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Saturday, 22 March 2014

Powerful drama of a King's Execution - The Crimson Ribbon

Based on the real figure of the fascinating Elizabeth Poole, The Crimson Ribbon is the mesmerising story of two women's obsession, superstition and hope.

 May Day 1646. The Civil War is raging and what should be a rare moment of blessing for the town of Ely takes a brutal turn. Ruth Flowers is left with little choice but to flee the household of Oliver Cromwell, the only home she has ever known. On the road to London, Ruth sparks an uneasy alliance with a soldier, the battle-scarred and troubled Joseph. But when she reaches the city, it's in the Poole household that she finds refuge.

 Lizzie Poole, beautiful and charismatic, enthrals the vulnerable Ruth, who binds herself inextricably to Lizzie's world. But in these troubled times, Ruth is haunted by fears of her past catching up with her. And as Lizzie's radical ideas escalate, Ruth finds herself carried to the heart of the country's conflict, to the trial of a king.

I received this book for review from the Amazon Vine programme because I love the seventeenth century and it looked like my sort of book. I was not disappointed.
The story of Elizabeth Poole and her role as witness to the beheading of a King is brought masterfully to life in this gripping drama. Told through the eyes of Ruth Flowers who is on the run to escape a witch hunt, the book draws the reader gradually into the uneasy, fragile world of desperate people looking for an answer to the bloodshed of the English Civil Wars. Elizabeth Poole herself remains an enigma, shedding layers of shifting truths that make the reader unsure who or what she is. Is Elizabeth a sinner or a saint? Ruth's devotion to her, though not fully explained, is both her salvation and her downfall.

Although it only uses historical events as a kind of backdrop to the story I found the historical background to be well-researched and atmospheric.  But the strength of this novel is in the portayal of the ever-changing relationship between Ruth and Lizzie, and the writer's ability to take you fully into the mindset of a nation which can try a King for treason against his own country.

I look forward to more books from this debut novelist, Katherine Clements. For comparison you might like to try 'As Meat Loves Salt' by Maria McCann which tells of a similar obsessive relationship between two men, and is one of my favourite reads about this period.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Ideal Home of 1609

In A Divided Inheritance, Elspet Leviston stands to lose her family’s house and business to a cousin she never knew existed. To recreate the house in my mind I researched the late Elizabethan and Early Jacobean style – a period much overlooked, but with its own distinct characteristics.

Elspet lives in London and her house has been in the family for generations, so it is likely that the actual fabric of the building would have been Tudor or even earlier, but with more modern furnishings. She also tells us in the novel that her father is quite reluctant to update the house – to buy new drapes or replace worn items. Westview House in the novel would be quite shabby, but with good quality furniture. In the picture below of Crewe Hall, notice the typical ceiling of the period with its pendant plasterwork, which would soon have grown grubby from the smoking fires and tobacco.

Crewe Hall Dining Room
I used a real house to model Elspet’s home on. I find it much easier to write if I have a good sense of the geography of a house and a real picture of where doors, windows and so forth would have been. I couldn’t find a suitable house in London of the right middling size, though I used the street map of the time to locate where the house would have stood. Much of this area of London was lost in the subsequent Great Fire of 1666.

The house I chose to use is Bampfylde House which is actually in Exeter, but was the period and style which would have been similar to London houses of the time. Sadly this building no longer stands, as it was destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1942. Such a catastrophe! It had survived right up until the twentieth century intact. But there is a fascinating article about its history here, along with interesting tales of when it was visited by the Duke of Bedford.

bampfylde house
Bampfylde House

The paintings of the house were done by Robert Dymond, an antiquarian who visited it when it was still there, in 1864. The house has a small courtyard and the front, and a larger one behind, which I make good use of in the novel for Zachary Deane’s sword practice.
Oak Room Bampfylde House_Exeter
Oak Room, Bampfylde House
Jacobean furniture was massive, heavy and built to last. Often from oak, and built on simple lines, it is characterised by ornate carvings, and friezes of decorative designs. Chairs were probably quite uncomfortable as upholstery was little-used.

 Shutters were used at the mullioned windows to keep in the warmth, and drapes possibly hand-embroidered with crewel work. Here are some examples of crewel work designs from the Victoria and Albert museum. Elspet’s mother may have spent long hours embroidering items such as these, and rubbing them with lavender or sandalwood to keep off moths.
Crewelwork 1630 V&A
Crewel_curtain late 17thC V&A
It was crucial to me to have a real sense of what Elspet might lose if she failed to keep her family’s house, so the reader can empathise with that. Re-creating the dark, somewhat structured interior of the house was also vital as a contrast to what Elspet later finds in Spain when she has to pursue her cousin to hot and dusty Seville. At the time Seville is the busiest port in Europe during Spain’s Golden Age, full of new and exciting sights, scents and sounds. There Elspet finds a completely different lifestyle, architecture and customs. Not only that, but she finds a new physical freedom she could never have found in London.

By the way, those interested in Jacobean houses might also find this article of interest – how Apethorpe Hall, a Jacobean treasure, was saved by one man.

Picture Credits:
This article first appeared on The Bookish Librarian Blog

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