Friday, 22 September 2017

Grumpy old writer

I was talking to somebody the other day who was telling me that they thought that the Internet had radically changed the way that books are sold. That's hardly a new thought, but the changes that the Internet has wrought on publishing are much greater than that. The Internet has dramatically changed the way that books are written.

Just lately I've been reading a bit more fiction than usual – some of it traditionally published and some of it from independent or small presses which publish only as e-books. What has struck me is the way that books seem to have changed from when I was younger.

Books have changed since the days when this was a furniture norm

Note that I'm talking about changes in books generally. I'm not picking on any particular author and these changes will have affected my work as well as those of people I know. My whole point is that the technology has changed the way that books are written, rather than that individual authors are writing better or worse books than they used to.

As is traditional when grumpy old people write about how things are changing, I don't think that many of the changes mark an improvement. Books I pick up nowadays are riddled with proofing errors, repetition, mixed metaphors and just passages of really rather awful prose. There's lots of really good stuff too and many more writers out there producing more books than ever before and that is a good thing. But there is an astonishing amount of rubbish and that is not.

Why is quality on the slide?

You know that old saying: you can have a quick, you can have it cheap, or you can have a good, but not all three? Well the way that books are sold nowadays means that, with rare exceptions, they have to be written quickly and sold cheaply. Inevitably, they aren't as well written as they might be.

If you look at fiction bestseller lists, you will see that they are dominated by books by well-known authors who write to a formula that has worked for them in the past – often as part of a series. With so many books around, people naturally turn to novels by authors they have read before. This is even more the case further down the charts. If you are waiting with bated breath (and I hope you are) for Endeavour to publish the fourth of my books about James Burke (provisionally titled Burke in the Peninsula) then you’ve probably already read at least one of the others. The best way to sell an existing book (unless you are famous or have an unrealistically generous marketing budget) is to produce a new one. Interest in a new novel should always raise sales of existing books by the same writer.

The demand for new books means that all writers find themselves under pressure to produce at speed. I produce, more or less, one book a year. (There's a bit of a hiatus at the moment because I've just changed publisher.) This is partly because I'm fundamentally lazy, but also because historical novels genuinely do take longer to write – there are so many details that you have to check if they are not be riddled with errors. A book a year, though, is now regarded as quite pathetic. Fortunately, I don't care that I don't make any money from writing (although if you all proved me wrong by buying my books, I would be quite grateful). If I did intend to generate even the minimum wage from my writing, I would really need to write a lot more quickly.

The economic imperative to put words down on paper ever faster is translating into a new approach to writing which is spawning its own self-help books and online support groups. The idea here is to simply pour words on paper ever so quickly. Don't worry about editing – just get the words down. Tidying up can come later.

There is a lot to be said for this approach. It certainly doesn't allow for precious nonsense about writers block. In fact, it puts writing on a par with any other artisanal craft. After all, if you throw pots for a living, you are expected to produce a fair number of pots. You can't – unless you are the very top of your game – say that you are only going to produce one pot this week, but it will be very, very good.

This approach can lead to great storytelling. When we are telling a story to our friends they want us to get on with the tale. There is nothing worse than the storyteller who keeps stopping and going back and changing some detail here or there. "It happened in Birmingham – no, Leeds. It was on a Tuesday – no a Wednesday." People just want the story and writing very fast can produce very good stories which can be improved by the paciness of the prose which is, in part, a product of the writing process.

What is lost, of course, is the quality of the actual writing itself. In theory, this might not even be a problem for the author. That, some will say, is what editors are for. Editors should notice the repetitions, infelicitous word choices, mixed metaphors, and all the rest of it. But, if you recall, we don't just want a quick, but we want it cheap.

Proper editing costs money and there just isn't enough of that around. Many self-published authors who do pay editors not only don't make any money out of their efforts but actually end up out of pocket. Of course, you can buy the services of a very cheap editor, but then it's unlikely they will be very good.

You'd think that editing issues would not be a problem for major publishing houses, but it seems that they are. I am generally avoiding pointing the finger at particular books but E L James has sold so many copies of 50 Shades… that I think she can cope with some criticism of her prose. This is from early in the book.

Fifty Shades of Grey

I walk over to the bank of elevators and past the two security men who are both far more smartly dressed than I am in their well-cut black suits.
The elevator whisks me at terminal velocity to the twentieth floor. The doors slide open, and I'm in another large lobby – again all glass, steel and white sandstone. I'm confronted by another desk of sandstone and another young blonde woman, this time dressed impeccably in black and white, who rises to greet me
"Miss Steele, could you wait here, please?" She points to a seating area of white leather chairs.

Leaving aside the fact that "terminal velocity" is not a synonym for "really quite fast" (and the speed is implicit in "whisks" anyway), note the overuse of "black", "white", and "sandstone". I’ve just quoted two and a half paragraphs. If I had quoted more, the same words would have come up over and over again (along with "glass" and "steel”). Ms James may have lively imagination when it comes to sexual behaviour, but her notion of what constitutes an exciting modern office building is depressingly limited. Does it matter? Arguably, it doesn't – and her sales figures would tend to support this. People are reading the book for its kinky sex not its architectural descriptions. A decent editor should have tidied this up. But in the end, it seems likely that Vintage Books (an imprint of Random House, no less) took the view that the book would sell for the smutty bits whether or not it was well written and economised on editorial input.

My limited contact with the publishing world suggests that more editorial work is now being contracted out to freelancers, who are unlikely to build up the relationships with writers that characterised great editor/author collaborations in the past. It's certainly cheaper, though.

Proofing has gone the way of editing. There will always be proofing errors that slip through, of course, but serious novels published by serious publishers seem increasingly to have spelling mistakes and punctuation errors. It's not fair to blame the authors. Everybody makes mistakes. That's why books used to go through several rounds of corrections with editors and proof-readers casting their eyes over the work independently to minimise errors. But every extra pair of eyes costs, and keeping the cost down is, for most publishers with most books, what it's all about.

An author writing for peanuts

The bottom line is that books are now absurdly cheap. Most writers want to write – nay, they have a pathological need to write. You can squeeze the amount you pay your writers until only the old and the rich can afford to write any more. But still there is pressure to get those prices down lower. The last book I bought on Amazon cost me 99p. If it has spelling mistakes and mistypes and the odd sentence that really shouldn't have got through, what did I expect?

There will always be books because there will always be stories. The need to tell stories is hardwired into the human brain. But if those stories are to be told with subtlety and wit and a nice way with words, we're going to have to accept that we will have to start paying for them. Sadly I see no evidence that this is going to happen any time soon.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Guest post: Jennifer Macaire

Frustratingly, I am in that gap between leaving Accent Press and having my books published by Endeavour. If you live in North America you can buy my stuff through Simon & Schuster – and I'd really appreciate it if you did. If you are in the rest of the world, though, you're probably going to have to wait another month or two yet. This makes the business of producing a weekly blog a bit strange, but I know that hundreds of you do read it every week (thank you!) and I don't want to disappoint. So right now I'm throwing my blog open to some other writers who I think have interesting things to say.

This week it's Jennifer Macaire. I hope you enjoy her post and that, at least until you can buy my books again, you go out and get her Time for Alexander series. It really is good.

Researching Alexander

Hi Tom, and thank you for inviting me back to your blog! As you know, I wrote a book on Alexander the Great. Well, it was a fiction book, and he was one of the main characters. I thought (smugly) that I knew a lot about him, because I'd read some biographies, a few of Aristotle's quotes, skimmed over The Anabasis of Alexander[1] by Arrian, and read several fiction books about him including the fantastic Mary Renault series.  Plutarch wrote the most fascinating biography[2] nearly four hundred years after the conqueror’s death, and his research seems to have been meticulous. But Plutarch was Greek, and for the Greeks, Alexander would forever be an upstart barbarian.

With that in mind, I started a short story. But I was not happy with the idea I had of Alexander. For one thing, there were many discrepancies in his biographies, and the biggest problem, for me, was that most accounts were written centuries after Alexander's death! I put aside my short story and started researching in earnest. Who was this person? Why did he go so far into India when he'd already captured the crown of Persia? Why go against his generals' wishes and drag (well, lead) his army across Persia to the Caspian Sea, into Iran and Bactria, into India as far as the Ganges, then down to the Indus Delta, along the barren coast and desert to Persepolis? It was as if he never really wanted to go home and rule, but go back home he did, where he died soon after. His character came to me by reading between the lines. A warrior, yes, but a dreamer as well. An eternal student and tourist at heart, charismatic but short tempered. A brilliant tactician and energetic, but prone to ill health. His friends loved him, his enemies hated him, but no one was indifferent. He was superstitious and religious, yet he defied the gods. He was a conundrum, and he made a wonderful fictional character.

The character I needed was larger than life, (even Alexander's enemies admitted he was amazing). It wasn't hard, therefor, to create a sort of demigod. But Alexander's faults were important too. He was, according to Plutarch, 'choleric' and would drink excessively. The more I studied him, the more the idea occurred to me that if time travel existed, he would be one of the people time-travelers would be most eager to meet. And so the idea was born - a time traveler would go back and interview him, and then he'd do something that would inadvertently change time. Fun! I started writing but within a few pages I realized that my first idea of a male journalist would not work. For one thing, a man would not fall under Alexander's spell as easily as a woman would. Men, I discovered as I researched, were, well, a tiny bit jealous. It crept into Plutarch's work, it seeped out of Arrian's book - the only one who wasn't in awe of Alexander was Aristotle. Therefore, I needed a woman time traveler. And I needed someone who wouldn't be cowed by him and someone who would fascinate him. It wasn't hard to create the woman - what surprised me was how fast she fell into his arms. Well, it would be a romance book, then. But love isn't easy to write about, so they fell in lust first (that's more understandable). Love came slowly to this mismatched pair; the man from the past  and the woman from the future had a lot to overcome before their relationship could be based on mutual trust and understanding. And for that, she has to tell him who she truly is - not Persephone, goddess of the dead, but a woman from another time.

He's impressed - of course, and all the more so because he realizes that what he's doing will be in songs through the ages. Heady stuff, for a young man. So the book advanced, and as I wrote, I researched. The army, their route, their food, their weapons, his friends, his enemies, the weather, the horses...and toothpaste. I spent an entire day researching toothpaste. Did you know that people brushed their teeth very carefully back then? Clean teeth and sweetness of breath was considered essential. They used soft twigs, chewed until they frayed, or little brushes, and they had homemade toothpaste. So, herewith for your tooth brushing pleasure is the recipe for toothpaste circa 500 BC (it didn't change much for a thousand years...): Heat snail shells in the fire until they are white and grind them very fine. Add gypsum and honey, and grind into a paste. Add essential oils of mint or other herbs for taste. Other recipes included chalk mixed with wood ash and fresh urine (as opposed to pee that's been sitting around all day...) and sea salt mixed with pepper and powdered cloves – guaranteed white teeth, fresh breath, and bloody gums!

Research was important to me because I wanted the reader to feel as if they were immersed in another time and culture. Ashley feels disconnected from reality but it's the small details of everyday life: how bread was baked, how prayers were said, how the soldiers bathed (her favorite part of the day) - that anchors her to her new surroundings.  Hopefully, the reader will feel the same, not looking back across a chasm made of thousands of years but actually living, walking, and riding at Alexander's side.

Jennifer Macaire lives in France with her husband, three children, & various dogs & horses. She loves cooking, eating French chocolate, growing herbs and flowering plants on her balcony, and playing golf. She grew up in upstate New York, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. She graduated from St. Peter and Paul high school in St. Thomas and moved to NYC where she modelled for five years for Elite. She went to France and met her husband at the polo club. All that is true. But she mostly likes to make up stories.

Can you face the consequences of cheating the Fates?
Alexander the Great journeys to India, where he and Ashley are welcomed with feasts and treachery.
With their son, Paul, being worshiped as the Son of the Moon, and Alexander’s looming death, Ashley considers the unthinkable: how to save them and whether she dares to cheat Fate?

The first two books in the series are The Road to Alexander and Legends of Persia.

[1]          The Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian
[2]           Plutarch's Alexander

Friday, 8 September 2017

Life and death (mainly death) in China

Marie Gameson has posted here before and I'm very happy to welcome her back with a piece about Chinese attitudes to death. I've visited China a couple of times and found their temples fascinating, but I did struggle with the layers upon layers of different belief systems that you could find embodied in one temple. And the elaborate paper objects that people buy to burn so that the dead will have them in the afterlife were quite amazing. I've just wasted a lot of time trying to find any photos I might have from all those years ago, but they pre-date digital cameras and if I ever took pictures I've lost them. Fortunately, Marie Gameson still has hers.

The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) – Marie Gameson

The main theme of The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) is grief, but not so much grief for the dead as for the living. The main character, Winnie Rigby, is exasperated that her conversion to Buddhism and attachment to the Orient is strongly resisted by her Catholic family, who make persistent attempts to drag her back to the person she used to be.

A subplot of the book is a quest to find out if ancestor worship is still prevalent in China: a practice that the Chinese Communist party (CCP) would love to eliminate. As this is mainly a 'History' blog, it gives me a chance to offer an amateur view on the changes to Chinese funeral culture and ancestor worship over the last century.

Traditional Chinese funerals reflect a range of beliefs, with elements of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Ancestor reverence, Feng Shui, and more. Even within one temple there could be a mixture of Buddhist, Daoist and ‘folk’ religious figures, with visitors to the temple calling on different figures depending on what intercession is required.  

As in China, there is evidence of ancestor worship in Britain from Neolithic times. Quite why it faded in Britain is lost in the misty past (but we’ll come back to that later). Whereas with the traditional Chinese attachment to kinship, (strengthened by Confucianism, with its emphasis on filial piety as a pillar of social organisation), of the range of beliefs mentioned above, ancestor worship appears to be the dominant spiritual influence. The relationship between ancestors and descendants is obligatory, reciprocal, and very much about the male lineage: the character for filial piety ( pronounced xiào )  represents a son beneath an elder.

So the belief is that ancestors can intervene in the affairs of the living – but whether that intervention is positive or negative is dependent upon the correct performance of rituals, which is primarily ritual offerings of food, but can – more colourfully – involve the burning of paper representations of objects which ancestors can use in the afterlife. Apart from at funerals, these ritual offerings are most prevalent during the annual Tomb-sweeping Day (Qingming Festival ) when people visit the graves of their ancestors to pay respects. While this tradition goes back 2,500 years, today’s offerings mirror modern luxuries: in addition to the burning of ‘Hell money’, ancestors can now receive paper laptops, mobile phones, houses with swimming pools (complete with paper servants), cars, even helicopters:

Unsurprisingly, the CCP takes quite a dim view of these ostentatious displays, and would prefer people’s loyalty to be to the State rather than to family. They banned the Qingming festival in 1949, to discourage the very visible manifestations of kinship. (Though they reinstated it in 2008, re-packaging it as a day for celebrating revolutionary heroes, for example, encouraging visits by schoolchildren to certain graves).  More recently, the government has encouraged the phenomenon of online Qingming, and it is possible to ‘burn’ virtual incense and ‘sweep’ virtual graves – perfect for the time-strapped modern worker who is based some distance from the ancestral graves.

But people’s strong preference for burial over cremation is a continuing issue – cremation being viewed as highly disrespectful to forebears, and leading to unsettled spirits.  Burial directives by the government to force people to cremate their deceased (in some cases even disinterring illegally buried corpses and burning them) has led to strong resistance, with people being buried in secret, and
elderly people committing suicide so that they could be buried ahead of the ban; in 2014 there were even cases of grave robbing so that officials could meet their local cremation targets.

It is hard to disagree with the government’s perspective that coffins waste wood, and burials waste good arable land (see the photograph below), but the presence of a corpse and a grave to visit also keeps the focus on the family rather than the State.

Shanxi province: graves use up arable land

Since 1949, the CCP have taken increasingly radical measures to disempower families from giving their relatives a traditional send-off. Urban funerals now usually involve conveyance of the body from hospital to funeral parlour, where either there will be a simple memorial ceremony at which a relative or friend might speak, or — if the person’s status at work warrants it — a more elaborate memorial service at which members of the deceased’s work unit would speak, the family’s role having diminished to a peripheral position – and with little chance of getting hold of the body. Mourners wear normal clothes — though armbands are permitted. Following cremation, the family can opt to deposit the ashes at the crematorium or take them home. There are some cemeteries for burials of the ashes, but this edict is typical of Chinese cemeteries: [my translation]: “In the area of the grave it is strictly forbidden to let off firecrackers and indulge in feudal superstitious practices (…) it is strictly forbidden to burn paper and other sacrificial offerings”.

Although China aims to have a near 100% cremation rate by 2020, policies that counter tradition are always harder to enforce in rural areas. Just think of the resistance to the One Birth Policy established in 1979; it has been impossible to completely erase the Chinese concept of zhong nan, qing nu (literally: of heavy importance is the male, of light importance is the female).

So if you want to see a traditional Chinese funeral in an urban setting, you would have more luck in Taiwan, where there has been little attempt to reform traditional practices. A recent attempt to encourage temples to allow less incense-burning (which was met with howls of protest) was a genuine attempt to protect the environment, rather than a wish to interfere with traditional Daoist practices. However some temples do now play recordings of firecrackers (to scare away bad spirits) rather than allowing the real polluting articles to be set off.

Funeral procession in Taiwan

The musicians seated on the first vehicle play traditional instruments; behind them is a marching band, dressed in near-military uniforms. The family walk behind the coffin: the women wearing triangular hoods, the men wearing pointed white hats or white headbands. The clothing is black, white or blue, depending on familial proximity to the deceased

And finally, back to ancestor worship in the UK. Maybe the nearest we get to it in the UK is the relatively modern (well, medieval!) laws on primogeniture. The idea that our forebears still have a presence amongst us might have a certain attraction, but the concept of reciprocity across the living/dead divide is - I think - quite alien to us. Having said that, if you're a Duke and a proponent (or product) of primogeniture, and live in a long established country home, with portraits of your ancestors staring at you as you climb the stairs, I would love to know if you sense the wrath of your ancestors when having to sell the family home.

Marie Gameson

Marie is half of the mother and daughter writing team who published The Turtle Run as 'Marie Evelyn'. Her latest book, The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (deceased) was published this summer and is available on Amazon. You can find out more about her and her books at her website,

Friday, 1 September 2017

Book Review: The Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath

Carol McGrath has left the 11th century to add yet another book to the already crowded shelves of Tudor novels.

As somebody who writes about the 19th-century, I have always struggled with the wild enthusiasm that people seem to feel for books about the Tudors, but The Woman in the Shadows has brought the period alive for me in a way that many others do not.

Hilary Mantel has recently criticised writers who empower female characters in periods like the 16th century when, she claims, women were more likely to be "the victims of history". In her own hugely successful Wolf Hall, Mantel concentrates on the men in the story and Thomas Cromwell’s wife, Elizabeth, seems to exist mainly so that she can die tragically halfway through. McGrath's approach is almost exactly the opposite of Mantel’s. In The Woman in the Shadows, Cromwell is the almost marginal figure that Elizabeth is in Wolf Hall. This is a story not just of a woman but of women.

Elizabeth Cromwell's world is dominated by females. She herself is a successful businesswoman. As the widow of a draper, it is credible to suppose that she might have taken over her dead husband's business and become successful in her own right. She is not, though, ever totally accepted or trusted by the men who dominate the Guild, so she comes to rely on the network of women around her: her mother, her sister, her sister-in-law and her servants. The book shows the power that women could wield in this almost parallel feminine society, but it does not romanticise their position in the wider world. Women are physically weaker and always at risk of assault from men. Elizabeth is initially forced by her father into a marriage she does not want, to a man who can never love her. She almost loses her business when her store of cloth is burned down by men, and she has to stand helplessly by while her own male servants try to deal with the damage. When she is attacked and robbed she relies on men to drive off her assailants. When she marries Cromwell (a true love match) it is to the man in her life that she turns when she is threatened with legal action by another draper. When she finds herself crossed by an old suitor, it is her husband who deals with the matter.

McGrath strikes a fine balance between Elizabeth Cromwell the successful independent businesswoman and Elizabeth Cromwell the victim of a potentially violent and sexist society. We understand her reliance on men and, at the same time, her fierce independence. It's significant, though, that in the end she gives up her job and her independence to take on the role of professional wife, entertaining Cromwell's friends as his political star rises.

McGrath’s book brings Elizabeth Cromwell out of the shadows but Cromwell himself becomes a very shadowy figure in his turn. We have glimpses of a man who is secretive and ruthless. When the ex-suitor suddenly vanishes, Thomas Cromwell tells Elizabeth only that he has been "lost at sea". She feels it wiser to ask no further questions. Her world is defined by her business, her religion (she is a good Catholic) and her family. She does not know exactly what Thomas is up to as he goes about England closing monasteries and, to the extent that she must have a fair idea of what is going on, she takes care not to understand. She worries about his heretical “humanist” views, but she does not really understand or challenge them. She suspects him of having had an affair, but when he does the Tudor equivalent of telling her not to worry her pretty little head about it, she agrees to ask no more questions. Yet it is Elizabeth who holds the Cromwell household together, raising the children, entertaining friends and associates, arranging marriages, concealing awkward pregnancies in the household and providing the base from which Cromwell can sally forth to battle in the masculine world and to which he returns to find the love and security that he clearly needs.

McGrath brings the world of the Tudor woman, from the dangers of childbirth to the daily business of running a home, to vivid life. There are fascinating details, such as the care taken in choosing fabrics so as not to break the laws governing what class can wear what trims on their dresses. Sometimes, inevitably, there can be a bit of a history lesson dropped in, but (especially as the book gets into its stride) most of the detail slips unobtrusively onto the page. McGrath has obviously done a great deal of research into her period, but she wears her learning lightly.

The story moves back and forth in time. I'm old-fashioned enough to prefer books that start at the beginning and finish at the end, but the characters are real enough and the descriptions so clear that the non-linear plot is unlikely to confuse the reader. The prose flows nicely and the story has enough incident to carry the reader along without becoming overly dramatic. (One exception is where Elizabeth is robbed. If I were in a strange city carrying a lot of cash, I wouldn't take a shortcut down a dark alley in the 21st-century, so I struggled with the idea that she would have done it in the 16th.) As in real life, some of the most dramatic things are never quite explained. Far from being a weakness, I think this is a strength. Exactly who was Sir Antony and who was the man whose dogs so conveniently arrived to stop him doing murder? In real life every villain is not tracked down, every crime is not neatly solved and many mysteries remain just that. Like Elizabeth Cromwell, we find ourselves in a Tudor world which can move from calm and beauty to sudden apparently irrational violence and we can only retreat into her home, bar the gate and hope that it will not bring us down.

McGrath has put a sympathetic woman into a beautifully realised world and told her story in lucid prose. It’s a lovely book and a refreshing counterpoint to some other recent Tudor bestsellers.


Friday, 25 August 2017

A tale of two houses

Last weekend I visited Chiswick House. It's not far from where I live and it's ridiculous that I don't go there more often.

Chiswick House, like Marble Hill House, which is very close to home, is managed by English Heritage. My visit made me think about what "heritage" means in a country where we are surrounded by things that have been around for a while.

Chiswick House

Chiswick House was designed by Lord Burlington who was impressed by the architecture he had seen on his visits to Italy between 1714 and 1719. Completed in 1729, it’s an excellent early English example of the Palladian style which it popularised in the UK.

The complex of houses (for over the years there have been several) grew as buildings and wings were added or demolished over time. What remains now is an architectural gem, always intended for social gatherings and showing off the artworks which it has always housed. It was never really a home and the service wings that made it habitable were demolished in the 1950s.

Beautiful as Chiswick House is, the gardens are arguably more important than the house itself. Like the house, these have grown and shrunk as land has been acquired or sold off over centuries. The original garden design would have been a standard Jacobean affair of rigid formality, but from the 1720s Burlington experimented with different approaches. The strongest influence was that of William Kent. An architect as well as a landscape gardener, Kent, like Burlington was an enthusiast of the Palladian style. He sought to escape the formal rigidity of 17th century garden layouts in favour of a more informal approach, often called “natural” but not actually natural at all. The extensive gardens at Chiswick House allowed him to work on a grand scale and they became the first gardens to be designed in what became known as ‘English landscape style’.

The gardens were open to the public for a small charge. They remain beautiful and had a significant influence on garden design across Britain.

Marble Hill House

Around the same time that Lord Burlington was building Chiswick house, Lady Henrietta Howard (one-time mistress of George II) was having a house built for herself on the banks of the Thames just outside Richmond. Unlike Lord Burlington, Henrietta Howard was not especially interested in architecture (although she may have had some input into the plans for the house) and had not (as a woman) made the Grand Tour. This leads many people to think that Marble Hill House, like Chiswick a classical Palladian villa, was modelled on Lord Burlington's work. In fact, building started two years prior to Chiswick house. Both Burlington and Lady Howard are likely to have been influenced by the same fashions. Both were friends of Alexander Pope and both worked with the King’s Gardener, Charles Bridgeman.

Marble Hill House, like Chiswick, was intended as a place for entertaining. It was, however, always a home and from 1734 it was Henrietta Howard's main residence. In the 1740s a substantial service wing was added, making it even more suitable as a regular house. As at Chiswick, there were some beautiful paintings, including some that appear to have been specially commissioned for the space, but the collection was never as impressive as Chiswick and the house was (unlike Chiswick) not generally open to the public. Henrietta Howard, though, did host fashionable gatherings with many of the most glittering social figures of the time, notably Alexander Pope. She is said to be the subject of his poem, On a certain lady at court:

I knew a thing that’s most uncommon
(Envy be silent and attend!)
I knew a reasonable woman,
Handsome and witty, yet a friend.

The grounds of Marble Hill House were initially less extensive than at Chiswick Gardens. Henrietta did buy additional land and by 1752 it totalled around 66 acres, the size it is today. Marble Hill Park and Chiswick Park today are very similar in size (some of Chiswick Garden were sold for building land as London expanded), although the open lawns of Marble Hill make the grounds appear smaller.

The garden at Marble Hill represents a transition between the formal Jacobean garden and the English landscape garden. It is a rare surviving example, considered more important because a plan survives showing what it looked like at the time of its creation.

From private gardens to municipal parks

After the death of Lord Burlington and his wife, Chiswick House passed to the Duke of Devonshire, who had married Lord Burlington's daughter. It continued to be used by the Devonshire family until 1862, when they started to rent it out. Until 1892 it was used by a succession of wealthy men (including the Prince of Wales) looking for a grand venue to entertain. It then became an asylum for the treatment of wealthy patients suffering mental health issues. In 1929 it was sold to Middlesex County Council. The House was eventually taken over by the Ministry of Works and later transferred to English Heritage. The grounds became a municipal park which, with local government reorganisation, became the responsibility of the London Borough of Hounslow.

1951-2 saw the start of efforts to restore the gardens. There was a strong feeling that they should return to the way that Burlington had designed them and this approach has guided restoration work since.

In 2005, English Heritage and Hounslow set up the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust to run the house and the gardens as an integrated project. In practice, it seems that English Heritage has taken the lead in this with substantial archaeological research being carried out in the grounds. English Heritage used the results of their research to guide the partial restoration of the original planting schemes, abandoned by Hounslow when it had adopted a more cost-efficient municipal approach – for example replacing gravel paths with asphalt.

There is a cricket pitch on one side of the grounds, screened from the rest of the park by trees.

Marble Hill House remained in Henrietta Howard's family until 1824. In 1825 it was bought by Gen Jonathan Peel the younger brother of the Prime Minister. The grounds were used for rearing racehorses and growing hay. One of the horses, Orlando, won the Derby in 1844.

This magnificent Black Walnut at Marble Hill may pre-date the building of the house

Henrietta Howard had planted mainly traditional British broad-leafed trees in the grounds. Peel added imported trees, such as cedar and some conifers. The result is a wonderful treescape with an unusually wide spread of varieties.

Cedar at Marble Hill

Peel remained at Marble Hill until he died in 1879 and his widow lived there until her death in 1887. The property was then bought by the Cunard family with the intention of demolishing Marble Hill and developing a housing estate. There was strong public opposition to this and in 1902 the land was bought by the London, Surrey, and Middlesex County Council's, the Richmond Corporation, and the Twickenham Urban District Council.

From 1902 Marble Hill was run as a municipal park with the house owned by local government. Eventually, local government reorganisation led to its being owned by the Greater London Council. It was an early example of open green space being preserved at a time when the London suburbs were expanding very fast. On the abolition of the GLC, the House and park were transferred to English Heritage. There was some resentment of this at the time, as the Park, which had been purchased using local funds, was transferred to a national body and out of local control.

The character of the parks today

Chiswick House Gardens and Marble Hill Park are both municipal parks open to the public, and both a very similar size. However, the character of the two parks is very different. This is reflected in their names. The gardens at Chiswick House are essentially public gardens. The amount of wooded and shrub land, with winding paths, led to them being seen as a potentially dangerous place for families and children, but when the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust was set up it established a Ranger force staffed by ex-service men and women and the area is now seen as very safe. It is widely used by dog walkers and is popular with families and children. There is a small children's playground. However, apart from the cricket field, there is relatively little open land.

Chiswick Park, although a valued local amenity, is cut off from the community around it by high walls and busy roads. (One boundary is the A316 and another is the A4.)

Marble Hill Park, by contrast, is largely open space. There is a cricket pitch and nets, rugby pitches, and a hockey pitch. There are dog walkers, of course, but also people doing keep fit or jogging, teenagers playing football or throwing frisbees, and kids flying kites. It's a popular place for picnics.

The two main boundaries of the park are simple fences, one running along the Thames path. There is a large children’s playground adjacent to the park and people are constantly walking along the suburban road that marks its northern boundary.

Northern boundary fence at Marble Hill

There is a small area of woodland along the eastern boundary. English Heritage did want to increase the amount of shrubbery in the park to create something like sweet walk that may have been there in the the 18th century, but at a public meeting a few years ago there were strong objections to this on the grounds that it would create the sort of environment that could lead people to feel unsafe. At the moment the park is generally seen as a safe space with a playgroup for under-fives and an adventure playground for older children open in the summer.


The problem with history is that it keeps changing. The archaeological research already suggests that the pattern of planting in the 18th century altered. Since then, of course, it has changed a great deal more. What, in 2017, is the “heritage” that we want to protect? Is it the gardens of Henrietta Howard? Is it the park after Henrietta Howard when her grotto (a dubious reconstruction of which was built in the 1980s) was buried and lost? Or is it the municipal park of the early 20th century? There is at least an argument that the historic importance of Marble Hill as an early example of the protection of public open space from private development is as significant to the heritage of modern London as Henrietta Howard's garden design.

The grotto at Marble Hill (an unfortunate 1980s reconstruction)
The restoration of Chiswick Gardens to something more similar to their original appearance made obvious sense because what existed in 2005 was essentially a degraded form of the gardens that were originally laid out. Marble Hill Park, though, is not a degradation of anything. Its current form reflects its development from private park to public open space in the 20th century.

Chiswick and Marble Hill were both built at a period when public land was increasingly being brought into private ownership, through a series of parliamentary Inclosure Acts. Neither park enclosed common land (although the main road was eventually re-routed to put more garden between Chiswick House and the public highway) but the privatisation of public space was the historical background against which the development of these grounds was taking place. 

The late 19th and 20th centuries saw this process reverse. The first urban park (in Preston in 1833) was soon followed by the first purpose built publicly owned urban recreational park in England: the Derby Arboretum, which was opened in 1840. The importance of public open space in and around towns was reflected in a series of parliamentary acts, including the Public Health Act of 1875, which enabled local authorities to maintain land for recreation and to raise funds for this purpose. In 1878 the Epping Forest Act preserved the Forest as "an Open Space for the recreation and enjoyment of the public". The legislative high point of the process of opening private land to the public was probably marked by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 which gave 'the right to roam'.

The 21st century has seen a move back to the expansion of private rights over once public land. Increasing amounts of London are now 'privately owned public spaces' (pops). Major developments, such as Canary Wharf, Granary Square and More London along the South Bank near Tower Bridge are private land, owned and policed by private companies which can restrict public access. It is not my intention here to join the lively argument being conducted as to whether this is a useful way to improve publicly accessible space without state spending or the effective privatisation of public assets. It is, however, a significant change from the early to mid-20th century notion that the best way to preserve publicly accessible space was to take it into public ownership. To see how a space like Marble Hill has moved from being a private home to (under Gen Peel) essentially a commercial exercise to land being bought for straightforwardly commercial development by the Cunards and then being taken into public ownership is to see the history of much open space in this country. Arguably the transfer from the GLC to English Heritage (a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation, or quango) demonstrates the shift from straightforward public ownership back towards something that is at least partway to privatisation.

Cricket on the lawn - Marble Hill

The social history of Marble Hill Park is important to anybody who wants to understand, in its broadest sense, England's heritage. The park as it is today reflects all of those changes. 

History tells us as much about the present as about the past. The decision as to whether Marble Hill should be restored to reflect the period when it was private space or whether it should reflect its later history is not a decision taken outside the social and political context of the 21st century. Those of us who are fascinated by British history and the way that it has shaped this country might well feel that it should be preserved as it is, rather than developed as another bit of quaint nostalgia for the Jane Austen tourist market.

A word from our sponsor

James Burke, the hero of my Napoleonic Wars series, was born in 1771, well after the houses I write about here were built. He grew up, though, at a time when grand houses like these were being used as family homes by the families that had built them. The wars with France started the process that eventually ended that way of life, ushering in the Victorian era when this sort of house was no longer viable. My books about James Burke are essentially adventure stories about a soldier-spy, but they also chart the end of an era.

The books can be bought through Simon & Schuster in the USA and will soon be republished by Endeavour Press in the UK. Watch out for them.


Chiswick House and Gardens Trust (2012) 'Report on The Chiswick House and Gardens Trust for Chiswick Area Forum'

Richmond Libraries' Local Studies Collection 'Marble Hill House'

Thorpe D (2006) 'A history of greenspace and parks'

Tittenbrun J (2013) 'The privatisation of public space' The Conversation

White R (2001) 'Chiswick House and Gardens' English Heritage

Friday, 18 August 2017

Guest post - Marsali Taylor

I thought we'd have change from talking about the Napoleonic Wars this week. UK readers may have noticed that my books are currently unavailable outside North America, although Endeavour Press will be republishing them soon. So this seems a good time to give some space to Marsali Taylor to take us further back in history and write about the Viking background to her contemporary stories set in the Shetlands.

Over to you, Marsali.

Vikings and Shetlanders

I’ve written only one published historical novella, Footsteps in the Dew, but history
keeps cropping up in my contemporary Cass detective novels. The Vikings ruled Shetland for over
five hundred years, from their arrival in the north around 735 to the hand-over to the Scots in 1468, and their influence is everywhere you go in modern Shetland.

All our places were named by the Norse settlers, though the meanings aren’t as exotic as
the names, for they’re simple descriptions: Swartaskerry, the black rock.  Scarvataing, the
point of the cormorants, or scarfs. Aith, or Eid, my own village, is old
Norse for 'isthmus' - it occupies the land between two bays.  Roe (from the same Viking word as the Scots Gaelic 'ruaidh'), means 'red' - the island of Muckle Roe is the big, red island.  Brae, where Death on a Longship (the first of the Cass novels) is set, means 'broad' - it's a wide inlet.  When my heroine, Cass, guides her replica longship into the Hams of Roe, she reflects that, 'This would be my big test as skipper, to bring the ship in to shore without an engine, just as the Vikings had done, and in this place too.  Hams came from the old Norse ‘hamar’, a landing place.   I liked that idea.'

The Vikings also left their language, and in spite of the 500 years of Scottish overlords that came after them, the Shetland dialect is still scattered with the words they spoke.  In that last paragraph, I had to think for words like 'bay' and 'inlet' instead of the word that came naturally: voe, a long sea inlet.  There are words for strength of wind: a grain o wind, a flan, a stour, a flying gale.  There are two words for you; if you were speaking formally, you'd use the English 'you', but with a friend, you'd say 'thee' and 'thou', except that 'th' is pronounced 'd' in Shetland, so it’s 'dee' or 'du':  'Noo dan, boy, foo's du?  Is dee midder aboot?'  ('Now then, boy, how are you?  Is your mother about?') - and notice the grammer, foo is du? how is you? instead of the English how are you?  Older Shetlanders insist that if they talk broad dialect in Norway, they have no difficulty making themselves understood.

The architecture is Norse too. The traditional crofthouse is long and low, with the house, barn (for hay) and byre (for animals) all in a straight line, just like the Viking house excavated at Jarlshof.  They used to say, too, that there were no remains of Viking houses in Shetland - well, not where archeologists could get at them, for canny Shetlanders weren't going to waste a good trodden floor and stones to hand.  When the old crofthouse was past living in, they re-built on the same site.  The Viking foundations are there, all right, but they're still being used. 

The Vikings were sailors, first and foremost.  When Cass launches her restored longship, she marvels at their boatbuilding skills: 'Ah, they were seamen, those long-dead Vikings.  She breasted the waves as if she was rejoicing in the sea.  We raised the yard, and the ochre and red striped cotton sail billowed out, caught the wind, and Stormfugl rose with it, the helm suddenly lightening.  I looked forward at the milky horizon, at the great curve of sail above me, and sent up a thanksgiving for the day.'  Go to Shetland's museum, in Lerwick, or better still, to any country regatta, and you'll see Viking boats: double-ended yoals, rowed by six crew, or the light-weight flyers called Shetland Models, crewed by three, and some still with the single sqaure sail hanging from a horizontal yard, just as on a Viking ship.  Even the everyday rowing skiffs are double-ended.  

Like their ancestors, the Shetlanders used the sea as transport.  It wasn't a barrier, it was a road.  A map of the North Atlantic puts Shetland in its proper place.  Before land transport took over, we were the centre of the northern trading universe.  Those Vikings who built their house at Jarlshof were fish traders, selling provisions to the ships going on to Faroe, Iceland, Greenland, America - we know this because of the size and quantity of fish 'lug bones' found.  Later, in medieval times, Shetland was the centre of the Hanseatic League, trading between north Germany, Norway, Denmark.  The Dutch fishing vessels filled the muddy bay of Lerwick so thickly that you would walk across them to the island of Bressay, a mile away, and little boys had fun creating chaos by swapping round their wooden clogs, neatly lined up outside the Muckle Kirk while the fishermen worshipped inside.  

Later still came the whaling vessels, on their way to Jan Mayen island for seals, then to Baffin Bay.  While the women worked the laand, Shetland men went to sea from March to September, to earn cash to pay their rent.  In the two world wars, more Shetland men were lost, proportionately, than from any other county in Britain, mostly as merchant seamen.  Don't under-estimate the little old man in his cap and boiler suit; in his days with 'the Merchant service' he's probably seen more foreign lands than you've ever dreamed of.

And the people themselves, have they kept that Viking look?  Well, yes, many have.  I was in Yell recently, north of Mainland, where the Scots word 'tatties' (potatoes) comes out as the Norwegian-sounding 'tauties', and the man taking the money on the ferry could have come straight from a Viking ship: not very tall, but broad-shouldered, with red-gold hair, worn long, and a magnificent red beard.  Tall, fair girls are rarer, but you still see them, particularly on the east coast.  If you asked a Shetlander which he felt closer to, the Norwegians or the Scots, there'd be no hesitation about the answer: 'The Scots were interlopers.  The Norskies, they're our cousins.'

Marsali Taylor

Marsali's web site is at and her Facebook page is

Marsali has written a non-fiction study of women's suffrage in Scotland, as well as contemporary detective stories. Her heroine, Cass, keeps colliding with history. In The Trowie Mound Murders, she gets shut inside a Neolithic tomb; she falls foul of a modern coven in Scalloway, the last place in Scotland to burn witches, in A Handful of Ash. The Body in the Bracken gives her an encounter with the Norse folklore malevolent water spirit, njuggle, and she patrols an archaelogical site in Ghosts of the Vikings - but, as they say in the Shetlands, those are tales for another time.