Monthly Archives: February 2010

More Challenges for 2010

Although I’ve had the button on my sidebar for awhile, I haven’t formally announced my participation in the Art History Reading Challenge. The challenge asks participants to read at least three books about art in 2010, but the books can be fiction or non-fiction and span many genres. Just how much art the novel must include to count is up to the reader. I have already read, and will soon review, Karen Essex’s “Leonardo’s Swans”, and there are a few other books about art on my list to be read. I’ve decided to start small and aim for the ‘Curious’ level of participation, which requires three books, but may read more if I continue to be interested.

I’m also participating in The Ireland Challenge 2010 hosted by Books and Movies. With St. Patrick’s Day only a few weeks away, I can’t imagine a better time to take a look at Irish History… or to tackle those untouched books on Ireland currently occupying my shelves! The challenge allows re-reads, and counts any book “written by an Irish author, set in Ireland, or involving Irish history or Irish characters”. It also permits fiction and non-fiction reads. I’ve chosen to enter at the ‘Luck o’ the Irish’ level that requires four books.

Hopefully I’ll have some Irish luck on my side as I participate in these additional challenges!



Filed under Ireland Reading Challenge

Wellington’s Boots

Portrait of The Duke of Wellington by George Dawe, 1829

During the Regency period, men’s fashion underwent a change as knee breeches were exchanged for trousers. Although trousers had been entering fashion since 1800, they only became appropriate casual and semi-casual wear for men between 1810 and 1820. In America, James Madision (in office 1809-1817) was the first President to wear trousers instead of knee breeches, and the future Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, had been turned away from a fashionable London social club in 1800 both for tardiness and for wearing trousers, which were against the strict dress code.

Hessian boots, which had begun as standard issue military footwear but became widely worn, accompanied knee breeches. With a semi-pointed toe and a low heel, Hessians also included decorative tassels. In fact, Dickens’ famous character Jacob Marley likely wore Hessian boots in A Christmas Carol:

“The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head.”

But Hessian boots were unsuitable for wearing under the newly acceptable trousers, so Wellington instructed his shoemaker Hoby of St. James Street, London to modify the popular boot. The result was cut higher in front to cover and protect the knee and had the back cut away, in order to make it easier to bend the leg. It was also cut closer to the leg. They quickly gained a reputation as hard wearing in battle yet comfortable for evening wear. After Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon, “Wellington boots” became extremely popular as stylish footwear that could be worn with trousers.

In an 1839 letter from his residence at Walmer Castle, the Duke instructed his shoemaker on how to make a pair of his boots:

“Mr Mitchell
I beg that you will make for me two pairs of Boots, of the usual form only four (or the thin of an hand) lines longer in the foot than usual. Send with new false soles that will fit this new size. If needed make them broader. If these boots should suit me I will send another [pair] of galoshes. If I fit them; and [a pair] of shoes of the same size. I beg to have these boots as soon as possible, as I am pained by those which I wear at present.
Your obedient Servant

The boot evolved again when Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process for rubber. In 1852 Goodyear met American Hiram Hutchinson, who bought the patent to manufacture footwear and established his company A L’Aigle in France. The footwear was an immediate success, replacing wooden clogs among farmers. Four years later, entrepreneur Henry Lee Norris established the North British Rubber Company (which would later become the Hunter Rubber Company) in Scotland.

Initially produced in limited quantities, the popularity of the rubber Wellington boot skyrocketed during World War One. The United Kingdom Office of War hired the North British Rubber Company to produce a boot suitable for the trenches in France and Belgium, and during the course of the war nearly two million Wellington boots were sold to the army.

Wellingtons remain popular today and come in assorted colours and patterns to suit your fashion needs, although it’s hard to picture the Iron Duke wearing a pair of these!

A pair of the Duke of Wellington’s boots is on display at Walmer Castle, where he lived for 23 years.

For more information on changing men’s fashions in the Regency, visit Jessamyn’s Regency Costume Companion.


Filed under British History, Historical Fashion, Historical Tales

Sunday Spotlight:

Whether you’re looking for possible entries in one of the many historical reading challenges now under way or simply searching for a new book, should be your first stop. This historical fiction reader’s dream boasts “over 5000 historical novels organized by time and place”, but also includes a blog with author interviews, book reviews, and news on the latest historical novels to be nominated for and win awards.

A note from the site creator sums up the reasons why so many of us are captivated by historical fiction. She writes:

“It is often said that those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it. By blending history and fiction, a good historical novel lets us do more than simply read history: it lets us participate in the hopes, fears, passions, mistakes and triumphs of the people who lived it. It gives us an emotional as well as an intellectual understanding of the past.”

Although there are many wonderful book blogs out there, is set apart by its listing of historical novels categorized by time period and geographical region. Many with a love of history are interested in a diverse group of eras and places but I believe that most of us are especially drawn to one period. Whether your interest lies in Napoleonic France or Roman Britain the detailed listing allows you to find novels set in that favourite era. This comes in handy for anyone working towards a reading challenge goal.

Each broader category is further divided. For example, The Renaissance heading has sub-categories for Young Adults, The British Isles, Mysteries, and The Continent. Novel listings include the author, book title, year of publication, and a brief summary of the work.

For younger readers there is even a special section dedicated to Young Adult historical fiction. In my experience it is harder to find historical novels geared at a younger audience so this is a wonderful feature. Like the rest of the site, Young Adult fiction is broken down by time period into Ancient History, Medieval, and Renaissance.

Blogger Margaret Donsbach writes on the home page that her “goal is to enrich your appreciation of historical fiction by helping you find books that thrill you, move you, disturb you – but above all, awaken your mind and imagination.”

Certainly in my case she has succeeded. can be visited here.


Filed under Sunday Spotlight, Uncategorized

An Evening with Elizabeth Kostova

Recently I had the opportunity to attend an author talk at the local library featuring historical fiction writer Elizabeth Kostova. Her first book The Historian was published in 2005 and became the first debut novel to enter the New York Times bestseller list at #1. It went on to win the American Booksellers Foundation’s Book Sense award for Best Adult Fiction and Kostova took home the 2005 Quill Award for Debut Author of the Year. In town to promote her latest novel, Kostova read a chapter from The Swan Thieves and answered audience questions with warmth and humour.

Reading from chapter twelve, she shared the story behind it of the unusual first meeting of her friend’s parents, who met at the bottom of an escalator in Nebraska when she threw up on his shoes. It was a meeting she had always wanted to use in a book.

Kostova went on to answer audience questions, discussing her particular love of nineteenth century writers. Her favourite among those is Henry James, but she also mentioned noted Victorian novelists Thomas Hardy and Wilkie Collins. Unlike many historical fiction writers, who set their stories in one era from start to finish, Kostova prefers to incorporate periods of history into novels with a more contemporary setting to look at the impact that history has, or doesn’t have, on individuals in the present.

Asked about her historical method, she mentioned researching for The Swan Thieves by reading letters written by artists in the nineteenth century. These gave her an idea of voice. She also researches in libraries and talked to a longtime resident of Istanbul (who had lived there during the fifties) for The Historian, a novel about the search for Vlad Tepes, the historical Dracula. Kostova even tried some of the dishes sampled by her characters in The Historian in order to accurately describe their flavors! Historical accuracy is important to her and it shows.

Sharing the story behind her title The Swan Thieves, Kostova talked about a condo building near her that had a grand fountain. While sitting in a neighbouring cafe she’d commented to a friend on the absence of swan statues from the fountain. When the novelist friend said that they had been stolen, Kostova asked who would steal swans? To which her friend replied, “Why, swan thieves of course!”

But the best part of the evening for fans of Kostova’s works was the news that she began work in November on a new novel. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait and see which historical period and region she tackles next.

Both the author and the event were throughly enjoyable and the Oakville Public Library did a fantastic job of planning and carrying out the evening. For those interested in hearing more from Ms. Kostova, a podcast of the evening should be available on the Oakville Public Library website soon.

I haven’t read The Swan Thieves yet, but I intend to use it as an entry in the Art History Reading Challenge in the future. I did enjoy The Historian, particularly Kostova’s gift for describing so many diverse locales. Too much detail about landscapes can bog a novel down, a criticism I have of Thomas Hardy’s famous Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but Kostova uses descriptions so effectively that she draws the reader in, making them believe that they are in an Istanbul library or a small town in Romania. With Helen Rossi and Paul she creates distinct and likable characters, although Kostova’s use of multiple narrators may make it difficult to discern whose memories the audience is following. The Historian is a thoughtful new twist on the vampire myth based in its historical origins, and is well worth a read.


Filed under Uncategorized

His ears must have been burning…

We’ve all had times when we worry, usually unnecessarily, that someone is talking behind our backs. But one man who should have worried more is Lord Castlereagh.

By 1809, Foreign Secretary George Canning had become disillusioned with the government, writing that “the government as at present constituted, does not appear to me equal to the great task which it has to perform.” Led by the Duke of Portland as Prime Minister and Spencer Perceval as Leader of the House of Commons, the government had already mishandled the ‘Duke and the Darling’ scandal involving Frederick, Duke of York, and his mistress Mary Anne Clarkes’ trafficking of army commissions.

Increasingly frustrated at being part of a government he believed to be ineffective, Canning pressed for reform. In April he threatened to tender his resignation unless changes were made, namely the removal of Lord Castlereagh from his position as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. Castlereagh had been ill for months and Canning thought that he was mismanaging the War Office, but a change would also benefit the ambitious Canning on a personal level. He suggested that Lord Wellesley, a supporter of his, replace Castlereagh. The Prime Minister was elderly and he had never been a firm man. Unwilling to lose Canning, he agreed to remove Castlereagh from the War Office, as did Castlereagh’s Uncle and fellow statesman Lord Camden.

The Prime Minister, Castlereagh’s Uncle, and fellow minister in the Foreign Office George Canning, had all decided that Castlereagh would be replaced. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to tell him this!

First the Duke of Portland assured Canning that he was asking Castlereagh to accept another office (the Government of India), but he put off telling Spencer Perceval (The Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader in the House of Commons), who explained that no changes could be made to the cabinet because a plan had just been approved that Castlereagh would have to see through.

Meanwhile, Lord Camden had assured everyone that his nephew had agreed to the proposed change, when poor Castlereagh was, in fact, completely unaware. Canning learned of the deception himself in mid-July, wisely guessing that in the end he would be blamed for it.

A few months passed in which nothing was done before Canning attempted to resign. Not only did King George III refuse to accept it, he also forbid the Duke of Portland from saying anything about the planned change of office to Castlereagh. The Duke of Portland was further silenced by a stroke in August.

So the all-important plan that Castlereagh had to see through went ahead. The campaign, an expedition to the Netherlands in hopes of assisting the Austrian Empire against the French, was a disaster. British troops seized a swampy island called Walcheren, but they began to suffer from Malaria. In early September the expedition was called off, but not before 4000 men had died, only 106 of them in combat. The failed campaign cost the government eight million pounds.

With the Prime Minister’s health precarious, the ambitious Canning thought he would be asked to form a government next, but he was passed over for office in favour of Spencer Perceval. This time Canning did resign, remaining Foreign Secretary only until a successor could be appointed, but he didn’t attend a cabinet meeting on September 9th. Noting the absence, Lord Castlereagh asked his Uncle why Canning wasn’t there and Lord Camden finally told him (likely leaving out the whole part where he assured the cabinet that his nephew knew about and approved of the plan), about the maneuvers that had been taking place behind his back for the last five months.

Nine days later Lord Castlereagh challenged George Canning to a duel.


Filed under Historical Tales, The Regency

Sunday Spotlight: The Monarchs We Never Had

I’ve read this series of articles on more than once since I originally stumbled across it, and I continue to find it fascinating. The site examines those British royal heirs who died before they could inherit the throne and theorizes about what might have occurred if they had lived. The introduction to these articles reads as follows:

The death of the heir to the throne has had important consequences throughout British history – sometimes immediately, sometimes obvious only in retrospect. It has twice contributed to the outbreak of civil war, led to England’s break with Rome, caused dynastic change and more than once opened the way for monarchs who were ill suited and badly trained for the role. This website examines the heirs to Henry I, Henry VII, James I, Anne, George IV and Edward VII, how they died and the consequences of these untimely deaths.

What captivates me most about this site is that despite the far-reaching consequences that the death of each heir had for England at the time, I’d wager that many of us never even knew they existed! The most well-known of the group is undoubtedly Prince Arthur Tudor (pictured above), the eldest son of Henry VII. His death, at age 15, made his brother Henry the heir to the throne and he was soon married to Arthur’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. Whether or not their marriage was consummated provided the legal and theological basis for Henry’s divorce and his later split from the Catholic Church.

Interesting accounts of how history could have been changed are found in each of these articles and the site covers a broad span of history from the 1100’s to the late 1800’s. Articles mention such events as the sinking of the White Ship, which resulted in the drowning of Prince William (son of Henry I), to the death of Prince Henry (son of James I) after a November dip in the Thames.

I hope you enjoy speculating as much as I do about what might have been had an heir to the throne survived.

The Monarchs We Never Had can be visited here.


Filed under Sunday Spotlight

2010 Challenges

For those interested in expanding their literary horizons, reading challenges are a great way for individuals with book blogs to get to know one another, discuss their current reads, and challenge themselves to read outside their comfort zones. Reading challenges usually run one year in length and ask participants to follow a set of rules in selecting their books, such as reading books in a particular genre, or only books with colours in the title.

This year I’ve decided to participate in the 2010 Year of the Historical Reading Challenge, which asks participants to read and review at least twelve works of fiction (one for each month of the challenge) with historical content. For the month of January I read and reviewed Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and submitted my review to a post listing other participants’ January reads. I’m already interested in checking out at least a few of the books reviewed by my fellow bloggers!

Although I’m a little late for it, I’ve also chosen to participate in the Period Drama Challenge hosted by Lights, Camera… History!, which runs until July 1st 2010. Participants can choose to view at any level, watching and reviewing anywhere from 2 to 12 movies set before or during World War Two. My goal is to watch eight period films.

Whether you’re interested in the historical or the literary there are certainly a number of challenges to interest any reader. Among my personal favourites are the Colorful Reading Challenge, which asks you to read nine books, each with a different colour in the title, and the Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge that offers multiple challenge levels to suit any reader. If you’re wondering What’s in a Name? you can find out with this challenge that creatively asks bloggers to choose six books, one each with a food, body of water, title, plant, place name, and music term in the book title. Bloggers can also read their names with the Read Your Name Challenge that asks participants to “choose books with first title letters that spell out your name” or support their local libraries in a challenge that requires you to read at least 25 library books during 2010. These do not have to be reviewed.

For those interested in history, there are also some specific challenges geared towards the historical reader. These include the the Royal Mistresses Challenge, encompassing works of fiction or non-fiction where a royal mistress is the central character, the Jean Plaidy Challenge, and the French Historical Challenge, which asks participants to read historical fiction or non-fiction books based on French history or historical figures.

Wish me luck in my challenges for this year, and happy reading!


Filed under Period Drama Challenge