It’s one of those cool, damp, dreary days that I might find delightful, if I was walking on the Cornwall coast.
However, when I am in my back yard, I only get inspired to return to the house and make a cup of tea. The garden is beautiful but overgrown. Any motivation to perform some maintenance is diminished by the combination of overcast sky, drizzle, and wind. Even so, I would be completely remiss, if I did not at least go outside to see if there were any olives ready to be harvested.
It has been nearly three weeks since I salted some ripe olives, and they are curing nicely.
Although most of the olives on the tree are still too green, I was pleased to see that the guavas are falling. This was an unexpected surprise. I collected a good load of them, but left most of the smaller ones on the ground for now. Picking them up is just one more task to do on a sunnier day. In the meantime, there are some ants crawling about, trying to figure out if there is a meal here that is worth their effort.
If the news articles about Rishi Sunak becoming the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom would only add a simple graphic, we would not need to read the entire story. At a glance, we would see which boxes are checked. Among other bits of trivia, most of the reports point out that he is the youngest person to hold this office in 200 years. At 42-years-old, Mr. Sunak is eighteen years older than William Pitt the Younger was, when he became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1783. Like Rishi Sunak, Mr. Pitt had been Chancellor of the Exchequer prior to his rise to the Tory leadership position.
William Pitt was 21-years old in 1780, when he was elected to the House of Commons with the help of his friend Charles Manners, Duke of Rutland. The Duke had connected Mr. Pitt with a wealthy landowner, who sponsored the young man’s candidacy for a rotten borough under his control. A rotten borough was a district that should not have been entitled to any representation in Parliament, because it had become depopulated. These boroughs were often corrupt, because their MPs were usually beholden to powerful, self-interested patrons.
Just 20-years-old when he was elected to Parliament in 1774, Charles Manners was even younger than Mr. Pitt had been. Representing the constituency of Cambridge University, he was known at the time as the Marquess of Granby. He served for five years, until he became Duke of Rutland upon the death of his grandfather. Not long after becoming Duke of Rutland, Charles Manners raised the 86th Regiment of Foot for service in the American Revolutionary War. He asked his friend Anthony St. Leger to come out of his retirement from the military and lead it. Colonel St. Leger, the founder of the horse racing world’s classic St. Leger Stakes, readily agreed. He shipped out to St. Lucia with his troops, to defend an important British port against the French fleet, and returned to England in 1781, in time for the September running of the St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster. In recognition of St. Leger’s inspiring leadership in the West Indies, King George III promoted him to Major General.
In February 1783, Charles Manners became Lord Steward of the Household of King George and a member of the Privy Council. The following February, Prime Minister Pitt appointed Charles to be Lord Deputy of Ireland. Anthony St. Leger accompanied the Duke of Rutland to Dublin Castle as Major General on his staff.
Charles was a lively, popular man. Despite his marriage to Mary Isabella Somerset, who was considered to be the most elegant and beautiful woman of her time, Charles had a reputation for licentiousness. He also had a love for rich food and red wine and would often forego sleep. His fast-paced living took its toll. At the time of his tragic death from liver disease in 1787, Charles was 33-years old, nine years younger than the age of United Kingdom’s youngest prime minister in 200 years.
Liz Truss made history by resigning as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on October 19, 2022, after only 44 days in office. It was 240 years ago, on July 1, 1782, when the second term of Prime Minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham, ended after only 96 days. The flu epidemic of 1782 took the life of 52-year-old Lord Rockingham. He had been successfully controlling his dropsy through diet and exercise but, like many of the early fatalities of the novel corona virus pandemic in 2020, a comorbidity inhibited his ability to fight the illness.
One of the wealthiest men in England, Lord Rockingham lived near Rotherham in South Yorkshire, England, in Wentworth Woodhouse, a 300-room estate that sprawled over 225 acres. Although he was an influential politician and served in the House of Lords, his passion was raising and racing horses. He kept 200 of them in his stables at his estate.
Lord Rockingham’s friend, Colonel Anthony St. Leger, lived at the nearby Park Hill Estate in Firbeck. They shared a passion for horses. In 1776, Colonel St. Leger moved an annual two-mile race from Firbeck to a better track at Doncaster. One of his fillies finished second behind the winner, a three-year-old filly owned by Lord Rockingham. Two years later, Lord Rockingham suggested that the annual race be named after its founder. To this day, the St. Leger Stakes is still run every September at Doncaster.
Horse racing in York, England, dates back to the Roman occupation, and the York Racecourse has been on its current site at Knavesmire since 1730. The first grandstand was built there in 1754, financed by 250 people under a subscription scheme devised by Lord Rockingham. The elegant two-story building with a rooftop viewing platform, designed by architect John Carr, was not only the first grandstand at the York Racecourse, it was the first one anywhere.
The painting of Lord Rockingham’s Arabian thoroughbred Whistlejacket by George Stubbs was acquired in 1997 by the National Gallery in London for £11 million. It caused a sensation when it was first commissioned about 1762. The rearing horse is depicted nearly life-size against a tan background. At the time, it was a departure from the expectation that the muscular animal would be depicted under the control of a rider against a scenic setting. It has been suggested that Lord Rockingham wanted the viewer to focus on the raw power and beauty of the horse, without any distraction. A plain colorfield was the best way to achieve this effect. Whistlejacket is now considered to be George Stubbs’ masterpiece.
Perhaps if I woke up each morning to a view of Carbis Bay in Cornwall, I would not be looking for ways to increase the joy in my life. Who knows? Although it is very small, I do have a beautiful backyard garden. All of the labor I put into maintaining it is more than worth it. Good things may occasionally come our way, but more often than not they result from the effort we expend and the choices we make. And just maybe, sometimes we face roadblocks, only because we don’t realize we can take them down.
Someone I know has struggled most of her life with anger management. We have all run across one of those people, who allows the pressure to build inside until he or she has an outburst. The recipient of the resulting tirade becomes doubly despised: first, for holding unsavory views or having irritating personality traits, and secondly, for possessing the uncanny and oddly self-destructive ability to deliberately “push the buttons” of the explosive acquaintance or relative.
Everyone experiences anger and needs to release it from time to time. I may have learned a little about how to express it in a temperate way. However, I have had more success with minimizing it, which is more effective than trying to rein it in. Here is a list of 10 things I do.
Every day, at least once, I count my blessings. The older I get, the more often I do this.
Monday through Friday I start my day reading an inspirational message from a Christian friend who lives in Tennessee. His daily missives include prayers, trivia, inspiring quotes, humor, and details of his life. I always discover a bit of wisdom or something that makes me laugh. There are books and online sources that provide daily inspirational readings.
Five years ago, I turned off the television. The news media peddles anger and fear. Find truth by believing what you see in the world with your own eyes. I can stream entertainment, but a good book, a long walk, or meeting with friends is more rewarding. Splurge now and again and go to the theater.
I smile. When was a young woman, I often wore an angry or unhappy mask. Not anymore. Strangers sense my good mood and the unexpected payback enriches me more than I deserve.
I try to look my best whenever I leave the house, even if it is just for a 15-minute walk in the neighborhood. You might be surprised at how many people notice and approach me to say so. This happens in parks, parking lots, grocery stores, airports, and on city streets.
Every morning I do 10 minutes of strenuous exercise. It’s difficult, but I feel great for the rest of the day.
If I’m home for a meal, I always sit at the dining room table and eat off of pretty dishes. Most evenings, I dine by candlelight. Every day I have fresh fruit and vegetables and a little dark chocolate.
At least once a week, I have a lunch date with a friend. My friendships are a treasure.
I treat strangers kindly. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I generally receive more from this than anything I give.
My mature years allow me to be forthright with positive thoughts or feelings. I like to tell the person I am with how much he or she has impressed me.
The more I clear out bad feelings, the more room I have for good ones. A balance in emotions is inevitable, but anger does not need to be in the equation. My aim is to find joy. One of the blessings of joy is that it is infectious.
The opposite of joy is sorrow. As joy increases, so may sorrow. But sorrow is not destructive. Someone’s sorrow has no power to hurt another human being. It’s one of life’s paradoxes that having known sorrow, we may more fully experience the moments of joy.
There is a popular shop on the Shambles in York that sells little ceramic ghosts. You can’t walk far in that ancient neighborhood without realizing that ghosts are a big business with the tourists. But I didn’t know about the fairies in York, until I stumbled upon them one summer morning while walking along the bank of the River Foss.
Although I never actually saw any fairies, it could have been because they were asleep among the blackberries. While I would never intentionally disturb them, I certainly wasn’t tempted to look for them and risk getting tangled up in the thorns. Nevertheless, they seemed to go all out to make visitors feel welcome, even if they were not there to greet anyone personally.
The fairies had placed informational signs on the ground, leaning against the trees. Sometimes a plaque was hung on a trunk a few inches up from the base. I suppose that was as high as a tall fairy could reach while standing on a ladder. As I made my way along the riverbank, I enjoyed reading about the magical properties of the plants that grew there. I learned a lot that day.
It was exciting to be back in the amazing city of London. The last time I had been there was in the winter, mere days before the lockdowns went into effect. Never having been there in summer, I didn’t know if the large crowds I was seeing at my usual haunts were normal for this time of year or a pent-up response to the end of quarantines, social distancing, and masks. Maybe it was the hype from the Queen’s Jubilee, even though those celebrations had already ended.
Wouldn’t you know it, England was having a heatwave and a drought. No matter. I did not let 90℉ (32℃) temperatures slow me down. For centuries, St. James’s Park has been the place to go to see and be seen, and in all of the world, it is one of my favorite green spaces. When I first got to London, it still had temporary fences, walls, and partitions set up from the Jubilee events, restricting access to the roads and paths, making them feel especially jammed with tourists. The water in the ponds was overgrown with algae, and some of the gardens and lawns looked to be stressed from the lack of rain. But the birds and waterfowl were friendly enough.
On my last night in England, I happened to click on the Health app icon on my iPhone. I had never looked at it before and certainly had not set it up. To my surprise, I discovered that it had been tracking my steps. My first day in London, I had walked more than eight miles, and on the second day I walked more than nine! On average, I had walked five miles a day, and that included some entire days when I was sitting in the reading rooms at the National Archives, doing research for the biography I am writing about a British soldier.
There is something extraordinarily energizing about London. My normal routine at home is to get out and walk several days a week, just to stretch my legs, while getting some fresh air and a little exercise. As much as I enjoy walking, after about 20 minutes I have usually had enough. Twenty-minutes in London is barely even a start. The streets in the central city are not laid out on a grid, so I have a tendency to get lost. Then I double down by indulging the urge to see what is beyond a gate, or through an arch, or at the end of a tunnel, or in the middle of a town square.
One autumn, I was in London for a few days, and I realized that I would not be able to go to the opera performance that I had a ticket for. I went to the Royal Opera House box office to exchange it. The young man who helped me told me that I was in luck. The best seat in the house happened to be available for the night I wanted to attend. He had no idea why it had not been snapped up, because usually the theatre executives would clamor for it when they saw it had not been sold.
The night of the opera, I found myself sitting next to a very elegant older woman, whose companion was a handsome young man. We spoke to each other during the intermission, and she mentioned that she was a season ticket holder. I told her I was visiting and that I loved London. She looked at me like she thought I was crazy. “Why?” she asked. Her question caught me off guard. “Because of all of the parks,” I replied. That really was the first thing that popped into my head, but I got the feeling that I passed a test. She nodded thoughtfully. “Yes,” she said. “I live near Regent’s Park.”
London, like any big city, has its flaws. But it has the River Thames, the Royal parks, the Palace of Westminster, the Horse Guards, the National Gallery, and innumerable streets and squares and historic buildings that call to me. Every time I am there, I return to them. Life is what we make of it. A two-and-a-half year pause can never be reclaimed. I was fortunate to be able to go back to a place I longed to see again. Perhaps I am luckier than many.
In my novel A Moon Garden, there were two lovers who could not marry legally in England in 1785. This was because of the Marriage Act, passed by Parliament in 1753. For a marriage to be legally binding, the ceremony had to be conducted by a minister in a church or chapel of the Church of England. Jews and Quakers were exempt from this restriction, but Anglicans and Catholics were not. The law also set the age of consent at 21. The Act remained in effect until 1836.
It did not apply in Scotland, however. Under Scottish law, couples could wed on the spot in front of two witnesses. They only needed to declare that they were both free to marry. As a result, thousands of English couples eloped to Gretna Green, which was the village they reached as soon as they crossed the border from England into Scotland. The first building they saw was the blacksmith’s shop. The blacksmith developed a lucrative side business presiding over civil marriage ceremonies, and became known as the Anvil Priest.
The couple in A Moon Garden travelled to Gretna Green for their wedding. The blacksmith conducted a brief handfasting ceremony, then declared, “‘You have tied the knot. I pronounce you husband and wife.’” With that, the blacksmith raised a metal hammer and lowered it with great force against the anvil, producing a loud ringing sound.”
I was happy to discover a series of five narrative paintings by British historical genre painter John Arthur Lomax, depicting the anvil wedding of an anxious couple at Gretna Green. It looks just how I had envisioned it!
For the past two years I have been researching and writing about a career soldier who died on foreign soil. Every day I marvel at his dedication to his King and country, and the sacrifices that he made through his service. And almost every day, I cry a little bit to think that he never returned home to his beloved England and Ireland and never again saw the friends and family he left behind. He was a wealthy man who could have chosen a different path. He did not have a wife to mourn for him. By the time his countrymen at home learned of his death, he had been cold in the ground for six months. I hope someone shed tears for him then. I pray for him now. Our fallen warriors are precious. We are indebted to them. May we be worthy of their sacrifice.
One year ago today, on February 27, 2020, I was on a plane bound for London. There were a few more documents I wanted to review at the National Archives and one book I particularly had to see at the British Library. Two weeks after I got home, travel was restricted. As much as I would have liked to return to England, I was very grateful and relieved that I had gone when I did.
In January of 2019, I had been in London doing research for a new historical novel about the world of opera. It was exciting to stay in Covent Garden and attend a performance of the Royal Opera. On my last day in town, I indulged a whim to go see a portrait of a British Army officer that I had come across when I was writing my novel, A Moon Garden.When I saw the painting, I was captivated. The artist had masterfully captured the essence of a young, confident, strong, and beautiful man.
It was difficult to find out anything about this soldier, and I realized that the novel was going to have to wait. It had become my mission to uncover this man’s story and tell it. After researching for a year, I began writing. My pursuit of information was ongoing throughout the year that it took to complete the written chronology of the life of this inspiring man. When I was nearly finished, I became sad. As I wrote the last lines, I cried.
A friend recognized my symptoms. She laughed at me and said, “You did this last time too.”
I did. Writing the novel was a psychological journey. The main character was constantly faced with challenges and crises in matters of war, love, family, and community. As I wrote his story, I felt his worries, his joys, his internal conflicts. I would listen to arias while working at my desk and suddenly find myself weeping. But that was separate from what I experienced when I finished writing the book. A different kind of sadness enveloped me.
While I felt the thrill of accomplishment, I also had a sense of loss. After spending over a year researching and writing about my fictional characters, I had a strong attachment to them. Although I was glad at last to be able to share the story with my readers, it was an adjustment to let go and change my priorities. That is how I feel now about this soldier. For two years, I was singularly absorbed in connecting with him, discovering who he was, what he did, where he went, how he thought, why he made his choices. It is a relief to know that his story is closer to being known.
For a few minutes, I indulged in some crying time. The mood has passed. I still have work to do.
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Buying books is one of the pleasures of doing research. Of course I use digital resources, and visit libraries and archives, but sometimes there is a book that I want to hold in my hands and refer to over and over again. As I delved into the history of colonial America and Georgian England for background to my novel A Moon Garden, my personal library expanded a bit. The social, industrial, and geo-political transformations of the late 18th century intrigue me, and I am currently writing the biography of a British general who lived and died during this time. My quest for books about this period continues.
Recently I acquired The Story of the London Parks by Jacob Larwood. It was published in London and has no copyright date. There is, however, a hand-written inscription inside the front endpaper, indicating it was a New Year’s gift to Mrs. Goodings in 1888.
It’s a beautiful book, which includes several illustrations, including some in color. It is in remarkably good shape, thanks to the fact that it has never been read. This is apparent, because the pages must have been printed two-up or four-up, and they were not trimmed. Many of the pages would have to be cut apart in order flip through them. I prefer to leave the book the way it has been for over 130 years.
My knowledge of book printing and binding techniques of the 19th century is very limited. If anyone reading this can provide an explanation, please feel free to leave your comments.
I wonder if Mrs. Goodings’ admirer ever asked her opinion of the book. What would she have said?