Category Archives: Regency

Now out – The Heart That Wins

HeartWins-WEB

The third part of the Regency Spies trilogy is now available. The Heart That Wins takes place around the Battle of Waterloo.

In early 1815 it seems that the war with Bonaparte is over, but Sophia Arbuthnot is not so sure. When she learns that the exiled Emperor is about to reclaim his throne, she flees to Paris where she meets the man whose proposal of marriage she rejected two years before.

Captain John Warren has fought his way from Spain to Paris in an effort to put Sophia behind him, but now he has to face up to the choices he made as a boy. Before things can be resolved between them, they both have to face up to the choices that they made and confront the French spy who is working against them. Can first love have a second chance?

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Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball – DVD Review

Having a ball

Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet met at the Netherton ball. The preparations and the ball itself are recreated at Chawton House for this DVD.

Chawton house, now home to The Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600-1830, was one of the houses of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. When he inherited it he was able to provide a home for his mother and sisters in the nearby village of Chawton.

The DVD is a wealth of information about how people of different ages, classes and gender dressed for a ball and what their expectations were. Some of the many things I learned from the DVD are that the dances were long, usually about twenty minutes; the length of the candles in the chandeliers told the guests how long the ball was going to be; ballrooms were very hot places; and being able to dance well was one of the necessities for finding a marriage partner if you were a member of certain social classes.

The DVD is ably presented by Amanda Vickery, professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary College London and author of Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England and The Gentleman’s Daughter, and Alastair Sooke, art critic and broadcaster. They are assisted by specialists: John Mullan, professor of English at University College London and author of What Matters in Jane Austen, expert in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century novel; Ivan Day, an expert in historic food; and Stuart Marsden, an expert in historical dance.

The DVD is hugely informative. If you want to know what it took to put on a Regency ball, this is the place to go. It’s also entertaining and the clothes, when we eventually get to the ball, are lovely to look at.

The first half of the DVD shows the preparations for the ball: the dancing lessons; the fittings for clothes; the planning of the menu. Then we’re into the ball itself, watching the invited guests turn up on foot and in carriages on a snowy evening. They dance in a small room and people are pressed together far more than you would imagine. There’s plenty of opportunity to flirt in a twenty minute dance. There’s also a lot more touching than I was expecting.

Interestingly there’s a look at one of the Austen family’s music books, kept in the archives at the University of Southampton. The music was copied out by hand, to be played on a piano. Some of it was copied by Austen herself, in very neat handwriting. A piece from this book is arranged for musicians to play at the ball.

Watching this DVD you begin to understand why it would be noticed if a man danced with the same woman twice, something Mrs Bennet makes a great deal of when Mr Bingley dances with Jane. At twenty minutes each, there weren’t many dances in an evening and two would show a marked preference for a woman.

Supper also took up a lot of time. Here the guests sit down to sixty-three dishes, providing plenty of opportunities for more flirting, as the men helped their neighbours to food.

In my imagination, and probably in that of other readers of Jane Austen and historical romances, ballrooms were huge and those sitting out were a long way from the dancers, but here we can see how close they were to one another, with those watching paying close attention to who was dancing with whom and how well.

This is a very interesting DVD. The experts are articulate and have plenty to say and suggest. The dancers and other guests put the theory into practice. Watching the DVD has transformed the way I read and think about balls.

 

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Southey – Forgotten Poet Laureate

The poet's pilgrimage

Robert Southey was born in 1774 in Bristol and lived for most of his life in the Lake District. He was a Romantic poet and Poet Laureate from 1813 to 1843. Unlike his friends and contemporaries Wordsworth and Coleridge, he’s barely remembered today. I don’t know that I’ve ever read one of his poems and I couldn’t find one in any of my anthologies. I’ve attached a link to one of them below in case you’re in the same position.

As well as poetry he also wrote histories and biographies. He wrote lives of John Bunyan, John Wesley, William Cowper, Oliver Cromwell and Horatio Nelson. Jane Austen wrote in one of her letters that she was going to read this last, as she believed it mentioned her brother, Frank; it didn’t.

Southey was a great scholar of Spanish and Portuguese literature and history and he translated literary works from those languages into English.  He planned a history of Portugal, but only completed the History of Brazil. He also wrote a history of the Peninsular War.

Initially he tried a writing partnership with Coleridge and they published The Fall of Robespierre in 1794. It was a three act play depicting a very recent event. Robespierre had only been beheaded in July of that year. It was originally envisaged as a project between Southey, Coleridge and Lovell, each writing an act, but Lovell’s work didn’t fit with what Southey and Coleridge had written and Southey rewrote it. The three men each married one of the Fricker sisters. When Lovell died in 1796 Mrs Lovell and her son went to live with the Southeys.

The three poets had plans to found an egalitarian society in America, but it fell through when Southey suggested that Wales would be more suitable.

Although The Fall of Robespierre was a success, the relationship between Southey and Coleridge deteriorated, as did most of Coleridge’s relationships, due to his drug addiction.

Southey married Edith Fricker in 1795 and they moved to Keswick. As well as Lovell’s widow and son, their household included Sara Coleridge and her three children, who had been abandoned by Coleridge.

In 1808 he wrote Letters from England, the account of a tour of England written from a foreigner’s viewpoint. It was considered an accurate depiction of England in the early 1800s, but Jane Austen found it very anti-English.

By 1813 he had become so well-known that he was appointed Poet Laureate after Walter Scott had refused the post.

It wasn’t just poets with whom he became friends. Humphry Davy, the amateur poet and chemist who invented the Davy lamp, was a friend, and Southey accompanied Thomas Telford, on a tour of his projects in the Highlands

Although initially a supporter of the French Revolution, writing an epic poem on the life of Joan of Arc, Southey, like Coleridge and Wordsworth,  became more conservative, to the extent that he blamed the Peterloo Massacre on the crowd. Many of his contemporaries attacked him for selling out for money and respectability. He did, however turn down a baronetcy in 1835 and was extremely critical of conditions in manufacturing towns such as Birmingham and Manchester. He was also outspoken in his condemnation of child labour.

He celebrated the victory at Waterloo by building a bonfire on the top of Skiddaw which could be seen in Scotland. The celebration was attended by many people who walked to the top of the mountain, including the Wordsworths. There were large amounts of food and drink, to the extent that many of the gentlemen were drunk before they went back down. It is not recorded whether Southey and Wordsworth were in their number.

Southey visited Waterloo on 3rd October 1815, three and a half months after the battle. He wrote a poem about the experience – The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo. Jane Austen, who read it in January 1817 shortly after it was published, was moved by the description in the poem of Southey’s son, Herbert, who died in 1816. Its tone was very different to the anti-war poem After Blenheim that he had written twenty years before.

Byron despised him, in addition to having no respect for his abilities as a poet, for what he considered to be a hypocritical turn to conservative politics. In return, Southey held Byron in very low esteem.

He was far from being a feminist and discouraged Charlotte Brontë from pursuing a career as a writer when she wrote to him to ask for advice. On the other hand he enjoyed Jane Austen’s novels and expressed regret after her death that he hadn’t known her.

After the death of his wife, Southey married again in 1839. His new wife, Caroline Bowles, was also a poet. Shortly after the marriage signs of dementia began to appear and he died in 1843.

 

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Fanny and Jane

Evelina

To complete what has turned out to be a trilogy of female writers admired by Jane Austen we turn to Fanny Burney.

Frances Burney was the daughter of Dr. Charles Burney, the organist and musical historian. He had moved from London to King’s Lynn for the sake of his chest and it was there that Fanny was born in 1752. Music and the arts were very important to the family. They returned to London when Frances was eight and  two years later her mother died. Burney was the third of six children from her father’s first marriage and they were all close. She didn’t go to school, and didn’t learn to read and write until she was eight.  Five years after the death of her mother Burney’s father married a widow he had known in King’s Lynn. The stepmother was not popular with his children and Burney never accepted her. Charles Burney was a doting father and Burney constantly sought his approval, which had been missing in her earlier life. She was his secretary when he wrote his four volume history of music.

Burney met many of the leading men in music and literature, thanks mainly to her father. Her brothers and sisters were also interested in writing, one of her sisters also becoming a novelist. As well as writing novels and plays, Burney was a prolific writer of letters and journals. These were intended for posterity rather than for the moment and these were the source of her fame for the last century. Famously she described spending the night before Waterloo in Brussels and her own mastectomy, undertaken without anaesthetic.

Evelina was her first and best novel. She wrote it in her teens and finished it in 1777. It was published in 1778. In the fashion of the time it was published anonymously. Authors tended not to admit to their works until the works were successful. Burney even disguised her handwriting, afraid that the publisher would recognise it from the work she had done writing her father’s manuscript, and sent it to the publisher by her brother.  Dr Johnson was an admirer and said that some of the passages would do honour to Richardson. Walpole, Burke, Garrick and Reynolds praised it.

Burney has long been considered an amateur writer who never developed. Her first published novel is considered her best work. There was an earlier novel that she burnt at the behest of her father. Her novels dealt with the identity and character of her heroines.

In 1779 she wrote her first play The Witlings. It was a satire on the blue-stockings, a group of intellectual women who met to discuss literature and the arts. These women had enjoyed Evelina and supported Burney when she admitted to being the author. Burney’s father and other friends persuaded her against trying to have it put on. Dr Burney thought that it was insulting to people who would otherwise have helped her. It was also recognised that a gentlewoman should not have anything to do with the theatre. Women associated with the theatre were considered immoral.

From 1786 to 1791 she was the Second Mistress of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. It was a tedious job, but she needed the £200 per annum it brought, since she wasn’t sure that she would marry, having already had two failed romances. She was thirty-four when the position was offered to her. Burney wasn’t interested in clothes; she found she had little time to write; and one of the other keepers of the robes made her life so unbearable that she wanted to resign. This would have been an insult to the queen, with whom she had developed a good relationship, so she stayed until she became ill. During this time she had another failed romance, which wore her down still further. When she eventually resigned due to ill health she was given a pension of £100.

In 1793, when he was forty, she married a penniless, exiled French officer, M. d’Arblay. He was a Catholic with no means of support at all. It was a love match, but her father did not attend the wedding. Their son Alexandre was born in 1794. One of them needed to earn some money, so Burney wrote.

Burney’s play Edwy and Elvira was produced in 1795, but was a failure, closing after the first night. Her next novel, Camilla, published in 1796 was a financial success. It was published by subscription and Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth were among the subscribers.

From 1802 to 1812 the d’Arblays lived in France. They had gone there during a period of peace in the hope of restoring M. d’Arblay’s fortunes, but this was not to be. When hostilities began again Burney was a political prisoner and could neither send nor receive mail. D’Arblay took a clerical job, since he was unwilling to join an army that fought for republican ideals. Burney could not receive the money from her writing so d’Arblay eventually joined the republican army. Later he was able to join the royalists.  Burney’s final novel, The Wanderer (1814), written after their return to England, was not well-received. It was considered dated.

In 1810, while still in France, Burney had a mastectomy. This was achieved without anaesthetic and she was conscious throughout the operation. One of her surgeons was Larrey, who was later a surgeon to Napoleon’s army at Waterloo and whose bravery was recognised by Wellington. The surgeons who carried out the operation were the best in France and included the obstetrician of the empress Marie-Louise. Burney later described the operation in detail in her journal and it’s not for the squeamish. Although she recovered, d’Arblay died of cancer in 1818. Burney’s last work was a life of her father, published in 1832. He had died in 1814.

Burney died in 1840, having outlived her husband, her son and her siblings.

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Maria, Belinda and Helen

Helen

Maria Edgeworth was a novelist admired by Jane Austen. She was born in Oxfordshire in 1768. Her mother was the first of her father’s four wives. When her mother died and her father married again, the family moved to Ireland, where her father had his estate. When his second wife died, Richard Lovell Edgeworth rather shockingly married her sister.

Mr Edgeworth favoured Rousseau’s ideas on education. Rousseau believed that we are born good and that that is our natural state. He espoused the romantic view that paying attention to nature makes us better. He believed that education should be focused on the individual and that the educator should be more of a facilitator. Maria Edgeworth approved of his idea that boys and girls should receive the same education.

For a short time she attended school in England. When she returned to Ireland she mixed with the Anglo-Irish gentry, including Kitty Pakenham, later to marry Wellington. She read the novels of Mrs Radcliffe and William Godwin, who wrote what is considered to be the first mystery novel.

Edgeworth helped her father to manage the estate. He was a member of the Irish parliament and they wrote Practical Education published in 1798 with together. She continued to collaborate with her father on other works about education and also mechanics. She also began writing stories for her many siblings. Her father had twenty-two children, of whom she was the third. Realising that she had a talent for it, and despite her father’s belief that it was frivolous, she concentrated on fiction after 1801, writing stories for children, stories about the Irish character and romances (or courting novels). Her great skill was in the creation of characters.  Her best known novels are Castle Rackrent (1801), Belinda (1801), Leonora (1806) and Helen (1834).

Belinda

Edgeworth’s third stepmother, Frances Beaufort (sister of the creator of the Beaufort Scale, which measures wind force), was a year younger than her and became her trusted friend. In 1802 Maria travelled with her father and stepmother during a pause in the hostilities during the Napoleonic Wars, visiting Belgium and France.

Her novels were very popular and she initially outsold Jane Austen and Walter Scott. She became a friend of the latter, visiting him in Scotland and he visited her in Ireland. He said that her stories about Ireland inspired him to write Waverley. She also knew Wordsworth and his friend Humphrey Davy, as well as Byron, whom she disliked.

Her first novels were about life in Ireland. She also wrote for children. Her most famous novel is Belinda, far racier in its intimations about sexual relations than anything her contemporary Austen wrote. Edgeworth’s novels had a moral purpose that can seem heavy-handed to today’s readers. Helen is about how destructive lies can be in a relationship. Belinda is also about the negative effect of deceit, but its main purpose is to praise rationality. Belinda’s first two editions featured an interracial marriage but Edgeworth’s father made her remove it from the third edition. My copy is the 1857 edition, published after her death, in which the marriage is restored. The novel must have been a lot less entertaining without it.

In 1837 she was made a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

She died of a heart attack in 1849.

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The Proper Study of Man is… Alexander Pope

The Rape of the Lock

A couple of weeks ago I had lunch in the Phoenix Inn  in Twyford, near Winchester. The food and the beer were both good, neither of which is the point of this post. There was a notice on the wall behind me about Alexander Pope being expelled from the village’s prep school for writing inflammatory verses about one of the masters. I had made him the favourite poet of the Earl of Meldon in The Heart That Lies and I was intrigued by the relatively local connection. Since I didn’t know anything about his life, I thought I’d find out what I could and read a few more of his poems.

Pope wrote witty and satirical poetry. His most famous poem, The Rape of the Lock, is about the theft of a lock of hair by one of his friends from another friend. It’s a lot more than the bit of froth that I’ve made it sound. When I started looking into his life I was surprised to discover that he is more quoted than any other author save Shakespeare. The best known quotation is probably “The proper study of mankind is man”, which I’ve misquoted above. “A little learning is a dangerous thing” is one of his, as are “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and “To err is human, to forgive divine”.

He was born in London in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, when the Catholic James II was forced from the throne on the birth of his son due to fears of a Catholic monarchy. It was thought that this could cause a return to the anarchy of the Civil War and James’s Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange, was invited to take the throne with his wife, Mary.

Pope’s parents were Catholic and he received an indifferent education, partly at Twyford and partly at two illegal Catholic schools in London. Catholics were not so much second class subjects at the time as not subjects at all. They were not allowed to attend university or to teach, vote or hold public office. In addition to a poor education, Pope also suffered from a serious illness that left him disabled at twelve. As a result he was a short man, less than five foot, apparently. School of any kind was out of the question thereafter and he mostly educated himself.

His first works were published in 1709, although he claimed to have written them when he was 16. The Rape of the Lock was published in 1714 and made his reputation. Despite his physical condition, he was untiring and continued writing until his death. He was one of a very small number of poets to make his living entirely from writing poetry.

Pope translated The Iliad and The Odyssey. The former gained a large following.

In 1718 he moved to a villa in Twickenham, which became popular due to its grounds, which were his main interest.

The Essay on Man, from which I have misappropriated the title of this post, was published in 1733. It’s a positive affirmation of faith, stating that man really isn’t in a position to understand God and should accept this. Once someone acknowledges their place in “the Great Chain of Being” they can live as they should and be happy. Pope intended it to be part of a larger work, but died before he could complete it. Other works include An Essay on Criticism (1711), Eloisa to Abelard (1717) and The Dunciad (1728).

Like many people with sharp wit and a satirical bent, Pope made enemies. He was not assisted in this by his character, as he was vain, vindictive, unjust and sensitive to criticism. He lost many friends as a result.  Despite this, he was considered the greatest poet of his age by his contemporaries.

By the early nineteenth century Pope had largely fallen out of favour. Wordsworth found his style too decadent to represent the human condition truly. Byron, however, liked Pope’s work.

He died in 1744.

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Gothic Heroine

Mysteries of Udolpho

Mrs Radcliffe was despised and revered in about equal measure at the beginning of the nineteenth century. She wrote some of the gothic novels referred to by Jane Austen in her own novels and was the most famous writer in that genre. For many, novels of any kind were considered frivolous and gothic novels were more frivolous than the rest. In this regard Mrs Radcliffe was not well-served by her fame, as she represented the gothic novel in the mind’s of most people and came in for a lot of criticism. Mrs Radcliffe’s novels are representative of the genre in that the plots are labyrinthine; they have casts of thousands and there is usually a strong supernatural element, although in her case this is always explained later. It’s probably due to her that the gothic novel survived as long as it did as a genre.

Mrs Radcliffe was born Ann Ward in 1764 in London and married William Radcliffe in 1787. He was the owner of a weekly newspaper. Her mother was 38 when she was born and it was her relationships with her parents and her mother-in-law that are believed to have had most influence on her as a writer, since these relationships were very fraught. Ann Ward grew up with an uncle, not with her parents, and Mrs Radcliffe senior was very difficult, demanding that money be sent to her for her support even though it would have been easier for everyone if she had moved in with Ann and William.

Ann Radcliffe was a Unitarian. This was a religion that did not have its first church in England until ten years after her birth. Since I had to look it up, I can share that Unitarians, at least in Mrs Radcliffe’s day, were theists who did not accept the Trinity, nor did they accept that Jesus was God. There were Unitarians in England from the middle of the seventeenth century, but it was only in 1774 that they became a formal denomination. This is of some importance to her readers, as the deity in her works is the Unitarian deity. She was very anti-Catholic, which is quite a feature of the Gothic genre.

Her first book The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne was published in 1789. It was, apparently, dreadful and attracted no attention. A Sicilian Romance was published in the following year and Sir Walter Scott said it was the finest English example of the poetical novel. Another year brought The Romance of the Forest, the book that Harriet Smith was so desperate to read in Emma.

The Romance of the Forest

Mrs Radcliffe’s most famous books were The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794 and The Italian in 1797. The Mysteries of Udolpho is parodied in Northanger Abbey and there are those who see her influence in other books by Jane Austen. This rather implies that Jane Austen was a fan, both of Mrs Radcliffe and the gothic genre. She must have read and liked a number of such books in order to produce a good parody.

I have tried to reflect the way in which her novels were received in two of my own novels. In The Heart That Lies the earl of Meldon is a fan and has even tried to meet the woman whose writing he admires. His closest friend, Edmund Finch, is dismissive of her talents in The Heart That Hides and would rather have someone read a laundry list to him than one of her novels.

The reason that fans like Meldon didn’t meet their heroine was because she became a recluse in her later years. Very little was known about her and Christina Rossetti had to abandon her plan to write a biography due to the lack of material.

After producing five very popular novels, she stopped writing in 1797 at the age of 32. There is some suggestion that this was due to pressure from her husband, but there are also clues that she was not entirely stable mentally. She appears to have had a mental breakdown in 1812 and there were rumours that she died in a lunatic asylum. For some months after her breakdown it was believed that she was near to death, but she recovered and returned to London and her husband in 1815.

Mrs Radcliffe died in 1823 from some kind of respiratory problem. It’s not known if it was asthma, pneumonia or a chest infection; it seems each is equally possible.

Her contemporaries regarded her as a dramatic poet and it was the poetry that established her in the literary world. Women novelists were considered frivolous, but she rose above this. The poems in her novels aided her readers’ understanding of the story.

She was a strong influence on Sir Walter Scott and he acknowledged his debt to her.

Her novels are long and rambling for today’s tastes, but still worth investigating.

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Thomas Telford and St Mary Magdelene

IMG_0616

I was in Shropshire earlier in the week and had intended to visit some of the castles in the Welsh Marches. The weather was dreadful, so I gave up on that plan and spent a day in Bridgnorth instead. This is the parish church of St Mary Magdalene, designed by Thomas Telford. As you can see, it’s rather unusual if you’re used to English churches from earlier or later centuries. It was built in the 1790s and is not at all in the Gothic Revival style of the majority of English parish churches erected in the nineteenth century. In the late eighteenth century it wasn’t yet fashionable to ape the Middle Ages and the churches designed and built then reflected that time’s obsession with all things classical. The church that Jane Austen attended when she lived in Southampton was built around the same time and was built in a similar style with four columns at the front and a clock tower.

Telford was a Scot who left his mark all over Shropshire where he was Surveyor of Public Works and the new town in the Wrekin district of the county is named after him. Born in 1757 in Glendinning in Dumfriesshire, he died in 1834 in London and was buried in Westminster abbey, which wasn’t bad for the self-taught son of a shepherd. He had little formal education and was apprenticed to a stonemason at the age of fourteen. He learned as he worked and became very successful.

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Telford’s other contribution to Bridgnorth is a bridge over the Severn. There had always been a bridge over the Severn here, hence the name, but flooding was, and still is, common, and the bridge was frequently damaged during the eighteenth century. Heavy floods almost destroyed the bridge in the 1790s and many plans were offered for a new bridge or for ways to repair the bridge. In 1812 the bridge was repaired to Thomas Telford’s plan. There were further repairs later in the nineteenth century and the bridge was also widened.  He built about 40 bridges in Shropshire alone.

I can still remember a school project on Telford over forty years ago, which involved me writing up the findings of my small group for display, because I was the only one who could write in a straight(ish) line on unlined paper. The associated fear of complete humiliation should I fail to do so has lived with me ever since and ensures that I have never forgotten Thomas Telford. The project was about the toll roads that were beginning to be built all over England in the eighteenth century. Tolls had been charged for the upkeep of bridges since the early Middle Ages. Most bridges replaced ferries for which a fee was payable and paying to cross the bridge was acceptable, especially if its users could see that improvements were being made. There were also tolls to enter towns and ports. In the late eighteenth century tolls were being used to improve the roads in order to increase the speed of travel. Telford’s contribution was on the London to Holyhead route along what is now mostly the A5 and was originally (from London to Wroxeter) the Roman road known as Watling Street.  This improvement also included the building of the Menai Suspension Bridge across the Menai Strait, which is between Anglesey and the mainland.

There are also tollhouses all over the country based on Telford’s design. They were made fairly comfortable, because the owners of the road wanted to attract the right sort of toll-collector, i.e. one who would collect the tolls honestly and pay them to their employer. They’re easy to identify, as they’re usually very close to the road. About 100 of them still exist in Shropshire, but you can go into the one at Blists Hill Museum and see how the family of the toll-collector would have lived. There is a picture of it here. The last time I went there there was a fork upright in the garden as if the toll-collector had just been called away to collect a toll. There were 300 tollhouses in Shropshire alone.

Telford wasn’t just prolific, his experience was also broad including bridges, canals, churches, aqueducts, viaducts, roads, harbours. He built bridges over the Severn at Montford (his first bridge) and Buildwas; the Ellesmere Canal; the Caledonian Canal; over 1,000 miles of road and 120 bridges in Scotland. He also wrote poetry. He was a founder and first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

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A New Guise for a Lying Heart

HeartLies-WEB-flat

Although it was rather good, I’ve recently replaced the cover of The Heart that Lies. Now that I’ve finally finished the second book in the Regency Spies trilogy (almost a year later than planned), I decided to have a theme run through all three covers and I couldn’t achieve that with the cover that was already on the book.

Cathy Helms at Avalon Graphics has, once again, come up with something rather special.

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Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain by Stephen Taylor – A Review

Commander

I’m in the early stages of planning a book whose hero is a naval captain, so I was happy to come across this biography of Edward Pellew, later Viscount Exmouth, the greatest seaman of his age. By a happy coincidence he was, like my prospective hero, a Cornishman.

A contemporary of Nelson (they joined the navy within three weeks of one another, although in very different circumstances), Pellew was born in 1757 and died in 1833. During the forty-six years he was in the navy he spent over thirty-six years at sea.

With no one to promote his interests, Pellew joined his first ship in the lowest position possible. His ability impressed those above him, but still he rose through the ranks slowly, finding less able men with more influential friends or family promoted ahead of him.  His talents were eventually recognised, however, and he ended his career as an admiral, commanding a fleet in the Mediterranean.

He was one of those men who never ask anyone else to do what they’re not prepared to do themselves. An athletic man, even in middle age he could climb the masts faster than most in his crew. He was always concerned for the welfare of his men, ensuring that they had sufficient exercise to keep them fit and out of mischief and lemon juice to keep scurvy at bay.

In his thirties, when he was a successful captain of frigates fighting and capturing French ships in the Channel, Pellew was for a while more famous than Nelson. He won the first engagement in the war with revolutionary France in 1793 and was knighted as a result. A superb sailor and a good leader of men, his ship was one of the few unaffected by the mutiny of 1797.

Pellew was in the unfortunate position of inspiring enmity and love in equal measure. Whilst at least two captains of French ships he captured became lifelong friends, he made enemies at the Admiralty and in Parliament. During the course of his career he had the frequent misfortune of impressing a man able to advance his cause just as that man was about be replaced, or to make an enemy of a man at the moment he rose to prominence. Apart from his ability to make enemies, other negatives about his character are brought out in the biography. One of these was nepotism. In an age of when this was so common that it was rarely worth mentioned, Pellew took it to extremes by advancing his sons beyond their ability and seems to have been slow to recognise that they weren’t very able. This drew a fair amount of criticism.

During his long career Pellew fought in Canada, where his talents were first recognised, and later had commands in the Channel, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Despite his ability in battle, Pellew missed the defining battle for the British navy. In 1805, while Nelson was commanding the fleet at Trafalgar, Pellew was patrolling the Indian Ocean. Although he was an excellent all round seaman, his particular talent was to train his crews so that they were accurate in their gunfire. He made them practise so that they could take on an enemy with superior firepower and win.

Pellew was like Wellington, in that he never stayed in one place while he was fighting. He would move all over the ship directing and encouraging, even in his last battle at the age of 59. Unusually, for he was known for his snobbery, Wellington esteemed the low-born Pellew highly. Pellew had provided naval support to Wellington’s army during the Peninsular War.

The illustrations in the book are not of good quality. They are printed in black and white at the top or bottom of pages of text. There are no colour (or even black and white) plates in their own section as would be more usual in a biography. Since they are interspersed with text it would be reasonable to expect them to relate closely to the text, but they do not. Often they illustrate events in the past, and don’t relate to the events being described around them.

Taylor’s biography is easy to read and I found it difficult to put it down. This is partly because Pellew lead such an interesting life and partly because the incidents chosen to illustrate that life are well-chosen and nicely supported by contemporary documentation.

I enjoyed this book very much. It could have been a very dry account of the life of a great man, but it’s a lively story about a man who seems to have been very much larger than life.

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