Today I share with you my review of Spirited by Julie Cohen, published by Orion July 2020.
I loved this book; I found it enchanting, and it gripped me throughout. Set in the mid nineteenth century in England and India, the story covers spiritualism, so-called “spirit photography”, the oppression of women in Victorian times, and the power of women to assert their identity and to triumph over suffocating prejudice.
The novel reminded me of Affinity by Sarah Waters, published by Virago, another book which captivated me.
Fans of that book will love this one. Curiously, the colour and design of the covers on both books is very similar.
Julie Cohen’s mastery of atmosphere is compelling and as she builds the sense of mystery, the sympathy of the reader must surely rest with all three main characters, with Jonah who has returned to England from tragic events in India; with Viola, who responds to her grief at her father’s death by giving herself heart and soul to her photography; and to Henriette, strong and resilient, who rises above the cruelty and abuse she has received in the past.
Blended into all this is an intelligent and powerful debate about life after death and the various things we cling to in order to uphold our beliefs. Very highly recommended.
I waited quite a long time for Waterstones to send me this book; and having received it, I spent the next few hours devouring this story of William Shakespeare’s family and the tragic death of his 11 year old son Hamnet.
Living as I do near Stratford-upon-Avon I have visited all the Shakespeare properties a number of times. I will never experience Shakespeare’s Birthplace the same way again, now I have read this book. As I enter the rooms, I will imagine Ann Hathaway giving birth here, to her twins Judith and Hamnet; and in another room I will think of her laying out Hamnet’s body with loving care, sewing him into his shroud; and in another, of John Shakespeare browbeating William, or of his sister questioning or advising him.
Ann in this story is called Agnes; William himself is never named but called either ‘the Latin Tutor’ or ‘her husband’ or ‘their father / brother’. So we think of him in his relationships as an ordinary family man, rather than being distracted by the weight of his awesome reputation, over five centuries later.
The story initially moves back and forwards between two time-frames: the time of Agnes’ pregnancy with Suzanne, and the turbulent reaction of the families, and her subsequent marriage to Will; and then to the final 24 hours of Hamnet’s life, 13 years later as he falls victim to the Bubonic Plague. Life and death, beginnings and endings, are constantly interwoven, folding back on each other.
I found the book very intense, full of exquisite moment-by-moment accounts of highly emotional events, and the long period of Agnes’ grief, while her husband is in London on one of his long absences.
Will’s sister Eliza is the go-between in that she, unlike Agnes, is literate and can write the letters Agnes dictates and read the letters Will sends in return. Some have thought William Shakespeare very unloving to his wife and family, spending so much time away from them; but in this story we are offered a much more sympathetic picture. Will asks Agnes to come to London to live with him but she refuses as she fears Judith’s delicate health will suffer in the disease ridden city streets.
Ultimately with his London money Will is able to buy the gracious mansion at New Place; and I loved the descriptions of Agnes creating her dream garden there, planting many fruit trees and medicinal herbs and keeping bees and a host of cats.
The epiphany in this story comes with Agnes’ realisation of the true significance of her husband’s new tragedy ‘Hamlet’.
This is a book which will certainly have you scurrying to Google to check up on the known facts of William Shakespeare’s life and family members. You will see him in a new light and may also be deeply moved by the reality of life and death in 15th & 16th century England. A very highly recommended book.
We are lucky to have many beautiful places to walk, in Leamington Spa Warwick and Kenilworth, with gardens, rivers, castles, historical houses and parklands. Each time I walk in Jephson Gardens, Leamington Spa, I see new delights. Throughout this pandemic, the natural world has upheld the spirits of so many – and the imagination, hard work, dedication and creativity of gardeners.
During the Covid-19 Pandemic and throughout the three lockdowns in the UK, many have sought the consolation of escape – into books or films. Every so often I return to one of my top favourites – The Adventures of TinTin: the Secret of the Unicorn. To my mind this film exemplifies classic story structure; but above all it centres upon a likeable, engaging young hero. Each time I watch it I know again why I loved TinTin so much on TV during my teenage years.
The Adventures of TinTin: The Secret of the Unicorn (directed by Peter Jackson & Steven Spielberg) was released in 2011. So it’s been out a while. But I write blog posts when something inspires or excites or moves me, and haunts me at night. And that’s what this TinTin story did.
I asked myself again, exactly what is the appeal of TinTin? He’s a totally beguiling hero. He’s Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Spiderman all rolled into one fresh-faced boy hero – and of course his intrepid dog Snowy (originally named Milou by his creator, Herge).
As a child I loved adventure stories. I started with Enid Blyton and later I moved onto King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard, and Prester John by John Buchan and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. These stories have everything – at their best they not only excite and thrill, but also they move, and they teach you about this life, and they convey archetypal truths about human nature.
You can draw parallels with your own life, even if you don’t do exactly the same dangerous things. You can use the action hero’s experiences as a metaphor to help you clarify what has happened to you, and what attitude to take. This is the power of a great story.
Take the archetypal villain, who pursues his obsession to its bitter end.
There are people who live their lives like this. They’re all around us. They express it in their relationships. People who have never learned the art of letting go.
Their obsession leads to such things as ‘unfinished business’ when family members die; ‘skeletons’ that stay in cupboards for generations; vendettas that last decades, family members who don’t talk to each other for years.
The lesson the archetypal villain and his fate teaches is this: ‘People matter more than things’.
In this life, what matters most of all, above ‘due recompense’, above ‘getting satisfaction’, above ‘being right’, is human relationships – and of course this is the lesson the archetypal villain never learns, and which the hero instinctively honours, or the story wouldn’t satisfy us.
A hero learns, and changes. A villain never learns, and never changes.
TinTin is a hero who’s open to all that life has for him; he’s never held back by self-limiting beliefs; he’s ready to live on his wits, yet has an unerring instinct for a just cause, personified by a character who is flawed, but whose heart’s in the right place; then he throws in all his gifts on that character’s side.
Does this excite, inspire and move you, as it does me?
We’ve reached the time of year for the Christmas List.
I’m revisiting my subject of the Christmas List for several reasons. Amongst these are the sheer poignancy of the subject, and the fact that since then I have published a revised version of the piece in a Christmas Anthology – available here to buy on Amazon.
Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.
There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.
And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.
Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.
So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.
But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list – the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.
Perhaps the candle flame is there to remind me of that.
Today I share an extract from my chapter on Kenilworth Castle, a historical site of great spiritual resonance, looked after by English Heritage, and a place I love and have visited many times.
John of Gaunt’s great hall saw many feasts, the walls covered with vibrant tapestries, blazing logs spitting and crackling in the great fireplace and the table laden with banquets. We can imagine the heat that billows through the kitchen, and see the toiling cooks and servants amid the steam, and smell the sweet and savoury fragrance of the dishes that are being prepared and cooked.
The Castle passed into John of Gaunt’s hands in 1361. John was created Duke of Lancaster and fought long campaigns in France and Spain. But in 1391 he set about converting the castle into a palace, and during the following eight years he held his great banquets.
Two centuries later, Sir Robert Dudley’s guests arrived at Leicester’s Building, the special accommodation he built to house Elizabeth I and her entourage during their famous nineteen-day visit between 9 and 27 July 1575.
Sir Robert’s father John, Duke of Northumberland, built the castle stables in 1553. Today the stables contain the castle tea rooms and restaurant, and an exhibition of the castle’s history. The stables have the reputation of being haunted. Visitors have reported seeing the ghostly apparition of a young stable boy. He is dressed in ragged clothes, is thought to be around fourteen years old and of the period not long after the stables were built. He has been seen in three places: the stables, around Leicester’s Gatehouse, and wandering among the ruins.
Other strange experiences in the stables are reported by English Heritage staff, who claim to have heard voices from behind locked doors, and felt presences in the kitchen.
In 1575 Sir Robert spent a considerable amount of time and money preparing for Elizabeth’s visit and his last attempt to persuade her to marry him. As part of his preparations, not only did he build the impressive accommodation block, but also he added Leicester’s Gatehouse. The gatehouse is set up to look as it would have done in the 1930s, when it was used as a private residence. On the top floor is an exhibition to explore the royal love story between Elizabeth and Dudley.
Several paranormal tales emerge from Leicester’s Gatehouse. Some visitors describe the apparition of a little girl who asks for her daddy. Others have witnessed a spectral man dressed in black who was killed in a swordfight. Other reported appearances include an old lady who breaks the same candle time after time.
from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
To find out more, why not preorder Paranormal Warwickshire, published on 15th November 2020, widely available online and through all good bookshops.
I love Stoneleigh Abbey, near Kenilworth, and have visited it several times. The history tour and the Jane Austen tour are both excellent; the Humphrey Repton grounds and gardens enchanting; and the afternoon tea in the Orangery is to be highly recommended!
Originally the home of an order of Cistercian monks,who were granted the land by Henry II in 1154, the abbey saw the twists and turns of fortunes through the centuries, emerging from the dissolution of the monasteries in a sorry state and spending 25 years as a roofless ruin before Rowland Hill and his protegee Thomas Leigh purchased the building and set about building an Elizabethan manor house in the ruins.
The full story of the history of the house, through the generations of the Leigh family, how they gained and nearly lost their Baronetcy, how further extensions to the building were made, and how the Abbey emerged from a devastating fire a few generations ago, but has now been sensitively restored, may be heard in a lively and engaging history tour through the grand rooms. Stoneleigh Abbey claims a close connection with Jane Austen, who in 1806 formed part of a family party invited by her mother’s cousin Revd. Thomas Leigh of Adlestrop to view his new inheritance. Jane drew several inspirations for her novels from her visit to Stoneleigh Abbey.
Many curious tales cling to the abbey; and my favourites are associated with the library.
Who haunts this room? We cannot be sure, but it may be Chandos Leigh, poet, first Baron Leigh of the second creation. Chandos loved this room and spent many hours writing and studying in here. He was the only son of James Henry Leigh (1765–1823), MP, of Adlestrop, Gloucestershire, and subsequently of Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, by his marriage with Julia, eldest daughter of Thomas Fiennes, tenth lord Saye and Sele.
Chandos during his lifetime was a very well-known poet. His first publication was ‘The Island of Love,’ a poem, published in 1812; he published ‘Trifles Light as Air,’ in 1813; ‘Poesy, a Satire,’ in 1818; ‘Epistles to a Friend in Town, Golconda’s Fate, and other Poems,’ in 1826. His poems reflected the influence of Horace, Virgil, Pope, and Byron, and were much prized by the scholarly few.
But for the room’s paranormal stories, we must let the Abbey’s history guide take up the narrative. “I was doing a tour here,” he says, “and while I was speaking, the handle on that door over there started moving violently. It was really loud so I said, ‘Stop!’ And it stopped. So I said to the manager, ‘somebody’s trying to get through that door and you need to have a word with them as it really put me off my tour.’ He said, ‘that’s impossible.’ I said, ‘I know it’s impossible, the grandfather clock’s standing in front of it, so they can’t come in.’ He said, ‘no no no, the other side of that door’s a wall, the handle is only on your side.”
My visits to Nuneaton have uncovered some truly astonishing stories. Nuneaton is strongly associated with the great novelist George Eliot, who lived there during the first part of her life, before she moved to London. She was inspired by the working people of Nuneaton and surrounding area. Her father was a land agent at Arbury Hall. She accompanied him on his business journeys to the hall and around the area, and she gained extraordinary insight into the hearts and minds of the working people as well as the aristocrats who lived in Arbury Hall.
George Eliot is considered among the greatest of all novelists. I love her books: Middlemarch is one of my all-time favourites.
Several curious tales are associated with one of the locations she would have visited: The Griffin Inn, just down the road from her former home.
The most compelling stories emerge from among the working people in whom George Eliot was so interested: in this case, those who worked for decades in very unassuming commercial premises in Queens Road.
In fact I regard the anecdotes that emerge from the business owners and employees at 62 Queens Road as one of the most convincing paranormal sagas I’ve ever come across: simply because there have been so many individual witnesses, experiencing similar things quite independently of each other, over a number of decades.
This is the sixth in my series of glimpses into my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
I have long loved Kenilworth Castle, very close to my home, and one of English Heritage‘s most treasured castles. Not only has it provided the setting for one of the British Monarchy’s most romantic episodes – the elaborate programme of festivities laid on by Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1575, as his last and most extravagant attempt to win the hand of Elizabeth I in marriage – but also it encompasses a glorious, dramatic and turbulent span of English history from as far back as the 1120s.
Of course, many have reported ghostly apparitions, strange occurrences and curious anecdotes about this castle. Stories cluster around the castle stables and Leicester’s Gatehouse.
This is the first of a series giving you a few tasters from my book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be released by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
Warwickshire is a county steeped in the supernatural, as befits the county of Shakespeare and the many ghosts and spirits that he conjured up in his works. In Paranormal Warwickshire I investigate the rich supernatural heritage of this county at the heart of England in places both grand and everyday, including Guy’s Cliffe, the Saxon Mill, Kenilworth Castle, Warwick Castle, Stoneleigh Abbey, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, as well as in the towns of Rugby, Nuneaton and Leamington Spa.
Shakespeare’s plays are full of these supernatural encounters and characters. In Julius Caesar, Brutus, tormented by guilt, is haunted by the ghost of murdered Caesar.
In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, grief-stricken and betrayed, agonises over whether or not he is visited by the spirit of his father.
In Macbeth , the king of Scotland (whose name many actors are too superstitious to mention), cannot believe he is the only person who sees Banquo’s spirit at the feast…
Alongside those who witness the apparitions, we have some wonderful sceptical foils or sounding boards. Cassius in Julius Caesar is convinced Brutus’s vision was just the power of his imagination. In Hamlet, Horatio tells his troubled friend that it is but a fantasy. Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale says he has heard but not believed the spirits of the dead may walk again.
And as for spirits, either they are serving the will of the magician Prospero in The Tempest…
But in the end, are they but airy nothing, to which the poet’s pen gives a local habitation and a name?
Whether they are purely dramatic devices, or whether Shakespeare himself believed in ghosts and spirits, we cannot definitively say. Scholars and Shakespearean actors and lovers of the Bard differ in their views. But one thing we can say for sure; they fired Shakespeare’s imagination to the highest degree, and he lavished upon them great poetry, humour, playfulness and mischief, the heights of powerful drama, the depths of despair, guilt and existential angst, and his most discerning observations of mental distress.
Throughout my book Paranormal Warwickshire I have used quotes from Shakespeare. In every case I found a quote which I believe resonates with how I feel about the place.
Perhaps Shakespeare would have been surprised to know that four hundred and twenty years into the future, a belief in ghosts and spirits would prevail with such strength in our society. Or perhaps he wouldn’t. He reached to the heart of the human condition, and the emotions and dilemmas he presents are fresh and vivid and relevant to us today. So I confirmed when I toured many places in his county, Warwickshire, and found not only spiritual resonance from the rich stories associated with these places, but many people who have tales to recount, of experiences for which they can find no scientific explanation.
Check out some of my previous posts on the subject of Shakespeare: