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SPOTLIGHT: The PreRaphaelite Sisterhood

Thursday, August 31, 2017

As many of you will know, I have spent the past few years researching and writing about the fascinating lives of some of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood for my novel Beauty in Thorns




BEAUTY IN THORNS is an historical novel for adults which tells the story of the tangled desires behind the famous painting ‘The Legend of Briar Rose’ by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. 

Four very different women tell the story: the wives, mistresses, and muses of the Pre-Raphaelites, Georgie Macdonald, Lizzie Siddal, Jane Burden, and Margaret Burne-Jones, the artist’s beloved daughter. 

The Pre-Raphaelites were a collection of daring young artists who outraged Victorian society with their avant-garde paintings, their passionate affairs, and their scandalous behaviour. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.  His work and ideals inspired Edward Burne-Jones and his friend William Morris to create their own art, and with it, to try to change the world. 

The ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale haunted Burne-Jones’s imagination, and he painted it many times over the course of thirty years, culminating in an extraordinary quartet of paintings that were greeted by the public with ‘enthusiasm amounting to ecstasy’ in 1890. It was bought for 15,000 guineas, the largest amount ever paid for an artwork in Britain, and Burne-Jones was consequently knighted in 1893.



Burne-Jones and his friends drew together an extraordinary group of young women who all struggled in their different ways to live and love and create as freely. 

In chronological order of birth:




Lizzie Siddal (b. 1829)
Discovered working in a milliner’s shop, Lizzie became one of the most famous faces of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, modelling for paintings by Rossetti and Millais (she is his famous Ophelia). She and Rossetti began a passionate and turbulent affair. Heart-broken by his infidelities, Lizzie took refuge in laudanum. As she lay dying, Rossetti promised to marry her if she would only recover. They were married in 1860, but the birth of a dead child caused Lizzie to sink further into depression and addiction.  She died of an overdose in 1862. Rossetti famously buried his poems with her but later had her exhumed to retrieve the manuscript.






Jane Burden (b. 1839)
Jane was discovered by Rossetti and Burne-Jones in Oxford, and became one of their most striking and famous models. She married William Morris, but began a scandalous affair with Rossetti after the death of Lizzie Siddal. She had two daughters, Jenny and May. Her eldest suffered from epilepsy, then thought a most shameful disease.
                                                



Georgie Macdonald (b. 1840)
The daughter of a God-fearing Methodist minister, Georgie met Ned Burne-Jones when she was ten. He awoke her to a new world of art and poetry and beauty, and she shared with him her favourite fairy tale “Briar Rose”, which inspire him to create some of his most beautiful paintings. Georgie married Burne-Jones at the age of nineteen, after a four-year engagement. 

The early years of their marriage was idyllic, but in 1864 Georgie contracted scarlet fever, which brought on the premature birth of her second child, who consequently died. Her third child – a daughter named Margaret – was born in 1866, the same year as Burne-Jones began a passionate and ultimately calamitous affair with his model, the beautiful and fiery Maria Zambaco.





Margaret Burne-Jones (b. 1866)

The third child born to Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones, after the tragic death of their second son. She was a shy and reserved child remarkable for her beauty. As she grew, she found herself in demand as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites, but struggled with the unwanted attention. In 1888, she fell in love with the Scottish writer, John William Mackail, but her father refused to countenance their marriage. He was obsessively working on his painting of her as the sleeping princess in "The Legend of Briar Rose" series, and was afraid of losing his muse. Margaret had to find the strength to defy her father and marry the man she loved. 

The Pre-Raphaelite circle also included Effie Millais, Fanny Cornforth, Christina Rossetti, May Morris, Mary de Morgan, and many others who I wish I could have included in my novel. maybe one day I'll write something about them too ....  

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

BOOK REVIEW: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Wednesday, August 30, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

My Thoughts:

A memoir about life as a female boffin, melded with fascinating facts about trees and botany, this is an unusual but very readable book. Both funny and poignant, the book charts Hope Jahren’s journey through the cut-throat world of scientists, and her joy in the secret world of trees. She charts her friendships and love affairs, her battle with bi-polar disorder, her muddles and mistakes, and her profound insights into the natural world. Her writing is at times lyrical, and her enthusiasm for botany is infectious. A clever, quirky, and informative book about why we should love and protect the world’s trees.

You might interested in my review of another non-fiction, beautiful book, The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane.

Please remember to leave a comment - I'm interested in your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: The Traitor's Girl by Christine Wells

Friday, August 25, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

'I think I'm in danger. It's a matter of some urgency. You must please come at once.'

After receiving a mysterious summons from her long-lost grandmother, Australian teacher Annabel Logan agrees to visit her home in the Cotswolds. But when she arrives at the magnificent Beechwood Hall, it appears abandoned and the local villagers have no idea where the reclusive Caroline Banks might be.

The one person who might know something is enigmatic journalist Simon Colepeper. He reveals that Carrie became a spy and agent provocateur for MI5 during the Second World War. But when British intelligence failed to investigate a dangerous traitor, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Concerned that her grandmother's secret past has caught up with her, Annabel stays on to investigate. But the more she uncovers, the more difficult it becomes to know who to trust. There are strange incidents occurring at Beechwood and Annabel must use all her ingenuity and daring to find Carrie before it's too late.

From the streets of Seville, Paris and London in the thirties and forties, to the modern English countryside, The Traitor's Girl is a captivating story of passion, intrigue and betrayal.

My Thoughts:

Another gorgeous cover & intriguing title made me very keen to read Christine Wells’s new book, The Traitor’s Girl, which moves between contemporary times and war-torn London in the 30s. I love novels with dual timelines, and really enjoyed Christine Wells’s earlier book, The Wife’s Tale. I also love books about female spies and resistance fighters, so this was always going to appeal to me.

Annabel Logan thinks she has no family, but one day hears from her long-lost grandmother begging for her help as she fears she is in danger. Annabel drops everything and rushes to Beechwood Manor, her grandmother’s old manor house in the Cotswolds. However, her grandmother is nowhere to be found and there are signs of a violent break-in. With the help of a handsome journalist, Simon, Annabel sets out to discover what has happened. She discovers that her grandmother was once a spy for MI5 during the Second World War, but that she was somehow betrayed and imprisoned.

Suspecting that the grandmother’s past may have something to do with her disappearance, Annabel races against time to learn her secrets and try and solve the mystery. Lots of intrigue, passion and betrayals made for a riveting read. The pages just seemed to turn themselves!

You can see my review of The Wife's Tale here. 

And to read my 2016 interview with Christine Wells, click here.

Don't forget to leave a comment with your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Wednesday, August 23, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

My Thoughts:

A wonderful, magical novel set in a snow-bound village in medieval Muscovy and drawing upon old Russian fairy tales, The Bear & the Nightingale is a brilliant debut from Katherine Arden.

The heroine of the tale is a young strong-willed woman named Vasya whose mother has passed on to her certain magical abilities, such as being able to see and converse with the magical spirits of the household. When her father remarries a devout Christian woman, and a new priest begins to preach against the old beliefs, Vasya finds herself the only one who can protect her home from the gathering forces of darkness.

I loved the Russian landscape, with its bitter cold winds and dark impenetrable forests, and the small details of medieval Russian life like the grandmother and children sleeping on top of the clay oven to stay warm. I also loved Katherine Arden’s pure, lyrical writing style. Apparently she is writing another book set in the same world. I cannot wait!

If you're interested in fairy tale retellings, check out this list of some of my favourites.

Please leave a comment, I love to know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester

Friday, August 18, 2017



The Blurb (from Goodreads):

It’s 1922 in the Manhattan of gin, jazz and prosperity. Women wear makeup and hitched hemlines – and enjoy a new freedom to vote and work. Not so Evelyn Lockhart, forbidden from pursuing her passion: to become one of the first female doctors.

Chasing her dream will mean turning her back on the only life she knows: her competitive sister, Viola; her conservative parents; and the childhood best friend she is expected to marry, Charlie.

And if Evie does fight Columbia University’s medical school for acceptance, how will she support herself? So when there’s a casting call for the infamous late-night Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, will Evie find the nerve to audition? And if she does, what will it mean for her fledgling relationship with Upper East Side banker Thomas Whitman, a man Evie thinks she could fall in love with, if only she lived a life less scandalous?

My Thoughts:

Natasha Lester is an Australian writer based in Perth, and A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald is her first foray into historical fiction, after two contemporary tales published by Fremantle Press.

I was irresistibly drawn to her book by its gorgeous cover and the promise of its title, A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald. I love books set in the 1920s, which was such a heady period of glamour and new freedoms. And I was intrigued by the premise: the heroine, Evelyn, is determined to become an obstetrician, at a time when women were rarely permitted to study medicine. To support herself, Evelyn becomes a dancer for the Ziegfield Follies.

The book didn’t let me down. Evelyn’s story is full of drama, heartbreak and determination, and the setting of Manhattan in the early ‘20s is brought to glorious vivid life. I particularly loved the scenes when Evelyn was fighting to be allowed to study medicine – they rang really true for me. I’m keen now to read Natasha Lester’s new book, Her Mother’s Secret.

If you love historical fiction you might also like to read my review of one of my all-time favourite books, Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters.

Please leave a comment - I love to hear your thoughts!

THE BEAST'S GARDEN: Why We Must Always Resist

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

We live in soul-harrowing times.

So much anxiety, so much terror. Sometimes I feel as if my heart is being broken every time I watch the news. Hatred, violence, bigotry and sadism seem to dominate our news screens and streams.  I fear for my children and for our world.



This photo of the recent events in Charlottesville comes from VOX


A few years ago, I wrote a novel set in the underground resistance to Hitler in Nazi Germany.  

I spent months researching World War II, its causes and consequences, its horror and heroism. I had been fascinated by the period ever since I was a little girl and read 'The Diary of Anne Frank' for the first time. As I grew up, I read many hundreds of books about resistance and defiance and have long wanted to write one. At last this desire became urgent. It is important, I thought, to remember the past so we can do not make the same terrible mistakes again.  

The whole time I was writing 'The Beast's Garden', I kept thinking to myself - what would I do if it was me? 




My heroine Ava is not sent to spy school or taught how to shoot a machine gun. She is just an ordinary young woman, living in extraordinary times. She lives with her father and her sisters, she wants to be a singer, she hopes one day to fall in love. But Ava lives in Berlin in 1938. The German people had just voted Hitler into power, hoping he will make good on his promises of more work and new political stability. Many people think Hitler is just a clown, or a bumbling fool. Sure, he shouts a lot and his followers seem like thugs. But how much harm could one man do?   

What awful irony.

The Beast's Garden begins on Kristallnacht with the words: "Ava fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world."

It is a novel about the importance of courage and resistance, and the importance of kindness and compassion. It tells the true and largely untold story of the German underground resistance who paid for their defiance with their lives.  

I hope that none of us ever have to see the kind of darkness and horror that saw Anne Frank die in a concentration camp.

My writing of The Beast's Garden  was, in a way, a call to arms. Please, let us all stand up against hatred and bigotry and racism and cruelty in every way we can. Let's write and create art and protest and point out the terrible mistakes of the past again and again, until we learn from them. Please.



Want to read more?

How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war & resistance 


The Diary of Anne Frank, a book that changed my life


SPOTLIGHT: The Women of the German Resistance


THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How a book can change your life

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sometimes a book can change your life.


The Diary of Anne Frank was that kind of book for me. 


I read it when I was twelve years old.  I can still remember the awful shock of reaching the end, and finding out that Anne did not escape her attic, that she died in Bergen-Belsen when she was only a few years older than I was. 

I had never read a book like it before. It felt like I had been punched hard in the solar plexus. I could not breathe, I could not cry. My very heart felt bruised.


Anne Frank


I began to write my own diary a few days later. Anne Frank had written hers as a series of letters addressed to an imaginary friend named Kitty. I did the same, but addressed mine to “Carrie”. The first entry was written on 15/8/1978 and began ‘Dear Diary, your name is now Carrie. You’ll be my confidant and my port in which to lay my head and my poor worn-out hopes, thoughts and ambitions …’ 


I have written in my diary nearly every day since. That is thirty-seven years of consecutive diary writing, much more than the two years so tragically given to Anne Frank.


Her diary also sparked in me a lifelong fascination with Hitler, and those few brave people who tried their best to resist Nazism. I began to collect a library of books to do with the Second World War, many of them first-hand accounts and memoirs. I was particularly interested in stories of ordinary people who found within themselves extraordinary courage and strength. I knew that one day I would try and write a novel about someone like Anne Frank. 


The years passed, and I wrote a great many books. More than thirty-five at last count. My books range from picture books to poetry, and from heroic fantasy for children to historical novels for adults. I have written books set in Renaissance Venice and at the court of the Sun King in Versailles, in the English Civil War and in the perilous reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Napoleonic Wars, and in worlds of my own imagining. Yet the Second World War never loosened its hold on my imagination. I continued to read as many books as I could find set at that period, and to continue to think about writing one of my own. 

Fairy tales are another long-held passion of mine. I have just completed a doctorate in the subject, and many of my novels have fairy tale motifs and metaphors entwined through their stories. 


The Wild Girl tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most beloved ‘wonder tales’. She told him stories like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ a beautiful variant on the tale we know as ‘The Beauty and the Beast’. 

Arthur Rackham's illustration for 'The Singing, Springing Lark' 


In this story, the father catches a lark, rather than stealing a rose, and the beast of the tale is a lion by day and a man by night (an arrangement which I always thought might have its compensations). The greatest difference, however, is the ending. In Dortchen Wild’s tale, the heroine must follow a trail of blood and white feathers her lover leaves behind him, and then outwit the enchantress who first cast the curse upon him. The heroine is given three gifts to help her: a dress as golden as the sun, another as silver as the moon, and a griffin on which to escape. 


Writing a novel always throws up many unexpected ideas as well as unforeseen problems, and The Wild Girl was no exception.  Taking place over twenty years, and told from the point of view of a young woman forgotten by history, The Wild Girl was very research-intensive indeed. And, for a long while, I did not have a strong sense of the narrative structure. I knew I wanted to retell one of Dortchen’s stories in some way; I did not yet know how. 


While researching the Grimm Brothers, I was distressed to learn their tales had been banned in Germany after the Second World War, as part of the Allies’ Denazification program. Hitler had loved the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales and had recommended all German households have a copy on their shelves. I went to bed that night troubled and upset. I loved the Grimm tales too. In times of darkness and fear, they had given me light and comfort. Yet I had always hated the Nazis and all they stood for, including their burning of books. 


I could not get to sleep that night, my mind in turmoil.  Eventually I got up and found myself a novel to read. I chose an old World War II thriller, about the Danish resistance to the Nazis. I read the whole book through, finally going to sleep long after midnight. Just before I fell asleep, I thought again about the novel I was struggling to write and about the beautiful tales Dortchen Wild had told Wilhelm Grimm. I said to myself: “Trust in the universe. The answer will come.” 


The next morning, as I drifted in that hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking, an image rose up in my mind’s eye. I saw a beautiful young woman, wearing a dress as golden as the sun, singing in a vast dark hall. Her audience were German soldiers in black SS uniforms. I knew instinctively that she was some kind of spy, or resistance fighter, and also that she was German herself. 


I wrote in my diary that day, Monday 3rd October 2011: ‘I couldn’t sleep last night for worrying about Wild Girl … I need something new, strange, unexpected, surprising … I woke this morning and lay in that dim borderland between awake and asleep, that place of creative dreaming, and the idea came to me – why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … perhaps she has to flee and live wild in the woods – or joins the German Resistance - & she carries everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems it have some kind of power to it …’  


My unconscious mind had put together two very different desires – wanting to write a novel about resistance to the Nazis and wanting to retell one of Dortchen Wild’s fairy tales – and come up with something quite unexpected. 


That was the beginning of my novel The Beast’s Garden, a retelling of the Grimms’ version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, set in the German underground resistance to Hitler.


That vision, that not-quite-a-dream, was the beginning of an extraordinary journey of discovery for me. At first, I thought that this story of courage and resistance would be the second narrative strand in The Wild Girl. Slowly I came to realise it was a novel in its own right. I had to put the idea aside as I wrote The Wild Girl and finished my doctorate in fairy tale studies. The idea would not leave me alone, however. I began to read as much as I could about the German Resistance. 


I discovered, rather to my surprise, that many Germans abhorred the Nazis and risked their lives to stand against Hitler. I read about the Swing Kids who played jazz and danced swing in basements and cellars, despite the threat of arrest. The White Rose group of students in Munich printed leaflets calling the German people to rise up against the Third Reich. The Edelweiss Pirates in Cologne did battle with the Hitler Youth and hid deserters from the army. The Baum group in Berlin blew up one of Goebbels’ exhibitions. Other resisters smuggled Jews out of Germany, or hid them in their houses and gardens. Most of them paid for their defiance with their lives.

One of the most successful groups of resisters was based in Berlin. The Gestapo called them the Red Orchestra. They called themselves the Zirkel, which simply means circle. Their members were writers, actors, journalists, musicians and sculptors. Their leaders were a Luftwaffe officer called Harro Schulze-Boysen, his young aristocratic wife Libertas, and their friends Arvid and Mildred Harnack. Mildred would earn the terrible distinction of being the only American woman to be executed by the Third Reich.


Harro & Libertas Schulze-Boysen, who were both executed for their resistance to the Third Reich

I imagined a young German woman (the Beauty of the tale) who marries a Nazi officer (the Beast) in order to save her father. But secretly Ava helps her Jewish friends whever she can. One day she meets Libertas, and is drawn into the dangerous world of the underground resistance. Living a double life, she must spy on her husband Leo in order to help save whom she can. Gradually she comes to suspect her husband is himself involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. When the plot fails, Ava must risk everything to try and save her husband from a cruel traitor’s death. 


The Beast’s Garden was in many ways the most difficult book I have ever written. I found the research utterly harrowing. For months, every day was spent reading about Hitler, about the Gestapo, about the Holocaust. I wrote the first draft entirely in first person, as if it was a diary or a memoir. But then I found it was too limiting, trying to tell such a big story from just one person’s point of view. I rewrote the entire book, in just six weeks, from a number of different points of view, including that of a Jewish girl in hiding. 

On Thursday 12 February 2015, I wrote in my diary: ‘I finished the novel last night, at 1am … and could not sleep afterwards … very tired now, but oh so happy …’


The Beast’s Garden is my paean to all those ordinary people who found such extraordinary courage and strength of spirit within them during the dark days of the Third Reich, including, of course, Anne Frank and the people who hid her and her family. 


You can read more about my liminal dreaming here and more about my research books for THE BEAST'S GARDEN here


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war & resistance

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY OF THE BEAST’S GARDEN

The first flash of inspiration for my new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN came to me while I was drifting in that shadowy place between being asleep and being awake. 

There are two such liminal borderlands. 

The first is called hypnagogia which means “leading toward sleep”; the second is hypnopompia meaning “leading away from sleep.”

I consciously use both of these twilight zones as a time and a space to daydream about my story. I run my narrative thread through my mind, testing for weaknesses, playing with alternatives, thinking about my characters and their fears and desires, rearranging words and images, allowing my mind to wander and to wonder …

Kinuko Craft 

The hypnagogic state (falling asleep) is the best time to ponder problems thrown up by the day’s work and to look over work that has already been written. I like to lie still in the dark silence, and consciously open my mind up to new images or visions. 

Sometimes I deliberately set about unlocking my unconscious to see what lurks within. I imagine myself walking down a flight of steps into shadows. There is a door at the end of the steps. It is locked, but I hold the key in my hand. The door is always different – sometimes a gateway through a yew tree, sometimes a great Gothic door with heavy iron hinges and a huge keyhole. The key might be as long as my arm, or so small I can scarcely grasp it with my fingers. I unlock the door and open it … wondering what I will find inside. Often it’s a garden, with a path that leads to a mysterious house. Sometimes, it’s a lake under a starlit sky, surrounded by sharp-etched mountain peaks. 

With each novel I write, the scene within will be different … and the more I unlock that door, the more vivid and real the scene within will seem.

Sometimes I choose what I will find; most times, what I find is a surprise. 

The hypnopompic state (rising from sleep) is very different. I am closer to the dream world, deeper within the dark vault of the subconscious. I float in darkness as if in a vast subterranean ocean, rising and falling, images and ideas drifting to the surface then falling away again like the undulation of bioluminescent jellyfish in the midnight tide. 

Sometimes the visions I have in that hypnopompic phase are extraordinarily vivid, filled with light and sound, like a brief glimpse of a film through the half-open door of a movie theatre. Sometimes they are strange and eerie; sometimes terrifying. 

I call it ‘liminal dreaming’, for want of a better term. It’s not quite a dream, not quite a daydream, but something in-between, a rite of passage between the conscious and the unconscious mind.

Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare


It was the 3rd November 2011. I had gone to bed the previous night unhappy and troubled by the novel I was then writing, THE WILD GIRL, which tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the Grimm brothers’ most famous fairy tales. I did not yet see the shape of my story, my narrative structure, which meant I could not begin writing the novel. I can never begin until I see the story’s whole shape. 


I went to sleep repeating to myself: it’s all right, trust the universe, the answer will come, the answer will come …


As I lay in the dim borderland between awake and asleep the next morning, an image came into my mind. A young woman, dressed in a sinuous golden silk dress, leant on a black piano in a dark and smoky nightclub, singing a sexy jazz number, while men in the severe black uniforms of the SS watched her. She had a flower in her hair, which was worn loose in heavy 1940s waves. 

An old photo of actress Ida Lupino 

As I came closer to being awake, my conscious mind reached for more images, more ideas. I saw her hugging a tattered book of fairy tales to her chest and weeping, I saw her living hand-to-mouth in the bombed-out rubble of a city, hiding in a dark forest, being chased … I saw her crouched beneath the weight of a heavy dark fur-coat, cramming food into her mouth … I saw books being burned in a bonfire and the girl, white-faced and desperate, trying to save her book …


I sat up and reached for my diary, and tried to write down all the phantasmagorias that had come so swift and bright into my mind’s eye. I wrote five pages: ‘why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … she has to flee and live wild in the wood – or joins the German Resistance – and she carries with her everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … I have to say this new idea – so fragile and damp still – it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems to have some kind of power to it.’


In my diary, I speculate where this idea came from: I had always wanted to write a book set in the Second World War; I’d always loved stories about resistance to Hitler; I had just read a page-turning World War II thriller about the Danish resistance; and I had been reading about the Grimm brothers and how their fairy tales were ‘used by Nazi Germany in a way they could never have imagined’. By this, I was referring to Hitler recommending all Germans had a copy of the Grimm brothers’ tales in their households, and how, after the war, the Allied had banned the Household and Children’s Tales as part of their denazification program. 


At first, I thought this liminal dream was a second narrative thread to be woven into THE WILD GIRL. I was planning to use ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a story about a king who wanted to marry his daughter that Dortchen had told to Wilhelm just days before the fairy tale collection was rushed to the printers in 1812. I wrote in my diary two days later, ‘I’ve been thinking about my WWII idea and have that bright panic in my veins that means it’s a good one. Already I can see a narrative arc.’  


On 7th October 2011, I wrote another four pages in my diary, outlining the basic sequence of events. I began a new notebook for it, filling its pages with research about Hitler’s rise to power and circles of German resistance. I began to try and weave my two stories together.


On 22nd February 2012, I wrote in my diary: ‘I’m rethinking the Nazi resistance strand of the story – I’m already at 69,000 words (of THE WILD GIRL) & the novel is growing slowly – I don’t want it to be too long - & I’m wondering if the two strands of my story shouldn’t be Dortchen as a grown woman and Dortchen growing up  … I’m going back to my original idea of having my opening scene being Dortchen dancing in a black dress in a winter forest with ravens crying overhead (my dream) … I can write the German resistance idea as a separate novel – rather than trying to weave 2 separate stories together …’ 


On 1st July, my diary reads ‘I’ve also been thinking a lot ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ and what a beautiful YA book it would make. Oh, if only I had more time. All these books I want to write.’ 


(‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ was an unusual and very beautiful variant of the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ tale, told by Dortchen to Wilhelm on 7th January 1813).


A few days later (10th July 2013), I wrote: ‘I’ve been thinking about my German resistance story & wondering if I can do it as a retelling of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ – German girl married to a ‘beast’ – a German officer – to save her father – she is frightened of him – but really he is working to help people – inadvertently she betrays him and must go on quest to find him again – the celestial gifts – golden gown – what could the chicks be? Saves him from female Gestapo - & so on. I think it could work incredibly well.’ 


So that was how I got the idea for the story that became THE BEAST’S GARDEN. A liminal dream that was discarded, then transformed into something else through the strange and inexplicable creative process. 


It was a harrowing book to write, for many reasons, as I’m sure you can imagine.  Researching Hitler and the Holocaust for months on end was enough to give anyone nightmares … particularly someone who is used to consciously unlocking the gateway between the conscious and the subconscious …

So it was that, every night, as I walked down my shadowy steps to a mysterious locked door … it was the iron door to a Gestapo cell … and I would stand, paralysed, too afraid to open the door … 

In the end, I gave this particular liminal dream to my heroine, Ava … I gave her the strength and courage to open that cell door and rescue her love, who is imprisoned within … and so I was able to exorcise that waking nightmare …


And now, each night, as I walk down the twilight steps towards the gateway, I wonder … what new story awaits for me beyond the threshold ...

BOOK REVIEW: The Dying Season (The Patriarch) By Martin Walker

Monday, August 14, 2017



The Dying Season (Bruno, Chief of Police #8), AKA The Patriarch
by Martin Walker

The Blurb (from GoodReads):

When Bruno is invited to the lavish birthday celebration of World War II flying ace and national icon Marco “the Patriarch” Desaix, it’s the fulfillment of a boyhood dream. But when the party ends in the death of Gilbert, Marco’s longtime friend, it’s another day on the job for the chef de police. All signs point to a tragic accident, but Bruno isn’t so sure. There is more to the Desaix family’s lives and loyalties than meets the eye. There is Victor, the Patriarch’s son, Gilbert’s old comrade-in-arms and sometime rival; Victor’s seductive wife, Madeleine, whose roving eye intrigues Bruno even more than her fierce political ambitions; Yevgeny, another son, an artist whose paintings seem to hold keys to the past; and the Patriarch himself, whose postwar Soviet ties may have intersected all too closely with Gilbert’s career in Cold War intelligence.

Bruno is diverted by a dangerous conflict between a local animal rights activist and outraged hunters—as well as meals to cook, wine to share, and an ever more complicated romantic situation. But as his entanglement with the Desaix family grows and his suspicions heighten, Bruno’s inquiries into Gilbert’s life become a deadly threat to his own.

My Thoughts:

I really enjoy this series of contemporary crime novels by Martin Walker, partly because of its setting in the picturesque Dordogne and partly because of its hero, the gentle and good-natured police chief, Bruno. He is kind to dogs and children, cooks amazing French feasts, and falls into bed with various beautiful women, sometimes rather to his dismay.

Despite the emphasis on food and love, and the slow pace of the books, these mysteries cannot be described as ‘cosy’ as they always illuminate some dark aspect of French life. In this book – the eighth in the series – there are confrontations between environmentalists and hunters protecting their age-old traditions, and a powerful man with links to Russia and Israel. A great, light read.

You might be interested in my review of the previous book in this series, Children of War, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!

GEORGIE BURNE-JONES: Her Life & Writing

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Georgiana Macdonald Burne-Jones (b. 1840 – d. 1920) is the main character in my novel Beauty in Thorns, a reimagining of 'Sleeping Beauty' set amongst the passions, scandals and tragedies of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and poets in mid-Victorian London. 

Georgie has never attracted as much attention as Lizzie Siddal or Jane Burden, yet her story is just as fascinating. 



Born into the large family of a devout Methodist minister and his wife, she married Ned when he was a desperately poor young artist who had never had a proper drawing lesson in his life. She supported him steadfastly through every crisis of faith, ill health, and infidelity, managed his business affairs, and put aside her own dreams of art and creativity to support her husband’s. 

The scandal of Ned’s affair with the tempestuous and unbalanced Maria Zambaco tested her courage and faithfulness to the utmost. Her friend Rosalind Howard wrote in her diary: ‘her love is the deepest I ever met with. She is centred in her husband, the whole romance of her life is bound up with him from when she was eleven years old – more than romance, every feeling she has. She longs for him. He cannot know what she has endured.’ 



Yet Georgie was by no means the passive, long-suffering wife that she is sometimes painted to be. She pursued her own interests, and had many strong friendships with intelligent and forward-thinking women such as Rosalind Howard and Marian Evans (better known as George Eliot). She became a Socialist, against her husband’s inclinations, and was voted in as a parish councillor in Rottingdean at a time when women still did not have any voice or votes in politics. 



Most interestingly, the Memorials she wrote of Ned’s life are, I think, the most readable and engaging biography of Victorian times. Wherever possible, in Beauty in Thorns, I have tried to let Georgie speak in her own voice. For example, when Georgie speaks of ‘the cloven hoof of fashion’, that is a direct quote from her book. Elsewhere she describes the ‘brown sugar’ of a beach, or Ned’s ‘cloud-scattering laugh’. Her nephew Rudyard Kipling once said that ink ran in the veins of the Macdonalds. I think that he was right, and that it is a shame that Georgie never wrote that novel she dreamed of creating. 


The best books on the life of Ned and Georgie are A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin by Judith Flanders (2001), The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones & the Victorian Imagination (2011) by Fiona MacCarthy, and the two volumes of Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones by Lady Georgiana Burne-Jones (1904).  I also really enjoyed A Profound Secret by Josceline Dimbleby, about the intense late friendship between her great-grandmother May Gaskell and Edward Burne-Jones.

You may also enjoy my blog posts on Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris.


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