Hazel McHaffie

75 years on

6 June 1944, saw the largest combined land, air and naval operation in history; D-Day. Seventy-five years on to the day, it seems fitting that I should mark it in some way. What better for the purposes of this blog than to write about a book that challenged me in many ways to think again about what has been done in the name of honour, duty and country.

I found The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert, (shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2001) in the Christian Aid book sale last month. Every now and then I do try to upgrade my literary antennae by reading something from the higher literary shelves! Besides which, my son is an authority on some of the themes it covers; I think we should try to understand what it felt like ‘on the other side’; and the blurb appealed.

The book tells the stories of three ordinary Germans, the descendants of Nazis/Nazi sympathisers.
Helmut is ‘a young photographer in Berlin in the 1930s who uses his craft to express his patriotic fervour‘. Hmm. Well, I’ve read another debut manuscript recently which does something similar – still to be published, so I can’t add a link yet. Both raise issues for me. How far would I have risked my life to expose the horrors of persecution and discrimination in those circumstances?
Lore is a 12-year-old girl in 1945 who ‘guides her young siblings across a devastated Germany after her Nazi parents are seized by the Allies‘. Hmmm, that same year my parents were doing their best to cope with the vicissitudes of life in this country, altered forever by the same war. They struggled with the tensions of conflicting ideologies and family security and public censure. Would I have held fast to my principles and risked so much?
Michael is ‘a young teacher obsessed with what his loving grandfather did in the war, struggling to deal with the past of his family and his country’. Hmmm, my uncle died at the age of 20 on the battlefields of the Somme, in WW1, fighting for the other side. I regret the senseless waste of his life, but I see him as collateral damage, ‘doing his duty’ as he perceived it. How differently would I feel if he had ordered millions to the gas chambers, or shot children in cold blood, or even stood by condoning such barbarity? Would that be ‘doing his duty’?

So this book resonated in many ways, and challenged me to think again about guilt, and responsibility, and both personal and national culpability. Are any of us completely blameless? How much are we accountable for what is done on our behalf? After all, as the famous quote has it, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’.

There are two passages in The Dark Room that highlight the importance of facing squarely what is done in our name. Both come from Michael, the young teacher who’s obsessed with the discrepancy between the two faces of Askan Boell; one the loving grandfather who amused him with drawings, and dandled him on his knee; the other a Waffen SS officer who countenanced and carried out the deaths of an untold number of innocents. Michael’s struggling with the whitewashing of history he sees in the education of German students:

They are being taught that there are no perpetrators, only victims. They are being taught like it just happened, you know, just out of the blue people came along and did it and then disappeared. Not the same people who lived in the same towns and did the same jobs and had children and grandchildren after the war.

I just think they should read about the people who did it, too. The real, everyday people, you know. Not just Hitler and Eichmann and whoever. All the underlings, I mean. The students should learn about their lives, the ones who really did the killing.

Having allowed himself to go there, Michael finds himself consumed with rage and shame. And appalled at the wanton refusal to accept reality that he encounters in his family. Even his own mother denies the possibility that her father was a brutal killer. She was twelve when he returned after the war. Yes, he was a soldier, he killed other soldiers in battle, she accepts that, but not … not murder. Because she ‘knew him‘ – her loving father.  ‘He was my Papa. Always Askan. Just the way he was … he wasn’t capable …’  How would we feel in their shoes? Would we even want to know?

And even those most intimately involved reconstructed the truth. As one of Michael’s informants, Josef Kolesniki, a collaborator, says: those in authority said killing the Jews was the thing to do. They didn’t order anyone to do the killing, so they absolved themselves of the responsibility: they said the men voluntarily chose to pull the trigger. But the men aiming the guns were doing what they’d been told was right, so they weren’t  responsible either. Is it possible for us too to completely delude ourselves and deny all moral responsibility for what we do? Could we too be sucked into an evil system and lose our own moral compass?

And it’s these big challenges underpinning the tales of three young Germans that lift The Dark Room into a different league. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the book, or the writing style. But I did appreciate the bigger messages. It’s only by honestly facing such issues that we can take those vital steps towards learning from the mistakes of the past.



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The Enzo Files

The Enzo Files by Peter May are billed as a ‘mix of whodunit, investigation, thrills, suspense and humour’. They feature a forensic scientist of Scots/Italian descent, called Enzo Macleod who, thanks to a reckless wager, takes on the challenge to solve seven cold cases reported in a book by the widower of the seventh case, journalist Roger Raffin. The stories are all set in France (where May currently lives) and he clearly knows the country well.

Extraordinary People is the first novel in the series: ten years ago Jacques Gaillard, a distinguished scholar, expert in the history of early French cinema, a celebrity with contacts and friends in the highest echelons of society, simply failed to turn up at the end of the August holiday in 1996. Armed with modern technology and a total disregard for the justice system, Enzo begins digging. He applies modern techniques to a few remaining artefacts and soon finds out that Guillard was murdered and probably dismembered in front of the very church altar before which he had worshipped for thirty years, the deed being covered up by the slaughter and incineration of a pig on the same spot.

Little by little Enzo unravels a series of puzzles in the macabre treasure hunt – finding bones and assorted artefacts in each site, all leading him to the next body part and set of clues. ‘An extreme IQ test where cracking the clues was rewarded with the pieces of a murdered man.’ But powerful people and clever minds are determined not to allow the truth to emerge. The government and then his employers warn him off the detective work. Scarcely veiled threats come from a minister and a judge. He persists, but one after another, key people whom he suspects were involved are found dead just as Enzo is about to talk to them, and before long he himself is singled out to be the next victim. But the identity of the last suspect appalls him – it’s someone he knows.

I confess this first book in the Enzo series didn’t quite live up to my expectations of Peter May. It’s more Google-searching than scientific know-how, and large chunks of regurgitated information bog the story down. Much of the setting reads like a French travel guide too! The supporting cast are more promising, and indeed much of the leg work is done by a young student assistant Nicole. The suspense is slow in starting and gets watered down and lost in the morass of Google information. So sorry, Mr May, I wasn’t enamoured of this one.

Nevertheless I persevered. I’ve learned not to judge any writer on a single work. And the second one irritated me less. It feels as if May has got rid of all the background information he wants to share and is settling down to the meat of the search. In The Critic, Enzo is searching for answers to the disappearance of famous and seriously influential wine critic, Gil Petty. Winemakers’ reputations and businesses are lost and found on the basis of his assessments. But then Petty’s body is discovered pickled in wine. More deaths follow and again Enzo’s own life and that of his informants are in danger. May cleverly drops in enough real people and places and wines and historical details to give this one a ring of authenticity. My main niggle was a rather annoying habit of using French words in italics where an English word would have been wholly appropriate and less pretentious.

Fast forward to Cast Iron and the sixth unsolved case in Roger Raffin’s book, and by now the cast of supporting characters are fully fleshed out and we’re rooting for them. This cold case involves the twenty-year old daughter of a judge, Lucie Martin, whose body was disposed of deep in a lake back in 1989, but an unusually hot summer 14 years later reveals it. It’s now 22 years since it happened, and yet someone is still desperate to prevent the case being solved. And this time Enzo’s own daughter Sophie is abducted and in mortal danger. The pressure is on big time: Enzo must stop his investigation or else …

It seems nobody is the kind of person they purport to be, paternity is a flexible concept, and once again Enzo is devastated to find people he trusted and loved are in fact villains. And he himself has changed – ‘everything about him … everything he had known and understood … everything he had been … ‘ the very bedrock on which he had built his life had fallen away beneath his feet … he is a stranger haunting his own past.’

Reading one book after another by any author has its benefits and disadvantages. With this series I found that little by little the characters grew on me and the overall picture consolidated reassuringly. I was glad I’d persevered beyond the first one. However reading several on the trot has its drawbacks. It’s a bit like TV series set in small villages/cities like Midsommer/Oxford where one detective solves murders regularly. Totally implausible. And what are the chances of every single cold case involving violent people bent on silencing Macleod and anyone else getting near to the truth? Vanishingly rare. Sigh! Except … in this instance, by the 44th chapter of the sixth book it all makes sense! Now that’s clever plotting … if you have nerves of steel and the confidence of a few million fans!



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Allow me to introduce you …

Well, here it is, folks … the cover design for my forthcoming novel. Killing me Gently in the flesh!

This is the point at which it feels real.

Huge thanks to my faithful designer, Tom Bee. All I do is give him a synopsis of the book, a résumé of the atmosphere I want to create, and a few pointers to possible aspects of the story which we might capture, and up he comes with a selection of options. We go back and forth a little on refinements and it’s all signed and sealed. This is the sixth of my novels he’s illustrated and he’s an absolute joy to work with.

And just to give you a taster, here’s the official blurb about the story-line.

Anya Morgan has it all – beauty, brains, dream home, handsome husband, and now to complete the picture, a new baby. But Gypsy Lysette doesn’t conform to Anya’s criteria for perfection. Sleep deprived and insecure, she searches for solace and reassurance.

Leon Morgan is torn between supporting his paranoid wife and the demands of his job. Increasingly stressed he starts to make mistakes, big mistakes, threatening the future of the family firm, jeopardising their marriage.

Tiffany Corrigan to the rescue; qualified nurse, mother of three, a fount of practical wisdom. She’s a shoulder to lean on when the crises escalate … when Gypsy is admitted to hospital … when the fingers start pointing … when suspicion and jealousy widen the rift between Anya and Leon.

Then inexplicable things start to happen. Frightening things. Baby Gypsy’s life as well as Anya’s sanity are under threat. Who is responsible? And will the professionals act in time to save this family from devastating loss?

I’ll let you know when it’s ready for purchase – not long now!

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Let’s celebrate! Books, books and more books

Yep, it’s Christian Aid Book Sale time again in Edinburgh. I was there at St George’s and St Andrew’s in George Street at opening time on Day 2 this year surrounded by over 100,000 secondhand books of every genre, fact and fiction, filling the sanctuary and both courtyards. Imagine! The sun was beating down on us, the mood everywhere was upbeat and busy … I was like a pig in muck! And I picked up no less than fifteen paperbacks! … what? … yes, of course I paid for them! It’s a cause very dear to my heart.

I missed getting the whole set of Peter May‘s The Lewis Trilogy by a whisker – and I even refrained from challenging or cheating the lady who found them two seconds ahead of me but put them down while she continued searching. My honesty and magnanimity was rewarded however, by my finding two other copies in boxes under the tables, and I immediately ordered the third one when I got home – a treat in store.

And another first … there was one of my own used novels nestling amidst all the Maggie O’Farrells and Alexander McCall Smiths and Ian Rankins and JK Rowlings. It felt very grown up!

But as every year, the biggest thrill is seeing so many people browsing and buying and discussing books. So confirming. The written word, the hold-in-your-hand real copy, is very much alive and well.

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Gender, sex, chromosomes and other details

In our family, the two generations below me are runners. With the Edinburgh Marathon Festival in a matter of days now, we’re all gearing up – in my case just to be there at as many vantage points as possible to cheer them on as usual. In their case to be in peak condition to stay the course and surpass their personal bests. And this year is exceptional in that one of them (son-in-law) is doing the 5K, followed by the 10K on the Saturday, then the half marathon followed by the full marathon on the Sunday. Now, that’s keen! Super fit. Totally focused.

Although the competitors all run together, divided at the starting point into bands according to speed and ability, the results are announced by gender – fastest male, fastest female. So, X and Y genes do matter! But what if there are question marks over one’s gender? And that’s what’s preoccupying part of the sporting world at this precise moment. The male-female definition isn’t as binary as people used to think; about 1.7% present with atypical patterns of chromosomes and biological characteristics. And the South African runner, Caster Semenya, is caught in this hazy overlap.

It seems that all her life Caster has been portrayed as ‘a frea’. Imagine the burden of that!  As a youngster, she grew accustomed to having to show her genitalia to a coach before a race. The mind boggles. And since she rose to fame as a gifted athlete her success has been overshadowed by doubt, vilification and abuse. As it’s reported anyway, she was born intersex. But she was brought up as, and identifies as, a female. In the sporting world however, now she’s an adult, there are questions about her right to compete as a woman. She produces unusually high levels of testosterone. Such a fact must be difficult enough to deal with in one’s own local community; but because she’s an Olympic champion gold medallist, and because these results got into the wrong hands, her personal information has been paraded world-wide. And now she has – again publicly – lost her case to compete in her natural state. Henceforth she must take medication to lower her testosterone levels if she wishes to race against women. No one knows what that medication would/will do to her, but in her world every second counts.

Shutterstock image

This is about much more than justice in sport; it raises huge ethical questions. In Caster’s case, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has decided the rights of the individual must be sacrificed to ensure the welfare of the majority. They say their decision is ‘necessary, reasonable and proportionate’ in the interests of fairness. Is it? From her rivals’ point of view, I’m sure we can all appreciate that it does seem unjust to lose to someone with such a huge inbuilt biological advantage. But what about other athletes with inbuilt advantages – eg. swimmer Michael Phelps with his massive arm span and double-jointed ankles and low production of lactic acid which means he doesn’t tire as quickly as ordinary men? Should he have been disqualified?

And what about Caster’s own perspective? After being cruelly ridiculed for her body all her life, here was something she naturally excelled at, for which she trained hard, and now she’s being denied the opportunity to compete as the woman she is. Lose, lose. What a monumental injustice this must seem. In fact she’s shown immense dignity in the face of this latest humiliation. She admits to feeling upset and degraded by this ‘unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details’ of her very being. At the moment she’s contemplating leaving the arena. ‘I’m finished’ she tweeted when the ruling came through. ‘Knowing when to walk away is wisdom. Being able to is courage. Walking away with your head held high is dignity.’ How desperately sad.

Why do I talk about this case on my blog this week? Partly because the questions it raises have been exercising my mind, and partly because it’s another example of the reality that there are very few absolute black and whites in the world of ethics – my world! And that’s before you start factoring in transgender athletes and self-assignment of gender and competing interests and … It goes on and on. Scrambles the mind, doesn’t it?

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Inhabiting characters

Fragile: approach with care!

I remember going to an event years ago, where the audience walked past several actors in various poses. We were advised not to speak to them as they were already ‘in character’. And we were subsequently treated to a masterclass in how they achieved this level of identification and immersion in order to project the final images which had us mesmerised. Fascinating insights.

And I’m sure we can all appreciate how thoroughly good actors can inhabit their characters when we see the same person in completely different roles. Just think Meryl Streep – literally Oscar winning!: Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady,  Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette, Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. She is these women for us! How does she do it? ‘Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there,’ she says. But the end result is utterly convincing on our end of the process.

Even in films where a well-known person of our time is being represented – King George VI, the Queen, Winston Churchill, Ghandi – a good actor can make us suspend disbelief by somehow capturing the essence of the character; a style of speech or dress, a gait, a look, an idiosyncratic habit. And to do that, they delve into archives, study mannerisms, learn speech patterns and dialects, anything that will increase empathy and understanding of who exactly such persons were/are. Just watch something like The Crown, The King’s Speech, The Queen, and you can see the little foibles and eccentricities that help the identification process in a huge cast of well known faces.

To an extent an author too, needs to get inside the skin of their characters, in order to make them believable and relatable. Unless we care, we don’t want to read on. In my case, I want to make them real enough for the reader also to feel their pain, empathise with their situation, identify with their challenges and choices. To ask themselves: What would I have done? With my current book, this has meant immersing myself in the psychological depths of a new mother struggling to cope; an ambitious businessman torn by divided loyalties; health care professionals grapplling with the threat of making a wrong call; a clever manipulative mind … no wonder it’s exhausting and depressing and stressful at times! Even now, when I’m reading and re-reading and reading again to make sure every dot and nuance is as good as I can make it before Killing me Gently is published. Perhaps authors too should have mentors and support networks built in to their job descriptions. And a label: Fragile: approach with care.

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Aurora Floyd

Back in the 1800s there were no sniffy graduates of two-bit creative writing courses to sneer at broken literary rules and anachronisms, to look down their noses at irregular writing styles or suspect accents and idioms. So Mary Elizabeth Braddon could dot between points of view with wild abandon, even interject her personal comments in the middle of a passage of the story, and get away with it! I’m in awe. I find her sheer audacity breath taking.

Yep, I’m back to one of the authors I find compulsive reading. Serialised in 1862-1863, Aurora Floyd appeared in book form in January 1863 – 155 years ago. It’s one of Braddon’s two most popular novels – the other one being Lady Audley’s Secret, which I’ve already reviewed – quintessentially an example of a new-at-the-time genre of writing, the ‘sensation novel’. Back then, there was a real fear such novels might lead to a growing acceptance of crime and vice in real life, so Braddon was viewed with both interest and considerable reservation. How times have changed! By today’s standards her writing is truly genteel and prudish. She even substitutes ‘- inadmissible adjective -‘ for a common swear word!

We often lament the problems of juggling domestic responsibilities with writing, but here again Braddon wasn’t hamstrung by convention or public expectation. She managed to care for no less than eleven children (five those of her publisher John Maxwell with whom she lived; six more she bore him herself) and still produce upwards of 85 books! Busy lady on all counts.

Confession time! I sent for Aurora Floyd online and somehow managed to order a copy in French – immediately passed on to my fluent-in-the-language daughter! No mean task for her given it’s almost 500 pages long. But it’s a most enjoyable read – even when the big secret is revealed in the blurb of the back cover. I’ll attempt to give you a flavour without spoilers, if I can.

The august name of the banking dynasty, Floyd, Floyd and Floyd, of Lombard Street in the great city of London, is without spot or wrinkle and must remain that way, the current Mr Floyd tells incomers. Reputation, honesty and virtue are everything.

Senior partner, and self-confessed eternal bachelor, Archibald Floyd (aged 47) sets the entire neighbourhood by the ears when he precipitately weds a provincial actress, Eliza Percival alias Prodder, (aged but 29) about whom nothing is known, and who has little to commend her beyond exceptionally fine eyes and a deep melodious voice. Rumours abound: she’s a factory girl, a penniless itinerant actress, an equestrian, an adventurist, or something much much worse. Supplying no explanation to scotch the rumours, the wealthy banker, the richest man in Kent, instals his enigmatic bride as mistress of Felden Woods. Her detractors find any excuse to ridicule and demean her, but Eliza herself takes malicious delight in keeping up a jolly manner, and the actress in her revels in treating the second-rate county families with insolent ease and well-bred audacity.

‘How badly they must have wanted you for a husband, Archy, when they hate me so ferociously! Poor portionless old maids, to think that I should snatch their prey from them! I know they think it a hard thing that they can’t have me hanged, for marrying a rich man.’

However, their happy marriage is destined not to last; it’s but one year before the light slowly fades out of those glorious eyes and a bereft Archibald Floyd, is left, a ‘shipwrecked soul’,  with a new baby daughter in his widowed arms. Aurora – the heroine of our story –  becomes his obsession and sole focus, and in consequence grows up abominably spoilt and uncontrolled … and stunningly beautiful, frank, fearless, generous, affectionate, obsessed with horses and riding. She spends hours and hours riding with no other company than her personal groom, chosen by Mr Floyd for his uncommon good looks for Aurora’s exclusive service.

Then everything changes. Archibald Floyd has a terrible row with his daughter, her governess and her personal groom are dismissed, and she is sent away to Paris to a very expensive and exclusive finishing school. By the time she returns, a year and two months later, her father, now 65, has aged dramatically. Aurora too is much changed, haggard of cheek, hollow of eye, low in spirits, nervous, sleeping badly, with no appetite. Both are equally appalled by the change in the other, but they resolve to say nothing of what has transpired beyond Archibald asking one question: Is a certain man dead. He is, she tells him.

Back in Kent, Aurora recovers her vivacity and gaiety of temper – at least in public – and on her 19th birthday her father throws a ball to show off his beautiful daughter, restored to the bosom of the family. It soon becomes clear that she holds a certain powerful fascination over men, and two in particular vie for her hand.

A proud and handsome Cornishman, Talbot Bulstrode, Captain of Her Majesty’s 11th Hussars and only son of a rich baronet, is a rather forbidding 33-year-old, with rigidly impossible standards of morality and dignity, for whom pride and pedigree are all important. Hitherto unloved – even by his mother – Bulstrode wants nothing more than to be adored by some good and pure soul, someone accomplished, virginal and lady-like, with charming propriety and perfect manners. Aurora is the antithesis of his ideal. Wealthy in her own right, she’s not remotely interested in his money, pays him scant attention and seems distracted much of the time. She displays a vulgarly inappropriate and unapologetic interest in horse racing. And yet … her beauty extinguishes all others; ‘an empress’, ‘a goddess’, who reigns by divine right simply by virtue of her royal presence, her wonderful black eyes and her massive diadem of black hair plaited on her low forehead. In spite of his resistance, in spite of the greater suitability of her gentle and pretty cousin Lucy, Bulstrode falls deeply in love with Aurora.

His rival, John Mellish of Mellish Park, 30, is a bluff Yorkshire man, fourteen stone and given to draping his shoulders in a heavy Scottish plaid. Pampered and privileged, he is a keen horseman and hunter, with an easy familiarity and rugged charm that endears him to all. He soon falls under Aurora’s spell and lets his childhood friend, Bulstrode, know of his intentions.

After one refusal, Aurora eventually accepts Bulstrode’s offer of marriage, on the very day the racing papers report a frightful accident in Germany in which an English jockey called Conyers is killed. But she is in a constant ferment as one after another assorted encounters threaten to expose her secret and wreck her father’s peace of mind.  When Aurora refuses to tell Talbot what happened during that fateful fourteen months in France, he says she can never be his: ‘the past life of my wife must be a white unblemished page, which all the world may be free to read.’ John Mellish on the other hand, has no such arbitrary standards; he more generously accepts Aurora just as she is, and he returns to quietly bide his time, until she eventually agrees to marry him. John might be trusting, but Aurora has unwittingly made two enemies – one ‘nursing discontent and hatred within the holy circle of the domestic hearth’; the other ‘plotting ruin and vengeance without the walls of the citadel.’

And then the supposedly-dead James Conyers, appears at Mellish Park as the new groom/jockey/trainer, and John is at a complete loss as to why his name sends Aurora into a state of hysteria. His foreboding mounts as incident after incident tells him his wife is harbouring a terrible secret, and this uncouth servant knows more about it than he does. It feels both cruel and degrading, but such is his obsessive love that he does all he can to suppress the doubts.

We are almost three quarters of the way through the book when, during a dinner party at Mellish Park, there is a murder in the woods. Aurora’s maternal uncle, a merchant captain completely unknown to her, has just been refused admission to the house, and he is the one to find the body and to announce the nefarious happenings to the assembled diners. He is totally bemused. He has come to make his niece’s acquaintance and instead has become embroiled in ‘a tragedy; a horrible mystery of hatred, and secrecy, and murder‘. Death by frustrated poachers, is the immediate verdict; but in his heart John Mellish knows otherwise … the constable finds a wad of documents sewn inside the dead man’s waistcoat … the mentally challenged servant reviews overheard information and notes he has carried between Aurora and the trainer … Aurora’s female companion drops veiled hints of complicity and intrigue … and now the mysterious seafaring stranger who found the body has vanished. The question on everyone’s lips is: ‘Had anyone a motive for killing this man?’

Within the great house, alone together, Mr and Mrs Mellish are left ‘to hug those ugly skeletons which are put away in the presence of company.’ Wracked with suspicion and doubt, faithful John initially sinks into ‘utter desolation of heart,’ but then determines as soon as the inquest is over, to go away to the south of France and start a new life with Aurora, putting all the horrors behind them. Against the mounting evidence, he refuses to think ill of his wife, clinging with a desperate tenacity to her remaining perfect and untouchable; rather he prefers to think she must be nobly bearing the burden of some failing on the part of her beloved father. And yet … he knows that, for ever, there will hang between them the haunting knowledge of this ‘nameless and formless horror’ which Aurora has concealed from him.

The inquest a couple of days later (eat your heart out modern detectives!) seems to put the matter safely to bed. Aurora, agonising for the sake of her husband and her father, dares to hope again. But no. A ‘hideous avalanche of trouble’ slowly but inexorably descends on the hapless John Mellish. The paper found hidden in the murdered man’s waistcoat is washed of its blood and spells out the terrible secret, and he is apprised of its contents. There can be no doubt of the devastating fact Aurora has kept from him. And it’s now that John Mellish’s love is shown in its true light. Or is it? First the murder weapon, John’s own pistol, is discovered … damaging facts as to who was where when are revealed … anonymous letters are sent to the police … the gentlemen of the press are circling … mounting evidence points John in one horrific direction. And as rumour and speculation spreads ‘a hundred perils menaced them on every side.’

Braddon shows a real understanding of human psychology; she sets great store by noble motives and generosity of spirit; she challenges the standards and proprieties of her day; but these agendas are lightly included and add to, rather than detract from, the pace and pull of the story. I was riveted but her writing even though I already knew the plot and story-line!



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The life of an Empress in China

Our British literature abounds with tales of royal intrigue across the ages in the UK and Europe, but how much do we know of other nations’ history? In my case, precious little, so reading a very engaging story of China’s last Empress proved fascinating.

OK, Henry VIII rather fancied he was above the laws of the land and could change the rules to suit his whims, but imagine if the king/emperor is deemed an infallible god! … he’s known as the ‘Son of Heaven’ – ‘whatever he does is Heaven’s will.’ From childhood he has the notion drummed into him that everyone in the Forbidden City lives to attend to his needs. So removed from reality is he, indeed, that he grows up spoilt and with no appreciation of suffering in others; he believes in and consults the gods and his ancestors, but when they don’t fulfill his wishes he is left with an enormous burden of responsibility and guilt. An unenviable inheritance.

Empress Orchid by Chinese American author, Anchee Min, starts at the time when the ruler in question is Emperor Hsein Feng, ninth Emperor of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, and the seventh Qing emperor to rule over China proper. We’re talking 1850 to 1861.

It’s hard to conceive of a court so opulent and extravagant and yet so cruel and superstitious. Strict rules of etiquette, ritual and ceremony apply to everyone, with horrific punishments meted out to those who infringe them. Wives and concubines are arbitrarily beheaded or ordered to hang themselves; younger sons can be exalted above older ones without challenge; torture is commonplace.

Emperor Hsein Feng is actually ‘delicate and sensitive’ as well as fearful and ‘deeply insecure’, but he hides this under a façade of ‘arrogance and decisiveness’. He is fabulously wealthy, but outside of his numerous palaces there is abject poverty – frozen bodies left in the streets after ice-storms; families unable to afford essential food or bury their loved ones; people stinking because they are unable to wash or change their clothes; girls forced to marry totally unsuitable men to rescue their families from destitution.

One such girl is Orchid, a poverty-stricken girl from an aristocratic background, on the verge of entering a forced marriage with an unattractive and mentally-challenged cousin, to save her family from penury. The story is told through her eyes and begins with an event which changes her life for ever: the Selection of Imperial Consorts. The new Emperor is looking for a new harem, his mother, Grand Empress Lady Jin, a powerful influence in his choices. The task is to select seven official wives who will be given magnificent palaces to live in all with exotic names – Palace of Earthly Tranquillity, Palace of Universal Inheritance, Palace of Eternal Peace, Palace of Great Mercy, etc.

All Manchu girls between 13 and 17 are required to register to become part of the Imperial household of 3000 concubines – in the Imperial garden of beauty; 18 is considered a ‘flower on its way to withering’. None of these teenagers can marry until the Emperor has ‘passed them up.’ Representing the Emperor in the initial stages is the chief eunuch who inspects all the girls carefully. The finalists are kept locked away in the Forbidden City, guaranteed a lifetime of annual payment based on title and rank, but always one false move away from execution. Humiliating experiences and ferocious vetting procedures (sometimes naked in front of several eunuchs) to eliminate defects such as sloping shoulders, slight smells, a graceless walk, await them.

2000 eunuchs are a constant presence within the Forbidden City, poised to remove any girl who loses control or betrays any behaviour outside the strict etiquette required inside those sacred walls. These men – more than 50 thousand added annually – are quick-witted boys often from impoverished backgrounds who are castrated at a young age to guarantee the Emperor is the ‘sole seed-planter’, regimented, punished, severely disciplined, all in the hope of becoming the Imperial favourite, a legend above the nation. Anger and brutality are rife amongst them. So too is inspirational loyalty.

Orchid is kitted out in regal clothes and glides through the selection process until she is one of two hundred girls competing to be one of the seven royal wives. Though competing with the rich and famous and royally connected, she is chosen by the eunuchs, an honour beyond the family’s wildest dreams; or, as her mother puts it before the Gate of Zenith slams shut on her old life and her family, ‘Consider yourself boarding a ship of mercy on the sea of suffering’. Aged just 17, knowing nothing of how to pleasure a man, she is taken by a family friend to a ‘whorehouse’ to learn the tricks of their trade. But the young Emperor is neither as highly sexed nor as fertile as his fathers, and Orchid waits in vain to be summonsed to the royal bed. In desperation she bribes the head eunuch who negotiates her an invitation, and she quickly becomes the favoured concubine. However, this in turn stirs up huge jealousies and threatens her security; punishments for monopolising the Emperor are brutal. One such concubine had all her limbs hacked off and her living torso kept in a jar as a warning to others.

Thousands of years of tradition lie behind many of these arcane customs and rituals. My medical sensitivities recoiled from the method of diagnosing illness. No male apart from the eunuchs and the Emperor is allowed to see any of the females in the Forbidden City, so doctors have to make a diagnosis from nothing more than feeling a pulse behind a curtain. And it’s in this bizarre way that Orchid finds out what’s ailing her: ‘My lady, the dragon’s seed has sprouted!’ At last! But reality hits home all too soon. Her pregnancy makes her the object of jealousy and envy, evil intent and vicious plots. Not only does she face falling out of royal favour herself, but her child is in danger if he doesn’t perform to order as a baby or toddler.

Penetrating deeper and deeper into these ancient practices and superstitions gives us an insight into why the people perceived Christianity and any attempt to save the souls of the Chinese, to be an insult to their age-old traditions and beliefs and gods.

Immersed in the elaborate, secluded and extravagant lives women lead inside the Forbidden City, Orchid struggles to understand what’s going on in the rest of the country. But she’s inquisitive, and intelligent and persistent. She objects inwardly to the diktat that the role of Empresses is to feel not to rule, so seizes an opportunity when the Emperor becomes too ill and frail to rule effectively, to become in effect his secretary, and consequently privy to his official papers and activities; she helps to couch his responses and edicts, sharing His Majesty’s dream of reviving China. But Orchid doesn’t suffer from a god-complex; she’s wise enough to listen to others. As his health fails, the Emperor, still in his 20s, becomes depressed, in pain and pessimistic, taking less and less interest in state affairs, and almost imperceptibly Orchid takes over writing the edicts herself, making them more encouraging and positive, less dictatorial and punitive.

But this is the 1850s, the time of the opium wars, China’s power and influence is waning, the economy shrinking. She is increasingly under threat from the Allies – Russia, Britain, France. Ancient Chinese ways of fighting wars – fortified earthworks, bamboo stakes, ditches and dykes, martial arts – are an embarrassment in the face of the cannons and guns and warships of the Westerners. Disaster looms.

Orchid is appalled when the Emperor decides he will desert Peking and his people, ostensibly to ‘go hunting’, but her protestations meet with a wall of regal immovability. Her husband even threatens to send her a silk rope to hang herself if she persists. His brothers too, all risk their lives to protest against his departure, but the sick king is a coward, and insists not only on going but on doing so with the usual enormous pomp and ostentation. Even in desertion etiquette must be observed – ‘the Imperial household stretched for three miles’ – leaving despair and chaos behind it.

The Forbidden City is ransacked and destroyed and looted. Emperor Hsein Feng dies, still a young man in his early 30s. At the eleventh hour, and then only under severe pressure, he names his only son the next Emperor. Orchid, the Emperor’s biological mother, and her senior sister-wife Nuharoo, together act as regents. Their brother-in-law, Prince Kung, negotiates with the Allies for a freer society, and a kinder more tolerant regime replaces the old order.

In telling the story of the last Empress, Min really brings history alive and captures the absurdities and traditions vividly. My main difficulty was separating out the characters – the Chinese names are hard to remember and keep track of. Nevertheless it’s a tale well told.


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Georgiana, Lady Chatterton – writer

We writers are always thrilled to find unexpected literary treasures.

So, when I visited the moated National Trust property,  Baddesley Clinton Hall, in Warwickshire, a few weeks ago, I was delighted to discover a hitherto unknown-to-me writer associated with it, and enthusiastic volunteer guides only too ready to tell us all about her. Georgiana, Lady Chatterton is one of the three aristocratic ladies being promoted there just now. Who? do I hear you cry?

Henrietta Georgiana Marcia Lascelles Iremonger was born in London, on 11 November 1806 and at the tender age of 17, she married Sir William Abraham Chatterton, 2nd Baronet of Castle Mahon, County Cork, who was eighteen years her senior. Their circle included the literary intelligentsia as well as royals, but Georgina coupled a busy social life with writing, producing 29 novels and travel books between 1837 and 1876. In 1859, now a widow, she married Edward Dering, a fellow writer. The story (which may be apocryphal) is told with some glee that Edward was actually asking permission to marry Georgiana’s niece, but the older lady misheard and thought he was proposing to her. She accepted, so he gallantly went along with the misunderstanding.

Baddesley Clinton has books and quotes by Georgina and information about her, tastefully scattered around the rooms, as well as many glorious paintings by her aforementioned niece, Rebecca Dulcibella Orpen, the second lady highlighted at the Hall.

This exquisite portrait of Georgiana by her, sits on an easel in the room where Rebecca continued to paint until she was in her 90s. (Apologies the lighting was tricky.)

Georgiana loved the idea of her thoughts and words being retained for posterity, preferably entombed in a library …

… and I’m sure would have thought the one at Baddesley Clinton a perfect resting place.

Whilst friends and acquaintances would forget her and vanish in their turn, she reflected, her words would continue to be read sympathetically by strangers for generations to come, granting her a very special kind of immortality.

What a lovely and unexpected find.

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Finishing touches

Writing in Mslexia (the magazine for women who write), author Meg Clothier says ‘books finish themselves in their own bittersweet time.‘ Yes, indeed. And to rush the process is to sacrifice security and satisfaction with the end result. I’ve just completed yet another (you may well groan!) revision of my current novel Killing me Gently, and I believe/think/hope it’s almost complete. But even once it’s prepared for publication, I’ll be checking it one more time – for anomalies that may be introduced by the person formatting it, as well as infelicities that show up at this point in the process.

Even at this stage, though, once the actual text of the story has been submitted, my work is far from over. There’s the small matter of strap line/pithy saying for the front cover, blurb for the back cover, relevant information for the cover designer, questions for bookclubs, acknowledgements, reviews/endorsements … each piece of the jigsaw has to be slotted in seamlessly.

Which brings me to a matter that’s been exercising my mind rather a lot this week. I’ve been reading surveys and articles and opinion columns about women writers, and it’s clear the odds are stacked against us. We are under-represented at most levels and in most areas. It’s notoriously difficult for us to find the time and emotional energy to write, and to prioritise our writing, when our lives are already split between day job and caring responsibilities. It took me years to accept that my writing was important enough to be allocated dedicated uninterrupted time, to respect it as a real job, not something that would always play second fiddle to the demands of others. Thankfully I’m at an age and stage now when it’s much more do-able. The older generation within our family have died; the younger ones are standing on their own two feet; my responsibilities for other people are more circumscribed. I’m also fortunate enough to have a partner who shoulders his share of the domestic tasks and supports me in my career (well, most of the time anyway!). But my heart goes out to all those talented people who’re weighed down by the burdens of life, and who feel they have no choice but to let their talents and dreams fall off the edge of their days. If you know any, please do your best to cherish and support and encourage them.

Oh, and by the way, while we’re talking home truths, writing as a career is not the dream job, the leisurely activity, the doddle, many people seem to think it is. The potential health hazards lying in weight for the serious writer are legion: stress, depression, weight gain, anxiety, sleep problems, eye strain, back strain, repetitive strain injury, digestive problems, back troubles, headaches, loneliness, insecurity, disappointment, despair, self-doubt  … to name but a few. So how come I’m still obsessed with doing it long after normal retirement age? Because I feel bereft when I’m not writing, that’s why!

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