above each on the ceiling will be stained with a roundel of black soot, and somebody had to clean those in an age when the cleaning products did not come from the grocers, they came from hartshorn or other natural ingredients and one made these oneself.

Finally, I'd just like to say a word about our perception of the aristocratic and gentry women of the age. We look at Eliza Bennet and imagine her bountiful happiness at taking on the role of mistress of Pemberley.

But we too often have no clue what that must have entailed. A big house, such as Pemberley or Chatsworth or any of the other great houses, required a mistress who was trained to the position of basically running a large hotel to put it bluntly. And we know, for example, from the biographies of several ladies of the late 18th and early 19th century, that this was at the best of times a struggle. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, really had her work cut out for her when she took on Chatsworth--and she was brought up to the job.

Amongst the responsibilities of the mistress of such a place was the care and oversight of all the indoor servants--that might be upwards of 30 people-- including dressing them. (Except for the very grand houses and aristocratic families, servants of this period did not wear livery; they wore serviceable clothes, all of which were provided...brown or grey being a popular choice as it didn't shew the dirt.)

These ladies were also responsible for approving all menus, for ensuring that everyone in the household was fed, and when anyone on the estate was sick looked after. She was also expected to supervise her children's education, thus she needed a degree of education herself. She also managed, as it were, the stream of guests--bearing in mind this is a rural society, so one invites one's friends to visit and stay--and that includes their servants as well--so more people and activities to manage, often for weeks or months.

(Imagine the amount of bed linen such a house must have--and just how labour-intensive the washing thereof! And no Fairy powder neither!)

Oh, and there was the absolute necessity of providing that necessity--an heir and to spare.

But if our lady's husband traveled a great deal, was in the army or Royal Navy, or preferred London society to hers, our lady is at home, managing not the just the household, but the estate and farm as well. Which on the one hand meant that they really hadn't the time to get up to anything but paying taxes, the servant's wages, overseeing the income and vast expenditure and hiring in the local builders to mend the leaking ceiling after that last thunderstorm...

And yet these women did more. Often, we know from their letters that it was they who were responsible for restoring, rebuilding, adding on wings and furnishing these glorious houses--not the men. (One of my favourite women for this is Theresa Parker, mistress of Saltram.)

Amazing, isn't it all? Different from the images we cherish from our favourite 19th century novels and costume dramas, perhaps. But you know, I do feel that the real thing is just so breathtakingly wondrous, a panoramic of this fantabulous world of ours 200 years ago, I kind of prefer those many roads upon which all those stories are walking...

(M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century Britain and the Napoleonic wars and has written two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame, both of which are set amidst the world of walkers and wonders...and are available at and

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Soon to Release: The Second Chance by Joana Starnes

Soon after the Netherfield ball, a troubled Mr. Darcy decides to walk away from a most unsuitable fascination. Yet heartache is in store for them all, and his misguided attempts to ensure the comfort of the woman he loves backfire in ways he had not expected…

Excerpt from the opening chapter:

Absentmindedly, Darcy returned his watch to its pocket and strolled down the corridor to the left side of the house, to the predictable sanctuary of his choice. The library would be deserted at this time in the morning. At any time of day, to be precise. For all his other virtues, Bingley was not an avid reader, and neither were his sisters, despite some vocal protestations to the contrary – which, in truth, suited him very well indeed.
He opened the panelled door and entered, closing it quietly behind him.
‘Sparse’ would be the kindest way to describe Bingley’s collection, and Darcy wondered what he could choose today. He slowly ambled in, aiming for the furthest shelves where, a few days earlier, he had found a tome about some intrepid explorers and their perilous travels to the far-flung reaches of the Orient – and suddenly stopped, frozen in his tracks.
The library was not deserted at that time in the morning.
Previously hidden by the high back of the sofa she reclined upon, the occupant was now revealed to him, and Darcy all but gasped. A book loosely resting in her lap, her thumb still keeping her place between the pages, Miss Elizabeth Bennet sat before him, oblivious to his presence – and for a moment Darcy contemplated the wisdom of a swift retreat. But nay, she was bound to notice his withdrawal, and deliberate discourtesy was not something Darcy had ever wished to cultivate – except towards those who clearly deserved it.
He drew breath to greet her – but, as his slow footsteps brought him at last in full view of her countenance, the civil words faded on his lips.
She was asleep. She must have come down in the early hours of the morning for a brief respite, after tending to her sister for the best part of the night, and tiredness must have overcome her as she had read her book.
It forcefully struck him that, for the very first time in their acquaintance, he did not have to swiftly look away for fear that she would notice he was staring, and the unhoped-for chance to take in every detail of her appearance rose to his head, with all the heady effects of a fine wine.
Beautiful? He had taken great pains to make it clear to himself and to his friends – impudent dog that he was! – that she hardly had a good feature in her face. Yet he had scarce persuaded himself of the fact before that very face began to draw him, with the beautiful expression of her eyes, with every play of genuine emotion over the less-than-classically-perfect features, with every smile for her eldest sister, with every arch look towards him.
Whether she was beautiful or not to other eyes no longer mattered. It was she who drew him, more than any reputed beauty. Her warmth, her artless charm, her smile. She was smiling now, her lips ever so slightly turned up at the corners, ever so slightly parted, allowing quiet, tranquil breaths, softly in, softly out.
Her nose – small and endearingly perfect. The stubborn little chin, often tilted up in a playful show of defiance, the latest instance no further than the previous night.
‘I have therefore made up my mind to tell you that I do not want to dance a reel at all – and now despise me if you dare!’
He smiled despite himself as he remembered, the delightful mixture of archness and sweetness in her manner bewitching him more than anything he had ever come across.
She had very long lashes, he suddenly observed. He had never noticed this before, too mesmerised by the mirth in her eyes to pay any heed to something as mundane as lashes. They were thick, dark, and curled up at the ends. Her head was tilted to one side and the auburn ringlets that framed the oval face were now in disarray – she obviously intended to slip out for a moment from her sister’s chambers, and had not readied herself for anybody’s company, and certainly not his.
He ought to leave – that, he knew full well. He ought to turn on his heels and leave her before the lashes fluttered, her eyes opened and she caught him in the unpardonable act of spying on her in her sleep – and yet he could not, would not step away.
It took all the restraint he still possessed to not drop to one knee by her side and reach to brush his fingertips against the rosy cheek. He slowly flexed his unruly fingers into a tight fist, one by one, pressing his thumb against them in forceful endeavour to ensure that he would not succumb to the inconceivable temptation – yet even then, in defiance of his strict control, tantalising thoughts began to weave ever so slowly through him, spreading subtle, delicious poison in their wake.
To have the right to do so! To have the right to reach and caress her cheek, as she would lay asleep in his bed beside him. To see her eyes flutter open and crinkle at the corners as she would smile at him. To be allowed – encouraged – to lean towards her and taste the sweetness of her lips, to feel them soft and pliant beneath his own, as he would take her in his arms, her warm, lovely form cradled to his chest. Tender. Loving. Beautiful. His.
He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry and drew a ragged breath, so loud to his own ears that he feared it would wake her. She did not wake and, mindless of the dangers of exposure, he still stood exactly where he was, drinking in the sight of her and recklessly courting disaster. If she should wake, this very moment…
Seconds passed, one… two… three… a number. And every shred of reason cried out at him to leave, no longer merely to avoid detection and the attendant mortification, but to preserve himself from an enchanting vision that would most likely haunt him from now on in all his sleepless nights…
At long last he obeyed and walked back to the door, on mercifully sturdy floorboards. The hinges did not creak, another mercy, and he noiselessly closed the heavy door behind him – just as the thud of a book falling to the floor could be heard from the room that he had quitted.
Darcy took his hand off the door-handle as though the intricately moulded metal burned and, exhaling in sudden gratitude at his own narrow, far too narrow escape, he hastened away from the blasted spot – and from the strongest of temptations.

You can read more at:

 ‘The Second Chance’ will soon be available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

New Release: 'Serpents in the Garden' by Anna Belfrage

After years of hard work, Matthew and Alex Graham have created a thriving home in the Colony of Maryland. About time, in Alex’s opinion, after far too many adventures she is really looking
forward to some well-deserved peace and quiet.

A futile hope, as it turns out. Things start to heat up when Jacob, the third Graham son, absconds from his apprenticeship to see the world – especially as Jacob leaves behind a girl whom he has wed in a most irregular fashion. Then there’s the infected matter of the fellow time traveller Alex feels obliged to help – no matter the risk. Worst of all, one day Philip Burley and his brothers resurface after years of absence. As determined as ever to make Matthew pay for every perceived wrong – starting with the death of their youngest brother – the Burleys play out a complicated cat and mouse game, and Alex is thrown back into an existence where her heart is constantly in her mouth, convinced as she is that one day the Burleys will achieve their purpose.

Will the Burleys succeed? And if they do, will the Graham family survive the exacted price?

Serpents in the Garden is the fifth book in Anna Belfrage’s time slip series featuring time traveller Alexandra Lind and her seventeenth century husband, Matthew Graham.


“A word, Brother Matthew?”

Matthew sighed when he recognised the voice, but stopped all the same, sending an admonishing look at his wife.

“Mr Farrell,” he said, inclining his head in a polite greeting. Beside him, Alex curtsied.

Mr Farrell nodded curtly. “And how is your wife today?”

“As you can see, she is well.”

“Hmm.” Mr Farrell twirled his cane, his normally rather fleshy mouth set into a displeased gash. “I find it too coincidental,” he blurted.


“Don’t give me that, Brother Matthew. You know full well what I’m referring to. First, your wife is found talking to my slave. Come night, said slave escapes. Mighty strange that: a man chained to a pole contrives not only to strike the chains off, but also succeeds in creating a hole through a stout plank wall – with no tools but his hands.”

“Aye.” Matthew nodded. “That is right strange, that is.”

“He had an accomplice,” Mr Farrell said. “How else explain it.”

“An accomplice? Another slave, you think?”

“No, Brother Matthew, I think not. I think your wife.”

“My wife?” Matthew pulled his brows together into a ferocious scowl. “What makes you say such?”

Mr Farrell took a step or two back. “I hold you in the highest regard, Brother Matthew, and never would I utter such an accusation lightly. But, as I said, I don’t believe in coincidences. On the same night my rebellious slave escapes, your wife is apparently sleepwalking through our settlement, and in the process she not only tore her clothes, but somehow mangled her hands.”

“I do that a lot when I sleepwalk,” Alex put in, “tear my clothes, I mean. I fall over.”

Matthew glared her silent. “I can assure you, my wife it was not, and I’d gladly take on anyone who says differently.”

“We’ll see.” Mr Farrell adjusted his hat. “I dare say he’ll tell us the truth – ultimately. There is only so much pain a man can bear.”

“The word of a slave counts for nothing,” Matthew said, but his heart was thronging his throat, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see Alex had gone very still.

“Interesting all the same.” Mr Farrell looked Matthew straight in the eye. “I expect you to be present at his punishment so you can hear first-hand what he has to say.”

“His punishment?” Alex said. “How can you even think of punishing him? He looked close to death this morning!”

“That slave has to be taught a lesson,” Mr Farrell said, “and, once I’m done with him, he’ll be as docile as a lapdog.”

“He’s not a dog, he’s a man,” Alex flared.

“He’s a slave, Mrs Graham, a disobedient, difficult slave.” Mr Farrell gave her a crooked little smile. “And why should you care? Unless, of course, it was you that helped him.”

Alex went a bright pink. “I most certainly didn’t!” She sounded insulted rather than guilty. “That doesn’t mean I can’t feel sorry for him.”

“Most inappropriate,” Mr Farrell said severely before turning away.

“Shit,” Alex muttered to his retreating back. She cleared her throat. “Maybe we should leave, now.”

“How would that help?” Matthew said. “No, we have to brazen it out, no matter what yon poor bastard says.”

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