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31 December 2012

European Sipping Chocolate

One of the things I'm going to try to do more of in 2013 is take time to see friends and family. I started this a bit in 2012, and one of the wonderful discoveries I made by being less of a hermit was European Sipping Chocolate.

Carolyn Jewel introduced me to it at a wonderful little place about an hour away from my house. I can't always pop up there when I see her and the North Bay gang gathering to enjoy it (day job and the horrors of commute traffic prevent this), but I've got pretty good at making it myself.

So for New Year's, I wanted to share my new obsession with you all:

EUROPEAN SIPPING CHOCOLATE

2oz heavy cream
2oz half and half
1 oz dark brown sugar (the darker the better)
1/4 tsp vanilla
1 oz unsweetened baking chocolate (oddly, I find the cheap Bakers stuff works best)

Heat cream and half and half over the lowest heat possible for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add sugar, vanilla, and chocolate. Stir until melted and thick (about 3 minutes). And yes, you can expand the recipe to make more than one cup at a time.

Enjoy!!! 


24 December 2012

For the sake of a little loose arithmetic

[Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of bullying and the physical abuse of children.]

I've been reading Stalky & Co. by Rudyard Kipling, and it's got me thinking about the British boarding school system. (Something I do fairly often, really. Side note: while it's obviously out of period, I also highly recommend Stephen Fry's childhood memoir Moab is my Washpot for many amazing scenes of fucked-up boarding school life.) Stalky and his friends are holy terrors of teenage boys who seem to spend most of their time playing elaborate pranks on their teachers and fellow students.

I don't normally find behavior like this charming, and in fact, I don't find it charming here, exactly. Yet my sympathy remains with the main characters despite the fact that very similar behavior in Harry Potter annoys me no end. I spent some time thinking about this and came up with the following conclusion:

In Stalky & Co., the boys really feel like underdogs, persecuted and bullied not only by other students and their teachers, but by the entire structure of the British educational system. There is, for example, a section in which the boys are punished and humiliated for copying each other's homework by being kicked out of their study and forced to return to the dormitory's common room. The boys are incandescent with outrage because it is, get this, traditional to split up the homework load between students sharing a study. And it's impossible for me as a reader to really blame them despite my perhaps excessively sincere belief in the value of education and academic integrity, because very little of their work seems to have any point to it besides training them to unquestioning obedience. Kipling actually says so explicitly in the poem that opens the collection:

This we learned from famous men,
Knowing not its uses,
When they showed, in daily work,
Man must finish off his work--
Right or wrong, his daily work--
And without excuses.

It is a huge, overarching, internally inconsistent, arbitrary and arbitrarily enforced system, and yet it is enforced brutally and utterly without mercy, supported by bullying and abuse of power at every level (except, of course, for the beloved, wise, twinkling headmaster--some things never change). The boys' refusal to do their homework begins to feel like an fierce, stubborn, and compelling defense of the self.

(A large portion of Stalky and his friends' schooling is devoted to Latin. They attend a school which specifically trains boys for the army. When are they going to use Latin? I'm not even sure the irony is intentional when, in the final story about their army careers defending the Empire (full of classic Kipling racism), Stalky totally amazes all his friends by actually knowing Pashto and Punjabi. This is instrumental, even life-saving, a dozen times in the course of the story, and yet the knowledge is presented as a quasi-magical feat of greatness, typical of the amazing Stalky--certainly not something you might consider formally teaching to officers!

Here's what Anthony Fletcher says about Latin in Growing up in England: The Experience of Childhood 1600-1914:

There are two important respects in which the schooling of the seventeenth century set the pattern of educational practice to 1914 and beyond: it was gender segregated and it was based on a remote classical tongue, which held no intrinsic interest for most boys and which there was no good reason for them to learn. Yet Latin became the badge of class privilege. Walter Ogg suggested that Latin was in fact a puberty rite, intended to provide a difficult and painful initiation into an exclusive adult society. Latin beaten into boys was becoming, by 1660, the crucial foundation of a whole class and gender system that provided a revised basis for English patriarchy. It was the male elite’s secret language, a language which could be displayed as a mark of learning, of superiority and of difference.)

In Harry Potter, on the other hand, J.K. Rowling tries to make us feel for the poor trio, besieged by Slytherins and unfair teachers on all sides, subject to arbitrary discipline and cruelty--but at the same time Hogwarts is presented as a beloved home for its students, a charming wonderland whose curriculum is not only literally magical, but 100% relevant to Harry's life of evil-fighting. Both things simply cannot be true simultaneously, just as Gryffindors cannot both be the underdog Quidditch team AND win every match against the overfunded Slytherins.

Stalky & Co., despite its beloved headmaster, really doesn't pull any punches with just how awful boarding school life can be. In one story, the boys place a dead cat under the floorboards of a neighboring dormitory because the teacher who is head of that house has encouraged his students to begin a bullying campaign against Stalky et al. centering around the accusation that they smell.

In "Moral Reformers," the boys teach some bullies a lesson because an adult asks them to, saying that he himself is powerless to intervene effectively). Beetle describes the bullying he experienced himself as a younger student: "[They] kick their souls out of 'em, and they go and blub in the box-rooms. Shove their heads into the ulsters an' blub. Write home three times a day--yes, you brute, I've done that--askin' to be taken away."

Whether Stalky & Co.'s portrayal of the British boarding school system is accurate has apparently been a matter of some debate ever since the stories were first serialized in the 1890s. Isabel Quigly, in her introduction to the Oxford edition of the stories, includes a number of contemporary reactions that are well worth reading (my favorite for its sheer classism and snobbery: "Only the spoiled child of an utterly brutalised public could possibly have written Stalky & Co.").

Edmund Wilson, in his essay on the stories, adduces evidence from the memoirs of the boys on whom Kipling based M'Turk and Stalky. G.C. "M'Turk" Beresford "insists the fagging system did not exist at [their school]; that the boys were never caned on their bare shoulders; and that Kipling, so far as he remembers, was never caned at all except by a single exceptional master." [Graphic caning scenes appear repeatedly in the stories.]

Lionel Dunsterville, the boy on whom Stalky was based, on the other hand, later included in his own memoirs the following memorable passage (as quoted by Wilson):

I must have been perpetually black-and-blue. That always sounds so dreadful...But the truth of the matter is, any slight blow produces a bruise...And with one or two savage exceptions, I am sure that the blows I received as a result of bullying or legitimate punishment were harmless enough...Kicks and blows I minded little, but the moral effect was depressing. Like a hunted animal I had to keep all my senses perpetually on the alert to escape from the toils of the hunter--good training in a way, but likely to injure permanently a not very robust temperament. I was robust enough, I am glad to say, and possibly benefitted by the treatment.

Certainly Kipling's portrayal of boarding school life is more or less consistent with others I've seen. But of course, those portrayals were all written by...well...writers. Nerds, in other words, who by virtue of being a minority rarely escape some form of unpleasantness in school. In a boarding school system, where there is no escape to one's own home and limited supervision by adults...well, that's not going anywhere good.

There's a bit in A Room of One's Own where Virginia Woolf talks about an awkward moment in Jane Eyre, where Charlotte Brontë pauses Jane's narration of events for an impassioned page or two of introspection which begins, "It is vain to say that human being ought to be satisfied with tranquility."

If one reads [her] pages over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters.

I don't agree that being privileged in every way necessarily makes one a better writer--just to name one easy example, it would be pretty difficult to write well about oppression--but it's interesting to compare that to this little aside which appears abruptly in the middle of Vanity Fair:

Who is there among us that does not recollect similar hours of bitter, bitter childish grief? Who feels injustice; who shrinks before a slight; who has a sense of wrong so acute, and so glowing a gratitude for kindness, as a generous boy? and how many of those gentle souls do you degrade, estrange, torture, for the sake of a little loose arithmetic, and miserable dog-latin?

This site makes the further point that "in a novel which deals with the Battle of Waterloo [...the schoolboys'] fight is one of the most violent actions presented."

As Edmund Wilson says of Stalky in his sum-up:

Stalky & Co.--from the artistic point of view, certainly the worst of Kipling's books: crude in writing, trashy in feeling, implausible in a scries of contrivances which resemble moving-picture "gags"--is in the nature of an hysterical outpouring of emotions kept over from school-days...

However "accurate" the lurid picture of bullying and violence may be (and let me tell you, the "Corporal Punishment" section of the Wikipedia entry on Eton makes for interesting reading), it is clearly true to many boys' emotional experience. And yet people sent their children, generation after generation. Did they forget how bad it was? Did it seem normal to them?

Or was it simply that it was, as Walter Ogg suggests, a rite of passage? Maybe if your son wasn't tortured for his ten most formative years, he'd be outcast for the rest of his life, while all the other upper-class boys had banded together in communal suffering. How could he read popular novels, get a job, run for Parliament, etc. etc., with his experience so removed from every man of his own social status? If you didn't force him to learn Latin, how many jokes would he never understand?

How strange is it, really? I hated high school bitterly and benefited very little from it in any intellectual sense, nor did I ever have more than one or two friends at a time after most of my closest friends dropped out sophomore year. Yet when my parents offered to home-school me, I rejected the suggestion vehemently.

What do you think? What would you have done as a Regency or Victorian parent of little boys?

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18 December 2012

Favorite Books of 2012

RIPE FOR SEDUCTION is live and on sale today. This has me very excited as I adore this book. I know people always say their most recent book is their favorite, but in this case it’s really true (and mostly it’s true because I’m still day dreaming about the secondary couple and kicking around the idea of doing a novella of the book with them as the main characters so I can write their missing scenes!).

I’ve been seeing everyone’s Best of 2012 lists come out, and don’t think that doesn’t make you feel anxious when your book is a late December release! Several of my autobuy authors had multiple books out this year, but I’m limiting each author to one slot on my Top 10. As you’ll see, there’s a lot of Fantasy in the mix. That’s because I can’t read historical when I’m writing, so I’m waaaaaay behind when it comes to my own subgenre.

A few of these are new to me authors (Ben Aaronovitch and Sarah Mayberry), others are old favorites (P.C. Hodgell), and the rest are solid autobuys. In no particular order, these are my top fiction books of the year:


Gunmetal Magic, Ilona Andrews

Confessions from an Arranged Marriage, Miranda Neville

Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch

Her Best Worst Mistake, Sarah Mayberry

Imperial Scandal, Tracy (Teresa) Grant

When Maidens Mourn, C.S. Harris

About That Night, Julie James

Not Proper Enough, Carolyn Jewel

Ashes of Honor, Seanan McGuire

Fair Game, Patricia Briggs

17 December 2012

Of Wassailing and Holiday Traditions


Where did time go? It seems like it was just Thanksgiving in the U.S. and suddenly the holidays are in full swing. My daughter Mélanie and I spent today at two very fun holiday parties, an (early) Solstice party and a Wassail party, a word which conjures up images of old English Christmases. Though our wassail party did not include a Wassail King and Queen or drinking the health of the trees, and our Wassail punch was not topped with slices of toast, which it was historically. The punch itself was delicious and very potent, with the nutmeg and cinnamon that are part of many historical recipes.


Following my daughter - an eager explorer - around the party and slowly sipping my Wassail punch (a small cup went a long way!),  I couldn't help but think about Christmas for my characters. Of course an "old English Christmas" is not a static thing but a melange of customs that changed and grew through the years, with a number of things that seem part of a classic British Christmas coming in in the Victorian era, when Prince Albert married Victoria and brought customs from his native Germany to their family. In the Regency, houses might well have been decorated with greenery for the midwinter holidays, such as the garlands twined round the stair rail at the party tonight, but they wouldn't have had my hosts' lovely Christmas tree (a tradition that came in with Prince Albert).

My new novella, His Spanish Bride, takes place in December and ends at Christmas. Though the story is set in Lisbon, it revolves around the British embassy, so the holiday details are mostly British - a band playing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (I had “Deck the Halls” until my wonderful copy editor pointed out that while the tune is old enough the words aren’t) and a Christmas Eve party at the end. A reader pointed out on my website that the hero and heroine in my series, Malcolm and Suzanne, grew up in different cultures, Malcolm British (technically Scottish, where the big holiday would have been Hogmanay, New Year's Day) and Suzanne French-Spanish. Given the fact that her father was a secular Jew and her mother was a lapsed Spanish Catholic and she grew up in a traveling theatre company, I imagine her childhood holiday traditions combined elements of different religions and cultures.

My book Vienna Waltz finds Malcolm and Suzanne in Vienna two years into their marriage at the Congress of Vienna. It ends at a Christmas Eve party given by Dorothée Talleyrand at the French embassy where she really did have a Christmas tree – apparently they called it “Christmas Berlin style” in Vienna that year. I have Suzanne telling Malcolm their little boy loved the tree and they talk about perhaps having one themselves some day. Writing that scene made me realize I could believably have them have a Christmas tree and other Continental traditions in pre-Victorian England. I think we tend to think of the blending of different cultural holiday traditions as something more contemporary, but in the Regency as now marriages and travel could lead to elements of different cultural traditions being combined to make holiday traditions unique to a family. The book I’m writing now has moved into December 1817 so I can include their anniversary and their daughter's first birthday. Not sure it will go as far as Christmas, but maybe in the epilogue…

What are your favorite holiday traditions, in your family or in literature?


photo: Raphael Coffey


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10 December 2012

Ripe for Seduction out next week!

The third book in the League of Second Sons is out next week. Ripe for Seduction is the story of not-quite-widow, never really married Lady Olivia Carlow, who some of you will have met in Ripe for Scandal (and no, you don't have to have read Scandal first, promise). 

You can read the first three chapters on my website.

FIVE FUN FACTS

After you’ve finished RIPE FOR SEDUCTION, you can read the reconciliation scene for the secondary couple on my webiste too. I deleted it from the novel to keep Margo and Philip from taking over, but it's a scene I really love, so I kept it as a bonus for readers.

The indecent offer my hero, Roland, makes to my heroine was based on one a real one made to Lady Mary Coke. The real-life lord got off easier than my hero, LOL!

Giant dogs, this time Scottish Deerhounds, once again put in an appearance. Deerhounds were a very rare breed by this point in history. It’s doubtful that most people had ever even seen one, but luckily for us all, a few people kept the breed alive. I am lucky enough to know several Deerhounds, as they frequent my local dog park. Watching them run across the field is truly a sight to behold. The Wolfhounds and Great Danes can't keep up with them, and the Greyhounds are simply dwarfed by them.

RIPE FOR SEDUCTION features a shallop race on the Thames. The Queen’s Jubilee, with its display of historical boats, couldn’t have been more timely.

I based the house they all end up at in Paris on one that I stayed at in the Marais. Just down the street is my favorite Parisian café, Le Bouledogue, where you can meet Didier and his adorable French Bulldogs. Order the duck. You won't be sorry.
 

Starred review from PW!

“Carr is sure to balance her characters' roguish antics with genuine heart, making the double love story a delightful and erotic page-turner.”



After the scandalous demise of her marriage, Lady Olivia Carlow knows the rakes of the ton will think her fair game. So when a letter arrives bearing an indecent offer from the incorrigible Roland Devere, she seizes the opportunity. Turning the tables on the notorious rogue, she blackmails him into playing her betrothed for the season. But no matter how broad his shoulders or chiseled his features, she will never fall prey to his suave charm.

When Roland boasted he'd be the first into Lady Olivia's bed, he couldn't have imagined that behind those brilliant blue eyes lurked a vixen with a scheme of her own. Still, Roland is not about to abandon his original wager. If anything, learning that the lovely Olivia is as bold as she is beautiful makes him more determined to seduce her into never saying "never" again. 


I'll be serving jury duty today, but I'll try to check in on our breaks to answer any quesitons you might have. 


 

03 December 2012

Costumes so hideous


This probably doesn't come as a surprise to anyone, but I love historical clothing. I'll admit to a soft spot for Georgian fashion (powder and patch!), but I really, really adore Regency-era stuff too.

Guess who hated Regency fashion? Thackeray. His novel Vanity Fair takes place over about ten or fifteen years (not sure exactly) surrounding the Battle of Waterloo. The 2004 movie with Reese Witherspoon had FABULOUS costumes--Jonathan Rhys Meyers' haircut in that movie is one of the most adorable things I've ever seen.


I can't vouch for their 100% historical accuracy (Isobel, what did you think?) but they had the right look, at least. But when Thackeray drew his illustrations, he used contemporary (late 1840s) clothing.

Image scanned by Gerald Ajam for the Victorian Web.

Not to mention all his completely anachronistic references to Becky Sharp's beautiful bare shoulders in the text! Here's his explanation:

"It was the author's intention, faithful to history, to depict all the characters of this tale in their proper costume, as they wore them at the commencement of this century. But when I remember the appearance of people in those days, and that an officer and lady were actually habited like this--



I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous; and have, on the contrary, engaged a model of rank dressed according to the present fashion."

I have always found this absolutely hilarious, because to me, 1840s clothes are SO much less attractive.  Susanna Fraser brought this painting to my attention, as well:

Henry Nelson O'Neil, "Before Waterloo," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Wikipedia summary of the above painting suggests a reason for the change that isn't merely aesthetic:

This is an "anti-Regency" picture, since the artist seems to be intentionally avoiding depicting women's fashion styles that would be accurate to the year 1815. Instead, the women's clothing shown seems to be based on elements of 1830's and early 1860's fashions, and shows no particular resemblance to the actual styles of 1815 (except perhaps in having a slightly highish waistline). In those mid-Victorian days, before the rise of Kate Greenaway and the "Artistic Dress movement," it seems likely that some sober-minded people would have felt slightly uncomfortable to be reminded that their mothers or grandmothers had once promenaded about in Directoire/Empire/Regency fashions (which could be considered indecent according to Victorian norms).
But remember how, until a few years ago, everyone was so hideously embarrassed by the eighties? It was impossible to look at eighties fashion and find it even remotely attractive. And now you see modernized, sexy depictions of eighties fashion all the time, and the nineties seem hideously embarrasing (oh dear God, the shoulderpads! the HAIR! Why?????).

Scully and Mulder promo shot, embarrassing 90s fashion

(They're still megababes, though.) And in fact, the Wikipedia article then links to a cartoon that seems to support this simpler analysis:

Two women in exaggeratedly enormous hoopskirts make fun of a Regency portrait

[The cartoon is captioned, "ARABELLA MARIA: 'Only to think, Julia dear, that our Mothers wore such ridiculous fashions as these!' BOTH: 'Ha! ha! ha! ha!"]

When I was in elementary school in the early 1990s, there was NOTHING more horrifying than bellbottoms. I remember watching some kind of educational film made in the seventies when I was about ten, and every time a pair of bellbottoms came on screen the entire class would start laughing. Then flared jeans and peasant blouses came back in style, and "That 70s Show" took 70s fashion and made it look pretty adorable, and by now pictures of the 70s don't seem particularly appalling.

Is there a ten-to-twenty-year rotation on this stuff? Was Regency fashion Thackeray's equivalent of the eighties? Or was he just a prude?

And how can the same outfit seem so great at the time, so awful a few years later, and kind of cute and nostalgic after a couple of decades?

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