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."


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


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. :)


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.