Hunting for Clues

from-the-mixed-up-files

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?

quilted-doublet-2

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.

quilted-doublet-1

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.

tristran-quilt-1

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.

tristran-quilt-2

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 

IMG_0557

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.

IMG_0553

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.

IMG_0558

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.

IMG_0554

“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.”

IMG_0556

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.

IMG_0555

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.”

IMG_0560

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.

IMG_0559

Quilting the Thames Part Three: The Greenland Lads at Limehouse Reach

FullSizeRender (5)

Greenland Lads on a ship full of oil at Limehouse Reach: Thames Quilt Section Three

Travelling further down the River Thames to Limehouse Reach,  I found myself at a loss. What should go into the Thames Quilt here?

I considered the E A Dupont 1929 Silent Film Piccadilly with its Limehouse scenes as a starting point. It didn’t work. Much as I love that film, it isn’t really a story of the river. I flirted with Sherlock Holmes and the silent films directed by Maurice Elvey starring Eille Norwood as Holmes, but that didn’t work either. I re-read Great Expectations to check whether Magwitch hides in Limehouse (he does, in a house with a “bow-window where he can see the ships sail up and down the river,” and watch Pip and Herbert Pocket rowing on the river in preparation for his escape) but I didn’t feel it was the right choice.

LowTide at Limehouse Reach

Low Tide at Limehouse Reach

Then I remembered a visit to the Museum of London, Docklands, where I had seen a great big pot, a remnant of a trade that perhaps we would rather forget today – a pot used in whaling. I do not condone or support whaling in any way, but I’ve always been fascinated by the Thames as a working river, and whaling is undeniably part of its working history. I was fascinated to discover that, if you make your way to Limehouse Reach and cut behind the river into Greenland Dock, you are walking in the footsteps of the Thames whalers. *

Limehouse Dock

Greenland Dock

And it was with the whalers that I found the theme for the Limehouse Reach section of the Thames Quilt. I have a long-standing interest in sea songs and shanties. Some of these songs are whaling songs – songs like The Greenland Whale Fishers (And when we reached that whale my boys / He lashed out with his tail / And we lost a boat and seven good men / And we never caught that whale), and Reuben Ranzo (O! Ranzo was no sailor – Ranzo me boys, Ranzo / He shipped aboard a whaler – Ranzo boys, Ranzo!).

IMG_0092

The Whale from Sea Songs and Shanties, collected by W B Whall, Master Mariner, 1920

One of my favourite sea shanties is The Bonnie Ship The Diamond. The final verse of the song looks forward to the whalers returning home:

It’ll be bright both day and night when the Greenland lads come home / With a ship that’s full of oil me boys, and money to our name / Here’s a health unto the Diamond bright, the skipper and the crew / Here’s a health to every bonnie lass that has a heart so true.

I used this verse as inspiration for the Limehouse Reach section of the quilt, but I must confess to geographically repurposing the song: I believe the real Diamond sailed out of Aberdeen rather than London. However, I wanted to make reference to Greenland Dock, so I used the Greenland lads to make a connection. You can see a rousing rendition  of The Bonnie Ship The Diamond by the Storm Weather Shanty Choir here.

A murky day on the River at the entrance to Limehouse Reach

The entrance to Greenland Dock from the River on a grey April day

Visitors to Greenland Dock today see a lovely stretch of water without the smell, mess and sound of London’s filthy whaling trade. But two and a half centuries ago, a day out to see a whale carcass was a great treat. On February 9 1762, The Derby Mercury reported that on Sunday an innumerable concourse of people repair’d to Greenland Dock to see the Whale lately brought there. The road was lined with coaches, chariots, post-chaises, horsemen and footmen, from morning till evening, like a fair. It is computed that there were not less than 50,000 persons of both sexes continually passing and repassing. Their journey, however, proved unsavoury at the end,  for the whale stank abominably.

Moby Dick Live

The return of the Thames Whalers? The empty stage at the end of Moby Dick Unabridged

In October 2015, whaling returned to the Thames when the Southbank Centre staged Moby Dick Unabridged – a  four-day live rendition of Herman Melville’s novel. An impressive reading relay was enhanced by art installations, sea shanties and dance performances. It is a matter of lasting regret that I didn’t experience the whole thing; I was only able to get along to the final afternoon when I became so wrapped up with Captain Ahab that I stayed, spellbound, until the end.

More recently, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Moby Dick while sewing the Thames Quilt. There is a description of the whaling town of New Bedford near the beginning. In my head, I see not New Bedford but Greenland Dock:

Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled up upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last; while from others came a sound of carpenters and coopers, with blended noises of fires and forges to melt the pitch, all betokening that new cruises were on the start; that one more perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye.

IMG_0093

Limehouse Reach: Thames Quilt detail

 

 

* I was lucky enough to be shown around Greenland Dock by Ken, the Old Map Man, who has developed a great walk about the docks in Rotherhithe – including the magical remains of Russia Dock. Find out more here and take a walk by the river.

Quilting the Thames Part One: Merchants at the Upper Pool

IMG_3929

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.

IMG_4021

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.

IMG_4018

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.

IMG_4017

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.

IMG_4019

“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.)

IMG_4016

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*.

IMG_4022

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
IMG_4023

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

Quilting the Thames

IMG_3842

High Tide on the Thames

Along with my habit of listening to the Shipping Forecast, which I don’t understand and can’t interpret, I have a fascination with nautical charts, which, again, I don’t understand and can’t interpret. I just like the words they contain and the sounds and the images they conjure up. I like to unfold Imray navigation charts, and pore over the names of unknown waterways: Mouse Channel, Kentish Knock, Sledway, Shipway, Shipwash…. Even the feel of the waterproof paper on which they are printed promises adventure.

A couple of years ago, I saw Thames Film (1986) by the artist William Raban, which traces the Thames all the way along the Estuary out to the Maunsell Sea Forts, with John Hurt reading from Thomas Pennant’s 1787 Journey from London to Dover. With its mixture of archive and contemporary film, paintings, poetry, place-names and stories, this 66-minute film is one I can watch again and again.*

IMG_3116

The working Thames at Tilbury

Seeing Thames Film opened my eyes to the mysteries of the Thames Estuary. William Raban’s film journey goes as far as the Red Sands Fort, out in the sea near Whitstable, and seeing the towers for myself became an obsession. So, in September 2014, I went down the Thames on PS Waverley from Tower Pier to the sea forts. It was a misty day, and, past Southend, it became harder and harder to see the shore, but once out at sea, the mist cleared and I saw the towers appearing, beautiful and alien, like nothing I had seen before.

IMG_1482

Sea Forts, September 2014

When I look back at my quilting notebooks for the last couple of years, the idea of a quilt based on the Thames comes up again and again, but only as a vague thought. Things finally fell into place at the end of December 2015. I was on a walk around Rotherhithe with Ken, the Old Map Man. Ken has created a great series of London walks which are based on old maps (and you can find out more here). Walkers are shown how an area was set out in – say – the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, how some things have changed and some have stayed the same. Over in Rotherhithe, Ken showed me King Edward III’s Manor House, a Norwegian church, tunnels under the river, and – most excitingly of all – church furniture made from wood that saw action at the Battle of Trafalgar. As the walk ended, I was talking to Ken about the names of the various Watermen’s Stairs down to the Thames (Fountain, Cherry Garden, Three Mariners, Pickle Herring, Elephant, Swan….) when I realised how the quilt project could work.

IMG_3841

Thames Quilt Fabric – new and uncut

It struck me that the names of parts of the Thames are like poetry: like the Shipping Forecast, they create their own rhythm. And different things happen in different parts of the river at different times. Some are true, some imaginary, and some a mixture of myth and reality.

IMG_3851

Think of Samuel Pepys writing in his diary about the frozen river and the recreation of a frost fair in Sally Potter’s film Orlando. Recall the river trade: legal or illicit – or a bit of both, like the cargo of paper brought in by Benedict and Peterkin in Cynthia Harnettt’s excellent children’s book, The Load of Unicorn. Thomas Cromwell listens to and learns from the talk of the boatmen in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to the disquiet of his companions (“Master Wriothesley’s face is a study. He does not understand how much you can learn from boatmen, their argot blasphemous and rapid.”). Sally Lockhart finds a Ruby in the Smoke in Wapping thanks to Philip Pullman. Queen Elizabeth I inspires courage at Tilbury. Isambard Kingdom Brunel launches the SS Great Eastern on the Isle of Dogs.

IMG_3843

Launch site of the SS Great Eastern

Then there’s Dickens – Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations are overdue for a re-read. And I was delighted to discover that his son, Charles Dickens, Jr, wrote a Dictionary of the Thames in 1879, which was updated and reprinted every year from 1880 to 1896.

IMG_3850

I’m not a historian of London or of the Thames, which gives me the freedom to stitch my impressions as I discover books, people, places and myths. I’m planning and researching as I go, so I’m not sure what I will learn – or sew – as the Thames Quilt develops. It is hugely exciting to have such an involving project underway.

* If you want to experience William Raban’s wonderful, haunting Thames Film, it is available on DVD from the British Film Institute shop.

Georgette Heyer, Regency Buck and Admiral Lord Nelson

This post contains spoilers about Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck.

Regency Buck Pan Paperbacks

A sewing session provides a perfect opportunity to get lost in a good audiobook. I have spent many happy hours listening to the novels of Georgette Heyer – the perfect sewing companion – and was delighted when, on 5 June, 2015, her childhood home, 103 Woodside in Wimbledon, London, was given a Blue Plaque by English Heritage.

Earlier this week I was listening to an old favourite – Regency Buck (1935). This was Georgette Heyer’s nineteenth book and the first set in the Regency period (1811-1820). It isn’t my favourite Heyer novel but I have a soft spot for it because it was the first of her novels I read. I love the strong heroine, Judith Taverner, who flouts convention by driving her curricle to Brighton in an unladylike race with her brother, takes snuff, battles against the restrictions places upon her by her guardian, and ensures that looking like a mere Dresden china miss is offset by a decided air of resolution in the curve of her mouth.

Regency Buck Hardback

While listening to Judith’s story unfold, I was stitching the Nelson Quilt. To my surprise I heard something I had never noticed before: daring, unconventional Judith Taverner has been an admirer of Admiral Lord Nelson since her childhood. And this admiration is used to signal the traits of a couple of her acquaintances. Firstly, it is clear that Judith’s uncle, Admiral Taverner, is going to turn out to be a bad sort:

To relieve the awkwardness of the moment she turned to the Admiral, and began talking to him of the Trafalgar action. He was pleased enough to tell it all to her, but his account, concerned as it was merely with his own doings upon that momentous day and interspersed with a great many oaths and coarse expressions, could be of little interest to her. She wanted to be hearing of Lord Nelson, who had naturally been the hero of her school-days. It was her uncle’s only merit in her eyes that he must actually have spoken with the great man, but she could not induce him to describe Nelson in any other than the meanest terms. He had not liked him, did not see that he could have been so very remarkable, never could understand what the women saw in him – a wispy fellow: nothing to look at, he gave her his word.

Pan Paperbacks: Regency Buck

Pan Paperbacks: Regency Buck

In contrast, the Duke of Clarence, a good humoured easygoing Prince known as the Royal Tar, has much to recommend him. He joins Judith on a phaeton ride around Hyde Park:

He was not at all difficult to talk to, and they had not driven more than half-way round the Park before Miss Taverner discovered him to have been a firm friend of Admiral Nelson. She was in a glow at once; he was very ready to talk to her of the admiral, and in this way they drove twice round the Park, extremely well pleased with each other.

I hadn’t picked up on the Nelson references in Regency Buck before. I probably wouldn’t have paid them much regard had it not been for the Nelson research I’ve been doing as part of the Nelson Quilt project.

The Nelson Quilt at 2,900 squares: 28 June 2015. 300 squares to go.

The Nelson Quilt at 2,900 squares: 28 June 2015 – 300 squares to go.

I now feel I know Judith Taverner a bit better – and I would bet that some of her flaunting of convention was inspired by Nelson himself. Given Judith’s habit of taking snuff, I imagine that she would have had a decorative box to carry with her such as this one, inscribed England expects every man to do his duty, which is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Or she may have had a commemorative pill box in her reticule:

Commemorative Nelson Pill Boxes on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth

Commemorative Nelson Pill Boxes on display at the   National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth

Georgette Heyer was a meticulous researcher and very knowledgeable about the period and people of whom she wrote, weaving real events and individuals into her narratives with great skill. Judith Taverner’s admiration of Nelson would have been no accident. I’m really pleased to have found it and understood its significance while working on my own Nelson project.

Georgette Heyer's Regency Buck: Adventure! Excitement! Romance!

Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck:                           Adventure! Excitement! Romance!

Reflecting on The Reluctant Widow

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

 PictureShow, 13 May 1950

A few months ago, I blogged about some fabric depicting Regency Costumes that I had found at Quilters Trading Post which made me think of Georgette Heyer’s heroines. The fabric brought to mind a film adaptation of Heyer’s Reluctant Widow and, when the British Film Institute showed this film on 17 March, I was invited to introduce the screening. I did some further research into the film for the introduction, and here it is:

Regency Fashion Plates quilt panels

Regency Fashion Plates quilt panels

On August 6 1949, the Derby Evening Telegraph reported that “at last British Studios have seen something that has been staring them in the face for years – it is the amount of good screen material to be found in Georgette Heyer’s historical novels.”

Between 1921 and 1974, Heyer wrote over 50 novels, most set in the Regency period. She remains incredibly popular today with a dedicated fan base. But unlike many bestselling authors, very little of her work has been adapted for the screen. A rare example is The Reluctant Widow which was published in 1946 and released as a feature film in 1950 as the last of the period dramas made by Two Cities Films during the late 1940s. So why is so little Heyer seen on screen?

The answer might lie with Heyer herself. Her biographer Jane Aiken Hodge (The Private World of Georgette Heyer) was of the view that “Georgette Heyer’s books with their brilliant plotting and distinctive style and language should be naturals for film and television, but not, perhaps, with their strong-minded author at the director’s elbow.”

Reluctant Widow Editions

In principle, Heyer was open to having her novels adapted, as this could have increased her earning power. Despite earning significant income from her writing, she always felt short of cash and worried excessively about her tax bill. In 1939, there were discussions with Alexander Korda about filming her novel about Charles II, Royal Escape, but these came to nothing, as did proposed films of False Colours to star Anna Neagle (a Heyer fan) and to be directed by Herbert Wilcox, and a mooted production of An Infamous Army.

When The Reluctant Widow came to be filmed, Heyer found that she was not in control of her story – and she didn’t like it.

Screenwriters Gordon Wellesley and Basil Boothroyd made alterations to supporting characters Becky and Nicky (who, as written, are great examples of Heyer’s shrewd old governesses and hilarious younger brothers); added a mysterious smuggler; and, most significantly, created a new character – Madame de Chevreaux played by Kathleen Byron – who does not appear in the novel at all. A very exciting duel scene, made much of in advance publicity, is not in the book; and London scenes featuring Guy Rolfe are inventions of the film makers. There is also a very strange second marriage, which makes no narrative sense. And Heyer was powerless.

Jane Aiken Hodge quotes her as saying “I am being driven frantic by the advance publicity from Denham (Studios) … I feel as though a slug had crawled over me. I think it is going to do me a great deal of harm, on account of the schoolgirl public. Already I’m getting letters reproaching me. They have turned the Widow into a ‘bad-girl’ part for Jean Kent.” She cannot have felt reassured by a review in the Daily Express that described Jean Kent having “a whale of a time. She has a part … that is a cross between the Wicked Lady, Forever Amber, and the barmaid at the local.” (April 28 1950)

Jennifer Kloester’s 2011 biography (Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller) reveals that Heyer wanted her name removed from the film because, “It seems to me that to turn a perfectly clean story of mine into a piece of sex-muck is bad faith and something very different from the additions and alterations one would expect to be obliged to suffer. If I had wanted a reputation for salacious novels I could have got it easily enough. The whole thing is so upsetting.”

Heyer ultimately refused to see the film, so she didn’t get to see what the director, Bernard Knowles, had made of her work – and her refusal meant that she missed seeing some of the very interesting aspects of the film.

To start with, she was wrong about Jean Kent, who played the role of Elinor much as written for much of the film. Guy Rolfe, who played Lord Carlyon, is now mainly remembered for playing English villains, but in The Reluctant Widow he had a rare opportunity to play the romantic lead and did so with conviction.

Julian Dallas catches a fainting Jean Kent

Julian Dallas catches a fainting Jean Kent

Heyer also missed out on an early screen appearance of Julian Dallas as Francis Cheviot. Advance publicity from Two Cities tells us that the Rank Organisation saw Dallas as “the new James Mason” and said that “if his acting and personality come over on the screen successfully he may be offered a long term contract.” Dallas was, indeed offered a long term contract, but not by Rank. Under his real name, Scott Forbes, he went to Hollywood under contact to Warner Brothers in 1950. After appearing in a number of films, he starred in the popular television series, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, from 1956-1958. According to Forbes’ 1997 obituary in The Independent, It was a well-kept secret … that Jim Bowie, with his deep Southern drawl and astonishing good looks, was played by an Englishman educated at Repton and Balliol College, Oxford. The promoters of the series, feeling that the US public would not accept a frontiersman played by an Englishman, launched him with a fabricated biography, claiming that he had been born in South Africa and grown up in eastern Pennsylvania.” (29 April 1997)

Heyer’s world was created on screen by Carmen Dillon at Denham Studios. Dillon was the first woman to win an Academy Award for set decoration, for Hamlet in 1948 – having overcome opposition to her work in the 1930s when she overheard someone saying, “That bloody Carmen Dillon is keeping a man out of a job.”

Dillon caught the mock-gothic settings of The Reluctant Widow with her usual excellence. In the novel, Elinor jokes about the character of Highnoons, the house she inherits, saying:

“The house is clearly haunted. I have not the least doubt that that is why only two sinister retainers can be brought to remain in it. I dare say I shall be found, after a night spent within these walls, a witless wreck whom you will be obliged to convey to Bedlam without more ado.”

With props to add to the sense of chaos of a neglected, crumbling mansion, notably in the decadent master bedroom, Dillon’s work resulted in a convincing Highnoons.

For the London scenes – also created at Denham – Dillon depicted architecture in the style of William Kent, who designed Horse Guards Parade, and she created views – seen through windows – of St James’ Park and the Treasury Building as in 1815. Props included a campaign sheet of the Peninsular War printed in 1815; a copy of The Morning Post borrowed from the British Museum, and some bombards, small shells used in the Battle of Copenhagen. Research was undertaken into the regiments stationed at Horse Guards in 1815 to ensure that the costumes were correct.

Overall, the film is an interesting addition to the history of British costume drama. It is particularly notable given its status as a very rare feature filmed based on a novel by Georgette Heyer – and, perhaps, answers the question “Why are books of this very popular author so rarely filmed?”

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

PictureShow, 13 May 1950