[Review] Jane Austen At Home – Lucy Worsley

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On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, historian Lucy Worsley leads us into the world in which our best-loved novelist lived.

This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the rooms, spaces and possessions which mattered to her, and the way in which home is used in her novels to mean both a place of pleasure and a prison. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, in fact her life was often a painful struggle.

Jane famously lived a ‘life without incident’, but with new research and insights Lucy Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy.

I’m sure many of my readers can recall sitting in English Literature at school, reading one of Jane Austen’s novels. And I’m sure many of you can recall finding them (at that age), incredibly dull, not helped by the fact that you had to pick them apart to find every single hidden meaning within every single sentence. I certainly did. But after I left school, I found a new found appreciation for Jane Austen and her novels. The romance and normality of her work was something I found to be incredibly comforting. But what I never really knew that much about was Jane Austen’s life – I knew that she’d spent some time in Bath, having been past the Jane Austen museum there time and time again as a youngster and I knew that she’d spent a few years in both Southampton and Winchester. So when I found out that Lucy Worsley was writing a biography on Jane Austen’s life, I was intrigued to read it.

From the moment I opened this book I was entranced. To start with, Worsley’s style made this an incredibly easy read and thus I ended up losing hours to this book without even realising it. Worsley’s style really didn’t make this book seem like a heavy historical biography, but rather injected a lot of her quirky pizzazz that I adore about her television programmes. It’s not often that I find any sort of historical biography to be a page turner, but this one is an exception!

When thinking about Jane Austen living in Georgian England, I at least always imagined her life to be rather dull. But Worsley shows this to be completely untrue. I was particularly surprised to read about just how many marriage proposals Jane had throughout her life. She never married, holding out perhaps for the romances that she wrote about in her novels, which I find to be incredibly brave in an era when it was expected that women would marry and bear children. Jane Austen cherished her freedom – marriage may well have caged her and thus not allowed her the freedom to write.

Jane’s struggle to get her work published initially is something that many authors will sympathise with. Her initial work, Susan (which later became Northanger Abbey) was submitted to a publisher in Bath but nothing ever came of it until she brought back the copyright. It was never published in her lifetime, however. Jane never gave up with her writing – something that authors can really learn from. It’s so easy to become downhearted and refuse to carry on if a piece of work is rejected, something which Jane never did. Yes, she had bouts where she seemingly didn’t write at all. But, after all, writers block affects even the greatest writers.

I was particularly keen to read about Jane’s time spent in Southampton, especially as I regularly walk past the Dolphin Hotel and its blue plaque stating that Jane danced there for her eighteenth birthday. It was incredibly interesting to read about what the city was like then and compare it to now – Worsley even mentions the army recruitment centre and takeaway’s that are opposite the Dolphin these days! I’ve even had a pint (or three) in the pub that was built over the site of Jane’s house in Castle Square. Southampton, these days a bustling city full of history, certainly seems to have been much more picturesque in the Georgian era when Jane lived there. The city walls that lay at the end of her garden (and are still there!) once looked directly over the water which lapped against its walls. These days, though, the land has been reclaimed. If you walk along the bottom of the walls towards the old water gate, you can see a line in the pavement which marks where the shore used to be. Very interesting indeed.

The end of Jane’s life, although sad, certainly wasn’t lonely. She was surrounded by her loved ones and still had her beloved sister Cassandra at her side. The relationship between the two sisters is incredibly heartwarming – the two really seemed as if they were best friends as well as family, right up until the end.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it made a nice change from the heavy biographies of the Italian Renaissance that I normally have my nose in. It has certainly opened my eyes and given me a greater understanding of much of the meaning behind Jane’s novels – the loss of a home, the use of naval careers for many of her male characters etc, and in particular the idea of romance and the very idea of home being more personal than just bricks and mortar. Not only that but the research that has gone into this work is absolutely impeccable. It has made me want to sit down and re-read my Jane Austen collection, in all honesty, something that I am very much looking forward to. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the wonderful Authoress and her life.

A huge thank you to Hodder & Stoughton for sending me a review copy of this work. 

Jane Austen At Home is released in May and available for pre-order on Amazon now.

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21 years ago…

Today’s post is a little different from what I normally post here, but I thought I’d get it written down anyway. Today, 14th February 2017, isn’t Valentines Day to me – although I’ve gotten my partner a cheesy card – it’s the anniversary of the day I was diagnosed as Type 1 diabetic. Twenty one years ago today, I was rushed to hospital on death’s door, and my life changed forever.

I can remember the first part of it all very clearly – I was only eight years old and had been feeling poorly for a long time. I’d been losing weight at a rate of knots, drinking anything I could get my hands on in order to quench a thirst that just wouldn’t leave me alone and I’d been constantly on the toilet. Then, whilst I was at school, everything sort of just…happened. I can clearly remember sitting in a group around the TV in class, watching Oliver Twist – all of a sudden I felt really really sick.

And I projectile vomited all over my classmates.

Now, that may be a little TMI, but it’s what happened. School phoned my Nana, as Mum was at work and she came to pick me up. But by that point I was a mess – I didn’t know it at the time but I was in the grip of severe diabetic ketoacidosis. Nana took me back to her house, a massive Georgian coaching Inn on the outskirts of the village where we lived, and whilst we waited for my Mum to get to us from work I curled up on the sofa. It felt like I was dying.

Once Mum got to us, I was taken to the doctors. This is where things get a little bit blurry – I remember begging for a drink of water as we waited to be seen by the doctor. And as soon as the doctor saw me, he told my Mum and Nana straight. I had to get to the hospital. I was type 1 diabetic and if I didn’t get to the hospital ASAP then I probably wouldn’t make it.

When we reached the hospital’s A&E department, I was rushed into a room and placed immediately on a drip. Apparently I was so out of it that I asked for chicken soup – because chicken soup cures everything when you’re poorly, right? The doctors and nurses who were flitting around me told me that the drip they’d put in was chicken soup. It was enough to calm me down.

I woke up in the children’s ward, in a little room away from the main bulk of beds. I can vividly remember it, the commode sat against the wall, the sink with the gross water jug next to it. And I can clearly remember how uncomfortable the bed was. But therein started my diabetes training – I was visited by the children’s diabetes nurse, a lady named Francois (I’m surprised I can still remember her name) came to me with a whole bunch of scary looking stuff including a blood glucose machine and insulin pens.

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The world’s biggest and scariest blood glucose monitor. This is the one I had.

I was taught how to inject, how to test my blood sugars. And after a couple of weeks in the hospital I was sent on my merry way.

One thing I do remember from when I started feeling better was being taken to the Kings Lynn Mart by my Mum. The doctors had let me out for the evening so off we went to the local fair. As we were walking around the fairground, I spotted a candy floss stand and I begged my mum for some – I didn’t understand at that point that I couldn’t have it. It was bad for me and it would make me sick. I burst into tears in the middle of the crowded fairground. It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t I have it?

It was a steep learning curve, not only for me but for my Mum as well. She had to learn to do my injections for me despite a phobia of needles and it took me years to be able to do my own injections. But we got there.

During my time at University, I have to admit that I let things slide a little. Many people tell me that rebellion is a normal part of being diabetic – that’s what I went through. I wanted to be just like my friends at Uni. I wanted to go out and have fun, get stinking drunk and eat what I wanted. I didn’t want to be injecting myself in public and be judged for it. So I pretended it didn’t exist. Thankfully I got out of that hole, but it came with a price. I was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy in 2010 which I now take medication for – it’s under control, thankfully, since my blood sugars have been much better controlled.

In 2010 as well, I was given an insulin pump. This was a huge step up from the two times a day injections during my early days of being diabetic, and a bigger step from the four times a day injections I’d gone on to once I was considered ‘adult’ enough to do so. When I got my pump, I was experiencing a lot of low blood sugar levels to the point where I couldn’t feel then any more. The argument was that an insulin pump would help to stabilise my blood sugars and help me feel more normal. Oh GOD did it make me feel more normal – to start with it was weird, getting used to having this machine attached to me all the time. But now I couldn’t live without it. I feel lost if I even have to take it off to have a bath.

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This was my first insulin pump – the Accu-Chek combo

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My new pump, the Animas Vibe

It’s been a tough twenty-one years, living with type 1 diabetes. It’s a disease that is always there, always at the back of my mind. I may look normal to the outside world, but I’m not. I fight every single day with this disease, this condition, that can so easily be a killer. But you know what? I haven’t let it hold me back. And I never will.

Here’s to another twenty-one years!

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7th February 1497 – The Burning of the Vanities

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Fra Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo: c.1498

The Burning of the Vanities is an event in Renaissance history that often has historians cringing – so many beautiful pieces of art and precious books were lost on a giant pyre that was constructed within the Piazza della Signoria and set alight on 7th February 1497, Shrove Tuesday. Following on from the expulsion of the Medici, Florence was once more a Republic – yet it was, for all intents and purposes, ruled by one man. A simple Dominican friar dressed all in black named Girolamo Savonarola. His sermons packed out the Santa Maria del Fiore, the citizens believed him to be a prophet sent from God and he believed that he could turn Florence into a Holy City. The Burning of the Vanities was a major event in Savonarola’s short time as the ‘head’ of Florence, an event set amidst a complicated political backdrop.

In the run up to the Burning of the Vanities, events within Italy had set the Florentine citizens ill at ease. Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza had tried to darken Savonarola’s name to the Council by showing them forged letters. Letters that “invited” Charles VIII of France to invade. Sforza complained to the Signoria about the Dominican friar who had, for all intents and purposes, become the leader of Florence in place of the Medici. Sforza wanted the friar out of power and as such, made up lies – the Archbishop of Aix was a secret supporter to the Duke of Orleans, wanting him on the throne instead of Charles. As well as this, the said Archbishop absolutely detested Savonarola. Although this wasn’t entirely true (the relationship between the two men wasn’t wonderful but they weren’t particularly enemies), the moment the Archbishop read the letter he went on a tirade against the Dominican friar. According to him, Savonarola was running Florence into ruin. Savonarola, of course, denied writing the letters. Yet these forgeries were one of the first steps towards the Friar’s ultimate downfall – a seed had been planted and more enemies were slowly starting to crawl out of the woodwork.

Savonarola had constantly spoken about the coming of a “New Cyrus” to Italy, a saviour who would help cleanse the country of the corruption of the Church of Rome and return things to how they should be. Charles VIII was Savonarola’s Cyrus – but when Charles’ three year old son died in the October of 1496, Charles’ planned invasion of Italy was cancelled. Cyrus wasn’t coming and Florence was left alone to defend against any sort of attack. The defence of Pisa had been a complete disaster leading on to famine and plague – the Florentine’s were completely isolated. And the people began to suspect that Girolamo Savonarola wasn’t the prophet they had so originally believed.

As war raged and famine overtook the city, the people begged for divine intervention. They marched along the streets of Florence with the veiled painting of the Madonna dell Impruneta, imploring her to save them from famine as she had done for so many years before. And as they marched, a messenger rode up with the news that French ships had finally arrived in Livorno carrying corn and soldiers to help in the war efforts. And then, on 16th November, a strong gale sank the Venetian fleet. Victory, it seemed, was in the Florentine’s grasp and things were finally looking up. But still there were forces at work that tried to isolate Florence and the friar – Rome sent demands that the friaries within Florence join a Tusan-Roman congregation. This threatened the independence of Savonarola and his entire congregation.

Florence and her people were therefore downcast by the time carnivale came around in 1497. Normally a time for celebration, the people saw little need to celebrate when their lives had been so affected in the past months. War and famine had broken them down and, whilst the Florentine government had done their best to hand out free grain to the poor, people within the crowds were trampled and killed in the rush for food. The citizens needed something to cheer them up, and Savonarola had the perfect idea.What better way to cheer up an unhappy populace than a massive bonfire?

Shrove Tuesday, the day chosen by Savonarola, was normally marked with a bonfire but this one would be different. The friar sent out his band of children to collect up what he called ‘vanities’, that is to say any instrument of vice or evil – the fanciulli went from house to house collecting up items such as paintings, lewd books, naked statues and playing cards. Nothing was safe if it was considered to be a vice – books by great authors and poets were collected up including works by Ovid (the themes within his poems were seen as heretical), paintings that failed to show religious themes or made the Virgin Mary seem like a whore were also collected to be consigned to the flames. It is said that Sandro Boticelli, once of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, willingly handed over his works.

The pyre within the Piazza della Signoria was constructed into a pyramid shape, with items collected by the boys placed upon it in order of how ‘evil’ they were. The lower tiers were made up of wigs whilst the more profane items were consigned to the top, beneath an image of the devil. Whilst a Venetian merchant offered to pay an extortionate sum of money to save the items from the flames, there was nothing that could be done to save them. Some of the most beautiful pieces of art and illuminated manuscripts went up in flames.

Whilst the bonfire was constructed for the enjoyment of the citizens after a particularly rough time, the message that the bonfire sent out was clear. Girolamo Savonarola would not tolerate any sort of vice within his “City of God”. Whilst he did not disapprove of paintings per se, he disapproved of much of the subject matter of the period. Anything that took away from the message of Christ was totally inappropriate and would, like those who committed the vice of sodomy, go up in flames.

Further Reading

Desmond Seward, The Burning of the Vanities: Savonarola and the Borgia Pope

Paul Strathern, Death In Florence: The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City

Luca Landucci, Diario Fiorentino

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

Lauro Martines, Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy

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An Incorruptible Crown – The Execution of Charles I.

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The Execution of Charles I by an Unknown Artist – formerly attributed to John Weesop. C17 oil on canvas

Following the outbreak of war in August 1642, with Charles I raising his standard in Nottingham, England was catapaulted into a civil war that split the country down the middle. In a nutshell, King Charles I believed that he held the Divine Right of Kings and that he should have absolute rule. He dissolved parliament no less than three times and imposed taxes that were highly unpopular. Parliament fought against the crown in an effort to gain control and, as is the way with civil war, friends fought against friends and family fought against family. The fighting was brutal and it was bloodthirsty although to start with the Royalist army held the upper hand.

But after 1644, everything changed. The advent of the New Model Army by Parliament meant that the Royalists were on the back foot. No longer would the cavalier army see victories as they had at Altwalton Moor in 1643 and Roundway Down, also in 1643. Instead the Parliamentary forces brushed the Royalists aside, leading to defeat for Charles I. In 1646, Charles I surrendered to the Scots which led to his imprisonment by Parliament – yet the King managed to escape the Isle of Wight in 1647. The Second Civil War began because of this plucky escape attempt, but was put down in less than a year. Again, Charles was imprisoned. But this time, Parliament were determined to put the King down for good.

Charles I was put on trial for treason, with the trial beginning on 20th January 1649. He refused to enter a plea – after all he was the King of England, so why should he have to do such a thing? Treason was, by definition at this point in time, a crime against the King. We know now that Oliver Cromwell and Parliament wanted Charles I out of the way – despite Charles’ hard headed belief that he had been given the right to rule by God and that no man had the power to overturn that right, the King’s insistence that his trial was illegal fell on deaf ears. Indeed, as is the case with every single kangaroo court, the outcome of the trial was already decided. Charles I, King of England, refused to enter a plea three times over the court of his week long trial and this was taken as a sure sign of his guilt – or perhaps a desperation for Parliament to get rid of a man they saw as a tyrant so they would twist anything in their own favour. On Saturday 27th January, the King was found guilty and sentenced to death by beheading.

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The Banqueting House, London. © ChrisO [Wikimedia Commons]

Charles I’s sentence was carried out on January 30th, 1649. A scaffold had been erected outside of Whitehall’s Banqueting House and the King’s last glimpse of the palace he had spent so much time in would have been the beautiful Ruben’s ceiling. Charles, who had decided to wear two shirts to stop himself from shivering from the cold in case the awaiting crowd thought him to be frightened, stepped out of the window to meet the axe man. During his final speech he spoke of how he had only wanted justice and liberty for his people. He also stated that he deserved his unjust punishment for what he had done to the Lord Stafford – he had condemned an innocent man to death, and as such should suffer for it. The King of England spoke to the crowd gathered before him, reminding them that he had never once tried to subvert the religion of England. He reminded them that he was innocent of what he had been accused of.

“Now for to shew you that I am a good Christian; I hope there is (pointing to D. Juxon) a good man that will bear me witness that I have forgiven all the world, and even those in particular that have been the chief causes of my death. Who they are, God knows, I do not desire to know, God forgive them. But this is not all, my charity must go further. I wish that they may repent, for indeed they have committed a great sin in that particular” (Cole, 1649)

As he knelt before the awaiting scaffold, Charles mentioned that he would pray a short while and then when he was ready he would spread out his arms as a signal. He worried also that his hair would get in the way of the axe – the executioner and the bishop helped him to tuck his long hair beneath a cap. He spoke then, just before praying, a series of words that have struck historians for centuries:

I go from a corruptible, to an incorruptible Crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the World. (Cole, 1649)

He worried about how high the block was, his words to those on the scaffold coming across as rather panic. And then, after praying as he said he would, he struck his arms out just as he said he would and the axe fell. As the executioner held up the severed head of the King, no words were spoken and the crowd remained in a hushed and stunned silence.

Sources and Further Reading

Braddick, M, 2008, Gods Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil War, The Penguin Group: London

Hunt, T, 2002, The English Civil War at First Hand, Penguin: London

Purkiss, D, 2006, The English Civil War: A People’s History, Harper Perennial: London

Wedgewood, C.V, 1964, A King Condemned: The Trial and Execution of Charles I,  Tauris: London

Cole, P, 1649, King Charles: His Speech Made Upon The Scaffold at WhiteHall Gate. Project Canterbury [http://anglicanhistory.org/charles/charles1.html – accessed 30th January 2017]

 

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[Review] The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

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In The Black Prince of Florence, a dramatic tale of assassination, spies and betrayal, the first retelling of Alessandro’s life in two-hundred years opens a window onto the opulent, cut-throat world of Renaissance Italy.

When I found a copy of Catherine Fletcher’s “The Black Prince of Florence” under the tree on Christmas morning, I have to admit that I may have squealed a bit. I’d wanted a copy of this book since I’d heard that it was coming out – my poor other half often has to put up with my quite frankly over zealous enthusiasm about the Italian Renaissance, so I’m sure he was probably prepared for my excitement over this book. The later Medici aren’t something I have read into all that much, so I was intrigued to get started on Fletcher’s book about Alessandro de’ Medici – I certainly was not disappointed.

From the very first page, I found myself immersed in the treacherous world of Renaissance Florence. What intrigued me the most was how still, even after the debacle that was the flight of the Medici during Savonarola’s time, there were still those within Florence who despised the family and believed them to be tyrants. Being accused of tyranny was certainly something that the Medici could not escape.

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Alessandro de’ Medici by Giorgio Vasari

Fletcher’s work tells the story of Alessandro de’ Medici, an illegitimate son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici. Alessandro was dark-skinned, likely the son of one of Lorenzo’s slaves or servants. But to start with, Alessandro was never meant to rise to the top of Florentine politics and become the city’s Duke – that was the role originally meant for his cousin, Ippolito. However, Pope Clement VII decided that Ippolito was better off in the Church and Alessandro should lead Florence.

It struck me throughout that there is a massive similarity between the relationship of Alessandro and Ippolito, and the Borgia siblings Cesare and Juan. It was also a similarity brought up by Fletcher throughout the book. Indeed, Cesare was originally a churchman who threw off his Crimson robes in order to become the soldier that his murdered brother had been. He had wanted to be a soldier from an early age and despised his role in the church – jealousy was rife between him and his brother, Juan, who was viciously murdered in 1497. Rumours began a year later in Venice, whispers that Cesare had been the one to murder his brother in order to gain the military standing that Juan had been given by their father, Pope Alexander VI. Although they were cousins, Alessandro and Ippolito’s relationship was chock full of jealousy in just the same way as Cesare and Juan’s had been. Ippolito even tried to follow Cesare’s footsteps and leave the college of Cardianals. But unlike Cesare, he failed.

Alessandro was ultimately assassinated by another of his cousins, Lorenzino de’ Medici, who lured Alessandro to his demise with a promise that he could sleep with Lorenzino’s sister. Lorenzino later stated that he had murdered his cousin for the state of the Republic and to end his cousin’s tyrannical rule. Alessandro’s body was found wrapped in a carpet – a sad end for a man who had ruled the Republic of Florence and whose name went alongside his great forefathers.

This book was an absolutely fantastic read. Fletcher’s research into Alessandro’s life and times is beyond first class, and her writing style made this biography so easy to read. I look forward to reading more from Catherine Fletcher – her work is an inspiration and one day I can only hope to be half the historian she is. Ten out of ten, would recommend.

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