Announcing my new novel and the fascinating world of 18th century dressmakers.

the dressmaker of draper's lane cover

In just over a month (21st February) my sixth novel, The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane, will be published by Pan Macmillan (UK only, for the moment).

The story behind it came when I was writing a previous novel, The Silk Weaver,  inspired by the history of my family’s silk business, which started in East London in the early 1700s. The company, now based in Suffolk, is one of just three in the country still weaving today.

At first, Miss Charlotte was just a minor, character – a go-between, useful for taking the plot forward – but she soon grew in personality and importance, and I realised that her backstory was begging to be told. Most seamstresses were poorly-paid workers but a very few were fortunate enough to run their own businesses, allowing them financial freedom and an ability to move between the layers of society in a way not available to others according to the strict mores of the time.

Miss Charlotte is different: she is happily unmarried, and an independent businesswoman in the days when this was most unusual. She ought to be content, but something is missing, and the discovery of a rare piece of silk sets her off on a search that will change her life.

I loved returning to the setting of 18th century London.  It was a fascinating era, a time of much societal change: trade barriers were relaxed, the industrial revolution was about to begin, capitalism was on the rise as a newly wealthy middle class became consumers, and great thinkers and explorers of the Enlightenment were opening up their knowledge of the world. And of course, it was the time when the first Foundling Hospital was established in London.

Researching and writing my own family’s silk weaving history has brought a greater sense of connection to my ancestors and an appreciation of the remarkable fabrics they have created over three hundred years. As it approaches its 300th anniversary in 2020, Stephen Walters & Sons is certainly the oldest silk company and probably one of very few continuously family-owned companies of any kind in Britain, and I am very proud to be connected with that heritage.

Check out my events page for dates and venues when I’ll be talking about my research and inspirations.

 

It’s been a sobering day

Flanders 1919.jpg

Today I went to the Remembrance Sunday parade, wreath laying and two minute silence in my home town of Colchester – a garrison town – and was moved to tears by the Band of the Parachute Regiment and the ranks of proud soldiers and veterans, many literally weighed down by their medals.

Tomorrow (Monday 12th November) I’ll be talking about the ones they left behind, and the thousands who went in search of their loved ones in the devastated lands of Flanders and the Somme, and showing photographs of those very first ‘battlefield tourists’. It’s a field of research I discovered when writing my latest book In Love and War.

My illustrated talk, Searching for Remembrance, is being hosted by the fabulous independent Caxton Books at the Oasis Centre, Connaught Avenue in Frinton on Sea. Tickets are £5, and it starts at 3pm. See you there.

 

A quiet thought for Armistice Day

Tyne Cot cemetery 1920.jpg

When you are standing at your hero's grave,

Or near some homeless village where he died,

Remember, through your heart's rekindling pride,

The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.




Men fought like brutes, and hideous things were done,

And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.

But in that Golgotha, perhaps you'll find

The mothers of the men who killed  your son.




Reconciliation by Siegfried Sassoon 1918

Quoted as an inspiration for my novel, In Love and War


Searching for reconciliation

Honouring the dead in Flanders, 1919

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, millions of visitors will flock to the cemeteries and battlefields of Flanders and the Somme.

What is little known is that these tours actually began a hundred years ago.  In 1919, within weeks of the Armistice, thousands flocked across the Channel on what was then an extremely daunting and risky journey, in a desperate search for news of their lost loved ones.

The very first organised trips were run for ‘pilgrims’ by church groups, but companies such as Thomas Cook and Michelin soon realised their commercial potential. Their involvement was highly controversial; furious arguments raged in the letters pages of newspapers about the way in which these ‘sacred places’, where so many died, were being so distastefully ‘desecrated by the spectre of commercial tourism’.

Others believed they provided a vital way of remembering and honouring the sacrifice made by that ‘lost generation’, arguing at the same time that visitors brought much-needed income to areas in desperate need of funding to rebuild their shattered lands.

I will be talking and showing photographs of the research into early battlefield tourism carried out for my latest novel, In Love and War, (published in the United States as The Lost Soldiers) at the Roman River Festival  in my home town of Colchester UK next week (19th September). Click on the link for more details. The talk is free, but booking is advisable.

 

The Lost Soldiers (aka In Love and War)

Ever get the feeling you’ve seen something somewhere before? The image on this cover is the same as the UK version, but my US publishers, Bookouture, have changed the title of In Love and War to The Lost Soldiers because they believe it will have more appeal for American readers. And so it has already proved – sales are now moving faster!

The Lost Soldiers

This seems a good time to apologise for the wrong posting of my previous novel, The Silk Weaver for sale on UK Amazon under the different title given to it by my US publishers, The Hidden Thread. Of course it should only have been available in the US (on Amazon.com). Several people have bought it in good faith thinking it was a new title, only to be quite naturally disappointed to discover they had already read it.

Both American and British publishers apologise for this problem and have been trying to fix it. You’d think it would be simple, but as with all things Amazon, it never is. Something to do with ‘leaking territories’ (sounds painful), algorithms, blah blah blah. Apparently it is not uncommon.

If you have been caught out I suggest you return it to Amazon and ask for a refund. I can only apologise again and hope it doesn’t happen with this new title.

In Love and War reaches US and Canada

In Love and War - Square Graphic - 7

I am proud to announce the publication of In Love and War in the United States and Canada by publishers Bookouture this week. It is available as ebook and paperback via Amazon.

In Love and War is tells the little-known story of the first ever ‘battlefield tourists’, intrepid travellers who visited the devastated areas of Flanders and The Somme almost as soon as the WW1 armistice was signed, almost a hundred years ago.

Among my characters is a feisty American woman whose brother who, frustrated with their government’s dithering, bravely joined up to fight with the Canadian forces. Desperate to discover what happened to him she undertakes the harrowing journey to Ypres, little realising how much the journey will change her, too.

 

A new version of Maria’s Quilt!

Maria's Quilt by Mel Terpstra

It’s a source of great pleasure to me that even now, four years after my novel The Forgotten Seamstress was published, quilters all over the world are still beavering away making the quilt from the pattern devised by Lynne Edwards, based on my story about a fictional quilter, Maria.

This one has come from Mel Terpstra in the US.

She writes: ‘I have read The Forgotten Seamstress twice and loved every bit of it! I am myself a seamstress and quilter. I have made the quilt and for me it was a labour of love and healing after a difficult time in my life. I incorporated my mom’s and grandmother’s vintage hankies and some pieces of bobbin lace my mother-in-law made. Although you can’t tell from the photo, there are bits of bobbin lace on the small half moon shapes in the fan blocks as well as the medallion in the center.’

‘Of all the quilts I have made, it is my pride and joy.’

Thank you, Mel, for your lovely quilt and moving words.

You can view more interpretations of Maria’s Quilt here.

 

The story of two covers

In Love and War PBB amended (1)

Two covers for the same book: on the left, the original devised by my UK publishers Pan Macmillan for the book published in January. On the right, the amended version developed by my US publishers Bookouture ready for publication on 12th July.  I like them both! Which do you prefer?

PS US readers can pre-order from Amazon now at 

How a postcard inspired a novel

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Ypres 1919003

When I was just starting to research my novel In Love and War, I read to my astonishment that within months of the end of the First World War several thousands of tourists undertook arduous journeys to Flanders and the Somme in a desperate search to find out what had happened to their loved ones.

Why was I so astonished? Because these areas were inhospitable: the towns shattered, their roads and railways destroyed, fields and woodland churned up into hundreds of square miles of mud, trenches, shell holes, barbed wire, broken tanks, unexploded ordnance and . . . bodies. A quarter of all those whose died were never found.

Some tours were run by church groups but commercial organisations like the travel agency Thomas Cook were quick to respond to the new market, which was extremely controversial because many thought it distasteful to make money from people’s grief.

I wanted to write about people who undertook this tour, but I just couldn’t picture it.

So imagine my delight when, on a research trip to Ypres, I discovered this postcard. It shows the devastation of the beautiful town square with its medieval cloth hall and the cathedral in ruins. There, in the bottom right hand corner, is a bus with the words Excursions to the Battlefields written in English along its side. Inside, waiting for the tour to begin, it is possible to see a few ladies looking oh so Edwardian in their wide brimmed hats.

Suddenly, my novel had come to life.

Five remarkable Edwardian women

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Today marks 100 years since women first gained the vote in Britain, but the media seems to be focusing only on the suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst. So to redress the balance, I would like to nominate five other extraordinary women who, in their different ways, fought for equal rights in their own fields. The list begins with two remarkable sisters:

Elizabeth Garret AndersonThe doctor:  Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917) was the eldest sister born in Suffolk to an engineering family whose parents seem to have had a remarkably liberal attitude to the raising of their daughters. After training as a nurse she was refused entry to medical schools but trained instead as an apothecary, eventually managing to become the first woman to qualify in Britain as a doctor. She co-founded the first hospital entirely staffed by women, became the first dean of a British medical school and the first female doctor of medicine in France. Her determination paved the way for others and in 1876 an act was passed permitting women to enter the medical professions. As if that was not enough, she was active in the women’s suffrage movement, became the first woman to be elected to a school board and, as Mayor of Aldeburgh, the first female mayor and magistrate in Britain.

Millicent FawcettThe Campaigner: Millicent Garrett Fawcett, (1847 – 1929) younger sister of Elizabeth, is primarily known for her work as a tireless campaigner for women to have the vote – as a suffragist, who sought change by peaceful means rather than the more militant suffragettes. She concentrated much of her energy on the struggle to improve women’s opportunities for higher education and co-founded Newnham College, Cambridge, as well as being a lecturer and writer. In 1901 Millicent led a government commission to South Africa to investigate conditions in the concentration camps that had been created there in the wake of the Second Boer War, revealing terrible abuses. Her memory is preserved in the name of the Fawcett Society which still campaigns for the rights of women.

Freya StarkThe explorer and author: Freya Stark (1893-1993) was an explorer who went where few Europeans, let alone European women, had ever been before. Her travels led her into remote areas of Turkey and the Middle East where she moved on foot, on donkeys, on camels and by car, camping along the way. While living in Baghdad, she explored and mapped uncharted areas of the Islamic world and created some of the first accurate maps of the region. She also wrote more than twenty four travel books covering local history, culture and tales of everyday life. In spite of age and illnesses, she never stopped travelling and died at the great old age of one hundred.

Bessie Coleman courtesy Norman Studios The pilot: Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) flew in the face of race and gender discrimination to become the first black woman pilot in the world. Banned from flying schools in her native America, she taught herself French and travelled to France where she earned her pilot’s licence two years before her more famous contemporary, Amelia Earhart. Coleman flew all over the US performing aerial tricks and lecturing to raise funds for an African-American flying school, always refusing to take part in segregated events. Tragically, her life and dream ended when she died during an air show rehearsal at the age of 34.

Hertha Ayrton courtesy Spartacus Educational The scientist: Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923) was a pioneering woman scientist. She gained a place to study maths at Girton College, Cambridge University – itself unusual – and later attended classes in physics at Finsbury Technical College given by Professor William Ayrton, whom she later married. She was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and was the first woman nominated a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, although because she was married she could not be elected to this distinction. However, she was the first woman to read her own paper before the society and went on to receive its top medal for her investigations.

This article also appears on the Pan Macmillan website at http://www.panmacmillan.com/blogs/history/five-extraordinary-edwardian-women.