Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Reforming Rulers: 2, Sultan Mahmud II

Mahmud II was 23 when he became Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1808.

He came to the throne in the most dramatic fashion in the midst of an uprising. The Janissaries were furious with the modernising reforms of Sultan Selim III, which threatened their privileged position. In July 1808 they rioted, burnt parts of Constantinople and broke into TopKapi Palace, where they strangled the Sultan. Their aim was to set his weak-minded nephew, Mustafa IV on the throne. However, to do this, they needed to kill Mahmud, whose claim was better. 

When the Janissaries stormed the Harem, where Mahmud was hiding, a slave girl called Cevri threw ashes from the stove in their faces. While they were blinded, Mahmud escaped through a window and hid on the roof. Loyal soldiers arrived in time to quell the revolt and Mahmud became sultan. Cevri was rewarded by being made chief Treasurer of the Harem. 
[There is a staircase in the TopKapi harem called 'Cevri Kalfa's staircase].

Mahmud immediately set about breaking with the past. He continued with Selim's programme of modernisation, knowing it was essential if the Ottomans were to defend their territories against modern European armies. From the start, Mahmud had to struggle against ultra conservative officials and entrenched feudal interests, but he had tremendous will-power. In addition, he looked every inch a sultan. Charles MacFarlane, the Scottish historian and traveller, describes Mahmud as 'an energetic potentate, full of life and health...[with] a robust vigorous frame, a magnificent breadth of chest, a most striking countenance, proud, haughty and handsome, and his large, jet black very peculiar eyes, which looked you through and through.'

Lord Byron and his friend John Cam Hobhouse were present at an audience with Sultan Mahmud on 4th July 1810. Hobhouse recorded in his journal that 'Sultan Mahmud was dressed in a robe of yellow satin, with a broad border of the darkest sable... Occasionally he stroked his beard, displaying a milk-white hand glittering with diamond rings. His eyebrows, eyes and beard, being of a glossy jet black, did not appear natural, but added to that indescribable majesty that would be difficult for any but an Oriental sovereign to assume: his face was pale and regularly formed.'

Mahmud pursued a Westernising programme of military, fiscal and economic reforms, as well as in dress. In 1829 he issued a decree forbidding the wearing of the old-fashioned costumes, except by the clergy. The head-dress now became the fez and men wore the black frock-coat known as the Stambouline. 

Mahmud felt that this new costume led to equality for all his citizens. He said: 'I distinguish between my subjects: Muslims in the mosque, Christians in the church, Jews in the synagogue, but there is no difference among them in any other way.'

Sultan Mahmud II about 1830

His own modern costume was splendid, as befitted the Ottoman sultan.

He maintained his attempts at reform until his death in 1839.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas Day in Constantinople

For fifteen months, Lady Emilia Hornby lived in Constantinople. Her husband, Sir Edmund Hornby, was the British financial commissioner in the Ottoman Empire during the Crimean War. Her letters home are full of life and colour, giving a vivid description of the very different world she experienced during her stay. 

Here is what she says about Christmas day in 1855.

Ivan Aivozorsky: Dusk on the Golden Horn 1845

The Bosphorus on Christmas-day was particularly beautiful to us, unused now to see outward signs of a Christian people. The almost innumerable European ships were gaily dressed with flags and pennants, which fluttered in the brilliant sunshine...and far in the distance, the Asian mountains glittering with ice and snow. It was delightful to feel the warmth of spring in your caique, and to look upon shining avalanches above the clouds themselves.

Several English and French men-of-war on Christmas morning were taking in from caiques famous stocks of good things to make merry: oranges, dried fruits, grapes, and Turkish sweetmeats, whose name is Legion.
Lady Emilia Hornby:  In and around Stamboul
Published, 1858

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Wild Card - new edition

Large Print Edition, published by Ulverscroft.

Shortlisted for the RNA Romance Prize in 2009

"This is perhaps a quintessential Regency, with a look at London society, shopping for ball gowns and Horrid novels, rakish young men and romantic balls. Dive in and enjoy, the sort of book that reminds me why I like reading this sort of thing so much."  Rachel A Hyde

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Kristine and Victoria, the No.1 London Ladies

 Through their Blog, No.1 LONDON, [ ] I take a keen  interest in following the adventures of 
Kristine and Victoria 
[variously together, alone or sometimes with their spouses]

[Picture courtesy of Candice Hern at ]

Their passion for for Regency England is entrancing. Their observations are sparkling, their adventures hair-raising, worthy of a novel in themselves. Everywhere they visit they take photos - not snaps but real, attractive pictures, inside and out, of the many country houses, monuments and the countryside they visit. It creates a most attractive record of their travels. I speak from experience, because Kristine and Victoria came to Reading, where I live. One sunny afternoon last September, we met at the George Hotel, an old coaching inn, dating back to 1423 and probably before that. It was an appropriate lodging for them, as they were leading The Wellington Tour, with a group of enthusiastic Regency and Victorian era fans.

After several days of travelling to places connected with the Duke of Wellington, these kind ladies still had energy and time to come on a tour of historic Reading. I showed them the traces that still exist of the once great abbey, the market places where produce from the abbey was sold, the Holy Brook where the monks had windmills to grind the grain for bread, and the Forbury Gardens, a well-tended park in the centre of town. Kristine's photos of the flowers in there are stunning. I see my town through new eyes after reading her blog post on Reading [sorry for pun]. 

One member of the group was Diane Gaston, whose novels I enjoy very much. This is my photo of Diane, Kristine and Victoria in front of the Abbey Gateway. This structure has been restored several times and is undergoing more repairs at present, as the scaffolding testifies. In this building was Mrs Latournelle's school. Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra attended this school from 1785 -86.

After our walk and lots of talk, we returned to The George for dinner and more conversation. A golden memory, and thanks to Kristine's photos, still vivid. 

Thursday, 1 October 2015

A Hoard of Treasures

In a previous life I was surely a squirrel and the hoarding instinct has stayed with me. I store up treats, savour the delight of having a treasure to enjoy and make the thrill even greater by waiting for The Right Time to take out a gem.
The latest stash was three historical novels. I list them in the order they came to me.

In September 2014, I met up with a group of Americans doing the Wellington Tour, when they stayed in Reading to visit Stratfield Saye and [as a sideline] Highclere Castle aka Downton Abbey. Victoria and Kristine, who were leading the group, kindly invited me to join them for dinner. It was humbling to hear all their enthusiasm for the sights they had seen. One of the group was award winning author Diane Gaston, whose books I read avidly. What a thrill when she gave me a copy of her latest novel,   A Lady of Notoriety.

Diane tackles difficult subjects with such skill she turns potential tragedies into breathlessly interesting drama. It seemed that the hero was facing a horrific outcome, but after a white knuckle ride, things turned out well. Thankfully. You can see I was hooked on the story.

And soon after this I was a lucky winner in Joanna Bourne’s competition on the Word Wenches Blog. My prize was a copy of the latest novel in her award winning espionage series, Rogue Spy, set against the background of Napoleonic France.

The amazing thing for me is Joanna Bourne’s ability to draw you into the scene, wherever it is set, throughout the novel. She has a very economical way with words but each place was so vivid, I felt I was really there; whether in the church, the London alleyways, the dusty old bookshop or the Spy headquarters. And aside from unravelling the complexities of plot, and ever-deepening layers of Pax’s character, there is the wonderful portrait of Violet and Lily, the two dames, who dominate every scene in which they appear.  
By some chance I’d missed the publication of Nicola Cornick’s third Highland Lairds story, Claimed by the Laird, until earlier this year.  
Nicola is a USA Today Bestselling Author and I always enjoy her historical novels. So I was delighted to add another gem to my hoard. Nicola does wonderful descriptions of Highland Scotland and its way of life. The story transported me to the Highlands with a cast of characters and a wild setting on the western coast, all of which was absolutely real for me.

As someone said: When you read a good story, you want to get to the end and you don’t want to get to the end.

And during the summer it was at last The Right Time to enjoy my hoard.

Now you know why I’ve been quiet for a while. 

Friday, 4 September 2015

Summer break

Sometimes it's essential to take a total break from the job in hand. But when you're a writer, how do you stop the spring of ideas from flowing?
My solution this time was to travel to places where talking the language would occupy my mind, and where the heat of summer means you live at a different pace.

The charms of a small village on the southern coast of Turkey, followed by a spell in a charming village in the Languedoc, where even the cats understand the art of a leisurely life,  works the necessary magic .....
so getting back to writing, researching and editing is no longer daunting. En avant!!

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Smugglers' Road

The Pyrenees are  three lines of high mountains running east to west from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. They form a natural barrier between France and Spain, one that is difficult to cross. However, as well as being a border they are also a bridge. 

From the earliest times, people always have found ways through. There are a number of different routes, all carefully guarded by the local community. Each crossing needs a skilled guide to lead the travellers, who might be pilgrims, refugees, or traders. Many times through the centuries, refugees have crossed the Pyrenees to escape persecution. And in more recent times, during the Second World War, a significant number of people escaped the Nazis by crossing from France into Spain

From one side to the other, the trail can take up to eight days, descending sheer slopes into deep valleys and climbing to a pass [known as a "port"] over 2,000 metres high. 

In certain remote villages, where the living was very hard, banditry and smuggling were common and the authorities often turned a blind eye to the trade.

  In the summer of 1813, the British, Spanish and Portuguese Allied Army under the command of Lord Wellington, pushed the French troops into the southern Pyrenees.

On 28th July, at Sorauren, Wellington pushed the French troops back to the north.

Wellington's local guides were Basques on this occasion.