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 young 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?
It’s raining in California. Perhaps we need it, but if I had a say there would be a mix of warm sun and scattered layers of bright white clouds, with a cool breeze. My garden requires care, to check the rapid spring growth of weeds and new shoots on trees and shrubs. Even so, there is beauty in the wildness. Gradually, I will bring it to a more managed state.
The sun is shining in London. If I could, I would walk in Green Park. The old trees stand in silent witness to the generations that preceded us and endured. The daffodils display a legacy of renewal. Quiet and stillness belong here, under the sun, under the clouds, swept by the cool breeze.
As much as I love the energy and bustle of New York, at some point in my visits to that great city, I inevitably seek the quiet spaces. In this time of forced isolation due to the pandemic, many of us are looking for ways to safely connect with one another. Yet perhaps because so much of my lifetime has been spent in the mostly solitary pursuits of painting and writing, I still take comfort in solitude.
When walking in Central Park in autumn, it is easy to get away from crowds. It may not be the wisest thing to do, but I take the precaution of making sure there are a few other people about, enjoying the sights and sounds of nature in the urban oasis.
Neither the photo of Central Park nor the one of West 76th Street was taken in the midst of a quarantine. The day was a cool, sunny, pleasant one in mid-October, when a late morning stroll on Columbus Avenue meant being swept along in a current of a moving throng. By just turning a corner, I was suddenly in a different world.
The world in which we now find ourselves is a tricky one. As I sit at home, doing research for my next book, organizing data, writing, editing, reading, I still think about those quiet spaces, and wish with all my heart that we may all soon safely travel to them.
After abandoning Philadelphia to the Americans in 1778, the British shifted their focus to the South. By the middle of May 1780, they had secured a decisive victory in Charlestown, South Carolina, with the surrender of the Continental Army and Patriot militias under the command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Hundreds of captured colonial soldiers were held in prison hulks in the harbor.
In my debut historical novel, A Moon Garden, Joseph Buckleigh is an officer with the 33rd Regiment of Foot. At the Royal Army field headquarters just north of Charlestown, he is unexpectedly reunited with his friend, Aaron Mendes, a colonial doctor who has recently arrived to treat the sick and wounded prisoners.
Aaron’s face lit up when he saw Joseph, and he suspected his expression mirrored his friend’s. The two men embraced.
“This is unexpected, Aaron,” said Joseph. “Colonel Eades only told me a few moments ago that you are working at Greenwood. When did you arrive?”
“Just over one week ago.”
“It is commendable of you to serve the Patriots at a British facility. We have too few doctors even to attend our own soldiers, so I am certain the care given to the captured wounded is far from adequate.”
“I will refrain from commenting, Joseph. Suffice it to say that I am kept busy.”
The men went outside. Colonel Eades had already requested Joseph’s horse be made ready, and it was tied to a post next to Aaron’s bay mare. It was a cool morning on a clear day, perfect for riding.
“Charlestown Harbor is not far,” said Joseph. “When we get to the ship, you cannot board without someone to provide protection. Perhaps we may prevail upon a prison guard to accompany you, for you must realize I cannot. If there were a way to persuade you to abandon this undertaking, I would try.”
“It is not for myself that I must do this.”
Joseph felt the wind go out of himself, as though he had taken a blow to the solar plexus. Grace was the unspoken, unseen presence. It was for Grace that Aaron would visit hell to look in on the man who had seduced his sister and then bound her to himself with an eternal vow. It was for Grace that Aaron and Joseph had to assess a value to the life of a man who had abused and encumbered a woman that they each loved in their own way. Joseph untangled the reins of the chestnut Marsh Tacky stallion, put his boot in the stirrup, and mounted. “Then ride,” he said, as he took off at a gallop, not glancing back to see if Aaron had followed.