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SPOTLIGHT: Books on the Pre-Raphaelites

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

I am in the early stages of writing and researching a new novel, which has a working title of BEAUTY IN THORNS. 

It tells the story behind Edward Burne-Jones's famous paintings of the 'Briar Rose' fairy tale, which he painted numerous times over the course of twenty tumultuous years. Most of the story will be told through the eyes of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, such as Georgie Burne-Jones and her daughter, Margaret, and Jane Morris, and her daughters, Jenny and May.    

I am still in the early stages of researching, which means a lot of reading. Here are just some of the books I have been studying: 

Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel – Lucinda Hawksley

Like many others, I’ve always been fascinated by the brief tragic life of Lizzie Siddal, whose face appears in so many early Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

She rose to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain and a pivotal figure of London's artistic world, until tragically ending her life in 1862.

A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin

 – Judith Flanders

The Macdonald sisters were a fairly ordinary mid-Victorian family. Their father was a Methodist preacher, their mother a chronic invalid. They moved often, following their father’s itinerant preaching routes, and so relied one each other for comfort and amusement. Attractive, lively girls, none of them was startling beautiful or brilliant, and yet they all made extraordinary marriages that led to extraordinary family dynasties. Agnes married Edward Poynter, president of the prestigious Royal Academy of the Arts; Georgiana married Edward Burne-Jones, one of the most extraordinary painters of the era; Alice was the mother of Rudyard Kipling; and Louisa gave birth to the future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. In a way, their stories are a prime example for the way in which class boundaries in the Victorian era was changing, allowing those with talent and drive to change their social status.

The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones & the Victorian Imagination – Fiona McCarthy

This is a great big chunk of a book, but very readable, and magisterial in its approach to the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones, one of my favourite artists. Best of all, it shines a light on to the inner life of the artist, helping illuminate the forces that drove this complex and haunted man.

Pre-Raphaelites in Love – Gay Daly 

This is a great book for anyone who wants a really readable look into the passions and scandals that defined the relationships of the Pre-Raphaelites. There’s wife-swapping, suicide, trials for impotence, affairs with models, exhumation of dead wives, madness, and horse skeletons being boiled in front yards. Gripping stuff.

Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites - Franny Moyle

Franny Moyle’s book was published in 2009, twenty years after Gay Daly’s Pre-Raphaelites in Love. So she has access to new research into the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as a greater freedom to talk about sex and drugs and rocking-and-rolling. Her style is racy and often funny, and lacks any kind of deep analysis or evidence. It was written as a tie-in with the BBC series of the same name, which very much focuses on the love affairs, rather than the art. It is, nonetheless, immensely readable and engaging, and is probably the best place to start if you want to know all the racy stuff about the Pre-Raphaelites.

have a lot more books on the Pre-Raphaelites to read, so if you're interested ... watch this space!



Thursday, January 07, 2016


This year I read 110 books in total, with 50 of these being research for the new novel I am working on (about the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and writers in mid-Victorian England). 

So it was difficult to pick only 10 novels and 10 non-fiction books for my annual ‘Best of the Year’ list! I began by eliminating books that I had already read (I tried to re-read an old favourite at least once a month this year) and then slowly whittled it back. Some of the books are not new releases, but they were new to me and I thought that was what was important. 

Most of these books have been reviewed on my blog - just click the link to read the full review.


1. The Light Between the Oceans - M.L. Stedman

This novel has at its heart a disturbing moral dilemma. A young woman married to a lighthouse keeper longs for a child of her own, but has lost all of her own babies. One day a boat washes up on their remote island. Inside the boat are a dead man and a baby, who is very much alive. The lighthouse keeper and his wife take in the founding child and, before long, Izzy begins to pretend the little girl is hers. The consequences of that decision will change their lives forever. 

2. Half a King - Joe Abercrombie

I just loved Half A King. It was tightly constructed, quick-paced, and surprising – qualities that can sometimes be rare in a fantasy novel. It was also beautifully written. I’m really looking forward to reading the next in the series, Half A World, and discovering his earlier book as well. A must-read for fantasy lovers.

3. The Devil in the Marshalsea - Antonia Hodgson

I can strongly recommend this to anyone who loves a really top-notch, fast-paced, and atmospheric historical thriller.

4. The Taxidermist’s Daughter – Kate Mosse

An utterly gripping murder mystery with gorgeous lyrical prose and the pace of a thriller, The Taxidermist’s Daughter was an absolute delight to read. 

5. Affinity – Sarah Waters

I have never read one of Sarah Waters’ books before. Now I want to gobble them all down as fast as I can get my greedy hands on them. Affinity is just brilliant!

6. The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in the series of Robert Galbraith’s contemporary crime novels (Robert Galbraith being, of course, the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling) & is a compelling and surprising murder mystery that shines a spotlight on the murky world of modelling. 

7. The Quality of Silence – Rosamund Lupton

This is one of the most beautiful and haunting psychological thrillers I have ever read.

8. Possession – A. S. Byatt

This novel has been on my shelf for more than twenty years, and yet somehow I have never before read it. So at last I picked it up and began. Of course, I utterly adored it!  

9. The Marriage of Opposites – Alice Hoffman

Beautiful, romantic, haunting, and alive with sensuality, I cannot recommend The Marriage Of Opposites highly enough. Read it!

10. The Lake House – Kate Morton

Mysteries and secrets have always been at the heart of Kate Morton’s books, but with this one she takes a step closer to the crime genre. The result is as beguiling and suspenseful as always. 


11. A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France - Miranda Richmond Mouillot

An extraordinary memoir of her grandparents' dramatic escape from Nazi-occupied France and their troubled marriage which followed, A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War & A Ruined House in France is as much a meditation on memory, storytelling, and the dark shadow that the Holocaust continues to cast over the descendants of those who survived. 

12. The Life of Anne Frank – Menno Metselaar & Ruud van der Rol 

This small book from the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam tells the tragic story of Anne Frank's life and death through photographs and scraps of her diaries. Intended for children, it is nonetheless a heart-piercing record of the impact of Nazism upon one girl.  

13. Chasing the Rose: An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside - Andrea di Robilant

Another wonderful book from the Venetian journalist and historian Andrea di Robilant, this time about a unknown rose growing among the ruins of his family's once magnificent estate on the Italian mainland. His search to identify and name the rose takes him on a journey through the history of roses, and he meets many fascinating and eccentric rose enthusiasts along the way. 

14. For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World's Favourite Drink - Sarah Rose

A really interesting non-fiction book about Robert Fortune, the Scottish horticulturist who went to China and bought, borrowed and stole the secrets to growing tea, which had been up to then a closely guarded secret of the Chinese emperor. Utterly fascinating.   

15. March, Women, March: Voices of the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to the Suffragettes  – Lucinda Hawksley 

What I most loved about the book is the way it foregrounded the stories of the real-life women who suffered so much to bring about such a fundamentally important change in the laws of the United Kingdom, which flowed on to affect countries elsewhere. Famously, Australia and New Zealand were among the first countries in the world to bring about the vote for a limited number of women. It was a little too little, far too late, as far as I can see, and I think many people today are not aware of just what a bitter battle it was.

16. What We See When We Read – Peter Mendelsund

A strange, fascinating and totally original book about the relationship between the words on the page and the images seen in the mind’s eye, this is a book to be thought about and re-read again and again

17. Small Acts Of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger  - Fiona Wright

An utterly extraordinary collection of essays inspired by the author's long struggle with an eating disorder – intelligent, fierce and deeply informative. 

18. The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane 

Robert Macfarlane has been a new discovery of mine this year. He writes exquisitely crafted personal essays on his adventures exploring ancient landscapes on foot ... the result is magical and eye-opening. 

19. Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa – Joan Jacobs Brumberg

This book is exactly what the title promises - a social history of anorexia nervosa. And it's utterly fascinating & illuminating!

20. A Year With Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke – translated & edited-Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows

A collection of snippets from the poems, letters and diaries of the lyrical German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favourite poets, this book is designed to be read a page a day for a year. I can really recommend it! 

INTERVIEW: Lucinda Hawksley, author of The Mystery of Princess Louise

Friday, October 23, 2015

Today on the blog, I am very excited to welcome Lucinda Hawksley, the author of three books I have read and enjoyed recently - The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter; March, Women, March! Voices of the Women's Movement from the First Feminist to Votes for Women; and Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel

In the past few months I’ve read three of your books – on Lizzie Siddal, the suffragettes and Princess Louise – and I’ve enjoyed them all enormously. I read a great deal of non-fiction as research for my novels, and it is such a rare pleasure to find a non-fiction book that is both brilliantly informative and beautifully written.
Thank you!

How did you first begin writing biographies and narrative non-fiction?
I always intended to write fiction – as I child I was mad about Roald Dahl, so I always wanted to do what he did. The only biography I ever planned to write was on the artist Katey Perugini (née Dickens), because I became fascinated by her when I was very young. She was my great great great aunt and I felt she deserved a biography. The others all grew out of that, and when I discovered how fascinating non-fiction can be, it’s so intriguing and although it’s a well-worn cliché it really is true that fact is very often stranger than fiction. I often get emails saying how much people have enjoyed my “novel” about Lizzie Siddal, which I always take as a compliment and I love the fact that people think a real life can’t actually have been like that. 

What was the greatest challenge for you in this work?
The salary – that sounds crass, but as I’m sure you’re aware, most authors get paid an absolute pittance. Don’t even think about working out a day rate, let alone an hourly rate. It is a struggle for about 95% of authors to try and work on the money that publishers pay, especially as non-fiction requires so much research. Princess Louise took me 6 years to write and research and the advance covered a fraction of one year of that, so alongside writing, I needed to take on huge amounts of extra work, hence I do a lot of lecturing and public speaking. I also write articles. Last year I was elected onto the Management Committee of the Society of Authors, and it has been a shock to discover how appallingly badly the vast majority of authors are paid. Most end up giving up and finding a different job, which is very sad. Virginia Woolf was so correct when she said that a woman needs an income and a room of one’s own in order to be able to write. Oh for a trust fund! 

How do you choose your subjects?
Once you’ve got started, they tend to all start suggesting themselves. I chose to write about Katey and Lizzie Siddal (as I had studied the Pre-Raphaelites as part of my Masters degree work), then Princess Louise came about because she kept popping up in my research. Dickens came about largely through my Katey book, and also because I’m related to him, so people tend to want me to write about him. March, Women, March came about because my publisher wanted me to write about the suffragettes, but I wanted to write about the women’s movement as a whole, as it played a large role in my Princess Louise research. Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards grew out of a lecture I was commissioned to give at the National Portrait Gallery – and that grew out of my telling them I have a beard phobia and them saying I needed to face my fear!

How do you begin to go about your research?
I start what I call my “skeleton timeline” in which I plot every bit of information I have, no matter how minor it seems, and then decide which bit I want to work on first. I use the internet, the London Library, the British Library, the National Art Library and as many local studies libraries as I can find (they are an amazing undertapped resource). I also interview people and try to find out information from things such as parish records and by visiting places that had a connection with the person / events. For March, Women, March I spent a lot of time at the London Library and the Wellcome Library is also really useful for any medical research.

Tell me a little more about how you work. Do you keep notes on palm-cards, or on a whiteboard? Do you use a computer program to help? Do you take notes by hand? How do you keep your research notes in order?
I have a very small working space, so a whiteboard would not fit! I don’t use a special computer programme, but I keep obsessive notes both on the laptop and by hand and files of notes. I try and copy all handwritten notes into a computer file as well, so that I reinforce them and have everything together. I always have at least one notebook and a pencil case in my handbag. I also make notes on my phone to email to myself. I am not a naturally organised person, so I have to really work at it, and every now and then I need to have an “admin day” to sort it all out. 

What was your favourite book to write so far?
That’s very tough, as that’s like asking which is your favourite child! I really enjoyed writing the biography of Katey, because I learnt so much about my family. I also had a great time researching Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards for the National Portrait Gallery, it was a much smaller book to write than any of the biographies and the NPG publishing department are really easy to work with. It was interesting, very different from the type of research I’d done before (medical as well as social history) and finished remarkably fast! 

What was your most difficult book so far?
Definitely The Mystery of Princess Louise as there were so many obstacles put in my way when researching her: I wasn’t allowed to see her files in the Royal Archives, her husband’s family also made it impossible to get into their archives, so much has been destroyed. Having said which, once I realised that was how it was going to be, I really enjoyed it, as it was basically like being a detective. I began slightly nervous that I wasn’t going to like her (not great for a biography subject) as there was so much negatove information out there about her, and I ended up by really liking her and realising that so much of that negativity was rumour spread so that people wouldn’t look beyond it and find the truth.

Do you grow to really love your subjects? Are you invested in their stories? Or do you retain an objective detachment?
You have to love them. I don’t think I could write a biography of someone I wasn’t fascinated by and I liked. You start off by putting them on a pedestal, then you get to know their bad points and irritating foibles and all the nitty gritty and by the end you love them for their good, bad and ingenious sides. If I started a biography and didn’t find the person interesting, I would have to give up on it.

Tell me about your research on Lizzie Siddal. What was your most interesting discovery about her?
I think perhaps the fact that she made her childhood sound much more impoverished than it was, for whatever reason she and Rossetti made out that she grew up in a “slum”, when it was actually a very normal working-class home. She romanticised so much of her childhood and that was intriguing to me. I was also intrigued by what a cult figure she is and how many people are obsessed by the idea of her dying while posing for Millais’s Ophelia (she didn’t…) and that she remains “undead” (courtesy of Charles Augustus Howell telling Rossetti the lie that when Lizzie’s coffin was exhumed she looked as beautiful as she had done in life. I checked, and laudanum is not a preservative!). 

A pen and ink drawing of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

What first drew you to be interested in her story?
The poetry of Christina Rossetti got me into the Pre-Raphaelites and Lizzie always just shines out of their story. I wanted to write about her when I was a teenager, I think a lot of teenage girls go through a Lizzie Siddal stage. She’s gets the same kind of cult attraction as Marilyn Monroe.

And what about Princess Louise
When I was researching Katey & Lizzie, I kept coming across this princess who was hanging out with Whistler and going to parties at Leighton’s house and visiting Rossetti when he was ill. I assumed she was a minor foreign royal who had come to London to be bohemian. I was amazed to discover she was one of Victoria and Albert’s daughters and astounded to find I had often walked past one of her sculptures in Kensington Gardens. She has been very deliberately whitewashed out of much of royal history, despite having actually been an integral part of several reigns.

I was thrilled by your book on suffragettes, ‘March, Women, March’ – I want all teenage girls to read it. I’ve read many books on the topic before, but yours really brought the stories of the women behind the cause to life.  How long did it take you to research and write?

It took me about a year to research and write it, because that’s the time frame the publisher gave me. I could have gone on for much longer! I would love all teenagers to read it, when the publicity department sent it away for review, my favourite comment came from the radio DJ Lynn Parsons who wrote “I want my sons to read this”. I thought I knew a lot about the subject before, especially as I’d researched so much of it for Princess Louise (so, being honest, the research took several years, I suppose), but I learnt a great deal when I was researching it. Sometimes it was heartbreaking. It was not an easy book to write as it frequently made me cry. I remember one morning waking up to the radio news and hearing the presenter say “Should women be allowed to be bishops?” and in my bleary-eyed early morning state I genuinely wondered if I was awake or dreaming about being in the 19th century. 

You must always be reading for research. What types of books do you like to read for pleasure?
Golden Age crime fiction! That’s my favourite type of escapism. I also love really good, witty, intelligent novels, Rachel Joyce, Salley Vickers, Sebastian Faulks, Ian Rankin and Mavis Cheek are some of my favourites. 

What’s a few of the best novels you’ve read recently?
I’m reading Rachel Joyce’s The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy  at the moment and I’m loving it. I also really enjoyed Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. One of my favourite ever books is Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy. If you haven’t read it, I would thoroughly recommend it. It should be on every school syllabus. 

What book of yours should I read next?
Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards, surprisingly interesting social history all around facial hair (the beard phobia got worse not better when I was writing it…). The Victorian Treasury came out last week. Or wait until March and read my upcoming Dickens and his Circle. 

What are you working on now?
Dickens and his Circle is coming out in March, so I have been finishing doing the edits on that. I’ve also just finished writing The London Treasury which is also coming out next year. I’m going to take a few months off writing, as I’ve worked on 4 books this year and am exhausted, and concentrate on lecturing for a while, before I decide next year what I want to do. I have finished a first draft of a YA book (fiction) so I’d like the time to work on that and develop it. 



REVIEW: The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter – Lucinda Hawksley

The secrets of Queen Victoria's sixth child, Princess Louise, may be destined to remain hidden forever. What was so dangerous about this artistic, tempestuous royal that her life has been documented more by rumor and gossip than hard facts? When Lucinda Hawksley started to investigate, often thwarted by inexplicable secrecy, she discovered a fascinating woman, modern before her time, whose story has been shielded for years from public view.

Louise was a sculptor and painter, friend to the Pre-Raphaelites and a keen member of the Aesthetic movement. The most feisty of the Victorian princesses, she kicked against her mother's controlling nature and remained fiercely loyal to her brothers-especially the sickly Leopold and the much-maligned Bertie. She sought out other unconventional women, including Josephine Butler and George Eliot, and campaigned for education and health reform and for the rights of women. She battled with her indomitable mother for permission to practice the "masculine" art of sculpture and go to art college-and in doing so became the first British princess to attend a public school.

The rumors of Louise's colorful love life persist even today, with hints of love affairs dating as far back as her teenage years, and notable scandals included entanglements with her sculpting tutor Joseph Edgar Boehm and possibly even her sister Princess Beatrice's handsome husband, Liko. True to rebellious form, she refused all royal suitors and became the first member of the royal family, since the sixteenth century, to marry a commoner. She moved with him to Canada when he was appointed Governor-General.

Spirited and lively, Queen Victoria's Mysterious Daughter is richly packed with arguments, intrigues, scandals, and secrets, and is a vivid portrait of a princess desperate to escape her inheritance.

What I Thought:
In recent months, I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction books written by the British biographer Lucinda Hawksley, and enjoyed them all. So I was drawn to read this biography of one of Queen Victoria’s daughters as much by the author as by the promise of the blurb: ‘packed with intrigues, scandals and secrets, (this is) a vivid portrait of a royal desperate to escape her inheritance.’ 

I was not disappointed. Lucinda Hawksley has a knack for bringing stories alive on the page, and Princess Louise is a wonderful character. Outspoken, creative, and sensual, she smoked cigarettes, rode bicycles, and refused to wear a crinoline. It is rumoured she had an illegitimate baby, smuggled out of the palace by the queen’s doctor, and one of her lovers’ may have died in her arms. It is impossible to know the truth because – nearly 70 years after her death – her archives are stoutly locked away and no-one is permitted to read them. A fascinating mystery, indeed.

You may also enjoy my blog on Lucinda's book March, Women, March! about the Suffragettes' movement in Great Britain, and my post on my research books on the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists, in which I mention Lucinda's book Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel


BOOK REVIEW: March, Women, March by Lucinda Hawksley

Monday, September 07, 2015

March, Women, March – Lucinda Hawksley 

March, Women, March explores the women's movement in Britain, from the Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 to women attaining the vote in 1928. 

Published to commemorate the centenary of the death of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who was dragged under King George V's horse during the Derby and thus sustained fatal injuries, this fascinating book uses anecdotes and accounts by both famous and hitherto lesser known suffragettes and suffragists to explore how the voice of women came to be heard throughout the land in the pursuit of equal votes for females. Using diary extracts and letters, the main protagonists of the women's movement are brought back to life as Lucinda Dickens Hawksley explores how they were portrayed in literature and art as well as the media reports of the day. 

What I Thought:

I have always been interested in the suffragette movement, and have long wanted to write about it. Lucinda Hawksley’s  beautifully written account looks at the history of women’s fight to vote from the Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 all the way through to the change in British law in 1928. 

Drawing on first-hand accounts such as letters and diaries, as well as newspaper reports of the time, the book is written in simple, lucid prose that is a joy to read. It was published on the centenary of the death of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who was dragged under King George V's horse during the Derby horse race and killed. 

What I most loved about the book is the way it foregrounded the stories of the real-life women who suffered so much to bring about such a fundamentally important change in the laws of the United Kingdom, which flowed on to affect countries elsewhere. Famously, Australia and New Zealand were among the first countries in the world to bring about the vote for a limited number of women. It was a little too little, far too late, as far as I can see, and I think many people today are not aware of just what a bitter battle it was.

After finishing it, I wanted to press this book into the hands of every young woman I met …and every young man. A really important book.


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