Thursday, 30 December 2010

Kindle - a bonfire of this week's Kindling

My first four days of Kindling has been most interesting. As I mentioned in my last post, I find that the stuff I am downloading to Kindle is a complement to my print library not a replacement.

That book in many's eyes doth share the glory, that in gold clasps locks in the golden story
The one exception is a book which has long been lingering on my amazon wish list - The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson by the notorious Harriette Wilson. I was about to purchase the new (print) edition of this, when I found the original as a free downloadable ebook on the Internet Archive In some respects it's a disappointing version. Whatever software was used to scan the text into a digital format has scrambled some of the words. Where 'rn' is written, for example, it is consistently read as 'm'. The Marquess of Lorne (or Duke of Argyll) is therefore presented as Lome throughout the book. Luckily I'm familiar with most of the names she mentioned, so this doesn't bother me too much - but it was jarring for the first few pages. Pretty soon however, I stopped noticing it entirely. Harriette's voice is so fresh and funny that she has me caught up in her world before I realised what was happening. She is irreverent, tongue in cheek and contemporary in a way I would not have believed possible. It is absolutely fascinating. I am just at the start of her adventures, but I want more. Thank heavens to those gentlemen who, like Wellington, declared "Publish or be damned!" If they had all acquiesced to her blackmail demands, we would not be in the possession of such a wickedly amusing record of regency London's gentlemen.

The other book I am halfway through is Stephen King's On Writing. I would never have thought that a guide to writing could be so enthralling (though when I think about it, it stands to reason that it should be so). It's as much a gripping autobiography as it is an treatise on creative writing. I love it - it is completely unputdownable.

So that is a 5/5 rating for the two autobiographies so far, if typos are to be ignored.

I also downloaded and rapidly hoovered up Mary Jo Putney's The Wild Child - in fact it has the distinction of being the very first novel to make its way onto my Kindle. I am a latecomer to Ms Putney's work, but a big fan. I was pretty much blown away by the richness of her Silk series, especially Veils of Silk, which I loved. I didn't think the Wild Child was in the same league, being slightly dubious about Meriel's rapid recovery from the post traumatic stress which had kept her dumb and otherworldly for the best part of two decades. However, I did very much enjoy the blossoming romance and the unconventionality of both the hero and the heroine. They have a very believable attraction and Dominic, the hero, is particularly likable. Mary Jo Putney often touches upon unusual themes in her works (impotence and miscarriage to give two examples) and this novel is no exception, dealing with mental health and spirituality in an engrossing and non-didactic fashion. Even when not at her best (in my humble opinion), Mary Jo Putney is still really good. She just sets the bar high.

The other book I chomped by way through (as a Kindle freebie) was Cheryl Brooks' Slave. It's a science fiction erotic romance and to summarise, it deals with a cat/man former slave and a human woman who set off to rescue the woman's kidnapped sister on a planet which resembles a jolly soft-porn version of The Handmaid's Tale. In the midst of their adventures, Cat-Man manages to receive fellatio from a number from a number of alien women whilst our heroine looks on, smiles and allows a large number of men to masturbate on her beaky nose. Erotic? I laughed my socks off. I can't help but think the author did too. Dodgy erotica aside there is the blossoming of a rather sweet romance and it is that more than anything which kept me turning the pages and ultimately, enjoying the novel, despite the heroine's annoying cowboy-esque way of speaking. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for a sensitive souled cat-slave whose planet was destroyed because the men were too damn good at making love and had ecstasy inducing spunk. I didn't find it remotely erotic, but it was fun and I enjoyed it.

...a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...
Science Fiction is also a bit of a departure for me. I've always loved Science Fiction and Fantasy but haven't read much for years. One pleasurable aspect of Kindle has been reacquainting myself with the likes of Andre Alice Norton, Philip K Dick and J G Ballard. I've now got a ton of Science Fiction/Fantasy to work my way through and I'm also interesting in exploring the related romance genres. I've stumbled across a few blog posts of late which question whether Science Fiction/Fantasy romances should rightly be included in the 'best of romance' lists. I don't get that. A romance is a romance whether it takes place in the present, in the past, in outer space or amongst supernatural types. It's just two (or more!) people falling in love.

I would argue that there are a lot of similarities between supernatural romance, science fiction romance and historical romance. They all set their stories in a world removed from the every day, which enables us to suspend our disbelief and not to judge the characters by our own cultural touchstones. Perhaps that's the reason I'm not a great fan of contemporary romance; I find myself saying 'but people don't do that!' Setting the romance in a different world allows me to dispense with that type of incredulity. I can have a lot more fun.

O Joanna, Joanna, wherefore art thou, Joanna Bourne?
On a different note, my sad discovery about the Kindle (from a brief internet browse) is that it doesn't seem to support adobe epub files, which seems to be the format used by a lot of romance publishers for their e-book stores. Sadly, therefore, I've got some time to wait before I can download the Joanna Bourne novels I fancy. They aren't available on the UK Kindle store, worst luck, and after reading The Spymaster's Lady (a definite 5/5 from me) I am hungry for more.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Kindle for the Aspiring Romance Author

It was with trembling hands and huge excitement that I unwrapped my a large square Christmas present three days ago to find the graphite beauty that is my very own Kindle lying inside. I have long been curious about the Kindle and desirous of possessing one so it is arrival coincided with an avalanche of brownie points for my husband for his good taste. I immediately got stuck into browsing the Kindle Store and quickly downloaded my first Kindle book (Mary Jo Putney's The Wild Child).

Now, I am not a tech-head so I won't go into detail on how comfortable Kindle is to hold, or how it is easy on the eye and downloads at the speed of light. There are lots of places on the internet where reviews of that nature can be found.

I am more interested in working out how Kindle slots into my life and more importantly, my library. Will I be filling it with Georgette Heyer's (like my book shelves) and downloading the whole of my amazon wishlist?

The answer is... no. My amazon wishlist comprises books such as The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson and Sisters of Fortune - in other words, lots of biographies of 18th and 19th century women, explorers and adventurers. Sadly the Kindle Store seems rather thin on that sort of content. Furthermore, there aren't huge cost savings on the type of fiction I like to read. A Dorothy Dunnett for example, will set you back £14.99 on Kindle but can be picked up for £3.50 in the Amazon marketplace.

I pondered and scratched my head and then stumbled across the beauty that is free books. The Kindle Store has a ton of free books available for download. Pretty much any classic you care to think of - the Complete Works of Jane Austen; the Brontes. Those that aren't free are offered at negligible cost - £0.74 in many cases. Furthermore, once they are on your Kindle they are searchable. Want to find a reference to - for example - gold? You can search your world, browsing all your library in an instant.

The real gem for me, though, has been in the sheer volume of primary source material available online in Kindle compatible format. The truly genius idea that is Project Gutenberg (hats off to the volunteers there) offers more than 33,000 volumes online, much of which is 18th or 19th century literature and primary source material. Memoirs and observations from the likes of Charles Greville, Captain Gronow and the Marquise de Montespan can all be downloaded in an instant and for free, making for the most wonderful repository of material for anyone interested in that period. Some of the titles which can be found in the Kindle store or on other Kindle compatible sites are out of print, making them all the more precious. Another great site is The Internet Archive on which I did actually find The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson. One word of caution though - many books which are free on Amazon USA store are not on the UK store, which is somewhat disappointing.

I have also fallen in love with the opportunity Kindle provides to sample books before I buy them. Instead of having to assess whether I want a book from the synposis and the opinion of other reviewers, I can try a couple of chapters and see whether it is actually what I'm looking for. Lots of books are offered by Amazon for free (often on a time limited basis), which means it is possible to sample new authors allowing for a lot more experimentation and potentially some interesting avenues of reading. I've just finished one such freebie which was the first novel by Cheryl Brooks, which I enjoyed enough for me to keep an eye out for her in the future.

I also love Kindle's integration with the world of forums, blogging and twitter. It's interesting to see what's hovering up the bestseller lists with huge numbers of downloads - often not what you would expect. I was interested to see just how popular the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is: more than 5,000 downloads from Project Gutenberg to date. Clearly I am not the only one interested in knowing an addlepate from an arbor vitae.

I am looking forward to many more adventures with my Kindle - a complement rather than a replacement for my print library, but no less wondrous for all of that.

Useful Links:

Kindle Users Forum: for tips, discussions and a heads up on the latest freebies from Amazon

Project Gutenberg: for more than 33,000 free books and other resources. The website is supported by donations.

The Internet Archive: for a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form, free for researchers, scholars and the general public. The website is a registered charity.

Feedbooks: for original books and free public domain books. This is a reviewed site on the Kindle User Forum.

E-books re-write bookselling: an article on the Wall Street Journal on the impact of e-books and readers like Kindle on publishing companies.

Idea Logical: a blog on the future of the e-publishing industry

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Lady Entrepreneurs of the Regency Period

"To remain single was thought a disgrace and at thirty an unmarried woman was called an old maid. After their parents died, what could they do, where could they go? If they had a brother, as unwanted and permanent guests, they might live in his house. Some had to maintain themselves and then, indeed, difficulty arose. The only paid occupation open to them a gentlewoman was to become a governess under despised conditions and a miserable salary. None of the professions were open to women; there were no women in Government offices; no secretarial work was done by them."- Louisa Garrett Anderson (daughter of pioneering physician, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson) on attitudes to women in the 1860s

The experiences of working class and upper and middle class women in 18th and 19th England were vastly different, but they had this much in common: it was difficult for them to earn money of their own - and when they did it wasn't their own. Prior to the 1882 Married Property Act, a woman's wealth passed to her husband upon her marriage - so did her any money she might earn after her marriage. Affluence did not therefore guarantee power and influence, as Wendy Moore's excellent biography of heiress Mary Bowes demonstrates with devastating impact.

Women did work; by 1851 women comprised 30% of England's workforce. However, generally speaking they worked in low skill, poorly paid jobs. In 1780 women earned about 5 shillings a week and men made 10 to 15 a week - three times as much. The industrial revolution changed the pattern of work for working class women. Before the onset of the industrial revolution, women worked in rural roles alongside their family members, labouring in fields and orchards. By the mid-1800s, they were heavily employed in the factories, providing a cheap, adaptable workforce. 50% of all workers in textiles factories were women. Other industries included pottery, confectionary, breweries, laundry, retail and sewing. Many working class women lived at the poverty line. In the mid-1800s, Henry Mayhew uncovered the working conditions of some of these women:

"I am a shirt-maker, and make about three shirts a day, at 2 1/2d a piece, everyone of them having seven buttonholes. I have to get up at six int he morning, and work till twelve at night to do that. I buy threads out of the price; and I cannot always get work. I am now living with a young man. I am compelled to do so, because I could not support myself... Sometimes we have been for two days with a bit of bread and cold water."

As the quotation at the top of this post demonstrates, the lot of upper and middle class women was not much better. They might be able to eat, but they could not support themselves. They were largely dependent on the goodwill of their menfolk, and any marriage was felt to be preferable to none despite the risks involved in an unwise match. Women, after all, belonged to their husbands along with all their worldly goods. Male adultery, for example, was not grounds for divorce and if a woman did leave her husband her children belonged to him. She did not even have the right to see them. The account of Mary Eleanor Bowes' violent marriage to Andrew Stoney demonstrates just how difficult it was for a woman to extricate herself from even the most horrendous of situations.

Given the challenges involved in women making and keeping money, and in their gaining power and influence in their own right, I am always absolutely fascinated when I stumble across examples of female entrepreneurs. I referred in an earlier post to Teresa Cornelys, who established the masquerade in England with her fabulous events at Carlisle House. This week I came across two other examples of women with successful 19th century careers in both traditional and non-traditional female industries.

The first I stumbled across in Douglas Hill's Regency London, a great little guide to some of London's regency gems. The guide reads: "note also the 'Coade stone' doorways (a special composition material whose basic ingrediants remained a secret throughout the widespread use of it in late Georgian building)." The reference was enough to intrigue me to dig further. Imagine my surprise when I found that Coade stone was the invention and product of not a Mr Coade, but a Mrs Coade - Mrs Eleanor Coade.

Mrs Eleanor Coade (1733 - 1821)

Mrs Coade was not, in fact, a married woman at all. She used the title Mrs in business circles, presumably because it provided her with greater status and respectability.

Eleanor Coade was the brains behind the Coade stone empire. She called her product, Lithodipyra a pseudo-Greek name which referred to the twice-fired process of its creation. Coade stone was a kind of ceramic and one which was used widely in the building boom of the Regency period, particularly by Robert Adam. The wikipedia entry for Coade stone tells us:

"The showrooms of Mrs Coade's Artificial Stone Company, in Westminster Bridge Road, provided a huge array of 'off the shelf' solutions for builders and architects, ranging from small keystones for over front doors to corner and window features and almost entire fa├žades. The factory was in Lambeth, London, where the Royal Festival Hall now stands."

Mrs Coade was not without rivals. Richard Holt was already manufacturing (a different) artificial stone in the area of her factory and around 1730 Holt was in "a business and advertising war" with another business man, Batty Langley. In 1767, David Picot announced he had set up "a manufacture of artificial stone" and George Davy also ran similar adverts. Despite being a woman in a male dominated field, both Mrs Coade and her stoneware enterprise were more successful and longer lasting than any of her competitors. She outlasted them all, numbering amongst her clients George III.

She died in 1821, aged 89 leaving bequests to the Baptist minister at Lyme Regis, the Independent Minister and the Church of England Vicar. The bequests were for distribution amongst the poor.

Mrs Bell

My second female entrepreneur was a married woman both in name and in truth. Her husband is well known to all fans of Regency fashion as the brains behind the much cited La Belle Assemblee: Bell's Court and Fashionable Magazine - the Regency equivalent of Vogue. La Belle Assemblee frequently showed designs invented by Mrs Bell - Mr Bell's better half. Mrs Bell was a top London milliner and modiste, with fashionable premises (initially) on Upper King Street, Covent Garden. Her products ranged from bridal gowns to riding habits.

Mrs Bell's designs included the 'Chapeau Bras' - a hood which folded away into a bag and the bandage corset, which was worn by no less than the Duchess of Kent, to support her stomach when pregnant with Queen Victoria.

In 1824, Mrs Bell ramped up her self publicity by becoming director of The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons, another Mr Bell production. Another elegant monthly magazine, its editorial comment provided considerable advertisement for Mrs Bell's latest shop the Magazin des Modes at 3 Cleveland Road opposite St James Palace.

Mr and Mrs Bell's clever publicity and promotion ensured that they gained and maintained pole-position as both fashion retailers and trend-setters in the Regency World.

I love stories about women like Mrs Bell and Mrs Coade who, married or unmarried, managed to find success and credibility in their own right in a society where the odds were stacked against them. Their stories are fantastic tinder for the imagination - a basis for future heroines! I'm not the only one interested in female entrepreneurs of yesteryear - last year, Kingston University ran a competition looking for nominations of inspiring female entrepreneurs through history. The full list of twelve is here.

Mrs Coade
Hill, Douglas, Discovering London 7: Regency London
Kelly, Alison Mrs Coade's Stone, as reproduced on The Churchmouse Website.

Mrs Bell
Ashelford, Jane, The Art of Dress: Clothes through history 1500-1914

Women in the 19th Century
Ashelford, Jane, The Art of Dress: Clothes through history 1500-1914
Thompson, E.P., Yeo, Eileen, The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from the Morning Chronicle 1849-50.
BBC History
Marriage in the 19th Century (Spartacus)
Roles of Women in the Industrial Revolution

Monday, 6 December 2010

A Regency Frost or How to Celebrate the Snow

"Edinburgh - The frost is still intense, and the fall of snow has been so deep in the Southern parts of the country, that the different mails have arrived with difficulty, and much behind their usual time."
- The Annual Register, or A View of History, Politics and Literature for the Year 1814

Today I really found myself longing for a sledge. In early November, the shelves in every hardware store were teeming with them. By close of play on the first day of snow, they were bare. I was too slow. For the last fortnight, I have paid the price for my lack of action as I have been carrying, cajoling or dragging (in a buggy) my recalcitrant three year old through the icy wastes of snow and ice which were once called pavements in Edinburgh. We are snow bound and Edinburgh has transformed itself into Narnia (though strictly speaking, I haven't yet heard any animals speak).

The weather got me to wondering how our 19th century ancestors coped with the big freezes of their generations? Living in houses without central heating and adorning themselves in the prevailing fashion for thin muslin dresses, did they not shiver themselves to death? What did they do to entertain themselves?

Without a doubt there were big freezes. The period between the 16th and 19th centuries is commonly known as 'The Little Ice Age'. The severe winters and wet summers which occurred frequently throughout this period had a dramatic impact on agriculture, social unrest and health in certain parts of Europe and North America.
“Caesar was ne’er so much your enemy as that same ague which hath made you lean”
- Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, 2.2.24-25

One of the diseases commonly referred to in historical and fictional texts from the period is ague: fevers and chills which correspond to the symptoms of malaria (odd to think of a tropical disease spreading in a cold climate). People also suffered from malnutrition and hypothermia.

But of course it wasn't all bad. Human beings are resourceful and the merchants of London more so than most. The Little Ice Age made possible one of the most evocative entertainments of the 19th Century: The Last Frost Fair of 1813-1814.

In 1813-14 the Thames froze over. The February entry for the Annual Register of 1814 describes the river's condition as follows:

(Feb 1st) "The Thames, between Blackfriars and London Bridges, continued to present the novel scene of persons moving on the ice in all directions and in greatly increased numbers..... we observed several booths erected on it [the ice] for the sale of small wares; but the publicans and spirit dealers were most in receipt of custom."

It goes on to write:
(Feb 3rd) "The number of adventurers increased. Swings, book-stalls, dancing in a barge, suttling-booths, playing at skittles, and almost every appendage of a fair on land appeared on the Thames. Thousands flocked to the spectacle. The ice presented a most picturesque appearance. The view of St. Paul's and of the city, with the white foreground, had a very singular effect ; in many parts mountains of ice upheaved, resembled the rude interior of a stone quarry."

(Feb 4th) "Each day brought a fresh accession of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost. The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted to the fair; and something also was expected for permission to return."

Other sources suggest that the enterprising watermen broke up the ice, forcing people into paying the entrepreneurial men of the Thames into ferrying them back to shore after their wintry entertainments.

There is a long a glorious history of Frost Fairs on the Thames. The first recorded frost fair was in 1564 and featured Londoners dancing on the ice and archery being practiced. Subsequent fairs added wild beast shows, commemorative prints and inspired verses and etchings in their honour. One verse printed at the Frost Fair of 1684 is as follows (extract):
"Behold the Wonder of this present Age,
A Famous RIVER now become a Stage.
Question not what I now declare to you,
The Thames is now both Fair and Market too.
And many Thousands daily do resort
There to behold the Pastime and the Sport."

- Printed by M.Haly, and J.Millet, and sold by Robert Waltor, at the Globe on the North-side of St.Pauls-Church, near that end towards Ludgate. 1684. The full verse can be viewed online at the Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide website entry on Frost Fairs.

The Frost Fair was made possible by the old (medieval) London Bridge. The medieval bridge had 19 small arches, and the narrowness of the arches meant that it acted as a partial barrage over the Thames, restricting water flow and thereby making the river more susceptible to freezing over in winter because of the slower currents. The construction of the new London Bridge in 1831 increased the flow of the river and diminished the likelihood of freezing and thus, of Frost Fairs.

The most recent mention of the Frost Fair I have come across is in the dashing entrance of Ben, Lord Hawksmoor in Nicola Cornick's thoroughly enjoyable Lord of Scandal. Well worth a look!

Sadly, the era of the true Thames Frost Fairs is therefore past - destroyed along with the old London Bridge long before Health and Safety legislation could make it an impossibility. Of course, that doesn't mean we can't find ways to entertain ourselves.

The severe winters of the Little Ice Age are also credited with the flowering of certain strains of literature. In 1816, known as The Year Without a Summer; The Poverty Year; Year There Was No Summer; and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death, severe summer climate abnormalities destroyed crops in Northern Europe, the Northeastern United States and eastern Canada. Many Europeans spent the summer huddled around the hearth entertaining themselves as best they could.
We will each write a ghost story.
- Lord Byron

In 1816, at Byron's rented house by Lake Geneva (the Villa Diodati), Byron and his physician Dr Polidori met with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley) and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The literary neighbours read aloud from Tales of the Dead an English Anthology of horror. Inspired, they accepted Byron's challenge and embarked on their own stories. The two most successful have become hugely influential - arguably spawning genres in their own right. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Dr Polidori's The Vampyre broke new ground for horror writing in the English language and sowed the seeds for much supernatural fiction today.

I may not have a sledge or a Frost Fair but I do have a fireplace and an imagination. Now repeat after me, We will each write a ghost story....