Friday, 15 December 2017

The Heart of Westminster Abbey? Poets' Corner and Writing Women by Fay Bound Alberti

Westminster Abbey 

In October I had the opportunity to visit Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, before the doors opened and the tourists poured in. I was recording with the Rev. Giles Fraser, who was presenting a series of programmes on Radio 4 about the heart. Giles had recently undergone major heart surgery, and it had got him thinking about all aspects of the heart in history and culture. Other guests included Rowan Williams and Susie Orbach, and I had the pleasure of talking about the heart in science and medicine and history. You can listen to the programme here.

It was extraordinary to be in the Abbey when it was virtually empty, save for the occasional hum of a vacuum cleaner. We visited Poets' Corner, the name traditionally given to the South Transept of Westminster Abbey because of the high number of poets, playwrights and writers buried and commemorated there. The first poet to be interred in Poets' Corner was Geoffrey Chaucer, and the site has become famous for the number of romantic poets, interred or commemorated there.

In my interview, I talked about the meanings of the heart as a romantic organ, still connected to authenticity, truth and emotion, even though we now place emotions in the mind. And the ways in which we still regard ourselves as driven by heartfelt feelings, even though the tyranny of neuroscience insists the brain is first. I wrote a book about the 'two hearts' that exist, the poetic and the medical, and you can find out about that here.

Writing women are lacking at Poets' Corner - a problem I have written about here. The photos below (permitted by a kind security guard), show the commemoration of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Shakespeare, amongst a wall of marble white men. We stopped for a time at the plaque to Shelley, because his mythology, as a radical, a poet and a Romantic, is so bound up in his heart.

Adele Geras and Anna Mazzola have both written in this blog about Shelley - whose heart was snatched from the funeral pyre and kept, it is said, by his wife in a silken cloth for many years before being buried with their son after Mary Shelley's death. There is no memorial to Mary Shelley, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, though she was a successful writer in her own right, best known for her novel, Frankenstein.

Shelley's plaque, visible top right 

Of the few women who did make the cut, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1851) is an interesting case because she, like many Romantic and Victorian writers, suffered with heart complaints, in addition to believing that the heart was the centre of emotions, the self and even the soul.

Born in Durham, Elizabeth was a successful poet, having written since the age of six years old. Like many early feminists, she was a social reformer and campaigner against the slave trade, and an avid admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poems (1844) brought the poet great success, and attracted the attention of the poet Robert Browning, with whom she eloped, much to her family's displeasure, despite the fact that she was then 40 years old, Elizabeth suffered from numerous ailments, including spinal problems, lung problems and heart trouble.

The nineteenth century was a time when scientific medicine identified many different kinds of heart defect, and Barrett Browning was not alone in suffering from heart complaints. She discussed her cardiac trouble with her friends, including the feminist writer and early sociologist Harriet Martineau, who also believed that she suffered from a heart defect. I have suggested in another article that it was better to be diagnosed with a cardiac complaint than with the gynaecological condition that seems to have caused Martineau's debilitating symptoms.

Besides the shame Martineau felt at her 'women's troubles' being openly discussed, there was something rather prestigious in her day about having a weak heart: it was the mark of a sensitive and creative soul in an age where the heart was still seen as the emotion centre; only with the birth of Cardiology in the early twentieth century was heart disease principally associated with poor living, fatty food and too much stress. Unfortunately, Martineau is not memorialised anywhere in the country, let alone at Poets' Corner, despite her remarkable contemporary influence.

And what of Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Despite periods of intense ill health, Elizabeth lived happily with Robert in Italy, though she was disinherited by her family. They had one son, called Pen. Elizabeth died in 1861, apparently in her husband's arms. Her family refused to allow her remains to be buried with Robert, when he died in 1889 and was interred in Westminster Abbey. Her name, however, is inscribed on the base of her husband's headstone.

I will leave you with Barrett Browning's poem, 'My heart and I', which seems remarkably apposite, given the subject of the heart, and because she had suffered for so many years before her death.

ENOUGH! we're tired, my heart and I.
We sit beside the headstone thus,
And wish that name were carved for us.
The moss reprints more tenderly
The hard types of the mason's knife,
As heaven's sweet life renews earth's life
With which we're tired, my heart and I.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's inscription at the foot of her husband's stone. 
I won't be posting until the new year now, so I wish you all much love and happiness and heartfelt feelings over the festive period. You can visit my website and find out more about my writing and research here.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Tale of the Forty Seven Ronin by Lesley Downer

There is a little old temple called Sengakuji near Shinagawa in Tokyo, close to Tokyo Bay, on the south eastern side of the city, traditionally considered one of the less auspicious directions. Many years ago I lived just outside its gates. Beside it there is a graveyard housing forty seven stones. They are always freshly scrubbed, with sprigs of fresh pine and flowers laid on top and sticks of incense in front sending up scented smoke.
Sengakuji Temple

One stone is particularly large and imposing, set back from the rest, with an offering box in front. The inscription reads, ‘Oishi Kuranosuke, chief among Lord Asano’s retainers.’

On December 14th every year the street is lined with lanterns and the temple grounds are packed with people and food stalls. Everyone makes sure to visit the small graveyard, to put their hands together and pay their respects in front of the stones.
Lord Asano Naganori
(September 28 1667 - April 21 1701)

It all began 316 years ago, in 1701, when Lord Asano, the 34-year-old lord of the province of Ako, near modern day Kobe, was in Edo, now Tokyo. In those days every daimyo lord had to go every alternate year to pay homage to the shogun. The fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, was ruling at the time. Rather like the earls and lords in Queen Elizabeth I’s time, the various lords had positions at court. Lord Asano had been appointed to host the emissaries who came to visit the shogun from the Emperor’s court in Koto. He was young and inexperienced, so Lord Kira, the highest-ranking master of protocol at the shogunate, was assigned to instruct him.

Lord Kira was a difficult, arrogant man and expected deference and payment. That year emissaries were expected from the imperial court on April 21. Lord Kira was giving Lord Asano instruction in the Corridor of the Pines at Edo Castle, but his behaviour grew more and more contemptuous and insulting. Eventually the young man, goaded beyond endurance, drew his sword and took a swing at him.
Young Lord Asano draws his sword against pompous Lord Kira

He barely scratched Lord Kira’s face. But to draw one’s sword in Edo Castle, let alone attack an official, was a capital offence and Lord Asano was ordered to commit seppuku - to kill himself immediately by honourable suicide.

He wrote his death poem, expressing his regret at being cut down in the flower of his youth:


kaze sasou hana yori mo, nao ware ha mata, haru no nagori wo, ika ni toyasen

More than the cherry blossoms
That wait for the wind to blow them away
I wonder what to do
With the springtime left to me

Then he committed suicide in the prescribed manner. His lands and estate were confiscated and his heir was disinherited. He was buried in Sengakuji Temple.

Oshi Kuranosuke
 Sengakuji graveyard
When the news reached his province there was uproar. At a stroke all his men - over 300 of them -  had been condemned to be ronin - ‘wave men,’ samurai without a master, at the mercy of the wind and waves. As in Anglo Saxon England, to be a warrior without a lord was to be cast out, outside the safety and security of the castle walls, into the wilderness where the waves beat against the shore.

Thrown out of the castle the men dispersed. Some took menial jobs. They became tradesmen or carpenters or craftsmen or monks. Others abandoned their samurai lifestyle altogether and gave themselves over to drink and dissipation.

Most shocking of all was a man called Oishi Kuranosuke, who had been Lord Asano’s chief retainer and a famous warrior. As if he had no principles at all, he left his wife and moved to the capital, Edo, where he started hanging out in houses of ill repute, drinking and carousing with prostitutes. He was regularly spotted staggering around, engaging in drunken brawls. Once a samurai from another clan, finding him lying drunk on the street, spat on his face and shouted at him that he was unworthy to call himself a samurai.
Oishi Kuranosuke

The arrogant Lord Kira, who had been the cause of the whole calamity, had been expecting that Lord Asano’s men would be plotting some sort of revenge. His spies kept a close eye on them - but by now nearly two years had passed and it seemed they really had gone to the dogs. Little by little he relaxed his guard.

And so the 14th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of Genroku - 1703 - dawned.

It was midwinter and snow lay thick on the ground when 47 of the ronin, ranging in age from fifteen to seventy-seven, assembled. At their head was Oishi Kuranosuke. They had spent the last years play acting to put Lord Kira off the scent - and they had succeeded. They’d hidden caches of weapons and armour and Oishi had explained his plan to his wife and divorced her so that she would not have to share his punishment for what he was about to do.
The ronin storm Lord Kira's mansion - Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1840)

The 47 divided into two groups and stormed Lord Kira’s mansion. One group entered through the rear of the compound while the rest forced their way through the front, battering the gate down with a mallet. Lord Kira, hearing the hullabaloo, sneaked away and hid ignominiously in an outhouse toilet. Searching for him, the retainers stabbed spears through the walls until one came out with blood on the tip. They hauled him out and killed him with the same short sword with which Lord Asano had been ordered to kill himself.

Then they cut off his head, stuffed it into a bucket and marched through the streets to Sengakuji Temple, where they washed it in the spring on the hillside and placed it before the tomb of their dead lord.

Gravestones of the 47 ronin at Sengakuji Temple
Their revenge complete, they turned themselves in.

The men had lived up to the standards of loyalty expected of true samurai. In the eyes of the populace they were heroes. Nevertheless, they had broken the law and, despite his sympathy, the shogun was obliged to sentence all forty seven to die by their own hands. People crowded the streets to applaud, awed by their dedication and sense of samurai honour, as their bodies were carried to Sengakuji Temple to be buried alongside their lord.

To this day the 47 are popular heroes, and their story is told again and again. It’s a favourite theme for kabuki and Japanese movies. And anyone that is moved by the romance of Japanese history will want to make a pilgrimage to Sengakuji to place sprigs of fresh pine on their graves and put their hands together in respect - most particularly today, December 14th.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

THE SUM OF ME – an exclusive short story by Elizabeth Fremantle

I am sadly stepping down from The History Girls at the end of 2017 and have posted something special for my last blog: an unpublished short story about the Grey sisters.

Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum

The Sum of Me

Elizabeth Fremantle

   ‘Push, harder. Push, faster. Higher.’ His hands are on my back. I am swinging up, up, so high I can see over the wall into the stable block, so high I can see the laundry maids laying out the linens to dry in the far field, so high I am a bird. I soar and dip, trailing sputters of laughter, heart flapping. Then I am down, rolling on fresh grass, still laughing, struggling to fill my lungs. He is beside me with a grin.
   ‘Kitty,’ he says closing his eyes, as if the word is sacred.
   I clasp the back of his neck, drawing his face towards mine, pulling him closer slowly, until I can feel his breath on my skin, until our lips couldn’t be closer without touching, until his eyes merge into one, until my belly fizzes. I can smell him. He smells of the countryside, horses and meadows. Then I push him off, scramble up, back onto the swing.
   ‘Push me again.’
   But he is brooding now, sitting hunched on the grass, cradling his knees.
   ‘Don’t be a misery. You know you are my favourite cousin.’ I smile but he’s not looking.
   Eventually he mutters, ‘But–’
   ‘But what?’
   I swing myself, pushing off the ground with my feet, kicking them up and folding them back, back and forth, back and forth. Heat flowers beneath my dress, under my arms, down my back, down there. He pretends not to watch me, hiding dark eyes behind a fringe of dark hair. I rip off my coif and throw it towards him. He doesn’t catch it and it lands limply on the grass. My hair flies free.
   I imagine seeing myself as he does, watching my hair flung out behind me like a comet’s tail. I am wondering if this is what it feels like to be in love – soaring and dipping, a burning at the core of me.
   He is picking daisies with long fingers. Those same fingers that were trying to stuff themselves down the front of my tight-laced stomacher, last night, where my bud breasts are sprouting. When I press them they feel sore and there is a hard nub inside, like a kernel. My older sister, Jane, says that is normal. She also says I should stop thinking of my body so much and think more of God. How can I help it, when my body is transforming under my eyes? When I reply that God made my body, she tells me I am missing the point.
   Up I swing, hair lifting so a rush of cool air kisses the nape of my neck. I spot Father at a distance, ahead of his retinue, returning from court. A whirr of excitement catches in my throat, spilling out of me in a squeal. I am, if it is possible, more thrilled even by the return of Father, than I am by the thought of my favourite cousin’s burrowing fingers.
   ‘Father’s back,’ I say, jumping off the swing, meeting the ground at a run. ‘Come on, let’s go and meet him.’ But he doesn’t follow and I am glad, because I want Father to myself.
   But he is not alone when I arrive in the yard. The others have caught up. Jane is wearing a face that like a yard of tripe. But Father is gleaming, got up in all his finery. He catches sight of me, barefoot, hair loose. ‘My darling girl.’ He reaches down to me, catching me under the arms, hoisting me up to sit in front of him. He smells different, sweet, smoky, as if court has rubbed off on his clothes. ‘My little favourite,’ he whispers, kissing me, almost on the mouth. His beard tickles. ‘You mustn’t tell the others.’ He always says this. I run my finger over my lips to show they are sealed and lean my head back against his chest.
   ‘What was it like at court?’ I am longing to hear about the King, who is only a little older than I am, who Jane is meant to marry, if Father gets his way.
   Mother thinks different. ‘Between you and me,’ she has said, ‘the little King will marry a foreign princess. England needs allies.’ Mother should know. Her mother was married to a king once – the King of France. It is from Mother that we get our Tudor blood. ‘A blessing or a curse, I know not which,’ she says of it.
   ‘You wouldn’t like it there these days, Kitty.’
   ‘But I would, I would. Will you take me?’ The idea of court makes me want to burst out of my skin – all those people, the ones everyone talks of, all in the same place. ‘Please.’
   ‘I’m telling you, you wouldn’t like it. the King is unwell. It’s grim there.’
   ‘But when he is better you will take me, won’t you – like you promised?’
   Father doesn’t answer, just calls over one of the grooms to help us down. I can see my cousin skulking by the orchard gate. I blow him a kiss when no one is watching and his face is illuminated, briefly. Jane has disappeared into the house with her long face, without greeting me. I suppose she is upset because the King is ill. But Jane is not a sulker and I think something must be very wrong to put her in such a cheerless humour.
   Father piggybacks me, laughing, up the steps and into the hall.
   ‘She is too old for all that.’ Mother is standing in the door with Aunt Mary, waiting for us. ‘She needs to learn how to behave like a lady.’ But I can see that she is trying to hold her cross face together so it hides the smile behind.
   ‘I have news,’ Father says to her, putting me down, saying, ‘run along Kitty. Go and find your sisters.’ He and Mother close themselves in his study. I press my ear to the door but can’t hear anything except the throb of my blood – Tudor blood, a blessing or a curse.
   Jane is on the stairs.
   ‘Don’t snoop,’ she says. ‘You will find out soon enough. Come with me. Let’s find Mary.’
   Mary is our little sister who is the sweetest thing in the world, though she is crookbacked and hardly bigger than an infant, in spite of being almost eight years old. I am so used to Mary being the way she is it surprises me when strangers stare at her. Strangers stare at me too but not for the same reasons – I am stared at because of my prettiness, or that is what Father says.
   So, Mary is the sweet one, I am the pretty one and Jane is the clever one. Truth be told, Jane has all three qualities in abundance and puts us all to shame, or that is the opinion of our tutor. Although she is only fifteen Jane can hold a whole conversation in Greek and writes long letters in Latin about the Bible to scholars in places with funny names like Wittenburg, where the double-yous are vees.
   I cannot read Greek, let alone converse in it, nor Latin. My tutor threw my Lily’s Latin Grammar in the fire the other day with the words, ‘is your head stuffed with feathers, Lady Catherine?’ He shouted it, with more aggression than was necessary. I thought about telling Mother, but then he might have been replaced and, as he is a good deal nicer than his predecessor, I thought to use the situation to my advantage.
   I said to him, ‘I shall say nothing of the book, nor the shouting, on one condition.’
   He looked at me then as if I smelled nasty, before nodding slowly.
   ‘That you stop trying to teach me Greek or Latin and let me practice my music and dancing more often.’
   ‘With respect, I am employed to teach you the languages…
   ‘With respect, sir,’ I cut in. ‘You are not employed to throw valuable books on the fire.’
   We shall see what the outcome is.
   As Jane and I reach the landing, Mother storms from the study. ‘…too young!’ She slams the door, stopping to lean against it, bringing her hands up to cover her face. Jane and I scurry away.
   ‘What is this news?’ I ask Jane. ‘Does it have anything to do with me?’
   ‘You should think a little less of yourself and a little more of God.’ This is the kind of thing she says often, which makes her seem a bore, though she is not – not really. She truly believes we would all be better off for thinking more of God and less about almost anything else. I am sure she is right. But how can I think of God when the world is so full of other things to think of?
   Mother says I am too impetuous and need to learn to behave as befits my position. Father says I am perfect just as I am. Mistress Ellen, our nurse, thinks I am headstrong and Aunt Mary thinks me selfish. I don’t know what I think, from one minute to the next. That is the sum of me.
   I can see by the way Jane’s mouth is pursed that she knows more than she is telling. Perhaps by putting it differently, I will prise something out of her. ‘What is it that could have made Mother so very upset?’
   ‘You shall find out soon enough.’ As she says it she smiles but it is one of the saddest smiles I have ever seen.

Only the close household is at supper tonight. Little Mary stifles a yawn next to me and stretches her twisted spine, first one side and then the other. I reach out and rub my palm over the hunch of her shoulders, where she is knotted into a firm, tight mound, running my fingers down to loosen the lacing that is designed to keep her in shape. In my head I have the picture of Tom watching me from the orchard gate, making my heart bloat like a sponge in water. I catch his eye across the table. I cannot eat. Love makes you lose your appetite, everyone says so. Father takes a deep breath, as if he has just come up from under water, and raps on the table with the hilt of his knife.
   ‘I have important announcements that will affect us all.’ His eyes are dancing and he has a high colour. I can’t take my eyes off him. He looks so very splendid in his crimson outfit edged with gold, like a hero from ancient times. ‘Jane, stand.’
   My sister gets to her feet.
   ‘My eldest daughter, our very own Lady Jane, is to be named as heir in the king’s new devise for the succession.’
   We are all suspended in astonished silence – Maman looks distraught; Uncle John’s face is unreadable; Aunt Mary dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief; Tom’s mouth is an O; Little Mary looks bewildered; Father looks like the cat who licked the butter; Jane looks at her hands. I am thinking that this means I will be the Queen’s sister, but Jane’s voice echoes in my head: you should think less of yourself and more of God.
   But how can I think of God when I am thinking about being, after Mother I suppose, the greatest lady in all the court, sister to the Queen – me.
   Father continues. ‘This is not to be talked of until the official announcement is made. If I catch any loose mouths amongst you I will personally run you through with my sword.’ There is a general mumble around the table. ‘I have more good news,’ Father’s moustache is twitching, keeping a smile at bay. ‘Catherine, Mary,’ he says lifting his hands palms up. We both stand as if he is our puppeteer.     ‘My girls are to be wed.’
   Tom is stock-still, like that man from the bible who looked back when he was not supposed to. I fear he might burst into tears. I want to take his hand and run from the room, run all the way back to this afternoon when we were playing on the swing, run all the way back to last night when we were discovering parts of each other that had never been touched.
   ‘Lady Jane shall be wed to the Duke of Northumberland’s boy, Guildford Dudley.’
   Jane’s lips are pressed together tightly and her hands are twined together, knuckles white. I have never seen this Guildford Dudley and, as far as I know, nor has she, but I do know that Northumberland holds the reigns of all England – Father says it all the time.
   ‘Lady Catherine shall be wed to the Earl of Pembroke’s eldest, Henry Herbert–’
   ‘Who’s Henry Herbert?’ I blurt. My head is thrumming so I can’t get whatever is in it to make sense. A thought emerges slowly: what use is being the Queen’s sister if I am married already.
   ‘Quiet!’ snaps Father, pinching me hard at the nape of my neck where the bruise will not show. ‘And Lady Mary… she is still too young for marriage, of course, but will be betrothed to our cousin Arthur Grey.’
   It is me who gasps loudest. Cousin Arthur is a great uncouth fellow with a pike-wound in the face. We used to make up stories about him, to put the frights up each other after dark. Little Mary’s face is pale and damp as a dish of rennet and mine cannot be much better.
   ‘The ceremony,’ continues Father, ‘shall take place in three weeks at Durham Place.’ His hand is resting on my shoulder. It is a dead weight. Tom’s hand is over his mouth. Jane’s hands still cling each other. Mother’s fingers pick angrily at the pearls on her gown.
   ‘… our daughters to be pawns in Northumberland’s game of chess,’ I hear her mutter under her breath. ‘Come girls, to bed,’ she says, her voice full of false brightness, herding the three of us towards the door, where Mistress Ellen is waiting.

I am in a borrowed dress; it is the finest I have ever worn, but it is too big. It belonged to some Duchess who is in the Tower. Or that is what I overheard Mother tell Mistress Ellen, ‘My girls wed in such haste they must wear the cast-offs of a disgraced duchess.’
   The dress was altered a fortnight ago but I am thinner now and Mistress Ellen has had to fold the excess fabric and pin it together to make it fit.
   A great crowd has assembled at Durham Place and all their eyes are on us. I have dreamed of moments like this – me in a magnificent dress, all the court gathered to see me, all except the King that is, who is too sick to leave his bed. I have heard it whispered that he is dying, and though it is treason to even think that thought, I cannot help but remind myself that when he is gone my sister will be Queen.
   I may well have dreamed of moments like this, but it is not as I had imagined. No – I am thinking of Tom’s distraught face as we parted. My heart is shrinking and my breath wobbling, eyes watery. Jane gives my hand a squeeze, ‘it’ll be over before you know it.’
   But we both know this is only the beginning of it, that she will be in the bed of Guildford Dudley, and I will be at some place called Barnard’s Castle, in the care of my new husband’s family, before the day is done. We walk forward slowly together. I mustn’t think of Tom or I will lose my composure altogether.
   A scowling boy takes my hand, placing a careful kiss on it. So this is my one, I suppose. Jane has not offered a hand to hers. He is robust looking, not handsome, but with something that is not unattractive either. Jane keeps her gaze off him.
   My one is pallid as porridge and beaded with dew – I was warned he had been dragged from his sickbed to wed me. But he wears a fetching green doublet and his eyes are green to match – green like the jade dragon that sits on father’s desk. He smells of almonds and has a curl of dark hair that falls forward over, which he flicks back with a toss of his head. His jade eyes take me in and he appears, all in one moment, to come to life, like a drooping flower just watered. I feel better, suddenly.
   He links his arm through mine and as we approach the altar, he leans in close to whisper, ‘you are the most exquisite thing I have ever seen.’ Something I do not recognise uncoils in the root of me and my favourite cousin is forgotten.

© Elizabeth Fremantle
No part of this short story is to be duplicated without the permission of the author.

Elizabeth Fremantle's latest novel The Girl in the Glass Tower, is published by Penguin. 
For more information about the author and her books see

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Yet another XMAS book round-up.

Sorry folks, it's yet another Christmas book round-up! This year, thanks to my monthly review column in The Times, and my chairing of judging panel for the Historical Writers' Association (HWA) Gold Crown award, I think that I have read more than 120 works of historical fiction. That is a hefty dose of swords, togas and corsets. This is an entirely personal, subjective taste of my favourites.

Some of these books were technically published in 2016, due to the way the awards were structured. But let's not quibble. There were some incredible books out there, by some talented writers. Rather than the usual structure of these lists, I thought I'd give a chronological flavour of my favourites this year.

Ancient Greece.

OK. So I'm starting with something entirely cheaty here, because these books have been out a while. But this was the year I discovered Christian Cameron's Long War series. Starting with Killer of Men, this covers the Persian Wars, through the eyes of Arimnestos, a Platean warrior. Cameron has that rare gift of making history seem vividly real. Mary Renault meets CS Forester

Ancient Egypt

Emily Holleman continues her spirited portrayal of the House of Ptolemy in The Drowning King. This is a beautifully written and fascinating series – and if it feels a little melodramatic, blame the source material. It deserves a wider audience.

Ancient Rome

Ben Kane is one of the masters of Roman military fiction. I have loved his most recent trilogy which began with a massacre of Roman legionaries in the Teutoberg Forest. In March, he brought the series to a close with Eagles in the Storm. Lucius Tullus, who survived the original massacre, is determined to discover his legion's lost eagle. Arminius is refusing to let the dream of crushing Rome die. An enthralling end to the series.


For the Odin-lover in your life, the obvious choice is the complete works of modern skald, Giles Kristian. His book this year, Wings of the Storm is the last in a trilogy about revenge and honour, as Sigurd Haraldson seeks to avenge his murdered family. Violent and compelling, with one of the best battle scenes I have ever read.

I also very much enjoyed Theodore Brun's novel A Mighty Dawn. Part Viking, part fantasy this is a big, fat and entirely satisfying fireside read.

Middle Ages:

Kingdom Come by Toby Clements is the concluding book in a four-part series about the War of the Roses which should be required reading for all fans of historical fiction. It is 1470. Katherine and Thomas, the ordinary couple whose lives have been buffeted by the ongoing war amongst England’s nobility, are drawn back into the fighting. A fitting end to an unmissable series.

SD Sykes continued her wonderful medieval crime series in City of Masks. Her hero Oswald de Lacy is pulled into a new mystery, but this time in the deceiving, beautiful surrounds of Venice.


Disclaimer: I adore Sarah Dunant. But I particularly love her two books about the Borgia family. Beautiful, dense prose and an extraordinary story collide in the second one out this year, In the Name of the Family.

Second disclaimer, as much as I love Sarah Dunant, there is a second writer of Rennaisance Italy who is just as good but does not get as much oxygen. If this fascinating era of art, money and power is your reading heaven - and how could it not be? - read all the works of Philip Kazan immediately.

Early Modern

Bernard Cornwell rather bamboozled his fans this year by bringing out a book with no swords, no battles, no blood and few beards. Fools and Mortals is the story of William Shakespeare's younger brother - a jobbing actor in a lively, theatrical London. Funny, playful and great fun.

Angus Donald kicked off a new series with the utterly delicious Blood's Game - the adventures of a young and peculiar hero in the court of Charles II.

And I wrote one too set in Cromwell's London - The Tyrant's Shadow. It's not bad.

Eighteenth Century

Squeezing in (it is set in 1799!) is Andrew Martin's new crime novel Soot. A shade painter is found dead, and a young debtor is released from gaol with a mission to find the murderer. Inventive, erudite and vivid. We were also treated to Birdcage Walk, the last novel by the late, great Helen Dunmore: a stunning portrait of a failing marriage and the sad erosion of the great ideals of the French Revolution.

Nineteenth Century

I was very taken with a debut Australian writer, Lucy Treloar, whose book Salt Creek portrays a family's struggles in the wilds of South Australia. A riches to rags tale, which takes a stark look at racism and failure. A second Australian debut was Sarah Schmidt's fantastic See What I have Done, a dark, claustrophobic and macabre take on the infamous Lizzie Borden murders.

The HWA prize for histfic went to Ian Maguire for his tale about whalers, The North Water. I urge you to read this brutal but brilliant story about murder and man's descent into darkness. Also on the shortlist was The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, a wonderful book about ideas and monsters set in the Essex marshes.

Early Twentieth Century

This year I discovered Abir Mukherjee, who writes marvellous crime novels set in colonial India. In A Necessary Evil, Captain Sam Wyndham becomes embroiled in the political wrangling between a tenacious colonial Government and the Indian princely states.

World War 2

Stephen Uhly's Kingdom of Twilight was translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch and released in January. An unflinching snapshot of the war and its aftermath, in which the shooting of an SS officer by a young Polish Jew reverberates through the decades.

Sarah Day's outstanding debut Mussolini's Island revealed the little-known story of the fascist oppression of gay men. Her well-drawn protagonists are sent to prison island where they must grapple with betrayal and fear.

I also loved William Ryan's mesmerising novel The Constant Soldier, another HWA Gold Crown shortlistee. Inspired by the pictures of the Auschwitz rest-camp, where genocidal SS officers enjoyed jolly downtime, this is a heartbreaking, haunting novel.

Some of the best historical fiction reads have also been amongst the most feted and publicised this year: among these are Robert Harris' Munich; Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach and George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo. What have been your best reads of 2017?


Monday, 11 December 2017

A nursing tragedy: the massacre at Radji Beach

'So we marched into the sea and when we got out to about waist level they then machine gunned from behind."

It was at lonely Radji Beach on Banka Island that Australian nursing’s greatest tragedy occurred.

Sixtry-five Australian nurses and over 250 civilian men, women and children were evacuated on the Vyner Brooke from Singapore, three days before the fall of Malaya (now Malaysia). The ship was discovered by Japanese aircraft and was strafed and bombed. It sank in Banka Strait on 14 February 1942. Of the sixty-five nurses on board, twelve were lost at sea. Twenty-two of the remaining fifty-three who survived the sinking were washed ashore on Radji Beach, Banka Island.

Matron Drummond and the other nurses gathered together on the beach, and were soon joined by a lifeboat containing twenty-five British soldiers. When a party of Japanese soldiers arrived they all surrendered. Most of the nurses were wearing the Red Cross brassard (sleeve band), and all were in uniforms of some sort that made it clear they were nurses. They assumed that they would be treated as prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Convention. They were wrong.

The British soldiers were ordered to walk up the beach. Once out of sight, they were bayoneted to death. The Japanese soldiers returned, wiping their bloody bayonets, and told the Australian nurses to walk into the water and stand in a row facing the sea. Whey they did so, they were machine-gunned from behind. All except one died.

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, before her embarkation.

'So we marched into the sea and when we got out to about waist level they then machine gunned from behind. I was hit in the sort of side, left side, and the bullet went just straight through and came out on the front. The impact of that and the waves, together with the fact that I thought once you were shot, you know, that you’d sort of had it, I overbalanced into the waves and just sort of lay limply there. To my amazement, I remained conscious and found that I wasn’t dying at all. Then my next fear was that the Japanese would see me moving, because by this time I was being violently sick from having swallowed a fair amount of sea water …" (Vivian Bullwinkel) 

Sister Bullwinkel was shot above the hip, but survived by pretending to be dead and allowed herself to drift to shore when all the Japanese soldiers had left the beach. 

On the beach she met an English soldier, Private Kinsley, who had also survived the massacre by feigning death. She tended to his severe wounds for 12 days in the jungle until, starving, they surrendered to the Japanese.  Kinsley’s wounds were such that he died soon afterwards, but Bullwinkel managed to survive another three and a half years in various Japanese prison camps. 

The thirty-one other surviving Vyner Brook nurses, who had not drifted to shore at Radji Beach had been assembled in Muntok as prisoners of war with around 600 other prisoners, all survivors of the 70-odd ships fleeing Singapore that had been sunk that week in the Banka Straits. There were a number of wounded, and the Australian nurses cleared a dormitory to use as a hospital and began treating patients. They had no idea what had happened to their comrades, and assumed they had drowned. Then Vivian arrived.

"Well, once I got there and realised they were taking prisoners I sort of felt that all my troubles were over. All I had been wanting during this time was to get with people and be with my own countrywomen … I heard somebody say, ‘It’s Bullwinkel’. That was sort of the end. I then immediately burst into tears. (Vivian Bullwinkel)"

She told the Australian nurses what had happened, but they were all sworn to secrecy so that the Japanese would not be aware that there was a witness to the atrocity.

Where the bullet came out, Vivian Bullwinkel shows the holes in her uniform, Fairfield, Victoria, ca. 1975 [picture] /

After two weeks in Muntok, the group was transferred by ship to Palembang in Sumatra, where the Japanese attempted to persuade the nurses to join a brothel. When they refused, they were sent to live in appalling conditions with Dutch women and children at the other end of the town. Sanitation was inadequate, mosquitoes tormented them and food was scarce:

"We could smell decayed vegetables and bad Chinese cabbages long before the truck bringing them arrived in the camp. Every now and then a piece of wild pig, called a ‘moving mass’ by some bright soul, would arrive and be thrown on to the roadway, where it was immediately surrounded by dogs. We were not allowed to call the dogs away. The drill then was for a Japanese guard, to cut it with his penknife into so many pieces—one piece to each house … Our ration for 24 people would not cover the palm of a hand." (Betty Jeffrey, White Coolies, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1954)

Berry Jeffrey, 1941 (Australian War Memorial photo)
In December, the women were moved to Palembag jail, and conditions deteriorated further as they were moved from camp to camp. Wherever they went, rations were scarce and there were few medicines. 

Movement of the Australian nurses. (Image from

By now, they were severely malnourished, and in February and March 1945 four nurses died of malnutrition and beri-beri.

"A lot of people shouldn’t have died; they weren’t any worse off than I was. In fact, they weren’t as bad as we were because we often did their heavy work in the camp, whereas they got out of it somehow. But they died just the same, possibly because they didn’t do those things.
We had to work on practically no food, but it was a kind of mental attitude, and your friendsthere was no doubt about thatyou kept each other going. The POWs have a saying: ‘the spirit that kept the spirit going’. That was true, you had to have that will to live, you had to have companionship, you had to have the will to do things, you had to be able to cope." (Mavis Hannah)

Mavis HAnnah was a staff member of the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), and was the only nurse from the 2/4 CCS to survive the sinking of the Vyner Brooke and subsequent captivity.

In April 1945, the nurses, together with other women and children, were packed into the holds of a small ‘bumping little launch’ for a 26-hour sea journey to Sumatra. By then, many were severely ill with malaria, dysentery and beri-beri, so that those who were unconscious or too ill to walk had to be carried on stretchers by the ‘fittest’ of the women. 

"From the food, the other very important thing, of course, was maintenance of health, and this was very difficult to do because we had no preventative medicine in any way. Malaria was rife, dysentery was rife and towards the end of the three and half years, of course, beri-beri became prevalent and this was very distressing. Funnily enough, we didn’t seem to have very much in the way of toothaches or the need for surgery until towards the very end of the three and a half years. I think we had one broken limb, which sort of knitted itself. The babies that were born in camp after we had been taken prisoners survived. They lived on rice water and, for the first 12 months, they really looked beautiful children, but after that … they suddenly aged very much and although they had these small limbs, their faces looked very old." (Vivian Bullwinkel)

Four nurses died at the isolated prison camp at Loebok Linggauone of them three days after the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945.
Portrait of Lieutenant Wilhemina Rosaiie Raymont, 2/4th CCS. Sister Raymont died of illness on 8 February 1945 in Sumatra.

On 17 September, one month after the Japanese surrender, 24 Australian nurses were at Lahat aerodrome, waiting for their aircraft to arrive from Singapore and take them home. The matron-in-chief of the AANS, Colonel Annie Sage, stepped onto the tarmac with Sister Jean Floyd, one of their colleagues from the 2/10 AGH, who had managed to escape safely from Singapore. Colonel Sage looked at the emaciated group before her. 
‘But where are the rest of you?’ she asked.

Sisters Jenny Greer (left) and Betty Jeffrey recovering in a Dutch hospital in 1945.

After their release: the remaining Vyner Brooke nurses.

nla.obj-147729124 National Library of Australia

Vivian Bullwinkel giving evidence at the War Crimes trials, Tokyo, 1946

[The above is taken from my book: An Illustrated History of Nursing in Australia (National Library of Australia). To be published 2018.]