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Monday, 30 June 2014

Historical Fiction - the problem of too many Elizabeths

My latest novel in progress features a cast of real historical characters most of which have the real name 'Elizabeth.' My main character is not called Elizabeth, but her mother is, and her sister. Her aunts on her mother's and father's side are also called Elizabeth, as is her employer for whom she works as a lady's companion.
The Charity of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary :: Edmund Blair Leighton - History painting ôîòî
The Charity of St Elizabeth Of Hungary
Edmund Blair Leighton 
This is a real problem for historical novelists who are stuck with a cast of characters who all have the same name. I have taken the obvious way out which is to call them all by variants - so we have Aunt Beth, Aunt Eliza, Liddy, and yes, you've guessed it, Elisabeth (but spelled with an 's'.) Oh, and 'Mama' (who is also an Elizabeth, but I try to avoid using her actual name!)

Here are a few more common abbreviations that were used in the 17th and 18th centuries: Bess, Bessie, Beth, Betsy, Betty, Elisa, Eliza, Ella, Ellie, Elsa, Elsie, Elyse, Libby, Liddy, Lydia, Lilian, Lilibet, Lilibeth, Lillia, Lillian, Lisa, Lise, Lizbeth, Lizette, Lizzie, Lizzy, Tetty.

I imagine the general population had exactly the same trouble in knowing who was who, and that's why all the diminutives sprang up. But to add to 'Elizabeth mania', and not content with the English version, the pesky name crept into English at this time as these exotic variants as well:
Isabella (Spanish), Lise (Danish), Isabelle (French), Lisa (Dutch), Liliana, (Hungarian), Elísabet (Icelandic), Eilish, (Irish), Elisabetta,  Liana, (Italian), Belinha, (Portuguese), Elspet, Elspeth, Ishbel, Isobel, Lileas, Lilias, Lillias (Scottish) and Bethan or Bethany (Welsh).

Originally Elizabeth was the Greek form of the Hebrew name 'Elisheva' meaning 'my God is my oath'. The name appears in the Bible in two variants, but Elizabeth as a name was originally far more common in Eastern Europe where the twelfth century saint, Elizabeth of Hungary, made it fashionable. She was a wealthy princess, daughter of King Andrew II, who used her riches to help the poor. One day during Mass she placed her crown on the altar as a sign of renunciation and to symbolise her humility and poverty. In 1228, she renounced her position and the world entirely, and took vows as a Franciscan penitent.

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I
In medieval England the name was occasionally used in honour of the saint, though the Spanish version, Isabel, was much more common, until of course England went to war with Spain. Then of course English parents preferred the version used by our own Queen Elizabeth I. The centuries following Elizabeth's reign led to a great flowering of Elizabeths, as parents wanted to bestow upon their girl children the health, wealth and wisdom of the deceased monarch. For centuries afterwards, during the Civil Wars and upheavals of the 17th century, Elizabeth's era was looked back upon as a Golden Age, and girls were named after her in the hope of her long life and good fortune - hence my problem!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The fiery #historical origin of the word 'curfew'

As a novelist fascinated by the past, I love it when I come across words that are linked to interesting historical facts. This week I came across a peculiar sort of fire guard called a 'couvre-feu' (french - cover fire). A little research revealed that this fire-guard was the origin of the word 'curfew' which I have often had to take account of in my seventeenth century novels. The word was also used to describe the time of the extinguishing of  candles and lights. In Middle English it survived as  "curfeu", which later became the modern "curfew". Originally, William the Conqueror decreed that all lights and fires should be put out at eight o'clock, but at the moment I am working on a novel based around Pepys's Diary, and in his day the curfew bell was rung at nine-o'clock.

The bell marked the end of an apprentice's working day. As they had to be rung manually, and finding someone to do it was often a problem, the apprentices made up this rhyme:

'Clarke of the Bow belle with the Yellow lockes,
For thy late ringing thy head shall have knockes'

The tolling of the curfew bell continued until Victorian times, when it was believed no longer necessary.
So what is this object, the 'couvre feu' ? Well it was a kind of metal dome that covered the embers of the fire when you retired for bed. Its purpose was to prevent a coal from tumbling out so that the fire could remain glowing overnight. The metal dome had a small hole cut in it so that bellows could be inserted in the morning to revive the fire. The one above, from the V&A Museum, is dutch and dated 1627.

In those days curfews and bellows were very common household items as fires were so difficult to start, requiring flint and tinder and a lot of patience!

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Finding The Real Writer's Social Network

Like many writers I am attached to my computer for large chunks of the day whilst I imagine myself into a different time and place. Not only am I inhabiting other worlds than the real one for much of my working life, but I'm also making friends in another virtual world here on my blog, on Twitter and Facebook.

blue, cloud, dreams, real, sky, textThat's two unreal worlds I am plugged into, let alone all the books I'm reading, which make a third.

It is easy to forget that none of these worlds are shared by the average person. When I was at my book group last week I happened to mention that authors could publish their books themselves. 'Really?' they said,  'you mean that anyone can publish a book? How?'

I explained about self-publishing and ebooks, and uploading, until they began to look slightly glazed. 'Oh,' one of them said. 'I might try that, one day, I have a little memoir that would be fun for my family to read.'

I was astonished. These are book people - readers that buy books regularly both on and offline, but they had never actually noticed that the publishing industry has changed. Then I realised. It is not that they are ill-informed, not at all. It's just that they live in the real world. A world in which where books come from -  their creation, manufacture and sales - is pretty much irrelevant. Yes, they are readers for pleasure, but books are just the icing on the cake of life.

They represent the average reader who browses books in the way cattle graze grass, picking off the bits they fancy, with no undue concern about how the grass got there in the first place. These are the readers who are not book-obsessed enough to subscribe to book blogs, or hunt down authors on the web, or to stalk authors on Twitter. These, I think, are actually our sane book buying public. If they see a book they fancy in the Oxfam shop, they'll buy it, or they might pick it up in Tesco, or they'll borrow it from the library if someone they know mentions it as a good read. These are normal people who think of a platform as a place where they will catch a train.

A lot of them have kindles, but are not avidly following the daily deals. They wait until they have finished what they are reading, then cast about randomly for their next read. It is often luck which particular title comes into their path. So how does a writer reach them as potential readers? Not by Twitter, or Facebook or Blogging. These are the people who have lives, for heaven's sake!

I love my real networks, my book group, the people I meet at Tai Chi, the people in my local garden centre. I talk to them about books (not necessarily my books, but books in general) and I usually recommend something. The best publicity is word of mouth, so I tell people when I have really enjoyed a book. I hope that other people will do that for me if they have enjoyed one of mine. Recommending someone else's book (unlike touting your own) is pain-free, embarrassment free, and a good service to both the author and the reader.

So here, for the sane book-buying public (who let's face it, are probably not reading my blog anyway, but are out at Pilates or Art Class or holding down a complicated and/or stressful job) are my recommendations for this week: BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent and THE ONE I WAS by Eliza Graham

Historical literary fiction that is both gripping and engaging, although in this interview Hannah Kent claims to hate the term 'historical novel'! Bookbag review of The One I Was, a multi-generational roller-coaster of a novel that you won't want to put down.