Emma-Jane Austin and a Regency Ball

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The Joy of Creation

One of the joys of writing fiction is that you can create your own versions of real places.

And you can give your characters the abilities, relationships and possessions that you would rather like yourself.  Just as Dorothy L Sayers admitted that she gave her creation Lord Peter Wimsey the car and carpets that she couldn’t afford when she was an embryonic author, I have also delighted in giving my fictional characters the adventures and acquisitions that are beyond me.  Like Sayers I too have created my own Oxford colleges and lordly piles for my characters to inhabit.  I suspect it’s more fun than owning the real things – you have a lot of the enjoyment with none of the responsibility.  As I face the reality of cleaning and repairs in my own little house, it’s fantastic to be able to conjure up my own equivalents of Sayers’ Shrewsbury College in Oxford or Duke’s Denver in the Fens.

But here I want to introduce you to more about this process of fictive creation, with the specific example of how I went about ‘building’ the ancient mansion and estate of Highfield Hall in north Nottinghamshire for Emma-Jane Austin and her book club to visit in ‘Night and Mr Knightley’.  Her reading group, called the Rotics (Ro-man-tics without the ‘man’!), needed to enjoy a glamorous regency ball and I needed a luxurious location that was suitably grade-listed and gothic for the main murder of the story to take place.

I like to use real places wherever possible in my Oxford and Nottingham murder mysteries.  But sometimes for the murder itself it can be less stressful to create one’s own setting, either because the murder has specific requirements that aren’t easily available in reality, or because as an author you don’t want the owners or managers of a real place on your case!  I did check with the librarians at Bromley House Library in Nottingham that it was OK to have a body in their august library for ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’, the first Rotic Club mystery.  But ideally I wanted a large stately home in Nottinghamshire in which to stage the first death in the sequel.

Thoresby Hall

I searched the web for Nottinghamshire stately homes and the most suitable for my purposes seemed to be Thoresby Hall in Budby, near Ollerton.  It won on both Location and History.  I changed to name to ‘Highfield Hall’, taken from the eighteenth century Highfields House in Beeston which is now part of the University of Nottingham campus, but which was too small and in the wrong location for my purposes.  But I had a sentimental attachment to the name, as “going on Highfields” when I was a child meant a trip to the beautiful park that surrounds the university buildings – playing in the Lido or taking a boat out on the lake and feeding the ducks, surrounded by swaying trees and rhododendrons in every possible colour. 

But back to Thoresby Hall. 

As with most stately homes in the UK, Thoresby Hall has had many incarnations over the centuries.  The current building was built in 1864-71 by Anthony Salvin for Sydney Pierrepont, third Earl Manvers.  It’s in the area of north Nottinghamsire known as ‘the Dukeries’ as it’s one of four grade-listed mansions all owned at some point by Dukes.  The first member of the Pierrepont family to own the Thoresby lands was Robert, first Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull back in 1633, but he died in the Civil War in the 1640s.  His son the second Earl built a large house around 1670 and the park was created by enclosing land from Sherwood Forest.

As with many stately homes, it was destroyed by fire, this time in 1746.  The new build was about twenty five years later and the park was landscaped by no less than Humphrey Repton.

But some people are never satisfied.  The third Earl Manvers tore this house down and paid Salvin to build the new one in Elizabethan Revival style, slightly to the north of the original.

And in this story of a typical English stately home, the inevitable happened when the sixth Earl died without a male heir and the title became extinct in 1955, and the house became a hotel.  It is now owned by Warner Leisure and has 200 rooms and a spa.

I was immediately attracted by some photos online of the house lit up at night, which made me think of Halloween, the night of the regency ball in my novel.  It gave me the idea of having eerie green, orange and purple lighting with black spiders’ webs projected onto the front of the building to greet the guests as they arrived.

I also liked the idea of a balcony or minstrels’ gallery in the ballroom and a patio with steps onto the lawns at the back with french window leading into the ballroom – all ready for a zombie invasion at midnight!


Using a website like www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk means that you can learn a lot of architectural terms referring to your chosen building.  For example, Thoresby Hall has decorative iron cresting, a chamfered plinth, and quoins with chamfered rustication, mullioned casements, gabled dormers, obelisk finials, and corner cupolas.  You don’t have to include these in your story, as it’s unlikely Emma-Jane or one of her friends would suddenly exclaim: ‘Wow, look at that chamfered plinth!’  But it’s nice to know.  Apparently the Hall also has a “deep frieze”, but obviously not the sort in which you can store a body!

Making a Map

There was a useful map of the grounds of Thoresby Hall on its website. But I needed to landscape my own grounds, with appropriate maze and woods and summer houses, for the murder plot to work.  So I drew a rough map of the grounds around my version of the hall with handy reminders, such as where I wanted the security cameras situated.

I decided to call the various rooms that the guests would be using after the names of colours, eg. the Purple Room, the Blue Breakfast Room, etc.  This was before I read Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Red Masque’ in which he does the same thing, although his are arguably more scary!  In my story, the grand house has already been converted by the mega-wealthy Fairford family into a hotel-cum-spa, apart from their own private apartments of course.  A pity that the ‘Curse of the Fairfords’ means they might not enjoy it for long…


Using a real building and its grounds as my inspiration certainly gave me confidence in setting out the basic description and boundaries of my own design.  It meant I had something ‘concrete’ in my mind all the time (even though Thoresby Hall is made from “rock-faced ashlar” – finely dressed stone), and there was a sense of realism as I had my characters moving around the place and having their adventures.  It was particularly useful for keeping the timeline of the murder on track and all the alibis as I could look at my map of Highfield Hall and visualise very easily where everyone was supposed to be at any particular moment.  I would definitely recommend drawing your own map even if you are using a real building or place with no alterations, as you can add your own details and timings to it that can easily get forgotten or confused as you write your book over several months.  There were crucial details over the location of bushes and security cameras for ‘Night and Mr Knightley’ that would have been disastrous if I had muddled them up!

So I hope the original architects of Thoresby Hall don’t mind me borrowing details from their beautiful building.  I really enjoyed adding my own fountains and statues and flowerbeds and spending time at my very own regency masked ball, even if I also then had to invent the murder that made the Halloween theme become a bit too real for Emma-Jane and her Mr Knightley…

To explore Highfield Hall with Emma-Jane Austin and the Rotic Club, you can go to:

Children and Masks in Literature

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The subject of home-schooling and the wearing of masks for children has been unavoidable recently.  It reminded me of the experience of the Brontë children, when being raised by their clergyman father Patrick.

When his wife died in 1821, he suddenly became a single parent of six small children.  He had to ask the same questions as many parents today.  How to teach these small people and prepare them for the future?  How to inculcate moral values and encourage healthy relationships?  How to get to know them better – to know what they’re really like?

Lessons from Patrick Brontë

Patrick tells us of an idea he came up with in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell. Many years later, was wanting to write the biography of her friend and Patrick’s oldest surviving daughter, Charlotte:

“When my children were very young, when, as far as I can remember, the oldest was about ten years of age, and the youngest about four, thinking that they knew more than I had yet discovered, in order to make them speak with less timidity, I deemed that if they were put under a sort of cover I might gain my end; and happening to have a mask in the house, I told them all to stand and speak boldly from under cover of the mask.” [1]

This startled me when I first read it a few years ago.  Why would wearing a mask make the children more honest and forthcoming?  We tend to associate masks with hiding and disguising.  Would this actually work in drawing the children out?  Judge for yourself.  Patrick continues:

“I began with the youngest (Anne, afterwards Acton Bell), and asked what a child like her most wanted; she answered, ‘Age and experience.’  I asked the next (Emily, afterwards Ellis Bell), what I had best do with her brother Branwell, who was sometimes a naughty boy; she answered, ‘Reason with him, and when he won’t listen to reason, whip him.’  I asked Branwell what was the best way of knowing the difference between the intellects of man and woman; he answered, ‘By considering the difference between them as to their bodies.’  I then asked Charlotte what was the best book in the world; she answered, ‘The Bible.’  And what was the next best; she answered, ‘The Book of Nature.’  I then asked the next what was the best mode of education for a woman; she answered, ‘That which would make her rule her house well.’  Lastly, I asked the oldest what was the best mode of spending time; she answered, ‘By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity.’  I may not have given precisely their words, but I have nearly done so, as they made a deep and lasting impression on my memory.  The substance, however, was exactly what I have stated.” [2]

Perhaps to us these answers from young children sound more like some weird catechism than the free-flowing thoughts of children.  Were they just saying what they thought their clergyman father wanted to hear?  Of course we can’t possibly tell, even if we had been there at the time.  And of course there is the added fact that the Brontë children were in all probability child geniuses, three of whom would go on to write some of the greatest novels in the English language.  Even with our more ‘enlightened’ views in some respects, we might not be quite in their league!  But there is the reminder in the names included in brackets after the girl’s names that they would later feel compelled to write under male names in order to get an audience, in other words, by wearing a masculine mask.

But I was also intrigued by Patrick having a mask lying about the house.  Where was this from?  Had he gone to a masked ball with his young wife in happier days?  It was researching the subject of masked balls for my latest novel Night and Mr Knightley that made me look into the subject in the first place.  What sort of a mask was it – an ordinary black domino mask, or a tribal wooden carving?  Its appearance – and how scary it was – might well have an effect on how confident the children would feel in making their replies.  I was also surprised at the idea of a mask being used to help children become more up front about their real selves.  Was that a realistic expectation?  They would still be looking into their father’s eyes.  They would still have to live with him and their siblings the moment the mask was removed, still be in an adult’s power.

Mrs Gaskell concluded that it was a “curious education which was made by the circumstances surrounding the Brontës.  They knew no other children.  They knew no other modes of thought than what were suggested to them by the fragments of clerical conversation which they overheard in the parlour, or the subjects of village and local interest which they heard discussed in the kitchen.  Each had their own strong characteristic flavour. They took a vivid interest in the public characters, and the local and the foreign as well as home politics discussed in the newspapers.  Long before Maria Brontë died, at the age of eleven, her father used to say he could converse with her on any of the leading topics of the day with as much freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person…. Wild, strong hearts, and powerful minds, were hidden under an enforced propriety and regularity of demeanour and expression, just as their faces had been concealed by their father, under his stiff, unchanging mask.” [3]

Perhaps a good exam question might be: ‘Illustrate the pros and cons of home education for children using the example of the Brontës’!  Gaskell obviously interprets the use of the mask as a symbol of repression.  More useful for them was the overhearing of adult conversation in the home, both of professional clergy and servants, all steeped in local life.  The reading aloud of books and newspapers and family discussion of the issues of the day made for mental stimulation and broadening of outlook.  But just that phrase “they knew no other children” chills our hearts.  Yet look what they became!  Gaskell reminds us of their “wild, strong hearts, and powerful minds” that emerged from this strange process.

A later reference to Charlotte and masks is from her adult experience in Belgium when she is taken to a Carnival, marking the beginning of Lent.  There were masked characters and she was singularly unimpressed:

“The Carnival was nothing but masking and mummery.  M. Héger took me and one of the pupils into the town to see the masks.  It was animating to see the immense crowds, and the general gaiety, but the masks were nothing.” [4]

Hopefully not too traumatised by childhood experience then! I used Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre as a basis for my first Rotic Club murder mystery Murder and Mr Rochester, which of course reflects her great love for the Monsieur Héger who took her to see this parade of masks.

My second Rotic Club novel uses Jane Austen’s novel Emma as a starting point but it is in this one that I make use of the theme of mask-wearing and deception at a masked ball, a trope so loved by Golden Age mystery writers. You can see this reflected in the number of masks on the cover of Night and Mr Knightley!

Warnings from C S Lewis

Almost a hundred years later another Irish writer was making use of the concept of masks in the education of children. 

But the way C S Lewis utilised the wearing of a mask in his first novel Pilgrim’s Regress, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, is very different to the more sanguine and hopeful attitude of Patrick Brontë.  In this allegory, the little boy John is taken from playing in the fields and put into ugly uncomfortable clothes to visit the Steward (clergyman).  He is the local representative of the Landlord (God).  John has to sit still and be very good in the Steward’s big dark stone house.  His parents seem very grave and intimidated there, but at first the old Steward seems jolly and friendly.  He talks to the little boy about fishing and bicycles to the extent that John almost feels normal with him and relaxes.

“But just as the talk was at its best, the Steward got up and cleared his throat.  He then took down a mask from the wall with a long white beard attached to it and suddenly clapped it on his face, so that his appearance was awful.” [5}

The Steward then speaks to John in a sing-song hypnotic voice about how good the Landlord is to let them live on his land.  He gives the little boy a card with lots of rules written in small print: “half of the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing…”  There were also far too many to remember.  But just when John is despairing, the Steward whips the mask off “and looked at John with his real face” and advised him to lie about it all anyway.  He then “popped the mask on his face all in a flash” and threatens John with ending up in a black hole full of snakes and lobsters if he disobeys any of the rules and emphasises the goodness of the Landlord again.  John of course is terrified and doesn’t understand anything else the Steward says, apart from as he leaves when the Steward again takes off the mask and tells him not to bother about it all.

Lewis is here of course reflecting the very mixed messages and awkward teaching that he received as a child at church.  In this allegory, the parents abdicate responsibility for teaching their child about God themselves and instead leave him to the ambiguous moral advice and complex theological teaching of local clergy.  John is later given a little mask to wear at what is effectively the death of his “disreputable Uncle George”, who trembles so much before his eviction (death) that a mask will not stay on him and everyone “had to see his face as it was” which was too dreadful for them and they all looked away.

Later in the story, John as an adult meets Mr Halfways who has a long flowing beard and looks rather like the Steward but John is pleased to see that he doesn’t need a mask because “his face is really like that.”  A caricature of the Steward’s mask is later used by characters who want to mock their religious upbringing.

Lewis went on to use the idea of masks and veils in his final novel Till We Have Faces, in which religious leaders also use masks to hide who they really are to gain power over others, or as a way of transcending the self.  Apparently the original title favoured by Lewis for this book was Bareface, but the final title came from Orual asking near the end of the story concerning the gods: “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” [6]  To be our real selves and speak the truth is the only way we can truly relate to God and others and have meaningful relationships.

Sadly we are living in a time when masks are necessary to protect our health, but it does seem particularly poignant when it is forced on children who are still in the early stages of forming their characters and relationships.  We certainly seem to be ambivalent about mask-wearing, judging from the way they are used in literature, either literally or metaphorically.  Both Patrick Brontë and C S Lewis would have known from their classical and Biblical studies that a mask-wearer is ‘hypokrites’, an actor who wears a mask,

who pretends in public to be someone they aren’t and that Jesus was particularly stern in his warnings to religious and political leaders to avoid this sin against God, the self, and others.

A Cry from Paul Laurence Dunbar

And just as mask-wearing has become compulsory for so many, it is still psychological necessity for those who feel oppressed, who feel the need to hide their true selves from others behind a false public persona because of their gender, race or class. 

This has rarely been expressed more powerfully than by the American Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar at the end of the nineteenth century, in words that tell an uncomfortable truth for children and adults alike:

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

       We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

       We wear the mask!” [7]


At a time of global mask-wearing, Patrick Bronte’s desire that his children should learn to “speak with less timidity” so that he could get to know them better, C S Lewis’ goal that we should not need masks in order to look good because our faces are “really like that”, so that God and others can “meet us face to face” in reality, and Dunbar’s cry for relief to Christ from the pain of the need for a false outer self for protection – all of these are sentiments and stances that we can own today for our children and ourselves, even if we use different methods.  We all long for the one who truly sees us, who calls us forth, who won’t harm us in our vulnerability when we are “barefaced”, but who will meet us with love.

“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  (I John 3:2)

Till the Time Without Masks then, Till We Have Faces…

[For more on Jeanette Sears’ latest books, see the WELCOME page on this website or go straight to her Amazon page]


[1]  Elisabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, 1857.

[2]  ibid.

[3]  ibid.

[4]  ibid., quoting a letter from Charlotte Bronte, dated March 6, 1843.

[5]  C S Lewis, Pilgrim’s Regress, 1933.

[6]  C S Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 1956.

[7] Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘We Wear the Mask’ from Lyrics of a Lowly Life, 1896.


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“ ‘How can a poor policeman compete?  You can take the village lid off and see how the wheels are going round.  Gladys and Allan are people to you.  You know their relations to the ninth and tenth degree, where I don’t even know they exist!’ “

This is Chief Constable Randal March speaking to an elderly lady who knits and asks questions and observes and deduces and solves murder mysteries before the police.  Is it Miss Marple?  No.  It’s Miss Maud Silver in Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1951), the third of the 32 Miss Silver novels.

It’s easy to get tied up in comparing Marple and Silver, but thankfully several other people have already done this, so that’s one less thing on the To Do list [1].  To put it briefly, the two characters appeared almost simultaneously in the late 1920s, with Marple just pipping the post in a short story of 1927 [2] but Silver beating her to novel form in 1928 [3].  Presumably this means that Wentworth’s creation may predate Christie’s in terms of the actual writing.

The Author

Like so many Golden Age authors of detective fiction, the name ’Patricia Wentworth’ was of course a pseudonym.  The ‘Wentworth’ came from the middle name of a stepson who had been killed in the First World War.  In real life, Dora Amy Elles was born in 1877 in Missourie, India, to a British military family – her father was a General and her mother a Lady.

As with many empire children, she was sent back to England to be educated.  She married twice, both times to Lt Colonels called George.  She had one daughter of her own as well as the stepsons.  After her first husband’s death in 1906 she moved to Camberley in Surrey, won a prize for her first novel in 1910 (an astonishing 250 guineas) for a romance of the French Revolution called A Marriage under Terror.

But we have to wait till 1928 for the first book with Miss Silver.  That was Grey Mask, then came a long gap while she experimented with other characters.

It was almost 10 years before The Case is Closed was published (1937), followed more closely by Lonesome Road (1939).

But it was during the Second World War that we see her Miss Silver production rocket, often more than one book a year, so most belong to the 1940s and 50s.  The final one The Girl in the Cellar was published in 1961, the year of Wentworth’s death at the age of 82.

Miss Maud Silver

Miss Maud Silver is a former governess and teacher who runs her own solo detective agency.  She is a reassuring figure from the past who likes to knit and quote Tennyson.  She has her own flat and office, uses business cards and charges fees for her work – a real professional.  She is particularly good at helping the relatively wealthy middle class, injured by lost love, war, theft, or some form of abuse, and sorting out their broken lives.  The books read like an Elizabeth Goudge novel with detection, or an Ethel Lina White story of a woman in jeopardy – but this time people get a spinster knitter to the rescue!

The Plot

Miss Silver Comes to Stay is the sixteenth book in the series.  Miss Silver has planned an innocent trip to see an old school friend in the country, but of course this not how things turn out.  The main character, an attractive middle-aged woman called Rietta Cray, first spots Miss Silver in the local village store. “She looked less like a detective than anyone Rietta could have imagined… the little lady who looked like a governess…” – probably because Miss Silver had indeed enjoyed twenty years “in the scholastic profession” [4].  Inevitably Miss Silver is drawn into solving the mystery of the murder of James Lessiter which is shortly to take place, even though its roots go back twenty five years.  He has inherited Melling House from his mother who previously let distant relative Catherine Welby live in the gate house of the manor and gave her some furniture and precious items – or did she only lend them?  James intends to find out and get them back, which means  Catherine is now in financial trouble.  And does Rietta’s nephew, Carr Robertson, have a very good reason to hate James?  And have servants or their offspring also been stealing from him?  When James goes to the family solicitor for help in sorting it all out, he might get more than he bargained for.

There are lots of clues spread around in these complicated relationships, plus in the steadily revealed timetable of who visited James on that last night and for what reason.  I found it easy to get involved and start rooting for the characters as Wentworth describes them like intimate friends.  The setting is also so very well realised.  I’m glad to say that I was so involved that I didn’t notice who ‘did’ it, as in fact it was very well hidden.  I got the feel of “this hard post-war world” [5] and felt invested in the fate of the characters.  One sub-plot was particularly interesting – the revived romance between Carr and Elizabeth Moore.  This in particular reminded me of an Elizabeth Goudge novel.  After years apart, involving war and other relationships with the wrong people, they were together at last:

 ‘Elizabeth’s world had come back to normal again…. She got up and began to make tea, fetching the kettle from the kitchen, moving about the small domestic tasks as if they were the whole of love and service.  It was perhaps the happiest hour she had ever known.  To receive back all you have lost, all that you have not even hoped for, to be allowed to give again what you have kept unspent, is joy beyond words.” [6]

That could sum up the situation for several key characters – the ones who survive the  revenge and bloodletting.


This Patricia Wentworth mystery is not just about restoring the moral order of the universe by punishing evil and rewarding good.  It is also about the restoring of relationship.  Right Order also includes Right Relationship and that’s where the romance fits in.  It’s not just important that the right person is punished for the crime, it’s extremely important that the right people end up together.  Just as the various murders have been about the catastrophic absence of love, the romance is about the restoration of love.  We’ve seen what happens, in the fate of James Lessiter and others, when human relationships go wrong, but we now need to see the counter-balance of human relationships going well and flourishing, and the restoring of community and meaning that goes along with it.  The love that is now possible between the survivors suffuses everything in a moment with meaning, even the most mundane of pastimes.

Surely this is another similarity between Patricia Wentworth and Agatha Christie – they are both as concerned as Jane Austen that their women end up with the right man!  But crucially this is more than counter-balanced by the role of the heroine spinster who enables all this to come about with an almost God-like role in exposing sin, bringing about right judgment and justice, and the restoration of right relationship.  Miss Silver may have only come to stay for a while, but in that space of time she helps put right what is wrong and leaves everything the better for her presence, however temporary.  Her knitting (that often is completed at the end of a case) is not just a pastime for a ‘silly old woman’, a mistake made at their peril by biased observers.  Miss Silver, like Miss Marple, is more like one of the Fates of mythology, the goddesses in the form of three elderly women who spin, measure, and then cut the thread of human life.

Even if the characters don’t realise it – and they usually don’t until it is too late – their fates are in her hands.

[For the latest news of Jeanette Sears’ books, please see the WELCOME page of this website, or go straight to her Amazon page]


[1] Eg. Carol Westron’s blog ‘Miss Marple and Miss Silver – a comparison’ (13 Oct 2014) at www.promotingcrime.blogspot.com.  She also has a great little scenario imagining the two ladies meeting in a teashop.

[2]  Agatha Christie, The Tuesday Night Club (1927).

[3]  Patricia Wentworth, Grey Mask, 1928.  I refer to this book in my previous blogpost ‘Masks and Murder’.

[4]  Patricia Wentworth, Miss Silver Comes to Stay, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1951, p50f.

[5}  ibid., p107.

[6]  ibid., p104f.


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A Golden Age for Masks?

Back in 2015 when I began planning my contemporary crime novel Night and Mr Knightley, I considered using a masked ball as the setting for a murder.  I was using Jane Austen’s Emma as the basis for the plot and so a regency ball seemed appropriate and the use of masks ideal for the schemes of a murderer. 

New novel: Night and Mr Knightley

But a masked ball?  Yes, it had been used extensively in Golden Age Detective fiction (GAD), but that in itself made it seem rather passé.  Would people now think that the wearing of masks could be at all believable?

The story itself was to take place in the autumn of 2016.

But then, at that precise moment, the world seemed to go a bit mad – in masks!  There were huge marches of protesters wearing stylised Guy Fawkes masks in the November of that year – the Million Mask March.

Guy Fawkes Mask

There were gangs of clowns wearing make-up like a mask attacking people (I kid you not) especially in my home city of Nottingham where my stories are set.  The combo of Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night had a lot to answer for!

Also there were protests in Europe about whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public with only their eyes showing in case they were concealing explosive packages and couldn’t be identified. 

And on a more local level, I had planned on referring to one of our theatres, Nottingham Playhouse, as part of the story – they then staged Thomas Middleton’s ‘Revenger’s Tragedy’ in November 2016, which I soon discovered was a jacobean gore-fest featuring mass murder at a masked ball !  It couldn’t have been more appropriate so I decided to feature it as a major theme in my story.

But becoming a Carer for my dear Mum in the last three years has meant something of a delay in my speed of book production.  The publication of Night and Mr Knightley would have to be delayed to 2020.  Would the subject of the wearing of masks be considered passé by then?  Er, well…

There are far too many GAD stories featuring masks and masked balls for me to mention them all.  But here is a taste of a few of them that I either read for research or refer to directly in my novel, hopefully without any spoilers.

The Masks Themselves

Masks come in many colours and materials.  I began with reading Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask of 1928 which features a full-face mask of grey rubber.   A bank robber in John Dickson Carr’s Colonel March story Hot Money (made for TV in 1952) also wears a full-cover rubber face mask as a robbery and a murder are committed.  In White Face by Edgar Wallace (1931) the villain wears a white cloth cut with two eye holes. 

Then more colourfully there was Behind the Green Mask by Ralph Trevor (1940), Greenmask by J Jefferson Farjeon (1944),

and the classic short story The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe (1842).

Frequently, though, the masks were simple black eye masks such as that worn by E W Hornung’s Raffles (1901)

or The Count of Monte Christo by Dumas (1844)

or Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders (1928). 

(I originally had a black eye mask featured on the cover of my book but the designer turned it a striking pink – which I rather like!)


Just this list shows that masks were useful for individuals committing crime, sometimes skulking on their own down dark streets, but often in plain sight in public because everyone was at a party and disguised by masks as well.

JJ Connington’s detective Sir Clinton Driffield is annoyed in Tragedy at Ravensthorpe (1927) that his friends have chosen fancy dress for their large country house party –  masks make it too easy for a criminal:

“ ‘I’m not altogether easy in my mind over this masked ball of Joan’s.  Speaking as a Chief Constable responsible for the good behaviour of the district, Cecil, it seems to me that you are running some risks over it.  A dance is all very well.  You know all your guests by headmark [sic] and no one can get in on false pretences.  But once you start masks, it’s a different state of affairs altogether.’ “

So true.

This was certainly the case in Agatha Christie’s The Affair at the Victory Ball (1923).

But  Dorothy L Sayers of course reverses this in her Murder Must Advertise (1933), since disguising himself as a harlequin with a mask enables the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey to deceive and mislead the criminals. 

There is also her short story The Queen’s Square (1932) featuring a fancy dress ball (Lord Peter is dressed as the Jack of Diamonds) but I couldn’t see any references to masks even though one would have expected them to feature.  Sayers also refers to the American pulp fiction Black Mask magazine “that monthly collection of mystery and sensational fiction”, featuring it as a clue (or an anti-clue?) in Unnatural Death (1927) which Inspector Parker refers to disparagingly as “light reading for the masses”.

When looking at the subject of masks online I came across a lot of items on what has been labelled ‘The Party of the Century’.  This was Truman Capote’s bash in New York in 1966, ostensibly in honour of the Washington Post’s publisher Katherine Graham, and Everyone who was Anyone was there.  It took the form of a black-and-white masked ball.

 I used this in my novel as Prisha Chatterjee’s inspiration for the masked ball that she is helping to arrange for the fictional Nottingham Knights Entertainment Company.  The dresses of 1966, for example Mia Farrow’s, look almost regency, though somewhat shorter!

Edgar Allan Poe’s party in The Masque of the Red Death, however, is predictably more scary and apparently now has something of a cult following in America at Halloween.  It concerns a wealthy Prince who invites all his friends to his castle to join him at a non-stop lock-down party so they can avoid a plague that is ravaging the land.  The plague is called the Red Death.  It is a masquerade with music, food and entertainment, whilst the poor are left outside the castle walls to suffer (sounding familiar?).  Then a mysterious and ominous figure all in red, including a red mask, appears at the party uninvited…  I’ll leave you to guess the rest.  Just like the classic image of the executioner in a black hood to hide his face, masks can be worn to protect the identity of those who are a form of Nemesis, who implement appropriate revenge for wrongdoers and enemies.


In GAD masks were frequently worn around the eyes, not the mouth.  But usually if someone was in a mask it meant they were about to rob you at the very least but quite possibly kill you.  Here and now in January 2021 someone with a mask around their mouth and nose is more frequently trying to save your life.

As part of this general trend, there have been many literary-themed fabric masks produced, several featuring Jane Austen or quotes from her work. The ‘social distancing’ of regency life has also meant lots of photoshop opportunities utilising her stories.

And representations of Jane herself have not escaped the mask message.

Statue of Jane Austen with mask

In 2016 masks were being worn by those protesting the curtailing of our freedom.  This can also be true now, but more often the opposite is the case – people  refusing to wear masks because they feel it curtails their freedom.  On the news it has just been reported that a third of police in the UK have had people without masks spitting at them or coughing on them, now a potentially murderous act.  There have been ‘COVID-deniers’ without masks invading hospitals and endangering the staff and patients’ lives.

So regardless of the time gap between now and the Golden Age of crime fiction, all this shows that masks are still a matter of life and death, although our perception of how they function has been turned upside down.

But I must leave you now.  A man in a black mask has just come to my door – delivering something nice from Amazon.

[For more on Night and Mr Knightley by Jeanette Sears, see the WELCOME page or go straight to Amazon Kindle]

The Incredible Crime

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A Review of The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh

‘The Incredible Crime’ by Lois Austen-Leigh

As if I didn’t already love Golden Age murder mysteries enough, this one came with the added incentive of an author related to Jane Austen (1). Who could resist?

The Incredible Crime came out in 1931 and was penned by JA’s great-great niece – or should I say ‘neice’ as JA herself always misspelled it – Lois Austen-Leigh (1883 -1968). Apparently she wrote her books on Jane Austen’s desk, later donated by her ‘neice‘ to the British Library. (Mm, pity I don’t have any nieces, they’re starting to sound extremely useful.)

I was also attracted by the academic environment of much of the story. The Cambridge University setting is beautifully realised, as indeed it should be by someone who in real life was the neice, sorry, niece of the Provost of King’s College, Augustus Austen-Leigh and his wife Florence Lefroy Austen-Leigh (2). In case all of these Austens weren’t enough, there are even a couple of cheeky references to JA herself and Northanger Abbey.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the heroine of the novel, Prudence Pinsent, is the spinster daughter of the Master of the fictional Prince’s College (I particularly enjoyed this as I made up my own Oxford College for my first murder mystery) (3). Prudence herself is well over 30 but doesn’t look it, and although a clergy daughter and generally dignified, will swear like a trooper when provoked.  Her main ambition in life at first seems to be gaining as many months as possible in the countryside for fox-hunting.

One definitely is fed the inside scoop over port in the ‘Senior Combination Room’ and the cosiness of afternoon tea and college gossip at a don’s fireside. Reminiscences of the eccentricities of past academics and students add authenticity and spice to the atmosphere. For example, join me in a Professor’s rooms:

“His man came in with a bright copper kettle which he put on the fire; it started to sing at once. He then drew the curtains and brought in an ample tea, putting a plate of hot cakes in the fender. Nothing more comfortable could be imagined.” (4)

‘The Nine Tailors’ by Dorothy L Sayers

The other very authentic aspect of the setting is the author’s descriptions of the Fenland country around Cambridge and Ely and stretching towards the east coast, which was very reminiscent of Dorothy Leigh Sayers’ 1934 mystery The Nine Tailors. Austen-Leigh writes:

“They turned into the flat fen country and drove at a reasonable pace. On a bridge over a broadish bit of water they pulled up for a moment. ‘This is very fascinating,’ said Prudence, ‘is it a ‘drain’, the Ouse, or the Cam, I wonder?’ ‘I think,’ said Thomas, ‘that this is what you might call a drain – it’s the New Bedford Cut. It was made I don’t know how long ago by some Duke of Bedford, and cuts off a long bend in the Ouse; we shall pass the depleted bit of river farther on.’ ‘Is this how you get from Cambridge by water to the sea?’ ‘No, you do that by going down the Cam into the Ouse by Ely, by Denver Sluice into the Wash.’ (5) (I chose that quote because I thought Sayers’ fans would enjoy talk of Dukes and Denver!)

The descriptions of the Suffolk coast are also splendid, as are the wonderful meals and rooms enjoyed by Prudence stopping off at Ipswich at the ‘Great White Horse’ Inn (1518 with a Georgian facade). It was also used by Dickens and by his creation Pickwick, and it made me want to go there immediately. How disappointing to look it up online and find that it closed as an inn in 2008, is now part-Starbucks and is to be made into a business centre by the local council. Apparently the 16th century builders failed to take into account the 21st century desire for en suite.

As with many of the books of this period, it can be hard to visualise the characters accurately as to their age – everyone is so tweedy and old fogeyish and smokes a pipe if male. And one doesn’t necessarily pick up on the hints about the women from their appearance and habits either. I was continually astounded that everyone was about 20 years younger that I had first assumed. The way an “independent” woman is described is very different to how we would describe a single woman today, much of which we might find laughable. This also applies to the attempt at ‘romance’ in the story – if you’re a single woman who values her independence, be prepared to choke at the ending! Again, I can’t help but compare this to Dorothy L Sayers’ far superior attempt at romance in a detective novel set in the academic world in the glorious Gaudy Night.

If I am taking my time getting round to the plot itself, perhaps it is because this was the least compelling part of the book for me. Suspected drug smuggling and chemical experiments at the university are the substance, but unfortunately much of the searching for smugglers in underground tunnels reminded me of Famous Five novels, no doubt unfairly as Austen-Leigh’s book preceded Enid Blyton’s by about ten years. (I think it was the unscrewing of a window seat to discover a tunnel that really did it, although no doubt such things existed aplenty in ancient coastal country houses!)

Crime Novel Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers

In view of the many reminders of Sayers’ work that this book sparked off in me, I thought I would consult the new collection of Sayers’ crime reviews from the early thirties (6) to see if she had anything definitive to say on her contemporary and part-namesake. But sadly neither this book nor the other three by Lois Austen-Leigh were among them. However, I did open the book at another review (7) to see that I had underlined Dorothy’s succinct criticism of what apparently had already become a cliché by 1933: “rather too much secret passage and dopery”. I couldn’t have put it better, Dorothy! I, for one, will now be forever wary of what people are really up to at night when they claim to have been out “duck-shooting”.

But I can’t resist finishing by returning to the Jane Austen references. A tobacco-smoking don in Cambridge is horrified at the thought of possible drug-smuggling at the university and has to go to a service at King’s College Chapel to “take the nasty taste out of my mouth and make me feel clean again.” I am pleased to report that after listening to Scripture and the singing of hymns “he left the place feeling like a different man.” (8) And he was the one who felt he had the courage to quote Jane Austen at a CID officer, using the words of Henry Tilney to Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey:

“If I understand you rightly, you have formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to… Consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” (9)

I would give The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh 5/5 for Setting, 4/5 for Characters, and 3.5/5 for Plot.

For my latest novel Murder and Mr Rochester, see: www.jeanettesears.com/wp/?p_id=789

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’












(1) Lois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime, British Library, London, 2017, edited by Martin Edwards. A reprint of the 1931 edition published by Herbert Jenkins.  Available from Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=lois+austen-leigh

(2) See Introduction to the novel by Prof Kirsten T Saxton.

(3) Jeanette Sears, A Murder in Michaelmas, Piquant Editions, Carlisle, 2012. See www.jeanettesears.com/wp/?page_id=27

(4)Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 65%, loc.1979 of 3092 in e-version.

(5) Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 10%, loc.294 of 3092 in e-version.

(6) Martin Edwards (ed), Taking Detective Stories Seriously: the Collected Crime Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers, Tippermuir Books, Perth, 2017.

(7) ibid., p108, in her review of Watch the Wall by Laurence W Meynell (1933).

(8) Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 54%, loc.1646 of 3092 in e-version.

(9) ibid., 53%, loc.1620 of 3092 in e-version.

Welcome to Emma-Jane Austin’s home!

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Welcome to Emma-Jane Austin’s Home!

The heroine of my murder mystery, Emma-Jane Austin, gets to live in her dream house. It is the beautiful Regency building that she has loved since childhood, that she used to call the Big Doll’s House. And you can see why.

Regency House

Regency House

It is a perfect example of a Regency style house right in the middle of Nottingham city centre, Grade II listed and standing at Canning Circus since 1820 on the outer perimeter of the very grand Park Estate.  This was land that used to be owned by the mega-wealthy Dukes of Newcastle when it was indeed just grassy parkland for the Dukes’ deer. Now called the ‘Beverly Hills of Nottingham’, the area is full of stunning Regency and Neo-Gothic homes in a gated community (although, fortunately for the rest of us, most of the gates are left open so we can explore).

Welcome to Park Estate

Welcome to Park Estate

One of the unusual things about the Park Estate is that it still has gas lighting.

Gas light on Park Estate

Gas light on Park Estate

Until 2015, a man in a vintage car used to light the lamps each evening, but now it is done automatically by an electronic trigger in each lamp.

Gas lamp on Park estate

Gas lamp on Park estate

But every two weeks or so a man has to come and reset the automatic triggers – not quite as romantic, but great that they are still gas lamps as in their Victorian heyday.

Resetting timer on gas lamp (Credit: Mike Hallam)

Resetting timer on gas lamp (Credit: Mike Hallam)

The light they give is whiter and paler than modern neon lights and doesn’t radiate as far, which does mean the Park can look rather Dickensian and creepy at night – though ideal for murder mysteries!

Park estate gas lamp at night (Credit: Mike Hallam)

Park estate gas lamp at night (Credit: Mike Hallam)

I too loved this house when I was a child, which I could see out of the bus window on the way into town each week.

Regency house at Canning Circus

Regency house at Canning Circus

Even though it was a dirty cream colour then and looked rather run down, it still stood out from the grottier modern buildings around it on a historic street called The Ropewalk. Now the house is a cool pale green with gold relief work on the plaster angels and wreath on the central pediment and is divided into flats. I have given Emma-Jane a room at the top on the left hand side at the back of the building.

Back of Regency House from road below

Back of Regency House from road below

Below her room is a large stone-flagged terrace above two garages where she and her flatmates can sit outside in sunny weather.



From her bedroom window she can see across the Park to Nottingham Castle on its sandstone rock.

Nottingham Castle

Nottingham Castle

In my novel the flat covers the top three floors on the right of the building and is owned by Penelope Galthorpe-Brown, who owns several florist shops throughout the Midlands. Another tenant is Jennifer Wright who owns a restaurant in town and is a successful chocolatier.

Top flat

Top flat

The flat provides a beautiful and cosy backdrop for the meetings of Emma-Jane’s reading group, especially as this architectural gem contains many of its original features, including a functioning fireplace in the main drawing room. In ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ they are of course studying Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ together.

My novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

In future books they will be delving into the works of Jane Austen, for which this stunning Regency house will be even more appropriate. But of course the novel is not just about women reading classic romantic novels together. The fact that Emma-Jane’s house was also next to a (very small) police station (before it closed in April 2016) is going to become somewhat appropriate as well…

Canning Circus police station

Canning Circus police station

Police station sign

Police station sign

The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

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The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

As a fan of C S Lewis, I love it when bits of Narnia or other elements from the life of Lewis weave their way into my everyday life.

Recently a friend gave me a special treat. It was a lunch out in the countryside nearby to celebrate finishing the final draft of my latest novel. It was to be at the Bottle Kiln in West Hallam, an unexpectedly beautiful place in a small Derbyshire village [1].

The Bottle Kiln

The Bottle Kiln

It was also unexpectedly crowded. No doubt the school holidays contributed to some extent, but in retrospect I can see that the quality of the place drew people like the proverbial magnet and we were lucky to get the last parking space at lunch time. Plus the weather couldn’t have been more gorgeous or the sky more blue.

Bottle Kiln and garden

Bottle Kiln and garden

This meant that my first view of the old kiln was doubly delightful as it rose above the surrounding brick buildings that now house a café and the sort of shops that translate me into retail heaven.

But, of course, the kiln itself was bound to remind me of C S Lewis’ home, the Kilns, in Oxfordshire, so I was hoping to find interesting resonances. At the Bottle Kiln there is an intimate garden at the back where people can eat their food and chat to friends but that is also quiet enough for contemplation.

photo 27

It is called a Japanese tea garden and I was immediately struck by the effort taken to make a tranquil space that was both friendly but that encouraged people to just stop and be quiet for a while.

Bottle Kiln Garden

Bottle Kiln Garden

We certainly couldn’t ignore the fact that this kiln had once produced bricks. They were everywhere, not just in the construction of the kiln itself and the outbuildings but also beautifully laid out in systematic patterns for paths. Even the tabletops in the restaurant were made of bricks and mortar. The whole place has been rescued and renovated with very creative and artistic touches.

Garden tiles

Garden tiles

The various chambers around the central kiln are now four selling areas for Gifts, Home and Accessories, Handmade items, and the Card Room, with the restaurant on the other side.

Central chamber of kiln

Central chamber of kiln

The design motif throughout was one of my favourites – Orla Kiely’s iconic leaf pattern. The predominant colour of green blended well with the brickwork and reflects the green ethos of so many organic and recycled items on sale, all of which were laid out with the precision and good taste of a magazine shoot.

Orla Keily wallpaper

Orla Kiely wallpaper

My friend knew I would love this, and I did!

Contemporary pots on sale

Contemporary pots on sale

It was also interesting to stand in the middle of the building and look up – to see right through to the sky above through the narrow outlet of the kiln’s original chimney.

Bottle Kiln Chimney

Bottle Kiln Chimney

It formed such a contrast to the vibrant life and colour all around me. For the brick flue was huge, dark, bleak and silent with the longest cobwebs I’ve ever seen draped from the top, like a spider’s dusty version of the hanging gardens of Babylon. Looking up at the sky, I felt as though I was in a tunnel again – the feeling I’d had for the last few months while writing my novel – head down, prioritising work, not seeing people, utterly concentrated and largely isolated. That’s not to say it’s been a negative experience – I’m an introvert and I love it! But one can’t do everything in life, and when I’m concentrating on a book, other parts of my life (like going out to restaurants with friends) just tend not to happen (like my blogging too, for that matter)!

The Tunnel in Nottingham

The Tunnel in Nottingham

This time there’s the added factor that a massive tunnel in the centre of Nottingham – just called ‘The Tunnel’ – features at the beginning and end of my novel (which is called ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ in case you were beginning to wonder). The Nottingham Tunnel is a huge Victorian construction blasted out of sandstone. This has often been in my mind as an image for the writing process – one enters the darkness of the imagination to construct an alternative reality in prose, which can feel like blasting one’s way through rock to find what’s on the other side. Then one day it’s all over and you emerge blinking into the daylight of normal life again. And friends take you out to lunch…

The light at the end of the Bottle Kiln’s towering chimney reminded me of this – I’m at least out of the tunnel of the final draft of my novel at any rate. I couldn’t help remarking to my friend how marvellous it would have been if the Kilns that used to be next to C S Lewis’ house of the same name had survived and could have been refurbished just like the Bottle Kiln here.

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

The home that Lewis bought with his brother and Mrs Moore in 1930 that is now a study centre would be enhanced by such a development next door, especially if still surrounded by the fields and wild countryside that so attracted the Lewis brothers. The original kilns in Headington in Oxfordshire could have become a similar visitor centre with beautiful shops, a café (or pub!), and a garden next to the lake and part of the nature reserve that’s still there. What a ‘go to’ spot that would have been for visitors to the area, and an even greater pull for The Kilns’ and the C S Lewis Foundation’s attempt to stimulate further interest in this great author and teacher. Instead of a small house in the middle of a modern housing estate, my mind’s eye could now see a much larger enterprise, with the chimneys of the old kilns visible for miles, like a sign, like the towers of a cathedral calling out to visitors to come and find.

Original Bottle Kiln

Original Bottle Kiln

I can imagine Lewis would have approved of a refurbished set of Kilns in the countryside next to his house where people could come and eat and drink with friends, talk about art and literature, contemplate nature, de-stress, and generally have good fellowship together or mediate on their own in God’s good creation. That was exactly what I was able to do with my friend. I could just imagine the Inklings having a drink and a meal here together, discussing their latest work in the restaurant or garden, as we were able to do.

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Even the retail side of my experience was a blessing. I was delighted to find the very things I needed to buy – some kilner storage jars for the kitchen (plus they were about half the price of shops in the centre of town)!



But to go back to the very centre of the building, not only did the opening at the top of the kiln itself remind me of a tunnel, it brought to mind the experience of Jill Pole in C S Lewis’ ‘The Silver Chair’ when she and Puddleglum and Eustace have been in the dark Underland for what seems like ages. Then at last Jill sees a glimpse of light up above and can now emerge, with the help of friends pulling her out, into the heart of Narnia again. Then, what should I see in the restaurant at the Bottle Kiln after our meal, but a little bit of Narnia in the form of a children’s book on the newspaper and magazine stand. There, along with the Tatler and the Times, were a couple of picture books on the bottom shelf within the reach of children. I must admit I hadn’t seen this version of a Narnia story before, but there on the cover were none other than Puddleglum and Jill Pole in a version of part of Lewis’ The Silver Chair! [2]

Version of 'The Silver Chair'

Version of ‘The Silver Chair’

I love it when this sort of Lewisian synchronicity/serendipity happens. It seemed to affirm my experience of the light at the end of my own personal tunnel-cum-kiln.

And this linking of tunnels and kilns is not as fanciful as it might sound. Yesterday I looked at kilns on the web to see if there was anything else of interest. Well, there is even a ‘Tunnel Kiln’, apparently! And both the kilns next to Lewis’ house and the Bottle Kiln I visited this week were both built in the 1920s. There were two brick kilns and a brick drying barn about 100 yards away from Lewis’ house which was built in 1922. The area used to be known as the Clay Hills when the brick industry flourished there in the late 19th century.

But a glance at the Ashmolean Museum’s website revealed a much more ancient heritage for this area of Oxfordshire in its Archaeology section. Here we’re told that “large numbers of pottery kilns have been excavated in south and east Oxford. The numbers have suggested to some archaeologists an “industrial zone”, coincidentally but interestingly centred on the modern industrial zone around Cowley, but also stretching to Headington, Rose Hill, Littlemore, Sandford and as far south as Betinsfield. The kilns cluster around the Roman road…’ [3]. These were developed in the early 2nd century AD to provide good quality domestic ware, mostly for dining and kitchen storage, using the pure white clay of Shotover Hill.

However, these early kilns fell into disuse when the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century and it was only in the Victorian era that serious pottery and brick production began in this area again. But we can still see some of that early Roman homeware from the Oxford Potteries in the Rome gallery on the ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum.

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Did Lewis ever look at any of these old pots and reflect that they could have been made just a few yards from his home 1600 years before? And how interesting that Lewis is buried at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry – named after the stone quarry there that provided some of the stone for the building of the Oxford colleges.

So, two of the main places most associated with C S Lewis are named, not after any high-flown literary or romantic themes, but after two of Oxfordshire’s oldest and most down to earth industries – the Kilns and a Quarry.

Model of bottle kiln

Model of bottle kiln

Perhaps my own envisionings of the imaginative process of writing as hewing through rock, or journeying through a dark tunnel, or trying to find the sky through a dusty and cobwebby chimney of clay bricks, are also sufficiently down to earth images and experience on which to build a creative literary life.  The kiln can become a model for how I think of my work.

Inside model of bottle kiln

Inside model of bottle kiln

And if that’s whetted your appetite to read the novel I’ve been mentioning – yes, it’s published now and you can find it on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477392333&sr=1-3&keywords=jeanette+sears

My latest novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’


1] You can see more at www.bottlekiln.co.uk.

2] Hiawyn Oram, The Giant Surprise: a Narnia Story (HarperCollins, London, 2005) based on C S Lewis, The Silver Chair  (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1953).

3] From www.ashmolean.org/ash/britarch/roman-oxon/oxon-pottery.html, written by Susan Walker, 15 Dec 2011.

Donna Fletcher Crow interviews Jeanette Sears

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I was delighted to be interviewed recently by the well-known American novelist Donna Fletcher Crow for the International Christian Fiction Writers website.  Here are the text and pictures:

A Murder in Michaelmas:  Jeanette Sears Interview by Donna Fletcher Crow for ICFW

Jeanette Sears

Jeanette Sears

Donna: Jeanette, welcome to International Christian Fiction Writers! We are so privileged to have an internationally known C. S. Lewis scholar visit us. Before we get to talking about your last novel tell us about your contribution to Women and C. S. Lewis.

Jeanette:  Thank you so much, Donna, for inviting me. It’s great to speak with you, and thank you for asking about my non-fiction as well as fiction. Yes, I was asked by one of the editors of Women and C S Lewis, the wonderful Carolyn Curtis, if I would write a short opinion-piece for this Lion Hudson book which has been published in the UK and USA this summer. The aim was for around 30 contributors who regularly research and write on Lewis to say what influence he has had on them, particularly in the area of Lewis and women. Did Lewis have a bad attitude to women? Has his teaching had a negative impact on them? That was the sort of question we were to address in our response. Well-known writers such as Alister McGrath, Michael Ward, Colin Duriez, Crystal Hurd, Monika Hilder, Randy Alcorn, Malcolm Guite, Holly Ordway, David C Downing, Don King and others all chipped in to reassert Lewis’ reputation and standing in this area. I suspect the piece that’s most critical of Lewis is probably mine! I take him to task on the subject of women priests. But basically we’re all fans who are very grateful to him for his influence on our lives and we hope that this book on a popular level will be interesting for fans and critics alike.

New book 'Women and C S Lewis'

New book ‘Women and C S Lewis’

Donna:  And you also published a guide to C. S. Lewis’ Oxford, didn’t you?

Jeanette:  Yes, I’m glad to say that The Oxford of J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis has sold around 7,000 copies and is in Blackwell’s and the main tourist shops in Oxford. I had been taking people on Inklings tours of Oxford and approached Oxford Heritage Trails who had published walking tours on different themes for many years. I’m glad to say it’s become their best seller, even beating the one on Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland!

'The Oxford of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis'

‘The Oxford of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis’

Donna:  Now, tell us about A Murder in Michaelmas. Of course, I loved it because it’s set in Oxford, revolves around Arthurian legends and has an American heroine— subjects all dear to my heart. It must have been quite a challenge weaving all those strands together.

My novel 'A Murder in Michaelmas'

My novel ‘A Murder in Michaelmas’

Jeanette:  I thought you might like it! I’ve just enjoyed reading your A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary, so I suspect we have a lot of interests in common! I lived in Oxford for 10 years – as an ordinand at theological college, a curate, a student chaplain, and a Summer School Director for a college – so I got to know the life there from the inside. I found myself using it as a setting for a murder mystery very naturally, as of course have many before us. Oxford seems to bring murder out in people, in literature at any rate! (By the way, I used to live on Fairacres Road in Iffley, as did your heroine for a while.)

Donna:  Have you always had a love of things Arthurian?

Jeanette:  Not particularly. No more so than any other Brit – perhaps it’s in our DNA. But I wanted to have a plot that reflected the medieval setting of Oxford and that could easily include the theme of witchcraft and the occult. I had been to the Oxford Arthurian Society (which sadly no longer exists) and so made up my own Lancelot and Guinevere Society. I thought this could be a re-enactment group where students dress up as characters from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, the nastier characters as well as the good guys. Was the murder a re-enactment that went horribly wrong, or did the victim’s death have some other cause? You may have noticed that I also love the Preraphaelites, and often quote them at the beginning of chapters. Well, they loved Tennyson and the Arthurian legends, and so I suppose I love Arthur because I love them. Of course, C S Lewis rather liked them as well – I really love That Hideous Strength in which he draws on these medieval stories.

Donna:  Why did you choose to work with an American heroine?

Jeanette:  My heroine, Eve Merry, was originally written as British, but then it occurred to me that her being American would work better, especially as a contrast to the English upper-class hero and fellow student Crispin Martin de Beauchamp-Massey. She’s studying Theology, he’s reading English Literature. She’s from a poor background, he’s rich. She’s a Christian (although struggling after her father’s death), while Martin is a bit of a cynic. So I thought to have them as different nationalities would add to the conflict and interest. I lived in Boston, Massachusetts, for 4 years in the 1980s so I thought I could have Eve heralding from there, plus Oxford is blessed with many keen and enthusiastic American students, so I figured that would fit well too.

Donna:  Eve and Martin are such interesting characters. Will we be seeing more of them? Do you envision this book as being the first in a series?

Jeanette:  Oh, thank you. Yes, I hope this will be a series. I’ve started writing the second ‘Merry and Massey Mystery’ – it’s called Death of a Sluggard. The first mystery had the theme of Christianity versus the occult; this one has the debate between Religion and Science as the ideological background which the murder throws up. Eve and her friend Charlie Boscombe, who is a Biochemistry student, will be tackling the so-called New Atheists, with eccentric help from the irrepressible Martin of course.

Donna:  Your website says you’ve been a church minister, a university lecturer, a London bookseller and a writer. What a wonderful variety of experience. Do you find all this background helping you in writing your novels?

Jeanette:  Definitely. I’m sure you find that as a writer now you have to also be a public speaker, event planner, book seller, sales and marketing expert, teacher, pastoral counsellor, etc etc, as well! So it all comes in handy, whether it’s plotting the books, talking about them in public, or getting people to buy them. My children’s novel (although really it’s for everybody) called Pig’s Progress began as stories I told to live audiences at church and school.

'Pig's Progress'

‘Pig’s Progress’

Donna:  You also lecture on Dorothy L. Sayers— another of my favorites. How has a love of Sayers influenced your writing?

Jeanette:  She’s my heroine. I first read her Clouds of Witness when I was 10 and immediately wanted to be a writer. I include talking about her on my Inklings tours of Oxford, even though she wasn’t officially an Inkling. As a theologian and a writer of murder mysteries, she’s got to be my patron saint. If I can reflect any of her intelligence, style, faith and imagination in my writing, who could ask for more?

Donna:  You have so much to keep up with it must be hard to keep all your hats in a row. What’s next for you?

Jeanette:  Mmm, you’re right, it can be tricky combining everything. At the moment I have a lull in speaking events so there’s more time to concentrate on the writing. I’ve been finishing a comic literary novel called The Last Romantic. Then I’ll be writing the first of (I hope) a series of murder mysteries set in my home town of Nottingham. Oh, and finishing Death of a Sluggard, and working on more non-fiction on C S Lewis and Dorothy L Sayers.

Donna: Jeanette, thank you so much for taking time in your busy life to be with us today. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Jeanette:  It’s been my pleasure. The next publication is my contribution to C S Lewis at Poet’s Corner (Wipf and Stock) which should be out fairly soon. One of the highlights of recent years was being able to be part of the events surrounding the inclusion of Lewis in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, and this is the written form of those events, plus lectures and blogs it inspired.

Donna:  And where can we find you and your books on the web?

Jeanette:  My web address is www.jeanettesears.com and my books can be accessed on Amazon from there. Donna, many thanks again, and may God bless you and yours. (Perhaps we’ll get to meet in Oxford sometime?!)

[You can find the original of this interview at:
http://internationalchristianfictionwriters.blogspot.com/2015/09/a-murder-in-michaelmas-jeanette-sears.html and Donna at www.donnafletchercrow.com]


C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

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C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

[A version of this article first appeared in the Christian Writer magazine for Spring 2015]

C S Lewis article in 'Christian Writer' magazine

C S Lewis article in ‘Christian Writer’ magazine

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, IV, 11)

This is very good advice for anyone seeking to write, perhaps particularly on C S Lewis. There are so many books about him and his thought already in existence and new ones being created all the time, that it can feel foolhardy to attempt to say anything new about him or his circle, the Inklings. However, since this is true about virtually all subjects, what is the writer to do, particularly the writer committed to non-fiction?

Lewis (1898-1963) revelled in being a “dinosaur” in his field, one of the last surviving examples of Old Western Man who read medieval and renaissance texts as if they were native to him, as he declared in his inaugural address as Professor at Cambridge University in 1954. He had already parodied those who tried to be original and up-to-date for its own sake in Pilgrim’s Regress, his first novel of 1933. Here he portrayed the fashionable modernists of the time who pedalled godless philosophies for financial gain and a privileged status in society as the intelligentsia. Lewis showed how Freudianism, Marxism, and most other contemporary ‘-isms’ were frequently illogical and ridiculous if taken to their logical conclusions and were more effective in oppressing individuals rather than in liberating the true self. Once Lewis became a Christian he particularly disliked attempts by liberal theologians to import worldly philosophies into Christianity, resulting in a pseudo-form of the faith, even though he himself was quite happy with some forms of biblical criticism and evolutionary theory.

But for Lewis it was the task of re-educating his fellow citizens on the forgotten core beliefs of the Christian faith that was really crucial. In the Second World War he was to get the chance to do this, not just via the written word but via the most up-to-date technology available, the wireless. In these Broadcast Talks the last thing he wanted to be was original. Arresting, interesting, engaging, yes – in the way he put across the basics of the faith. But the main elements of Christian belief were not his to tinker with and he had found salvation for his soul and meaning for his life by submitting to the classic Christian creeds. He got into a spat with the liberal theologian Norman Pittenger in 1958 on this very issue. Pittenger, who taught Theology at a seminary in New York, accused Lewis, in effect, of dumbing down the faith. Lewis was perfectly aware that he was not a professional theologian and that he was bound to be essentially a populariser in this field, more a translator of the work of orthodox theologians that had gone before him than an innovator. And in his gift for making the distant and complex exciting and accessible lay his strength. In his rejoinder, Lewis rightly defends the necessity of this task:

“One thing at least is sure. If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.”[1]

So for Lewis, writing about the Christian faith was much more than an academic exercise, it was an act of “translation” of what already existed, in a way suitable to communicate with a contemporary audience who desperately needed to hear it. More than that, he was obeying the Lord’s command to speak His truth to all people, not just playing around with concepts and ideologies with the intellectual elite. Lewis was not interested in the kind of fame that came from being ‘original’, especially as he was so well-versed in the philosophies and literary styles of the past that he knew how often these tended to just repeat themselves and be anything but ‘new’.

He was also not averse to repeating himself, for example on the topic of truth and originality: in Membership he wrote: “No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.” [2] And in a letter from 1942 he wrote against the need for so-called originality in poetry, not just in content but also in style, concluding “The pother about ‘originality’ all comes from the people who have nothing to say: if they had they’d be original without noticing it.” [3]

God is more concerned with making us new people: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation…”, “…be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”, and God is the one who says: “Behold, I make all things new…”. [4] God has made each one of us unique and so the uniqueness of our writing will come from us being true to our real selves as God has made us, not by trying to be something else. In fact trying to be ‘original’ and different and therefore something other than what we are could be seen as an affront to God’s own creativity. We reflect back the divine glory because of who we become in Christ, not in spite of it. Becoming our true selves and achieving self-realisation, which is the story arc of practically every Hollywood story and TV drama, is a free gift to the Christian. We become truly authentic as individuals and therefore as writers when we give ourselves up to Christ and let Him lead us into new life by His Spirit. Then we will truly blossom and achieve what Carl Jung called ‘individuation’. Then, if we are speaking or writing authentically we will be original and different by definition, for no one else can speak as the real you or write as the real you, other than… you.

Lewis ended his broadcast talks during the war on this very point: that “our real selves are, so to speak, all waiting for us in Him…. the very first step towards getting a real self is to forget about the self. It will come only as you are looking for something else.” And that ‘something else’ is of course the Lord Jesus. Lewis then emphasises that the same principle applies in literature, art and all of life – you make a much better impression when you have forgotten about yourself and making a good impression. It is the divine principle of losing your life, one painful bit at a time if necessary, in order to gain true spiritual life. To try and gain a self for yourself and by yourself will bring you only to despair and ruin.

I can’t think of a better way of ending than to be entirely unoriginal and use Lewis’ own ending to his radio talks: “But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in” [5]… including originality.




[1] Lewis in ‘Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger’ in Undeceptions: Essays in Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Geoffrey Bless, London, 1971, p183).

[2] Available in The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses, edited by Walter Hooper (Macmillan, New York, 1980).

[3] Letter of 23 April 1942 to Martyn Skinner about his poem Sir Elfadore and Mabyna. Lewis was here particularly citing the style of Alexander Pope as one that was still valid, even though held in contempt by many of their contemporaries (Collected Letters of C S Lewis, vol 2, ed. Walter Hooper, HarperCollins, London).

[4] 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 12:2; Rev. 21:5.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, London, 1952, Book 4, ch 11).

The Jackdaw Richard the Third

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The Jackdaw Richard III

1970 orange and purple Scrapbbook and Josephine Tey novel

1970 orange and purple Scrapbbook and Josephine Tey novel

When all the fuss about the discovery of Richard III’s body erupted recently, one of my first thoughts was: “Oh, if only I still had my Jackdaw folder about him!” Then last year when clearing out old boxes from my parents’ garage, I found it again, albeit in the form of a scrapbook from 1970 containing pared down papers from the Jackdaw that I’d carefully trimmed to fit the pages and sellotaped into the album when I was eleven years old. Why do children love scrapbooks so much? What’s so appealing about cutting out pictures and sticking them in albums? I certainly had several scrapbooks when I was growing up, usually devoted to my favourite pop stars. But when I was eleven I developed this much more unlikely craze for a dead king, prompted by reading the classic detective story ‘The Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey.

It featured her main detective Inspector Grant who was holed up in hospital with a broken leg and was itching to do some detecting regardless. A friend suggests one of the great mysteries of history and so he settles on who murdered the Princes in the Tower – was it their “evil uncle” King Richard the Third, or his successor Henry the Seventh, the first of the Tudors? The evidence presented in this brilliantly told reconstruction of the crime convinced me forever of Richard’s innocence and Henry’s guilt. I then read everything about Richard I could lay my hands on back in 1970, including this wonderful Jackdaw folder.

Jackdaw 24: Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

Jackdaw 24: Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

It was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1965 but my copy is by from the Paragon Press in 1970. It was edited and compiled by J. Langdon-Davies, an interesting character in himself.  I can still remember the metal carousel in W H Smith’s that contained the Jackdaw folders and the feeling of adventure that they generated as I span it round – which person or event from history shall I find out about next? These Jackdaw folders were bulging with fascimiles of historical documents to fascinate schoolchildren with the feel of handling primary sources. There were reproductions of oil paintings, family trees, the stories of famous people, and beautiful calligraphy in bold black Latin on thick brown paper. It really did make you feel like a detective handling original documents in the excitement of solving one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Plus there was the Justice angle – my eleven year old heart swelled with indignation at the thought of this poor wounded king who had been so maligned by history. I became a (no doubt very annoying) apologist for King Richard to anyone who would listen, wrote a long essay on him for school (which never got marked – it was so long it was overdue and handed in too late) and carried on collecting for my scrapbook, now entitled ‘HISTORY and other things eg. books, News-paper cuttings, Drawings etc. Jeanette Sears VOLUME ONE’. I can also see from my copy of ‘The Daughter of Time’ that this coincided with being given a Dymo label writer for Christmas which meant I labelled all my possessions with my name embossed on red plastic tape. It’s also evident that the fashionable colours for 1970 were orange and purple, judging from the cover of the novel and my scrapbook. I seem to remember my bedroom was painted orange then purple too (or was it purple then orange?)

Since the reburying of King Richard III this week in Leicester Cathedral has generated so much interest worldwide, I thought I would share the contents of my old Jackdaw folder for any of you interested who now can’t get hold of a copy easily. As I said, I cut up the papers it contained and stuck them in a scrapbook with sellotape that’s now brown with age, so they won’t look pristine but I think still of interest. It begins with the well-known portrait of Ricardus III Ang. Rex. by an unknown artist and a fascimile of part of Thomas More’s ‘History of Richard III’ [not shown here] written in 1557.


Rous Roll and portrait of Richard III

Rous Roll and portrait of Richard III

I can still remember the fury of Josephine Tey’s detective every time he came across the ‘backstairs’ gossip’ of More’s account in any so-called ‘evidence’. Above are also  drawings of Richard and his wife and son with their coats of arms from the Rous Roll.

'Richard through contemporary eyes' and 'Richard Crookback'

‘Richard through contemporary eyes’ and ‘Richard Crookback’

On large sheets of pink paper there are accounts of ‘Richard through contemporary eyes’ and ‘Richard ‘Crookback’’, featuring the notorious performance of Shakespeare’s play by Laurence Olivier and how the Tudors attacked Richard’s reputation and physical image. This sheet ends with: “One of the most exciting uncertainties of Richard’s reign is the story of the little princes, supposed to have been murdered by their wicked uncle in the Tower of London. Today historians admit that they do not know who the criminal was – it is not even certain that there was a crime. There is no certain evidence on which a jury would convict Richard; it would even be possible to make out some sort of a case that the real criminal, if there was one, was Henry VII.”

'Did Richard murder the primes?' and an account of his acts as king

‘Did Richard murder the primes?’ and an account of his acts as king

Then on orange paper an article entitled ‘Did Richard murder the princes in the Tower?’, containing a brief review of the evidence and concluding that we only hear about Richard’s guilt from his enemies whose accounts can’t be trusted. On the contrary Richard seemed like a good and just king from his other actions and  no court could convict him of the crime on the evidence available. Opposite on pink paper is ‘What do we know of Richard’s acts?’ asking “Was Richard a hypocrite or was he sincere?” when he passed good laws, was merciful to his subjects, etc. There is a list of just and righteous actions done by the king that make him sound the ideal Christian monarch. The conclusion is: “In short, as far as we can see from the documents which have been preserved, Richard’s rule was just and progressive. Indeed, there is a possibility that his unpopularity with some of the rich and aristocratic classes was due to a tendency to stand up for the underdog and undermine some of their privileges.” Reading through these actions of Richard again, I must say it is a very convincing case that he helped the poor and oppressed wherever possible and deprived the fat cats of their unjust gain. Did his spine condition give him an empathy for the oppressed and downtrodden? It makes Philippa Gregory’s description of him as “the People’s Plantagenet” seem very appropriate. It does look as though, when we lost Richard, we lost a very good king. There is even evidence of kindness to his rivals and enemies that makes it look very unlikely that he would have killed his nephews.

Facsimile document and pamphlet on the Battle of Bosworth

Facsimile document and pamphlet on the Battle of Bosworth

On the next pages lie a fascimile, on thick brown paper, of an extract from the Act of Parliament Rolls for the first year of Richard’s reign with a typed transliteration (almost as hard to read as the original but giving even a youngster a feel of medieval English).

Typed transliteration of medieval document

Typed transliteration of medieval document

There is an account of the Battle of Bosworth of 1485 where Richard lost his crown.

Next is a copy of a letter from Richard to the keeper of his wardrobe, Piers Curteys, from 31 August 1483.


Richard's letter to Master of Wardrobe

Richard’s letter to Master of Wardrobe

He is requesting clothes such as “one doublet of tawney sattayn lyned with Holand cloth and enterlyned with Buske”, as well as banners and “trumpet bands of sarcenet”. The transcription underneath meant that it was possible even for an 11 year old in 1970 to read the handwriting of 1483. The accompanying notes say that even experts on medieval costume don’t know what “spurves” and “guynysans” were!

The pamphlet ‘Edward V and Richard Duke of York: the Princes in the Tower of London’ gives photos of the Tower areas where the princes were kept and possibly buried, plus diagrams and rather gruesome photos of skeletons of children from the period.


Leaflet on Princes in the Tower

Leaflet on Princes in the Tower

The next page has a copy of a letter from Richard to his Lord Chancellor from 12 October 1483 with a transcription on the opposite page. I think the handwriting round the edge is Richard’s own.

Richard's letter to Lord Chancellor with own handwriting round the edge

Richard’s letter to Lord Chancellor with own handwriting round the edge

The guide to the Jackdaw documents assures children that “with a little patience… you will become quite an expert in reading fifteenth century handwriting” !!

I was then intrigued to see that I had a leaflet for a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ at Nottingham Playhouse from Oct-Dec 1971, starring the comic actor Leonard Rossiter.

Nottingham Playhouse producing Shakespeare's 'Richard III' in 1971

Nottingham Playhouse producing Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ in 1971

This amazed me as I had completely forgotten this. It is described in the leaflet as “a vividly macabre performance”. Since Robert Lindsay has also played Richard, there must have been a trend for a while of having him played by comedians. And gosh, the prices of tickets – 50p for the stalls, 25p for the balcony, and travel subsidies were available if you were coming from elsewhere in the Midlands! They were certainly keen to get people into the theatres in those days and more willing to subsidise it with public money.

The next page shows ‘How Richard became King’.

'How Richard became King'

‘How Richard became King’

In my scrapbook this is juxtaposed with Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More.

IMG_7162 copy

This is because the only other Jackdaw folder I owned was about him. I also have a hard time not saying “Boo!” after his name, as it was his propagandised account of Richard which Shakespeare used for his play. As an all-or-nothing 11 year old, to me this made Thomas More a baddie.

There was a general introductory booklet to the Jackdaw folder which for some reason I pasted at the end of my display rather than the beginning. It gives a run down of all the ‘Exhibits’ and questions for you to ‘Think for Yourself’, which begins: “This ‘Jackdaw’ shows how the story of Richard III may have been distorted by later historians to make a better case for the kingship of the Tudors. Can you think of any other well-known instances of history being rewritten?” Another question is “What do you think would have happened if Richard had won the Battle of Bosworth?”, then “How would you persuade anyone living in about 1500 that a crippled body does not necessarily mean a wicked soul?”, and lastly “Suppose the little princes were alive in 1485, what do you imagine they thought about it all? Perhaps we never heard of them again because they thought “Anything for a quiet life” and preferred to remain “lost”?” Hmm – rather a loaded question. There is then a list of ‘Books to Read’, including Josephine Tey’s novel of 1954 and the biography of Richard by Paul Murray Kendall (1955) which I can remember devouring in the school library on rainy lunchtimes.

I had then cut out the photos from a paperback on the Plantagenets by John Harvey (1967).

Portrait of Richard III

Portrait of Richard III

The portrait of Richard has him looking worried and placing a ring on his own finger (was this a symbol of usurping the throne?) as with the more well-known picture. He still looked preferable in my childish eyes to Henry VII who reminded me of a weasel.

Next to this in my scrapbook was a surprise. I had completely forgotten about the magazine version of Winston Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking People’ and that I owned No. 30 of the 112 issues (which apparently came out every Thursday) and was edited by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Hugh Trevor-Roper and A J P Taylor (BPC Publishing 1970).

Magazine cover: 'The Princes in the Tower'

Magazine cover: ‘The Princes in the Tower’

The cover shows the portrait of the Princes in the Tower by the Victorian artist Millais, the boys looking very much like Bubbles dressed as Hamlet.

Contributors to the magazine

Contributors to the magazine

It contains articles by H M Colvin, A R Myers, John Gillingham, and G D Ramsay, most of whom were Oxford dons.

Winston Churchill on Richard III

Winston Churchill on Richard III

Churchill’s own account follows Thomas More’s and so was anathema to me as a stout little Ricardian. There was also an article on the Tower of London plans of the Battle of Bosworth


Battle lines at Bosworth

Battle lines at Bosworth

and a taste of the arguments against Richard as the murderer of the princes, but this is pretty half-hearted. Perhaps no one felt they could come out too strongly against Churchill’s view when the whole magazine was supposed to be honouring his version of history.

Image of 'evil' Richard III and the princes

Image of ‘evil’ Richard III and the princes

I am intrigued now as to why I was such a ‘fan’ of King Richard III at such a young age. I think it was the injustice done to a young king that touched me, plus the fact that it was wrapped in one of the greatest mysteries in history. The Jackdaw folder gave me a ‘hands on’ experience in learning about it and the feeling that I was in touch with the historical characters concerned. The Josephine Tey novel brought the story to life in a way that completely gripped my imagination. It has only just occurred to me as I write this blog that the first murder mystery that I have written concerns students who like re-enacting scenes from the late fifteenth century from Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’ – exactly Richard III’s lifetime. Perhaps I have Richard III to thank for my own first murder mystery!

My novel 'A Murder in Michaelmas'

My novel ‘A Murder in Michaelmas’

I also think that it is no coincidence that shortly after my fascination with Kind Richard as an 11 year old I became a Christian – it was possible to also see Jesus of Nazareth of the first century as a young King who had had great evil and injustice done to him, who had suffered a cruel death and whose truth needed to be defended. From the wounded king of medieval chivalry to the wounded King on a cross wasn’t too great a leap. Now that we know more of King Richard’s own Christian faith and his desire to live as a chivalric Christian knight, this is perhaps not surprising. I was particularly struck by this aspect of Richard’s life when hearing Philippa Langley speak in 2013, the amazing woman who led the discovery of Richard’s body in the Leicester car park.


Meeting Philippa Langley in Southwell Library, Nov 2013

Meeting Philippa Langley in Southwell Library, Nov 2013

I was determined to shake her hand and thank her, as I believe many have done this week. It was also very moving to see a young girl putting the crown on Richard’s coffin during the reinterment service at Leicester Cathedral, a girl about the same as as me when I ‘discovered’ him, in a sense reinstating him as a good Christian king.  Who would have thought that the supposed ‘evil child-killer’ King Richard III would have become a type of Christ for me as a young child?

Little girl 're-crowning' Richard III

Little girl ‘re-crowning’ Richard III in Leicester Cathedral in March 2015

Before Blogging: the Journals and Papers of Major Christian Leaders

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Before Blogging: the Journals and Papers of Major Christian Leaders

Manchester's great Victorian library

Manchester’s great Victorian library

As bloggers and users of the internet, we are sometimes faced with the unpleasant fact that much of what we write in a digital format may well be lost for ever while older written sources ironically may survive. So if you were the Victorian vicar the Reverend Joseph Bloggs, your communications with your people and the world beyond your church in your sermons and letters might still be around in two hundred years while this blog might not. Even the Revd Bloggs’ self-communication via a journal or a diary might well last longer, especially if you were deemed worthy of being made Bishop and then Lord Bloggs of Blogginton Wells – all your most private and delicate thoughts on paper will probably continue to be diligently preserved over the years by rabidly-dedicated librarians, whether you wanted them to be or not.

Recently I was having to clear out old books I’d had for 30 yrs and never read. Some of these were lists of archival sources and bibliographies that one needed as a researcher before the internet. One of these was Papers of British Churchmen, 1780 – 1940, produced by the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, and published, no doubt to a panting and impatient audience, in 1987.  It was one of their Guides to Sources for British History, and probably back in the 1980s I thought I ought to know where to get my hands on the letters of John Nelson Darby, amongst others, as my PhD research featured him quite strongly (they were in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, which is fortunately where I had begun my research).

John Rylands Library, Manchester

John Rylands Library, Manchester

This grey-covered boring-looking book – in fact, the most boring-looking book I have ever owned, so boring I hadn’t even been able to open it in 30 years – seemed like an obvious one to cast aside into the Tesco bag marked ‘THEOLOGY – Give away, to a College’. But, as usually happens when I allow myself a few seconds to open any book, I soon found myself fascinated and was reminded of the old truism to not judge a book by its cover.

It turned out to be a long list of famous and forgotten names, of men once able to charm thousands from the pulpit, who could help decide the fate of churches and nations, lift up the poor, write poetry more famous than any of their sermons, pen hymns sung by millions, cause scandals and give prophetic warnings that made the front of the daily newspapers, and encourage queens and kings. Just the names were fascinating for a start. In alphabetical order, they run from:

“ACTON, Charles Januarius (1803-1847), Cardinal 1842”,

through to:

“ZOUCH, Thomas (1737-1815), Rector of Wycliffe 1770-93, of Scravingham 1793-5; prebendary of Durham 1805-15.”

How appropriate that the first one should be named after January, the first month! And a reminder of how Latin was second-nature to the educated men of that era (although perhaps later as a Cardinal he would know that it was also the name of the patron saint of Naples – I looked that up on the internet). Pity Thomas Zouch’s parents hadn’t felt it necessary to call their son ‘Decemberius’ to finish off the alphabetical list neatly, although to be fair, perhaps he wasn’t born in December and it would have just confused everyone as Decemberius doesn’t seem to be a name (at least I couldn’t find any on the web).

The fact that the book listed ‘Churchmen’ of course had not escaped my notice but I genuinely expected not to find any women in there anyway, as I assumed it was mainly clergy. But then my eye fell on:

“SOUTHCOTT, Joanna (1750-1814) Religious fanatic.”

Ah. Not too good for the women, then.

Joanna Southcott

Joanna Southcott

I certainly remembered Joanna Southcott as there had been a veritable obsession with her in the circles of my research just prior to my PhD. She was the latest thing for people interested in Adventism and Millenarianism and… the decidedly delusional. She had claimed to be a prophetess, calling herself the woman clothed with the sun of Revelation 12. And what papers of hers remain? We can rest easy knowing that her correspondence and accounts of her visions, scrolls, seals, and poems, are neatly divided between the Blockley Antiquarian Society and the University of Texas. But her most important papers were said to be in a mysterious box that should only be opened in the presence of the assembled bishops of the Church of England and at a time of great crisis for the country. Some people clamoured for this to happen in the Crimean War and the First World War apparently. Probably it wasn’t deemed an ideal item for the agenda of General Synod whilst debating women bishops, however.

But what of the famous churchmen?

Archbp Frederick Temple

Archbp Frederick Temple

Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury 1896-1902 and father of William, another Archbishop of Canterbury back when it ran in the family – the usual letters and family stuff, but also his “diary of self-examination 1843-9 (1 vol)”. Wouldn’t mind reading that! Confessions of feeling fed up with Queen Victoria? The young William being a pain? Then again, only one volume for 6 yrs implies either a very large volume or not much self-examination. And did he know it would one day be made public? That could cramp one’s style.





Archbp William Temple

Archbp William Temple

The next entry relates to his son William Temple – the usual church and family and business letters and the vital ‘Notes for Lent and Garter Day Addresses 1942’, but, alas, no diary of self-examination.








And one great name I could hardly ignore:

“WESLEY, John.”

John Wesley

John Wesley

My PhD supervisor, Dr Henry Rack, was and is the world expert on Wesley but because he was on sabbatical at the crucial time, I never did the relevant course with him as an undergraduate and so had a shamefully sketchy knowledge of the great leader’s life, despite being converted by Methodists back in 1971. Here there’s the usual list of letters and sermon notes and diaries, plus Holy Club Notes, kept at the “Methodist Archives in Manchester”. This made my researcher’s nose twitch again. Hmm. Must look it up on the internet. Ah, and there they are, digital reproductions in Wesley’s own handwriting, kept by – guess who – the John Rylands Library.

Perhaps, then, it’s best to hedge your bets and keep your blogs and diaries and sermons in hard copy as well as digital – just in case you get famous and the JRL starts to take an interest…

The John Rylands Library, Manchester

The John Rylands Library, Manchester

When is a Blog not a Blog?

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When is a Blog not a Blog?

I think I enjoy blogging. I often have blog-like thoughts. But a couple of years ago it seemed inconceivable that I would have my own. I had read quite a few other people’s blogs, sometimes enjoyed them, sometimes not, but none had looked like the sort of thing I might write. I had no desire to generate debate over anything. I had nothing I wanted to confess. I didn’t see why the general public might be interested in the minutiae of my life. I didn’t particularly want to share recipes, gardening tips (I didn’t have any, other than – Get a Gardener), and was worried that anything other than DIY ‘How To…’ articles would look like narcissistic rambling.

Patrick Campbell's 'Life in Thin Slices'

Patrick Campbell’s ‘Life in Thin Slices’

But now I get these blog-like ideas, at least one a day, and have to write them down. And one of the reasons is finding – well, if not a role model, then at least an inspiration. And that inspiration is the Irish comic writer and stammering raconteur Patrick Campbell (1913-1980). I picked up a second-hand copy of a book of his entitled Life in Thin Slices, mainly because it was illustrated by the superb Ronald Searle who is a hero of mine and I buy his books whenever I see them at a reasonable price [1]. I also remembered Patrick Campbell from seeing the TV show Call My Bluff when I was growing up – the intense Patrick leading his team in outstaring and outwitting and out-lying Frank Muir’s lot over the meaning of words. There was always a slight tension in wondering whether Patrick would be able to get the words out and that the audience didn’t always know whether to laugh or not. But his sheer chutzpah was often part of the joke and he obviously had a great deal of respect as a media personality. I had no idea that he was primarily a writer. Nor did I know that he was by that time Sir Patrick, the third Baron Glenavy.

The book consists of short ‘slice-of-life’ articles he wrote for various newspapers in the 1940s. If it weren’t for Searle’s crazy drawings for each section one wouldn’t necessarily know beforehand that they were funny or indeed what they were supposed to be about. There are no headings as such. And Campbell didn’t even seem to want to call it a book. He begins:

Author’s Opening Announcement: The first part of this work is divided into chapters, in a similar way to the system used in books.”

That in itself made me laugh with the very first sentence. Of course he was referring to the fact that these disparate writings had begun as articles in newspapers which had now been artificially gathered together to pass themselves off as a proper book. But I can’t help thinking he enjoyed beginning a book by implying it wasn’t a book, despite the fact that you, the reader, are holding his book in your hands at that very moment! But what a great way to describe the essence of blogging – the title of Campbell’s book Life in Thin Slices. That’s exactly what most blogging is. And I could relate to that.

He obviously had little desire to write anything of a more substantial length. He gives an amusing account of how two rival publishers (‘Publisher A’ and ‘Publisher B’) were vying to get him to write a book for them. They happened to collide at his club:

“I introduced Publisher A to Publisher B, and it was at that moment the plan occurred to me by which all three of us could extricate ourselves from a situation which up till then had clearly been without solution. ‘Gentlemen,’ I said, ‘let us lay our cards, face upwards, on the table. We know, all of us, that I am quite incapable of writing a book. Books are too long. But there is a faint – a microscopic – chance that I might just be able to record a sequence of events which would run to 50,000 words.’ At this point I put my hands on their shoulders. ‘It is not,’ I told them, ‘a possibility we can afford to overlook. But – and this is the vital point – I can only do it once, like the great grey parrot of the Congo Basin, which, in captivity, lays one egg, and then falls back spent, barren for evermore. Now, here is my proposition. I will take £50, in single, untaxable, notes, as an advance from both of you, and in exchange provide a promise, in duplicate, signed by myself and witnessed by a justice of the peace, that I will not write a book for the other.’ ‘You mean,’ said Publisher A, after a short pause, ‘that you will not write a book at all?’ ‘And receive,’ said Publisher B, ‘£100 for what we must regard as a minimal effort?’ ‘That, gentlemen, is my proposition.’ And that…, although it’s taken rather a long time to get round to it, is why I have now decided to write a play. It seems to me the only other method of earning a living, in the literary field, by doing absolutely nothing.” [2] Campbell then goes on to show how easy it could be to write something resembling a play, if you were particularly unscrupulous.

The P-P-Penguin Patrick Campbell

The P-P-Penguin Patrick Campbell

Two of the funniest sections of the book concern him being unable to speak at will. Firstly, his therapy sessions in Harley Street about his stammer – but of course being unable to speak to the therapist to discuss it. Then a dinner party where he and another person with a speech impediment had been ordered not to speak under any circumstances by the rather unfeeling hostess. But then the conversation lagged among the guests, silence fell, and Patrick and his fellow sufferer felt compelled to fill it, with predictable consequences. Patrick made a glorious eccentric achievement out of his disability. The mighty publisher Penguin in 1965 called their anthology of his work The P-P-Penguin Patrick Campbell and had it illustrated by Quentin Blake. Is this the only time a stammer has been included in the title of a book? Surely a triumph of Campbell’s self-deprecating wit and probably unthinkable in our more ‘pc’ age. (Although speech impediments are still used now as part of comedy. Think of the character Kripke in TV’s massively popular ‘The Big Bang Theory’.)

Patrick Campbell

Patrick Campbell

It is possible of course that Campbell’s difficulties in speech made him concentrate on being a brilliant communicator via prose. I think Patrick, who often couldn’t speak in public at all, helped me find my writing voice. That’s not to say I write the same sort of thing as him but his stance as comic commentator on life was one I enjoyed immensely and wished I could emulate. He could make any subject funny. And he had the courage to write on everything, no matter how mundane. The subjects themselves – commuting, buying a house, throwing a dinner party, learning to ride a bike – were hardly earth-shattering. But his joyous humour and intelligence rendered it all interesting and transformed the boring events in life into an amusing game. He made the ordinary extraordinary by virtue of his observation and imagination. He was a Charlie Chaplin of slapstick in prose, a P G Wodehouse in the elegant wit of his language as he described catching chickens or cleaning a stove. It made me ask myself: what will you notice next time you take a train or stand in a queue? And could you write it in such a way as to entertain thousands and make a living out of it? The content and style are very close to stand-up comedy but drawn out into longer anecdotal pieces that are more like short stories with the author as the hero. In fact, it’s as if Patrick Campbell was a blogger before his time. What should we call the short pieces he wrote so beautifully? Articles, essays, short stories, craic, anecdotes, belles lettres? Belles blogs perhaps? I learned recently that my fourth-ever blog post is going to be published in a book (assuming Publisher A doesn’t change his mind) – does that mean it won’t be a blog anymore? Has it become a different genre? When is a blog not a blog?

I’m a writer. I like to write down what I’m thinking and offer it to other people. Cogito, ergo scribo – I think, therefore I write. I think, therefore I blog (cogito, ergo blogo?). I can have the courage to write for the public in the first person, my ‘life in thin slices’, and assume others will find it interesting. It’s the courage every blogger needs. Thank you, Patrick.


[1] Patrick Campbell, Life in Thin Slices, Falcon Press, London, 1951.

[2] ibid., p146.

C S Lewis’ Memorial Service

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C S Lewis’ Memorial Service


Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

After being at the C S Lewis memorial events at Westminster Abbey this week – listening to lectures on C S Lewis, speaking at the C S Lewis Symposium, meeting up with C S Lewis fans and friends, and finally attending the C S Lewis service itself – I felt like having a bit of a day off today to recover, preferably on activities nothing to do with C S Lewis. Especially as I’ve also spent the last few weeks reading Lewis’ novels and writing talks about Lewis, some non-Lewis reading seemed in order, much as I love him.

But, as usually happens when I’m trying to escape a subject, the very thing I pick up instead drags me back to it – or, to put it more positively, gives new insight and perspective on the forbidden subject. This morning, as an escape, I picked up at random an old murder mystery by Ngaio Marsh called False Scent (1960). It concerns the death of a famous actress. And after being with the thousands who turned up to honour Lewis this week, I couldn’t help but resonate with the opening words of Ngaio Marsh’s story:

“When she died it was as if all the love she had inspired in so many people suddenly blossomed. She had never, of course, realised how greatly she was loved, never known that she was to be carried by six young men who would ask to perform this last courtesy: to bear her on their strong shoulders, so gently and with such dedication. Quite insignificant people were there… the family nurse… her dresser… the stage doorkeeper… Crowds of people whom she herself would have scarcely remembered but upon whom, at some time, she had bestowed the gift of her charm. All the Knights and Dames, of course, and The Management, and… the great producer who had so often directed her. Bertie Saracen who had created her dresses since the days when she was a bit-part actress and who had, indeed, risen to his present eminence in the wake of her mounting fame. But it was not for her fame that they had come to say goodbye to her. It was because, quite simply, they had loved her.”

That was exactly how I felt! I, surely, was one of those “insignificant people” who had turned up to honour Lewis on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. As a speaker at one of the commemorative events, I did have a place in the Quire of the Abbey and so was closer to the ‘action’ and so felt doubly blessed and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking along the lines of “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

Service booklet for C S Lewis' Memorial

Service booklet for C S Lewis’ Memorial

The service was stunning and moving, beginning with the oh-so-appropriate opening hymn ‘He who would valiant be’ based on Pilgrim’s Progress, then a recording of Lewis himself speaking about “getting a real self”. How strange and affecting to hear his voice in that setting. Then Dr Francis Warner, one of Lewis’ pupils, read from Isaiah 35 (including the wonderful phrase “the habitation of dragons”!), and Prof Helen Cooper, who holds Lewis’ old chair at Cambridge, read 2 Corinthians 4 (“eternal weight of glory”). There followed a particularly telling reading as Douglas Gresham, Lewis’ stepson, gave us Aslan’s welcoming of the children into his land forever after their earthly deaths from The Last Battle – hard not to shed a tear at that point if you hadn’t already. Dr Michael Ward led the dedication of the memorial that he has done so much to bring about and Walter Hooper, Lewis’ friend and secretary and the editor of his works, laid beautiful white flowers above Lewis’ name.   The Right Rev and Right Hon Rowan Williams (now “The Lord Williams of Oystermouth” – who knew?) gave a brilliant sermon on Lewis’ defense of language and the human, and the Choir sang Paul Mealor’s flowing arrangement of Lewis’ poem ‘Love’s as warm as tears’ – another opportunity for tears from the congregation. The prayers were led by a wonderful array of clergy representing the geography of Lewis’ life and the service ended on an uplifting note with ‘O praise ye the Lord!’

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet's Corner

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet’s Corner

There was then the chance for us to actually see the memorial with Lewis’ name in the stone floor of Poet’s Corner, cut with his own words: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”

There may often be people going to services at Westminster Abbey just to see the magnificence of the building (and not pay the usual £18 entrance fee – there’s a tip for you) or some may have been tempted to come simply because Lewis is now a celebrity, as opposed to the very few who went to his funeral in 1963. But I don’t think this was the case yesterday on the 22nd of November, 2013. If I can adapt the words of the Ngaio Marsh story:

“But it was not for his fame that they had come to say goodbye to him. It was because, quite simply, they had loved him.”

Writing as Work and Vocation

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Writing as Work and Vocation

Writing as Work and Vocation

Writing as Work and Vocation

Writers often comment on how strange it is to be writing a new book each day whilst still having to promote their previous book that has only just come out. I certainly feel that way as I am working on my next book (a comic literary novel) at the same time as having to get A Murder in Michaelmas noticed and sold. There is also the next murder mystery to plan and ideas for that keep popping into my head when I’m supposed to be doing other things. And that’s apart from any non-fiction, articles, poetry, etc, that also keep demanding their own time slots. How I ever did a full-time job teaching in a college and get any writing done astounds me! Well, I suppose it was by getting up even earlier in the morning to try and fit in an hour a day, and doing the reading for each project on my ‘day off’.

There are several very good books on how to start up your own business while still in a regular job (eg. Working 5 to 9: How to Start a Successful Business in your Spare Time by Emma Jones) but the emphasis on working all your evenings and weekends as well as a normal job makes you realise that you’ve got to really love that hobby that you want to turn into your main earner. It’s the old truism about vocation – you know you’ve found it when you would do it for nothing and when you can’t believe you’re actually getting paid for doing the thing you love. I certainly felt like that a lot of the time when teaching in college as that is also part of my vocation and I loved being part of the college community. It was just frustrating not having enough time each day to do the rest of my calling, ie. writing. But now, as even my writing threatens to become my daily ‘work’ and multiple tasks clamour for my attention, it’s good to remember the words of Frederick Buechner: “Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” I feel very privileged to be able to work each day out of a place of deep gladness. As to how much the world is hungering for what I have to share, we shall see…