History Hoydens

Example

Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

17 November 2014

Remembering Dorothy Dunnett

The weekend before last, my daughter Mélanie and I spent the afternoon at a wonderful lunch party celebrating the Scottish Historical Novelist Dorothy Dunnett. All around the world, Dunnett readers gather on International Dorothy Dunnett Day (the Saturday closest to November 9, the date of her death) to celebrate her work. At 1:00, we toast in her favorite Highland Park Whisky. The pictures above shows our group toasting and below you see Mel and me with our lovely hostess Olive DePonte.

Dunnett has been a huge influence on me as a writer, and this seems a good time to repeat a post about her work and her influence on my writing that I first put up in 2007. 

I first discovered Dorothy Dunnett’s books the summer between high school and college. I picked up “The Game of Kings”, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, and spent a couple of days curled up on the sofa, glued to the page. I promptly devoured the rest of the six volume series. I told my mother she had to read them. It took her a bit of time to get into “The Game of Kings”, but soon she was as hooked as I was.

For those who haven’t yet discovered the Lymond Chronicles, the series begins in 16th century Scotland (when Mary, Queen of Scots, is a young child) and ranges all over the Continent. At the heart of the series is Francis Crawford of Lymond, mercenary, scholar, musician. Brilliant, tortured, an enigma to the reader and to most of the other characters. A lot of the fun of the series is trying to find the key to the fascinating code of who Lymond is, both literally (his parentage is in question) and in psychological terms. There’s a wonderful supporting cast of characters, both real historical figures and fictional characters blended seamlessly together. There’s adventure, angst, political intrigue, witty dialogue, and poetic allusions. The writing is wonderfully rich (Dunnett was also a painter), the pacing breakneck.

After the Lymond Chronicles, my mom and I both read Dunnett’s stand alone novel “King Hereafter” and her contemporary mysteries. And then to our excitement, she began a new series, the House of Niccolò, set in the 15th century, beginning in Bruges but again ranging all over, this time as far as Timbucktu and Iceland. The hero of the new series was a young dyeworks apprentice named Nicholas, dismissed as a buffoon by many but with abilities which lead him to rise in the commercial world and pull him into political intrigue in more than one country. Again, fictional events are blended with real historical events and mysteries abound. Reading the Lymond Chronicles, I thought, “it would have been really hard to read these as they were written and have to wait for each book.” With the House of Niccolò we had to do just that, with two years or so between each book. With their complex characters, intricate plots, and cliffhanger endings, the Dunnett books cry out for discussion. My mom and I talked about them endlessly, but we didn’t know anyone else who read them. I was thrilled to meet fellow writer Penelope Williamson and discover she was also a Dunnett reader. Penny and I spent many long lunches analyzing Dunnett’s books and speculating about what would happen next in the Niccolò series.

Then, in the mid-nineties, Penny and I both got online. We discovered there were whole online groups devoted to discussing Dunnett’s novels. Suddenly we could analyze and speculate with people all over the world. Dunnett readers tend to be a wonderul group–warm, friendly, well-read. I’ve had a great time geting together with fellow Dunnett readers both in the Bay Area and while traveling. In 2000, Penny and I and a number of our other Dunnett-reading friends went to Scotland for a conference in honor of the publication of the last book in the House of Niccolò series. Even now the series is finished (and Dunnett sadly passed away a few years ago) we love to get together online and in person to discuss Dunnett books and other books (not to mention tv shows from “Deadwood” to “Spooks/MI-5″ to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (which seems to be a particular favorite with Dunnett readers) :-).

Dunnett talked about reading and being influenced by other writers I love–Sabatini, Orczy, Heyer (certainly you can see bits of Andre-Louis Moreau and Percy Blakeney in Lymond, no to mention a touch of Peter Wimsey). She’s been a huge influence on me. I can see a number of echoes of her books looking at “Secrets of a Lady”–the conflict between brothers, questions about parentage, the loss of a child. I still pull out her books and reread certain scenes when I have to tackle an action sequence or a sword fight (“The Game of Kings” has the best sword fight I’ve ever read).

Have you read Dunnett? Do you enjoy discussing her books? Are there other authors you discuss with friends, online or in person?

Labels: , ,

10 November 2014

Travels in England, 1782: The Theatre in the Haymarket


Last week I went twice to an English play-house.  The first time “The Nabob” was represented, of which the late Mr. Foote was the author, and for the entertainment, a very pleasing and laughable musical farce, called “The Agreeable Surprise.”  The second time I saw “The English Merchant:” which piece has been translated into German, and is known among us by the title of “The Scotchwoman,” or “The Coffee-house.”  I have not yet seen the theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane, because they are not open in summer.  The best actors also usually spend May and October in the country, and only perform in winter.

A very few excepted, the comedians whom I saw were certainly nothing extraordinary.  For a seat in the boxes you pay five shillings, in the pit three, in the first gallery two, and in the second or upper gallery, one shilling.  And it is the tenants in this upper gallery who, for their shilling, make all that noise and uproar for which the English play-houses are so famous.  I was in the pit, which gradually rises, amphitheatre-wise, from the orchestra, and is furnished with benches, one above another, from the top to the bottom.  Often and often, whilst I sat there, did a rotten orange, or pieces of the peel of an orange, fly past me, or past some of my neighbours, and once one of them actually hit my hat, without my daring to look round, for fear another might then hit me on my face.

All over London as one walks, one everywhere, in the season, sees oranges to sell; and they are in general sold tolerably cheap, one and even sometimes two for a halfpenny; or, in our money, threepence.  At the play-house, however, they charged me sixpence for one orange, and that noways remarkably good.

Besides this perpetual pelting from the gallery, which renders an English play-house so uncomfortable, there is no end to their calling out and knocking with their sticks till the curtain is drawn up.  I saw a miller’s, or a baker’s boy, thus, like a huge booby, leaning over the rails and knocking again and again on the outside, with all his might, so that he was seen by everybody, without being in the least ashamed or abashed.  I sometimes heard, too, the people in the lower or middle gallery quarrelling with those of the upper one.  Behind me, in the pit, sat a young fop, who, in order to display his costly stone buckles with the utmost brilliancy, continually put his foot on my bench, and even sometimes upon my coat, which I could avoid only by sparing him as much space from my portion of the seat as would make him a footstool.  In the boxes, quite in a corner, sat several servants, who were said to be placed there to keep the seats for the families they served till they should arrive; they seemed to sit remarkably close and still, the reason of which, I was told, was their apprehension of being pelted; for if one of them dares but to look out of the box, he is immediately saluted with a shower of orange peel from the gallery.

In Foote’s “Nabob” there are sundry local and personal satires which are entirely lost to a foreigner.  The character of the Nabob was performed by a Mr. Palmer.  The jett of the character is, this Nabob, with many affected airs and constant aims at gentility, is still but a silly fellow, unexpectedly come into the possession of immense riches, and therefore, of course, paid much court to by a society of natural philosophers, Quakers, and I do not know who besides.  Being tempted to become one of their members, he is elected, and in order to ridicule these would-be philosophers, but real knaves, a fine flowery fustian speech is put into his mouth, which he delivers with prodigious pomp and importance, and is listened to by the philosophers with infinite complacency.  The two scenes of the Quakers and philosophers, who, with countenances full of imaginary importance, were seated at a green table with their president at their head while the secretary, with the utmost care, was making an inventory of the ridiculous presents of the Nabob, were truly laughable.  One of the last scenes was best received: it is that in which the Nabob’s friend and school-fellow visit him, and address him without ceremony by his Christian name; but to all their questions of “Whether he does not recollect them?  Whether he does not remember such and such a play; or such and such a scrape into which they had fallen in their youth?” he uniformly answers with a look of ineffable contempt, only, “No sir!”  Nothing can possibly be more ludicrous, nor more comic.

The entertainment, “The Agreeable Surprise,” is really a very diverting farce.  I observed that, in England also, they represent school-masters in ridiculous characters on the stage, which, though I am sorry for, I own I do not wonder at, as the pedantry of school-masters in England, they tell me, is carried at least as far as it is elsewhere.  The same person who, in the play, performed the school-fellow of the Nabob with a great deal of nature and original humour, here acted the part of the school-master: his name is Edwin, and he is, without doubt, one of the best actors of all that I have seen.

This school-master is in love with a certain country girl, whose name is Cowslip, to whom he makes a declaration of his passion in a strange mythological, grammatical style and manner, and to whom, among other fooleries, he sings, quite enraptured, the following air, and seems to work himself at least up to such a transport of passion as quite overpowers him.  He begins, you will observe, with the conjugation, and ends with the declensions and the genders; the whole is inimitably droll:


“Amo, amas,
I love a lass,
She is so sweet and tender,
It is sweet Cowslip’s Grace
In the Nominative Case.
And in the feminine Gender.”


Those two sentences in particular, “in the Nominative Case,” and “in the feminine Gender,” he affects to sing in a particularly languishing air, as if confident that it was irresistible.  This Edwin, in all his comic characters, still preserves something so inexpressibly good-tempered in his countenance, that notwithstanding all his burlesques and even grotesque buffoonery, you cannot but be pleased with him.  I own, I felt myself doubly interested for every character which he represented.  Nothing could equal the tone and countenance of self-satisfaction with which he answered one who asked him whether he was a scholar?  “Why, I was a master of scholars.”  A Mrs. Webb represented a cheesemonger, and played the part of a woman of the lower class so naturally as I have nowhere else ever seen equalled.  Her huge, fat, and lusty carcase, and the whole of her external appearance seemed quite to be cut out for it.

Poor Edwin was obliged, as school-master, to sing himself almost hoarse, as he sometimes was called on to repeat his declension and conjugation songs two or three times, only because it pleased the upper gallery, or “the gods,” as the English call them, to roar out “encore.”  Add to all this, he was farther forced to thank them with a low bow for the great honour done him by their applause.

One of the highest comic touches in the piece seemed to me to consist in a lie, which always became more and more enormous in the mouths of those who told it again, during the whole of the piece.  This kept the audience in almost a continual fit of laughter.  This farce is not yet printed, or I really think I should be tempted to venture to make a translation, or rather an imitation of it.

“The English Merchant, or the Scotchwoman,” I have seen much better performed abroad than it was here.  Mr. Fleck, at Hamburg, in particular, played the part of the English merchant with more interest, truth, and propriety than one Aickin did here.  He seemed to me to fail totally in expressing the peculiar and original character of Freeport; instead of which, by his measured step and deliberate, affected manner of speaking, he converted him into a mere fine gentleman.

The trusty old servant who wishes to give up his life for his master he, too, had the stately walk, or strut, of a minister.  The character of the newspaper writer was performed by the same Mr. Palmer who acted the part of the Nabob, but every one said, what I thought, that he made him far too much of a gentleman.  His person, and his dress also, were too handsome for the character.

The character of Amelia was performed by an actress, who made her first appearance on the stage, and from a timidity natural on such an occasion, and not unbecoming, spoke rather low, so that she could not everywhere be heard; “Speak louder! speak louder!” cried out some rude fellow from the upper-gallery, and she immediately, with infinite condescension, did all she could, and not unsuccessfully, to please even an upper gallery critic.

The persons near me, in the pit, were often extravagantly lavish of their applause.  They sometimes clapped a single solitary sentiment, that was almost as unmeaning as it was short, if it happened to be pronounced only with some little emphasis, or to contain some little point, some popular doctrine, a singularly pathetic stroke, or turn of wit.

“The Agreeable Surprise” was repeated, and I saw it a second time with unabated pleasure.  It is become a favourite piece, and always announced with the addition of the favourite musical farce.  The theatre appeared to me somewhat larger than the one at Hamburg, and the house was both times very full.  Thus much for English plays, play-houses, and players.

03 November 2014

TRAVELS IN ENGLAND 1782: Vauxhall

More from Mr. Charles P. Moritz, this time his visit to the famous pleasure garden:

"I yesterday visited Vauxhall for the first time.  I had not far to go from my lodgings, in the Adelphi Buildings, to Westminster Bridge, where you always find a great number of boats on the Thames, which are ready on the least signal to serve those who will pay them a shilling or sixpence, or according to the distance.

From hence I went up the Thames to Vauxhall, and as I passed along I saw Lambeth; and the venerable old palace belonging to the archbishops of Canterbury lying on my left.

Vauxhall is, properly speaking, the name of a little village in which the garden, now almost exclusively bearing the same name, is situated.  You pay a shilling entrance.

On entering it, I really found, or fancied I found, some resemblance to our Berlin Vauxhall, if, according to Virgil, I may be permitted to compare small things with great ones.  The walks at least, with the paintings at the end, and the high trees, which, here and there form a beautiful grove, or wood, on either side, were so similar to those of Berlin, that often, as I walked along them, I seemed to transport myself, in imagination, once more to Berlin, and forgot for a moment that immense seas, and mountains, and kingdoms now lie between us.  I was the more tempted to indulge in this reverie as I actually met with several gentlemen, inhabitants of Berlin, in particular Mr. S--r, and some others, with whom I spent the evening in the most agreeable manner.  Here and there (particularly in one of the charming woods which art has formed in this garden) you are pleasingly surprised by the sudden appearance of the statues of the most renowned English poets and philosophers, such as Milton, Thomson, and others.  But, what gave me most pleasure was the statue of the German composer Handel, which, on entering the garden, is not far distant from the orchestra.

This orchestra is among a number of trees situated as in a little wood, and is an exceedingly handsome one.  As you enter the garden, you immediately hear the sound of vocal and instrumental music.  There are several female singers constantly hired here to sing in public.

On each side of the orchestra are small boxes, with tables and benches, in which you sup.  The walks before these, as well as in every other part of the garden, are crowded with people of all ranks.  I supped here with Mr. S--r, and the secretary of the Prussian ambassador, besides a few other gentlemen from Berlin; but what most astonished me was the boldness of the women of the town, who often rushed in upon us by half dozens, and in the most shameless manner importuned us for wine, for themselves and their followers.  Our gentlemen thought it either unwise, unkind, or unsafe, to refuse them so small a boon altogether.

Latish in the evening we were entertained with a sight, that is indeed singularly curious and interesting.  In a particular part of the garden a curtain was drawn up, and by means of some mechanism of extraordinary ingenuity, the eye and the ear are so completely deceived, that it is not easy to persuade one’s self it is a deception, and that one does not actually see and hear a natural waterfall from a high rock.  As everyone was flocking to this scene in crowds, there arose all at once a loud cry of “Take care of your pockets.”  This informed us, but too clearly, that there were some pickpockets among the crowd, who had already made some fortunate strokes.

The rotunda, a magnificent circular building in the garden, particularly engaged my attention.  By means of beautiful chandeliers, and large mirrors, it was illuminated in the most superb manner; and everywhere decorated with delightful paintings, and statues, in the contemplation of which you may spend several hours very agreeably, when you are tired of the crowd and the bustle, in the walks of the garden.

Among the paintings one represents the surrender of a besieged city.  If you look at this painting with attention, for any length of time, it affects you so much that you even shed tears.  The expression of the greatest distress, even bordering on despair, on the part of the besieged, the fearful expectation of the uncertain issue, and what the victor will determine concerning those unfortunate people, may all be read so plainly, and so naturally in the countenances of the inhabitants, who are imploring for mercy, from the hoary head to the suckling whom his mother holds up, that you quite forget yourself, and in the end scarcely believe it to be a painting before you.

You also here find the busts of the best English authors, placed all round on the sides.  Thus a Briton again meets with his Shakespeare, Locke, Milton, and Dryden in the public places of his amusements; and there also reveres their memory.  Even the common people thus become familiar with the names of those who have done honour to their nation; and are taught to mention them with veneration.  For this rotunda is also an orchestra in which the music is performed in rainy weather.  But enough of Vauxhall!"






Free Web Site Counter
Kennedy Western University Online