Embroidered fabric with the words Anna Regina and a postcard of Anne Boleyn

The Cromwell Trilogy Quilt: Designing around the Text

The last time I wrote about the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt Project, I mentioned the absence of planning when I started embroidering the chapter titles from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light. Yes, I made sure there was some regularity about the lettering I stitched, but I didn’t have any sort of scheme for how the pieces would fit together or how they would be quilted. It is unsurprising therefore that once I got into working out the quilting design, this presented challenges.

A rectangular rush basket full of embroidered wording
A basket of embroidered chapter titles waiting to be quilted

There are two main issues. Firstly, once I started putting the pieces together, I wondered why I hadn’t simply quilted the chapter titles from the start. I can quilt using chain stitch, so why had I simply embroidered them, thus necessitating a whole separate quilting exercise that might lead to distortion of the lettering? The answer of course lies in the fact that I had never really intended to stitch all this text at all – I just intended to sew Mirror and Light but I carried on for five months until the chapter titles from the whole trilogy were done, and my left thumb ached from gripping the thread.

The second issue is one of design. Some of the chapter titles are short – Early Mass, Angels, Wreckage, Salvage – and the text, as it is sewn on to the fabric, provides space for prominent quilting designs before or after the words in question. Other chapter titles, however, are almost as long as the fabric strips that make up the different elements of the piece – An Occult History of Britain, Alas, What Shall I Do for Love?, The Image of the King – so adding very prominent quilting would both confuse the eye and detract from the text.

Embroidered fabric with the words Anna Regina and a postcard of Anne Boleyn
A shorter title – Anna Regina – gives space for prominent quilting motifs

The trick with these longer titles is to come up with a quilting design that fades into the background while still conveying meaning. For An Occult History of Britain, for example, I spent hours studying pictures of snakes so I could design a serpent to sit behind the lettering, in homage to the snake that slithers through the trilogy – I picked up a snake in Italy – after biting Cromwell. I enjoy the appearances that snake makes on the page, so I wanted to add him to the quilt.

Embroidered fabric reading Entirely Beloved Cromwell, with a copy of the play script
Entirely Beloved Cromwell – Lettering takes up the entire length of the fabric

And for The Dead Complain of their Burial I was stuck until I found a description of Cromwell and George Cavendish watching Cardinal Wolsey’s possessions being ransacked at York Place:

“He and George Cavendish stood by as the chests were opened and the cardinal’s vestments taken out. The copes were sewn in gold and silver thread, with patterns of golden stars, with birds, fishes, harts, lions, angels, flowers and Catherine wheels.”

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (London Fourth Estate, 2009), p.282.

That gave me my start. I designed fishes, stars, and a Catherine wheel; and for the bird designs I consulted a book of sixteenth and seventeenth century sewing patterns: Richard Shorleyker’s A Schole House for the Needle. That book tells its readers to ‘compose its patterns into beautifull formes, as will be able to give content, both to the workers, and wearers of them’. So I quilted these designs in the background in silver and gold thread – subtle enough not to detract from the chapter title while glistening in the light.

When I started quilting this project I had an uneasy moment when I thought “If I were starting again, I wouldn’t start from here”. But by that stage it was too late to restitch all those chapter titles. And I also reflected on the fact that the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt has its own history – it’s a project started in lockdown. Being able to read Hilary Mantel’s work during lockdown, and finding a way of engaging with it creatively, and stretching my quilting design skills is a privilege.

Index cards with notes from Wolf Hall

The Cromwell Trilogy Quilt: Immersing myself in words and stitch

Index cards with notes from Wolf Hall
Quilt planning on index cards

In my stitching practice, the element I enjoy most is handquilting. I’m not a particularly accurate piecer, and I don’t enjoy constructing patchwork blocks to specific dimensions. But I love handquilting and I take great pleasure in sewing tiny stitches to make tightly controlled patterns, or lettering, or pictures.

When I started stitching the chapter titles in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy, it was just a way of passing some lockdown time and processing what I had read. There was no plan and no coherent thought as to what this stitching might become. There was no standard sizing, and no design concept. But as the pile of stitched chapter titles grew and grew, I knew I would ultimately want do something more purposeful with them.

A hand holding a pile of embroidered fabric
The embroidered chapter titles waiting to be quilted

When I decided to put all the embroidered chapter titles together into one handquilted piece, I knew that the quilting had to be approached in a considered way – partly because I knew it would be the most pleasurable part of the stitching, but mainly because I wanted the experience of quilting this piece to be as immersive as possible. That meant establishing a fairly tight practice for working on each section of the quilt. I decided from the start of the quilting process that I would work incrementally, and sew each section in a strict order – I would not dot back and forwards throughout the Trilogy, and I wouldn’t piece the whole thing together in one go. I wanted to be very intentional about what I was doing, which meant reading and listening to the chapter I was stitching as I quilted it.

An ipad with the audio book of Wolf Hall and a section of quilting
Quilting and listening to Wolf Hall Part One, Chapter One: Across the Narrow Sea

I worked out a process that would support this way of working: although I know the three books really well, I wanted to reacquaint myself with the text before starting each chapter. So when a section is pressed and basted ready for quilting, the first step is to re-read the relevant chapter. I then make notes on index cards as prompts for the stitching. There are three sets of index cards: anything that might inspire me to draw a quilting motif, or phrases that might spark an image are written on white cards; I make a note of the colours that are prominent in the chapters on pink cards; and finally references to anyone who actually engages in an act of stitching go onto green cards.

Index Cards with notes relating to An Occult History of Britain
Index Cards: An Occult History of Britain

I then start to quilt. At that stage I won’t necessarily know what will go into the relevant section overall, but, as long as I have a starting point, I am happy to pick up a needle. I then listen to the audiobook of the relevant chapter as I work, and the act of listening brings out other ideas, almost without me realising it. The reader’s emphasis on a particular phrase, or my hearing – rather than reading – Mantel’s words might highlight something that I want to sew into to the quilt, so I usually listen to the chapter on repeat. Sometimes I listen to it in the German translation – I know the original English so well that I can follow it even though my German isn’t really up to it. I don’t move forward with reading and listening to the book until each individual section is quilted.

The decision to work in this way has an impact on the way the quilt is developing. I don’t have an overall plan worked out in my head for the entire piece, and each section evolves as I read and listen. And sometimes it is a difficult process; some chapters contain almost unbearable levels of loss and pain and I had particular problems when I came to An Occult History of Britain and Make or Mar when Cromwell’s grief overwhelms him. I actually had to leave part of that section unsewn as it was too distressing to continue, thereby breaking my own rules. And I do foresee problems with this process once I approach the end of the Trilogy, but that’s a worry for another day.

This contrasts strongly with my stitching of the chapter titles in 2020. That was very unfocused, with no sense of a larger project to come. This has presented some significant design challenges, but that’s another story.

Green thread, a notebook, containing a sketch for a quilting design
Planning out a shattered emerald for Wolf Hall – Part One, Chapter Three: At Austin Friars

A cushion showing Thomas Cromwell with stitched wording in strips

Locking Down with Thomas Cromwell

A cushion showing Thomas Cromwell with stitched wording in strips
A pile of Cromwellian stitchery

I have spent much of the last twelve months reading and re-reading Hilary Mantel’s incredible Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light. Along with the text on the page, magnificent new readings of all three books by Ben Miles, who played Thomas Cromwell on stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company, have kept me enthralled, entertained, and energised.

Of course, over the past year, like many other people, I have been mostly staying at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so immersing myself in these books has been an important coping mechanism. This isn’t to say that they have necessarily been an comfortable read. Running throughout the trilogy is the sweating sickness, and there are many instances of loss, pain and death. And in the 1520s, in the trilogy, Cromwell and his family have themselves to undergo a period of isolation, just as so many people have done in 2020 and into 2021;

Mercy comes in and says, a fever, it could be any fever we don’t have to admit to the sweat … If we all stayed at home, London would come to a standstill. ‘No’, he says. ‘We must do it. My lord cardinal made these rules and it would not be proper for me to scant them.’

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall: Part Two, Chapter Two, An Occult History of Britain, 1521-1529
Plants in pots, a path, and a close up of a large hardback novel.
Reading The Mirror and the Light on the doorstep during the first UK lockdown

There is overwhelming grief contained in all three books, but there is humour too, and warmth, loyalty, and love. There are amazing foods and furnishings, politics and governance, gardens and London streets, the River Thames and the Narrow Sea. And there is fabric. So much fabric. Linen and velvet, satin and brocade, embroidered, quilted, draped, rolled – these books make you want to touch and feel cloth.

A copy of The Mirror and the Light on a quilted piece with a quote from Thomas Cromwell "I was a ruffian in my younger days"
The Mirror and the Light with an earlier Cromwell Quilt

One of the things that has helped me through this current extended period of isolation and disruption has been stitching. I recognise how privileged I am to have been able to spend the time this way, and how fortunate I am to know how to sew. As well as keeping me occupied, it has added to my deep pleasure in the Cromwell trilogy. As someone who plies a needle almost every day, I find the act of stitching in the trilogy to be endlessly fascinating – who sews, what they sew, what that sewing represents, what tools are used. I have been obsessed with these references since first reading Wolf Hall in 2009. I remember the first time I read a description of Anne Boleyn looking ‘small and tense as if someone has knitted her and drawn the stitches too tight’, and the pleasure I took from these words. Mantel’s writing about cloth and what can be done with it is, perhaps, particularly pleasurable for those who work with textiles. Back in 2014, I wrote about some of the textile references here and I made a small Cromwell-related quilted piece.

The embroidered words Mirror and Light soaking in water
Mirror and Light: soaking the stitched fabric

In June 2020 I finished reading The Mirror and the Light for the first time. The visceral shock of the ending stunned me, then haunted my dreams. I re-read Mantel’s Beyond Black, and then restarted Wolf Hall. In August, there was a heatwave and I couldn’t bear to sit under the heavy quilt I was then working on. I wanted something small, unlayered, and cooler to stitch. I started – in a rather unfocused way – to chain stitch the words ‘Mirror’ and ‘Light’, on to strips of white fabric, just to see how it felt.

In a brief period, when lockdown was eased, I made my one and only trip into the City of London of 2020 and took the sewing to the Austin Friars, where Cromwell once owned a house. And then, as a way of processing what I had read I just kept sewing, and it soon became apparent that I had embarked upon an enormous, immersive sewing project. I spent the rest of 2020 stitching the chapter titles from The Mirror and the Light. Then Bring Up the Bodies. Then Wolf Hall. I finished chainstitching all the titles on 29 December 2020.

Author holding stitched fabric under a sign that reads Austin Friars Passage
Mirror and Light stitchery at Austin Friars, London

I’m now engaged in quilting all these words, but that’s another story. Or, as Mantel puts it so beautifully in Wolf Hall: ‘Behind every history, another history.’

Enjoying Hard Time with Jodi Taylor

This is a blog tour stop for Jodi Taylor’s marvellous new book – Hard Time – the second in the Time Police series.

Hard Time by Jodi Taylor on my And The World Went White quilt

Many thanks to Antonia Whitton and Headline Press for inviting me to review Hard Time, and for sending me an advance hardback copy.

About the Book

Team Weird are back causing havoc in the Time Police in this irresistible spinoff series by international bestseller Jodi Taylor, author of The Chronicles of St Mary’s. If you love Doctor Who, Ben Aaronovitch and Jasper Fforde, you’ll love the Time Police.

The Time Police do not have problems. They have challenges. Idiots who want to change history have always proved ‘challenging’. But now temporal tourism is on the rise – highly illegal but highly lucrative.

Step forward Jane, Luke and Matthew. They may be about to graduate, but there’s still plenty of time for everything to go wrong. Throw in the Versailles time slip, a covert jump to Ancient Egypt and a race against Time itself and you’ve got yourself an assignment worthy of Team Weird.

My Review

I am a great admirer of Jodi Taylor’s books. From the moment I picked up Just One Damned Thing After Another, I have been captivated by her work. Her ability to conjure up characters, institutions, and worlds is phenomenal – and her new Time Police series is no exception.

A shelf full of Jodi Taylor

I noticed that some of the other reviewers on this blog tour haven’t read the St Mary’s series – they have a treat to come – and their enjoyment of Hard Time demonstrates that the Time Police books can hold their own as a series in their own right as well as a spinoff. I’m coming to Hard Time as a lover of St Mary’s, so my perspective is that of someone who knows and loves St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. And, yes, I would love to work there.

Readers of the Chronicles of St Mary’s know the Time Police. Or at least we know the Time Police from the point of view of Max and Leon and Dr Bairstow. But we now get to see events from the Time Police point of view, and share the career and personal development of Jane, Luke and Matthew – three very different young recruits who don’t really fit in. In the first book in the series, Doing Time, we saw their early mistakes, their incompatibility, and the trouble in which they found themselves – and now in Hard Time we see them growing slowly into a solid team, forming friendships – and still finding themselves in trouble.

I don’t want to give away the plot of Hard Time, but I can guarantee that it is a funny, tense and exciting read. There are shocks galore, plenty of jumps to interesting places, lots of chaos, unexpected heroism, the appearance of some St Mary’s personnel, and some very bad behaviour by some very unpleasant people.

The overall tone is slightly lighter than that of the St Mary’s books; anyone who knows the Chronicles will be aware that alongside the laughter there is tragedy (I can’t bear to think about what happened at Troy) – and there are no guaranteed happy endings for anyone. But the Time Police have a less emotional approach to history, which makes Hard Time the ideal read for a gloomy autumn day, when you want to be transported to different times and watch a bunch of engaging characters jump in and out of trouble.

You don’t need to have read the Chronicles of St Mary’s to appreciate Jane, Luke and Matthew – so why not give them a go? I thoroughly recommend getting to know the Time Police – and I am sure you will enjoy the ride.

Hard Time by Jodi Taylor was published by Headline on 15 October 2020, and is available in hardback for £18.99 from all good booksellers. It is also available as an ebook, and I am looking forward to listening to Zara Ramm reading the audiobook.

Locking Down with Georgette Heyer

Way back in March 2020, when it was becoming clear that we were entering a strange, antisocial period of staying in during a growing global pandemic, I sat down to think of a pleasant diversion for a scary and dark time. The diversion that sprung quickly to mind was reading, and I recalled a comment about my Georgette Heyer Advent Calendar on Twitter – that seeing a nice edition of a Heyer novel each day in the run up to Christmas had helped them through a difficult December. And so, on 19 March, I posted a tentative tweet…

I had no idea what the reaction would be. I knew there was a Georgette Heyer corner of Twitter, and I knew there were discussions to be had about her novels. And I knew that The Unknown Ajax was a favourite with Heyer readers – largely due to its lovely hero, Hugo Darracott – but would a Twitter readalong work? I expected it would be me and a couple of other people and that it would quickly peter out, but decided to give it a go anyway.

So on Sunday 22 March, I read and annotated the first two chapters of Ajax, and prepared a series of tweets – questions, comments, observations – and at 7.00pm I was amazed to find about 20 people eager to discuss the Darracott inheritance. We spent a splendid, friendly hour unpicking family relationships and the bullying behaviour of Lord Darracott. Two days later, in the UK we were in full lockdown, and the #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong community started to grow in earnest.

Twice a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays, we read three chapters, and came together (while staying apart) to discuss our admiration for the majestic Aunt Aurelia, whether Vincent and Claud were redeemable, whether it was fair to dupe an exciseman just trying to do his job, how it was easy to underestimate Mrs Darracott, and, once we reached chapter 12, to swoon at Anthea asking “Hugo, how dare you call me love?” As the reading progressed, we got to know each other better and the discussions reflected this – jokes were exchanged and personal information shared.

Cotillion. These editions Book Club 1954, Pan 1967.

When we finished with Hugo we carried on reading. I wondered what participants would like to discuss next, ran a poll, and Cotillion was voted the favourite. I felt slightly disappointed: I had only read it once before and had dismissed it as fluffy – but reading it more slowly showed me how wrong I was. The fashionable Freddy Standen turned out to be a capable, practical young man – just what is needed during a pandemic. Lots of readers were big fans of his father, Lord Legerwood. And far from being fluffy, Heyer didn’t shy away from showing the seamier side of high society, so the Readalong discussed the fate of the dependent woman, the sex trade, and sexual double standards. To my surprise, I found that I loved Cotillion. Conversely, I really struggled with a slow read of Sylvester – a former favourite – finding the hero’s behaviour extremely problematic.

All the time we were reading, companionship was growing. We had enormous fun during our sessions during which hashtags about favourite characters – #TomOrdeIsSoSolid and #AllHailMrTrevor – were thrown in. Members were extremely generous in sharing historical background information, in a tribute to Heyer’s own meticulous research. I enjoyed a running joke about my love for Regency Buck in general and Lord Worth in particular. Conversations spilled over into the rest of the week as we thought of new themes or answered each other’s points. Books were recommended, news shared, heroes and heroines compared.

Keeping track of what we read when: the #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong log

We roared with laughter at The Talisman Ring, debated Frederica’s management of her family, and thoroughly enjoyed loathing the monstrous dowager in The Quiet Gentleman. As a result of slower reading, we had the opportunity to reflect on Heyer’s writing style, her sentence construction, and her gift for dialogue. We also considered the social and economic background to the novels: Heyer makes clear in The Quiet Gentleman that the Frant fortune originates in the enslavement of people, and, while we were reading this book, the National Trust published its report, Addressing our Histories of Colonialism and Historic Slavery. The large houses and the society about which we enjoy reading had a horrific human cost.

Now it’s October and the news continues to be grim. The pandemic is still with us, we are still social distancing, and, at the moment, there seems no end in sight. But having seen the way in which the #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong participants cheered each other on and provided companionship through the first lockdown, I am determined that we will carry on reading into the autumn and winter.

Beauvallet. These editions: Heinemann 1938; Pan 1963

More activities are being added to keep us cheerful. In August, I had to reduce the reading sessions to once a week on Sunday because of busy work commitments, but participants said they missed the Wednesday connections, so I introduced #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong #MidweekMusings where we have a deeper discussion about one theme. We’ve talked about philanthropy, responses to unwanted attentions, matched or mismatched couples. On a lighter note, on Fridays, we now have #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong #FridayFantasyCasting (Christopher Plummer IS Lord Worth), and I am looking at organising some sessions where we can actually see each other with quizzes, readings and debates.

Wear a mask like a Heyer Hero!

From that tentative “would anyone like to read The Unknown Ajax with me?” to today when we have a very active community. There were 188 participants at the last count – people who join in the discussions, those who quietly read along with us, people who stumble across our hashtag and find a welcoming community. Even as I type this post I can see that there is a Twitter discussion taking place about possible real locations in The Nonesuch, complete with illustrations.

When the Bad Times are over, I suspect at least some of us will gather near Miss Heyer’s beloved Albany and take tea at Fortnum and Mason. We’ll swap old editions, argue over the merits of Lord Worth, and celebrate the friends we made while reading during a pandemic. I just hope our Georgette would approve.

How many participants? 188 as of 9 October!

A Seasonal Countdown with Georgette Heyer

I collect vintage editions of Georgette Heyer’s novels, and in December – the season of sharing good things – I like to share my collection with other Heyer readers, and Twitter provides me with a great place to do so. While Twitter nowadays can be a fairly toxic environment, the online Heyer community is a warm and friendly place. So I have been tweeting a Georgette Heyer Advent Calendar as a thank you to my fellow Heyer-ites.

It’s very enjoyable. I choose a book each day, take out my vintage editions, snap a quick picture, draft a short summary, and post it on Twitter. Throughout the day Heyer readers reply. They comment on the choice of book, their views of particular characters, they discuss the plot, analyse the covers, advocate for their favourite supporting characters – the dialogue the Calendar inspires is absolutely splendid.

For this year’s Calendar, I started with Venetia, a great favourite among Heyer-ites. But Damarel divides opinion – some readers love him, and others really, really dislike him. Should Venetia have married him? Well it depends which reader you ask!

GHAC - Venetia

Venetia. This edition: Heinemann 1958.

Days 2 to 5 were Beauvallet, Sylvester, Sprig Muslin, and The Convenient Marriage. Two of these are particular favourites of mine – Sylvester and The Convenient Marriage – both of which have particularly engaging heroines in Phoebe and Horatia (and I adore the Earl of Rule!). And those Beauvallet covers are marvellous!

Day 6 involved The Masqueraders, which divides opinion. I don’t especially like it (I cannot bear The Old Gentleman), but I know people who adore it, and I wanted to share a lot of the books I knew others enjoy. Day 7 was Faro’s Daughter, and a number of people said they really must re-read it. I know I haven’t read it for years, so it has gone onto my To Be Read pile for 2020. Day 8 was Regency Buck. This book really does split the Heyer community – some readers really dislike Worth and Judith; others are very fond of them. This was my first Heyer, so I have a real soft spot for it. And I definitely like Worth.

Day 9 was Frederica. This book is absolutely adored by many Heyer fans. Rather than attempting to do justice to Heyer’s sparkling plot, I summed it up with humour: “Never leave your hot air balloon unattended. And make sure you have Dr Ratcliffe’s Restorative Pork Jelly to hand in case of injury or illness.”

GHAC - Frederica

Frederica: These editions: Bodley Head 1965, Book Club 1965.

Days 10 and 11 were The Quiet Gentleman and The Grand Sophy respectively. ‘Does Sophy’s conduct go “from bad to worse?” Is Cousin Charles a dictator? Is Eugenia a suitable bride for him? Or will Sophy disrupt the entire family?’ I asked.

And then on Day 12 I had a dilemma. Should I include My Lord John, Heyer’s longstanding, unfinished John of Lancaster project, published posthmously?  It’s not widely read, even by Heyer-ites, so was I wasting a day on an unpopular choice, so unlike her lighter novels that are so beloved? As her biographer Jane Aiken Hodge wrote, one of the problems with My Lord John was that ‘Heyer could not make her characters think like mediaeval people and, fatally, she could not make them talk like them either’. (The Private World of Georgette Heyer, p.76). And Jennifer Kloester noted, ‘In this book, Georgette had failed to wear her learning lightly’. (Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller, p.385).

GHAC - My Lord John

My Lord John. This edition: Bodley Head 1975.

It’s that learning that fascinates me: Heyer was a meticulous researcher. She went to enormous efforts to research My Lord John and this research was very important to her. Photographs of her notebooks intrigue me – her drawings of armour, of coats of arms, of maps. Her card indexes of materials relating to the project. Her efforts to read mediaeval English. I felt that the painstaking process of her research and her persistence in maintaining this project had to be acknowledged. So I included it.

I re-read Friday’s Child for the first time in years and laughed again at Ferdy, George and Gil (and disliked Sherry, but loved Hero) in preparation for Day 13. And I blundered on Day 14 with Devil’s Cub. My memory told me that Mary shot Vidal by mistake, and Heyer-ites kindly pointed out that my memory was at fault. As one reader tweeted: ‘She definitely means to do it’. Either way, Vidal definitely deserved it! And Powder and Patch gave readers a lot of pleasure on Day 15.

More enjoyment came with The Talisman Ring – another popular choice, largely due to the love readers have the heroine, Sarah Thane. I wish there was another novel about one of the secondary characters, Eustacie de Vauban – who provides lots of laughter. Day 17 was The Corinthian, and Day 18 brought These Old Shades. I have to confess to disliking These Old Shades – I don’t like the characters – but it’s very popular with other readers, so it had to be included. And both Day 17 and Day 18 provoked comments about the cover illustrations, and how faithful or otherwise they were to the plots.

I had a message from a Heyer reader expressing a wish for Cotillion so that came in on Day 19, and there was much love for Arabella on Day 20. Day 21 was reserved for An Infamous Army, which divided opinion. Was Heyer’s recounting of the Battle of Waterloo fascinating and informative, or was it to be rushed through to get on with the story? Was Barbara liked or loathed?

I had to include The Reluctant Widow on Day 22 – it’s the Heyer I have probably re-read the most because of my research into the 1950 film adaptation. It isn’t a favourite of mine, but it probably contains the most loved younger brother character in all of Heyer – the hilarious Nicky and his dog Bouncer. And Day 23 was Bath Tangle which provoked some strong reactions – Serena and Rotherham really aren’t popular!

So what of Day 24? Well, there’s only one choice really. It has to be The Unknown Ajax and the marvellous Hugo Darracott. “Hugo, how dare you call me love?” asks Anthea, but readers everywhere would give much to be in her shoes. If you haven’t read any Heyer, The Unknown Ajax is an ideal place to start. There is intrigue, family tension, mystery, humour, and love. And an absolutely ideal hero. Does anyone not love Hugo?

GHAC - The Unknown Ajax

The Unknown Ajax. This edition: Heinemann 1971.

It’s been lovely to read all the comments and discussions while I have been posting the Georgette Heyer Advent Calendar and sharing my collection. If you would like to have a look, you can find the 2019 Advent Calendar here on Twitter.

The Georgette Heyer community is a friendly place – so why not join us and tells us your favourite Heyer, your first Heyer, your most loved characters, and what Georgette Heyer means to you?

 

A quilt, a cat, and a bluebird

norman-page-on-stage

Norman Page as Tylette the Cat, December 1909

This postcard, from my early 20th century theatre collection, is one of my absolute favourites. It shows the British stage and silent film actor Norman Page as Tylette the Cat in a production of The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck at London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1909. It also shows a rather splendid hexagon quilt, in what looks like a simple Grandmother’s Flower Garden pattern. It thus rather neatly combines a number of my interests.

I’ve been intrigued by The Blue Bird since I was about eight years old when I first read Noel Streatfeild’s 1936 children’s novel about the theatre, Ballet Shoes. There are two chapters about a charity matinée of The Blue Bird, and, as a child, I was intrigued that there were extracts from Maeterlinck’s play script contained within the text, along with a lot of information about the plot. As a result, I feel I know the play really well even though I’ve never seen it. And a production featuring Norman Page would be my ideal production (outside the fictional world of Ballet Shoes).

norman-page-in-stingaree

Norman Page (centre) as Ives in Stingaree, The Bushranger (1908) 

So who was Norman Page?  He was born in Nottingham in 1876, and educated at Trent College. After school, and an attempt to become an artist, he underwent theatrical training at the Theatre Royal in Margate, and his first performance on stage was in 1896 at the Opera House in Chatham. In 1904 he first appeared on the London stage as The Gardener’s Boy in Prunella, or Love in a Dutch Garden by Laurence Housman and Harley Granville-Barker. He went on to work as both actor and producer, and had an interest in some of the new styles of acting and the experimental plays that were being staged in the early 1900s. In 1909 a season he produced at the Glasgow Repertory Theatre was considered by The Times to bring ‘that spirit of modernity … which consists in a sense of artistic unity, a repression of the “theatrical”, a reduction of the emotion displayed to the proportions of the occasion – in short, in naturalness’. (Glasgow Repertory Theatre, The Times, October 19 1909)

Page played Tylette the Cat in The Blue Bird in a number of productions – it seems to have been a Christmas favourite in the years before the First World War. On December 27 1911, The Times considered that a ‘chief joy in the acting is still the sinister Cat of Mr Norman Page.’ In 1912 he travelled to Australia to produce the play there. And on 9 January 1928, he reprised the role for a radio production, broadcast on the 2LO London and 5XX Daventry stations. Cats seemed to have been something of a speciality for Page. As well as Tylette, he played the title role in Puss in Boots at the Apollo Theatre in 1926, and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland at the Little Theatre in 1932, when he was ‘the best of many good performing animals’. (The Times, December 22 1932)

norman-page-signed-photograph 

Page also had a long association with the Academy of Dramatic Art (which later became RADA) where he was an instructor for 23 years. After his death in 1935, Kenneth Barnes, the then director of RADA, wrote that:

‘He had a great sense of the dignity of the profession of the theatre, and his talents, as producer-actor, scenic designer, and teacher, it can ill afford to lose. I know this because Norman Page was the hardest worked member of my staff … How we wish he were still with us.’

Like a lot of stage actors of the 1910s and 1920s, Page also acted for the films – and that’s where I first came across him. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that his screen presence has had a huge impact on me.  Nearly a decade ago, I had an idea for a research project about the early work of British film director Maurice Elvey, but back then I’d only seen one or two of his films. So when I heard about a screening of his film of Bleak House in Nottingham, I got on a train so I could find out more. I wasn’t expecting to be so delighted by that film’s exquisite portrayal of Dickens’ lovelorn clerk Mr Guppy – played by Norman Page. That screening – particularly  Norman Page’s performance – was the deciding factor in confirming my Elvey research project.

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Norman Page (right) as Mr Guppy with Teddy Arundell as George in Maurice Elvey’s 1920 film Bleak House

And when I saw Elvey’s Life Story of David Lloyd George (made in 1918 but not released at the time) with Norman Page in the title role, I couldn’t believe it was the same actor. It’s an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary film – and a world away from Mr Guppy.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am busy writing up my Elvey research at the moment, so I am writing about Norman Page a lot – The Life Story of David Lloyd George plays a major role in my thesis. That leaves very little time for sewing. But a couple of weeks ago, I was clearing out some fabric and I came across a hexagon quilt I started some years ago. It’s just the sort of undemanding project I need at the moment and it fits in with my research nicely. It reminds me of the quilt on stage in The Blue Bird so I think it’s fitting that while I’m sewing it, I remember the role of Norman Page in starting off my research about Maurice Elvey.

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Hexagons for Mr Norman Page

Hunting for Clues

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Museums are magical places. I learned this at a young age from a book called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by E L Konigsburg. First published in 1967, it tells the story of Claudia Kincaid and her brother Jamie who, fed up with life at home and “the sameness of each and every week”, run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This they do with some success – pretending to be ordinary visitors – but these are visitors who make use of the antique furniture out of hours. They explore the galleries, find places to hide, dodge security guards, and tag along with unknown school parties. During their stay in the museum, they become fascinated by a statue of an angel which is attracting record-breaking crowds because it might (or might not) be a piece by Michelangelo. The provenance of the angel is inconclusive, so Claudia and Jamie set out to prove whether or not it is the work of Michelangelo.

“They decided to do their research when they had the statue and the museum to themselves. Claudia especially wanted to make herself important to the statue. She would solve its mystery; and it, in turn, would do something important to her, though what it was she didn’t quite know.”

The sheer hard graft, the excitement swiftly followed by disappointment, and the need for lateral thinking by researchers is beautifully conveyed by Claudia and Jamie. Anyone who has ever researched anything or anyone will probably recognise the promise of a museum or archive: the prospect of finding a missing piece of information, that elusive bit of evidence missed by everyone else. The joy of finding what you had hoped for – and the bitter disappointment of the empty, disappointing, or censored file, or of an exhibit removed for conservation.

If I’m looking up something specific, I plan museum and archive visits carefully  to make the most of the time I have there. But if I’m just looking for inspiration, I love very unstructured visits, just wondering through and stopping at things that catch my eye. The unstructured wander means finding things by accident – and who can tell where that will eventually lead?

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Man’s Doublet and Breeches, 1630-1640, satin trimmed with silk braid and silk ribbon, possibly made from a bed cover. On display at the V&A.

A couple of months ago I was in the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington – my best place in London for a wander when looking for quilting inspiration. I’m particularly fond of a satin doublet dating from 1630-40, which is quilted with a breathtaking level of detail. I go and stare at this item every so often and usually end up peering beadily through the glass case, muttering about the skill of the stitching. After my last visit I even went and bought some satin with a view to attempting some very tight quilting – and found it terribly slippery to work with.

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Man’s Doublet Detail: Look at that elaborate quilting!

Once I’d admired the doublet for quite some time, I visited the Medieval Galleries – not part of the museum with which I am very familiar. And there I stumbled across one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen – the Tristan Quilt.

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This Italian bed covering dates from about 1360-1400 and was made in Florence, from linen and cotton, embroidered with linen. It shows fourteen episodes from the life of Tristan, one of the heroes of medieval literature and is simply extraordinary in its ambition and the level of skilled work involved. The narrative structure seems to have been disrupted as a result of restoration work, but the overall impact is stunning.

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Of course seeing this quilt whetted my appetite for a new research project. What were the techniques used? How has the quilt been restored? How much is already known about it and what else can be discovered? And there’s a sewing project there – why aren’t I making a wholecloth-telling-a-story quilt? Sadly these questions will have to wait. I’ve got too much else on at the moment (I intend to finish my Maurice Elvey thesis in 2017) so I can’t afford to get distracted by all the many intriguing things that catch my eye in museums and archives at the moment. But they are still there – waiting.

And what of Claudia and Jamie? Did they ever answer the mystery of the angel? Was it sculpted by Michelangelo? I couldn’t possibly spoil the story. You will just have to read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler to find out.

A Visit to Green Knowe 

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The Manor, Hemingford Grey

I have a large collection of books about sewing. This collection has changed over the years: to begin with when I first started learning to quilt, I bought books that focused on technique, that set out rules about thread type, dictated strict seam allowances and hinted at the correct way to press fabric. As my quilting developed and I stopped following patterns – and gained the confidence to dispense with the rules that didn’t work for me – these books were given away and replaced with books about quilt histories and culture. But one book has stayed with me from the start: The Patchworks of Lucy Boston by Diana Boston.

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I knew that Lucy Boston (1892-1990) was the author of the children’s Green Knowe series and I remember reading The Castle of Yew years ago. But discovering that she was a stitcher meant that I looked at her work with new interest. The names of her quilts intrigued me: The Babes in the Wood Patchwork, The Patchwork of the Crosses and – most exciting of all – The High Magic Patchwork. These names give the quilts additional depth, for the naming of quilts is an important way of conveying the intention of the maker. Lucy Boston may have described the occupation of patchwork as “disorderly and messy, the room littered with snippets of paper, cotton and lengths of thread, and a maelstrom of materials,” but from disorder and mess comes beauty and deliberation.

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Tolly “saw the head of a giant stone man, carrying a child on his shoulders.”

Last week I visited the Manor at Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon, Lucy Boston’s house and the setting for the Green Knowe books. It is a beautiful house, with the oldest parts dating back to the 12th Century. Its situation by the river Great Ouse makes it very easy to imagine the floods that open The Children of Green Knowe when the boy Tolly approaches the house by boat in the evening when “the windows were all lit up, but it was too dark to see what kind of a house it was, only that it was high and narrow like a tower.” To Tolly it is like a castle, and he wants to know “Do things happen in it, like the castles in books?” And of course they do.

I don’t actually remember reading the Green Knowe books as a child, but I must have done because, when I went into the room at the top of the house, “a room under the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof and all the beams showing,” there was Toby’s Japanese mouse and I knew him straight away.

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“On the chest of drawers Tolly had seen two curly white china dogs, an old clock, and an ebony mouse, life-sized with shiny black eyes. It was so cleverly carved that you could see every hair, and it felt like fur to stroke.”

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And there was more – “a beautiful old rocking-horse … a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.” The creak-croak of the rockers was almost audible. It was The Children of Green Knowe come to life – perfectly.

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As well as the joy of finding Tolly’s room, I had the pleasure of seeing Lucy Boston’s quilts. I was especially privileged to be able to touch them, as, wearing white gloves, I helped our guide, Diana Boston, turn them out for viewing. The quilts are made from an eclectic range of fabrics – from wartime dusters to silk, from needlecord to embroidered wedding dress cotton, from heavy furnishing fabric to Liberty prints. Many pieces were fussy cut – with the sort of precision that I admire but never have the patience to achieve – and the piecing is extraordinary. There is a stunning Mariner’s Compass quilt – with twelve of that most complicated of blocks (which I have never dared attempt). When making it, Lucy Boston experienced a feeling known to all quilters: “My patchwork is proving very difficult indeed. It has large circular patterns that will not lie flat. They all heave up like rising tea-cakes.” The Babes in the Wood was a triumph of applique, as owls, birds and squirrels wandered amongst leaves and flowers in autumn colours. My favourite was the High Magic Patchwork: a mass of stars, suns and the phases of the moon. Lucy Boston made this piece when she was writing An Enemy at Green Knowe and noted that it “served to keep my thoughts moving.”

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The Manor is open all year round and can be visited by appointment. The photography policy is very generous and visitors can take pictures all over the house and gardens. However, it isn’t possible to photograph the quilts. Instead, Diana Boston’s lovely book The Patchworks of Lucy Boston can be purchased from the Manor along with cards featuring some of the quilts (and proceeds go towards the upkeep of the house and garden). And the Patchwork of the Crosses, probably the most well-known of Lucy Boston’s quilts, can be seen here thanks to the British Quilt Study Group of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles.

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Quilting the Thames Part One: Merchants at the Upper Pool

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Upper Pool – Thames Quilt Section One

The sewing of my Thames Quilt project has commenced. My quilted journey down the Thames begins at the Pool of London with five Fourteenth Century merchants.

Charles Dickens Jnr’s Dictionary of the Thames 1890 advises that the Pool of London is divided into the Upper and the Lower Pool, the point of division being the headquarter station of the Thames Police at Wapping. The Upper Pool stretches from London Bridge to Wapping or (on the other side) Cherry Garden Pier, Bermondsey.

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Looking under Tower Bridge at the Upper Pool

I associate the Upper Pool with trade, largely because of reading historical novels by Cynthia Harnett (1893-1981) when I was growing up. Harnett’s novels always felt slightly radical because they were about merchants and traders – people who seemed ordinary, familiar – rather than about royalty or grand people at court. Her protagonists were merchants’ sons who were learning their trade as apprentices; they would happen upon a mystery, and be sharp enough to expose miscreants engaged in wrongdoing.

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Harnett wove lots of social history into her plots. In The Woolpack (1951) she explained how cloth was made in 1493 – from sheep shearing to sale – as part of the story of Nicholas and his determination to discover the identity of the thief who was tampering with his father’s wool exports. Much of the action of The Load of Unicorn (1959) took place around the Thames of 1482, when Benedict discovered why paper intended for William Caxton’s printing press was being stolen. Along with Benedict, the reader is told how to set a page of type and is advised that the King’s Customs cannot protect the Thames:  Did you know that London Customs have charge only for a few miles down the river? Beyond Gravesend it is the duty of Sandwich. And likewise on the north bank from Tilbury onwards it belongs to Ipswich… Have you ever sailed the coast of Essex, my masters? The inlets are like weevil runs in a cheese – from Pennyhole Bay right round to Mucking Creek.

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Ring Out Bow Bells! (1953) is set in 1415 and is very much a novel of the Thames. Nan, Adam and Dickon spend their time by a river that looks like a big lake shut in on three sides by banks of houses. On the north side the buildings  … crowded down to the water’s edge, ending in a broken line of wharfs and warehouses and a jumble of roofs. Opposite on the south bank, there were gardens among the houses and a background of tree-tops to mark the open country.

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“The Tower from the river looked far more imposing than it did from the land. Dickon shaded his eyes and stared at it.” (Ring Out Bow Bells!)

Cynthia Harnett habitually added a postscript to her novels in which she explained which characters were purely fictional and which were based on real people; which plot elements came from historical records; and where the reader might be able to see an item featured in the novel (in the Victoria and Albert Museum for example) or visit a location. For Ring Out Bow Bells! she described a walk from Cannon Street Station to find the London of Nan, Adam and Dickon. This is doubly interesting today; Harnett was looking for Fifteenth Century locations in 1953 when London still had much visible bomb damage – so the reader of 2016 can find layer upon layer of historical meaning in the walk she describes. (There was a bomb crater just in front of me, and as I poked about I caught sight of some squared stones which had probably been part of the very house which was to be the centre of my story – for you see Grantham’s Inn was a real house.)

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I suppose Harnett’s novels might come across as being a bit worthy and education-heavy but I always liked them. Looking back, I suspect they awakened my interest in historical research – and the idea that there might be more to a story than meets the eye.

Why is this relevant to my Thames Quilt? Well, I wanted to include “real people” in the quilt so I was very excited to find the name of five merchants from the early Fourteenth Century who traded at the Pool of London in the Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London, 1309-1314*.

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Benedict de Burgo, Henry de Banneberi and Arnald Picard

The Calendar includes the rules of trade at the Pool of London (la Pole):

That no broker in future presume to go to la Pole or elsewhere by land or by water to buy or attempt [to buy] any wines or other goods before they come to land and are exposed for sale, under penalty aforesaid. Also every broker shall tender good advice, that honest men of the trade in which he is a broker may sell their wares to trustworthy and sufficient buyers who have the wherewithal to satisfy their creditors: and if he shall put forward any insufficient purchaser to trustworthy men of the City or other merchants to purchase their wares, so that by reason of the fraud of such broker the purchaser (emptor) lose his wares, the broker shall answer therefor, if he have the wherewithal, and if he have not the wherewithal shall be committed to prison until, &c., and he shall no longer be a broker.

It also lists five men who had the necessary permission to act as brokers:

  • Arnald Picard admitted broker of wine before the Mayor and Aldermen
  • John de Rokesle admitted broker of woad before the Mayor and good men of that trade
  • Henry de Banneberi and Benedict de Burgo elected brokers of peltry by good men of the trade, and presented before John de Gysors, the Mayor, and Aldermen
  • Andrew de Salop elected loco the above Benedict, deceased, and sworn before Nicholas de Farendone, the Mayor, and Aldermen

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Andrew de Salop and John de Roksele

If I were a novelist like Cynthia Harnett, I would have been able to weave a story around these men who were brokers at the Upper Pool. Instead, I sewed them into my Thames Quilt.

* Folios ci – cx’, in Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London: D, 1309-1314, ed. Reginald R Sharpe (London, 1902), pp. 218-238 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/london-letter-books/vold/pp218-238