Jodi Picoult

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how to write a book review. While writing, I discovered that I have, to date, written 392 book reviews, of which a list is available here. Many of my reviews are about pre-published books sent to me by the author or publisher via NetGalley or Goodreads, but I also review books of my choice. Examples of the latter include books by American author Jodi Picoult.

Jodi Picoult (born 1966) is the author of over 25 novels that tackle a wide range of controversial or moral issues. She is adept at tackling matters in a sensitive, honest way, whether they involve abortion, assisted suicide, race relations, eugenics, LGBT rights, or school shootings. Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones, the authors of Encyclopedia of Contemporary Writers and Their Works (2020), described Picoult as “a paradox, a hugely popular, at times controversial writer, ignored by academia, who questions notions of what constitutes literature simply by doing what she does best.”

I first came across Jodi Picoult in 2008 when my A-Level Religious Studies tutor suggested reading My Sister’s Keeper to help with our medical Ethics Module. Not only did I enjoy the book, but it also rekindled my love of reading. Picoult’s writing ability is exceptional, and her turn of phrases are almost poetical. It is no surprise that Picoult has won at least 14 awards and honours.

In 2014, I decided to write reviews of all Jodi Picoult’s novels. So far, I have only managed to write about eight books, but I plan to continue this goal in the future. (Although the 20+ books on my to-read pile suggest this will not be achieved any time soon!)

My Sister’s Keeper (reviewed 2015)

“If you use one of your children to save the life of another, are you being a good mother or a very bad one?”

My Sister’s Keeper was the first Jodi Picoult novel I read. (I have since read all Picoult’s books to date) I was not expecting much when I first picked it up, especially as I was reading it for a Medical Ethics module at college. Yet this book rekindled my love of reading, and suddenly, after only reading one story, I was asking for Jodi Picoult books for my birthday.

Many people may be familiar with the storyline, even if they have not read the book, as My Sister’s Keeper shot to fame when the film version hit the cinemas. Thirteen-year-old Anna Fitzgerald was Rhode Island’s first genetically engineered baby, created to provide her older sister Kate with the means to survive acute promyelocytic leukaemia. However, over the next few years, Kate relapses resulting in Anna going under numerous procedures, such as bone marrow extraction, to save Kate’s life. Now things have got so bad that Kate will die unless Anna gives up one of her kidneys, yet unwilling to do this, Anna hires a lawyer, Campbell Alexander, to sue her parents for the rights of her own body.

From reading a synopsis, the reader can already see that My Sister’s Keeper is going to be an emotional story, but what made me love the author so much?

The story was told from six points of view: Anna, Jesse (older brother), Sara (mother), Brian (father), Campbell and Julie (guardian ad litem). Notice that Kate was not one of the narrators, which leads us to speculate from the very start that Anna wins the case and Kate dies. Within the six main characters, there is no antagonist – unless you count cancer – and in all of them, the reader can find something relatable.

In one of the chapters, Jesse pronounces that Kate is the martyr, Anna the peacekeeper and himself the lost cause. With Anna, we can recognize the struggle to follow the decisions laid down for us by other people – a time when we have no choice of our own. Jesse represents the times when we have been ignored and forgotten because of bigger or more important events, thus resulting in attention-seeking behaviour. Brian, the firefighter, the man who wants to save everyone, cannot put out the metaphorical fire plaguing his family. Sara, whose narrative starts in the past rather than the present day, shows us how easy it is to get wrapped up in one problem (or daughter), ignoring everything (or everyone) else.

One great thing about all Picoult’s novels is that they are not focused on one storyline. Granted, this book focuses on the trial and Kate’s illness, but the inclusion of Campbell and Julia’s voices provide an additional subplot. Julia is not thrilled to discover that she will be working alongside Campbell, a person she knew from school with whom she had a difficult past. Since then, Julia has found herself unlucky in love and blames Campbell for this. Campbell, on the other hand, has troubles of his own and needs a service dog with him at all times. Yet, he is self-conscious about people knowing the reason behind this and often comes up with creative lies to stop people from asking questions. “Maybe if God gives you a handicap, he makes sure you’ve got a few extra doses of humour to take the edge off.”

Another reason Picoult’s books are so great is that the reader learns something every time. My Sister’s Keeper is full of medical and legal jargon, which may go over some people’s heads. Yet, it is also bursting with random bits of knowledge, for example, how to treat a fire, facts about astronomy, and many other interesting details that the characters use as metaphors to describe their experiences.

My Sister’s Keeper is a story that will stay in people’s hearts and minds for a long time. We never learn who the narrator of the prologue was, but we immediately assume that it is Anna and that she wants Kate to die. By the end, we are still unsure who the character was, but if it was Anna, we see it in a completely different light. This is not a book about whether it is ethical for Anna to be Kate’s donor; it is not a cancer story. Instead, it is a message about the right for each person to have choices about their lives.

A warning to potential readers: this book could break your heart, shock you or leave you in tears. My Sister’s Keeper is full of irony. For instance, Jesse’s experimentation with arson, causing fires that are subsequently put out by his father. But the biggest sense of irony and the biggest shock is the ending (FYI this is the complete opposite to the film ending). After everything that Anna has achieved, devastating circumstances result in the same conclusion that it would have had Anna sat back and done nothing. Yet this does not make it a pointless story. Despite Anna’s actions almost tearing the family apart, it also wakes them from the stupor that Kate’s illness has put them in and makes them realise how precious everything else in their life is too.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, and if you have not read a Jodi Picoult novel before, I strongly suggest you begin with this one. It is suitable for adult and adolescent readers, especially those who like to think about hypothetical, moral questions. My Sister’s Keeper gets you questioning your own choices and actions within your own life and may even make you view the world slightly differently.

The Storyteller (reviewed 2014)

Jodi Picoult is the bestselling author of numerous novels, with My Sister’s Keeper being the most well known. All of her stories are well written, although it is still possible to notice improvements in the writing over the years right up until now with her latest, The Storyteller, which quite possibly could be her best yet.

Arguably, The Storyteller does not quite read like a typical Jodi Picoult novel. This is, in part, because of the nature of the story. Most of her previous books deal with medical ethics and/or court cases, whereas this story features neither. The Storyteller contains a combination of past and present – the main focus being on the Holocaust.

Four people narrate the novel: two in the present day and two giving an account of their experience during the Second World War. It begins with Sage Singer, a 25-year-old, hermit-like woman with a disfiguring facial scar – the result of a terrible accident, one that also led to the death of her mother. For the past three years, Sage has been participating in a grief group – a place where people who have lost loved ones can come together and talk about their feelings. After three years, surely Sage would no longer need the help of the group? However, she still attends, not because she finds it helpful, but for the opposite reason. She even says herself: “If it were helpful I wouldn’t still be coming.” It unfolds that she still blames herself for her mother’s death despite the reassurances that it was an accident and not her fault.

It is through the grief group that Sage meets the elderly Josef Weber. After becoming friendly and discovering that Sage comes from a Jewish family, Josef confesses to something terrible – he was a Nazi during the war. He killed people. He wants Sage to represent all the Jews he killed and forgive him. Then he wants her to help him die.

While Josef recounts his experience of being part of the Nazi party, Picoult provides another account. Minka, Sage’s grandmother, describes the terrors she faced as an imprisoned Jew suffering fates such as the deaths of all her family and friends and her time in Auschwitz. Another element of the novel is the vampire story Minka wrote as a teenager. This is interspersed between the other chapters of the book. Unwittingly, Minka’s fictional tale reflects the alienation and destruction of the Jews. The final character is Leo who, like Sage, is narrating the present day and trying to locate ex-Nazi members to be punished by the government.

One thing to praise Picoult for, not just in The Storyteller, but also in all her novels, is the amount of in-depth research she undertakes to make her stories as accurate as possible even though they are fictional. Minka’s account was written in such a way that it was almost believable that Picoult had been there and experienced it herself. She even learnt to bake bread so that she could write from the point of view of a baker. This is pure dedication!

The Storyteller is an amazing, beautiful book that informs, shocks and stays with you for a long time. You will question your morals and ability to forgive. Is anyone entirely evil? Is anyone entirely good? Perhaps we are both, so why should anyone have the right to treat others as inferior to themselves?

Leaving Time (reviewed 2015)

Jodi Picoult keeps getting better and better. Her latest novel, Leaving Time, explores a daughter’s search for her mother, who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier. Jenna Metcalf is a thirteen-year-old girl living with her grandmother who is determined to discover the whereabouts of her mother, who has not been seen for ten years, since a tragic event at a local elephant sanctuary.

Jenna recruits the help of Virgil Stanhope – an ex-policeman who has gone into hiding – and Serenity Jones – a failed psychic. As the three of them look into the events of a decade ago, they begin to piece together possible scenarios resulting in a woman vanishing without a trace. But just as importantly, they try to explain the reasons for a mother to abandon her daughter.

Jenna’s mother, Alice Metcalf, was a scientist who loved to study the grieving processes of elephants. Although Jenna tells one part of the story, Alice provides the reader with a different story – one of the past, one of Africa, one of elephants. As with many of Picoult’s novels, Leaving Time is not purely a piece of entertainment; it teaches the reader something new. Through Alice, Picoult unleashes a torrent of information about the lives of elephants in Africa and explains their behaviours. She explains what happens to the animals that are captured by circus trainers or zoos, as well as the work a sanctuary may do to save the lives of these creatures.

Alice and Jenna are not the only voices of this story. Virgil and Serenity have chapters to describe things from their perceptions. What is great about this is that although the main storyline is about Jenna’s search for her mother, Virgil and Serenity provide additional stories alongside it. Jenna’s interaction with Virgil helps him deal with his past and come to terms with the mistakes he may have made when investigating the original tragedy at the sanctuary. Likewise, Jenna helps Serenity believe in herself again and to focus less on her past failures.

Picoult’s writing, as always, is beautiful and sucks the reader into the narrative. It is easy to relate to all the characters in some way and understand a little of what they are going through despite having never been in their situation. Through her ability to do this, Picoult engages the readers from beginning to end. Fans of Picoult’s other novels, such as My Sister’s Keeper, will be familiar with Picoult’s surprising plot twists. Leaving Time tops all of those and will leave the reader almost breathless and in awe of Picoult’s imagination.

It is with no doubt that Leaving Time is an excellent novel exploring numerous themes, from a mother’s love to the paranormal. It entertains as well as educates, leaving the reader a lot more knowledgeable by the very end. It makes you think, it makes you hope, and it makes you want to keep on reading. Glamour magazine defies us “not to be gripped” and, after reading it, you will agree that is not entirely possible.

Nineteen Minutes (reviewed 2016)

Your son says the bullying was unbearable. But his revenge was murder. What would you do?

Nineteen Minutes 
is perhaps Jodi Picoult’s most controversial novel, as well as one of the longest. Lots of things can happen in nineteen minutes, including a school shooting resulting in the deaths of ten people. This is what happens at the beginning of this book, leaving hundreds of teachers and students emotionally scarred for the remainder of their lives. Picoult explores the reactions of a community whose ideas of safety have shattered, the grief of the victims and their families and, perhaps most importantly, the heartache of the parents of the shooter.

Seventeen-year-old Peter Houghton has had enough of the bullying that he has endured throughout his entire school life. He has no friends, is constantly miserable, possibly suicidal, and so, on a typical morning in March 2007, he decides to permanently fix the situation, unthinking of the consequences. But why did he go to such extremes? What circumstances in his life led to firing a gun as the only solution?

As the evidence is gathered in the lead up to the court trial, many characters question their involvement in Peter’s life. Firstly there is Josie Cormier, a straight-A student who swapped her childhood friendship with Peter for popularity and her boyfriend Matt, a particularly aggressive bully. Secondly, there is Alex Cormier, Josie’s mother, who destroyed her friendship with Peter’s mother after finding their five-year-old children playing with guns in the Houghton’s basement.

If Peter’s father had never owned a selection of hunting rifles, would Peter ever have thought of guns as a way out of his predicament? On the other hand, Lacy Houghton blames herself for not noticing how badly her son was suffering, not just at school but home as well, where he had to live up to the memory of his saint-like older brother who died in a car crash the previous year.

Naturally, a tragic event such as this changes people, but not always in a negative way. Relationships begin to blossom as characters realize how close they were to losing the ones they love. Alex takes a step back from her demanding job to comfort Josie in the aftermath, thus feeling closer to her than she ever has done before. Alex, a single mother, also opens herself up to a romantic relationship, something she has had no time to consider up until now.

All the while, Defense Attorney Jordan McAfee, who some readers may remember from Salem Falls, fights a losing battle to get Peter acquitted by arguing and prying into Peter’s emotions to discover his reason for committing murder.

What I like about Picoult’s novels is that there is more to them than a simple storyline. While the story plays out and plot twists happen, the reader is learning something new. In Nineteen Minutes, Picoult provides insight into midwifery, psychology and economics – things that are not synonymous with the shootings.

Readers will constantly question whose side of the story they are on. Hundreds of people grow up being bullied and will understand how Peter was feeling, yet they would not pick up a gun. Likewise, by putting themselves in the shoes of the victims, readers will think about how they would feel in the same situation, however, would anyone be willing to admit that they made someone else’s life a living hell? There is no simple conclusion to Nineteen Minutes; someone will always lose. Nevertheless, Picoult’s fantastic writing skills provide an enthralling story of love and loss.

I cannot recommend this book to readers in general due to the nature of the themes found in the story. Gun crime and school shootings are sadly still an occurrence in the present time, particularly in America, therefore, there are thousands of people who have been affected by such an event, whether directly or indirectly, as part of a local community. Some readers may find Nineteen Minutes challenging and upsetting, which is why I am not going to encourage everyone to read this book. However, Picoult has excelled herself with this novel, and it would be a shame for people not to read it. Fans will not be disappointed with her writing and will love all her characters, possibly even Peter!

Small Great Things (reviewed 2017)

Jodi Picoult has been my favourite author since I first came across her novels in 2008. With twenty-three novels under her belt, she continues to delight readers with her page-turning stories. Most of Picoult’s books contain a moral issue, often, but not always, in the form of medical ethics, as well as a hefty court case. Although following along similar lines, Small Great Things is a radical, revolutionary book, which, with great courage, Picoult has written with the intent to expose the reader to truths that most of us, as a society, are intentionally oblivious to.

The gist of the storyline is a baby dies whilst under the care of a nurse, prompting the grieving parents to take her to court with the accusation of murder. Although that sounds like an interesting story, it barely begins to describe what the book is about. The character on trial, Ruth, is an African American labour and delivery nurse. In this day and age, race is not so much of an issue. Yet, the parents of the baby are White Supremacists: seriously racist with the belief that white people are the master race. The father, Turk, refuses to let his wife and child be treated by Ruth, but circumstances result in her being the only nurse available to watch Davis. Unfortunately, it is at this moment that the baby happens to go into cardiac arrest. Although the reader knows that Ruth is not at fault, Turk insists she murdered his child – but is he accusing her of medical negligence or punishing her for being black?

Three characters, all with different views and experiences when it comes to racism, alternately narrate Small Great Things. Ruth and Turk represent the extremes on either side of the scale. Ruth experiences first-hand the negative impact of prejudice in the American system and society, not only through this court case but in everyday life as well. She also reveals the difficulties growing up in a predominately white environment, never feeling like she fitted in with her peers. On the other hand, Turk spent his teenage years attending KKK rallies, participating in a white power movement, and beating up anyone different: black, foreign, gay, Jewish and so forth.

The third character represents the majority of white people living in America. Kennedy is a public defender and the lawyer assigned to Ruth’s case. Like most of the population, she believes that she is not racist and persuades Ruth to leave the colour of her skin out of the argument. However, as she gets to know her client, she realizes that it is nigh on impossible to ignore racial prejudice.

Picoult shocks the reader on two accounts: one, the way that people of colour have been, and still are, treated; and two, the revelation that an invisible empire of White Supremacists is living amongst us. Yet, there is a third way in which Picoult provokes outrage – she indirectly accuses the reader of being racist, too.

There is always something to learn in a Jodi Picoult novel, for instance, medical terminology or how a court trial is conducted. Small Great Things provides more eye-opening information than her previous books, unveiling facts about such a controversial subject.

Through Kennedy, the reader’s eyes are opened to the racial discrimination, to which we all turn a blind eye. Ignored are the difficulties African Americans suffer when going shopping, applying for jobs, attending school, walking down the street, sitting on a bus, and so forth. Picoult asks me as a reader to think about how my life has been affected by racial discrimination: being served politely in shops because I am white, not having my ethnicity questioned when applying for college etc. Living in Britain, I have not experienced openly hateful comments or behaviours towards people with a different skin tone – I used to believe this was primarily an American problem. Yet, Small Great Things has made me think about the hierarchy of power within society, particularly in regards to the ethnicity of those at the top, compared with those at the bottom.

Jodi Picoult sat on the idea of writing a book about racism for well over a decade, yet, it is particularly apt that it is published now, with the current predicaments America is facing. Although we have come a long way in attempts to achieve equality for all – compare the trial in To Kill A Mockingbird to Picoult’s version – recent events have revealed that we are nowhere near.

Small Great Things will shock everyone who reads it regardless of their ethnicity and so forth. Many may find it uncomfortable to read, become upset or outraged, and even feel like they are being directly targeted. If this is the case, then good – it should do that. Everyone needs to read this book. On the one hand, it is a brilliant, well-told story with a beautiful, almost poetic narrative, and, on the other, it causes us to face up to the issues we are forever making light of or overlooking entirely. We have grown up believing that racism is a form of hatred when really it is about power. However Small Great Things makes you feel, it is worth reading, especially for the satisfying ending – one that you do not see coming.

Handle With Care (reviewed 2015)

As with most of Jodi Picoult’s novels, Handle With Care contains a deeply moral issue regarding abortion, especially in the case of the baby having a life-debilitating illness. Willow O’Keefe is six years old but only looks half that age. Suffering from Osteogenesis Imperfecta (Brittle Bones Disease), Willow will never live a normal life.

After a disastrous trip to Disney Land, Sean O’Keefe plans to sue the authorities for the way he and his wife, Charlotte, were treated after Willow broke yet another bone. However, once Charlotte learns about Wrongful Birth lawsuits, she decides to take action against her obstetrician with the argument that Willow’s diagnosis could have been discovered earlier in her pregnancy – the issue with this is it involves suing her best friend.

Picoult explores the arguments for and against what Charlotte is doing, and delves into how it affects the people involved. Friendships are broken, and relationships are damaged. As her family is torn apart, Willow feels unwanted and worried that she is the cause of all the tension. Through it all, Charlotte’s older daughter, Amelia, gets forgotten about and develops harmful ways of coping – bulimia.

The story is not solely based on the O’Keefe family. Picoult includes the character Marin, an attorney, and her search for her birth mother. This contrasts with the theme of abortion and makes the reader question the rights and wrongs of the dilemma.

Throughout the novel, Picoult creates a sense of foreboding. The narrative is written as if being spoken to Willow, however, the use of past tense implies that something horrible befalls her later in the book, regardless of the court case outcome.

Handle With Care is a novel that makes you think and plays with your emotions. Readers have a chance to develop their own opinions by reading the different characters’ perspectives. Another way in which Picoult connects with the reader is with the inclusion of recipes for baked goods. Charlotte used to be a baker before Willow was born, therefore, these extra bits fit well with the story. The recipes are also something readers could try out at home.

Jodi Picoult is a brilliant author with imaginative, thought-provoking ideas. Handle With Care fits in well with her other novels. It is quick to read, gripping and not quickly forgotten. This is a definite read for someone interested in ethical issues and those who like a novel that makes them think.

The Tenth Circle (reviewed 2016)

Admittedly I do not think this is one of Jodi Picoult’s best novels, however, that does not mean that The Tenth Circle is not a good book. Like all her stories, a large part of the storyline is about relationships, in this case, between father and daughter. On the other hand, The Tenth Circle stands out from the others as being a little different.

When Daniel Stone’s fourteen-year-old daughter Trixie accuses her ex-boyfriend of rape, he becomes an overprotective father, determined to keep his child from any more harm. What begins as a rape case spirals into a murder case with Daniel as the prime suspect. Suddenly the police turn to Trixie as an alternative suspect, and frightened of being accused, she runs away to Alaska – a place Daniel grew up as a child; a place he has been running away from all his life.

In a way, The Tenth Circle feels like two different stories: the rape and murder, and the flight to Alaska. Although the rape/murder case is the key focus of the plot, this story is also an insight into the relationship between father and daughter, and husband and wife.

“The real mistake he made was believing that you could lose someone in an instant, when in reality, it was a process that took months, years… lifetime.” Despite the Stone’s world turning upside down after a single event, Daniel realizes that he was losing his daughter a long time before that. She was growing up and keeping secrets. He barely knew the real Trixie. Likewise, his wife, Laura, was also keeping her fair share of secrets.

What made The Tenth Circle different from Picoult’s other novels is the inclusion of a comic book. It is an example of Daniel’s work as a comic book penciler (illustrated by Dustin Weaver in real life). This short graphic story represents Daniel and Trixie’s relationship. A daughter goes missing, and her father goes through hell and back to find her. It is interesting to compare the two stories and understand how Daniel feels. This comic book also allows the reader to have some fun. Within the illustrations are hidden letters, that when put together, spell out a quotation. It is the readers’ job to find and solve this puzzle.

Hell is a theme that kept coming up in this novel. As some may realize, The Tenth Circle is a brief reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante believed there were nine circles of Hell, each one representing a sin. Picoult has added a tenth circle, a circle for people who lie to themselves. The topic of Hell is emphasized through Laura Stone, a professor at Monroe College, Maine. She lectures on Classics, particularly on Dante’s Inferno. Picoult constantly alludes to this as a metaphor for the life Daniel and Trixie are experiencing.

Reading The Tenth Circle for a second time, I found I did not enjoy it as much. The element of surprise and plot twists were lost, as I already knew what was going to happen. For first readers, however, all of that is still to be experienced. Some may be put off or triggered by the rape content, but rest assured that Picoult deals with this delicate topic in the best way possible.

As fans will already know, you cannot read a Jodi Picoult book without learning something new. In this instance, you learn about Dante, forensic investigation and Yup’ik Eskimos – including intriguing words in the Yup’ik language. Due to this, Picoult’s writing is interesting to read, as well as delightful and meaningful due to her powerful metaphors.

Before reading this book, however, bear in mind that it contains rape, self-harm, drugs, suicide and murder. If any of the subjects are too upsetting, then I suggest you avoid this novel. On the other hand, if you are okay with delicate topics, I say go for it!

The Pact (reviewed 2016)

“Your son says they both meant to die. But he lived. What would you do?” As fans will already be aware, most of Jodi Picoult’s novels involve a “What if” or “What would you do?” scenario. The Pact is no different. This book contains all the elements you expect to find in a Picoult story: an ethical dilemma, family, relationships, love. However, The Pact is one of her more challenging reads – and it still was for me, reading it a second time.

Bainbridge, New Hampshire is an idyllic town that oozes a sense of security and safeness; it does not seem possible for crime to exist there. For a long time, that was the case, with the Harte and Gold family living as neighbours in a pragmatic family environment. Chris Harte and Emily Gold grew up together. They knew each other from birth and remained friends ever since, becoming intimate on reaching their teens. But suddenly, this serene atmosphere is shattered after seventeen-year-old Emily is found dead after being shot through the head, with Chris covered in blood beside her.

Despite defending himself by claiming that it was a joint suicide pact gone wrong, Chris is on trial for first-degree murder. The defence and the prosecution have to look deeply into the supposed crime and the events that lead up to it. Was Emily suicidal even though no one noticed? Did Chris love her, or was there a motive for murder? Whilst Chris anxiously awaits his verdict, the two families, the Hartes and the Golds, instead of pulling together in their time of grief, begin to crumble apart.

That is the general gist of the story, however, as with any Picoult book, there are smaller, subtle storylines dropped in here and there. The most prominent of these is the life of the defence attorney, Jordan McAfee, and his Private Investigator, Selena Damascus – two names that may be familiar to avid readers. These two are recurring characters in a couple of other novels by the same author. Instead of only being names dropped into a story for convenience sake, they have lives of their own. By reading all the books containing the pair, readers get to know them well and witness their growing relationship – providing they are read in the correct order, of course.

As for the key plot – the botched suicide pact – the story is told from a variety of perspectives, although all in the third person, from both after the event and before, going as far back as 1979, the year Emily was born, up until the present day, 1997. Naturally, the characters are going to reflect on the recent incidents to understand what has happened, but it is necessary to delve deeper into the past so that the reader can understand Chris and Emily’s relationship. It would be rather difficult otherwise to know who Emily was without any background knowledge, especially as she is already dead on the first page.

Picoult tackles the suicide theme delicately, showing full awareness that it is a difficult concept for people to read. She uses her characters to reveal the different ways people or societies react to the idea that someone would want to take their own life. The divide in the belief that suicide is either intrinsically right or wrong is evident from the characters who support Chris and those who accuse him of murder, maintaining that there was no way Emily would willingly take her own life. Some witnesses brought to the stand during the trial speak of suicide and depression from a medical and psychological point of view, fuelled by the in-depth research that Picoult has undertaken. Visiting a prison and experiencing what life is like for the inmates is an example of how far Picoult is willing to go to make her novels as realistic as possible.

As mentioned earlier, The Pact provokes the thought, “what would you do?” By engaging the reader in this way, Picoult encourages people to develop their interpretations and opinions about the storyline. She leaves hints and clues lying around to nudge our minds in a variety of directions. What was it that made Emily suicidal? Could her relationship with Chris, who for a long time was like a brother to her, be confusing the way she feels towards him and her family? Are there other factors? As for the outcome of the trial, readers will take either the prosecutor’s or the defence’s side – despite most of the book written in a way that paints Chris as wrongly accused. Picoult admits in an interview that even she was not sure how it should end and only made the decision by thinking about what the majority of readers would favour and the amount of hate mail she would receive if she did the opposite.

There is no denying that The Pact is a difficult book to read. Anyone who has experienced depression or suicidal thoughts will relate to Emily and Chris’ predicament, which may be too much to handle for some readers. On the other hand, if you have picked up this book knowing what to expect from Picoult’s writing, then you are less likely to be as shocked by the narrative. This is a book that will make you feel many emotions and question your own beliefs and opinions. Although not as beautifully written as her more recent novels, The Pact will suck you into the storyline and not let go until a long while after you have read the last page. Be prepared!


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How to Write a Book Review

There is no right or wrong way to write a book review. For some, writing “I liked this book” is good enough, but many writers prefer in-depth feedback and critique. A friend recently asked me for advice about writing book reviews, knowing that I have written many reviews, and new authors send me copies of their books in exchange for honest opinions. Admittedly, I do not follow a strict method of writing reviews, but I do try to include a few key points. At my friend’s request, I wrote the following instructions.

How to Write a Book Review

Firstly, write a brief description of the book. What is it about? Is it fiction or non-fiction? To what genre does it belong? Do not give anything away, especially the ending, but it is useful to tell potential readers a little about the narrative to entice them. Also, mention whether it is part of a series or a stand-alone. Is this the author’s first work, or are they a well-established writer?

For example:
Ancient Indian knowledge and wisdom have been expressed through storytelling for thousands of years. With this in mind, Limesh Parekh wrote his first business book Cracking the CRM Code in fiction format. CRM, which the author fails to define in the book, stands for Customer Relationship Management and is a useful process for businesses to interact with their customers.

What did you like about the book? Even if you did not enjoy it, try to find something positive to say. Was it well written? Did it contain interesting ideas or characters? What made you keep reading? Mention the emotions you felt, whether the author made you laugh or cry. Could you relate to the subject? Did you learn something new?

For example:
Many business books and manuals are nondescript and boring, whereas Limesh Parekh keeps the reader engaged with anecdotes, stories and quotes. Rather than learning how to use CRM, the characters show the process of purchasing and using the software, which is far more enlightening than a step-by-step guide.

For some, the hardest part of writing a review is mentioning the things they did not like. It is so easy to tell someone you liked their work rather than criticise them. Yet, even if it is unpleasant to hear, authors appreciate honesty and take on advice and comments in their future writings. If you found the book uninteresting, say so. Perhaps you were not the intended audience. Was the narrative easy to follow? Did you dislike any of the characters or ideas? Were there too many mistakes? (Be aware, typing errors are sometimes the fault of the editor and publisher rather than the author.)

For example:
English is presumably not the author’s first language, hence the sentences do not always flow, and the punctuation is far from perfect. At times, it is difficult to work out which character is speaking, making it a little confusing to follow.

Why should other people read this book? Did your reading experience benefit you in any way? Was it entertaining or educational, or was it a waste of your time? To whom would you recommend the book? Was it written for people with particular interests? Is it suitable for older or younger readers? Did it remind you of any other books you had read?

For example:
Cracking the CRM Code is written for business-minded people who understand the jargon and acronyms, many of which are unexplained. As a layperson, some of the information went over my head, but the fiction format helped hold my interest.

The final sentence of your review should indicate your overall impression of the book. You may have mentioned both positive and negative points, but which opinion comes out strongest? Some people find it easier to end their review with a rating out of 5 or 10 to indicate how much they enjoyed the book. 

For example:
Cracking the CRM Code has the potential to be a big hit with small business owners and business consultants. (3/5 Stars)


Below are a few examples of book reviews I have written over the past few months.

Larry, Bush Pilot by Jordan Mierek (2020)

Jordan Mierek, also known as Jordan Elizabeth, usually writes for young adults, but after many requests, she has published her first children’s book. Larry, Bush Pilot is a collaborative effort between Mierek and her father, Lawrence Mierek, who grew up on a dairy farm. Larry, a ten-year-old boy, also lived on a farm during the 1970s with his father, who owns an aeroplane. Despite his age, Larry’s father taught him to fly, which came in handy when his father suffered an accident in the middle of nowhere.

This short story loosely reflects Lawrence Mierek’s childhood. As a teenager, his father taught him to fly a plane on the airstrip behind their barn. The narrative is likely an imagined scenario, placing a young boy in a precarious situation, which many children would not have the means to solve. Only through extreme determination and courage is Larry able to rescue his father.

Larry, Bush Pilot is a short story intended for primary school children. The few illustrations between chapters make it an appropriate step between picture books and teenage novels. Larry’s life on the farm allows modern children to learn about the world before digital technology and the importance of a family working together. The story also tells the reader that if they believe in themselves and their abilities, they can achieve great things.

Jordan Mierek has stepped into the world of children’s literature and proved that she is more than capable of writing for several age groups. Larry, Bush Pilot is the first in a series called Flying Acres, and we look forward to joining Larry on his next adventure. (4/5 stars)

Home at Last: Your Journey of Faith in Challenging Times by Ruth Pearson (2020)

Ruth Pearson wrote Home at Last during the pandemic for those who have felt discouraged and afraid about the future. Suggesting Covid-19 could be a sign of the Second Coming, Pearson focused on three questions to prepare the reader for such an event. 1. How important is God in your life? 2. Do you have a personal relationship with God? 3. Where are you planning to spend eternity?

Using examples from the Bible, Pearson explores the idea of a journey of faith. Several characters in the Bible went on journeys that brought them closer to God. Pearson uses the Parable of the Prodigal Son to explain the notion of “coming home” to God. Readers may have drifted away from the creator, but He will welcome them back with open arms. The story of Ruth and Naomi explores faith, and the story of Joshua and Rahab features truth, about which Pearson also writes.

Whilst the ideas in the book are worth pursuing, the written narrative is poor. Pearson is either more confident verbalising her thoughts, or the English language is not her strong point. Frequent spelling and grammatical errors make the book difficult to read, and it is hard to follow the author’s thought process.

Pearson claims she wrote the entire book in 48 hours, and I believe her. Although some editing must have occurred, it needs a lot more work to make it a successful seller. It appears the author tried to conclude the narrative several times but thought of more to say. Chapter Nine ends by informing the reader that the next chapter is the last. Chapter Ten concludes the book, only for the reader to turn the page to find another chapter headed “Conclusion”.

It is a great shame the quality of writing lets the book down because the ideas could potentially help many new and old Christians. Although she does not reveal her denomination, Pearson’s beliefs suggest she is a Seventh-Day Adventist and emphasises the Second Coming. Some readers may be uncomfortable with this, but Pearson’s ideas are suitable for all types of Christians. (3/5 stars)

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline (2021)

Ollie’s Dad died. Richard had an incurable brain tumour, and before he passed away, he sent everyone a special present. He also told Ollie that “being alive was like a puzzle and it was all falling into place.” Ollie is autistic. He thinks his father left him a puzzle to solve. Could it involve the gifts? Why won’t anyone help him solve the puzzle?

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline is a heartbreaking tale about a family coming to terms with death. Told from several people’s point of view, Kline explores different portrayals of grief. Ollie’s mum wants to stay in bed; his aunt wants life to carry on; his maternal grandmother tries to exert control; his paternal grandmother wishes she could understand her grandson; and his grandfather has no idea what is going on. No one has time for Ollie and his obsession with his puzzle.

Before Richard’s death, Ollie dominated family life. Ollie had a strict routine, always had a few spare pairs of socks with him because he hated dirty ones, and had meltdowns if his parents used the “wrong” tone of voice. Without his familiar habits, Ollie’s life was a mass of confusion – an apt metaphor for the grief the rest of the family experienced.

With a contemporary novel such as This Shining Life, there is no “happy ever after”. People do not come back from the dead. There is no answer to the meaning of life. Grief is a long process and different for everyone. It causes depression, anger and confusion, but hidden under all these negative feelings is love.

Harriet Kline takes death and grief seriously but adds a touch of humour to the narrative for the reader’s benefit. It is not a light read, nor is it markedly profound. Instead, This Shining Life is painfully honest, and for that reason, it is beautiful. (4/5 stars)

Nine Ways to Die by Jordan Elizabeth (2021)

Fifteen-year-old January “Jan” hates the new town she has moved to but loves her new boyfriend, Jean. Her parents are never home, and her sister is in hospital, so she spends the summer days with her new friends. The only people she meets are around her age, and she never comes across any adults. The buildings are decrepit and old, almost like a ghost town. The more time Jan spends with her friends, the more peculiar the town, Memoir Falls, feels.

Nine Ways to Die is a short story by versatile writer, Jordan Elizabeth. The details about Jan’s past gradually emerge until Jan, along with the reader, discovers the truth about the strange town and its inhabitants. There are clues everywhere, but like Jan, readers fail to notice them until they come together in a sudden climax.

Through Jan’s eyes, readers experience the town as though they are also new inhabitants. Although it is a short story, there is so much on offer: suspense, romance, thrills, and the supernatural. For those familiar with Jordan Elizabeth’s work, this is a welcome addition to her vast collection of books. For newbie readers, this is a tempting taste of the author’s full potential. (4/5 stars)

Cracking the CRM Code by Limesh Parekh (2021)

Ancient Indian knowledge and wisdom have been expressed through storytelling for thousands of years. With this in mind, Limesh Parekh wrote his first business book Cracking the CRM Code in fiction format. CRM, which the author fails to define in the book, stands for Customer Relationship Management and is a useful process for businesses to interact with their customers.

Rather than produce a mundane manual about how to purchase and use CRM software, Parekh writes a story about four friends and their journey with CRM. Liladhar Shastri, a successful business owner, is encouraging his friends, Anubhav, Jagdeep and Irshad to consider using CRM to improve their businesses. What follows is a lengthy discussion about buying CRM, using CRM and getting the most out of the software.

As the Indian entrepreneur, Rashmi Bansal writes in the introduction, Limesh Parekh is “not a salesman but a friend.” The author gives advice through the voice of Liladhar, and the other three friends express the reader’s questions and concerns. The book is written for small businesses with the potential to grow with the help of CRM. The story analyses what the friends do wrong and what they need to change.

Cracking the CRM Code is written for business-minded people who understand the jargon and acronyms, many of which are unexplained. As a layperson, some of the information went over my head, but the fiction format helped hold my interest. English is presumably not the author’s first language, hence the sentences do not always flow, and the punctuation is far from perfect. At times, it is difficult to work out which character is speaking, making it a little confusing to follow.

Many business books and manuals are nondescript and boring, whereas Limesh Parekh keeps the reader engaged with anecdotes, stories and quotes. Rather than learning how to use CRM, the characters show the process of purchasing and using the software, which is far more enlightening than a step-by-step guide. Cracking the CRM Code has the potential to be a big hit with small business owners and business consultants. (3/5 stars)

The Boy I Am by K. L. Kettle (2021)

Imagine a world where women are safe from men. Imagine a world where women are in charge. Imagine a world where men no longer reduce women to something to flirt with or dismiss as beneath them. This is the way of life in K. L. Kettle’s dystopian novel The Boy I Am. War has left the Earth in ruins, and it is no longer safe to go outside, yet humanity is surviving in tall, secure tower blocks overseen by the Chancellor. Men and boys are confined to the basement floors as a punishment for their behaviour during the war. To earn their right to live on the upper floors, they must learn to behave like a gentleman, and never look at a woman’s skin without their permission.

The protagonist, Jude, is running out of time to earn the right to live amongst the women. If he does not gain a sponsor, he faces a future in the dangerous mines. Yet, Jude is not sure he wants to live with the women, who have demeaned him for his gender since his birth. He has seen another side to them and believes the Chancellor has killed his best friend. Jude wants to escape, risk the poisonous fog outside and search for a better life. To do this, the Chancellor must die.

The way women treat men and boys is uncomfortable to read. Female readers, in particular, may have experienced similar treatment at the hands of men. Feminists desire an equal world, but there is the risk of going too far the other way. Yet, as Jude discovers, it is not as black and white as Female versus Male. An underground gang of women known as Hysterics are also trying to escape. They want to save themselves and the boys from a society not run by women, but by the elite.

K. L. Kettle explains her intentions behind the novel in a letter to the reader at the end of the book. She quotes Lord Acton’s (1834-1902) proverb “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and questions if everyone is equal, does everyone have the ability to abuse the power they have? What may have seemed a good idea for humanity after the war, has become an oppressive state where no one is safe from those in power, not even the women. The Chancellor controls everyone, but Jude and the Hysterics are determined to take that power away from her.

Telling the story from Jude’s perspective highlights the faults in today’s societies. Many are unaware of the belittling behaviour happening around them, but when the roles are reversed, they are obvious. The Boy I Am is both thrilling and eye-opening, challenging gender roles and power dynamics in general. Those who have read books such as Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman are guaranteed to enjoy K. L. Kettle’s novel. (4/5 stars)

In Picardy’s Fields by Hannah Byron (2020)

Told from two perspectives, In Picardy’s Fields is the story of two brave young women during the First World War. Set mostly in France, the two women put gender stereotypes to one side to help the allied soldiers. Baroness Agnès de Saint-Aubin, a young surgeon from Paris, follows her teacher, Dr Alan Bell, to the Château de Dragoncourt on the front lines in Picardy to help her friends, Jacques and Elle de Dragoncourt care for the injured soldiers. Meanwhile, the youngest Dragoncourt child, Madeleine, is determined to escape from her finishing school in Switzerland to play her part in the war effort.

The author, Hannah Byron, accurately describes the devastation and dangers the characters faced both in Paris and at the front. Flowing seamlessly from scene to scene, Byron paints a dark picture of life in war-torn France at the same time as weaving a captivating story. Agnès is a reticent but strong woman, a stark contrast from the stuck-up Madeleine, used to getting her way. Yet both characters develop, forced to face horrifying circumstances. While Agnès becomes more confident, Madeleine uses her head-strong determination to secretly help the allied soldiers, even if it means putting herself in danger.

Whilst the war is the main feature of the novel, the author weaves themes of friendship and romance into the narrative. Although only two people narrate the story, In Picardy’s Fields shows the importance of working together and putting aside prejudices. The undercurrent of a developing romance brings a sense of hope that everything will end happily, yet the reader also knows nothing is safe during wartime. With each turn of the page, disaster could befall the characters, which makes for a gripping read.

Hannah Byron admits she is not a medic or war expert, yet she undertook extensive research to make In Picardy’s Fields as accurate as possible. She also confesses it is unlikely a female doctor went to the front lines, yet as a work of fiction, this does not matter, especially as Agnès’s profession is key to the story.

Authors have written novels about the World Wars ad nauseum to the point that writing an original story seems impossible, but Hannah Byron proves this assumption wrong. In Picardy’s Fields feels almost modern in some respects, despite being set in the 1910s, which adds a freshness to the story. These women, these characters are just like you and me, living in a time we could not possibly understand.

In Picardy’s Fields is a fantastic debut novel and Hannah Byron is a writer to keep an eye on. (4/5 stars)

The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel by Amanda Hope Haley (2021)

“Finding Noah’s ark … would be fun, but it wouldn’t be instructive… wouldn’t teach us about God or each other.” This is the view of Amanda Hope Haley in The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel, a book about the author’s travels in the land of the Bible. As a Harvard-trained biblical archaeologist, Haley spent time in Israel excavating areas of land where Jesus once walked. Her goal was not to unearth evidence of Jesus but to discover what life was like for the everyday person during Christ’s time on Earth.

Only the first couple of chapters mention items and foundations Haley found on her digs. After that, Haley describes her holiday in Israel with her mother, father and husband. She writes honestly, admitting to tourist errors she and her family made. She describes the places she visited as though speaking to a reader who plans to make the trip too. Yet, it is far from a holiday diary.

In each location Haley visited, she describes the history of the place, the biblical references, the antagonism between the Jews and Muslims, and its current state. She discovers why Jesus chose to preach in certain areas, locates towns and cities mentioned in the Bible, and notes how much places have changed since the 1st century.

It is interesting to learn how the three religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, both merge and alienate each other. Haley visited areas that banned Jews, yet as a Christian, she could enter. She paints Israel as a dangerous place but also highlights its beauty spots.

The title, The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel, is misleading because there is little physical digging mentioned. Haley only documents a few of her finds, and readers do not learn a great deal from them. On the other hand, Haley’s metaphorical dig into the history of Israel proves fruitful, enhanced from her first-hand experience.

Those looking for a book about archaeology may be disappointed with The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel but those wishing to learn more about the biblical land of Israel, past and present, will appreciate Haley’s knowledge. For Christian readers, this book will enhance their understanding of the Bible. (4/5 stars)

The Diamond Courier by Hannah Byron (2020)

Twenty years have passed since the end of Hannah Byron’s World War One novel In Picardy’s Fields. It is now 1939 and the Second World War is just beginning, but all seems peaceful in Kent, England where the narrator, Lili Hamilton, lives with her parents. War is the last thing on Lili’s mind as she contemplates how to get out of an arranged marriage and pursue a career in journalism.

The surname Hamilton may be familiar to those who have read the previous book but Lady Madeleine has left her war achievements far behind in The Diamond Courier where she plays the role of a prim and proper lady of the house. Her daughter, Liliane, feels trapped by her sensible parents’ expectations who thwart her plans to be a political journalist. Yet Lili, encouraged by the handsome leader of the British Communist Party Leo Oppenheim, perseveres, thus estranging herself from her family.

Lili soon learns living in London with Leo is not the life she desired, but feels it is too late to back out, especially after witnessing the treatment of Jews on the continent. The Jewish community need someone to bring their precious diamonds to safety before the Germans get their hands on them, and they believe Lili is the best person for the job. Unless, of course, she gets caught.

The Diamond Courier is much darker than Byron’s previous book. Naturally, war is not a happy topic, but the sense of hope felt in In Picardy’s Fields is missing in this novel. The story is divided into two sections, “Leo” and “After Leo”. The former is lengthier, drawn-out, and not always pleasant to read. The latter, on the other hand, is packed with danger, excitement and adventure.

For Lili, Communism is something new and exciting, which she desires to pursue. The party has clear views about the war, with which all members must agree. Yet, when faced with the horrors of war, Lili realises she must cast aside her political opinions. Whether Communist, Jew, sympathiser or resistance member, no one deserves the terrible treatment delivered by the Nazis.

Although this is a work of fiction, Byron remains faithful to the true nature of the Second World War. She does not gloss over any of the atrocities and, whilst the reader keeps their fingers and toes crossed that Lili will get her “happily ever after” ending, this cannot be possible for everyone in the novel.

Aiming to show the strength of women living in a “man’s world”, Byron has created female characters of whom to be proud and respected. Whilst the storyline may not always be pleasant, it is a gripping narrative that immerses the reader into Lili’s life and experiences. Hannah Byron has a way with words that keeps the reader engaged throughout. She is an author to keep an eye on. (4/5 stars)


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The Phoenix of America

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

All she wanted was to read, learn and write in peace without being dictated to by the misogynistic Mexican society. Juana Inés de la Cruz lived during Mexico’s colonial period when women were not allowed to attend university. Despite this, Juana educated herself through books and began writing her thoughts about love, feminism and religion. Yet, Juana could not avoid the advances of men who believed she should settle down and marry. She sought the safety of a nunnery, which allowed her to continue writing until her opinions upset (male) members of the clergy. This is the story of the first feminist in the Americas, the “Phoenix of America”, who rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism”.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born on 12th November 1648 in the village of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. Although she had older sisters, Juana was an illegitimate child because her parents never married. Her father, a Spanish captain called Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, abandoned the family shortly after Juana’s birth. Her mother was a Criolla woman called Isabel Ramírez. The Corillo people were Latin Americans with Spanish ancestors, which gave them more authority in Colonial Mexico, which belonged to the Spanish Empire. Juana’s father was Spanish, and her maternal grandparents were Spanish, thus making her a Criolla.

Hacienda Panoaya in Amecameca, Mexico is where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656

Despite the lack of care from her biological father, Juana grew up in relative comfort on her maternal grandfather’s Hacienda, the Spanish equivalent of an estate. Her favourite place was the Hacienda chapel, where Juana hid with books stolen from her grandfather’s library. Girls were forbidden to read for leisure, but this did not prevent Juana from learning to read and write. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to school and quickly learned how to read Latin. Allegedly, by the age of 5, Juana understood enough mathematics to write accounts, and at 8, wrote her first poem.

By her teens, Juana knew enough to teach other children Latin and could also understand Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century. It was unusual for those of Spanish descent to speak the native languages. The Spanish aimed to replace the Mexicano tongue with their Latin alphabet, so it was almost with defiance that Juana went out of her way to not only learn Nahuatl but compose poems in the language too.

Juana finished school at 16 but wished to continue her studies at university. Unfortunately, only men could receive higher education. Juana spoke to her mother about her aspirations, suggesting she could disguise herself as a man to attend the university in Mexico City. Despite her pleading, Juana’s mother refused to allow her daughter to attempt such a risky plan. Instead, Isabel sent Juana to the colonial viceroy’s court to work as a lady-in-waiting.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo

Under the guardianship of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor de Carreto (1616-73), Juana continued her studies in private. Yet, she could not keep her ambitions secret from her mistress, who informed the viceroy of Juana’s intelligence. Rather than reprimanding her, the viceroy Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo (1622-1715) took an interest in Juana’s education. Wishing to test Juana’s intellect, the viceroy arranged a meeting of several theologians, philosophers, and poets and invited them to question the young girl. The men quizzed Juana on many topics, including science and literature, and she managed to impress them with her answers. They also admired how Juana conducted herself, and she remained unphased by the difficult questions they threw at her.

News of the meeting spread throughout the viceregal court. No longer needing to hide her writing skills, Juana produced many poems and other writings that impressed all those who read them. Her literary accomplishments spread across the Kingdom of New Spain, which covered much of North America, northern parts of South America and several islands in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, female scholars and writers were an anomaly at the time, and rather than attract praise, Juana drew the attention of many suitors. After refusing many proposals of marriage, Juana felt desperate to escape from the domineering men. She wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail [her] freedom to study.” The only safe place she could find where she could continue her work was the Monastery of St. Joseph, so she became a nun.

Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana

Juana spent over a year with the Discalced Carmelite nuns as a postulant, then moved to the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns in 1669, preferring their more relaxed rules. The San Jerónimo Convent, which became Juana’s home for the rest of her life, was established in 1585 by Isabel de Barrios. Only four nuns lived in the building at first, but they soon grew in number, becoming one of the first convents of nuns of the Saint Jerome order. They based their role in life on the biblical scholar Saint Jerome (342-420), who translated most of the Bible into Latin. Known for his religious teachings, Jerome favoured women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. During his lifetime, Jerome knew many women who had taken a vow of virginity. He advised them on the clothing they should wear, how to conduct themselves in public, and what and how they should eat and drink.

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680)

Despite taking on the title “Sor”, the Spanish equivalent of sister, Sor Juana’s main aim was to focus on her literary pursuits. Whilst she followed the ways of the Hieronymite nuns, she spent all her spare time writing. Juana’s previous employers, the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons, helping her publish her work in colonial Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana also received support from the intellectual Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), who shared her religious beliefs as well as her passion for literature. Sigüenza, who claimed, “There is no pen that can rise to the eminence … of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” also encouraged Juana to explore scientific topics.

Sor Juana dedicated some of her works, particularly her poems, to her patrons. Those written for Vicereine Leonor de Carreto often featured the name Laura, a codename assigned by Juana. Another patron, Marchioness Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1721) was “Lysi”. Juana also wrote a comic play called Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires) for Doña Maria Luisa and her husband in celebration of the birthday of their first child, José.

The first performance of Los empeños de una casa took place on 4th October 1683 and contains three songs in praise of Doña María Luisa Manrique: “Divine Lysi, Let Pass“, “Beautiful María” and “Tender Beautiful Flower Bud”. The protagonist, Doña Ana of Arellano, resembles the marchioness, who Sor Juana held in high regard. The play features two couples who are in love but cannot be together. Mistaken identities cause the characters much distress and the audience much hilarity. By the end of the final scene, everyone pairs up with the right partner, except one man who remains single as a punishment for causing the initial deception. In terms of theme and drama, Los empeños de una casa is a prime example of Mexican baroque theatre.

Another play by Sor Juana premiered on 11th February 1689 to mark the inauguration of the viceroyalty Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza (1653-97). Sor Juana based Love is but a Labyrinth on the Greek mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, the king and founder of Athens, fights against the half-bull, half-human Minotaur to save the Cretan princess Ariadne. Although Theseus resembled the archetypal baroque hero, Sor Juana portrayed him as a humble man rather than proud.

Sor Juana also demonstrated Baroque literature in her poetry. Often full of philosophical ideas, Juana explored themes of the deceptiveness of appearances and female intelligence. In Hombres necios (Foolish Men), for example, the nun reveals the illogical behaviour of men towards women, treating them as objects of passion rather than human beings. In other poems, Juana wrote about the disillusionment of love and the pain it caused.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Arguably, Sor Juana’s best poem is Primero sueño (First Dream), 975-lines about the torturous quest of the soul for knowledge. As night falls and the body sleeps, the soul separates from the body and dreams. The soul contemplates the world and the existence of everything from flowers to human life, taking into account all the details and mysteries of each object. Yet, it fails to grasp the overwhelming abundance of the universe, and the sun rises once more, forcing the soul back into the body.

Critics interpreted Primero sueño as Sor Juana’s dreams or thoughts, which were highly philosophical compared to the average person. She explored themes of Neoplatonism, the idea that the world is divided into hierarchies, and Scholasticism, which combined Christian theology with classical philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter believed every living organism had more than one purpose or cause, which Aristotle split into ten categories: substance; quantity; quality; relatives; somewhere; sometime; being in a position; having; acting; and being acted upon. It is likely Sor Juana came across Aristotle’s Categories during her studies, either in her grandfather’s library or the San Jerónimo Convent.

Sor Juana’s writings, poems and plays covered many of her interests, such as religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. She also enjoyed music and studied the theory of instrumental tuning, on which she wrote a treatise. Sadly, this work is lost, but evidence suggests she wrote some of her poems, intending to set them to music.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Not all of Sor Juana’s writings were intended for public consumption. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (1637-99), the Bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira (1608-97). Titled Carta Atenagórica (Athenagorical Letter or a letter “worthy of Athena’s wisdom”), Juana expressed her dislike of the colonial system and her belief that religious doctrines are the product of human interpretation. She criticised Father António Vieira for his dramatic and philosophical representation of theological topics. Most importantly, Juana called the priest out for his anti-feminist attitude.

Alongside Sor Juana’s critique, the Bishop of Puebla published a letter under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which he admonished the nun for her opinions. Ironically, the bishop agreed with many of Sor Juana’s thoughts, but he ended the letter by saying Sor Juana should concentrate on religious rather than secular studies. Whilst the critique focused on a religious sermon, Sor Juana included colonialism and politics in her argument, which the bishop felt were inappropriate topics for a woman, let alone a nun.

Carta Atenagórica

“Sor Filotea expresses the admiration she feels for Sor Juana, but at the same time reproaches her for exercising her talent in profane subjects instead of devotional literature. Although Sister Filotea does not declare herself against the education of women, she does express her dissatisfaction with the lack of obedience that some already educated women might demonstrate. Finally, she recommends Sor Juana to follow the example of other mystical writers who dedicated themselves to theological literature, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila or San Gregorio Nacianceno.”

Sor Juana responded to Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla, in which she defended women’s rights to education and further study. Whilst she agreed that women should not neglect their duties, in her case her obedience to the Church and God, Juana pointed out that “One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper.” By this, she meant women could balance their education and everyday tasks. She jokingly followed this with the quip, “If Aristotle had cooked, much more would have been written.”

In her response, Sor Juana quoted the Spanish nun St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) as well as St Jerome and St Paul to back up her argument that “human arts and sciences” are necessary to understand sacred theology. She suggested if women were elected to positions of authority, they could educate other women, thus alleviating a male tutor’s fears of being in intimate settings with female students.

The nun’s controversial response caused a lot of concern amongst high-ranking (male) officials who criticised her “waywardness”. They were angry with Sor Juana for challenging the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, and for claiming her writing was as good as historical and biblical texts. As a result, the San Jerónimo Convent forbade Juana from reading and sold her collection of over 4,000 books and scientific instruments for charity. With no one on her side, Sor Juana relented and agreed to renew her vows. The convent also required Juana to undergo penance, but rather than signing the penitential documents with her name, she wrote: “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the worst of all women).

From 1693 onwards, Sor Juana focused solely on her religious orders. Never again did she pick up a pen to write or a book to read. Instead, Juana spent her time either in prayer or tending the sick, which led to fatal consequences. After nursing other nuns stricken during a plague, Sor Juana fell ill and passed away on 17th April 1695.

Before she was silenced, Sor Juana penned over 100 works, the majority of which went unpublished. Unfortunately, many were lost, and only a handful remain. Those that survived were compiled into an anthology. Several writers, including the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-98), have studied Juana’s life and writings, focusing on the difficulties women faced while trying to thrive in academic fields. Several scholars argue that Juana’s advocacy of intellectual authority is one of the first recorded instances of feminism. Some liken her to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54), although Juana was ahead of her time – a protofeminist.

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is almost an unknown entity in the non-Spanish speaking world, her work and reputation live on in Mexico, where she remains a national icon. Her former cloister is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which the Mexican government founded in 1979. During the renovations, builders discovered bones believed to belong to the nun. Due to a lack of ancestors, tests cannot be carried out on the bones to confirm the identity, but a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Juana found in the same place is enough evidence for some.

Feminist movements of the past and present have adopted Sor Juana as a symbol, along with Frida Kahlo. Some also link both women to LGBT movements, although Sor Juana never disclosed her sexuality. Evidence suggests Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage, but others argue she was an “Indigenous lesbian”. As part of her penance, Juana cut her hair, which some interpret as an attempt to masculinise her appearance, likening it to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana is also a religious symbol of Mexican identity, both in relation to Catholicism and Aztec beliefs. The latter is due to Juana’s choice to write some of her poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. She also wrote a play, El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), which features two Indigenous people named Occident and America, discussing their religious beliefs with two Spaniards, Religion and Zeal. Yet, her devotion to the Virgin Mary is evident in other work by Sor Juana, as is her decision to take her vows at the San Jerónimo Convent.

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana continued to inspire and influence people in Mexico and Spain in the 20th century. She appears as characters in literature, such as Yo-Yo Boing! by Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi (b.1953), which debates the greatest women poets, including Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). In 1962, Telesistema Mexicano broadcast a mini-series based on Sor Juana’s life; and in 1990, the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All) premiered, based on Octavio Paz’s book about the Mexican nun.

In the 21st century, Sor Juana’s fame finally made its way into English speaking countries. In 2004, Canadian author Paul Anderson published a novel based on Sor Juana’s life called Hunger’s Brides, which won the Alberta Book Award the following year. In 2007, Margaret Atwood (b.1939) published a book of poems, including Sor Juana Works in the Garden. In the music world, American composer John Adams (b.1947) used two of Sor Juana’s poems in the libretto for the oratorio-opera El Niño (2000). In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Helen Edmundson’s (b.1964) play The Heresy of Love as part of the Spanish Golden Age season. Finally, in 2017, Google honoured Sor Juana with a Google Doodle to mark her 366th birthday.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has yet to earn her place among the greatest women in the world outside of Spanish speaking countries, but her ideas are gradually making their way into contemporary works. Sometimes referred to as the “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”, Sor Juana is an inspiration to everyone who faces adversity, particularly in terms of human rights and education. Fortunately, life for women has drastically improved since Sor Juana’s time, but the necessary changes only began 100 years ago. Sor Juana was not afraid to point out the inequalities in her society. Yet, with no one to back her up, there was nothing she could do to change things during her lifetime. If Sor Juana could see the world today, she would be pleased with our progress.


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Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

“Innovative, accessible, and psychologically acute,” is how the Poetry Foundation describes the short stories of Katherine Mansfield. Highly regarded in the 20th century, although less known today, Mansfield experimented with modernism and brought new genres to the short story format. Writing about relationships, sexuality, the middle class, war, and everyday life, Mansfield was welcomed by members of the Bloomsbury Group in London. Sadly, her untimely death at the age of 34 prevented Mansfield from rising to the celebrity ranks of her friends, such as D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941).

Born into a wealthy family on 14th October 1888, Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp (Katherine was a pseudonym) grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, with her four siblings: two older sisters and a younger sister and brother. Her father, Sir Harold Beauchamp (1858-1938), was a successful businessman and, later in life, the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand. Katherine’s grandfather, Arthur Beauchamp (1827-1910), briefly stood as a Member of Parliament, and her cousin, Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941), became a well-known author and, briefly, conducted an affair with H. G. Wells (1866-1946).

Mansfield’s happy childhood memories made their way into several short stories, which she began writing in the late 1890s. Her first written works appeared in the magazine of Wellington Girls’ High School, which she attended until 13 years old. In 1900, Mansfield submitted a story to the children’s page of the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal, which they published the day before her 12th birthday. The tale, His Little Friend, described the relationship between a man and a young child he met on the road. The man, John, came from a wealthy background, whereas the little boy lived in poverty and had nothing to eat. John gave the child food from his garden, but it was not enough to save the boy from a fatal illness. The sad story revealed Mansfield’s awareness of her parent’s wealth and the poverty of the working-class members of society.

As a child and teenager, Mansfield kept a private journal, in which she jotted down personal experiences and story ideas. They reveal her infatuation with the son of her cello teacher, who did not reciprocate her attention. As she got older, she wrote about the mistreatment of the indigenous Māori people, who she believed were repressed by society. To counteract this, Mansfield portrayed the Māori in a positive light in her stories. On these occasions, she painted white people in a negative light.

Katherine and Ida

In 1903, Mansfield travelled to London with her sisters to attend Queen’s College, an independent school for girls aged 11 to 18. As well as academic studies, Mansfield focused on practising the cello, which she dreamed of playing professionally. Her aspirations soon changed after contributing to the college magazine, which she later edited. Many commented on Mansfield’s aptitude for writing, particularly her friend Ida Baker, who also loved to write.

After completing her schooling, Mansfield returned to New Zealand, where she concentrated on writing short stories. Many of these appeared in the Native Companion, for which she received payment, thus cementing her ambition to be a professional writer. She published these works under the name “K. Mansfield”, her first initial and middle name. 

Mansfield’s journals from 1906 to 1908 suggest she had many romantic relationships. Whilst the majority were male, Mansfield wrote about two women and her conflicting feelings towards them. Same-sex relationships were illegal, but Mansfield felt unable to repress her feelings. On one occasion, she wrote, “I want Maata—I want her as I have had her—terribly. This is unclean I know but true.” Maata Mahupuku (1890-1952) was a Māori woman who Mansfield knew from childhood. They became close after Mansfield’s return to New Zealand, but their relationship ended when Maata married in 1907. The other woman Mansfield wrote about was called Edith Kathleen Bendall, but there is very little information about her.

Growing wearing of life in New Zealand, Mansfield returned to London. Her father agreed to send her an annual allowance of £100, although she quickly took up a bohemian lifestyle. After moving from place to place, Mansfield decided to seek out the son of her cello teacher, Arnold Trowell. Just as before, Arnold did not return Mansfield’s advances, but his brother, Garnet, did. After a brief but passionate affair, Mansfield realised she was pregnant. Sadly, Garnet’s parents, who disapproved of the relationship, forced them to split up.

Not wishing to have a child out of wedlock, Mansfield hastily accepted a marriage proposal from George Bowden, a singing tutor. They married on 2nd March 1909, but regretting her decision, Mansfield fled shortly after the service. For a while, she found solace at the house of her friend Ida. When her mother, Annie Beauchamp, arrived in England after learning about the failed marriage, she blamed her daughter’s “lesbian relationship” with Ida. Angrily, Annie packed her pregnant daughter off to the spa town of Bad Wörishofen in Bavaria, Germany, and cut Mansfield from her will.

While in Bad Wörishofen, Mansfield suffered a miscarriage. After recuperating from the trauma, she returned to London in 1910. Mansfield’s experiences in Bavaria, which included learning of various European authors, prompted her to start writing again. Before her marriage to Bowden, Mansfield only published one poem and one story in London. Her new literary outlook resulted in a dozen short stories, which she submitted to The New Age, a socialist magazine owned by Alfred Richard Orage (1873-1934). Through Orage, Mansfield met the English writer Beatrice Hastings (1879-1943), with whom she developed a close, possibly romantic, relationship.

In 1911, Mansfield published a series of short stories about life in Germany under the title In A German Pension. Some of these tales reference her plight, but most satirically represent the habits of German people and the state of their unhealthy sewage system. On occasion, Mansfield mentioned the misrepresentation of women and how men exploit them.

Mansfield in 1912

For some time, Mansfield attempted to get her work published in the literary, arts, and critical review magazine Rhythm. The editor rejected her first attempt for being too “lightweight”, so she responded with a darker, Fauvist story titled The Woman at the Store. Set in the desolate New Zealand countryside, three friends stop to rest at a store owned by a mentally deranged woman. Whilst the woman attempts to woo the visitors, her neglected daughter reveals to them through her drawings that her mother killed her father.

In 1912, Mansfield joined Rhythm as an associate editor. She developed a close relationship with the main editor, John Middleton Murry (1889-1957), and they had an on and off affair, which inspired the characters Gudrun and Gerald in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love

Mansfield and John Middleton Murry

Rhythm magazine folded in 1913 after the publisher Charles Granville absconded, leaving them with many debts. Around this time, Mansfield experienced bouts of ill health. A friend persuaded Mansfield and Murry to rent a cottage in Cholesbury, Buckinghamshire, where Mansfield could recuperate. When her symptoms did not alleviate, they moved to Paris, hoping a change of setting would boost Mansfield’s health or at least inspire her to write again. Mansfield succeeded in writing a short story titled Something Childish But Very Natural, but it was not published until after her death.

In 1914, Mansfield and Murry briefly split up when Murry returned to London to declare bankruptcy. Remaining in France, Mansfield conducted an affair with the French author Francis Carco (1886-1958), which she narrated in her short story, An Indiscreet Journey. The tale describes the journey of an English woman on her way to meet her lover on the front line during the First World War, and the people she met along the way. 

Mansfield and Murry reunited in 1915, but Mansfield’s outlook on life changed after receiving the news of the death of her younger brother Leslie. While serving with the British Expeditionary Force in Ypres Salient, Belgium, Leslie suffered fatal wounds during a grenade training exercise. His death made Mansfield nostalgic about her childhood in New Zealand, which she reflected in her writing.

Katherine Mansfield

In 1917, Mansfield and Murry split once again. Mansfield purchased an apartment where she lived for a time with her friend Ida, who she referred to as “my wife”. Although no longer together, Murry visited Mansfield regularly and eventually won back her heart. During this time, Mansfield wrote prolifically, often on themes of marriage or lost love, and published many stories in The New Age Magazine.

Later that year, Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard (1880-1969) approached Mansfield to ask for a story. They needed writers for their new publishing company, Hogarth Press, and Mansfield happily presented them with her work in progress, Prelude. Woolf encouraged her to finish the story, which Mansfield based on her childhood, particularly the family’s move to Karori, a country suburb of Wellington, in 1893. Eventually published by Hogarth Press in 1918, Prelude encompasses themes of feminism, isolation, freedom, servility and familial relationships.

Katherine Mansfield Portrait

In December 1917, Mansfield received a diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis. For the rest of the winter and following spring, she stayed with the American artist Anne Estelle Rice (1877-1959) in Looe, Cornwall, hoping the sea air would aid recovery. While there, Rice painted Mansfield’s portrait, which the author requested in vivid red. The painting now lives in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, New Zealand.

Mansfield’s health continued to worsen, but she refused to enter a sanitorium. Instead, she moved to Bandol in southeastern France, where she resided in a quiet hotel. Whilst feeling isolated and depressed, Mansfield focused on her writing, producing short stories, such as Je ne parle pas français and Bliss. The latter became the title story of her collection Bliss and Other Stories, published in 1920.

In March 1919, Mansfield suffered a lung haemorrhage, which prompted Murry to urge her to marry him. As soon as her divorce papers came through from Bowden, the couple married in April in London. Murry’s financial situation had much improved, and he worked as the editor for the literary magazine The Athenaeum. Mansfield contributed over 100 book reviews to the magazine, and many well-known authors submitted short stories and poems, including T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), and Virginia Woolf. 

Mansfield travelled to San Remo, Italy, with Ida to avoid the harsh English winters. Murry joined them for Christmas but returned to London soon after. It became normal for Mansfield and Murry to live apart, which Mansfield used as the basis of her story The Man Without a Temperament. Swapping tuberculosis for heart disease, Mansfield wrote about a man who is scorned for leaving his poorly wife behind while he goes for a walk. 

In May 1921, Mansfield and Ida visited the Swiss bacteriologist Henri Spahlinge in Switzerland in search of tuberculosis treatment. In June, Murry joined her, and they rented a chalet in the canton of Valais. While undergoing treatment, Mansfield wrote rapidly, fearing she had little time left. The majority of her short stories from this period were published in The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922. This publication received mixed reviews from critics. Some argued it left them cold, and others claimed it to be a selection of her best works.

One story, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, is regarded as Mansfield’s finest work. It concerns the lives of two sisters, Josephine and Constantia, who are trying to come to terms with the death of their father. Mansfield emphasised that middle-class women brought up in old-fashioned ways do not know how to fend for themselves. Their father always made decisions about their lives, and without him, the sisters are lost. Readers have interpreted the story differently. For some, this is the sisters’ chance to live their life as they wish; for others, the sisters face perpetual misery, unable to live without their father. Although she did not make it clear in her writing, Mansfield favoured the latter outcome, saying to a friend: “All was meant, of course, to lead up to that last paragraph, when my two flowerless ones turned with that timid gesture, to the sun. ‘Perhaps now’. And after that, it seemed to me, they died as truly as Father was dead.”

In early 1922, Mansfield gave up on tuberculosis treatment in Switzerland and searched for alternative methods. A form of x-ray treatment in Paris caused her painful side effects and failed to improve her condition. Mansfield and Murray briefly returned to Switzerland, where Mansfield finished her final short story, The Canary. After this, they visited London before moving permanently to Fontainebleau in France. Here, Mansfield lived as a guest at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man under the care of Olgivanna Lazovitch Hinzenburg (1898-1985), the future wife of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

Katherine Mansfield’s Tombstone at Cimetiere d’Avon in Avon France

On 9th January 1923, after running up a flight of stairs, Katherine Mansfield suffered a fatal pulmonary haemorrhage. Her husband failed to pay for her funeral expenses, so she was buried in a pauper’s grave until he rectified the situation. After this, Mansfield was interred at Cimetiere d’Avon, Avon, near Fontainebleau.

Many of Mansfield’s stories remained unpublished at the time of her death. Gradually, Murry compiled them into volumes and printed them as The Dove’s Nest in 1923 and Something Childish in 1924. He also published a collection of her poems (The AloeNovels and Novelists), letters and journals.

Despite spending half her life in Europe, Mansfield is most known in her home country. About ten schools in New Zealand have a school house named in her honour. Her birthplace is preserved as the Katherine Mansfield House and Garden, which is open to the public. There is also an award called the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, which allows a writer from New Zealand to work in one of Mansfield’s former homes in France.

In the 1970s, the BBC serialised Katherine Mansfield’s life in a miniseries called A Picture of Katherine Mansfield, starring Vanessa Redgrave (b.1937). Apart from this, little is done to keep the memory of Katherine Mansfield alive in Britain. For such a prolific writer, she remains unknown to many. If Mansfield had lived longer than 34 years, she would easily have exceeded the number of works by some of today’s most loved writers. 


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The Tale of Beatrix Potter

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Self-portrait with Beatrix at Lingholm, Keswick, Rupert Potter with a decorative mount by Beatrix Potter, 1898

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London boasts the world’s largest collection of drawings, manuscripts, correspondence and photographs belonging to the highly successful children’s author Beatrix Potter. Best known for her creation of the much loved Peter Rabbit, Potter was also a natural scientist and conservationist and is credited with preserving much of the land that is now part of the Lake District National Park.

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on 28th July 1866 in Kensington, London. Her father, Rupert William Potter (1832-1914) was a barrister and her mother, Helen Leech (1839-1932) was the daughter of a wealthy cotton merchant and shipbuilder. Her cousins on her mother’s side are reportedly related to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (b.1982).

Beatrix and her brother Walter Bertram, who was born in 1872, spent much of their time playing in the countryside – Kensington was a semi-rural area at the time – and had many pets, including rabbits, mice, a hedgehog and some bats. Both of their parents were artistic and enjoyed exploring nature, particularly their father who was a keen photographer. Rupert Potter had been elected to the Photographic Society of London in 1869. Beatrix was one of her father’s favourite subjects to photograph and he also taught her how to use his heavy camera.

The Potter family became rather prosperous after inheriting money from the cotton trade. Rupert also invested in the stock market and was particularly wealthy by the 1890s. The family were able to afford governesses for their daughter that, whilst provided her with a good education, meant Beatrix was often kept away from her parents. Being educated at home also meant she did not have much social interaction with children her own age. As a result, she had a rather lonely childhood.

Beatrix relished the hours she spent with her brother in the countryside. The family annually visited Dalguise, a settlement in Perthshire, Scotland, which allowed the children the opportunity to roam freely. It was here that they acquired many of their pets, often secretly in paper bags until their schoolroom was full of a menagerie of animals.

Like their mother, who was a watercolourist, Beatrix and Bertram were interested in art as well as animals, often painting and drawing the animals they had smuggled into the house. When Bertram left for boarding school, Beatrix spent lonely days studying the paintings of John Constable (1776-1837), Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) and J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) at the Royal Academy of Arts and drawing the exhibits at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A).

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Still life drawing, 1879

Since she was eight, Beatrix had been filling sketchbooks with drawings of animals and plants. Noting her love of drawing, her parents enrolled her at the National Art Training School in 1878, which she attended until 1883, where she learnt about still life and perspective. Despite the training, Beatrix preferred to draw the plants and specimens that she had developed a preference for as a child. Insects were of particular interest to Beatrix and she taught herself to be an amateur entomologist. Using her brother’s microscope, she studied various creatures in detail and learnt how to prepare slides of the specimens she collected.

Beatrix had an eye for detail and was determined to be able to draw living creatures as accurately as possible. Scientific accuracy was key to her style of drawing, which she produced with a fine, dry brush. Her many hours studying insects under the microscope are evident in some of her famous illustrated storybooks.

Flowers were a typical subject for girls to study, therefore, it is no surprise that many of Beatrix’s sketchbooks contain drawings of plants and flowers. Her grandmother gave her a copy of John E. Sowerby’s British Wild Flowers, and she spent hours carefully copying the illustrations. She painstakingly tried to accurately depict flowers so that they could easily be identified from her drawings. The “careful botanical studies of my youth” helped Beatrix create realistic fantasy worlds for anthropomorphic characters in later life. Geraniums are abundant in The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other stories feature carnations, fuchsia, foxgloves, waterlilies, pansies, roses and snapdragons.

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Examples of fungi – Yellow Grisette (Amanita Crocea) and Scarlet Fly Cap (Amanita Muscaria, 1897

During her 20s, Beatrix also became interested in fungi, which she collected and drew as she did with insects and flowers. Her fascination, however, stretched further than making detailed drawings and led her to write a paper called On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae. Unfortunately, as a woman, Beatrix was unable to present the paper to official bodies and was rebuffed by William Turner Thuselton-Dyer (1843-1928), the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on account of her gender and amateur status. Fortunately, her uncle, Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe (1833-1915), as vice-chancellor of the University of London was able to present Beatrix’s paper to the Linnean Society in 1897 on her behalf. The Linnean Society of London was dedicated to the study of natural history and evolution, and, in 1997, issued a posthumous apology to Beatrix for the sexism she experienced in attempting to submit her research.

As a way to earn money in the 1890s, Beatrix used her drawing talents to produce Christmas and greeting cards. Many of these designs involved mice and rabbits, which attracted the attention of the greetings card company, Hildesheimer and Faulkner, who commissioned several drawings from her to illustrate verses by the author and lyricist Frederic Weatherly (1848-1929). Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96), a friend of her father, also made observations about Beatrix’s artistic talents.

Whenever Beatrix holidayed in Scotland, she drew cards or illustrated letters to send to her friends. She had remained in contact with one of her former governesses, Annie Carter Moore, and often sent drawings and cards to her children, particularly Noel who was often unwell. Since she wrote to Noel regularly, she ran out of things to tell him and began writing stories instead, for instance, a tale about “four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter”.

In 1900, Beatrix revised her story of the four rabbits and sent it to several publishing houses. Unfortunately, it was rejected but her friend Hardwicke Rawnsley (1815-1920), an Anglican priest in Westmorland, had great faith in her work and resubmitted it to the publishers. Frederick Warne & Co, who had previously dismissed Beatrix’s work, agreed to publish the “bunny book”, as it was then known. Originally, Beatrix’s illustrations were black and white but the company persuaded her to add colour. Thus, on 2nd October 1902, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, marking the beginning of a long relationship between Beatrix and the publishers.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by Beatrix’s pet rabbit Peter Piper, who she made up stories about to entertain the poorly Noel Moore. As time went on, she introduced other characters to the stories and her former governess proposed the suggestion that they would make great book characters. After revising the tale several times, the final story followed the mischievous Peter who sneaked into the garden of Mr McGregor to steal some of the gardener’s lettuces. Whilst Peter was snacking, Mr McGregor spotted him, so the young rabbit ran away but soon discovered he was hopelessly lost. Eventually, Peter found his way out of the garden and home to his mother, having learnt a valuable lesson.

When publication began in October 1902, 8,000 copies of the book were produced, however, by November, a further 12,000 were printed followed by another 8,200 in December. Beatrix Potter was astonished at the popularity of her story. “The public must be fond of rabbits!” It is now considered one of the most popular children’s stories of all time, having sold over 40 million copies worldwide.

The following year, Frederick Warne & Co published two more of Beatrix’s stories based on characters she had invented for Noel and his siblings. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, published in August 1903, tells the story of a naughty squirrel and his family who travelled to Owl Island to collect some nuts. Squirrel Nutkin taunted the resident Old Brown Owl with silly songs and riddles, however, Old Brown ignored him. Eventually, Old Brown was so fed up with the silly squirrel that he pounced upon Squirrel Nutkin who was lucky to survive, albeit with a little of his tail missing.

The Tailor of Gloucester, published in October 1903, involved a nasty cat called Simpkin who was sent out by the tailor to buy food and fabric. While the cat was away, the tailor discovered a family of mice that had been trapped under some teacups by Simkin. The tailor released them, much to the disgust of Simpkin on his return. Unfortunately, the tailor then fell ill and was unable to finish his work. Grateful for saving their lives, the mice returned during the night and finished the tailor’s work while he recovered in bed.

Beatrix Potter continued to publish two or three books a year up until the First World War. Although they were written less frequently, she continued to write after the war, amassing a total of 23 by 1930.

The year 1904 saw the publication of The Tale of Benjamin Bunny and The Tale of Two Bad Mice. The Tale of Benjamin Bunny is a sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit in which Peter returns to Mr McGregor’s garden with his cousin Benjamin to retrieve the clothes he left there when he made his hasty exit. The Tale of Two Bad Mice was inspired by the two mice Beatrix rescued from her cousin’s trap, who she named Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca. In the story, these naughty mice wrecked the interior of a little girl’s dollhouse. Feeling sorry for what they had done, Hunca Munca vowed to sweep the floor of the dollhouse every morning, whilst Tom Thumb put a sixpence in the doll’s stocking on Christmas Eve.

The much-loved Mrs Tiggy-Winkle appeared in 1905, as did The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. The Tail of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle was slightly different from Beatrix Potter’s previous books in that the main character was a human. Lucie, a young girl staying in the countryside, happened across a hedgehog dressed up as a washerwoman. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle did not speak but her eyes went “twinkle, twinkle” whilst she went about her housework. At the end of the story, some people think Lucie fell asleep and dreamt the whole thing, however, the narrator knows better. The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Panon the other hand, involves two anthropomorphic characters: a cat called Ribby and a dog called Duchess.

Jeremy Fisher is another well-known character, who appeared in 1906 along with Miss Moppet and a fierce bad rabbit. The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher is about a frog who lived in a “slippy-sloppy” house at the edge of a pond. Jeremy vowed that if he caught five minnows in the pond he would invite his friends for tea, however, fishing with a rod was much harder than he expected and he went home empty-handed. Nonetheless, he still invited his friends for tea: Sir Isaac Newton the newt and Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise.

The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit was written at the request of the publishers who wanted a truly bad rabbit, not like Peter who seemed too good despite his adventures. The unnamed bad rabbit attacked a good rabbit eating a carrot but was spotted by a hunter who mistook him for a bird. As a result, the fierce bad rabbit was shot at, causing him to lose his tail and whiskers. The Story of Miss Moppet is about another naughty character, a cat, who decided to tease a mouse, “which is not at all nice of Miss Moppet.” She tied the mouse in a handkerchief and threw it around, not realising that it had a hole through which the mouse could escape.

Miss Moppet may have been the sister of Tom Kitten and Mittens who appear in The Tale of Tom KittenTheir mother, Tabitha Twitchit, invited her friends to tea and instructed her children to make themselves presentable. Tom, however, had other ideas and proceeded to make mayhem. Tom Kitten was the only book published in 1907, however, two followed the next year.

the_tale_of_jemima_puddle-duck_coverThe Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck features two of Beatrix Potter’s well-known characters: Jemima, a domestic Aylesbury duck and Mr Tod, a fox. Jemima wanted somewhere safe to lay her eggs where the farmer’s wife would not take them and Mr Tod, dressed as a charming gentleman, suggested she use his shed. Of course, Mr Tod had an alternative motive and began to prepare a feast in which Jemima would be the main dish. Fortunately, other animals on the farm found out Mr Tod’s plans and rescued Jemima.

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding is a story that involves several characters. Tom Kitten was still up to his old tricks, pestering his mother Tabitha Twitchit and her Cousin Ribby. Samuel Whiskers and his wife Anna Maria, two rats that lived under the floorboards, decided to teach the kitten a lesson. After catching the young Tom, the rats attempted to bake Tom in a pudding. Fortunately, he was found before he could be eaten.

In 1909, Beatrix revisited her first story about Peter Rabbit and its sequel featuring Benjamin Bunny. Using elements from the original plot, Beatrix published The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, who were the children of Benjamin Bunny and his cousin Flopsy. The young bunnies, six in total, fell asleep while raiding a sack of vegetables and were captured by Mr McGregor. Fortunately, Thomasina Tittlemouse, a woodmouse, was able to free the bunnies before they could come to any harm.

Peter Rabbit and other popular characters also appear in The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, a story about a village shop. Ginger, a yellow tomcat, and Pickles, a terrier, were kind animals who let their customers purchase goods on unlimited credit, however, they soon found themselves penniless as a result. Forced to close the shop, it took a kind-hearted villager, Sally Henny-penny, to help them reopen and convince the customers to pay with real money.

Thomasina Tittlemouse, who was the heroine of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, received a story of her own in 1910. The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse is a story about housekeeping, which reflects Beatrix Potter’s own sense of tidiness and hatred of insect infestations. Mrs Tittlemouse’s friends and the occasional arachnid were forever messing up her home but she was always determined to make it neat and tidy again.

In 1911, Beatrix Potter attempted to please her American fans by writing The Tale of Timmy Tiptoewhich featured a squirrel called Timmy and a chipmunk called Chippy Hackee. Unfortunately, Beatrix had never seen chipmunks, which are indigenous to North America, except for in books, therefore, her illustrations received a lot of criticism. Fortunately, she was able to redeem herself the following year with a story about a previous character, The Tale of Mr Tod

The Tale of Pigling Bland was the last book published before the outbreak of the First World War. Aunt Pettitoes, an old sow, was fed up with her eight troublemaking children and decided to make them leave home. Pigling Bland and his brother Alexander decided to try their luck in the market but, due to Alexander’s bad behaviour, they found themselves in a lot of trouble.

After a break of four years, Beatrix Potter was back on the publishing scene with Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes, which opened with a rhyme about a mouse named Appley Dapply. “Appley Dapply has little sharp eyes, And Appley Dapply is so fond of pies!” The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse followed in 1918, which was loosely based on Aesop’s fable The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Beatrix Potter disappeared from the publishing scene for a few more years, reappearing in 1922 with another book of rhymes. Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes began with a rhyme about the titular rabbit but also included popular songs, such as Three Blind Mice.

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The Owl and the Pussy Cat

In 1930, Frederick Warne & Co published Beatrix’s final tale, The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. Despite it being her last story, it was one of the first Beatrix had written, having begun it in 1883. It was intended as a prequel to Edward Lear’s (1812-88) poem The Owl and the Pussycat, for which she later produced illustrations in 1897.

Beatrix was inspired by the “Piggy-wig” who lived in “the land where the Bong-Tree grows.” He had a “ring at the end of his nose”, which the Owl and the Pussycat used as their wedding ring. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson explained how, in Beatrix Potter’s imagination, the Piggy-wig came to be there. Little Pig Robinson was sent to the market by his aunts Miss Porcas and Miss Dorcas but was kidnapped by a sailor who planned to cook and feed the poor pig to his men. With the help of the ship’s cat, Little Pig Robinson managed to escape on a rowing boat and made his way to “the land where the Bong-Tree grows”, where he later met the Owl and the Pussycat.

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Hill Top Farm

Despite producing so many books, Beatrix Potter’s life was much more than writing and illustrating. In 1905, the son of the publishing company founder, Norman Dalziel Warne (1868-1905) proposed marriage, which she readily accepted despite the protestations of her family. Unfortunately, Norman passed away a month later from pernicious anaemia, leaving Beatrix devastated. To distract herself from grief, Beatrix focused on renovating Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey near Windermere, which she had bought with her income. Due to her duties in London – both to her parents and the publishing company – Beatrix could not live there permanently, so employed a tenant farmer, John Cannon.

During her visits to Hill Top Farm, Beatrix taught herself the techniques of fell farming and raising livestock, such as pigs, cows, chickens and sheep. Needing to protect the boundaries of her farm, Beatrix sought advice from the solicitors W.H. Heelis & Son, who advised her to purchase Castle Farm, a pasture adjacent to Hill Top Farm, which would provide her with a further 20 acres of land. By 1909, the purchase had been made and Beatrix had grown close to William Heelis, who later proposed marriage in 1912. Despite her family disapproving of the match because he was “only a country solicitor”, they married on 15th October 1913 in Kensington and moved into the newly renovated Castle Cottage on Castle Farm.

After marriage, Beatrix felt she could finally settle down and began to focus more on sheep farming than writing. In 1923, she purchased Troutbeck Park where she became an expert Herdwick sheep breeder. During this time, however, her eyesight began to deteriorate, which meant any stories she wrote had to be pieced together through illustrations she had done in the past. Beatrix and William remained childless throughout their thirty-year marriage but had many nieces who enjoyed her stories.

As well as farming, Beatrix Potter was a keen conservationist, inspired by her old friend Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley who had co-founded the National Trust (for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty). Beatrix made it her ambition to preserve the Lake District’s unique landscape, of which a quarter is now owned by the National Trust. She used her income to purchase and save properties and preserve farmland. Beatrix served as the de facto estate manager for the Trust for seven years until they could afford to purchase the land from her.

When Beatrix Potter passed away from complications due to pneumonia and heart disease on 22nd December 1943, she left nearly all her property to the National Trust. This included over 4000 acres of land, sixteen farms, many cottages and herds of cows and sheep. This has been, to date, the largest gift to the National Trust and enabled the Lake District to be preserved.

Beatrix also left many of her original illustrations and books to the National Trust, which are on display at the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, Cumbria – the same building that used to house her husband’s law office. The largest public collection of her drawings and letters, however, can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Beatrix Potter’s books are instantly recognised by her distinctive illustrations, however, she never thought of herself as much of an artist. “I can’t invent: I only copy.” Many of the scenes in her tales were based on places she had visited, such as South Devon, which featured in The Tale of Little Pig Robinson. She conceived the storyline while staying in Devon with her family in 1883. The tale takes place in a “pretty little town of Stymouth”, which Beatrix invented by mixing together scenes from the South Devon towns of Sidmouth and Teignmouth and Lyme Regis in Dorset.

Mr McGregor’s garden in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny was inspired by Fawe Park on the edge of Lake Derwentwater where the Potter’s stayed in 1903. Beatrix spent the holiday drawing the kitchen garden, greenhouse and potting shed, which she imagined a rabbit (or a certain Bunny) would find appealing.

After the sudden death of her fiance in 1905, Beatrix briefly found solace in Gwaynynog, Wales, with her two pet rabbits: Josey and Mopsie. Here she spent time relaxing and drawing in the “prettiest kind of garden, where bright old fashioned flowers grow amongst the currant bushes”, which became the setting for The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.

The 17th-century farmhouse at Hill Top became the setting of The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan and The Tale of Tom Kitten. The kitchen, which contained old fashioned chairs and an oak dresser, provided the backdrop for scenes in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.

Beatrix Potter’s tales and characters live on through reprints and branded merchandise. New generations have been introduced to characters, such as Peter Rabbit, through animated films, the latest released in 2018. When she died, Beatrix had some unfinished stories, which have now been published. The Sly Old Cat was written in 1906 but not published until 1971. Two years later, the unfinished Tale of Tuppeny was completed with illustrations by Marie Angel. Finally, Beatrix’s The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, whose publication was disrupted due to the outbreak of World War One, was published in 2016 with illustrations by Sir Quentin Blake (b.1932).

2016JG9836_jpg_dsBeatrix Potter never thought she would become famous. She was surprised with the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and thought it was only popular because people liked rabbits and not because she was a talented illustrator and storyteller. Whilst Beatrix Potter is a worldwide name due to her many books, her involvement with the National Trust and the preservation of the Lake District is not as widely known. At the time of her death, women had only recently been given the right to vote and it would be some time before women were credited with their important achievements. As a result, Beatrix’s generous donation to the National Trust was only known in small circles until more recently.

Next time you see the naughty Peter Rabbit, take a moment to not only appreciate the illustration but to remember the woman who gave him life.


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Staging Magic

Magic, or the art of appearing to perform supernatural feats, has been popular throughout the world since the 16th century. People have been and continue to be fascinated by illusions, entertained by rabbits appearing out of hats and mystified by seemingly impossible acts. This year (2019), the Senate House Library in London has staged an exhibition containing over 60 magical stories that focus on legerdemain (sleight-of-hand) and stage illusions from the past four centuries. Staging Magic: The Story Behind the Illusion, uses books, manuscripts and other items once belonging to the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature to piece together the history of one of the oldest performing arts in the world.

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Studio Portrait of Harry Price

Although not all made it into the exhibition, the Harry Price Library contains over 13,000 items dating from the 15th century until the present related to magic, witchcraft, parapsychology, the occult and other similar subjects. This huge collection was bequeathed to the University of London after the death of its owner, Harry Price (1881-1948), which has been useful for research into “rare, old and curious works on magic, witchcraft, legerdemain, charlatanism, and the occult sciences.”

Harry Price, born in London, was only a young boy when he first became fascinated with magic. At a travelling magic show, Price came across the Great Sequah, a man who he later claimed was “entirely responsible for shaping much of my life’s work”. As a young boy with a toothache, Price was fascinated when the Great Sequah “extracted” his tooth and proceeded to perform a series of other magical wonders. Naturally, Price demanded to know how the tricks were accomplished, for instance, how could an empty hat suddenly contain two doves?

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Modern Magic

Due to his obsessive need to know how the Great Sequah performed such feats, Price was eventually given a copy of Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic (1874) in an attempt to satisfy his curiosity. Instead, this book was the small spark that fueled his passion for magic, psychical phenomena and the occult, culminating in an enormous collection of books, some of which can be seen on display today.

Angelo John Lewis (1839-1919) was an English lawyer and professor who went on to become the leading writer about magic of his time under the moniker Professor Louis Hoffmann. Modern Magic, published in 1874, was the first ever encyclopedia of performance magic. The first edition of 2000 copies sold out in seven weeks due to its popularity. Eventually, 15 editions of the book were published by the end of the 19th century and, being the first in a tetralogy, was soon followed by the titles More Magic (1890), Later Magic (1903) and Latest Magic (1918).

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As well as reporting on past and present magicians, Modern Magic became a favourite amongst aspiring conjurors, including Price who became an expert in sleight-of-hand and joined the Magic Circle in 1922. The British organisation was founded in 1905 after 23 amateur magicians met at Pinoli’s Restaurant in Soho, and was dedicated to promoting and advancing the art of magic.

In order to join the Circle, applicants had to qualify through either a performance exam or a written thesis about a branch of magic. Only then could they be designated a Member of the Magic Circle (M.M.C.). Further distinctions were later formed, for instance, Member of The Inner Magic Circle (M.I.M.C), which was limited to a select 300 members.

Although the Magic Circle aimed to promote magic, members had to give their word that they would not disclose any of their magic secrets to the public. The society’s motto indocilis privata loqui, meaning “not apt to disclose secrets” (lit. “incapable [of] speaking [of] private [things]”) emphasises this rule.

Being a magician, however, was not Harry Price’s aim in life. Instead, he would become famous for investigating mediums, hauntings and other supernatural phenomena, exposing numerous fakeries. His most famous investigation took place at Borley Rectory, which was purportedly haunted, its first paranormal event taking place in 1863. Price and a team of 48 “official observers” spent long periods of time at the rectory reporting on any paranormal activity. During this time, a planchette séance took place and two spirits, one who claimed to have been murdered on the site, were supposedly contacted. Six years later, Price discovered the bones of a woman buried in the cellar of the old house. Unfortunately, after his death, Price was accused of faking the phenomena.

As well as collecting books, Harry Price was a keen cinematographer and often filmed his experiments in phenomena. In 1935, the National Film Library compiled a few of these demonstrations and investigations to create a short film. The Senate House Library plays three examples on a loop as part of the exhibition. The first, known as the Indian Rope trick, was a cause célèbre at the time, involving a boy climbing a rigid rope that had once been limp. The performer Karachi, real name Arthur Claude Darby, was filmed proving the rope’s flexibility before making it stand upright, allowing his son to climb it several feet into the air.

Another experiment involved walking on fire, which Kuda Bux (born Khudah Bukhsh, 1905-81) was filmed doing twice without burning his feet. The twelve-foot long pit of burning hot coals measured a temperature of 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius), which is hot enough to burn steel. Price thought the trick was performed by stepping on “safe spots”, however, a later suggestion claimed that because coal cools rapidly, it would be possible to walk over them quickly without being burnt. Regardless as to the veracity of this statement, when a spectator tried to walk across the coals shortly after Kuda Bux, he severely burnt his feet.

Also in the film, Price debunked a ritual found in a 15th century “High German Black Book.” The ritual claimed that by carefully following the instructions, a goat would be transformed into a man. In front of a crowd, Price performed this ritual but, of course, the goat remained a goat.

Despite the Magic Circle endeavouring to keep their secrets, magical revelations had already been shared with the world. The earliest book in Price’s collection is The Discoverie of Magic by Reginald Scot (1538-99), which was published in 1584. Scot, a member of the English Parliament, wrote the book in order to dismiss the myths about witchcraft. At the time, the majority of the population held beliefs about the supernatural, however, Scot wished to propose a more rational approach. In order to convince his readers, he included highly detailed sections on legerdemain and “the art of iuggling”, which he explained made things appear to be magic but were rather very clever illusions.

At the time, The Discoverie of Magic was a risky book to publish. England was still struggling with the effects of the Reformation, and there was a strong divide between Catholics and Protestants. Scot was a Reformed Protestant, also called Calvinism, and stated in his book that “it is neither a witch, nor devil, but glorious God that maketh the thunder…God maketh the blustering tempests and whirlwinds…”. Catholics held strong beliefs in the power of witches, and later, King James I (1566-1625) condemned the book out of fear that it would stop people from staging witch hunts – a purge that had once caused mass hysteria.

Nonetheless, Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft went on to inspire many people and countless new books were published over the coming centuries. The Whole Art of Legerdemain or Hocus Pocus in Perfection published in 1727, borrowed a lot of its content from Scot. The author, Henry Dean, described a number of different tricks, including magic lanterns, producing eggs and hens from an empty bag and turning water into wine. These were accompanied by woodcut illustrations that helped to further explain the tricks.

Broadsheet newspapers, which could be produced much more cheaply than books, began to appear as forms of mass entertainment. Topics, such as legerdemain, were suddenly available to a much wider audience. One example shown in the exhibition promised to give concise instructions on how to perform acts involving cups and balls, fire-eating and walking on hot iron bars.

Although Harry Price’s books imply that the popularity of magic and illusion began in England, the craze quickly spread across the continent. Price owned copies of books in German (Hocus Pocus: Die Taschenspielerkunst Leicht zu Lernen, 1730), Spanish (Engaños a Ojos Vistas y Diversion de Trabajos Mundanos Fundala en Lícitos Juegos de Manos, 1733), and French (Aracana Mirabilia, ou, Magie Blanche et Tours de Physique & d’Excamotage, 1824).

In the 19th century, magicians and conjurors began adopting Chinese, Japanese and Indian styles of dress and sets in order to make their performances look more mystical. Later, towards the end of the century, Western performance magic spread to Asia, was adapted slightly, and published in books such as Mo Shu Ta Kuan (The Devils Art From Top to Bottom) in 1916.

The fascination with magic tricks was still strong in the 20th century. During the First World War, Charles Folkard (1878-1963), a children’s book illustrator who had a brief career as a professional magician, published a couple of pamphlets under the pseudonym Draklof. Tricks for the Trenches and Wards (1915) was one of the titles, which Draklof wrote with the intention of providing some entertainment to British soldiers. The tricks involved objects that could be found while sitting in trenches, such as matches and coins, and could be easily mastered by those convalescing in hospitals.

As with any increasingly prevalent topic in popular culture, magic was not immune to satire. In 1722, the Anglo-Irish author who went on to write Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) mocked the illusions and language of magic by writing about impossible feats in his pamphlet The Wonder of all the Wonders that Ever the World Wonder’d at (1722). He warned his subscribers to not be taken in by the claims from magicians that would most probably end in disappointment.

By the mid-19th century, magic acts had become successful forms of theatrical entertainment. The period was considered to be magic’s golden age and one performer stood out amongst them all. Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-71) was a French magician who combined sleight-of-hand with technical innovations and is now regarded as the father of the modern style of conjuring.

Robert-Houdin became a magician almost by accident. Intending on becoming a watchmaker, he had ordered a couple of books on the topic, however, they got mixed up during delivery and Robert-Houdin – then Jean-Eugène Robert – ended up with a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Rather than returning them, Robert-Houdin curiously began reading and was soon hooked, practising the rudiments of magic at all hours of the day.

Most of what is known about Robert-Houdin’s life comes from his memoirs published in 1859, of which Harry Price owned a copy. Originally published in French as Confidences d’un Prestigitateur (1858), Robert-Houdin describes the many events in his life that led him to become one of the greatest magicians to date. He writes about his introduction to magic and illusion and some of his greatest achievements, for instance, convincing people in Algeria that French magic was superior to their local mystics. There is some suspicion, however, that many of his stories have been embellished or, perhaps, made up in parts.

Another of Robert-Houdin’s books that Price owned was his posthumously published Magie et Physique Amusante (1877), a sequel to Les Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie. Both books explain and offer explanations to some of the most famous stage illusions of the time. Not only did he include his own Magic Portfolio, but Robert-Houdin also revealed the secrets of other magicians, illusionists and spiritualists.

One of Robert-Houdin’s famous illusions was named The Ethereal Suspension in which he convinced his audience that the pungent liquid ether could cause a person to become as light as a balloon.

Robert-Houdin inspired many people, none more greatly than Erik Weisz (1874-1926), more commonly known as Harry Houdini. With a stage name inspired by his idol, the Hungarian-born American illusionist and stunt performer quickly became known for his incredible escape acts. He first became noticed after challenging police officers to keep him locked up, yet no matter how hard they tried, he always managed to escape. Eventually, his repertoire included being tied up with heavy chains, hanging from skyscrapers, placed in a straitjacket underwater and being buried alive – from all of which he escaped.

Like Harry Price, Houdini was a keen collector of books about magic. Many titles feature and were discussed in their letters of correspondence. In 1921, Houdini sent a portrait of himself to Price signed “To my friend Harry Price, best wishes, Houdini”.

In 1908, Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin after discovering that there was not enough evidence about the stories his idol had written about in his autobiography. Initially, Houdini was writing a book about the history of magic, however, it evolved into an exposé of his former hero’s potential dishonesty.

At the age of 52, Harry Houdini unexpectedly died from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured appendix. Despite being unwell, Houdini had continued performing, thus making his condition worse. As a result of his early death, many of his secrets about magic and escapology were taken to the grave. Nevertheless, the magician and author Walter B. Gibson (1897-1985) managed to, with the help of Houdini’s wife Wilhelmina “Bess” (1876-1943), decipher some of Houdini’s notebooks in order to put together a biography: Houdini’s Magic (1932).

Amongst Harry Price’s impressive collection are a number of books aimed at teaching the art of conjuring. The subject of magic was as popular for amateurs and hobbyists as it was professionals. Manuals for beginners were in great demand, hence the number of instruction books Price owned. These types of publications began as far back as 1722 with Henry Dean’s Hocus Pocus that offered to teach “any person that is desirous to learn any part of this art.” Ever since then, books of this genre have continued to flourish.

Aimed at children, The Art of Conjuring from the late 18th century, taught simple tricks involving eggs, cards and coins, whereas, Harlan Tarbell’s (1890-1960) System of Magic provided over 60 lessons for those who were more serious about learning the elements of magic. Lessons in Conjuring (1922) by David Devant (1868-1941) emphasised the importance of knowing how to perform a trick well. Although knowing how to do the trick was, of course, necessary, the success lay in how it was presented.

Ellis Stanyon’s (1870-1951) Conjuring for Amateurs (1897) and Alexander the Magician (Claude Alexander Conlin, 1880-1954)’s The Magic Show Book were written for true beginners, the latter being aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds. With books such as these, anyone could learn a trick or two to impress their friends and family. Stanyon maintained that practising magic as a hobby was “a wholesome and moral one”, but more importantly, these books aimed to amuse the public.

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With so many books on display, it is hard to take everything in at the Senate House Library’s exhibition. Fortunately, visitors are provided with a written guide that contains all the information about Harry Price’s collection, the history of magic and each individual item.

Seeing the books and items in display cabinets does not fully explain the story behind magic and illusions, however, there is so much history hidden within them.

The art of illusion has come on a long journey and, through one man’s book collecting hobby, its development is there for all to see.

Staging Magic is free and open to the public. Tickets are available on-site at the Library membership desk on the 4th floor of Senate House.

Previous exhibitions include Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

“There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words” – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

On 26th June 1997, J. K. Rowling published her first book in what turned out to be a highly successful, worldwide phenomenon. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was only the beginning of an extraordinary journey that has affected the hearts of millions of people and changed children’s literature forever. With seven books in the original series, it has become a multimedia marvel.

In honour of the 20th anniversary, a magical exhibition has been put together, combining a vast amount of detail from the Harry Potter series, with examples of “magic” from the real world.

What better place to host the exhibition than the British Library with its enormous collection of rare and ancient books. Being located a stone’s throw away from King’s Cross Station, which fans will know is where the famous Hogwarts Express sets off from, is an added bonus.

Centred around the Hogwarts curriculum, the exhibition takes a look at the various forms of magic that have been experimented with throughout history, evidenced with examples of literature and ancient objects.

Expertly designed to look like settings from the Harry Potter world, references to scenes from the books are interspersed with the collection, creating a magical and exciting atmosphere. Even before entering, the dangling winged keys above the heads of those queuing for their timed entry, hint of the adventure inside.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic also contains a history of the franchise with details provided by J. K. Rowling to explain the development of her ideas. From a shaky beginning to the most popular fantasy fiction, Harry Potter has been on a remarkable journey.

It is hard to imagine a world without Harry Potter, particularly for people, like myself, who were only six years old in 1997, however, J. K. Rowling initially struggled to find a publisher. Several had already rejected the manuscript before Rowling sent it to Bloomsbury, yet, even at this stage, it was not certain whether the staff would agree to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It took the strong opinion of one young person to convince the team to approve the proposal.

The founder of Bloomsbury, Nigel Newton, took the manuscript home and gave it to his daughter Alice. Who better to judge the merits of a children’s book than an eight-year-old reader? Her response set the publication in progress:

“The excitement in this book made me feel warm inside. I think it is possibly one of the best books an 8/9 year old could read!” – Alice Newton, aged eight.

The original print run was small – 500 copies – suggesting the publishers had little hope that Harry Potter would be a success. However, the interest of a film director helped to seal its fate. Steve Kloves came across the title within a dozen synopses for potential films. Intrigued by the logline, “A young boy goes to wizard’s school,” he sought out the book and was hooked immediately.

The film introduced many more people to the Harry Potter books and they were soon flying off the shelves. Today, over 450 million copies have been sold and the story has been translated into 80 different languages. It has been the most successful venture in children’s publishing.

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The two parts are designed to be watched in one day or on two consecutive nights

Success continued with the publication of companion books, such as The Tales of Beedle the Bard in 2008, and Fantastic Beasts in 2001. The latter inspired the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), and there has also been a stage production titled Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016).

 

Displayed throughout the exhibition are examples of J. K. Rowling’s preliminary thoughts and work. These include typewritten first drafts, handwritten notes, sketches of Hogwarts and characters, and detailed plans.

More recently, the first three books in the Harry Potter series have been republished in a large, hardback, illustrated format. Jim Kay, the illustrator, has produced amazing drawings of the characters and settings. These are not influenced by the films starring Daniel Radcliffe, making them unique and original. Many of these are also featured in the exhibition.

Potions

The first subject in the Hogwarts curriculum to appear on the journey around the exhibition is Potions, taught for the majority of Harry’s time at the school by the nefarious Professor Snape. People have been making potions for hundreds of years, believing they can cure illnesses and other impossible things. This is evidenced by Jacob Meydenbach’s book Ortus Sanitatis, owned by the British Library, which contains information and recipes for hundreds of potions.

Visitors have the opportunity to try their hand at creating a couple of the potions that feature in the Harry Potter books. An interactive screen instructs the player to insert various ingredients into a digital cauldron. Get it right and a bottled potion appears, however, making a mistake may result in an explosion!

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Ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn’s head

In the 18th century, apothecaries sold potions or medicines made from natural ingredients for a variety of ailments. These establishments were recognised by wooden and ivory signs in the shape of a unicorn. The horn, however, was the tusk of a narwhal rather than a real unicorn horn, which was, obviously, harder to come by!

Although the Harry Potter series is a fictional creation, J. K. Rowling based a lot on truth and history. It is impressive to note the extent to which she researched, even some of the things she invented are based on existing ideas. The philosopher’s stone referenced in the title of the first book was believed to make its owner immortal. In the 15th century, George Ripley (1415-90), an alchemist, produced an illustrated scroll with instructions about how to make a philosopher’s stone. The manuscript, which has rarely been unrolled due to its size, sits in an extremely long display case for everyone to see.

The characters in Harry Potter are invented by the author, however, one name that features on a required book for the potions class is Nicolas Flamel, who did exist. A replica of his 15th-century tombstone sits to one side of the Ripley Scroll.

Herbology

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Culpeper’s English physician and complete herbal…1789

A double archway leads from the Potions section to the Herbology area. This was a core subject at Hogwarts but was also taught in the real world. Herbology is essentially the study of plants and their uses. For years, people relied on this knowledge to create ointments and medicines, even potions. The British Library has a copy of a book called Culpeper’s English Physician; and Complete Herbal which was first published in 1652. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) was an unlicensed apothecary who wanted herbal knowledge available to everyone, hence why it was written in English rather than the traditional Latin. J.K. Rowling often consulted this book when researching for Harry Potter.

Jim Kay’s illustrations demonstrate the fictional plants that feature in the novels, but, as always, these are also based on real life. One plant is the mandrake, which does exist in real life, however, the Harry Potter ones have magical qualities; for example, they scream. There are also illustrations to compare the traditional idea of gnomes (red hat, rosy cheeks) with J. K. Rowling’s version (ugly and looks like a potato).

Charms

The curators of the Harry Potter exhibition have gone to great lengths to bring the magic of Hogwarts to life, utilising lighting effects and digital technology. To exemplify the power of charms, a flying snitch (a golden ball with wings) is seen flying across the walls. A disembodied voice chants magic spells such as “Wingardium Leviosa” and “Alohomora” which young wizards are taught at school.

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Liber Medicinalis

Magic words have also been used in real life, although not in quite the same way. Magicians and children’s entertainers still shout “Open Sesame” or “Abracadabra” when reaching the pinnacle of their act, however, “Abracadabra” dates back to the 13th century. The word was believed to have healing powers and patients were instructed to write out the word on eleven lines, leaving out one character each time, to create a triangular shape, which would then be cut out and worn around the neck like an amulet.

In the Harry Potter books, charms are more than waving a magic wand and saying a strange word. Objects can be charmed to move (e.g. the golden snitch and broomsticks), disappear, turn into something else, and so forth. In an empty glass cabinet supposedly hangs Harry’s invisibility cloak, a cloak that has been charmed to make the wearer disappear from sight. However, being an invisibility cloak, no one can see it!

Astronomy

Entering the Astronomy section is like stepping into a pretend observatory. Tiny white lights decorate the dark ceiling making it look like the night sky. Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences in existence, and although it does not involve magic, it is still an important subject in the wizarding world. Scientists have studied the night sky, determining the position of planets and stars, and discovering the secrets of the universe.

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A section of the Dunhuang Star Chart

Evidence of astronomy dates back thousands of years, however, the oldest tangible evidence to be discovered so far is a manuscript produced in China around 700AD. The Dunhuang star chart is two metres long and contains a record of the movements of the stars visible in the Northern Hemisphere. Civilisations used to base important decisions on the position of stars, however, this crosses over into astrology.

When writing Harry Potter, Rowling looked to the starry skies for names for many of her characters. An interactive screen allows visitors to locate certain stars in the sky that have been utilised in the series. Examples are Andromeda Tonks, Bellatrix Lestrange and Remus Lupin.

Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, is another character named after the night sky. Sirius is the brightest star that can be seen from Earth and lies within the constellation Canis Major. The star is also known as the Dog Star, which makes it an apt name for the Animagus; Sirius Black can turn himself into a large black dog.

Divination

Divination is the art of predicting the future and is often ridiculed by those who do not believe in this elusive craft; it is no different with the staff and students at Hogwarts. The teacher, Professor Sybill Trelawney, is often mocked and believed to be a fake, however, some of her prophecies prove to not only be true but are vital to the storyline.

Similarly to the methods taught at Hogwarts, predicting the future can be attempted in many different ways. The books and items displayed by the British Library give examples of techniques used across the world. Usually, when picturing a fortune teller, they are seated at a round table with a crystal ball on top. A couple of these are exhibited, along with a fake, digitally powered version that everyone is welcome to play with.

Another common technique of fortune tellers is tarot card reading or cartomancy. The exhibition contains the oldest version of the pack of 52 cards that were produced by a so-called specialist, John Lenthall (1683-1762), in the 18th century. Each card has a different meaning and can predict events in an individual’s future. An interactive table allows people to place their hands in position and receive their own fortune telling.

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John Lenthall’s Fortune-Telling Cards, English

Defence Against the Dark Arts

A compulsory subject at Hogwarts, Defence Against the Dark Arts teaches students how to defend themselves against dark creatures and curses. This plays a vital role in Harry’s story as he fights the Dark Lord as well as other evil characters. However, there is a rumour that the position as teacher of Defence Against the Dark Arts is cursed, especially as they never last longer than a year.

Throughout history, societies have believed in and attempted to protect themselves from evil beings. Sometimes talismans or amulets are worn to protect individuals from harm. Interestingly, the symbol of a snake has also been used for defence purposes, but, on the other hand, some cultures view them as evil.

In the Harry Potter series, snakes are mostly associated with evil. Voldemort, the Dark Lord, has a pet snake who measures at least twelve foot long. For Voldemort, his pet is a form of protection, but for Harry, it represents evil.

Care of Magical Creatures

The final subject is Care of Magical Creatures that is initially taught by the half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. Students are taught about a whole range of creatures: what they eat, their natural habitats, which are safe and which are dangerous, and so on. Rowling has used pre-existing creatures from mythology and folklore but adapted them to fit in with the storyline. Some of these include unicorns, dragons, phoenixes and hippogriffs.

Although, nowadays, magical creatures are believed to be a myth, plenty of books have been published on the topic. These books are known as bestiaries and contain detailed information about each curious beast.

Other magical creatures that heavily feature in Harry Potter are ghosts. The Hogwarts castle is full of them and they often interact with the students. Another are owls, which may not register as magical creatures in the real world. In J. K. Rowling’s fictional world, the witches and wizards do not use postmen, instead, they entrust their letters and parcels to an owl to deliver them straight to the recipient.

Jim Kay has produced some wonderful illustrations of the many creatures in the books, some of which can be seen in this section of the exhibition.

Here the exhibition comes to an end. Not only does everyone know more about the famous Wizarding World, they have a greater knowledge about magic in general. Combining Harry Potter and real-life examples of witchcraft and wizardry make the journey through the exhibition extra interesting and inciteful. It is truly eye-opening to discover the connections between the fictional books and “real” world.

J. K. Rowling is a truly admirable author who deserves all the recognition she has received. Harry Potter will never be forgotten and has a promising future with spin-offs, illustrated versions of books, and new forms of merchandise constantly in production.

It is hard to fault Harry Potter: A History of Magic, the British Library has done an exceptional job at sourcing and curating the exhibition. It is set out in a logical format and is easy to navigate. The only downside, if it can be called one, is that it is so popular! Tickets sell out in advance every day, meaning the exhibition gets very crowded. In an attempt to control the crowds, the Library issues timed tickets with a half hour window in which to enter. However, the eager Harry Potter fans turn up at the beginning of their slot resulting in a multitude of people entering at once. The first few sections are particularly difficult to manoeuvre around as everyone fights to see the artworks, books and information.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open until 28th February, so there is still time to go and see the sensational exhibition – if there are any tickets left! Tickets can only be purchased online and cost £16 (£8 for under 17s). There is also an exhibition shop full of Harry Potter merchandise. Unfortunately, this is a bit pricey, but serious fans will be willing to pay the price.

Displays inspired by the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition are open in 20 public libraries across the UK as part of the Living Knowledge Network.

Shattered World, New Beginnings

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Copyright © 2017 Senate House Library, University of London

Tuesday 31st October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther sent his Ninety-Five Theses disputing the power of indulgences to the archbishop of Mainz, Germany. This sparked a movement that would alter the world for ever and end the control the Catholic Church held over Europe: the Protestant Reformation. To commemorate the dawn of the reordering of the Christian religion, many establishments throughout the country (National Portrait Gallery, British Museum) are holding exhibitions, events, and workshops to bring to light the significant impact the movement had in England and the way it shaped the lives we lead today. The Senate House Library is one of these many institutions hosting an informative exhibition.

Founded in 1836, the Senate House Library is the central library of the University of London and one of the largest academic research communities in the country. Usually holding two free exhibitions per year, Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings is the second public display of 2017 and will run until the middle of December. Making the most of their two million book collection, the Senate House Library has pulled written material and medieval manuscripts from their vast collections, as well as borrowing or purchasing from the archives of other libraries, to put together a display to illustrate the crucial changes in England during the 16th century.

Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.

– Richard Hooker (1554-1600), Church of England Priest

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Vom christlichen Abschied aus diesem tödlichen Leben des ehrwirdigen Herrn D. Martini Luther Bericht – Justus Jonas, 1546

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German monk and professor of moral theology at the University of Halle-Wittenburg. Through his own preaching, Luther challenged the Catholic sentiment that freedom from God’s punishment for sins could be purchased – occasionally with monetary donations –  with the idea that salvation and eternal life are given as a gift from God for the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ. His academic debate criticising the ecclesiastical corruption was written up in his Ninety-Five Theses (1517) and sent to Albert of Brandenburg (1490-1545), the Archbishop of Mainz on 31st October 1517. Allegedly, Luther may have also have posted the Theses on the door of All Saints Church, Wittenberg as well as other churches in the area.

Martin Luther refused to abandon his strong views and was eventually excommunicated by Pope Leo X and condemned as an outlaw by Emperor Charles V. However, with the recent mechanisation of printing technology, the Ninety-Five Theses was already spreading rapidly throughout Europe.

At this time, England was under the rule of the second Tudor monarch, the notorious Henry VIII (1491-1547). Initially, Henry debunked Martin Luther’s ideas by writing, or at least commissioning, Assertio Septem Sacramentum (In Defence of the Seven Sacraments) (1521)This earned Henry the title of Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) from the pope, however, he was soon to fall from the pope’s good graces.

For centuries, England had been a Catholic country with most aspects of life revolving around the Church. Although Henry was king, the Pope held higher power, therefore when Henry wished to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), in order to marry Anne Boleyn (1501-36), permission was denied. Enraged, Henry took matters into his own hands, utilizing Luther’s theory to overthrow authority and establishing himself as the Head of the Church of England in 1534.

Martin Luther, however, remained persona non grata after calling Henry a pig and a drunkard in retaliation to the king’s opinion that Luther was a malicious, evil and impudent monster. Although Protestantism entered England for selfish reasons, it soon spread quickly as the population’s literacy increased allowing people to read texts and form their own opinions. Soon, art and literature were adopting secular themes, theatres became popular, and religion took a back seat.

The manuscripts flew about like butterflies.

– John Aubrey (1626-1697), English antiquary

 

The exhibition at the Senate House Library is divided into four “galleries” (“display cases” would be a better term): Culture, Society, Communications and New World Order. The exhibition in general focuses on the English Reformation rather than the Protestant Reformation as a whole, therefore, each glass cabinet is filled with books and pamphlets relevant to the events and changes in London and the rest of England.

It is fortunate that enough medieval and historical texts remain in order to put together a sufficient display. Not only are they extremely old, many books were destroyed in an attempt to abolish Catholic ideas. Placing Catholic texts alongside Protestant publications emphasises the dramatic impact reform wrought from both a religious point of view and a cultural one.

Previously, English culture had been determined by the church. Expressions of religious ideas were communicated through literature, paintings, and music, the latter often being liturgy accompanied by music. Church services were conducted and the Bible was written in Latin regardless of the congregation’s comprehension. Martin Luther, and thus Protestants, believed that services should be in a language that all can understand, therefore, in England, preachers were ordered to present their sermons in English. Likewise, the Bible and other religious texts were converted to English and made available to the general public. Many translations of the Bible were produced, culminating in 1611 with the King James Version, which, to this day, remains the best selling Bible throughout the world.

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Bassus of the Whole Psalmes in Foure Partes

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and Edward VI, helped to spread the scriptures in English with the development of The Book of Common Prayer (1549).

Thomas Stenhold and John Hopkins revolutionised religious music by rewriting the Book of Psalms in paraphrased English and fitting the vernacular to short metrical stanzas. This allowed for communal singing where lyrics could easily be heard and understood, unlike the Latin versions intoned by a priest.

With printing presses on the rise providing cheaper and faster ways of producing books and pamphlets, it was impossible to prevent the widespread of these new forms of religious texts. However, it was not only the new Protestant Church that made use of this new development.

New authors and playwrights came to light as their novels and literature rapidly spewed out of printing houses. With religion losing its strong grip on society, writers were quick to explore new themes and secular ideas. This period of time brought forth names who have now been immortalised, such as Edmund Spenser (1552-99), The Faerie Queen, 1590), Nicholas Udall (1504-56), John Bale (1495-1563), and, of course, William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

Art was also to be impacted heavily by the English Reformation. European painters, such as Hans Holbein the Younger (1479-1543), arrived in England bringing with them new ideas, which lead to the English Renaissance. This opened up a range of new directions for young artists to explore including the ancient classics, history painting, genre painting, still life, and portraiture. No longer needing to paint for religious purposes, artists could now produce “art for art’s sake”.

To destroy all without consideration, is and will be unto England forever, a most horrible infamy among the grave seniors of other nations.

– John Bale (1495-1563), Bishop of Ossory

Despite society entertaining secular ideas, London was a very dangerous place to be open about personal beliefs, and opinions. Not everyone was happy to accept Protestantism and many Catholics attacked and ridiculed the new form of worship. However, with Henry VIII being head of the Church of England, he tried to dictate everyone’s beliefs, imprisoning and beheading many who refused to comply. People had to make a difficult decision: follow God or follow the King? Antagonism between the two Christian denominations lasted for many years – the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a botched attempt by Catholics to overthrow the Protestant king.

Whilst it may have been easy in the past for Rome to control the Catholic faith with the use of incomprehensible Latin and strict rules about what was right and wrong, the introduction of an alternative threw everything into disarray. As more people became educated and religious texts distributed in English, individuals were able to form their own opinions and question everything they had previously been taught.

Determined to abolish Catholicism, Henry VIII ordered the closure of monasteries and destruction of libraries in an attempt to eradicate any Catholic text. It is for this reason that the items at the Senate House Library are particularly rare because very few survived. Visitors are lucky to be able to view a copy of the Book of Hours, an early 15th-century devotional for Roman Catholic use.

Whilst monasteries were shut down, most of the buildings remained standing and were quickly converted into Anglican churches or became theatres and places of entertainment. Westminster Abbey became a cathedral under Henry’s instructions, later becoming a Collegiate Church during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Although this exhibition is focused on the English Reformation, it is important to understand that other European countries were having their own difficulties as a result of Martin Luther’s Theses. In 1562, France descended into the War of Religion, a civil conflict that was primarily fought between the Roman Catholics and the Reformed Protestants or Huguenots. Lasting 36 years, this war is the second deadliest religious conflict recorded in history with over 3,000,000 fatalities.

England, with its newly established Protestant Church, became a safe haven for many Huguenot émigres who escaped over the channel. It is estimated that over the years 50,000 Huguenots found refuge in England – a significant number that resulted in even more changes to English society. As London’s population increased due to the addition of refugees, European trades and skills were introduced to the English people. The French brought new talents such as silk weaving, watchmaking, and silversmith, making it far easier for England to obtain objects that previously had to be shipped from abroad.

Preachers may be silenced or banished when books may be at hand.

– Richard Baxter (1615-1691), English Puritan church leader

It is generally believed that the introduction of the printing press in 1476 led to the increase in literacy and development of the written English language, however, they never became popular until the Reformation. It was not until people wanted to spread God’s word in a language everyone could understand that the printing press became a vital invention. Thousands of pamphlets, as well as books, were printed and distributed, including those from anonymous sources who wished to get their opinion across. The curator at the Senate House Library likens this to today’s impact of social media.

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A Nunnes Prophesie, 1615

An example of an anonymous pamphlet displayed in the exhibition is A Nunnes Prophesie, a form of propaganda. It claims that the pope had become the ruler of the world through evil means, but his enemies, having become as strong as unicorns, would destroy him with God’s help.

 

 

 

Look to your conscience and remember that the theatre of the world is wider than the realm of England.

– Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

The guide book produced to accompany the exhibition in the library jokingly says that taking England out of Catholic Europe was the country’s first “Brexit”. Many enemies were formed with countries that had previously been friendly, in particular, Spain. At the beginning of the Tudor reign, Spain and England had a close relationship, but by the time Elizabeth I became queen, things were quite the opposite. In 1588, the Spanish Armada set sail with the intention of making England Catholic again, however, poor planning on the Spanish behalf proved the attempt futile.

On the other hand, countries further abroad developed positive ties with Protestant England. By the end of the 17th-century, the East India Trading Company had been set up and new products were constantly being brought in from Asia. This introduction of foreign trade, similarly to the Huguenots, completely changed English society and culture. Without this development, life would be very different today.

The Senate House Library has done what it can with its limited resources to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Although it is understandable that any tangible evidence of the Reformation is hard to come by, or even nonexistent, the mini display does come across as a little sad and disappointing. In order to learn about the Reformation, it is more beneficial to purchase (or download for free) the exhibition guide book, which provides visuals as well as information of every item on display.

Nonetheless, thanks to the Senate House Library, people of today’s world have the opportunity to learn about the civil conflicts of the past which have greatly impacted the way we currently live. Primarily about religion, the English Reformation altered the way people think, encouraged education, and introduced many new art forms and ideas. Although a worrying and dangerous time for the people who lived through it, they deserve recognition and gratitude.

Reformation runs from 26 June to 15 December 2017. Free entry to all, but please register before hand.

 

Picasso: Coloured In

 

Toward the end of 2016, the National Portrait Gallery in London held an exhibition on the works of the master of modern art, Pablo Picasso. Displaying a lifetime of artwork, the gallery provided a concise biography of Picasso’s life, providing the opportunity to learn about the artist as well as his paintings. The gift shop at the exit of the exhibition sold mementoes of the display, including a colouring book containing 20 black and white versions of some of the major works of Picasso during the 20th Century.

Pablo Picasso: To Colour In was published in April 2016 with the intention of using the popular fad to educate readers/colouring book enthusiasts about the techniques and secrets of the great master. Each work included in the book has a brief paragraph explaining what it is (in case you cannot tell) and a few details about Picasso’s intentions or the events happening in his life at the time.

Although Pablo Ruiz Picasso was Spanish, he lived in France for the majority of his adult life. As a child, he lived in various areas of Spain beginning with Malaga where he was born on 25th October 1881. He lived here with his parents and two sisters, Dolores and Concepción. However, Concepción, or Conchita as she was known, died very young, a tragedy that had a great impact of Picasso.

Picasso’s father, a museum curator and teacher of fine art, encouraged his son to begin painting. Picasso received lessons in technique and academic style, completing his first painting, The Picador, in 1889, at a mere eight years old. Later, after moving to North-Western Spain, Picasso completed his initial training at La Lonja Academy in Barcelona.

Picasso attempted further education in Madrid at the San Fernando Royal Academy – a competitive college to get into – however, was forced to return to Barcelona after a severe bought of scarlet fever. This did not prevent Picasso from continuing his artistic journey and he was soon producing compositions that impressed local academies.

His surname, Picasso, evokes images of abstract art, however, there was a steady development of style and technique until he reached the more obscure results. Picasso’s colour palette was key in his varying phases, the first being predominately blue. What triggered this period was the sudden loss of a close friend to suicide in 1901. Devastated, Picasso painted a death portrait, which was spread through with blue tones. During this “blue period”, Picasso painted many melancholy subjects such as beggars and hospital patients. It was during this time that Picasso began to branch out into other forms of artistic expression, for example, sculpture.

By 1904, Picasso had moved and settled in Montmartre, France, where he had a small studio of his own. After three years of excessively using the colour blue, Picasso entered a new phase now known as the “rose period”. Naturally, this incorporated a brighter colour palette and heralded more cheerful subjects. Inspired by a local circus, Picasso often depicted harlequin clowns in his paintings. This vivid period lasted until 1907 when Picasso produced his first major work The Young Ladies of Avignon (see above), which sparked the beginning of yet another period: cubism.

Picasso’s cubist paintings are different from the majority of artists involved with the movement. Initially, he was inspired by other artists, but eventually abandoned all traditional rules and focused on painting geometric still lifes, revealing an object from several directions, rather than the way the human eye would usually perceive it from one position.

Not wanting to be constrained to the stipulations of an art faction, Picasso flitted between several. After experimenting with Cubism, he stepped into the Surrealist movement, where he completed paintings and sculptures up until the beginning of the Second World War. Following the bombing of the town, Guernica, Picasso created his famously large painting of the same name. Despite its fame, Guernica has not been included in this colouring book.

Living through two wars, two marriages and many other life altering events, Picasso’s works can be used as a form of a diary. When viewed in chronological order, it is possible to tell what was going on for him personally at specific times. For example, his “blue period” was sparked off by the death of a friend and his work took on a more violent nature during the bleak wartimes. His marriages and divorce can be evidenced by the models used for many of his portraits, for instance, his female companions: Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse (again, see above).

Despite failing health, Picasso was still painting in his 90s, producing 165 canvases during January 1969 and February 1970 alone. By the time he died on 8th April 1973, Picasso had produced over 50,000 works – an astonishing feat that still evokes veneration.

Naturally, it would be impossible to produce a book of all Picasso’s recorded works, but the editors of this particular colouring book have carefully selected examples that span the majority of his life, thus encompassing the different styles he experimented with.

The author of the text – presumably Frédérique Cassegrain, who also wrote the biography and information for each included artwork – gives helpful advice about how to colour in the outlined versions of Picasso’s paintings. The paper is thick enough to be suitable for paints, particular Gouache, which is water soluble and easily blended. Alternatively, coloured pencils may be used, preferably of artistic quality, which may be more suitable for those less confident in art and design. Another option, although not mentioned by the author, are felt-tip pens. Usually, these should be avoided due to ink bleeding through the page, however, the paper is single sided, so there is no chance of damaging the following colouring page in the book.

Purchasing Pablo Picasso: To Colour In and completing the book, provides not only hours of fun and relaxation, but an opportunity to discover and understand the artist. Unlike at a gallery where the brain may switch off, being able to go away and return to the book gives us time to absorb the information and concentrate more clearly on the details of each painting.

Opposite each colouring page is a copy of the original in full colour, meaning that, if one desired, one could replicate Picasso’s work as closely as possible. By doing, rather than just looking, we begin to understand the colour choices, piece together the geometric shapes to form an image and begin to understand the thought processes of the artist.

Interestingly, there are two paintings that stand out amongst all the others. These were produced during and after the First World War, a time when Picasso returned to a more classical style of artwork. These are The Pipes of Pan (1923) and The Bathers (1918). Both show a completely different side to Picasso and would not immediately be recognised as his own work. Despite not being entirely life-like, there are no elements of Cubism or Surrealism and the colour palette is altogether natural. Picasso has focused on shading and tone to create a realistic appearance, a contrast to the flattened portraits he is known for.

Having seen evidence at the National Portrait Gallery as well as in this colouring book, it is clear that Picasso was able to paint lifelike portraits and scenes, however, he generally chose not to. This may baffle those that wish they could draw accurately; why opt for abstract art when you have a natural flair for realism? Picasso was not concerned about the aesthetic appeal of his artworks but rather used them as a form of expression. He experienced two world wars and personal grievances which greatly impacted on his painting style. Sometimes it is too difficult to put feelings into words, so Picasso represented them visually instead.

Abstract, Cubist and Surrealist art is something that people either love or hate. Many may not appreciate artists such as Picasso, whereas others find them deeply meaningful. Having the opportunity to study the artist through a detailed colouring book creates a more comprehensive understanding of the artwork and ability to acknowledge the intention and story behind it.

Pablo Picasso: To Colour In will appeal to artists, art historians and other creatives with its contrast of light relief and in-depth knowledge. The book is available online at retailers such as Amazon and The Book Depository from approximately £6. If Picasso is not your thing, there are other artists available in the series of colouring books, including Klimt, Hokusai (Japanese Art), Monet, Van Gogh, Caillebotte and Manet (Impressionists), and Paul Klee. Whatever your preference, prepare to learn whilst you are relaxing and having fun.

Thought, Drew, Created!

 

One of my first posts on this blog back in January 2016 was a brief review of Think, Draw, Create!, an art journal-type sketchbook from Parragon Publishing (here). As I demonstrated, I had set myself the challenge to complete a page a week and posted updates of my progress (here and here). Another year has now gone by and I have finally completed every task in the book. Above are some examples that I am particularly pleased with.

As I have said before, Think, Draw, Create! was produced with the intention of helping creatives to nurture their imagination. With over 100 prompts, the book encourages would-be artists to contemplate ideas outside the constraints of linear thinking. The instructions are a mix of literal and figurative tasks that challenge both the brain and artistic skill.

Some pages are fairly straightforward – “Draw something hot.” “Add flames to these candles.” “Design a book cover for a spy novel.” – complete with tailor-made illustrations as starting points. However, some instructions are more obscure, causing thought and careful planning before pen can be put to paper. Examples of these are “Draw this wolf’s howl.” “Draw a joke.” “Draw a wish.” “Draw blue submerged in yellow.” The remaining pages provide the opportunity to illustrate whatever you wish, the only restriction being the colourful or textured background design.

Think, Draw, Create! is not about producing perfect artwork, instead, it is focused on ideas and preparation. Although instructions are given, they are open for interpretation. Many people struggle to think for themselves and need precise direction in order to complete anything. This book is an opportunity to develop a new way of processing instruction and a safe place to increase confidence in your own abilities. Instead of “Draw a bear,” we are asked to “Draw a bear that is late.” The first instruction would have resulted in a range of bears from polar and grizzly to Teddy, however, the latter requires more thought. Not only must we decide what the bear looks like, we need to consider the situation, where he is, why he is late and how is he dealing with this.

The pre-existing illustrations featured in this book have been drawn by Eleanor Carter, an art and design lecturer at Sussex Coast College Hastings. She has used a range of techniques including printmaking and collage as well as drawing to create a fun, light-hearted atmosphere in which to create your own artwork. The imprecise, rough appearance of Eleanor’s illustrations encourages would-be artists not to attempt to be too perfect in their designs and to embrace varied styles and technique.

Since completing the book, I have been able to look back and see the developments I have made in my thinking and drawing ability. I already had a preferred drawing style that had blossomed whilst I was at college, but by taking on these tasks I have been able to expand and evolve my drawing technique.

If someone were to have asked me to draw a picture in 2015, it would almost certainly be a black and white sketch produced with a fine-tipped pen. I never used colour (something that was often mentioned in feedback from tutors) unless I was adding it in digitally – something that was not an option in this book. Initially, I stuck to my monochromic approach, after all the pages already had coloured backgrounds. Eventually, I broke out the coloured pencils and bravely attempted a coloured illustration. I was not disappointed.

Below are a few of my favourite outcomes, all but one coming from pages that gave free rein to do as you pleased. The one directly below was the penultimate task in the book, which instructed me to draw something brave. Admittedly, I did not think about this one for long (to be honest, I struggled with thinking up unique ideas in general) and decided to draw a superhero. For many of my drawings, I researched online for visual references to draw from, so after finding a sketch of Superman, I drew my own version, adding colour to finish. A friend loved this outcome so much, she has a scanned version of it framed on her wall.

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On the first set of pages with the space to do anything, I decided to draw a portrait of a friend. Naturally, I had not altered my illustration style at this point, therefore it looks similar in technique to many other portraits I have produced in the past. However, I am still pleased with the result. I had lost confidence in my drawing ability and seriously doubted I would have been able to create a likeness again, yet I proved myself wrong.

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These final two examples are my favourite outcomes. On a whim, I decided to experiment with pointillism. Whilst searching for inspiration, I had come across an illustration of Matt Smith as the Doctor in Doctor Who, which had been drawn in a similar style to my own. However, I had a vivid image in my mind about how it would look shaded with dots instead of cross-hatching. Since the facial features were cropped out of the image, I was able to draw a brief outline in freehand (I often trace photographs to get proportions correct) then began filling it in with tiny dots. It took many hours to complete, spread over several days, but it was completely worth it.

In keeping with the Doctor Who theme, I decided on a Cyberman for the facing page. Using a vector image I had saved on my phone, I used the same method of pointillism to shade in the robot-like creature. I am still pleased with this particular illustration and often stare at in disbelief. Did I really draw that?

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Think, Draw, Create! has been a lot of fun and has given me the opportunity to draw without the added pressure of deadlines and perfection (okay, that’s a lie. I struggle with perfectionism). I definitely recommend purchasing this book if you are looking to enhance your creativity. It is suitable for all ages and abilities and has certainly helped me develop my own skill.