The Gentleman Poet: a Chat with Kathryn Johnson

Cat 243 Dover by Mary Jo

Today Kathryn Johnson, author of over forty books in several genres, is stopping by for a chat.  I’ve known Kathryn for years through Washington Romance Writers and knew that she was a thoroughly versatile pro, but it was her most recent book, The Gentleman Poet, that brings her to the Word Wenches today.

I got an early read of The Gentleman Poet when Kathryn asked if I could KathrynJohnson look at the manuscript for a possible quote. Talk about getting lucky!  Her book isn't a romance, but it's romantic and has a fascinating blend of fact, fiction, and speculation.  The story is built around a real seventeenth century shipwreck in Bermuda—a wreck that might have been the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  (Plus, she has recipes!)

The real and the fictional threads are woven together into such a complex tapestry that I can’t do it justice, so I’ll turn the pixels over to Kathryn. 

MJP: Welcome to the Word Wenches, Kathryn!  You said once that this was a book of your heart that you’d been wanting to write for a long time.  What inspired you?  Tell us about your research!  How did you blend fact and fiction?  What intriguing tidbits did you learn about the Bard?  And where did you find out how to cook a turtle when stranded on a desert island?  <G>

TheGentlemanPoet_jpg250 KJ:  Wow! Lots of great questions! Let’s start with “book of my heart.” The thing is, I was a history major in college, so you’d think I’d immediately gravitate toward writing historical fiction. Right!

My first manuscript completed was a novel set in Constantinople in the 12th century. It was heavily researched and I was totally into the period. I was sure it would sell. It didn’t. No agent, no editor wanted it. Now granted, maybe my writing wasn’t ready to be published. But it might have sold if publishers were hungry for realistic historical fiction at the time. They weren’t. Historical romances were selling well, but the romance in this was way too thin and the research way too heavy.

So I gave up on that idea and went on to write other things—contemporary romances, juvenile and young-adult novels. But I kept thinking about using history somehow. I did write two mystery novels for young readers with historical settings: Secret of the Red Flame (set in post Civil War Chicago) and The Star-Spangled Secret (during the War of 1812).

But I had to wait a while longer before readers’ tastes shifted to welcoming the type of historical I wanted to write—lots of juicy historical details, a touch of fantasy and suspense, and a touching love story.

Map of Bermuda When people ask what inspired me to write The Gentleman Poet, I say, “My husband.” In a way, it’s true, because the germ of the plot occurred to me on our honeymoon in Bermuda.

Ours was a later-in-life romance and so the expense of a wedding would be shouldered by us, not by parents. We just couldn’t afford a big wedding and reception, so we looked for ways to do it as inexpensively as possible while still making it special.

We found a cruise line that would plan a very private wedding for us (just 8 guests allowed) and include our honeymoon cruise to Bermuda. So we were married in the ship’s library (perfect for a writer) and the cruise line supplied a gorgeous cake, champagne, and a lot of little extras that made the trip special.

Wreck of the Sea Venture While we were in Bermuda we toured the Maritime Museum and learned about a legend that connected a real ship wreck off the Bermuda coast in 1609 with Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was said that he read an account of the wreck and of the following 9 months when the survivors lived on the deserted island while they built a new ship to sail the rest of the way to Jamestown, Virginia.

What a cool story! I thought. So I got to work imagining, with the help of that account written by William Strachey, what it must have been like for them during those terrifying months so far from England.

You asked about research? Well, some people shy away from the labor of digging up facts and details, but I love, love, love it. It’s like playing detective. The more details I uncovered about the real journey of the Sea Venture and its passengers, the more material I had for my plot.

I returned to Bermuda and holed up in a guest house there to gather more information and start writing. The guest house is the Granaway, and it was built by an 18th century privateer. It’s a wonderful (and reasonably priced) place to stay overlooking the harbor across from Hamilton.

Seaventure I stayed there for two weeks, soaking up the atmosphere. It was off-season, so it was chilly and rainy, just as it would have been for Elizabeth, my heroine, and the 149 others marooned there. I chose to blend fact and fiction, rather than write a historical novel so heavily embedded in fact that I had no freedom to fantasize.

The one big mental leap I asked my readers to make was to imagine the possibility that Shakespeare might have not simply read the account by Strachey; he might Shakespeare have actually been on the ship, eager for one last, great adventure as he moved toward the end of his life.

What tidbits did I learn about the Bard while writing this novel? Lots. Of course, I’ve never been a Shakespearean scholar by any stretch of the imagination, so as I read book after book about him written by people who have been studying him all of their lives, I was learning fresh material.

I was surprised to find as much information as there is about him. Yes, he’s still rather a mystery even to the scholars, but most agree that he was a real person who wrote the plays attributed to him (not a titled person writing under a pseudonym).

There are paper trails—court documents that prove he was in London or in Stratford-upon-Avon at certain times. He had a room in a house in London for several years and apparently went to bat for his landlord’s daughter and apprentice to facilitate their marriage, seemingly at the request of the mother. So this gave me a sense of his willingness to play matchmaker to young lovers.

He also was a good businessman, buying property as an investment and also investing in grain and other things as a hedge against, one can imagine, the economy or his theater being shut down. (As sometimes happened because of politics or an outbreak of plague.)

He was apparently a quiet man who kept to himself much of the time, and wasn’t into drinking and brawling as were other playwrights of the time. All of the little details I was able to dig up I used to create, in my own mind, a man who would be human, vivid, and interesting to the reader.

Bermuda Turtle Turtle Soup! How did I learn how to make it? More research. I decided that since cooking for others changed my heroine’s life, I needed to find out what sorts of foods the English in 1609 might normally eat.

Having researched that through reading good nonfiction accounts of the times, I then found a colonial cookbook that was reprinted for tourists by the Williamsburg Foundation. The trouble with using these recipes (or receipts, as they called them) was that my heroine wouldn’t have had access to many of the ingredients.

Once the crew and passengers on the Sea Venture managed to get themselves to shore safely, they discovered that virtually all of their food supplies had been destroyed. They had no flour, sugar, salt, and very little of anything else including vegetables and meat. So she had to improvise and use whatever was at hand on the island.

The real problem was flour, because a great deal of their normal diet depended upon bread, or its use as a thickener. However, there were wild hogs, a wonderful assortment of fish and wild birds…and sea turtles. The turtles provided meat, eggs, and oil for cooking.

I found a turtle soup recipe in a replica of an early Bermudian cookbook and compared this recipe with the colonial recipe, and ended up using a little from each, adjusting the seasonings to what Elizabeth might have been able to find growing wild. And by the way, the recipes included in the book aren’t likely to produce dishes that would be appealing to our tastes today. In fact, I looked for those that were either humorous or strange sounding, thinking readers would find them that much more fun.

Well, I need to go off and work on a new novel, as well as catch up with my mentoring clients. I’m so proud of the new writers I work with. Such a talented crew they are. I sometimes think I learn as much from them as they learn from me!

Thank you, Word Wenches for inviting me to visit for a few moments. It’s been fun. Now, if I can just buy myself a little pleasure reading time, I’ll dig Mary Jo’s latest out from my to-be-read pile and follow one of her adventures!

Hugs, Kathryn

TheGentlemanPoet_jpg250 Kathryn Johnson will give a signed copy of The Gentleman Poet to one person who comments between now and midnight Thursday.  So feel free to ask about Shakespeare, The Tempest, Bermuda, and turtle soup!

Mary Jo


History of Woo-woo

Patbookmark Mary Jo tells me I have Uranus in my chart, thus making me the wench who wants to try everything at least once. I assume that’s the reason I’m the wench who doesn’t just write historical fiction but dabbles also in contemporary and paranormal and anything else that catches my fancy. Which means my research wanders far and wide and not always down historical pathways.

But sometimes my contemporary research takes a turn to the past, as with my current idea—I can’t even call it a work in progress at this point since I’m still in research mode. And what I’m researching is feng shui, the ancient Chinese—not art or science but a school of belief—that employs methods of living auspiciously with the earth’s energies. That’s a pretty modern concept for several thousand years BC!

Today, we think of feng shui as a method of decorating to promote “good vibrations,” but the practice is ancient and much more far-reaching. By 888 AD, there were written texts and exams from the court of  Emperor Hi Tsang laChinese templeying out a complex method of capturing the vital energy, or chi, of an architectural site and channeling it through  design and landscape to promote health, power, and whatever good fortune was required of the building. Considering most of Europe didn’t know the meaning of  sewers at the time, architecture to promote health was a pretty woo-woo concept.

The fundamental elements of feng shui come from many sources—astrology, astronomy, religion, superstition, architecture, primitive environmental science, as well as cultural and social issues, among other things. The basic principle is to place and situate a building so it is in harmony with its surroundings (shades of Frank Lloyd Wright!), and to create a structure that balances the yin and yang of chi energy. The simplest description is to envision a house in which water flows in the front door and gently floods the entire house with positive energy. If you have a back door that is completely open to Franklloydwright the front door, then the water will flow in one and out the other without embracing the house. (My house was built counter to every feng shui principle I know and I feel it. Have you ever hated a house you lived in? Bad chi energy might be why. Or the fact that the windows are in all the wrong places, the landscaping is an eyesore, and the garage is wonky, if you want to be scientific about it.)

Feng shui was first introduced to the United States during the gold rush in California when the Chinese workers brought their beliefs with them. Of course, back then, Americans ignored the principles, but today, feng shui is seen as part of the California-gold-rush teachings of Confucius, part Taoism and I-ching, and very Californian New Age woo-woo as well as a respected principle of interior design. Laying out furniture for energy flow also improves the flow of the household, giving an open, more inviting feel instead of the claustrophobic conditions of many of our boxy rooms.

Without going into the “why” and "how" of feng shui decorating (a fun site for tips: , some of the minor suggestions are not to leave shoes around the front door. The feng shui reason is that the chi energy will carry the smell and sickness through the house. The practical logic is that visitors can trip over them and sue you, and they’re ugly and offensive to look at. Feng shui Shoes says no TV in the bedroom. So does Psychology Today. Feng shui doesn’t allow children to sleep on the floor because they need chi energy to flow around them. I’m thinking kids sleeping on the floor are going to get into a lot more trouble crawling around picking up bugs and toys than kids safely tucked beneath covers. And I really love the warning against mirrors in the bedroom—who wants to look at themselves when they first get up? That would be enough to ruin my energy for the day.

Anyone else fascinated with the “whys” behind the woo-woo sciences? Have you ever applied feng shui to your house? I swear, my husband got a great new job after we re-arranged the “Career” section of our last house!  Oh, and a fun book to introduce you to feng shui is Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life Move by Karen Rauch Carter, just in case you’d like to grasp fundamentals from a modern point of view. And there I go again, straying away from history.

What a pity it isn’t illegal . . . Regency Ice Cream.

Ice cream is exquisite. 
What a pity it isn't illegal. 

Joanna here, ruminating on Regency ice cream.
There's a certain perversity to Mother Nature. 

Strawberry_ice_cream 4 Take  strawberry ice cream. 
Here we have an obvious Good Thing.  Combine fresh strawberries, something sweet, and milk.  Cradle the mixture in ice and harden it. 
Voilà — you're going to end up with something tasty.

But it's not so straightforward. 


When you've got the ice handy –  when the wind is howling through the shutters and there's icicles on the eaves, you are shivering in your fur-lined mukluks, without strawberries, and without milk   because the cowBrown cow2 is dry, it being — well — the dead of winter, and she's huddled in the hut with you trying to eat the mattresses.  Nobody's in the mood for a frozen desert. 

On the other hand, when strawberries are springing up red and juicy about the lilting fields, just begging for poets to compare them to some young girl's lips, the nearest actual ice is at a five-thousand-foot elevation. 

In the ancient world, if you happened to have teams of runners fetching snow from distant mountain peaks — who doesn't? — you could bring together the disparate elements of summer and winter.  The Chinese, millennia ago, made a dish of sweetened, flavored milk and rice hardened by packing it in snoRemorse of nero after murder of his mother 1878 waterhouse detailw. 

Nero, who is famous for  a number of indulgences, indulged in ice cream.

The Persians enjoyed their complicated fruit drinks cooled with snow from Mount Damavand.  Sort of a Twelfth Century smoothie.  
I'll jDamavand-wiki ccust interject an author personal note here. 
I lived for a while at the foot of picturesque, snow-capped Mount Damavand and used to come out my front door in the morning and watch the goat boys driving their particolored herds down the dusty trails of the mountain side. 
The Persian word for snow is 'barf'. 

The story of Regency ice cream is not so much 'when ice cream came to Europe' or 'who invented it up' — I'd argue the Cro-Magnons had the concept — it's about how ice cream stopped being the Neiman Marcus conspicuous consumption of the fabulously powerful and slid down the social scale till ordinary folk could have a bite.

It's all about the ice.
The technology that brought ice cream to the Georgian and Regency table was  the ice house. 

An icehouse is a glorified root cellar.  A Schwarzenegger of a root cellar.  It was The-ice-house-at-tapeley-gardens-attrib rog frost an underground excavation lined with brick or stone and insulated with boards and straw.  Eglintonicehouse





The bottom curved to hold ice melt.  The roof was domed.  The door typically faced north.  Strategically planted trees provided shade. 
Sawing ice
In the dead of winter, men cut blocks of ice from nearby lakes and  ponds,  brought it back in horse-drawn carts and stacked the great blocks  inside.  Ice  stayed snug, frozen through the height of the summer. 

These ice houses could be huge.  The interior of one Georgian ice house,  Parlington Hall in Yorkshire, measured sixteen feet in diameter by twenty feet deep.  And they could be efficient.  In the warm climate of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson noted that his ice supply at Monticello could last till October. 

It was a miracle of rare device,
a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The idea of the ice house probably piggybacked home with English travelers to Italy.  It went viral in England in the mid Seventeenth Century.  In 1682, Charles II had his own ice house built in St. James park.  Owners of the great estates all climbed onto the ice house bandwagon.  Ice cream became almost democratic. 

 Well . . . maybe not quite for the masses just yet.  In the early 19th Century ice cream was still a rich man'sGodmersham-rear treat.  In 1808, when Jane Austen went to stay with her rich brother Edward, who had an ice house at his home Godmersham in Kent, she could write her sister Cassandra;
 "In the meantime, for elegance and ease and luxury, the Hattons and Milles’ dine here to-day, and I shall eat ices and drink French wine, and be above vulgar economy."
Gunters2 in berkeley_square-1813 In town, shops like Negri’s, (which became  Gunter's in 1799,) at the Sign of the Pineapple in Berkeley Square and dozens of confectioners along Bond Street served ice creams and water ices.  In Paris, fashionable Parisians ate ices in cafés at the Rodeo Drive of the day, the Palais Royale. 
  Pemberley icesWhen it didn't snow, or just to keep up with demand, London imported ice. 

Two or three mild winters, of late, in succession, have brought a new article of foreign trade into England.  Ice, for the use of the confectioners, comes now to us all the way from Norway  . . .

This imported ice, (jealous of sunshine) is foremost in our streets now of mornings, moving along, in huge cart-loads, from the below-bridge wharfs ; and looking, as it lies in bulk, like so much conglutinated Epsom salts.
Blackwood's Magazine in 1823

I now want to call someone a conglutinated Epsom salt, but I doubt I will have the opportunity.

We dare not trust our wit for making our house pleasant to our friend, so we buy ice cream.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Here's a 1769 recipe for making ice cream.  Apricot ice cream:
Pare, stonSevres-ice-cream-cups cite historic foods ivan daye and scald twelve ripe Apricots,
 beat them fine in a Marble  Mortar,
put to them six Ounces of double refined Sugar, a Pint of scalding Cream, work it through a Hair Sieve, put it into a Tin that has a close Cover, set it in a Tub of Ice broken small, and a large Quantity of Salt put amongst it,
when you see your Cream grow thick round the Edges of your Tin, stir it and set it in again ’till it all grows quite thick,
when your Cream is all Froze up, take it out of your Tin, and put it in the Mould you intend it to be turned out of.

The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald

Sorbetiere or sorbetiere c18  joseph gillier book
The freezing apparatus looked something like this.  The ice that  chilled the ice cream was mixed with salt to make it colder and put in an outer tub.  The salt was used because a brine of salt water can reach a colder temperature than plain water.   An inner container, called a sabotiere, held the ice cream mixture.  That sabotiere might be made of pewter or — oh dear — lead.  A sort of scraper moved the newly formed ice crystals from the inner wall of the sabotiere.  


Ice cream was originally called 'iced cream'.  After the 1770s, the words, 'ice cream', began to appear.  That's the term that gradually took over.  A 'water ice' was what we'd now call a sherbet or Italian ice.
Just to be confusing, 'sherbet', in this period, meant a sweetened, dilute fruit drink. 

How was ice cream served?

Soft ice cream might be placed in a mold, as the recipe above suggests, hardened, and turned out onto a plate.  Or the ice cream at a formal dinner might be put into a special ice cream server, a seau à glace. 
Seau-a-glace cite historic foods ivan dalyIcecreamcooler sevres 1778 perm wallace collection
This was a three-piece rig, some of them just beautifully decorated.  The outer bowl held the ice, probably salted.  An inner bowl containing the actual ice cream sits within that.  Then the lid comes down over the ice cream.  You then pile a tasteful collection of ice cubes on the lid to chill tSeau-a-glace cite ivan day historic foods2he last side of the ice cream.   
  Seau-a-glace-en-porcelaine-tendre-de-vienne-vers-1770 abbaye de belleperche detail2
At Gunter's Tea Shop or in a Paris Café, our Georgian or Regency heroine licked her ice cream mounded up in a cone-shaped glass, or ate it more delicately with a little spoon, from glass or from  a tasse à glace — an ice cream cup — like those Sèvres cups pictured above.  

Le Bon Genre La Belle Limonadiere cream

. 1796mangeursdeglacejourlt detail

  Parisiennes_au_cafe-paqueau 1886 detail 






John bull and his family at an ice cafe detail









In this last picture, we see the waiter with a menu card . . . doubtless listing all the sorts of ice cream on offer.1796mangeursdeglacejourlt9

Sometimes, one over-indulges.  For instance, from Adelaide and Theodore, a novel  by Genlis, in 1796:

Adelaide was silent and melancholy; I asked her the reason of it; she told me she had a pain in her head. It is, says I, because you have surfeited yourself.

—Me, mamma ?

—Yes; you have eat ten tartlets, six biscuits, and taken two glasses of ice cream, therefore it is not at all surprising that you should be sick.


The temperature of ice cream would have been a novelty and a shock in an era without refrigerators and freezers.  Here's a caricature of a vulgar cockney's first encounter with ice cream.  It's an exaggeration, of course . . .

"Lauk ! its all in a freezed lump, I declare,'' cried she, directing a most immoderate spoonful into her gaping mouth, with the intention of setting both jaws to work, when giving a violent shriek, she dropped the glass, which broke in a thousand shivers; and, with a sudden effort, spit out the offending mouthful plump on the counter.
. . .
"'Drot all ice-creams, say I. How could you be such an ignorant creature to persuade me to eat such stuff . . . I'll tell ye what, my girl, (turning to the shop-woman) that there sort of stuff ought to be cried down. It may be a fashionable way of freezing your quality folks to death, but I'd sooner be burnt up alive in a brandy cag."

That great idea, the ice cream cone, is probably a late Victorian invention.  Cone wiki cc There's no wrIcecream fork whitingitten reference to waffle cookies being used to serve ice cream before the 1880s.  The ice cream fork, not such a great idea, is a strange spork-like thingum that marches in the array of Victorian silverware.  It also seems Victorian.  At least, I can't find a Regency reference.  

JeffersonRecipe-fragment for vanilla ice cream Here's the first American recipe for ice cream, in Thomas Jefferson's handwriting.  He brought it back from France.  It calls for vanilla bean, not available in America at that time.  He used to cajole them from friends traveling to Europe.

Ice Cream.
2. bottles of good cream.
6. yolks of eggs.
1/2 lb. sugar

Just a lovely start to a recipe, IMHO.


Photocredits: The icehouse at Tapeley Gardens is cc attrib Rog Frost.  The top left and top right seaux à glace and the six ice cream cups are copyright Ivan Day, historic foods. com .  Sorbetiere from Joseph Giller.


For me, the ultimate ice cream is pistachio.  From a sugar cone.  Outside under a blue sky full of sun.  I feel quite certain Jane Austen would agree with me.

What's your significant ice cream, and what literary character do you share it with?   

One person in the comment trail will win a copy of Forbidden Rose or the trade edition of Spymaster's Lady, your choice. 

All that glistens is not . . . goldfish

Joanna here, talking about English Goldfish. 

You've probably asked yourself, from time to time, if there are any Shakespeare  Thomas Benjamin Kennington quotes about goldfish. 

Did Shakespeare say, "That which we call a goldfish, by any other name would be as bright"? 
Or insult some catiff with a, "Thou wimpled, reeling-ripe goldfish-licker!" 

He did not. 
Goldfish didn't make it to England till nearly a century after Shakespeare's death.  We got Shakespearean dogs and cats, camels, carp, marmosets, mackerel, and whales . . . but no goldfish. 

Basically, the goldfish is the carp who made good. 

The carp is a wide-spread, useful and tasty fish that's been domesticated for a couple millennia in China.  While the Chinese were raising carp for the table, they'd noticed a common mutation that threw an orange or gold fish Grabbing_for_goldfishin among the ordinary ones. 

After centuies of noticing that, about a thousand years ago, the Chinese set down to the serious business of breeding these bright-colored fishes as garden ornaments.  The women of the imperial court doubtless engaged in a little friendly rivalry as to the beauty and vigor of their particular line of goldfish.  They'd bring them inside in big porcelain basins to enjoy.  Especially favored courtiers would be invited over to watch the fish swim, this being before TV and Wii.

When trade routes opened in the 1600s, goldfish were freed from their splendid isolation in the Mandarin's garden and went travelling the world.  Japan first.  Then southern Europe, coming in through Portugal.  Then just about everywhere.

The Japanese Kanji characters for goldfish are 'gold' and 'fish'.  'King yo'.  In Dutch, goldfish is goudvis.  French, poisson d'or.  Spanish, carpa dorada.  Goldfish tend to be called 'goldfish'. 
When goldfish hit Europe, it settled a bit of an artistic conundrum.  Chinese  paintings had been arriving in Europe with representations of goldfish.  "Pooh," said some.  "Mythical animals." 

Turned out it wasn't artistic license. 
It was fish.

Legend has it goldfish were brought to France as a present for Madame de Pompadour.  In Russia, Prince Potemkin gave goldfish to Catherine the Great. 

Goldfish were the Tiffany trinket of the Eighteenth Century.

And across southern Europe in those years, it became a tradition for husbands to give their wives a goldfish on the first anniversary as a symbol for prosperous years to come.

1800boillyjfillesafentre crop1800boillyjfillesafentre 

Here's a pair of impeccable French goldfish from 1800 in an impeccable period fishbowl. 

Goldfish moved into England in 1728, brought over to a Sir Matthew Dekker who handed them out to his friends and neighbors in London. 

They were, when first introduced into England, considered rare and fragile.  As late as 1821, a naturalist could write,

"Great care is necessary to preserve them; for they are extremely delicate, and sensible of the least injuries of the air; a loud noise, such as that of thunder or cannon; a strong smell, a violent shaking of the vessel or a single touch, will often destroy them."

Admittedly, the survival of a goldfish in the care of a ten-year-old boy is somewhat of a crap shoot.  But it's not as bad as that.

The most illustrious patron of goldfish in Georgian England was Horace Walpole, who kept a pond of them at his home, Strawberry Hill, bred them and gifted them about Europe. 

Horace walpole  Said Walpole: 

"I have lately given count Perron some gold-fish, which he has carried in his post-chaise to Turin: he has already carried some before. The Russian minister has asked me for some too, but I doubt their succeeding there . . ."

Goldfish:  Eighteenth Century baksheesh, greasing the wheels of international diplomacy.



Walpole tells the story:  

"I Was prevented from finishing my letter yesterday, by what do you think ? By no less magnificent a circumstance than a deluge  . . .  About four arrived such a flood, that we could not see out of the windows: the whole lawn was a lake . . .  I had but just, time to collect two dogs, a couple of sheep, a pair of bantams, and a brace of gold-fish; for, in the haste of my zeal to imitate my ancestor Noah, I forgot that fish would not easily be drowned.

The goldfish by henri matisse In short, if you chance to spy a little ark with pinnacles sailing towards Jersey, open the sky-light, and you will find some of your acquaintance. You never saw such desolation ! A pigeon brings word that Mabland has fared still worse."

I can see Walpole, retreating from his flooded house with his 'brace of goldfish'.  (ETA:  This is Horace Walpole, not Robert Walpole, as I originally wrote.  Jeesh.  Pay attention, Joanna.)

That's Strawberry Hill somewhat far above, Walpole's magnificent Gothic madness.  To the left and slightly above is an entirely unrelated set of Matisse goldfish.

Elsewhere Walpole says,

"You may get your pond ready as soon as you please; the gold fish swarm: Mr. Bentley carried a dozen to town t'other day in a decanter.
You would be entertained with our fishing; instead of nets and rods and lines and worms, we use nothing but a pail and a basin and a tea-strainer, which I persuade my neighbours is the Chinese method."

It's not impossible your goldfish — if you have one — is descended from the adventurous fish of Walpole's pond at Strawberry Hill.

By the Regency, goldfish were a commonplace in the parlor, kept in goldfish  bowls that looked exactly like the modern variety.  Goldfish seem to have made 'unexceptional', affectionate presents.

In Maria Edgeworth's novel, Belinda, goldfish are sent to an invalid. — "I have  some gold fish, which you know cannot make the least noise: may I send them to her?"

This picture to the right is Kitty Fisher, Eighteenth CenNathaniel Hone portrait of Kitty Fisher, her cat, and the goldfish bowltury courtesan, with goldfish bowl and cat.

Developing on the courtesan theme, below Kitty is the courtesan Wakamurasaki playing with a goldfish.  

Folks tended to moralize about the whole 'gold' thing.  In Thomas Gray's poem, The Cat and the Gold Fish, the poor cat falls into the goldfish vase:

No master came, no servant stirr'd;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard :
A fav'rite has no friend!

Learn hence, ye fair ones, undeceiv'd,Chokosai-eisho-a-bust-portrait-of-the-courtesan-wakamurasaki-of-the-tsunotamaya-playing-with-goldfish
False steps are hard to be retriev'd,
And be with caution bold.

Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes,
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters gold.

In Regency England, if you weren't lucky enough to be gifted with goldfish, you might buy your own from the itinerant goldfish peddler.  The Regency was a great time for merchandise coming to you instead of t'other way round. 

George Dunlop, R.A., LeslieThe Goldfish Seller

In the interests of providing a full audio-visual experience, I'm going to wander far afield from the Regency and bring in Debussy's piano piece, Poisson d'or

Poisson d'or — 'Goldfish', of course.   Debussy's work was inspired by this particular lacquer artwPoissonsD'Or+19thCenturyJapaneseLaquer+MuseeClaudeDebussy+Saint-Germain-En-Layeork here to the right.  It hung in his study. 

You can listen to Poisson d'or here.  That's Magda Tagliaferro playing, and she's 92.

Debussy used to call the times when inspiration ran dry, his 'factory of  nothingness."

While you're listening to that goldfish music . . .

I became interested in the question of Regency and French Revolutionary goldfish, (allow me to pause while I rid my mind of the image of small revolutionary fish carrying banners,) because, in my book, The Forbidden Rose, my heroine keeps fish.
Well . . . she kept fish.

In this scene her chateau has been burned and looted, and naturally no one thinks about the fish in a situation like this.  It's always the innocent fish that suffer.

***** ***

Aaajapanese fb He stood, looking formidable. Behind him, dawn curved like a shell.

The wide granite pool was white as the moon.  It was cold as the moon when she dipped her hand beneath the surface of the reflection. “Will you tell me what you plan to do with me? I am naturally curious.”

“We’ll talk about it when we’re on the road. I want to get away from here. Soap.” LeBreton laid it beside the towels.  A metal box of soft and greasy-looking soap. “Probably not what you’re used to.”

“It is lovely. Thank you.”

“Don’t get any in the pool.”

Fish were poisoned by soap. She liked it that LeBreton knew that, and cared. It is in such small things that men reveal themselves.

Goldfish came and nibbled at her fingers. She had named them all when she was a child. Moses—because he parted the waters—and Blondine and fat, lazy Rousseau.  Once the noisy Jacobin riffraff took themselves off, Mayor Leclerc would come from the village with tubs to steal her fish for his own pond. He had coveted them for many years.  She hoped he would hurry. They should not be neglected in this fashion.

. . . (and later) . . .

She wore nothing at all. It was strange to be unclothed under the open sky. 

Her reflection looked up at her from the fish basin, more pale than the sky, rippling in the circles that spread where fish came to lip at the surface. The rim of the basin was gritty under her, with little puddles in every unevenness. The wind of the new day scraped her skin like a dull knife. She put her feet in the water. The slippery film of mud at the bottom of the pool crept up between her toes.

Cold. Immeasurably cold.

Quickly, before she lost her courage, she wet half the towel, rubbed water down her arms, over her stomach, hissing every breath in and out. Then up and down her thighs. She washed every scratch, every cut. There was not one of them without a sting. It was not helpful to remind herself that she was the descendent of warriors.

Moses and Rousseau and the other great rulers of the pool held themselves aloof, but many small fish came to nibble at her calves and ankles and the knuckles of her hands with little bites, like kittens.

*****  ***

Author anecdote here:  My aunt had a goldfish named Moses who lived in a big ornamental pond behind her house.  He used to come up to the top and blow bubbles when she rang a bell.  When you write your own books you get to name the fictional goldfish after goldfish you have known personally.

Anyhow . . . While goldfish were swimming happily about in English drawing rooms in 1730-ish, they didn't arrive in America till about a century later.  They showed up sometime in the early years of the Nineteenth Century.  No one knows just when.  Actress Fanny Kemble recounts finding goldfish in a pool at a florists in New York in the 1830s.

Which brings us at last to the vexatious question of goldfish versus koi. 
The cagematch.

Koi to the left.  Goldfish to the right.   

Both g-Koi_wiki commonsoldfish and koi were bred from wild carp Goldfish bfraz licence cc by nc sapopulations.  
Goldfish started out in China, a thousand years ago.  Koi arose from a different breed of carp, in Japan, in the mid Nineteenth Century. 

Koi are Johnnies-come-lately.  No Regency koi, alas.

Since I cannot resist talking about koi anyway:  The Japanese word 'koi' means simply 'carp'.  What we call koi the Japanese call 'nishikigoi'.  'Brocaded carp'. 
By chance, the Japanese word, 'koi', is a homophone  for another word that means 'affection' or 'love'.  Koi are therefore symbols of love and friendship in Japan.

In celebration of the goldfishes Blondine, Rousseau and Moses, I'll be giving away a copy of either The Forbidden Rose or the trade paperback of Spymaster's Lady, (your choice,) to one lucky poster in the comment trail.

So — what pet should the Romance heroine, (or hero,) keep?  Monkey, hedgehog, ferret, hummingbird?  Maybe an attack dog?

WW Welcomes Pam Rosenthal

 Cara/Andrea here,

Pam-rosenthal Today I’m handing the pen over to my friend Pam Rosenthal, who had kindly consented to pull up a chair at the Wench desk and write a few words about  . . . well, writing, and some of the thought processes that go into creating a story. As many of you know, Pam is the award-winning author of The Edge of Impropriety, which won the 2009 RITA for Regency Romance. In addition, The Slightest Provocation was a RITA finalist in 2007 and was just released this month in a new mass market edition. A lifelong lover of literature (she claims that her mother was wheeled into the delivery room reading a romance novel!) Pam can list an impressive array of professional accomplishments in the field, including bookseller, critic, essayist and, of course, novelist of richly complex emotional stories with an erotic edge.

And now, without further ado, I shall nudge the inkwell over to Pam . . .

Thanks so much to the Wenches for hosting me on the occasion of the recent mass-market reissue of The Slightest Provocation with its new cover look and consequent chance for a second generation of readers.

Slightest_mass It’s particularly an honor and a pleasure because I believe that romance is the genre of second chances at happiness and all good things. Which for The Slightest Provocation is true on a good many levels, beginning way back with the story’s difficult conception. Because as I began to write it, I was beginning to suspect there was something about its opening scenes that just wasn’t making it. And yet I didn’t want to toss out those the meeting of hero and heroine during a brief erotic fling at a Calais inn, before their separate arrivals in England where the spy story commences and flings them back together.

I’d enjoyed writing that initial coupling. And even now, in print, the mutual seduction over a late supper of very good country French food survives largely unchanged. As does a large part of the subsequent erotic scene, which I felt succeeded in many ways: I liked my hero Kit and my heroine Mary; I believed in how they spoke to each other as they climbed the staircase to her room, and how they teased and touched after they got there.
And yet something didn’t jell. I kept telling myself that a high level of fortuitous intimacy is perfectly possible between strangers, that our bodies can sometimes be the wisest part of us. And it wasn’t as though I hadn’t enjoyed writing their actual moves: putting it in Regency-speak, I’d enjoyed it quite excessively. But something in the emotional interaction of the characters kept me from entirely believing it.

Slightest I was stuck, and so I held that part in abeyance and turned back to the political setting – a dark one, because this book takes place during the difficult years after Waterloo, when the British Home Office secretly sent provocateurs among its people, to fan the flames of local rebellion in order to scapegoat rebels, suppress dissension, and encourage Parliament to once again suspend habeus corpus. A nation at odds with itself, like a marriage on the verge of…
That’s it, I thought.

“My hero and heroine are married,” I announced excitedly to my husband, who’d been sharing the political research as well as consoling me in my doldrums.

“Married and separated,” I continued, “and I was the last to know. But that’s why they’re not only physically compatible but so completely onto each other’s flaws, weaknesses, and moments of delusion and dishonesty.”

My imagination was picking up steam.

“They eloped,” I added, “when they were too young and dumb to understand the difficulties facing them. Nine years have passed since their legal separation. Kit’s gone to war and fought heroically under Wellington while Mary’s pursued a life among romantic poets and radical freethinkers. They’ve become different people, some ways, but they’ve never let go of their passionate attraction — or faced their differences or worked though the pain they caused each other.”

To which Michael, my highly literate husband, nodded thoughtfully. “So you’re writing a remarriage comedy,” he said.

“I am?” I asked. “What’s that?”

Cavell Whereupon, as a lifelong bookseller by trade, Michael did what he does best: by way of an answer, he handed me the very book I needed at that moment. Which was not E.P. Thompson’s enormously dense The Making of the English Working Class, with its wealth of information about machine-breaking in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, petitions to extend suffrage, marches of the dispossessed. We’d spent enough time poring over that one already. This book was a set of essays, The Pursuit of Happiness, by the philosopher and film scholar Stanley Cavell, about those witty, wonderful black and white films of the thirties and forties like The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, His Girl Friday I— films about estranged couples and their reconciliations, replete with rough, comic strife, delicious banter and (when it’s Cary Grant as the male lead) some of the most elegantly executed pratfalls ever filmed.

Girlfriday_l Created during the supposedly quiescent decades between the suffrage movement and second wave feminism, according to Cavell these movies are the most eloquent cultural statement we have from that period, of men and women working toward erotic equality. I don’t know if I entirely buy his analysis. But I love the movies, and many of his points are brilliant – and clearly apposite to what I had in mind. As when Michael opened the book to read aloud from an early chapter about the couples (like Dex and Tracy in The Philadelphia Story) “having shared childhood together… discovered their sexuality together…”

“How did Stanley Cavell know,” I asked, “about my characters Mary and Kit?”

I read the book through, happily concluded that I was indeed writing a remarriage comedy, and grinned as the planning, the research, and the writing itself began to go more smoothly. My characters’ struggle to redeem their marriage and reconcile their differences fell into line with the spy plot, which I’d taken from the true story of the Pentrich Rebellion, an abortive uprising instigated in 1817 by a Home Office agent known as Oliver the Spy. I even planned a pratfall for my hero.

And what fun to write a romance about a squabbling husband and wife while squabbling with my own husband over it.

We researched and squabbled our way over to England, having our best vacation ever in the gorgeous Peak district of Derbyshire, near the part of Nottinghamshire where the Pentrich incident took place. We hiked the forests and meadows where I’d imagined Mary and Kit meeting as children and tramped over paths where the Pentrich rebels would have gone.

And on the way to Pentrich we got lost.

I sulked. Why couldn’t Michael have asked directions, I thought, when he’d had the chance? Why can’t men ever… but at that moment I cheered up, because I suddenly knew how my reunited couple had managed to run into the gang of would-be rebels on the night before the incident. They’d gotten lost, I thought, just as we had, because when Kit had had his chance to ask directions, of course he hadn’t done so either.

Back on track and now back in London (and well-fed on the best Lebanese and Indian food we’d ever had) we picked up the Pentrich paper trail at the National Archives at Kew. And it was only after we got the boxes of microfiche we needed and learned how to thread the spools into our neighboring microfiche readers that we confessed to each other that we were terrified we wouldn’t be able to decipher the handwriting in the letters between the Home Office agents and their spies and provocateurs.

Never fear, we managed it. (Though if you go on such a document quest, I suggest you give yourself two days. We had only one day with the documents, and I’m sure we would have done better if we’d returned the next day with eyes a little bit accustomed to the vagaries of period handwriting.) Still, the words – and the facts of the case – leaped out at us. Michael even found a letter with a marginal note from Home Office Secretary Lord Sidmouth, telling a local official (who wanted to arrest Oliver as a rabble-rouser) to leave him alone.

The man works for me, Sidmouth said, and signed his name.

A smoking gun, Michael whispered, and the distance between us and the events of two centuries before began to dissolve.

As I hope, in some very small way, that the centuries will dissolve for what new readers The Slightest Provocation (with its sexy new cover) will find in its new life in mass market.

And how about you? Do you share the books you love to read (or, if you’re a writer, do you share your process) with your near and dear? If you do, what’s that like? Is the collaboration smooth or bumpy?

And if you don’t, is there a way that you enjoy the very privacy of the pleasure?

Pam will be giving away a copy of her new mass market re-release of The Slightest Provocation to one lucky person, whose name shall be chosen at random from  those who leave a comment here between now and Monday morning.