Dark Water grew out of a love of the Massachusetts coast, and of Poe and Melville, and of their maverick nineteenth-century American sensibility. Those quest tales of land and sea, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Moby-Dick, are archetypal stories of escape from home and family, of a rite of passage; each, in its own way, charting the contradictions and tensions of American society at a time of great change. I wanted to write a story which shared not just the landscape (and seascapes) of these narratives, but something of their freshness and violence and sense of mystery – the mystery of a pre-Freudian age – while calling attention, as they do, to the problem of representing human truths.

A quest implies a question, a probing of what is. At the heart of Dark Water are the twin questions of power and personality, and how these are expressed through human systems. Boston and Nantucket, the one a sophisticated harbour city, the other a tiny island, self-sufficient, enclosed, are in the story both bounded societies and at the same time places of transformation, intimately connected with the sea, the book’s motif for the unconscious. Dark Water is set in the early days of mind-doctoring, and explores the awful paradox that, while nothing is nearer to us than ourselves, very often nothing is more unknown to us than our own being. Two decades before Dorothea Dix set out to reform the care provided in mental hospitals across America, a system of compassionate management was already being practised at the Charlestown Asylum for the Insane outside Boston (the early incarnation of McLean, the psychiatric hospital today located in Belmont). This – or a fictional version of it – is where Hiram Carver, the book’s narrator, works.

In Carver I hoped to create a protagonist who could test all sorts of boundaries; whose role, like that of Poe and Melville’s characters, is to challenge the collective, to journey outside the permitted zone, to ask the difficult questions. A young man sets out to heal a wounded hero, to resolve his own inner tensions, and to explore the mystery of human nature, particularly our primordial twin instincts for violence and hero-worship. Carver fails in his personal quest: despite having set himself all along against the confining social structures of his world, in the end he becomes the thing he hates. He writes his story in 1855. Lying just over the horizon of the book is the war of 1861 to 1865, when what is submerged or ‘obscure’, to use Lacan’s word, rises to the surface and is realized as violence on a national scale – opening up these ancient questions about sacrifice and heroism anew.

I had a more personal reason, too, for setting Dark Water in America: its eastern seaboard is where I was born, and although I left at a very young age, it retains, for me, a flavour of home. American English was the first form of English I ever spoke, and it felt natural to revisit both the country and the language in fiction. As Carver says in the book, when approaching the asylum for the first time, ‘When is our real home ever locked?’

Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry is out now!

We think that Karen Maitland’s A GATHERING OF GHOSTS would be a great choice for reading groups – particularly those who like reading historical fiction. If you do choose it here are some questions to help your discussions!

  1. ‘You can stamp and frown as much as you please, Mistress, but this is a battle I am going to win.’ Prioress Johanne rules the priory with a firm hand, but her authority is challenged with the arrival of Knight Brother Nicholas. To what extent is this book about power?
  2. The well sits at the heart of life in the priory – and is central to the mystery of the story. What did you make of the plagues? Were you surprised by the identity of the blind boy? Can we find an earthly explanation for the strange happenings?
  3. Great grey clouds rose up, one behind another, like walls of stone, but a beam of dazzling sunlight, thin and straight as a golden arrow, slipped between them. What did you make of the wild and remote Dartmoor setting? How does the myth-laden landscape frame the story?
  4. Compare the three first-person narratives – Sorrel, Johanne and Morwen – with the chapters that take place at the priory. Does this affect how we perceive the three different women? And what impression do we get of Nicholas?
  5. Discuss the theme of survival in the novel, and how it shapes the actions of the characters.
  6. I saw black Ankow galloping across the moors on that skeleton of a horse, with his hounds baying at his heels. I knew he was hunting souls. How can we understand the tensions between the different models of faith and tradition in the book – the conflict between pagan and Christian beliefs, magic, wisdom and ancient lore?
  7. How is the role of family presented in the novel? Think about Kendra and her daughters, the home Sorrel leaves, and the bond between Johanne and Sebastian. Is family something we’re born into, or something we choose?
  8. Why do you think Todde wants to help Sorrel? How does fear influence the way people relate to each other?
  9. Not all of our noble sisters enter the order entirely by their own choice, though they must swear that they do. Discuss the sisters’ different reasons for ‘choosing’ a life of servitude.
  10. A Gathering of Ghosts is set against the backdrop of a terrible famine which caused widespread poverty, desperation and displacement of thousands of ordinary people as they were forced to travel across Europe in search of food or better conditions elsewhere. What parallels can we draw with our world today?

Karen Maitland’s A GATHERING OF GHOSTS is out now

‘Lord! What lamentation shortly after was made for the death of Queen Jane, and of none in this realm was it more heavily taken than of the King’s Majesty himself.’ Jane Seymour’s passing at 2am on 24 October 1537 ‘was as heavy to the King as ever was heard tell of. Directly she expired, he withdrew himself, as not to be spoken to by anyone.’

Henry VIII could not bear anything to do with death. That morning his horror of remaining in the same house as Jane’s corpse got the better of him, and he fled from Hampton Court to Windsor, leaving Norfolk, as Earl Marshal, and the Privy Council, to look after the funeral arrangements. At Windsor, Henry ‘mourned and kept himself close and secret a great while’.  The Bishop of Durham, tried to rally his spirits. ‘Almighty God hath taken from your Grace, to your great discomfort, a most blessed and virtuous lady,’ he said. ‘Consider what He hath given to your Highness, to the rejoice of all us, your subjects – our most noble Prince, to whom God hath ordained your Majesty to be mother as well as father. God gave to your Grace that noble lady, and God hath taken her away, as pleased Him.’

Yet already, some of Henry’s councillors ‘thought it meet to urge him’ to marry again ‘for the sake of his realm’, in view of the fact that his sole male heir was an infant who might at any time succumb to some childhood ailment.

After a few days, seeing that Henry was taking his loss ‘reasonably’, they laid their concerns before him. ‘The King is little disposed to marry again, and he has framed his mind to be indifferent to the thing.’ But he did not reject the idea. By the end of October, Lord Cromwell was able to inform Lord William Howard that their master’s ‘tender zeal to his subjects hath already overcome his Grace’s sad disposition’, and he had ‘framed his mind’ to a fourth marriage.

 

Jane was given a magnificent funeral. Her body was embalmed on 25 October, in her bedchamber, ‘and the wax chandlers did their work about her’, wrapping the corpse in waxed ‘cerecloth’ after it had been packed with herbs and spices. Dressed in a robe of gold tissue with the Queen’s crown on its head and some of her jewels, it was ‘reverently conveyed from the place where she died, upon a hearse covered with a rich pall of cloth of gold, and a cross set thereupon’, to the presence chamber, where it lay in state for a week, surrounded by twenty-four tapers, with an altar beside it, ‘richly apparelled with black garnished with the Cross, images, censers and other ornaments’; here, masses were sung night and day for the soul of the departed. ‘Lights were burning night and day upon the altar all divine service time.’ The Queen’s ladies who kept watch over the body wore mourning habits, ‘with white kerchiefs over their heads and shoulders’ to signify that she had died in childbed. They knelt about the hearse through all the services and masses, ‘in lamentable wise’.

The King’s elder daughter, the Lady Mary, was chief mourner, and kept continuous vigil, despite suffering raging toothache.

The obsequies began seven days later, when Lancaster Herald charged those gathered to honour Jane’s memory. ‘Of your charity, pray for the soul of the Queen!’ The body was coffined and moved to a catafalque set up in the Chapel Royal, where the Queen’s ladies would keep vigil beside it for a further week. Mary paid for thirteen masses to be sung for Jane’s soul, and took charge of her household, which would shortly be disbanded. It was probably Mary who carried out the King’s command that Jane’s beautiful diamonds and pearls were to be given to Lady Carew, as Jane had wished.

Etiquette precluded kings from attending the funerals of their consorts, so Henry took himself to Whitehall, where he ‘retired to a solitary place to pass his sorrows’. Soon, he took up the reins of government once more. In a letter announcing Jane’s death to the King of France, written at the beginning of November, it appears that he had pondered fruitfully on Tunstall’s counsel, yet there is a touch of bitterness in his words: ‘Divine Providence has been good enough to mingle my great joy with the sadness of the passing of her who had brought me that good fortune.’

By 3 November, he was reported to be in good health and ‘merry as a widower may be’’. He would wear full mourning, in deepest black, in Jane’s memory, for three months, and court mourning would last until Easter 1538.

 

On 8 November, the Lord Mayor ordered 1,200 masses to be sung in the City ‘for the soul of our most gracious Queen’, and a solemn service was held in his

presence in St Paul’s Cathedral. Alms were also given in the Queen’s name to the poor.

That day, Jane’s coffin was taken ‘with great solemnity’ to Windsor, where the King had decided she should be buried. It was borne in procession on a hearse drawn by six horses trapped in black velvet. On the coffin lay a wooden effigy of the Queen (now lost) ‘in her robes of state, with a rich crown of gold upon her head, with her hair loose, a sceptre of gold in her right hand, and on her fingers rings set with precious stones, and her neck richly adorned with gold and stones, and under the head a rich pillow of cloth of gold tissue.

The Lady Mary followed, riding a horse draped in black velvet, and was attended by twenty-nine mourners, one for every year of the late Queen’s life. Behind came two hundred poor men all wearing Jane’s badge and bearing aloft lighted torches. At Colnbrook, Eton and Windsor, the poor men went ahead and lined the streets, while behind them stood the sorrowing crowds, hats in hands, watching silently as the funeral cortege wound its way past them.

At the entrance to St George’s Chapel, within the precincts of Windsor Castle, the coffin was received by the Dean and College, and was carried inside by six pallbearers. Archbishop Cranmer was waiting at the high altar to receive it. The Lady Mary followed the coffin, her train borne by Lady Rochford. After prayers, the body lay in state, and through the night, the Lady Mary kept vigil beside it.

The next day, masses and dirges were sung, and the late Queen’s ladies laid velvet palls upon the coffin, as was customary. Upon the palls was set a lifelike wooden effigy of the Queen that had been carried in the funeral procession, but which has long since disappeared.

On Monday, 12 November, Queen Jane was finally laid to rest ‘with all the pomp and majesty that could be’, ‘in the presence of many pensive hearts’, including those of her brothers, who would from now on enjoy enormous influence as uncles to Prince Edward. The coffin was conveyed on a chariot to the open vault in the middle of choir, before the high altar. After it had been lowered into the vault, the officers of the Queen’s household broke their white staves of office over it, symbolising the termination of their allegiance and service.

On that day, the bells in London tolled for six hours, and on 14 November, a requiem Mass and dirge was held in St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘and in the like manner was sung Mass and dirge in every parish church in London, with all ceremonies, censings and holy water’, bringing to an end the Queen’s obsequies.

 

Jane’s short, successful career and her tragic end caught the public’s imagination, and she was celebrated in popular ballads long after she was dust. She had achieved nearly everything she set out to do: she had given the King the son he so desperately needed, she had helped to restore the Lady Mary to the succession and her father’s affections, and she had used her influence to bring about the advancement of her family. She had meddled hardly at all in matters of religion or politics. Henry’s grief at her death is testimony of his love for her. It was, in every respect, the most successful of his six marriages, and it was the only one to result in a surviving male heir.

In 1544–5, when Henry was married to his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, he commissioned from an unknown artist a painting of himself, his wife, and his three children, which may still be seen at Hampton Court. Henry is shown seated on his canopied throne in a sumptuous interior in Whitehall Palace. It has been claimed that this is a purely fanciful setting, given that the design spills over the frame, but there are no good reason to suppose that this is not the Presence Chamber at Whitehall, with imaginative embellishments. His bastardised daughter, Mary and Elizabeth, stand at either side of their father, beyond pillars that represent legitimacy. The six-year-old Edward stands at his father’s knee, and sitting beside the King is not Katherine Parr, as might have been expected, but Jane Seymour, wearing the gown in which Holbein had portrayed her in his great lost mural of the Tudor dynasty at Whitehall. The inclusion of Jane in what was not so much a family group as a brilliant example of Tudor dynastic propaganda is proof of Henry VIII’s desire to promote her image as one of the founding matriarchs of his dynasty. For Jane, this was a considerable achievement, considering that her career, from start of her affair with the King in the autumn of 1535 to her death at the height of her triumph in 1537, had lasted just two short years.

When Henry died, he left instructions that he was to be buried with Jane. His will gave detailed directions for the erection of a joint tomb surmounted by effigies of them both, carved ‘as if sweetly sleeping’. It was never built, and today the vault is marked only by a brass plate in the choir pavement. For a time, there was a Latin inscription to Jane’s memory on the brass plate marking the grave, which, roughly translated, read as follows:

 

‘Here lieth a Phoenix, by whose death

Another Phoenix life gave breath: It is to be lamented much

The world at once ne’er knew two such.’

 

In 1813, the tomb of Henry and Jane was opened by order of the Prince Regent. Inside were found two coffins, one very large of antique form, and another very small, as well as the coffin of Charles I and that of one of Queen Anne’s infants. Henry’s coffin was opened, revealing a skeleton 6’2” in length, with red hairs still adhering to the skull. The coffin containing the remains of Jane Seymour was left undisturbed.

THE UNHAPPIEST LADY IN CHRISTENDOM, an e-short from Alison Weir, is out now

In A Gathering of Ghosts, pilgrims visiting the holy well beneath the priory see the rock walls of the cave shimmering with gold. I’m sure that some readers will think that is a detail I simply invented, but this is a case where fact is as strange and amazing as fiction.

For centuries, people on Dartmoor walking past caves, ancient stone huts or even old rabbit holes would glimpse something shining like gold inside. But, when they reached in to grab it, they found themselves clutching only a handful of wet dirt. What they had seen was a Schistostega osmundacea, a fragile, luminous moss known as Goblin’s Gold, or Elfin Gold.

Only half an inch in height, the moss forms dense mats covering the walls of caves or holes where only dim light penetrates. It has special lens-like cells which focus the wavelengths of light it needs to photosynthesise, reflecting the rest back. Seen against a dark background, the moss is a luminous green-gold and under flash photography can appear a vivid electric blue.

Even today, though science can explain what is happening, the sight is magical. But imagine a medieval pilgrim creeping down into the darkness of a sacred cave with their flickering candle, and seeing the walls start to glow with gold which vanishes when they touch it… No wonder they called it ‘goblin gold’.

Karen Maitland’s A GATHERING OF GHOSTS is out now

Jeff Goldblum narrates the audio book of Norman Eisen’s THE LAST PALACE – a masterfully told narrative that illuminates a hundred years of European history, as seen through an extraordinary mansion – and the lives of the people who called it home.

And you can listen to an extract here.

When Norman Eisen moved into the US ambassador’s residence in Prague, returning to the land his mother had fled after the Holocaust, he was startled to discover swastikas hidden beneath the furniture.

From that discovery unspooled the captivating, twisting tale of the remarkable people who lived in the house before Eisen. Their story is Europe’s, telling the dramatic and surprisingly cyclical tale of the endurance of liberal democracy: the optimistic Jewish financial baron who built the palace; the conflicted Nazi general who put his life at risk for the house during World War II; the first postwar US ambassador struggling to save both the palace and Prague from communist hands; the child star- turned-diplomat who fought to end totalitarianism; and Eisen’s own mother, whose life demonstrates how those without power and privilege moved through history.

THE LAST PALACE chronicles the upheavals that have transformed the continent over the past century and reveals how we never live far from the past.

THE LAST PALACE is out now

℗ 2018 Penguin Random House LLC

For her new novel, A GATHERING OF GHOSTS, Karen Maitland picks out some special Tuesday Tidbits relating to Dartmoor where the novel is based:

Long-cripple

Long-cripple is the Devonshire dialect word for a snake, usually an adder. It can also mean a dragonfly, lizard or slowworm (blindworm), all once believed to be venomous. Some leech wells or healing wells were given the name long-cripple, either because they cured snakebites or because they cured the same ailments as adder skins were thought to do, such as headaches and rheumatism. The ‘long-crippler’ spring in Totnes, said to cure eye problems, probably got its name because the slowworms were used to treat eye ailments

Sledges

For centuries, wooden sledges were a vital form of transport on Dartmoor. They were not just used in snow, but were built to drag fodder, kindling and other supplies across the open moorland all year round. With their broad metal runners, they could be pulled over heather, rough grass, stones and mud much more easily than a wheeled cart. Old horseshoes were hammered into rough circles and nailed to the sides of the sledge, through which ropes or poles could be attached, allowing the sledge to be dragged by horses or people.

The Great Famine

The spring of 1315 saw the beginning of the Great Famine which affected the whole of Europe. It was caused by unusually heavy rain. Crops and animal fodder rotted and stored food went mouldy or became contaminated with deadly ergot. Herds of starving animals had to be slaughtered, but the meat couldn’t be preserved because the salt needed couldn’t be evaporated. It is thought between 10% and 25% of the population died, with many others turning to crime and violence to survive. The cold, wet weather may have been triggered by volcanic dust from an eruption.

St Brigid’s Day

With the coming of Christianity, the Celtic feast of Imbolc, on 31 January, became St Brigid’s Day. On St Brigid’s Eve, unmarried girls would make a brideog, a doll of reeds. Young men were invited in for food and drink but had to treat the brideog as if she were a saint. Before the girls went to bed, the hearth ash was raked smooth and each girl would lay a cloth in front of it. In the morning, they’d examine the cloths for any sign that St Brigid had walked over them. The girls whose cloth she’d marked would be married within the year.

Cross and Pile’

Cross and Pile’ was a popular medieval game, betting on the toss of a coin, known today as ‘Heads or Tails’. Medieval coins were produced by placing a metal disc between two patterned dice, then striking the upper die with a hammer to stamp the pattern. The top pattern incorporated a cross or a Christian symbol. The bottom die was called a pile, so the reverse side of the coin became known as the pile or pyl. King Edward II was so addicted to Cross and Pile that he borrowed money from courtiers and servants to keep playing.

Long Houses

Medieval Dartmoor long houses consisted of just two rooms built sideways on a slope. The livier, at the higher end of the slope, was where the family lived. At the lower end was the shippon, where livestock were housed. The livier had a central fire, but no chimney. An open drain ran through the middle of the floor and out through the wall at the lowest end of the shippon. Animals and people used the same door. The partition between livier and shippon was often only a half wall, so the heat from the animals helped keep the humans warm.

The Knights of St John

St John Ambulance Association was established 1878, but it’s roots are buried deep in the eleventh century and the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, also known as Knights Hospitaller, or Knights of Malta. In 1080, the knights founded a hospital in Jerusalem on the site where, according to legend, the angel Gabriel foretold the birth of St John the Baptist. It provided care for pilgrims. Hospitals then were not primarily for the sick and injured, although physicians and surgeons did work in them: they were intended to offer hospitality, a place where the elderly, the infirm, orphans and travellers could rest and be provided with safe shelter, food and spiritual comfort.

The Knights Hospitaller

The fifteenth-century England, the Knights of St John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, or the Knights of Malta, were given the dubious privilege of collecting the bodies of executed felons and ensuring they were buried. Criminals who were hanged at the time died by slow strangulation, not by the ‘long drop’ which broke the neck. It was not uncommon for corpses to later revive once cut down and tended by the knights, leading to all kinds of clashes with the authorities over whether they should be re-hanged.

Brideog

Brideog – pronounced bree-jog – means little Brigid. At the Celtic feast of Imbolc, on 31 January, long lengths of rushes or straw were twisted into a doll and dressed in white to represent the goddess Brigid. The brideog was sprinkled with water taken from a Brigid’s Well, Bryde’s Well or Bride’s Well, and carried by unmarried girls in procession to a great feast where the goddess was offered food, drink and fire, in gratitude for bringing them safely through winter, and asked to bring new life. The custom of leaving brideogs at wells for healing or good luck continues to this day.

Blood Maggots

In the Middle Ages, frogs were believed to be produced by spontaneous generation, as were a number of animals whose juvenile form didn’t resemble the adult, such as flies, which were thought to be generated by corpses. Some people advocated beating the corpses of calves to bring out the ‘blood maggots’, which would eventually turn into bees, while others maintained that bees sprang from the corpses of oxen, hornets from horses and wasps from donkeys. Most believed that frogs were born from mud, not surprisingly because they would be seen in great numbers after floods.

Golden Frogs

In many ancient religions, frogs were associated with goddesses and venerated as symbols of regeneration and fertility. Some holy wells, such as the one in Bovey Tracey on Dartmoor, were home to tiny golden frogs. These golden frogs were regarded as sign that the well had been blessed, thanks to an act of kindness by a villager towards a beggar woman. Originally, the beggar was believed to be the Celtic goddess Brigid in disguise, and in later centuries the Virgin Mary.

Frog Well

During the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, frogs were one of the creatures that witches were accused of using as their ‘familiars’ to aid them in their spells or to spy on their neighbours. Lucifer and three of his imps are said to dwell in the form of frogs in Frog Well, Acton Burnell. While the three imps are often seen mocking those who look into the water, the Devil, true to his wicked nature, cunningly hides in the well, waiting to do mischief.

Bel Tor

If you climb Bel Tor on Dartmoor take care to ensure that you leave before the sun sets for, according to legend, on dark nights a ghostly herd of white horses gallops through Ipplepen village towards Bel Tor. When they reach the summit of the tor, they leap to their deaths and vanish, sweeping anyone foolish enough to be standing in their path over the edge with them.

Ashwell Spring

On Palm Sunday, young people drink honey-sweetened water from Ashwell Spring in Bovey Tracey on Dartmoor, in the hope of discovering their future partner. This tradition is said to have arisen from the legend that a wounded knight and a sick girl both separately confessed to a hermit that they loved one another but didn’t think their love was returned. The hermit sent each of them to bathe in the spring to cure their ailments in the hope they’d start talking. It worked and they wed.

River’s Cry

When the River Dart on Dartmoor is in full spate and this coincides with a north-westerly wind, a loud booming sound is heard, known as the ‘river’s cry’. It was believed that the Dart claimed a human heart in tribute every year and the ‘Dart’s Cry’ was the warning that someone would shortly die. There’ve been many tales of people hearing the cry and hurrying home to news of an unexpected death. But the river’s cry has also saved lives when the booming sent them scrambled out of the river in fright, just before a huge wall of water swept past, which would have carried them to their deaths.

Going Bodmin

Thanks to Doc Martin, many are now familiar with the phrase, ‘Going Bodmin’. But for centuries, Bodmin Moor was famous for its boussening wells where those thought to be ‘mad’ were dragged to be dipped. At St Nunne’s well, Altarnum, the sufferer was compelled to stand with his back to the well, then suddenly struck in the chest knocking him into the water. He was repeatedly ducked till his strength was gone, then led to the church where masses were said over him. If that didn’t work, the dipping was repeated until the madness left him or he died.

 

Childe

Childe was a wealthy fourteenth-century landowner from Plymstock. While hunting on Dartmoor, he was caught by a snowstorm on Cater’s Beam, a ridge surrounded on three sides by the infamous Fox Tor Mire. He tried to stay alive by slaying his horse, eviscerating it and crawling inside the steaming carcass. He was found, frozen to death, by monks from Tavistock who claimed the body, for whoever buried him would inherit his lands. Monks set out from Plymstock to ambush them and snatch the prize, but the Tavistock monks evaded them, burying Childe in their abbey and so gained his lands.

 

Pixie-led

It’s easy to become disorientated on Dartmoor, especially if a mist descends. Locals called this being pixie-led, believing that malicious pixies cast spells to lure travellers into bogs to send them walking in circles until they died. They thought pixies could even imitate bushes and rocks to trick people into thinking they were on a familiar track. A nobleman and his wife were walking on the Dartmoor when they were enveloped by an enchanted mist. They wandered for hours, pixie-led, until near to death the stumbled across Fitz’s Well, drank from it and the spell was broken. They say that if you drink from this well on Easter Morning, you will discover who you are destined to be. But if you ever find yourself pixie-led, you might try the local rememdy of putting your coat on inside out to reverse the spell.

 

Great Hound Tor

Up until the nineteenth century, there was a widespread belief that witches could transform into hares. One Dartmoor legend tells of a farmer who set his dogs upon an old woman gleaning on his land. She transformed into a hare to escape. The man chased her mercilessly over the moor, urging his hounds to rip her to pieces, but when she reached the top of a tor, she changed back into an old woman and cursed the farmer and his hounds. They were turned to stone and remain forever on the tor, which is known as Great Hound Tor.

 

Stone Circles

There are many stone circles on Dartmoor. Most are the remains of Bronze Age round houses, which were often later used as pinfolds for livestock, but others are henges. For centuries, local people believed that it was not wise to trespass inside them. But one man decided to build a hut inside the stone circle at Foales Arrishes on Rippon Tor. His friends warned against it, but he refused to listen. On the first night he slept there, the Devil flew down, destroyed the hut and carried him away. No trace of man or hut was ever seen again.

 

Widecombe Church

During the Middle Ages, only certain churches on Dartmoor were licensed for burial. One was Widecombe Church, and mourners had to carry coffins many miles across the moors from outlying villages to reach it. There is a flat rock near Widecombe where the coffin could be laid while the mourners rested. The story goes that a burial party was carrying an evil old man to Widecombe and set his coffin down on the stone. The moment the coffin touched the granite rock, it was struck by a mighty thunderbolt, which burned coffin and corpse to ashes, and cracked the stone in two.

 

Branscombe’s Loaf and Cheese

In the twelfth century, Walter Branscombe, Bishop of Exeter, and his servant were lost and starving on Dartmoor. A stranger appeared and offered to share his bread and cheese, if the bishop called him ‘Master’. The bishop was so hungry he started to say the word, but the servant noticed a cloven hoof beneath the stranger’s long cloak and dashed the food from his hand. The loaf and cheese landed on Corn Ridge where they were turned to stones, and with a howl of fury the stranger vanished. The rocks are now known as ‘Branscombe’s Loaf and Cheese’.

 

Whisht Hounds

Wisht or Whisht Hounds of Dartmoor were spectral dogs, also known as hellhounds. Wisht meant to bewitch or invoke evil. They hunted in packs at night, preying on unwary travellers. After the coming of Christianity, the hounds were said to snatch unbaptised babies from their beds and devour them or drop their bloody corpses at the feet of their parents who had neglected to christen them. In winter it might have been months before babies could be taken over the moors for baptism, so to protect them, pieces of consecrated bread (the Host) was placed beneath the children’s pillows.

 

Saxon Well

In the Middle Ages, those suffering from ailments of the eyes would make long pilgrimages to bathe them in the Saxon Well in the village of Widecombe on Dartmoor, which was said to guarantee a cure. So soothing was this water, legend has it that the Devil himself once came to the well to wash the soot of hell from his eyes and, as he did so, a great sizzling was heard across the moor.

 

Karen Maitland’s A GATHERING OF GHOSTS publishes 6th September

the death of hitler

A dramatic and revelatory new account of the final days in Hitler’s bunker, based on new access to previously unseen Soviet archives and cutting-edge forensics.

On 30 April 1945, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker as the Red Army closed in on Berlin. Within four days the Soviets had recovered his body. But the truth about what the Russian secret services found was hidden from history when, three months later, Stalin officially declared to Churchill and Truman that Hitler was still alive and had escaped abroad. Doubts began to spread like gangrene and continue, even today, to feed wild fantasies about what really happened to him.

In 2017, after two years of painstaking negotiations with the Russian authorities, award-winning investigative journalists Jean-Christophe Brisard and Lana Parshina gained access to confidential Soviet files that finally revealed the truth about the incredible hunt for Hitler’s body.

Their investigation includes new eyewitness accounts of Hitler’s final days, exclusive photographic evidence and interrogation records, and exhaustive research into the absurd power struggle that ensued between the Soviet, British and American intelligence agencies. And for the first time since the end of the Second World War, authorised cutting-edge forensic tests are carried out on the human remains recovered from the bunker – a piece of skull with traces of the lethal bullet; a fragment of jaw bone and teeth.

In this fascinating investigation as thrilling as any spy novel, Brisard and Parshina debunk all previous conspiracy theories about the death of the Führer. With breathtaking precision and immediacy, they penetrate one of the most powerful and controversial secret services on earth to take us inside the final hours of Hitler’s bunker – and solve the most notorious cold case in history.

The Death of Hitler is published on 4 September 2018.

Queen Victoria

Who was Queen Victoria? Some of the most memorable images of Victoria show her as a little old lady, potato-like in appearance, dressed in everlasting black. We also know Victoria as a passionate, young princess who loved dancing. And there is a third Victoria – a woman who was also a remarkably successful queen, one who invented a new role for the monarchy. She found a way of being a respected sovereign in an age when people were deeply uncomfortable with having a woman on the throne.

Discover more about Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow by Lucy Worsley.

Publishing on 6 September 2018.

 

 

 

 

Today is the publication of the brand new riverrun Editions series – three classic books released with their best ever translations. And it turns out that many of the books we now know as modern classics were translated by women.

Female translators were so important to the literary modernism, as it was a career that was open to women, so often barred from academic roles. It was also flexible, so suited women with children.

We’ve been delving into the lives of the extraordinary women who translated the riverrun Editions and thought we’d share some of the wonderful tidbits of information we’ve uncovered…

For example, did you know that Beryl de Zoete, translator of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, also…

  • Was a classically trained ballerina who taught an early form of aerobics
  • Studied at Oxford when university education was still very much an exception for women
  • Travelled the world to watch international dance performances, and then wrote about them for places like The New Statesman and The Telegraph
  • Wasn’t interested in domesticity of any kind, serving “tinned baked beans accompanied by hot house grapes and good wine” at dinner parties, so as not to detract from her creative energy
  • Hosted a troupe of Jewish ballerinas escaping Nazi persecution during the war, most likely saving their lives

Nancy Mitford is well known as an author in her own right, writing witty books set in the upper class world she was so familiar with. But did you also know that she…

  • Was fascinated by French history, and wrote two historical biographies in her later years
  • Worked for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil war, which hardened her anti-fascist beliefs even as two of her sisters joined the Nazis in Germany
  • Edited and produced a magazine full of gruesome murders for the entertainment of her siblings
  • Worked at the Heywood Hill bookshop in Curzon Street

And Constance Garnett introduced some the biggest names in Russian literature to the English-speaking world, but most people have never even heard of her. This remarkable woman…

  • Won a scholarship to read classics at Cambridge at a time when very few women went to university
  • Didn’t speak a word of Russian until she was pregnant with her first child
  • Translated 70 volumes of Russian prose for publication in the UK, including all of Dostoyevsky, hundreds of Chekhov’s novels and nearly all of Tolstoy, among others
  • Was close to DH Lawrence, who remembered her ‘sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvellous translations in Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high – really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.’
  • Went nearly blind working on War and Peace. She had to hire a secretary to read the original prose to her out loud, and would then dictate the translation back to her
  • Was the only translator of Dostoyevsky Hemingway could bear. He told a friend that he could never get through War and Peace – not ‘until I got the Constance Garnett translation’

What an inspiring bunch, and there are so many more shared over on the Quercus Books Instagram feed.

What’s your favourite book in translation?

HB Lyle The Red Ribbon

It’s perhaps the most dreaded question in the author Q&A: where do you get your ideas from? Setting aside Arthur Miller’s famous response (‘I wish I knew, I’d go there more often’) this is perhaps an easier question for the historical novelist to answer than those working in other genres. For inspiration, we only have to look into the history books.

And this is so often the way of things – authors find out versions of what happened then transmute and change and reimagine then in the form of fiction. The facts, in other words, inspire the fiction.

As an author, I’m no different. In writing my second novel, The Red Ribbon, I returned to the library: I had my central characters already – as established in the first book in the series – I had a rough timeframe, and I had some of the major real-life events such as the Sidney Street Siege, that I wanted to include. But I needed to find out more, the colour that goes around these events, the nuts and bolts of living in London in 1910, the things that might be appearing on the front pages of the newspapers.

Every now and then, though, you come across some little-known nugget of history; a grubby ingot of time, that turns out to be pure gold. And that gold for me was the case of Bernard Trench and Vivien Brandon.

In 1910, these two Royal Marines embarked upon a semi-amateur spying mission against imperial rivals Germany. Under cover of a bird-watching holiday, the two plucky officers planned to observe the naval strongholds of the north German coast over the summer of that year. All did not go according to plan, in spectacular and comical fashion.

Immediately, I was drawn into their story. My hero Wiggins works for the secret service and Brandon and Trench’s mission – although not officially sanctioned – was a real-life early example of peace time British espionage. But what made this case particularly enchanting was how the very mission itself was inspired by fiction.

In 1903 Erskine Childers wrote The Riddle of the Sands, about two plucky English gentlemen uncovering the dastardly details of a German invasion plan. The novel led almost immediately to a rash of similar spy stories, a countrywide ‘spy fever’ and ultimately the creation of the secret service itself.

And one of the lesser known by-products of Childers’s novel, was that it directly inspired the Brandon and Trench mission. Fiction inspires fact, which in turn inspired my fiction. Fiction becomes fact becomes fiction.

I have to admit, there’s a part of me that would find it delicious if this loop continued; if MI6 did indeed turn to the pages of The Red Ribbon for inspiration. But then, even if they did, how would we ever know?

And what of those plucky, hapless English gentlemen, Brandon and Trench, and their mission? Well, if I told you that I’d probably have to kill you. Or else tell you to buy my book and find out.*


H.B. Lyle

* Alternatively, you could go to the British Library and read all about them, like I did. But buying The Red Ribbon is so much easier.

The Red Ribbon by H.B. Lyle

The Red Ribbon by H.B. Lyle is out now