Book announcement: The Book Lovers’ Miscellany

Exciting news, in September 2017 my next book will be published by Bodleian Library Publishing. I wanted to share here the gorgeous cover art and some more details:

3D low res

The  Blurb

Ever wondered how ink is made? Or what is the bestselling book of all time? Or which are the oldest known books in the world? Highbrow to lowbrow, all aspects of the book are celebrated and explored in The Book Lovers’ Miscellany.

From a list of unfinished novels, a short history of the comic, the story behind Mills and Boon and an entry on books printed with mistakes to a guide to the colours of Penguin paperback jackets and a list of the most influential academic books of all time.

Between these pages you will discover the history of paper, binding, printing and dust jackets; which books have faced bans; which are the longest established literary families; and which bestsellers were initially rejected. You can explore the output of the most prolific writers and marvel at the youth of the youngest published authors; learn which natural pigments were used to decorate a medieval bible; and what animal is needed for the making of vellum.

The ideal gift for every bibliophile, The Book Lovers’ Miscellany is full of fun facts, potted histories and curious lists, perfect for dipping into and sharing.

It was so much fun writing and researching this book as it allowed me to combine my love of history with my book-wormish tendencies. I really hope readers will be equally delighted by delving into its depths and I look forward to hearing your feedback!

Pre-order your copy here.


Gardening folklore

Gardening folklore often has a basis in fact, so it is fascinating to read through some of the old traditions and superstitions surrounding plants, planting and gardening. I have always enjoyed joining in with the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter each week, sharing snippets of folklore I come across while researching my books and articles.

For the last few weeks I have been tweeting on all things gardening to celebrate the upcoming publication on 4 May of my next book The Golden Age of the Garden and so I thought I would collate the best bits of gardening folklore to share on my blog:

Plant a single garlic clove next to your roses to protect them from flying insects, especially pesky aphids.

Dandelion or pis-en-lit in French which translates as ‘wet the bed’

Water collected in the hollows of ancient oak trees was thought to be a good remedy for fever.

Traditionally if it was warm enough to sit on the bare soil with no trousers on then it was warm enough to sow seeds.

Never bring dandelions into the house, they will make you wet the bed.

Cow parsley is also known as ‘break-your-mother’s-heart’ and it is bad luck to bring into the house.

Pick blackberries before September is out as by October it is believed the devil pees on any remaining fruit!

In Appalachian folklore it is considered extremely bad luck to say thank you if someone gifts you with plants or cuttings.

Daisies keep fairies from your garden. To ensure your child is not stolen and replaced with changeling, tie a daisy chain around their neck.

Plant chives in orchards to prevent lightning strikes.


In Midwest America if a girl found a blood-red corn in among the yellow ones, she would be married within the year.

Brambles in seventeenth century England were considered magical, if you stepped under a thorny arch it could cure any ailment.

Foxgloves were considered bad omens. Sailors beware! Bringing one on board a ship was especially unlucky.

Planting and sowing of seeds should be done according to the phases of the moon:

In the moon’s first phase crops that bloom above ground, such as corn, spinach & lettuce should be planted.

The second quarter up to full moon, above-ground seed crops should be planted, such as watermelon, squash & tomatoes.

The week after full moon is time to plant below-ground plants such as carrots and potatoes.

In the final quarter of the waning moon planting should be avoided altogether, and instead weeding should be priority.

Chilli peppers will turn out more spicy if you plant them while angry.


When shelling peas if you have 9 in a pod, throw one over your shoulder for luck.

Parsley and basil will only grow well if you swear profusely as you plant it.

Old American folklore recommends that corn should be planted when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear.

Daffodils should be discarded before the head droops, a droopy daffodil is a harbinger of death!

Plant wild garlic to keep out rabbits, according to English folklore they will not pass a boundary planted with ‘ransomes’.

Parsley is especially tricky to germinate so gardeners would make 3 sowings, 2 for the devil and 1 for the gardener.

Do you know of any gardening folklore? Please share in the comments below.

Book announcement: The Golden Age of the Garden

I am very pleased to announce that my next book is The Golden Age of the Garden which will be published by Elliott & Thompson on 4 May, 2017.

golden age gardening final front

I spent many happy hours in the rare books rooms of the British Library and Cambridge University Library searching through old gardening manuals, essays, travelogues, books and articles to find the most interesting extracts in order to tell the story of this special period of gardening history.

The book is beautifully typeset with some amazing illustrations from the period, giving the reader a real taste of the golden age of garden design.

The blurb gives a nice overview of what to expect:

The relationship between England and its gardens might be described as a love affair; gardening is one of our national passions, rooted in our history.

The eighteenth century is often called the Golden Age of English gardening. As the fashion for formal pleasure grounds for the wealthy faded, pioneers including William Kent and Capability Brown created masterpieces of landscape design, ushering in a new era of picturesque vistas inspired by nature. From these creations spring our very idea of Englishness – rolling hills, beautiful curves, aesthetic surprises and architectural delights.

Charting the transformation in our love of the garden, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Golden Age of the Garden brings the voices of the past alive in newspaper reports, letters, diaries, books, essays and travelogues, offering contemporary gardening advice, principles of garden design, reflections on nature, landscape and plants, and a unique perspective on the origins of our fascination with gardens. 

Exploring the different styles, techniques and innovations of the past, and the creation of many of the stunning gardens we still visit today, this is a beautiful, evocative and rewarding collection for all gardeners seeking insight, new ideas, surprises and inspiration.

I look forward to sharing more on the process of compiling this book in the lead up to publication.

You can pre-order your copy here.


The birth of the bloomer: women’s dress reform

Old drawing of a lady wearing bloomers

In 1840s America, women were weighted down by the heavy, long skirts which fashion and convention dictated they wear. The skirts dragged in the mud, restricted movement and prevented women from carrying out even basic physical tasks. Clothes began to be perceived as yet another way women were held back in society.

Enter Elizabeth Smith Miller

Photo of Amelia Jenks Bloomer

of New York , who was inspired by the traditional dress of the Turkish and began sporting a shorter length of skirt with a pair of loose trousers, gathered at the ankle, underneath. Miller’s outfit immediately caught attention, with some marking it as scandalous, but others saw it as freeing and began to copy the style.


Amelia Jenks Bloomer, editor of the women’s temperance journal, The Lily, was impressed by the outfit and began to wear the ‘reform dress’ herself. She wrote about it in The Lily and such was the positive response that she decided to print drawings and patterns for the bloomers, encouraging others to make their own.

As Bloomer began wearing the outfit to her talks on women’s rights and dress reform she became indelibly associated with the garment and the press began to dub it ‘Bloomer’s costume’ and the name stuck. Fellow women’s rights activists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone also began sporting bloomers, aligning the issue of dress reform with the call for women’s suffrage and sparking a craze for the costume amongst forward-thinking women all over America.

Old drawing of a lady wearing bloomers

But as so often happens today, the furore in the press over the impropriety of bloomers, began to over-shadow the issues the reformers were trying to promote. With regret many of the leading women’s right activists returned to wearing more conventional long skirts in order to keep the emphasis on their message rather than their fashion.


Consequentially the bloomer craze of the 1850s began to fade, but the issue of dress reform persisted well into the twenty-first century. Below is a transcript of Elizabeth Smith Miller’s recollection of the introduction of bloomers taken from the Elizabeth Smith Miller collection of the New York Public Library:

‘In the spring of 1851, while spending many hours at work in the garden, I became so thoroughly disgusted with the long skirt, that the dissatisfaction–the growth of years–suddenly ripened into the decision that this shackle should no longer be endured. The resolution was at once put into practice. Turkish trousers to the ankle with a skirt reaching some four inches below the knee, were substituted for the heavy, untidy and exasperating old garment.

Soon after making this change, I went to Seneca Falls to visit my cousin Mrs. Stanton. She had so long deplored with me our common misery in the toils of this crippling fashion, that this means of escape was hailed with joy and she at once joined me in wearing the new costume. Mrs. Bloomer, a friend and neighbor of Mrs. Stanton, then adopted the dress, and as she was editing a paper in which which she advocated it, the dress was christened with her name. Mrs. Stanton and I often exchanged visits and sometimes travelled together. We endured, in various places, much gaping curiosity and the harmless jeering of street boys. In the winter of 1852 and 1853, when my father was in congress, I was also in the cosmopolitan city of Washington, where I found my peculiar costume much less conspicuous. My street dress was a dark brown corded silk, short skirt and straight trousers, a short but graceful and richly trimmed French cloak of black velvet with drooping sleeves, called a “cantatrice”–a sable tippet and a low-crowned beaver hat with a long plume.

I wore the short dress and trousers for many years, my husband, being at all times and in all places, my staunch supporter. My father, also gave the dress his full approval, and I was also blessed by the tonic of Mrs. Stanton’s inspiring words: “The question is no longer [rags], how do you look, but woman, how do you feel?”

The dress looked tolerably well in walking standing and walking, but in sitting, a more awkward, uncouth effect, could hardly be produced imagined–it was a perpetual violation of my love of the beautiful. So, by degrees, as my aesthetic senses gained claimed the ascendancy, I lost sight of the great advantages of my dress–its lightness and cleanliness on the streets, its allowing me to carry my babies up and down stairs with perfect ease and safety, and its beautiful harmony with sanitary laws–, consequently the skirt was lengthened several inches and the trousers abandoned. As months passed, I proceeded in this retrograde movement, until, after a period of some seven years, I quite “fell from grace” and found myself again in the bonds of the old swaddling clothes–a victim to my love of beauty.

In consideration of what I have previously said in regard to fashion, I feel at liberty to add that I do not wear a heavy, trailing skirt, nor have I ever worn a corset; my bonnet shades my face; my spine was preserved from the bustle, my feet from high heels; my shoulders are not turreted, nor has fashion clasped my neck with her choking collar.

All hail to the day when we shall have a reasonable and beautiful dress that shall encourage exercises on the road and in the field–that shall leave us the free use of our limbs–that shall help and not hinder, our perfect development.’


Chatting about weasels, insults and writing on Bookmark

On 11 February I was thrilled to be included in an edition of Leigh Chamber‘s Bookmark on Cambridge 105, alongside the author Tom Connolly.

You can listen here as we discuss research, inspiration and writing non-fiction.


Bodleianalia at Oxford Literary Festival

I am very excited to announce that I will be appearing at Oxford Literary Festival onBod_jacket Monday 27 March, 2017 at 4pm in the Weston Library to talk about my book Bodleianalia: Curious Facts About Britain’s Oldest University Library.

I will be sharing a behind-the-scenes look at the Bodleian Library, sharing fascinating facts, the quirks of fate and the eccentric characters who have helped make the Bodleian the world-renowned library it is today.

Please join me for what I hope will be a wonderful celebration of the history of Oxford’s famous library. You can book your tickets here.


Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: One of QI’s ‘Most Interesting’ books of 2016

It is with great excitement that I have discovered Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins has been included as one of QI’s 10 Most Interesting Books of 2016!


QI (Quite Interesting Ltd) is delighted to announce the first annual Quite Interesting Book of The Year award. qi-badge

This is a list of ten books, selected from the many hundreds read over the course of 2016 by the staff researchers at QI (in Stephen Fry’s affectionate coinage ‘The QI Elves’), which have particularly astonished and delighted them.

A place on the list entitles the publisher of the book to put one of these on the jacket of the winners:

A Quite Interesting Book of the Year 2016

Just as an Academy Award is colloquially known as an Oscar, this magnificent golden sticker also has a name – a Sorrento – after the neologism for ‘the thing that goes round and round as a YouTube video loads’.

The list of ten Quite Interesting Books of the Year will be announced in the first week of each December in good time for Christmas shopping.

Here is the 2016 list:

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Sam Arbesman (Current, hardback)

 Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic by Claire Cock-Starkey (British Library publications)

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing (Borough Press)

 A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45, by Astrid Lindgren Translated by Sarah Death (Pushkin Press)

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe (Faber)

 The Naming of the Shrew:  A Curious History of Latin Names by John Wright (Bloomsbury)

 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet publishing)

 The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the

Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf (John Murray)

 I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (Bodley Head)

1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted  by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, James Harkin and Anne Miller (Faber)

There is more information about each winning title on the list below, in the form of a mini-review written by one of the QI Elves.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the Elves have rather immodestly included one of their own books at number 10 on the list.

This is because the interesting nuggets of information in 1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted have been painstakingly mined from the contents of dozens and dozens of books, including (of course) the other nine on the list. So, if it’s not quite interesting, something has gone seriously awry…

Sandi Toksvig writes: ‘The QI Nisse (Danish for Elves) as I call them, constantly have their noses in books as they ferret out facts for QI. Now I know their favourite reads, all my Christmas shopping just got a whole lot easier.

John Lloyd writes: ‘Over the last 14 years, I’ve found the QI Elves’ taste in books to be extremely reliable. Or else.’

Anne Miller, QI Elf, writes: ‘At QI we read everything from cereal packets to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. These are our favourites and the ones we would hope to have if stranded on a desert island.’

Those titles in full:

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Sam Arbesman

Sam Arbesman is a brilliant ex-Harvard mathematician and complexity scientist. His last book, The Half-Life of Facts, is about how almost everything we think we know eventually goes out of date and becomes wrong. We liked it so much it was featured both on QI and in our last-book-but-one 1,411 QI Facts To Knock You Sideways. The theme of Overcomplicated is that modern technology is so complex no one really understands it, so that everything from phones, aircraft and cars to hospitals and financial systems behave in unexpected ways and seem to have a mind of their own. Fascinating, alarming, insightful, full of examples and funny.

 Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic by Claire Cock-Starkey

This book reveals nature through the eyes of those who first encountered it, gathering first impressions of exotic plants and creatures from across the globe. As well as being packed with gems – like the fact that in 17th-century India, mangoes were shaken up inside their skins and drunk as smoothies; or that pelicans’ throats were once used as tobacco pouches – it’s an exciting, firsthand insight into the mindsets, language and beliefs of our ancestors.

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing

Ewing’s debut novel is set on a Scottish island where five children are the only survivors of a virus that has wiped out everyone else. Narrated by eight-year-old Rona, the children organise themselves into a new life. They go ‘new shopping’ by raiding the houses of the deceased, visit the ruined school to practice writing and try to take care of each other. Written by a Scottish GP, who spent time living and working on the Barra in the Outer Hebrides, this book is chilling, compelling and impossible to put down.

 A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45 by Astrid Lindgren.

Translated by Sarah Death

Astrid Lindgren kept a painstaking diary during the Second World War which has only recently been translated into English. She had a job working at the Postal Control Division that involved steaming opening letters to check their contents. She also scoured newspapers for updates on the war, which she recorded carefully in her diary along with dispatches from her life in neutral Sweden. Stories about 12,000 Russians perishing in Finland sit next to her deciding to buy shoes for the family before the prices go up or taking everyone to Skansen, an open air museum on Christmas day. An early entry sums up the feelings of deep confusion: ‘Anne-Marie came round this evening and we have never had a more dismal “meeting”. We tried to talk about things other than the war but it was impossible. In the end we had a brandy to cheer ourselves up, but it didn’t help.’

Animal: The Autobiography of A Female Body by Sara Pascoe

Sara Pascoe’s debut blends her trademark wit and humour with autobiography and evolutionary history as she examines our collective pasts for clues as to how and why certain behaviours and norms have developed. From ancient diets: ‘The skinny women of pre-history perished. We can cry for them later’, to body confidence, and from consent to childbirth, Animal is packed with jokes, smart observations and comes with an extensive further reading list. A brilliant read which is as funny as it is remarkable.

 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The scarcely believable cruelties of the slave trade have been visited before in fiction, but never with such harrowing precision. The story of two slaves, Cora and Caesar, escaping from a Georgia plantation using an underground railroad, pursued by Ridgeway, a slave-catcher of Terminator-like relentlessness, explodes off the page, swiftly asserting itself as one of the great mythic journeys in modern literature. In his sixth novel, Colson Whitehead has produced a classic: lyrical, deeply shocking yet somehow full of hope.

The Naming of the Shrew:  A Curious History of Latin Names by John Wright

This is the book that the QI Elves were fighting over during research for Series N. It’s absolutely crammed full of brilliant facts including that most ‘Latin names’ aren’t Latin. It’s full of naming mishaps – the Hydrangea serratifolia has smooth leaves but its name means ‘with serrated leaves’ because the sample examined had been nibbled. There’s also the unfortunate case of William Hemsley who wanted to name a bramble species to honour the Cockburn family and christened it Rubus cockburnianus.

 The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf

As well as being one of the most vital figures in the history of botany and zoology, Humboldt was an intrepid adventurer and a fascinating character. Darwin volunteered for the Beagle voyage because he was inspired by Humboldt, and once wrote of him, ‘He, like another sun, illumines everything I behold.’ Wulf captures all of this in her biography, which is littered with Humboldt’s own brilliant writing and observations, and leaves you wondering why he doesn’t occupy a permanent spot on every school curriculum.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong

Science journalist Ed Yong’s weekly email ‘The Eds Up’ is an office favourite so we were excited to get our hands on his first book. I Contain Multitudes takes an in-depth look at a subject which is tiny (physically) yet huge (significantly) and reexamines the world around us by focusing on all things microbes. Among the book’s revelations is the fact that the bacteria on your arm are more similar to those on a stranger’s arm than they are to the bacteria inside your own mouth.

 1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, James Harkin and Anne Miller

A sparkling new selection of 1,342 facts from the QI team, including the humdingers that Google searches for ‘How to put on a condom’ peak at 10.28pm, emoji is the fastest growing language in history, tanks are exempt from London’s Congestion charge, 1 in 3 children pretend to believe in Santa Claus to keep their parents happy, black coffee drinkers are more likely to be psychopaths, the world’s only Cornish pasty museum is in Mexico, and in 2015, America’s ‘National Hero Dog Award’ was won by a cat.



Behind the scenes at the Bodleian Library: The making of Bodleianalia


In the next few weeks one of the joys of the new students starting at Oxford University will be picking up their Bodleian library card, allowing them access to Britain’s oldest university library and the treasures within.

I had the pleasure of receiving my very own Bodleian library card last year (despite being quite some years off a fresh-faced fresher!) when I began my research for my book about the library, Bodleianalia. As a complete library geek it was an absolute thrill to get a behind-the-scenes look at this library and to talk to some of the many amazing people who work there who so kindly shared their expertise and some juicy morsels about this fascinating institution.

Library Tour

One of the first things I did when compiling Bodleianalia was to go on the “official tour” of

The Divinity School

the library. A very knowledgeable guide showed me around the oldest parts of the library – the beautiful Divinity School with its lofty ceilings – home to a chair fashioned from the timbers of Sir Francis Drake’s ship The Golden Hind; Duke Humfrey’s Library (which was used as Hogwart’s library in the Harry Potter films) where the guide revealed that in 1550 the library was gutted and the books burnt so only about five of the original books from that time survive in the library today; and Arts and Selden End – with many wonderful old books still housed behind the original grilles. This ancient part of the library is absolutely beautiful and has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years, providing a real glimpse into the library of the past.

Marvels of the Weston Library

As a counterpoint to the historical heart of the library is the brand new Weston Library, which after remodelling reopened in 2015. It is a light, modern, airy space with a fantastic gallery of treasures including J. R. R. Tolkien’s original hand-drawn illustrations for The Hobbit, a Gutenberg Bible, and my personal favourite – the “autobiography” of Toby the Sapient Pig.

The Weston Library

I had the pleasure of getting a tour of the conservation department, where they monitor and mend delicate items from the collection. Virginia Llado-Buisan, Head of Conservation and Collection Care and her team very kindly talked me through the fascinating process of fasciculing – a system developed at the Bodleian to protect and preserve single-sheet items in the collection so that they can be safely consulted. I discovered that on average 21,056 single-sheet items were pasted each year into a fascicule!

Also at the Weston Library I had the privilege of picking the brains of Head of Rare Books, Sarah Wheale. Sarah very patiently answered all my many questions on cataloguing, classification and the vagaries of shelfmarks so that I might unveil their mysteries to readers of Bodleianalia. To further my understanding Sarah gave me access to some wonderful books and records about the history of cataloguing at the Bodleian, including an account of an amazing system of colour-coding the books by subject which, proving too complicated, was abandoned in the mid nineteenth century. Traces of the coloured stickers remain on some items in the collection today, though unfortunately their colours have become so faded they are indistinguishable.

Facts, Figures and Curious Tales

Shelf of rare books at the Weston Library

One of the greatest sources of information for Bodleianalia was the amazingly helpful Dr Frankie Wilson, Head of Assessment. Frankie collects and collates all the statistics on the library and was a mine of information. I threw many awkward questions at her (how many desks in the Radcliffe Camera? Which is the longest book in the collection? Which is the largest library? What are the top five languages of books in the collection? How many miles of shelving are there in the Book Storage Facility? What was the most expensive acquisition in the library? Which is the smallest book in the library? And so on ad infinitum…) which she very kindly answered, often adding some extra nugget of information which led me on to yet more questions.Bod_jacket

And so, with my head full of fabulous facts about the Bodleian Library and a bag full of books, I returned back to my little study in Cambridge and wrote it all into Bodleianalia. I hope that I managed to translate my wonder and fascination with this amazing library with its long history and numerous treasures so that readers will enjoy a real glimpse behind the scenes of the Bodleian.

Bodleianalia: Curious Facts about Britain’s Oldest University Library is published in October 2016. Order your copy here.


Eponyms from Greek & Roman Mythology

Many commonly (or not so commonly) used words have their origins in characters from Greek or Roman history/mythology. Some stories behind these words named after people are below:

Draconianexcessively harsh laws

Mercury: Roman messenger god

Named after the Greek law maker named Draco, who in 621 BCE passed a number of very strict laws, including the death penalty for minor infringements.

Mercurialsomeone with sudden changes in mood or opinion.

Named from Mercury the Roman messenger god, who was changeable in nature.

Narcissistichaving an excessive obsession with one’s own appearance.

From the myth of Narcissus a beautiful hunter who caught sight of his own reflection in a pool of water and fell madly in love with himself. Unable to tear himself away he spent all his time gazing lovingly at his own reflection, losing his will to live and eventually dying.

Martialrelating to war.

Named from Mars, the Roman God of war.

Narcissus: painting by Caravaggio

Tantalisingto be tormented by something desirable but unobtainable

From the myth of Tantalus who was handed down an eternal punishment to stand forever in a pool of water, which receded every time he stooped down to drink and with delicious low-hanging fruit just out of his grasp.

Thespianan actor

From Thespis, said to be the first actor to take to the stage in Ancient Greece.

Eroticrelating to sexual desire

Named from Eros, the Greek god of love.

Mentora trusted adviser

From the character Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor was Odysseus’s good friend who gave sage advice during his epic voyage.

Panicuncontrollable fear and anxiety

From the Greek god Pan, who could cause sudden, contagious fear in people and animals through the power of his voice.

This is just a short summary of some of the eponyms I found from Greek and Roman mythology, please leave a comment to share others.