Introducing my next book: The Real McCoy

It is with great excitement that I announce my next book: The Real McCoy and 149 Other Eponyms.

Approved cover

Here is a taster of what to expect:

The English language is rich with eponyms – words that are named after an individual – some better known than others. This book features 150 of the most interesting and enlightening specimens, delving into the origins of the words and describing the fascinating people after whom they were named.

Eponyms are derived from numerous sources. Some are named in honour of a style icon, inventor or explorer, such as pompadour, Kalashnikov and Cadillac. Others have their roots in Greek or Roman mythology, such as panic and tantalise. A number of eponyms, however, are far from celebratory and were created to indicate a rather less positive association – into this category can be filed boycott, Molotov cocktail and sadist.

Encompassing eponyms from medicine, botany, invention, science, fashion, food and literature this book uncovers the intriguing tales of discovery, mythology, innovation and infamy behind the eponyms we use every day. The Real McCoy is the perfect addition to any wordsmith’s bookshelf.

You can read more about it here in the latest catalogue for Bodleian Library Publishing and you can pre-order a copy here. The Real McCoy will be out in October 2018.

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The Exhumation of Elizabeth Siddal

 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) was a leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which he co-founded with Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in 1848. Rossetti was a talented painter, poet and writer but his work was not always appreciated in his lifetime. With his strong views, and tumultuous love life, Rossetti typified a romantic, idealised image of ‘the artist’.

Portrait of Rossetti aged 22 by Holman Hunt
Portrait of Rossetti aged 22 by Holman Hunt

Rossetti met budding artist and model Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) in c.1849 and entered into a long, and sometimes tortured, love affair. Their relationship was documented in many of Rossetti’s sketches, paintings and poems, immortalising her fragile, flame-haired beauty, and forever linking her image with the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Regina Cordium (1860) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti - painted on their marriage
Regina Cordium (1860) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti – painted on their marriage

Rossetti and Siddal’s relationship was punctuated by Siddal’s lengthy bouts of illness and eroded by Rossetti’s affairs with other women and Siddal’s addiction to laudanum. In February 1862, Siddal died from an overdose, having spiralled into a depression after the loss of her baby. Friend of the couple, Hall Caine, described Rossetti taking a book of his poems and placing them next to the cheek of his dead wife, entwining some of her celebrated red curls around them and requesting that they be buried with her[1]. Caine here created a tender and tragic image of the distraught artist, placing his precious poetry in his muse’s coffin. This type of artistic self-sacrifice appealed to Victorian ideals and the macabre act of burying his work with his wife was also tinged with the Gothic.

Rossetti felt enormous guilt over the death of Elizabeth and his mental health began to suffer but as time passed his guilt was surpassed by a yearning for his lost poetry. By 1869 his agent Charles Augustus Howell gently encouraged Rossetti to put an exhumation in motion so as to retrieve the poems from the grave. Howell was perhaps motivated by his own hopes of financial gain but also wished to alleviate Rossetti’s considerable mental anguish.[2]

Siddal as Ophelia in John Everett Millais' masterpiece
Siddal as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’ masterpiece

Permission for the exhumation was swiftly granted as Rossetti knew the then Home Secretary Henry A. Bruce and was able to circumvent the usual rules which would have required his gaining the consent of his mother to desecrate the family plot. Rossetti clearly knew how badly the exhumation would reflect on him were it to come out and keeping it from his mother likely helped him to keep away from awkward questions regarding his motivations.

Rossetti, keen for the literary fame the publication of the lost poems could offer him, yet crushed by the desecration the retrieval required, was not present at the exhumation, and in fact kept himself at one remove by signing power of attorney over to Howell on this matter.

The exhumation went ahead on 5 October 1869, during the dead of night so as to avoid offending any mourners at the cemetery. A large bonfire was built at the graveside to light the way and provide warmth. A lawyer, Tebbs was present to ensure no foul play took place and Dr Llewelyn Williams was engaged to receive the ghastly book and disinfect it to prevent any germs from the dead spreading to the living.

A graveyard
A graveyard

Howell was also present and reported, in what can only be a figment of his imagination, that when the coffin lid was removed Siddal was found ‘quite perfect’ – a myth which later grew to include reports that her golden hair had continued to grow until it filled the coffin.

Howell’s retelling puts a Gothic, supernatural spin on the exhumation but the reality soon unravels his storified version when we consider that the manuscript was quite sodden and had to be taken away to be disinfected. When Rossetti was finally reunited with the book two weeks later, it reeked of disinfectant and decay and had a number of large worm-holes obscuring some of the text[3]. One can only imagine the very vivid illustration this offered of the reality of where the book had lain for the past seven years, and it is telling that once the poems were transcribed, Rossetti had the manuscript destroyed.

Photograph of Elizabeth Siddal c.1860
Photograph of Elizabeth Siddal c.1860

The truth of the exhumation did not come out to the public until after Rossetti’s death in 1882. Caine Hall recalled that Rossetti regretted the exhumation, citing rather damningly his ‘weakness of yielding to the importunity of friends, and the impulse of literary ambition’. Ultimately however, the vivid Gothic imagery of an uncorrupted Siddal over-shadowed the grim reality of the act and instead of damning Rossetti it fed into the myth surrounding this truly Victorian couple.

 

Notes:

[1] Hall Caine, Recollections of Rossetti, (London: Cassell & Company, Ltd, 1928) p.42

[2] Lucinda Hawksley, Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, (London: André Deutsch, 2004)

[3] Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Poet, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999)

The Victorian Ostrich Feather Trade: Boom and Bust

At the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852, the enormous hearse was pulled by twelve black horses, each sporting a dramatic plume of prime black ostrich feathers. The feathers harked back to traditional medieval baronial funerals and their inclusion in the spectacular parade, which was witnessed by 1.5 million people, was hugely influential on Victorian funereal customs. The fashion for ostrich feathers ultimately dripping down through the classes, becoming an essential element of ‘respectable’ Victorian funerals.

An elaborate hearse pulled by 12 black horses
Funeral car at the Duke of Wellington’s funeral, 1852

The Hunt

Before the 1860s all of the ostrich feathers that reached Britain were taken from wild birds, slaughtered during a hunt. Across the Sahara and in South Africa where the birds were common, riders on horseback would hunt down the birds, kill them and pluck their feathers. These feathers would then be bundled up, transported by camel caravan to North Africa and then shipped into France or Italy and then on to London where they would be sold.

Man on horseback hunting a wild ostrich
An ostrich hunt

The demand for feathers was so high that concerns were raised that ostriches would be hunted to extinction, like the dodo before it. This scarcity only served to make ostrich feathers yet more desirable.

Fashion

It was not only for funerals that ostrich feathers were required, a number of military regiments also used the feathers in their uniforms but by far the biggest market for ostrich feathers was the fashion trade.

A Victorian lady sporting an ostrich feather hat
A Victorian lady sporting an ostrich feather hat

In the 1860s the French Court began to wear ostrich feathers on hats, as trim on dresses, as jackets and boas. The feathers could be dyed any colour of the rainbow and added exoticism and luxury to any outfit. Naturally where Paris went, the world followed and soon the demand for ostrich feathers outstripped supply, lending them yet further cache.

A Game-Changer

Due to the value of ostrich feathers some canny colonial farmers at the Cape in South Africa saw an opportunity. If the ostrich could be domesticated and farmed they would have a ready supply of feathers which could be plucked from the bird without harming it and regrow anew. The first experiments began in the region of Oudtshoorn and by 1865 they had found some success with 80 domesticated birds.

The problem was the safe rearing of ostrich chicks — the ostriches tended to get spooked and destroy their own eggs, or simply fail to incubate them properly, leading to a difficulty in expanding the number of domesticated ostriches. This problem was solved in 1869 when Arthur Douglass, a pioneering ostrich farmer and the first to list ostrich farming as his sole occupation, invented the ostrich incubator.

An ostrich egg incubator
An ostrich egg incubator

This technological leap allowed farmers to safely hatch numerous chicks, greatly expanding their flocks and by 1875, there were 20,000 domesticated ostriches in the Oudtshoorn region alone.

Ostrich Farming

After the success of these early farmers many colonists at the Cape switched from sheep farming to ostrich farming, the returns at this point seemingly much better and the conditions in South Africa proving ideal. By the 1880s ostrich feathers had become South Africa’s fourth largest export after gold, diamonds and wool.

Each ostrich could provide two crops of a feathers a year, the feathers being plucked or cut from the birds would then regrow. Each bird gives 1 lb of feathers on plucking — 50 quill feathers (with about four fancy-coloured in each wing), plus 75 to 100 feathers in the tail and 6 ounces of drabs.

Port Elizabeth flourished with the new trade, as the money raised from taxes levied on the export of the feathers allowed new municipal buildings to be constructed. Many made their fortune from the trade and they built huge, luxurious houses, known as ‘feather palaces’ with the spoils.

London

London was the hub of the ostrich feather trade. Huge crates of sorted feathers would arrive each week from the Cape plus a smaller number still traded up the caravan routes from wild Saharan birds.

Warehouses at Cutler Street and Billiter Street in East London displayed the sorted feathers for merchants to inspect before they were sold at monthly auctions in commercial sale rooms in Mincing Lane.

Ostrich feathers on display at warehouse
Ostrich feathers on display at warehouse

The feathers were sorted and washed at the Cape before being transported and would be displayed at the warehouses divided into classes of feathers. Some of the feather classes included:

  • Prime Whites — the largest most valuable feathers from the wings of male birds
  • Feminas — wing feathers from female birds with soft flowing hairs extending from the central quill
  • Spadones — lower grade wing feathers, less full in look.
  • Blacks — body feathers from male ostriches
  • Drabs — shorter body feathers used for feather dusters and such like

Merchants would inspect the feathers before the sale and then bid for the lots of their choice. These merchants would then sell on their feathers to manufacturers where they were dyed, curled and layered up and sewn together to create plumes. The industry supported not just the farmers at the Cape but the merchants plus numerous artisanal trades people (often young women) who processed the feathers before they reached the retailers.

Page from manual on how to dye ostrich feathers
Page from manual on how to dye ostrich feathers

Boom and Bust

Initially prices remained high with a one sale in October 1882 seeing Prime Whites go for between £22 and £26 per lb, however before long as ostrich farming grew in popularity, the market began to get flooded with feathers and as a result profits fell.

The fashion for wearing feathers continued and between 1870 and c.1885 London was the very profitable hub of this burgeoning industry, selling feathers on to France, Germany and America.

However the glut in feathers began to tell after 1885 and prices began to drop as this once scarce and exotic commodity became plentiful. Many ostrich farmers went out of business and numerous speculators out in the Cape who had invested in the new craze went bust. Some farmers battled on but the industry heard its death knell in 1914.

The over-supply of feathers, the changing fashion, the introduction of the automobile which meant flamboyant headresses were no longer practical, and the outbreak of World War One all played their part. Farmers were suddenly faced with huge flocks of ostriches with no discernible value. Many were slaughtered for pet food and efforts were made to market the meat for human consumption and the leather as a fashionable alternative to traditional leathers, and this met some success.

Ultimately however the ostrich feather had fallen out of fashion and the days of the enormous ostrich farms of the Cape, the monthly auctions and the inflated prices were over. The majority of ostrich farms went back to sheep or goat farming, the provision of wool and mohair seemingly less subject to the fickle fancy of fashion.

Further reading:

Ostrich feather trade blog from London Metropolitan archives

Picture credits:

Duke of Wellington’s funeral car via King’s College, London

Ostrich: Nouvelles illustrations de zoologie (1776) via BHL

Ostrich hat via http://www.victoriana.com/victorian-feather-hats/

Ostrich feather dye picture: The Practical Ostrich Feather Dyer by Dr M. Frank (Philadephia, 1888), photographed by me.

All other pictures from Ostrich Farming in South Africa by Arthur Douglass (London, 1881) photographed by me.

 

Zui haui – The ‘guilty’ pagoda tree

Zui haui literally translates as ‘the guilty pagoda tree’ and it was so-named as it was from this tree that the last ruler of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, was said to have hung himself in 1644. The tree was thence considered guilty for allowing the death of the emperor.

Zhu Youjian (1611–44) known as the Chongzhen Emperor, was the last emperor of the great Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). He came to power aged just sixteen after the death of his brother, the Tianqui Emperor, who had ruled from 1620 to 1627. Chongzhen inherited an empire in disarray and decline, and Tianqui was in part responsible.

Illiterate and uninterested in state matters, Tianqui had neglected his official role,

Painting of Tianqui Emperor
Tianqui Emperor

instead spending all his time on his passion – woodworking. Tianqui was a great craftsman and spent many hours perfecting his art, even asking his servants to secretly and anonymously sell his carpentry at the market to see how much they would fetch. While Tianqui lavished time on his hobby, a powerful court eunuch[1], Wei Zongxian took control of the Imperial Court, purging all those who opposed him and promoting those loyal to him, ensuring Tianqui was but a puppet-ruler.

In the resultant power vacuum, other self-serving courtiers saw their opportunity to further themselves. One such opportunist was Madame Ke, Tianqui’s beloved childhood nurse. Madame Ke wanted to make sure she stayed in the emperor’s good graces by preventing any other women from gaining his ear. To this end she imprisoned Tianqui’s concubines, starving them to death, and she supposedly poisoned the pregnant empress causing her to miscarry, leaving Tianqui heirless. Despite these Machiavellian dealings, Tianqui would not hear a word said against Madame Ke or Wei Zongxian, he ignored the numerous complaints against them and refused to curb their power.

Under Wei Zongxian conditions in the country worsened. Not only was there widespread social unrest, but the empire was beset with countless other problems, not all of them man made. The Manchu were launching incursions into the north of China, devastating flooding caused by inclement weather and a dip in the global economy saw the silk industry collapse, which caused food prices to rise and unemployment grew. With this uncertain backdrop Wei did not improve relations with Tianqui’s subjects instead he wielded his power to execute hundreds of Donglin Confucian scholars and their supporters who had campaigned for an end to oppression.

It was against this sorry background that Chongzhen came to power. Sixteen-year-old Zhu Youjian was given the official name Chongzhen (meaning ‘lofty and auspicious’) and

Painting of the Chongzhen Emperor
Chongzhen Emperor

at first he tried to maintain the status quo left by his brother and kept Wei as an adviser. However Wei’s excessive power and heavy-handed dealings meant that many complaints from officials came to light and Chongzen took action to have Wei arrested. Wei, learning of his imminent capture, took control of his own fate and hung himself from the rafters of the inn where he was staying. Madame Ke, meanwhile, was demoted to working in the palace laundry and before long she was found dead, having apparently been beaten to death.

Despite ridding the country of the pernicious influence of Wei Zongxian and Madame Ke, rebellions sprung up all over his empire and Chongzen was at first unable to pay or supply his army to quell the uprisings. In desperation, Chongzhen ordered his subjects to provide more conscripts and pay higher taxes. Unsurprisingly these demands on an already depressed and stretched population served only to turn more people towards rebellion. By 1644 Chongzhen had been betrayed by many of his generals and a rebel army led by Li Zicheng had begun to close in on the Forbidden City in Beijing.

A number of legends have sprung up regarding the last moments of Emperor Chongzhen, some more favourable than others. One tells that Chongzhen on seeing the advancing rebel army, fled to his palace where he rang a bell to call his ministers to his side for a council. As the bell rang out Chongzhen waited in vain for his ministers to arrive and he soon realised he had been abandoned. It being clear the rebels would soon enter the palace, Emperor Chongzhen was said to have told his family and concubines to assemble for a final banquet. But as they sat down to eat, Chongzhen appeared armed with a sword and slayed them all.

Painting of the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City

Another version has Chongzhen on realising all is lost, telling his three sons to escape to safety before exhorting his wife, the Empress Zhou, to kill herself. His consort and concubine Yuan heard his terrible request and tried to escape but Chongzhen took his sword and stabbed her in the back. Distraught, he then went to the palace of his daughters and confronted the princess, asking her how she had come to have been born into such an unfortunate family. With no answer to give, Chongzhen cut her down with his sword[2]. His final act before fleeing the Forbidden City was to send messages to his sister-in-law and mother, telling them too to kill themselves, ensuring all but his sons were dead.

With the blood of his family on his hands Chongzhen escaped the Forbidden City[3] as the forces of Li Zicheng closed in. In despair and disarray Chongzhen, leaving his crown behind, hiked up through the forests of Coal Hill[4], a man-made peak created when the moats for the Imperial Palace were excavated in the eleventh century. Chongzhen came to a Pagoda Tree and with his reign in tatters, his family slain and his support vanished, Chongzhen hung himself from its low hanging branches.

A number of contemporary annals reported that the devastated emperor left a note, to the following effect, written upon the robes he wore:

I, feeble and of small virtue, have offended against Heaven; the rebels have seized my capital because my ministers deceived me.

Ashamed to face my ancestors, I die.

Removing my imperial cap and with my hair dishevelled about my face, I leave to the rebels the dismemberment of my body. Let them not harm my people!

Chongzhen was perhaps not as alone as he thought, his most faithful eunuch, Wang Cheng’ eng, followed him up the hill. On seeing his master’s lifeless body he too hung himself on a nearby tree. Wang Cheng ‘eng was not the only one to demonstrate his loyalty to his master in this way, as the rebels took hold of the city over 700 members of the Imperial household reportedly committed suicide in solidarity with their emperor.

For three days no one knew where the emperor was until a servant found his body under a pine tree on the hill. He was said to have been clothed in a blue silk robe, with red trousers and upon his robe in the emperor’s own hand were the characters ‘Tian zi’ – meaning son of heaven.

On taking control of the Forbidden City, Li Zicheng had Chongzhen and his empress quietly buried in the tomb of Chongzhen’s beloved concubine, Tian. In 1659 the new Qing dynasty, keen to imply their rule was merely a continuation of previous dynasties rather than the conquest it truly was, built a memorial to Chongzhen around the tomb. Unusually the eunuch, Wang Cheng’ eng was afforded the honour of being buried just to the east of his master’s tomb, demonstrating the value placed upon his loyalty.

Engraving of Pagoda tree - Sophora Japonica
Pagoda tree – Sophora Japonica

The Pagoda tree and stone stela which marked the place remained as a memorial to Chongzhen’s death and the end of the Ming Dynasty, and it was said that as late as the 1900s a chain used by Chongzhen to hang himself remained visible on the branches of the diminutive tree. Unfortunately the original ancient tree was deemed an unacceptable link to feudalism by Mao’s government and it was destroyed at some point during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76).

A replacement tree was planted at the spot in 1981 and today it survives as a tourist attraction, with an explanatory history board announcing its significance.

*********

[1] In Imperial China, eunuchs (men who had been castrated) were common at court as they were believed to be faithful servants because they could have no children of their own. Many poor families would have their young sons castrated in the hope of them gaining a position at the Imperial Court as a way to better the family. At the height of the Ming Dynasty some 100,000 eunuchs served the Imperial Court.

[2] In some versions of the story, one of Chongzhen’s daughters, Chang Ping survived the massacre despite losing her left arm as she tried to protect herself from her father’s blows.

[3] It was said that Chongzhen fled through the Shenwumen gate and so during the early part of the succeeding Qing Dynasty rule superstitions grew around the use of the gate and it was considered unlucky. Most people avoided using the gate, with only funerals passing through.

[4] Coal Hill is today part of Jingshan Park.

Picture sources:

Tianqui Emperor: From collection in National Palace Museum

Chongzhen Emperor: He Li: Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty, Asian

Art Museum San Francisco, 2008

Forbidden City: The Beijing Palace-City Scroll (北京宫城图), now held in the National Museum of China, Beijing. Painted in the mid-Ming Dynasty (c. 15th century), depicting figures including the chief architects of the Forbidden City.

Pagoda tree: Cyclopedia of American horticulture (1906)

The Royal Oak and the Daring Escape of King Charles II

Numerous pubs across Britain are named The Royal Oak in recognition of the national importance of one large oak tree in Boscobel House, Shropshire.

Sign_for_the_Royal_Oak_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1469582
Royal Oak pub sign (Credit: Trish Steel, CC BY-SA 2.0)

On 3 September 1651 at the Battle of Worcester, Charles II, the newly-crowned King of Scotland and son of Charles I, was resoundingly beaten by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian army. Some 5,000 troops were killed or captured during the battle and 21-year-old Charles was lucky to escape with his life. Charles fled with a few of his most trusted men in an attempt to find safety.

Parliamentarian soldiers were in hot pursuit, desperate to capture Charles I’s son and prevent others flocking to the banner of the heir to the throne. By 3am on 4 September an exhausted Charles arrived at the converted priory of White Ladies where he sought refuge with the trusted Giffard family.  A loyal servant named George Penderel welcomed the bedraggled Charles and soon became a vital part of his escape plans.

It was immediately obvious that Charles needed a disguise as his long flowing locks made him instantly recognisable. Thus his hair was quickly shorn and his fine clothes substituted for a rough-hewn hemp shirt, green breeches, a dirty grey hat, a leather doublet and some badly-fitting shoes – to top off the disguise the house servants dirtied the young monarch’s face with soot. Now ready to depart it was clear that Charles needed a trusted guide. George Penderel’s older brother, Richard, was recruited to lead Charles through the local countryside and hopefully on to London, and they set out into the damp night.

Fuller, Isaac, c.1606-1672; King Charles II at Whiteladies (King Charles II; Richard Penderel)
King Charles II with Richard Penderel by Isaac Fuller (1606-72), National Portrait Gallery

The pair headed for some woods and hoped to reach and cross the Severn at Madeley, but they soon discovered the area was crawling with Parliamentarian troops and they were forced to turn back. As they walked back through the woods, Richard Penderel attempted to teach Charles to walk like a farm labourer, as his majestic gait gave away his identity.

With the area so closely watched by their enemies Charles and Richard decided to head for another house owned by the Giffard family, Boscobel House, where another Penderel brother, William was in charge. They spent the day hiding in a barn before setting out at night for Boscobel. After walking in sodden clothes for many hours, the tired and hungry pair reached Boscobel House at 3am, where they discovered one of Charles’s officers, Colonel Carlis was already hiding out.

As morning broke Charles and Colonel Carlis noticed a huge, pollarded oak tree in the grounds of the house which offered a promising hiding place. They climbed high into its branches, gaining a panoramic view of the surrounding lands, safely hidden by the canopy. With a picnic of bread, cheese and beer the fugitives refuelled and slept, the tree providing a solidly secure place of refuge. Thirty years later, when Charles was King Charles II he recounted the story of his escape to the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys, who recorded the decision to hide in the tree thus:

‘he [Carlis] told me that it would be very dangerous either to stay in the house or go into the wood (there being a great wood hard by Boscobel) and he knew but one way how to pass all the next day and that was to get up into a great oak in a pretty plain place where we could see round about us for they would certainly search all the wood for people that had made their escape. … [We] got up into a great oak that had been lopped some 3 or 4 years before and so was grown out very bushy and thick not to be seen through. And there we sat all the day.’

Fuller, Isaac, c.1606-1672; King Charles II and Colonel William Carlos in the Royal Oak
Charles in the Royal Oak by Isaac Fuller (1606-72), National Portrait Gallery

At one point some Roundhead soldiers searching the grounds of Boscobel House passed directly under the oak in which Charles was stowed, but they failed to look up and notice their quarry above them. That such an important person as Charles chose to shelter in an oak tree was perhaps pure chance – oaks are England’s most common native tree and so would have been plentiful in the landscape. Oaks are also large trees with generous sprawling branches and abundant foliage, which would provide obvious comfort and coverage for any fugitive. Yet oaks, then and now, have a cultural significance as an enduring symbol of England. Ancient oaks were often used during the seventeenth century as places where couples would wed and traditionally celebratory Yule logs were supplied from the oak tree. Indeed it is with some irony that it can be noted that Charles’s father, Charles I was later tried and convicted in the beautifully oak-clad chamber of the Houses of Parliament – the tree of England the most obvious choice to hug the walls of the chamber of power at the heart of our nation.

It seems destined that such a tree should play a pivotal part in the rescue of the nation’s future monarch. Oaks have become so entwined with England, their solid beauty a cipher for the strength of the nation. Indeed oak trees played a vital role in Britain’s colonial success, providing the wood from which many great ships – for exploration and war – were hewn and proffering the oak charcoal required to smelt iron during the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. In 1664, John Evelyn, a fellow of the Royal Society published Silva or a Discourse on Forest-Trees, the first known book to express the theory that Britain’s success and resultant riches were founded on the back of the nation’s abundant oak forests. Evelyn’s great tome was to inspire recognition and respect for the power of the oak tree and encouraged in later years many wealthy landowners to plant huge forests of oak trees – most notably Colonel Thomas Johnes who in the period 1795–1801 planted some 922,000 oak saplings – to assure the future of the nation’s oak forests and thus its fortunes.

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Traditional oak tree

After spending all day in the safety of the tree, Charles and Colonel Carlis returned to Boscobel House where they rested for the night hidden in a priest hole before making their escape across country. Charles ultimately spent six weeks on the run before he reached the coast at Shoreham beach, where they set sail for the Isle of Wight and later landed in France, where Charles waited out Cromwell’s rule in European exile. In 1660 with Cromwell finally dead, Charles was able to sail back to Britain and reclaim the throne, restoring the British monarchy.

And so the safe haven of Charles and his companion, Colonel Carlis, became celebrated as the Royal Oak – the exciting tale of the king’s daring escape capturing the public imagination. Numerous pubs were named in its honour, and the tradition of oak-apple day was created, whereby on 29 May (Charles’ birthday) each year from 1660 the restoration of the monarchy was celebrated. A national holiday was granted and people wore sprigs of oak leaves pinned to their lapels to demonstrate their loyalty and support for their monarch and to recognise the part played by the oak tree in Charles’s escape and survival.

The Boscobel oak itself became a place of pilgrimage and sadly souvenir hunters were soon hacking off branches and tearing out sections of bark. By 1680 the tree had been so damaged a wall was built around its trunk for protection, but the effort was in vain and by 1712 the tree was reported to be in grave danger. Some traces of the original tree have survived, including a number of items which were fashioned from the wood cut from the Royal Oak, including a salver which today resides in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War.  Additionally, the link between the Penderel and Carlis families to the famous tree was forever cemented by the creation of new Coats of Arms which depicted the Royal Oak and three royal crowns.

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The Royal Oak today (Credit: wiki media commons)

Today visitors can see the Royal Oak at Boscobel, but it is not the original tree, which sadly fell victim to over-zealous souvenir hunters in the seventeenth century. Instead the 200–300-year-old tree which today stands in its place is known as Son of Royal Oak as it was planted from an acorn of the original tree. In 2000, Son of Royal Oak was badly damaged during a storm, losing many of its large branches and in 2010 huge cracks were noticed in its trunk and the tree was fenced off for the safety of visitors. The importance and survival of the tree have been ensured by the planting of many saplings grown from the acorns of Son of Royal Oak (making them grand-children of the original tree) including a number planted near Boscobel House, such as one in 1951 planted by the fifth Earl of Bradford to commemorate the tercentenary of Charles’ escape. This ongoing link with the original Royal Oak ensures the oak still looms large in the nation’s collective memory as a symbol of the strength of the English monarchy.

On the perils of being a non-fiction writer

When meeting new people there is always a question I dread. The most innocuous of polite questions: ‘What do you do?’ The reason I dread it? The reasons are legion.

1) I am not a fiction writer

When I say I am a writer some people get quite excited. However, when I explain I write non-fiction the conversation falters, their face visibly falling as they realise I am not J. K. Rowling. Fiction has a gloss that non-fiction does not, people aspire to write fiction, people understand fiction, people want to meet glossy, aspirational fiction writers. Alas, that is not me. So when I ruin the tone by mentioning the ‘non’ word, the conversation generally returns to the weather.

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fiction

2) Non-fiction is so hard to define

I really struggle to sum up my niche. Non-fiction is such a huge genre, ranging from academic textbooks, through self-help bibles and narrative non-fiction, to biography. If I wrote in a neat sub-genre it might be easier, but explaining my books in one easy sentence is no mean feat. I usually resort to describing them as ‘gift books’ or worse, books you read on the loo (which when I’m feeling crass I might call ‘shiterature’). But really that doesn’t characterise what I do, it makes it sound too easy, like I just pluck any old thing off the internet, when in fact most of my books are the result of hours of research in the library. I think the problem is I always try and sum up my diverse body of work in a tidy blurb, which inevitably fails. I think from now on I am just going to describe the book I am currently working on, instead of trying to squash my work into a genre which doesn’t exist.

3) People are really patronising

I often find myself on the receiving end of some extremely patronising comments, usually from men or older people. Just this weekend I was chatting to a friend’s mum who I had not seen for a number of years. She said she’d heard I wrote books and summed it up with: ‘So you just collect together some trivia and then publish it’ and then added ‘It’s lucky your husband has a proper job so you can pay the bills’. I didn’t have the energy to explain the planning, research, thought and hard work that goes into every book. The pitches to publishers, the rejections, the revisions, the edits on the long road to publication.

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the long journey from idea to publication

4) I am not a man

Sometimes I think if I were a man and I said I was a writer it would be different. People would perhaps instantly picture someone of substance, writing a serious book. I accept that some of the problem lies with myself, I am naturally self-depreciating and as I mentioned in point 2, I do struggle to describe what I do in a short sentence. However, there are many occasions where I feel like people react to me differently because I am a woman, especially a woman with three children. It’s as if the fact that I have kids instantly makes any endeavour a sideline to my actual real job of ‘being a parent’. That writing is just something I do with my spare time while waiting for my children to get home from school, not a real job at all.

5) Everyone is an expert

I write quite a lot of articles for Mental Floss, often fun lists such as 6 of the World’s Most Mysterious Standing Stones or 5 of the Shortest Reigns in History. Readers often track me down on Twitter to berate me for my ignorance. Irate reader: ‘You didn’t include the mystic stone of Slough [not an actual stone] in your list of mysterious stones!’ Me: ‘That is because I only had room to do six, the article is not called ‘The Definitive List of All Mysterious Standing Stones Ever’ but ‘6 of the World’s Most Mysterious Standing Stones’. Reader: ‘Yes, but the mystic stone of Slough is clearly the most important mystic stone ever! You don’t know anything, the whole article is now null and void.’ Me: block.

It’s like this at parties. I might say I am writing a book about the Golden Age of the Garden and the person I am speaking to will then talk to me at length about that time they went to Chatsworth and fell in the fountain. Or I might say I am writing about the history of the Bodleian Library and I’ll get an anecdote about their time as a student at Oxford. Obviously it’s lovely to hear people’s personal stories but sometimes it feel like people don’t expect me to actually know anything about my subject.

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Some of my books

7) It’s not a real job

If I were an accountant or a doctor or a hairdresser people would instantly have a picture in their mind of what my job entails. Say writer and people imagine a fiction writer. Say non-fiction writer and the frame of reference is lost.

Saying all this I have recently discovered that being a writer is actually a real job. A friend asked me to sign the back of her photos for her passport. I expressed doubts that I was eligible, after all I think you have to be a professional to qualify. My friend threw caution to the wind and got me to do it anyway, and in the space where I had to put profession, I wrote ‘writer’. Two weeks later she got her new passport and with that I realised at least someone, somewhere thought I had a real job.

 

 

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:

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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.

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.