This morning has been spent doing my bit for the community, wielding a scanner in the local community shop, alongside someone dressed in red, uttering strange ‘Ho, ho, ho’ sounds who looked strangely familiar. A great way to wish my friends and neighbours ‘Season’s Greetings’. Everyone keeps asking me if I am ready for Christmas. Christmas I can do. Whether I am ready for the familial onslaught on 27th is another matter. At this point in time, most of the house is (by my standards) clean and tidy. I have achieved this by shoving all the junk in one room. This would work well if a small person didn’t have to sleep there. The excavation of sufficient space begins on Boxing Day. I really should be finishing an article this afternoon but this may have to wait until next year. I might just spend some ‘me’ time trawling for a few more third cousins.
I started at the beginning of December with twenty four authors in the historical novelists’ ‘hat’. I drew one out each day to determine the order in which I have introduced them to you. Today’s entry is south Devonian Michael Jecks. For his Templar series of books, we return to the Medieval period, where we find former Crusader Sir Baldwin and bailiff Simon solving mysteries in and around Dartmoor. Baldwin’s official title is Keeper of the King’s peace for the shire of Devon and it seems that there are plenty of incidents to keep him busy. The mystery element of these books is well crafted and it is rare that ‘who dunnit’ becomes obvious before the denouement. The history is well informed and the geographical setting is beautifully recreated, all the elements are therefore in place for an absorbing novel or, of course, in this case, whole series of novels – bliss. There really are enough excellent Devon authors for me to be able to ‘read local’ for several years!
I am sorry to those authors amongst my historical fiction collection who did not get included in my calendar; it is not a reflection of my opinion of your work, advent was just too short for everyone to get a mention. I have to say this series of advent blogs has led me to purchase rather more books than I like to admit, as I discovered new titles by favourite authors – now all I need is time to read them.
I don’t suppose many people have time to read (or indeed write) blog posts at this time of year but I committed to twenty four days of historical novelists and twenty four days thou shalt have. Today’s distraction was the ‘big’ birthday of my significant other. For the past month I have endeavoured to keep various secrets associated with the occasion. This has not been easy. You have no idea the difficulties I have had ensuring that the birthday boy was in the right place at the right time today and not dragging a boat up a slipway, or on his hands and knees cleaning a church. I had asked a few people back to my house to celebrate (or should that be commiserate) his great age. This required an unprecedented level of cleaning and tidying that immediately aroused suspicion. I have decided that I am really no good at subterfuge but the day seemed to pass off well.
Another great historical series for today’s novelist: the Morland saga by Cynthia Harrod Eagles. The thirty five books take this comfortably off family and their estate from The Founding in the time of the wars of the Roses to The Phoenix, which is set in the 1930s. Over the years, the family have links to succeeding generations of the royal family and we watch major events of British history unfold through the story of the Morland family. They become embroiled in the English Civil War, the Jacobite Rebellion, The Industrial Revolution, Suffragism, The First World War and many other key events. We follow one branch of the family to America, so the American Civil War also gets a look in. Family trees in the front of each book help the reader to keep track of the ever spreading clan. The number of characters is kept in check by unrealistically frequent marriages between cousins but I can forgive that. A little like Jean Plaidy, this series is a gentle way of familiarising yourself with historical chronology. Harrod Eagles has the advantage over Plaidy, in that she can work with fictional characters and is not constrained by writing solely about the lives of real people. Forget box-sets, give me a great historical saga any day. I am so glad that the original plan for twelve novels was expanded to thirty five. Harrod Eagles has now turned to writing mystery books but the original brief was to take the family to the Second World War, so we can hope there may be a few more still to come.
Sorry folks, it has been a day of cleaning, cooking and present wrapping, so not much time for blog writing. I will spare you the details of my cleaning regime! I am sure you don’t want to read about the gory details of my swirling ecologically sound cleaning products round toilet bowls. Cake icing then. I should explain that this is not some elaborate creation; I usually opt for a rough snow scene. Something strange happened to the texture of today’s efforts, which somewhat resembled rice pudding. That would be very runny rice pudding. It wasn’t quite as bad as the year when the icing was so lacking in substance that I ended up with a bald cake and a halo of icing on the plate but it was close. My present wrapping efforts were not of the most elegant but the majority of my recipients are not of an age to appreciate the finer points of envelope corners and delicate bows. Time to relax.
More Roman sleuths today in the shape of Lindsay Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco and her later creation, Flavia Alba. Between 1989 and 2010 Davis published twenty novels about the hapless Falco who, together with his sidekick Petronius from the vigils, attempts to solve murders and mysteries in the Roman world. Several of the novels are set in Italia but others take Falco across the Roman Empire, including Roman Britain. We first meet Falco in 70AD in The Silver Pigs. His stable but socially daring, relationship with senator’s daughter Helena Justinia follows the reader throughout the series and we watch their family grow over the years. The historical background is convincing and it is easy to picture Ancient Rome, from Falco’s perilous accommodation in Rome itself, to well known landmarks such as Pompeii and Bath. Falco’s nemesis the Emperor’s official spy, Anacritis, crops up in many of the books; the final one in the series is actually called Nemesis. There are other recurring characters, such as Thalia the exotic dancer. We also learn more about Falco’s own, slightly disreputable, family; these too become people we come to know and love. In fact the careful drawing of minor characters, such as Agatha the laundress, is one of Davis’ great strengths.
The heroine of Davis’ more recent books is Falco’s step daughter, Flavia Alba but somehow I can’t quite take to her as I did to Falco. In a rare departure from the Roman Empire, Davis wrote Rebels and Traitors, set during the English Civil War. Parliamentarian, Gideon Jukes, inhabits a believable seventeenth century world and you can absorb the social history woven within the fast-moving plot. A favourite author and a favourite time period – winner! PS her audio books are on offer this month
Christmas preparations are underway. Firstly, we are attempting to go some way towards toddler-proofing the house. We managed to acquire a couple of second hand but never used, stair gates, which, with luck, will stop small persons who are no longer entrapped in cots from endangering themselves. These were officially A Bargain but required screwing to the door frames in a semi-permanent fashion. As I am just about capable of not hurling myself down staircases (I hope this isn’t a case of famous last words) I was relieved to find that the gate parts are removable and I am not going to find myself crashing into barricades during nocturnal wanderings. The instructions had clearly been badly translated from an obscure foreign language but with very little profanity, one is now in situ, with the assembling of the second on tomorrow’s ‘to do’ list.
Sixty years ago my mother was hand crafting a large Christmas stocking from netting, bias-binding and ribbons. Actually, she was better organised than I, so it was probably sixty years and some months ago. I used it every year for twenty six years, then it passed to my daughter. Thirty years ago, having two daughters requiring stockings, I made one that resembled the first as closely as possible, using different coloured binding and decorative ribbons. My grandchildren have their own Christmas traditions when they are at home but at Granny’s, the stockings are again in use. So, another thirty years on and I am making a third stocking. Realistically, I suppose I might just still be here in thirty years. I wonder if there will be the need to make another then?
Making a third stocking was not without its complications. First I needed to assemble the raw materials. Net curtains seemed the way to go. As my house is hidden away I have no need for net curtains and none survived my last house move. Luckily a horder near me found not only a surplus to requirements net curtain but an alternative in the form of a prawn net. I was tempted by the prawn net but I thought that small fingers might get caught in the mesh and in the interests of making all three stockings as similar as possible, I went for the net curtain. Next bias-binding. Time was when I put a reel of cotton and a card of bias binding in my mum’s Christmas stocking each year; it became a standing joke and a family ritual. Unfortunately, I did not inherit the life-time’s supply of bias binding when she died. I used to get these from Woolworths. Woolworths is no more. Does bias binding even exist in the twenty-first century? I found a local fabric shop and keeping a low profile, kept an eye out for bias bonding. I didn’t want to make a complete fool of myself by asking for something that no one has used for twenty years. It seems it is still a thing, although you now buy lengths from a roll, phew. I am now in the process of hand sewing the binding what suddenly seems to be a very long way round the third generation stocking.
Another North Devon author is pulled from today’s advent box; there is so much talent in this county. Pamela Vass has written several books that are rooted in the Devon landscape. Seeds of Doubt is a novel that has the catastrophic 1952 Lynton and Lynmouth floods as its inspiration. Thirty four lives were lost in the flood, as the monthly rainfall was 250 times the normal level. Pamela’s novel is the product of careful research and reflects the actual speculation about what caused the tragedy; was it a freak weather incident or were there rainmakers at work? Shadow Child has Lundy Island as its setting and investigates the workings of Children’s Services as a young boy is abandoned in mysterious circumstances. Pamela has also written a biography of the computer pioneer Thomas Fowler in The Power of Three. She is currently working on another historical novel, Fire in the Belly: the North Devon Suffragettes. This is another opportunity for me to indulge my love of historical books and those with a local setting in a two for the price of one way, what a delight!
Well, today has been exhausting. Slightly delayed start (still in my pyjamas at 9.30am) because I got carried away with the hunt for third cousins. The more I do of this the more I am convinced that anyone who takes an autosomal (family finder) DNA test should be doing the same. Without verifying our documented trees down to at least our own generation, what use are all those suggested cousins going to be? I should make it clear I am being pretty thorough (ok, so I am a perfectionist – very thorough) about this and adopting the sorts of techniques used by probate researchers/heir hunters to trace living people. Actually, that is not quite true as I am doing it on a zero budget, so can’t order eleventy million certificates to prove or disprove theories. Apparently Ancestry estimate that the average person has 175 third cousins (Thanks to Debbie Kennett for that information). Obviously there are huge variations either side of that number and it looks like I am going to be at an extreme end of the scale. It was probably fitting that real ‘work’, when I got round to it, was finally finishing off the course that I’ve been preparing about C20th family and local history. I am now going to market it to anyone who has taken an autosomal DNA test!
Now for the advent calendar. This is a book I haven’t actually read yet but it looks so good that I am going to include it – shamelessly relying heavily on the blurb and other people’s reviews. It isn’t actually a novel either but the story of a family. The author has done exceptionally well to find a publisher for her family’s story in the days of the hobby’s boom. I remember when I first started, reading Marjorie Reeves Sheepbell and Plougshare – don’t read that unless you want to be seriously envious about the amount of family documents and memorabilia that she inherited. Others from that era were John Peters’ A Family from Flanders. Must also mention John Titford’s Come Wind, Come Weather but all these date from the 1970s and 1980s. Now the world and his wife are writing up their family stories getting one commercially published is next to impossible, which is why I think Alison Light’s Common People: the history of an English family is going to be something special. As the title suggests, Alison has woven and interesting story around the lives of ordinary people.
It is an opportunity to find out more about Victorian England in the throes of its industrial heyday and it is by setting her own family’s experiences into the broader context of their time that Alison has produced such a successful book. Now all I need is time to read it. I shall be recommending it to students on my Writing and Telling Your Family Story course – advert alert – you can register now for this – it starts at the end of February and it is online, so no excuses for those of you overseas.
I’ve been continuing to recheck the paper trail to identify as many of my third cousins as possible (people with whom I share a great great grandparent), prior to receiving my Family Finder DNA results in January. When a couple marry in 1863 and have eight children, you would expect that, more than 150 years later, there would be descendants scattered far and wide, well I would. This is my family we are talking about – not so. Today’s third cousin hunt centres on the descendants of my direct male line, great great grandparents William Braund aka Jeffery and Isabella Jane née Nicholls. They had six sons and two daughters. I concentrated on trying to establish how many of these siblings produced descendants in my generation i.e. my third cousins. I have rigorously researched this line in the past and today’s re-check confirmed that I have found all those who are there to be found (barring any illegitimate offspring who were a very well kept secret).
The boys were particularly easy to follow up: one died as a child, three never married, one had two sons but no grandchildren and the other was my own ancestor who produced me and only me, in my generation. That left the two daughters, one of whom died as a teenager. From the other there are just six third cousins, I have been in contact with the father of four of them for many years (my second cousin once removed) and I have found two of them on Facebook but not taken the plunge and made contact yet. It seems strange that so many branches of my family have shrunk and I have fewer third cousins than most people have first cousins. I guess it makes tracing them a more practical proposition.I’d be really interested in anyone else’s third cousin count.
We are in sixteenth century Cornwall with today’s historical novelist, Cheryl Hayden. Her story is based on the Prayer Book Rebellion, which is not one of the well known events of history but had a huge impact on the far south-west. It features the Winslade family, who were large landowners in Cornwall and in parts of Devon including the north-west, where I now live. There is romance and adventure bound up in the plot, which falls into the category of ‘faction’. Cheryl has a background in journalism, so her meticulously researched and well written account is not a surprise. The Cornish setting is particularly well drawn, with believable phrases and dialect. This is especially praiseworthy as the author is an Australian. She is also an academic historian and the Winslade family form part of her doctoral research. Academics are normally very reluctant to praise popular writing in their field, let alone fiction and the fact that this novel has attracted very positive comments from professors of Cornish Studies is a testament to Cheryl’s work. Reading this book immediately made me want to find out more about the events that form the backdrop to the story. I understand that there may be a second novel featuring the Winslades in the future; another for my wanted list.
Chuffed to find that my In-depth Genealogists’ blog post about twentieth century research was picked up as a favourite read of the week in the ‘writing’ category by the Family Locket blog. Yesterday was the annual Devon Family History Society (North Devon group) quiz. Six teams fought it out in rounds about Devon, Families, History and Societies, as well as identifying some of the many celebrities who have died during 2016. Proud to announce that my team were victorious, although I am not sure how valuable my contribution was.
Part of the loft clearing exercise has unearthed my untouched-for-ten-years teaching materials. In the unlikely event that I am ever called upon to teach GCSE history, geography or law (yes really, law – and no, I have no idea how that happened) again, the syllabuses will have changed beyond recognition, so it was time for a serious cull. There were twelve lever arch files rammed full of plastic wallet encased paper. I decided that, in the interests of the environment, the paper should be recycled and in the interests of economy, I should reuse the plastic wallets. I therefore enlisted the services of a trusty assistant and we began to extract paper from plastic wallets. If you think you know how long it takes to take paper from 1000+ (at a conservative estimate) plastic wallets you are wrong, it takes much longer. It is also a surprise how much room all those empty plastic wallets take up. I now have several lifetimes’ supply. Then there is the task of recycling the paper. Our weekly collection consists of whatever I can fit into a small plastic sack (not much). I have a cubic metre of the stuff. Simples, you might be thinking (if you are a meerkat) take it to the recycling centre, upend the large boxes into the appropriate skip and drive off into the distance. Ah, not so. All paper has to enter a skip through a slit the size of a large letter box. It is enough to put anyone off being green.
We are in Devon again for today’s historical novelist and the final genealogical sleuth of the advent calendar (there are others but there weren’t enough days). Wendy Percival has created a female genealogist in the shape of Esme Quentin, a thoroughly believable character who I hope will have a long career. The first book, Blood Tied, begins with the murder of an unidentified victim and unravels a sixty year old family mystery. The Indelible Stain takes us from a dying woman on a North Devon beach, to the story of a young girl’s transportation to Australia. Although Wendy has changed the names of her locations, they are recognisable to lovers of the North-west Devon coastline. What pleases me is that the genealogical methodology is believable. I don’t find myself screaming, ‘Why don’t you look at (insert a common record source here)’, as I do with some other authors of similar works. This is not surprising as Wendy is a keen family historian herself but the same can be said of other creators of fictional genealogists, whose careers and research techniques are much less believable. Highly recommended for lovers of mystery stories or family history. If, like me, you are a fan of both, you are on to a winning series.