In Command

Midshipman_Augustus_BrineAndrea here, talking about an often-overlooked element of writing a book—the Author’s  Note. When I started my Wrexford & Sloane series, I decided an explanation about some of the elements in the plot would  be helpful to readers. First of all, early science and technology plays a big part in the stories, many of the things mentioned are esoteric enough that readers might not have a handle on what I was talking about. (As an avid reader, I find that frustrating, and don’t want to have to go haring off to find research material on my own!) And so, I added an Author’s Note to the first book.
I confess, they have grown longer with each successive book, as I find it fun to share some of the “rabbit hole” research that tickles my fancy. I’ve gotten a number of letters to indicate that some readers enjoy the nerdy stuff as much as I do. (I figure those who aren’t interested can simply close the covers.)
I do try to think of all the things that might need some clarification (without going overboard) But in my latest book, MURDER AT THE MERTON LIBRARY, I got several reader queries about a few scenes in the book where I have a twelve-year-old midshipman in the British Navy was commanding a naval vessel with a crew of adult sailors. “Is that really accurate?” was the question.

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Which Jane Austen?

Which Jane AustenNicola here.  Last week I was in Oxford at the Bodleain Library to see the Jane Austen exhibition. I love “The Bod” as it’s known; when you join you have to swear an oath that dates back to when the library was first open to scholars in 1602. Amongst other things you have to promise not to set fire to the place which suggests that those 17th century students were a bit unruly, not unlike some of their modern Oxford counterparts!

The exhibition was quite small, just one room, and I did wonder when I went in whether there Juvenilia was anything new that could be said about Jane Austen or any new slant that could be taken on her life and work. It was titled “Which Jane Austen” and had the theme of “the writer in the world.” So it focussed on objects and writing associated with specific times and places in her life. There was a section on the juvenilia she wrote with other members of her family (in the photo), with her original diaries and notebooks on show.  There were features on her time in Bath and her connections to London, with many letters on show. There was a book of recipes Jane’s family used at Chawton House. A particularly interesting section focussed on Jane as a woman writing in a time of war which pointed out that she was one of the first writers from the “home front” giving a domestic view of life for those living through the Napoleonic Wars. It’s always mind-blowing to see original possessions and belongings on display and one of the things that moved me most was a pair of Jane’s spectacles resting on her writing desk! I imagine a lot of us could relate to that!

Pride and Prejudice 1995 (1)In a studio next door they were playing extracts from all the different films and TV adaptations of Jane Austen’s books. The idea was that you could sit and draw your own comparisons between the different versions of the story and see how they could be depicted in so many ways. Or, if you were like me, you could admire the houses, the fashions and the different Mr Darcys!

It’s fascinating to fill out the background life and influences of a writer like Jane Austen. She attended the balls and parties we read and write about. She met the people and danced the steps of the country dances. I love the fact that like many writers, she used aspects of the people she knew to inspire the characters in her books. One of the most exciting things that I discovered when researching the history of Ashdown House was a completely unexpected connection between the Craven family and the Austen family. Sir Charles Craven, who was Governor of Carolina between 1711 and 1716 was married to a very beautiful younger woman called Love and Friendship Elizabeth Staples. This woman was the grandmother of three of Jane Austen’s closest friends, Martha, Mary and Eliza Lloyd. They regaled Jane with tales of Elizabeth’s private cruelty and vice, and the outrageously scandalous life she led after she was widowed. It’s said that she was the model for Lady Susan Vernon in the book Lady Susan and recent film Love and Friendship. Similarly, John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility was supposedly based on the Earl of Craven of whose morals in keeping his mistress at Ashdown House Jane Austen so clearly disapproved!  Willoughby is charming, extravagant and amoral. William Craven was, arguably… well, you guessed it!

The relationship between William Craven and the famous Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson, which was said that been reflected in Writer in the world Sense and Sensibility, was also the inspiration for the story thread involving the courtesan Lavinia Flyte in my own book, House of Shadows. Jane Austen, in writing about the fate of  Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility was completely aware of the restrictions on the lives of women in Regency England, the balance of power and the way that the wider world worked. She was indeed a “writer in the world.”

Do you think Jane Austen was a writer who reflects the wider world? Do you have a favourite adaptation or a favourite re-imagining of her work? To celebrate the US publication of House of Shadows next week I'm giving away a copy of the book to one commenter between now and midnight Saturday!

Buy that art!

Wench Peep-at-Christies-GillrayLet's say you're a rich man in 1800. You own a house in town and have an estate in the country. Maybe you own manufacturies or mills. You buy expensive clothes and horses and carriages. You shower jewels upon your womenfolk. But at the end of the day, you still have more money than you know what to do with.

You could gamble, of course. Many men and women managed to subdue a rising fortune by gambling it away.

But let's say you had no taste for throwing money away on the green baize table. Let's say you go … collecting. Collecting art, in particular. Where? How? What? Inquiring minds want to know.

In the mid Eighteenth Century there was the 'Grand Tour' of course. A fashionable quest for sophistication had long sent rich young Englishmen off to the Continent to buy Old Masters and Etruscan pots and a good many well-made fakes. They carted them home to decorate the Old Manse.


he looks amiable, doesn't he?

The art auction achieved its modern form around this time. Rather than the older practice of offering a collection of artworks for sale, each with its proposed price —. this really sounds like a tag sale, doesn't it? — the collection was open for view, and then on the day of sale the auctioneer offered successive artworks and invited bids. Auction madness was born. Much more satisfying, really.

By the end of the Eighteenth Century London housed some of the major auction houses we know today, like Christie's, Phillips, and Sotheby's, as well as others now vanished like Skinner and Dyke, Langford, (with auction rooms at Covent garden,) and Bryant.

Here, to the right, is a portrait, by Gainsborough, of James Christie in 1788, rich in years and honors after two decades and more in the auction business. Sotheby's Auction House is slightly older, but spent the Regency specializing in "scarce and valuable" books rather than paintings. For instance, the library Napoleon carried with him into exile was sold through Sotheby's after his death. Phillips Auction House is solidly Regency, founded in 1796 by the senior clerk at Christie's. I'm sure there is a story behind that.

By the time the Grand Tour was made inconvenient by those troublesome sans culottes in France, the art valuables of France and later the Continent were making their own way to England, fleeing the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars. Wench catalogue henry phillips

Here's what theWench terburgh the music lesson notice of an impending auction looked like. It's the upcoming sale of drawings belonging to the "Count de Carriere", (count of the stone pit or quarry,) probably the nom d'exile of Etienne Bourgevin Vialart, comte de Saint-Morys.

And here is a typical painting that fled France on the wings of Revolution. Ter Borch's The Music Lesson. It was sold by its French owner through the auction house of Skinner and Dyke in London in 1795. Two centuries later, we find it in California where the weather is better, but it's far, far away from the Netherlands where it was painted.

Our Regency auction would have looked a little like this. The examination of the paintings before the sale is up above. Then the auction itself, below.Click on the picture for a closer look.  Notice how many women there are among the bidders, but the main action next to the picture for sale is men.

Wenches Microcosm_of_London_christies auction


Teresa Grant on Love, Loyalty, Betrayal . . . and Paris!

Teresa_grant_portrait_color_Cara/Andrea here,
I'm delighted to have my good friend and fabulous author Teresa Grant visiting the Word Wenches today to talk about her Regency-set mystery series, which is set against the backdrop of political and social upheaval as Europe struggles to reorder itself after over a decade of brutal warfare. The attention to historical detail and descriptions of real-life people are wonderfully rendered in her books—which should come as no surprise given her stellar scholarly background in history. Teresa studied British History at Stanford, a
nd received the Firestone Award for Excellence in Research for her
honors thesis on shifting conceptions of honor in late fifteenth century

THE PARIS AFFAIRThe third book in the series, The Paris Affair just released last week (you can read more about it
here) so I asked Teresa to chat with us about the the era and why she finds it such a compelling period to write about. So, without further ado . . . 

Your books are not only compelling mysteries but also explore the complex psychological struggles of men and women trying to define their personal moral compasses in a world torn apart by the chaos of conflict. Can you talk a little about why you chose the Napoleonic Wars as a backdrop for your stories?
There are so many wonderful opportunities for spy stories in this period. I love spy stories, both James Bond adventure and the sort of intricate chess games and moral dilemmas John le Carré dramatizes so brilliantly. The Napoleonic Wars offers are a wonderfully rich setting for both types of story. So many different sides, so many different factions within sides. The French under Napoleon had been bent on conquest, but they had also brought much-needed reforms to many countries. Some liberal Spaniards saw supporting the French in the Peninsular War as the quickest route to progressive reform. And after the Napoleonic Wars, a number of the victors wanted to turn the clock back to before the French Revolution  and saw any hint of reform as one step away from blood in the streets. Friends easily melt into enemies and back again. Napoleon’s longtime foreign minister Prince Talleyrand  later became prime minister under the Bourbon restoration, Joseph Fouché who had been ruthless in using terror against enemies of the Bonapartist government was equally ruthless in going after Napoleon’s supporters who were proscribed from the amnesty after Waterloo. In the midst of breakneck adventure, a love affair can have political consequences, a tactical decision can shatter a friendship, it can come down to a question not of whether or not commit betrayal but only of who or what to betray.

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Ready, Aim, FIRE—a Few Basics on Regency Ballistics

RiflemenCara/Andrea here, It’s not that I’m feeling in a bellicose state of mind—my choice of topic today has been sparked my re-reading of Waterloo, one of the books in the wonderful Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. The epic battle’s anniversary is later this month, and as we all know, that clash of grand armies with its flashing sabers, whizzing bullets, booming cannons and choking clouds of gunpowder, was a turning point in European history.

Sharpe-2Richard Sharpe, the hero of Cornwell’s novels, is a rifleman, which set him apart from the regular British foot soldier, who was equipped with a musket. And what, you might ask, is the bloody difference between the two weapons? Both shoot bullets with lethal effect, right? Well, not quite, as I learned when I decided to do a little research into what made the “Green Jackets” (the special rifle units wore green to distinguish them from the Red-coated regulars) of the Wellington’s army such a feared fighting force.

To begin with, we need to understand a few simple concepts about the inside of a gun barrel. So allow me to spin out a few facts.  A smooth bore weapon, like the famed Brown Bess Battle-2musket—which was standard British Army issue for over 120 years—is exactly what the name implies. The inside of the barrel is a smooth cylinder, which makes it relatively easy and quick to thrust a bullet and powder down its length with a ramrod. This smoothness also keeps powder residue from building up inside the weapon too quickly, allowing it to be fired repeatedly before it needs to be cleaned—a rather large plus in the heat of battle.

Baker-soldier Baker-cartridgeThere are, however, drawbacks. It’s been estimated that during the 1700s, few than one percent of all musket balls fired found their target. Or, in the words of a British colonel, “At two hundred yards with a common musket, one might as well be firing at the moon.” That’s because a musket ball (it is round, which we will see in a minute is important) has to fit rather loosely in order to be rammed down the barrel. This is called windage, and it  means that when the ball comes out, propelled by the tiny explosion of gunpowder, it knocks around a bit against the smooth steel, and thus its aim can be wildly inaccurate. That’s all very well when facing an opposing line of soldiers who are only ten or twenty yards away. However, at any greater distance, things become more dicey.

Sharpe-3In contrast, the inside of a rifle barrel has . . .well, rifling. This term refers to a series of grooves cut into the inside of the barrel, which twist in a continuous direction. These grooves impart a spin to a projectile fired out of the weapon. Spin helps counteract the tendency to wobble and bob as an object flies through the air (imagine a gyroscope and how its spinning force makes it more stable) thus making it more likely to maintain an stable path. In a nutshell, (or cartridge wrapping) a rifle is a far more accurate weapon than a musket.

Baker-Rifle-LockRifling was known as far back as the 1400’s, and was used in hunting guns. (In his highly entertaining book, Gunpowder, Jack Kelley tells an amusing story on the early explanation for why these early rifles were more lethal than smoothbore guns. A Bavarian necromancer named Moretius theorized that the flight of bullets was controlled by spirits, or imps, who took delight in frustrating shooters. A rifled bullet went straight because no demon could ride astride a spinning projectile. This theory was backed up, claimed Moretius, by the fact that the spinning heavens were free of demons, while the stationery Earth was crowded with them.

Battle497An interesting theory. However, a Quaker Englishman named Benjamin Robins came up with far more scientific observations on ballistics in the mid-1700s. He determined that a round ball is subject to far more “drag” as it flies through the air, and thus loses speed and accuracy very quickly. (The loss of velocity also makes it less likely to kill an opponent, a fact which interested the Army.) A pointed projectile is far more aerodynamic. But as that wasn’t technically practical at the time (modern bullets are all cone-shaped for this reason) he pointed out that rifling at least improved the effectiveness of a gun, and predicted that any nation who fought with rifled weapons would have a huge advantage.

Rifleman Baker-bayonetIt certainly made technical sense. And yet, there were also significant drawbacks. As I mentioned, a smoothbore musket was easily and quickly loaded—a skilled soldier could fire a shot every 12 seconds. Loading a rifle took more time and effort because to tale on the spin from the grooves, the bullet had to be a touch larger that the gun barrel, so the compression of the lead would take on the minute grooves. This meant a rifleman had to laboriously hammer a bullet down the length of his weapon (small wooden hammers were part of his standard arsenal) and thus even a well-trained one could only fire 2 shots a minute as opposed to 5. The grooves of a rifle also collected residue far faster than a smooth barrel so had to be cleaned more frequently.

Sharpe-4So despite Robins’s data, the rifle was deemed inefficient for army use. The British, however, experienced just how lethal its fire could be during the American Revolution. Many of the colonists hunted with rifled weapons—the accuracy of the Kentucky long rifle was legendary—and they turned their marksmanship on British troops with devastating effect. (The British complained vociferously that this sniping was unsporting, for the American didn’t stand in sitting duck battle lines, but fired from long range while hiding behind stone walls or trees, which allowed them to reload at the slower rate without suffering the consequences.)

The British surrendered the Colonies, but the lesson of rifle power was not lost on them. During the Napoleonic Wars, they began to develop special rifle companies (most notably the 95th Rifles and the 5th Battalion, 60th Regiment of Foot) which were deployed to great effect, especially in the Peninsular campaign. Riflemen were usually sent out as advance skirmishers, and their long range accuracy was used to disrupt the waiting enemy lines. A top priority was to pick off the opposing officers—it is said that Thomas Plunkett of the 95th Rifles killed French General Colbert from a distance of nearly 600 yards during the retreat to La Corunna.

Baker-1After testing several models, the Baker rifle, designed in 1800 by a Whitechapel gunsmith named Ezekiel Baker, was the first standard issue British military rifle. For those of you who read the Sharpe novels, the Baker rifle will be a BakerRifle-storagefamiliar name. It had a shorter barrel than a Brown Bess, making it a distinctive weapon. The stock had a small storage box built in it for the special cartridges, and it was equipped with a sword bayonet rather than the thin needle-shaped bayonet used on the Brown Bess musket.

Sharpe-1Bonaparte dismissed the idea of rifles for his own armies, but in fact as well as fiction it proved an unwise decision. Richard Sharpe and his fellow riflemen wreak havoc on the French in Cornwell’s novels, and so did the real-life marksmen of the rifle regiments. The 95th Regiment served with distinction at the battle of Waterloo, and well, as they say., the rest is history.

So, are any of you fans of the Richard Sharpe novels? Which is your favorite book in the series. And have you watched the television version featuring Sean Bean? (fluttery sigh) I think he’s marvelous in the role, but let’s have a little fun—who else do you think would be a good Sharpe? I vote for Matthew MacFadyen.