Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Thank You, Alison Weir!

I am pretty sure I've read all of Alison Weir's books, not just those bestsellers set in the Tudor era but books on Eleanor of Aquitaine, Katherine Swynford, and the Wars of the Roses players. Her current series of novels on the wives of Henry VIII is fantastic--she unveils new theories on each wife through the novel. And I particularly enjoyed Queens of the Conquest: England's Medieval Queens.

And it's not just me that enjoys and values her work. Alison, the biggest selling female historian in the United Kingdom, has sold more than 2 million books around the world.

When I found out Alison liked my Joanna Stafford trilogy, it was a surprise. I hadn't sent the first novel to her--I was too nervous--but when I worked up my courage to friend her on Facebook, she accepted and told me she'd just read The Crown and really liked it. That was a good day!

I am thrilled and grateful that Alison posted this: "Nancy Bilyeau, whose wonderful Crown trilogy I hugely enjoyed, has just published a new novel, The Blue, which I highly recommend."

 (https://www.facebook.com/alison.weir.980)

Happy dance!


Alison Weir

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Christmas in Georgian England: The Magic and the Myths

By Nancy Bilyeau



Some people cherish an image of Victorian Christmas as the peak of all celebrations. This was when the Christmas tree first found its way into English homes, thanks to Prince Albert, and when families gathered to "make merry" and give thanks for their good fortune, just as they did in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Um, that's not quite right.

While there is a strong belief that Albert brought with him from Saxe-Coburg the tradition of a Christmas tree, the honors belong to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. She was raised in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and it was following her marriage to George in 1761 that the tree tradition found its way to England.



As for the bubbling warmth of a Dickens' Christmas, look closer. He actually wrote it in a fury to make a point over the government's callousness to hunger and poverty in England--"the Hungry Forties"--as well as to make some money quickly. Dickens himself was strapped for cash. Much of the original novella is a passionate argument for more compassion for the near-starving in England. (You can read more about it in my article about The Story Behind Dickens Writing 'A Christmas Carol')

No, I would argue that it's the people of the Georgian era, encompassing my beloved 18th century, that got Christmas off the ground, so to speak.

Queen Charlotte's Tree
 

The tradition of chopping a yew branch and bringing it inside for Christmas was quite popular in Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Samuel Coleridge, while visiting the Northern German duchy in the late 18th century, was impressed enough to write about it:

"On the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlors is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough ... and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces."
Queen Charlotte

At first Queen Charlotte confined her importing of German Christmas traditions to mounting a decorated yew branch, but in 1800 she threw a memorable party at Windsor for the kingdom's leading families, showing off an entire tree. Dr John Watkins wrote with some awe of how "from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles." He said that "after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted."

Before long, anybody who was anybody wanted a Christmas tree.


The Punch Bowl 

Who doesn't enjoy a dip into the punch bowl during the holiday season?

Any idea that the punch bowl belongs to the Victorians is wrong. This was not only a custom but an obsession for the Georgians. They did not do things by halves in the 18th century. Everyone drank. A lot. William Pitt the Younger, prime minister from 1783 to 1801, was said to have drunk a bottle of port before giving a speech before the House of Commons.

Punch was made using a mixture of rum or brandy, adding sugar, citrus fruit, spices – sometimes grated nutmeg – and adding water. The punch bowls could be ordinary, or splendid. Some were created to commemorate a victory or birth.

Gathering around a punch bowl was seen as the height of happiness. One man wrote:

"…we hope nothing will ever hinder a Man drinking a Bowl of Punch with his Friend, that’s one of the greatest pleasures we enjoy in the Country, after our labour."


It cannot be denied that imbibing punch, at Christmas and other times, sometimes went too far. William Hogarth captured that in his satirical print A Modern Midnight Conversation. Says the British Museum about Hogarth's creation, dated to 1733: "A drinking scene with eleven men in a panelled room around a table on which is a punch-bowl decorated with Chinese figures; wine bottles on the floor and mantelpiece and an overflowing chamber pot at lower left."

The oil painting of Hogarth's widely disseminated image was, interestingly, purchased by King Edward VII.




Hogarth's 'A Midnight Modern Conversation'


Plum Pudding

You can get into deep trouble claiming a century as the most important in the evolution of plum pudding, but I'm going to live dangerously by claiming the 18th. True, it was invented in medieval times but it was called "frumenty," made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices, and very watery. The Puritans banned it, who knows why, and when Charles II restored the monarchy, nobody particularly wanted to restore frumentary.

The story goes that George I, after tasting it, called for its return shortly after his accession in 1714, and it was served at royal feasts for Christmas. He was accordingly dubbed the "Pudding King." (By the way, this has been debunked by some as hokum invented during the 20th century reign of George V to bolster the image of the monarchy, though why the much-respected George V needed a boost from George I two centuries later is unexplained.)

In any event, plum pudding, as it was now called, tasted differently than frumenty. Recipes called for more dried fruit and sugar. There were rarely any plums but there were raisins. Samuel Johnson himself wrote that the definition of plum was "raisin; grape dried in the sun."

Plum pudding became more and more  popular, and was officially linked to Christmas in the 1830s, in the reign of William IV. He was quite fond of it, and even gave a feast for 3,000 people on his birthday in 1830, offering boiled and roasted beef and plum pudding.

The bowling ball we love: plum pudding


Some historians and food writers declare that plum pudding took its place as dessert for Christmas dinner in the Victorian era, during the time of William IV. It's been a staple since. One writer sighed over "the glossy, currant-speckled cannon-ball that appears on Victorian-style Christmas cards."

Only one problem with that: William IV, uncle of Victoria, was the last Georgian king. :)

Victorian family enjoying their Christmas dessert, one made possible by the Georgians




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Now that you're in a proper mood to celebrate the 18th century, I'm giving away three signed copies of my new novel, The Blue. It's the story of a Huguenot artist who becomes caught up in a spy mission in a porcelain factory.





And in the novel, William Hogarth and punch bowls do appear :)

To enter the competition, leave a comment below. If it's appropriate, share with us in your comments your favorite Christmas tree tradition.

Thank you!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Unbearable Beauty of a Sevres Porcelain Ship

My novel The Blue sends the main character, Huguenot artist Genevieve Planche, into the heart of the porcelain business that thrived in Enlightenment Europe. It is a spy story, a love story--and also a story of art.

This is not about making plates and cups and other dishes, although in the 18th century wealthy people did use their porcelain at the table.

The celebrated Sevres pieces of the 1750s are ravishing. They are works of beauty, but so elaborate and decorated that it's like eating too much rich candy. You feel as if you could get a stomach ache looking at Sevres porcelain. And you'd still enjoy it.

Madame de Pompadour


The preeminent porcelain factory, or workshop, of the time was that of Sevres, near Versailles in France. It was the patronage of Madame de Pompadour, the elegant and cultured mistress of Louis XV, that powered Sevres. Without her, Sevres could not have survived. Fortunately for the many highly trained artists, sculptors, chemists and decorators employed there, Pompadour was obsessed with the factory.

It is difficult to even grasp the difficulty and expense of creating an intricate piece of Sevres soft-paste porcelain in the 1750s, when my novel takes place. Jean Hellot, the chief chemist, said the goal was to produce porcelain of such translucence it was like "squeezed snow." Then came the painters and the gilders.

I offer you as an example one type of porcelain Sevres produced: Pot pourri à vaisseau, or the pot pourri holder as a ship. These were produced from 1757 to the early 1760s. Frivolous to an extreme, they were exquisite--and decadent. While war raged and some French people were starving to death, enormous effort was put into these ultra-luxury objects. Supposedly they held the pot pourri people used in order to scent a room.




They were some of the largest pieces produced by the factory, and quite difficult to fire. They tended to collapse in the kiln. Only ten survive today. The one shown in the photo above is part of the collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, one of only four "ships" in the United States.

Resting on a gilded wooden base, it takes the form of a stylized boat, complete with rigging, port-holes and a flag. The lower part is decorated with a scene of sailors packing fish on the front, and a marine themed trophy on the back, painted by Jean-Louis Morin.

The scene of sailors preparing a boat, painted during this period, could only have been inspired by the Seven Years War, in which France and Austria battled England and Prussia. What was at stake was supremacy in Europe and the colonies spread across the world--would it be France or England? Historians say that Madame de Pompadour supported this war, and pushed her royal lover to declare it. But it was a loss for France, a turning point, and she was ultimately blamed.

The design of the vase is attributed to Jean-Claude Duplessis père. He was a a goldsmith, sculptor and ceramics modeller, bronze-founder and decorative designer who worked in the Rococo style. He invented these boats, which were cherished by Madame de Pompadour.

A number of boats survived the French Revolution, as did the factory itself. The Revolutionaries did not burn down Sevres but respected its talent. A little later, Napoleon and Josephine took pride in Sevres porcelain, as did Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III.

At the turn of the century, a wealthy Baltimore railroad magnate and collector named Henry Walters took a fancy to the ship, purchased it, and bequeathed it to the city in 1932.

Across the centuries, the porcelain ship still exerted a fascination for the wealthy. Some things just don't change. :)

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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the 18th century-set novel 'The Blue,' published on Dec. 3, 2018, in the US, the UK, Australia and Canada. The protagonist is a Huguenot artist living in Spitalfields who becomes a spy in a porcelain factory. Publishers Weekly said, "Historical fans will be well satisfied."



















I'm on the Cover of The Big Thrill!

Very pleased to be on a magazine cover for the first time ever :) I was interviewed by Dawn Ius, an editor of The Big Thrill, on my new novel The Blue. How I got the idea for the book, the historical underpinnings of the 18th century, and creating the characters.




She concluded the feature with:

"The novel, both beautifully written and historically impressive, delivers surprises not only for the author, but for the reader as well, demonstrating just how much one is willing to suffer in pursuit and protection of their dreams."


To read the whole story, go here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Historical Novelist Tony Riches on Finding the 'Real' Mary Tudor








I've been impressed with the fiction of Tony Riches for quite some time. Tony writes about the early Tudors, bringing to life the exciting dramas of Owen Tudor and his sons, Edmund and Jasper Tudor. Without these men, there'd have been no dynasty at all!

The novel I just read is Mary, Tudor Princess. It's a book about the sister of Henry VIII. I liked it so much I asked Tony for an interview!


NB: I found your depiction of Mary Tudor very fresh. She seemed younger and more naive in this story than in other depictions. Did you have a strong idea of her character before you began or did it evolve as you wrote?

TR: My first encounter with Mary was her birth in book three of my Tudor trilogy. She was close to her mother and shared many of her mother’s qualities, and of course her paternal grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. When I finished the trilogy, I had a wealth of information about Mary Tudor – and decided her amazing story would make the perfect ‘sequel’.


What were your main sources of information on Mary?

One of the most useful sources was Erin Sadlack’s book ‘The French Queen’s Letters: Mary Tudor Brandon and the Politics of Marriage in Sixteenth-Century Europe (Queenship and Power)’. As well as translations of all Mary’s surviving letters, this has invaluable analysis of the context. I also discovered a wonderful biography, ‘Mary Tudor the White Queen’, by Walter Richardson. This is full of fascinating details which I could research further to bring her world to life. The most intriguing research was my visit to her home at Westhorpe and to see Mary’s tomb in Bury St Edmunds (where I also saw a lock of her hair).


What surprised you the most in your research of her?

I think it was her stoical acceptance of her brother Henry’s insistence that she should marry the aging King of France. It seems she accepted his wishes as her duty – and tried to make the best of it. Mary insisted on being referred to as ‘Queen of France’ for the rest of her life.


Your depiction of Catherine of Aragon came alive in this novel. Young Catherine is so different than the woman we meet in the many Anne Boleyn novels. How did you develop this view of her?

As with Mary, I’ve ‘lived’ with Queen Catherine for the last few years, as she first appears as a fifteen-year-old in my Tudor trilogy. I recommend Giles Tremlett’s biography, ‘Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s Spanish Queen’ to anyone who would like to see beyond the more traditional treatment of Catherine. The developing friendship between Catherine and Mary was interesting to write.




What led you to this series, and specifically to Owen Tudor?


I was born in Pembroke, Wales, birthplace of Henry Tudor, and began researching his life – as like most people I barely recalled a mention of him in school history lessons, as the focus was always on Henry VIII and his wives. I eventually had so much material I realised I could write his story as a trilogy, with Henry being born in book one, ‘coming of age’ in book two and becoming King of England in book three. At the time I wrote Owen there were no books about his life, so I wanted people to appreciate how he founded the Tudor dynasty.



Does living in Wales give you a special viewpoint on the early Tudors?




Yes. Pembroke Castle is well preserved and only a few miles from where I live, as is Edmund Tudor’s tomb at St David’s Cathedral. Henry and Jasper escaped to exile from the nearby coastal town of Tenby, so it was easy for me to ‘follow in their footsteps’ all the way to the remote chateaus in Brittany which feature in my books. Last year a group of us raised the funding for a bronze statue of Henry Tudor to be placed in front of Pembroke Castle, so now no one can forget the Tudor connections to the town.

Henry Tudor statue at Pembroke Castle



I must confess I find the romanticism of Charles Brandon in many mediums trying. I think a lot of it has to do with Henry Cavill playing him in The Tudors. How did you approach such a famous figure from Henry VIII's court?


I researched Charles Brandon for my book on Mary, and realised there was much more to him than is generally known. This inspired me to write my latest book, ‘Brandon – Tudor Knight’ which follows him from his early days with Anne Browne and the young Henry, through his life with Mary, and on to his final marriage to his young ward, Catherine Willoughby. Brandon was no saint - but I’ve tried to show why he acted as he did. I also kept his story as factually accurate as possible and hope this new book will help readers understand him.



Do you think that in the end Mary made the right choice in Brandon?




Mary’s life would have been so different if King Louis XII of France had lived even a few more years, as I don’t think Brandon would have been able to wait for her. The problem she had was that Louis’ successor, King Francis, would have happily married his widowed stepmother off to whoever he wanted a favour from. I believe Mary married for love, despite the risks – and that Brandon loved her in his own way for the rest of her life.





# # #

Tony Riches


Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. Tony was a finalist in the 2017 Amazon Storyteller Awards and is listed 130th in the 2018 Top 200 list of the Most Influential Authors. For more information about Tony’s books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Secrets of Mary Jane Kelly, Jack the Ripper's Last Victim

by Nancy Bilyeau

A mournful funeral procession made its way to St. Patrick's Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone on Nov. 19th, 1888. Thousands lined the streets to say farewell to the woman in the coffin, some of them weeping.

"God forgive her," some called out as the procession lumbered past.

Forgive her for what?

The story began the morning of Nov. 9th, ten days before. James Whitehead, a 54-year-old merchant who'd made a successful second career in politics, was the star of the Lord Mayor's Show, a London tradition that was always held on this date. As the city's new mayor, Whitehead, a champion of reform, had desired a more stately event than the circus-like Mayor's parade famous since the 16th century. But, heedless of Whitehead's embarrassment, crowds gathered along the Gresham Street to Guildhall route, with many police called upon to patrol and control.

It was perhaps a welcome distraction from the horror.

For the past six months, London had been transfixed and terrorized by the murders of a series of women in the Whitechapel District of the East End. The last of the horrific slayings--dubbed the "Double Event" as two prostitutes, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, had their throats cut within two hours of each other--was on Sunday, September 30th.

The stereotypical image of Jack the Ripper.
In reality, to blend in on Dorset Street and the rest of Spitalfields,
the murderer would have had to appear much less posh.

Although the police had interviewed at least 2,000 people, they had not zeroed in on the man responsible, the same one who may or may not have written taunting letters to the newspapers signed "Jack the Ripper." There was some hope the killing spree was over, since more than a month had passed. The Lord Mayor's Show was an occasion to forget fear and try to celebrate.

One person not hurrying to the parade was Jack McCarthy, landlord of many properties in Whitechapel occupied by the destitute, ranging from the respectable working poor to thieves, gamblers, hopeless alcoholics and "Unfortunates," the Victorian euphemism for prostitutes. As always, McCarthy had money on his mind. Around 10:30 am, McCarthy told his assistant, Thomas Bowyer, to try to collect the rent in arrears at No. 13 Miller's Court, a ground-floor room on a narrow 20-foot-long cul de sac of Dorset Street.

Even within Spitalfields, an overcrowded East End parish infamous for its poverty, crime and filth, Dorset Street was in a class all its own. Part of the "wicked quarter mile," it was a 130-yard-long street almost entirely occupied by common lodging houses and pubs. In 1901, the Daily Mail, under the headline "The Worst Street in London," would publish an article saying, "...The lodging houses of Dorset Street and of the district around are the head centers of the shifting criminal population of London... the common thief, the pickpocket, the area meak, the man who robs with violence, the unconvicted murderer..."

As grim as these lodgings were, the alternative--"sleeping rough"--was worse. Many of the poor struggled on a daily basis to pay for their "doss house" bed.  The September 8th victim of Jack the Ripper, 47-year-old Annie Chapman, was murdered while trying to earn enough money on the streets to pay the nightly charge at her common lodging house at 35 Dorset Street.

Dorset Street, dubbed "the worst street in London"

At 10:45 a.m. Thomas Bowyer knocked on the door of 13 Miller's Court. In April of that year a Billingsgate Market fish porter, Joseph Barnett, and his pretty young companion, Mary Jane Kelly, had moved into the room, costing 4s/6d a week. It was 10-foot-square with two small windows, a bed, two tables and a fireplace. In Spitalfields, this was a home better than the average.

But Barnett lost his job. He moved out after quarreling with Mary on October 30. She was living there alone, a common sight in the neighboring pubs, drinking with friends. Although she told those friends she was afraid of Jack the Ripper, Mary had turned to prostitution to support herself. It was not her first time earning her living as an "Unfortunate."

Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti began Found,
his painting depicting a prostitute, in 1855 and worked on it
on and off until a year before his death in 1881.

No one answered the knock on the door. The small window next to the door had been broken weeks earlier by Barnett or Mary and was blocked by a heavy material hanging from the inside.  Bowyer pushed aside the material to see inside. Seconds later, sickened and horrified, he ran to fetch landlord McCarthy.

The law on Ripper Street

The series Ripper Street centers on the ingenuity of late 19th century East End police. The reality was different. An inspector joined the men at the Miller's Court window but did not provide initiative. The group summoned a doctor. The doctor had the presence of mind to call for a photographer. But the door was locked--McCarthy had no key--and the group waited outside, first for trail-sniffing bloodhounds that never showed up and then for someone to make the decision on how to enter the room. At 1:30 pm, McCarthy finally broke through the door with a pickax. This delay made it even harder to set the time of death, which is hotly debated to this day. Some put it as early as 1 a.m., others say it was as late as 8 a.m., with the murderer taking advantage of police being preoccupied with the Lord Mayor's Show.

Two days later, Mary Jane Kelly was formally identified at the mortuary by Joseph Barnett, who was questioned and cleared of suspicion. As the city responded with panic and revulsion, doctors performed their post-mortem and police gathered what information they could. It had been a cold night of drizzling rain. No one had seen or heard anything suspicious besides a soft female cry of "Oh, murder" at about 3:30 am. That cry was ignored.

It seemed incredible--even supernatural--that she'd been killed in such a crowded area. Despite the presence of hundreds of people nearby, sleeping fitfully, coming and going all night, men in and out of pubs and prostitutes returning to their rooms to warm up before going back on the streets,  no man was seen leaving Mary's room, covered with blood or otherwise, although Miller's Court was just a little over a yard wide and lit by a gas lamp. Mary herself was seen and heard by neighbors throughout the preceding day and sporadically that night as she looked for business. Just before midnight, a neighbor saw Mary lead a man with a "blotchy" face and a thick "carrot" mustache to her room. At 2 a.m., an acquaintance spotted Mary with a man on Commercial Street, 5 foot 7 or so, in his 30s, "respectable appearance." After sharing a laugh and a kiss, they walked together to Dorset Street and toward her home. Was either of these men her killer?

Although an elaborate mythology has grown up of dark involvement by the Royal Family--particularly Prince Albert Victor--nothing in these theories has any connection to fact. Far from being indifferent to the Whitechapel murders, Queen Victoria was upset and concerned.

Queen Victoria in 1885

On November 10th, the day after the murder, she sent a telegram to Prime Minister Lord Salisbury: "This new most ghastly murder shows the absolute necessity for some very decided action. All these courts must be lit, & our detectives improved. They are not what they should be. You promised, when the 1st murders took place to consult with your colleagues about it." Three days later, Her Majesty sent her ideas to the Home Secretary of what the detectives should focus on, including "The murderer's clothes must be saturated with blood and must be kept somewhere!"

As for the persistent association of Queen Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward, the Duke of Clarence to the public and Prince Eddy to friends, with the crimes, the prince was unquestionably not prowling the East End at the time of the murders. Documentation has placed him far away from London. On the night of the "double event," Prince Eddy was at Balmoral. To account for this inconvenient fact, subsequent theories have his doctor or trusted aide killing off prostitutes to cover up a secret marriage or as vengeance for syphilis. These are fantasies.

Although he was not a man fond of learning, Prince Eddy's reputation for depravity is undeserved. A new theory is that some people in the 20th century confuse the reputation of Eddy, who died of influenza at age 28, with another royal heir, Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, who died in a murder-suicide with his teenage mistress in 1889. Shy, insecure and partially deaf, Eddy during his short life is known to have hurt no one. His greatest crime was possibly boring people.

So where did all of this come from? In 1970 a retired British physician, Dr. Thomas Stowell, published an article in The Criminologist suggesting Prince Eddy was involved, based on documents he claimed to have seen (and no one else has unearthed). Dr. Stowell, rather eerily, died days after the controversial article was published. His son burned his papers shortly afterward. The hook, however, was baited. All sorts of feverish theories followed, including the one outlined in the 1979 film Murder By Decree: That Prince Eddy's doctor and friends slaughtered the five prostitutes because they knew he had secretly married an East End woman named Annie Crook. The case is solved by Sherlock Holmes. :)

Prince Eddy, whose reputation has been linked to the Jack the Ripper killings.

One of the reasons there was so much fascination with Mary Kelly, then and now, is she was young and pretty. She was "fair as a lily" and had "blue eyes and a very fine head of hair which reached nearly to her waist." She "was on pleasant terms with everybody," one contemporary said. Her landlord McCarthy said she was "a very quiet woman when sober but noisy when in drink."

Barnett testified as to his dead lover's background:

Mary Kelly has been portrayed in many films and
TV series such as From Hell's Heather Graham.
The real Kelly was not photographed,
except for the shocking pictures of her corpse.
"She said she was born in Limerick and went when very young to Wales. She did not say how long she lived there, but that she came to London about four years ago. Her Father's name was John Kelly, a gaffer or a foreman in an ironworks in Carnarvonshire or Carmarthen. She said she had one sister, who was respectable, who traveled  from market place to market place. This sister was very fond of her. There were six brothers in London and one in the Army. One of them was named Henry. I never saw her brothers. She said she was married when very young to a collier in Wales. I think the name was Davis or Davies. She said she lived with him until he was killed in an explosion.
After her husband's death she went to Cardiff to a cousin. She was following a bad life with her cousin, who, as I often told her, was her downfall. She was in a gay house [brothel] in the West End, but in what part she did not say. A gentleman came there to her and asked her if she would like to go to France... She did not remain long..."

A friend confirmed that Mary said she was originally from Ireland. She talked of receiving letters from a beloved mother and hoping to reunite with her and live there.

Nonetheless, in the 137 years since her death, no fact about Mary Jane Kelly's background has been verified. * Despite the efforts of many Ripper scholars, there are no records of her birth or marriage or residency in Ireland or Wales or France. No member of her family attended her funeral or came forward after her murder; no one could find evidence of the young husband's life or death. There is not a trace of her to be found before she came to London. This was not the case for the other four women thought certain to have been killed by the Ripper--known to Ripperologists as the Canonical Five. Researchers have records of birth and marriage, employment, even a wedding photo of one woman.

It is possible that Mary Jane Kelly used a false name the entire time Barnett and their friends knew her and invented all the details and names of family and husband. If so, will anyone ever discover her real identity? Because she was the last agreed-upon victim of Jack the Ripper, the youngest, the most horribly murdered and the most mysterious, she maintains an inescapable grip on the imagination of those obsessed with the crimes, unsolved to this day.

On Monday November 19th, 1888, the woman known as Mary Jane Kelly was buried at St. Patrick's Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone. Barnett and her friends could not pay for her funeral; the expenses were met by a sexton of Shoreditch. Thousands attended the six-mile-long procession, some straining to touch her coffin. Men removed their hats; women called out, "God forgive her." Two mourning carriages followed carrying Barnett and five women friends. The coffin was carried to an open grave listed as No. 16, Row 67.

The entrance to St. Patrick's Catholic Cemetery

On the night of her murder, neighbors on Miller's Court had heard Mary Jane Kelly singing in her room one of her favorite songs, over and over, for about a half hour between midnight and 1 a.m.. The song was "A Violet From Mother's Grave," written circa 1881.

 Scenes of my childhood arise before my gaze
Bringing recollections of bygone happy days.
When down in the meadows in childhood I would roam,
No one's left to cheer me now within that good old home,
Father and Mother, they'd have pass'd away;
Sister and brother, now lay beneath the clay.
But while life does remain to cheer me, I'll retain
This small violet I pluck'd from mother's grave.

Only a violet I pluck'd when but a boy,
And oft' time when I'm sad at heart this flow'r has giv'n me joy;
So whole life does remain in memoriam I'll retain,
This small violet I pluck'd from mother's grave.

Well I remember my dear old mother's smile,
As she used to free me when I returned from toil,
Always knitting in the old arm chair,
Father used to sit and read for all us children there,
But now all is silent around the good old home;
They all have left me in sorrow here to roam,
But while life does remain, in memoriam I'll retain
This small violet I pluck'd from mother's grave

* A recent book, 'The Real Mary Kelly,' makes the claim that she was killed by her former husband, a reporter covering the Ripper murders.

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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of The Blue, a thriller set in the 18th century, and a trilogy of historical mysteries: The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Goodreads Review : "' The Blue' Is a Triumph"

I'm pleased and honored to share this review written by mystery author James Lincoln Warren. James is a frequent contributor to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and is the author of two mystery short fiction series and several standalone short stories. The "Treviscoe of Lloyd's" series features 18th century insurance investigator Alan Treviscoe.

The review was posted on Goodreads.






By James Lincoln Warren


Crime fiction is primarily a literature of human behavior under extreme moral pressure. At its worst, it is sensationalist and emotionally shallow at one extreme, and escapist and emotionally inauthentic at the other. But at its best, it is a contemplation on the power of evil acting upon both the innocent and the culpable, the dangers and rewards of shadowy compromise on the one hand and moral inflexibility on the other, and the confused morass of human motivations and interactions.

Good historical crime fiction, by changing its cultural context to another time, compelling the reader to compare the past with the present, benefits by limning these issues against an ethical background that starkly contrasts with the familiar. In 18th century England, a pickpocket could be hanged for stealing a handkerchief, but human trafficking was perfectly lawful.

By their nature, historical mysteries provide the reader with two complementary insights.

The first is an awareness of how differently people behaved in the past than they do today, conveying how much our attitudes have evolved over time, and stimulates meditation regarding our ethical evolution our time, good and bad.

The second, and to my mind, more important, is an awareness of how much people remain very much the same, and how much their existence is governed by their essential humanity, irrespective of the wider circumstances. Crimes and sins may change, but love, hate, hunger, greed, and compassion, to name just a few characteristics, are eternal.

As are certain themes—the themes explored by Nancy Bilyeau.

In her new novel, The Blue, Bilyeau revisits several of the dominant themes she explored in her well-received earlier trilogy featuring Joanna Stafford, a displaced young nun in Henry VIII’s England, but sets the drama in 18th century England and France, during the Seven Years’ War. Like the Stafford novels, The Blue is a first-person narrative (but in present tense) told by an artistically gifted young woman frustrated by the restrictions placed upon her in the society in which she lives. Along the way, there are other similarities: discussions on the nature and abuse of power, the major and minor tragedies attending religious intolerance, the role and purpose of art, the loneliness of exile, the pitfalls of overweening ambition, the need for painstaking discretion to avoid peril, the challenges of keeping a pure conscience, the pain of imprisonment (both literal and figurative), and romantic love as a means of salvation.

It may seem on the surface that The Blue is a reiteration of the story told in The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry. Even the similarity of all the titles may seem to indicate that the books are all one of a piece. But this is misleading.

Joanna Strafford was a nun who had to learn how to live out of the cloister as a layperson against her will. Genevieve Planché, the protagonist of The Blue, is a third generation English Huguenot, a staunchly anti-Catholic Calvinist, who knows exactly how to thrive in her community as far as she is allowed to do so, but dares to dream of a more fulfilling existence. Joanna lost her vocation, but Genevieve is looking for how to enter hers: she longs to be a serious painter in oils, an occupation closed to women. (The first celebrated female portraitist was still a generation away: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was only three years old when The Blue takes place, and was a scion of Paris salon society rather than a middle-class member of an iconoclastic sect.)

And the title has a secondary meaning from its literal one. Crowns, chalices, and tapestries, while powerful symbols, are tangible things. The color blue, however, is an abstraction, tangible only to the eye, and was at the time the most sought after tincture in the spectrum. A rich, enveloping, royal blue—although there was Prussian blue available at the time, it was not considered entirely adequate—a blue that was just beyond the reach of art. Like Genevieve’s ambition, it was an artistic goal fraught with barriers and obstacles.

Although Genevieve’s quest is directed squarely at canvas, the primary medium for this color to which Bilyeau directs our attention is fine porcelain: delicate, fragile, sublime, formed through a metamorphosis of rough clay, God’s earthly material for creating Man, into something altogether precious and celestial, the paragon of taste and elegance.

Something that leads beyond simple avarice. Something that leads to obsession.

That singular theme is something new in her work, and imbues her story with an even greater psychological depth.

Nancy Bilyeau has given us a world of industrial espionage and international intrigue, high art and low cunning, profound love and intractable hatred, rational discourse and irrational behavior, all for the love of a color, painted in deft strokes both fine and broad. The Blue is a triumph.


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[Full disclosure: this book was provided to me by the author’s publicist at the author’s request. I moderated Nancy Bilyeau’s first appearance in a panel at a mystery convention, Bouchercon XLIV in 2013 in Albany, NY. The topic was historical mysteries.]