House of Frankenstein

When thinking about the city of Bath, the author that usually comes to mind is Jane Austen, but she is not the only writer celebrated in the city. A couple of doors down from the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street is Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein, which explores the world of Mary Shelley and her best-known fictional character. Shelley briefly lived in Bath in 1816, but the city did not leave a significant impression or influence on her work as it did with Austen. Nonetheless, the interactive museum pays homage to the author and the impact her imagination has had on the world.

Mary Shelley was the second child of Mary Wollstonecraft, the British writer and women’s rights activist, who died shortly after Mary’s birth on 30th August 1797. Mary and her half-sister Fanny were brought up by her father, William Godwin (1756-1836), a political philosopher who endeavoured to keep his late wife’s achievements and memory alive. For the first few years of Mary’s life, her father fought to make ends meet, often leaving her in the care of the housekeeper, Louisa Jones. Eventually, Godwin’s financial situation forced him to look for a wealthy new wife.

In 1801, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont (1768-1841), who already had two children, Charles and Claire. Most of Godwin’s friends disliked his new wife, and Mary hated her. Godwin’s hope of avoiding debts also backfired. Godwin and his wife set up a children’s publishing firm called M. J. Godwin, but it did not make a profit. Godwin only avoided going to debtor’s prison through the help of some friends and devotees.

Mary’s father did not have enough money to provide her with formal schooling, but he tutored her in a range of subjects at home. The children spent a lot of time in their father’s library or talking to his intellectual friends, such as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). As Mary got older, Godwin started to feel guilty for not educating his daughters in the manner their mother would have wished. With the little money he had, Godwin provided his children with a governess and allowed them to read books from his failed publishing company, particularly Roman and Greek histories. In 1811, Mary spent six months at a boarding school to complete her schooling. By 15, she was “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”

In June 1812, Godwin sent Mary to Dundee, Scotland, where she stayed with the radical philosopher William Baxter. Godwin instructed Baxter to educate her in philosophy, per her mother’s wishes. During the holidays, Mary returned to London and became acquainted with poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who had agreed to help her father pay off his debts. When Mary moved home after her second trip to Scotland in 1814, Shelley, now estranged from his wife, had upset his family by denouncing the traditional models of the aristocracy. As a result, he no longer had access to the money he had promised Godwin.

Despite her father’s anger at Shelley, Mary began meeting the poet secretly in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, near her mother’s grave. Mary, then only 16, began to fall in love with the 21-year-old radical, and on 26th June 1814, they both declared their love for one another. When Godwin discovered the relationship, he attempted to put an end to the pair’s liaisons. Confused, Mary argued that Shelley was an embodiment of her parents’ liberal and reformist ideas and that Godwin had once said that marriage was a repressive monopoly. By this time, Mary had lost her virginity to Shelley, who was still legally married.

Unsure what else to do, Mary and Shelley eloped to France on 28th July 1814, taking Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), with them. Mary’s stepmother followed them, trying to convince Mary and Claire to return home, but they refused. For a few months, the trio travelled on foot, carriage and donkey through France to Switzerland, where they eventually ran out of money. With no other choice, they returned to England, landing at Gravesend, Kent, in September 1814. Godwin refused to have anything to do with his daughter, so Mary, now pregnant, and Shelley moved into Claire’s lodgings in London.

Mary suffered poor physical and mental health throughout her pregnancy, not helped by her lover’s growing infatuation with her stepsister. Although Mary believed in free love, she was jealous of Shelley and Claire’s relationship. Mary also disapproved of Shelley’s hints that she should begin an affair with his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862). Eventually, Shelley ended his love affair with Claire, who quickly found herself another lover, the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Unfortunately, Mary had no opportunity to feel happy about Shelley’s return because, on 22nd February 1815, she gave birth to a two-month premature daughter, who only lived for a few days.

Throughout the spring, Mary suffered from acute depression, often seeing ghostly visions of her deceased daughter. By the summer, she had conceived again, and the hope of a new child greatly improved her mental health. Around the same time, Shelley received some money from his late grandfather, so he treated Mary to a holiday in Torquay. Following this, Shelley rented a cottage in Bishopsgate, where Mary gave birth to a son, William, on 24th January 1816.

In the summer of 1816, Shelley, Mary and their son travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to spend time with Lord Byron and his pregnant lover, Claire. The weather in Europe remained wet and dreary throughout the summer months, and the four friends spent many an hour sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, telling German ghost stories. Byron proposed that they write their own stories to share during the evenings. Mary initially struggled to think of a concept, but during a late-night discussion about galvanism, the theory that electricity could animate body tissue, Mary imagined using electricity to reanimate a corpse. Thus, Mary penned the first draft of her famous novel.

With encouragement from Shelley, Mary expanded her ghost story, which she published anonymously as Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. Shelley provided the introduction for the first edition, which led many people to assume he had written it. Mary’s name did not appear on the cover until 1821, but it took much longer for readers to accept her as the author.

Returning to England in September 1816, Mary, Shelley, and Claire took up residence in Bath, where they tried to keep Claire’s pregnancy secret. While there, Mary began receiving desperate letters from her half-sister, Fanny. Fearing for her mental health, Mary sent Shelley to check on Fanny at her home in Bristol, but he arrived to find her dead beside a bottle of laudanum and a suicide note. Two months later, Percy Bysshe Shelley learned of the death of his estranged wife, who drowned herself in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, London. Wishing to assume custody of his children, Eliza (1813-76) and Charles (1814-26), Shelley’s lawyers advised him to marry Mary, which he did on 30th December 1816.

In March 1817, the court ruled Shelley was too morally unfit to take custody of his children. The Shelleys still lived with Claire Clairmont, who gave birth to a daughter, Alba, in January. Following the court’s ruling, the Shelleys and Claire moved to Albion House at Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where Mary gave birth to her third child, Clara. Soon, financial difficulties caught up with Shelley. Fearing he would lose Mary’s children too, he moved Mary, Claire and the children to Italy.

Lord Byron, who lived in Venice, agreed to help raise his daughter, Alba, so long as Claire stayed away. He also changed the child’s name to Allegra. Byron initially placed Allegra with a foster family but later moved her to a Roman Catholic Convent, where she contracted malaria and died aged 5. With one less child to worry about and believing Alba/Allegra would be safe in Byron’s hands, Claire remained with the Shelleys on their roving existence, moving from place to place without staying anywhere for long.

Tragedy struck the Shelleys again in 1818 and 1819, when both children, William and Clara, died within months of each other. The loss of all her children had a profound effect on Mary, who found solace in her writing. Mary wrote, “May you never know what it is to lose two only and lovely children in one year, and then at last to be left childless and forever miserable.” The birth of Mary’s fourth child, Percy Florence Shelley (1819-89), was the only thing that managed to lift Mary’s spirits.

While living in Italy, Mary Shelley wrote two novels, Matilda (1820) and Valperga (1821-23), and two plays, Proserpine (1820) and Midas (1820). The first of the two novels, Matilda, was not published until after Mary’s death, but the money she earned for Valperga helped alleviate her father’s financial difficulties. Despite the family rift, Mary still deeply respected her father.

In June 1822, Mary suffered a miscarriage that nearly killed her if it had not been for her quick-thinking husband. The doctor was too far away from the Shelleys’ residence on the Italian Riviera, so fearing Mary would die from blood loss, Shelley placed her in a bath of ice to staunch the bleeding. When the doctor finally arrived, he commended Shelley’s actions. Unfortunately, neither Shelley nor the doctor could prevent the depression brought on by the loss of another baby. To make matters worse, Shelley began spending more time with other women than his wife.

Mary remained devoted to her husband despite his many affairs and questionable behaviour. For years, Mary followed him around Italy without hope of settling down and tolerated his immoral behaviour. Whilst Mary suffered from depression following her miscarriage, Shelley found himself a new plaything – a sailing boat. On 1st July 1822, Shelley and his companions set off along the coast to Livorno to see Lord Byron. After staying there for a week, Shelley set off for home but never reached his destination. Mary did not know when Shelley planned to return, so she did not worry until she received a letter addressed to Shelley saying, “pray write to tell us how you got home, for they say you had bad weather after you sailed Monday & we are anxious.” Ten days after the storm, Shelley’s corpse washed up on the shore.

Following Shelley’s death, Mary lived with the poet Leigh Hunt (1785-1859) and his family in Genoa for a year. Mary spent time transcribing her husband’s poems, which she later published in 1839. Unfortunately, Mary’s financial situation prevented her from staying in Italy, so Mary returned to England with her son in 1823. Initially, she stayed with her father and stepmother in London until her father managed to find her some lodgings nearby. Mary also asked Shelley’s father, Sir Timothy Shelley, for help. The Baronet said he would only help if his grandson, Percy Florence, was handed over to an appointed guardian. Naturally, Mary refused to relinquish her only surviving child but persuaded Sir Shelley to provide an allowance of £100 a year. The amount increased to £250 following the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s son, Charles.

Mary continued to focus on writing for the remainder of her life. In 1826, she published the novel The Last Man and contributed to biographies about Shelley and Byron. Between 1827 and 1840, she wrote The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837) and contributed to a ladies’ magazine. Her primary concern was the welfare of her son, which prompted her to sell the rights to Frankenstein for £60 in 1830. She also persuaded Sir Timothy Shelley to help pay for Percy Florence’s education. The young Percy attended the prestigious Harrow School before studying at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Percy Florence remained devoted to his mother and returned to live with her after completing his university studies. In the 1840s, mother and son travelled around the continent, gradually putting together the book Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843. The following year, Sir Timothy Shelley passed away, leaving his estate to Percy Florence, who became the 3rd Baronet of Castle Goring, Sussex. For the first time in her life, Mary was financially stable.

Now that she had some money, Mary became the target of blackmailers, who threatened to publish various letters that could ruin her reputation or the memory of her late husband. Mary purchased a few letters but ignored other claims, such as someone posing as Lord Byron’s illegitimate son. These threats did not appear to have too much of an impact on Mary’s life. She remained living with her son, even after his marriage to Jane Gibson in 1848. Unfortunately, Mary’s final years were blighted by illness, and she passed away on 1st February 1851, aged 53, from a suspected brain tumour.

Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein devotes one floor of the building to the life of Mary Shelley. Her history is crammed into four rooms, leaving the rest of the museum to explore Mary Shelley’s most famous creation, Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a fictional scientist who is determined to create a sapient creature through unorthodox scientific experiments. Frankenstein stitches together the body parts of recently executed criminals to create a creature and brings it to life using electricity. Scared of the monster he created, Frankenstein runs away, and the beast spends years trying to find a place for itself in the world.

Frankenstein received mixed reviews after its publication in 1818. Some praised the author for introducing the science-fiction concept to the Gothic horror genre, but others wrote disparaging reviews about the novel. The novelist William Beckford (1760-1844), who lived in Bath, called Frankenstein “The foulest toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times.”

Despite some early criticism, there have been over 100 dramatisations of Frankenstein and several films. The first theatrical production, titled Presumption! Or, The Fate of Frankenstein opened in 1823. It included music and songs, and while it remained faithful to the storyline, the play was shown from the perspective of a new character, Fritz. In the show, Fritz was Frankenstein’s assistant, who later became the basis for the hunchbacked Igor in subsequent films. The monster, known as the Creature, was played by Thomas Potter Cooke (1786-1864), who wore a wig of wild hair and pale green face paint.

Since the first production of Frankenstein, the monster has usually appeared with green skin and scars, eventually developing a flat head held onto the neck with two bolts. The character is easily recognisable throughout the world and has become a commercial medium, with merchandise ranging from rubber ducks to flower pots. The monster or creature is definitely the most famous of Mary Shelley’s characters, leading to the frequent error that it is called Frankenstein, rather than that being the name of the scientist.

Mary Shelley never intended the monster to look like a green-skinned zombie. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein describes his creation as something quite different from the commercialised version. “His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” Shelley also revealed the creature was 8-foot tall (2.4 metres).

For the first time, a model of Mary Shelley’s monster has been authentically produced as she described. The formidable animatronic creature is located in the laboratory on the second floor, whilst other rooms feature unusual artefacts and vintage objects, which set the scene for the world’s first science-fiction novel. On the top floor, visitors are invited to watch a handful of short films showing the first few appearances of the monster on screen.

Those feeling brave can visit the basement, where they can probe dark rooms accompanied by the unnerving hum of electricity and screams of torture. The more daring visitors can enter “The Cage” and try to find their way to freedom through a twisted metal maze, where there is no choice but to push past the bodies of The Cage’s previous victims. This exhibit is not suitable for young children or those of a nervous disposition.

For an extra fee, Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein opens the doors to the attic, where families and friends can race against the clock to solve clues and escape from Frankenstein’s quarters. Based on the popular Escape Room games, visitors experience the mind of a madman who wants to harvest their organs to complete his latest maniacal quest. This feature is also included in the birthday, hen, and stag party packages.

Tickets to Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein cost £15.50 per person, although some concessions apply, including children and over 60s. The house is open every day but special attractions must be booked in advance.


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The Roman Baths

Once upon a time, around the 9th century BC, Prince Bladud contracted leprosy. His father, Ludhudibras, banished Bladud from the court and sent him to work as a country swineherd. Accepting his fate, Prince Bladud took good care of his pigs, noticing that when the animals wallowed in the steamy, muddy swamp at the bottom of the valley, they emerged cleansed of their warts and sores. Braving the mucky water, Bladud plunged into the stream and emerged without a blemish. His leprosy had vanished, and his father welcomed him back home. The news spread of the miracle, and soon, a small town developed around the thermal waters, building the foundations of the city of Bath.

The water that cured Prince Bladud is the same water that fills the city of Bath’s top tourist attraction. The Roman Baths or thermae date to around 60-70 AD, during the first few decades of the Roman occupation of Britain. These baths attracted people from far and wide who wished to sample the healing power of the water. The city became known as Aquae Sulis (Waters of Sulis) due to the Roman belief the hot spring that supplied the water belonged to the goddess Sulis Minerva. For this reason, the Romans also built a temple on the site.

As with most Roman buildings, the baths succumbed to the elements. Fortunately, parts of the original foundations survived, upon which 18th-century architects reconstructed some of the walls and columns. Today, swimming in the waters, which have turned green due to algae, is not possible, but the baths are open to the public as a museum. Next door, the Grand Pump Room sells samples of the curative water to taste – something that gets mixed reactions from visitors.

The water in the Roman Baths may be many hundreds or even thousands of years old. It originally fell as rain on the Mendip Hills and percolated down through limestone aquifers measuring a depth of 2,700-4,300 metres (8,900-14,100 ft). The deeper the water travelled, the higher the temperature rose, reaching between 64 and 96 degrees Celsius. Under the pressure of the limestone, the water eventually rises back up to the surface through cracks, forming heated springs. Scientists have studied this phenomenon to develop enhanced geothermal systems.

Around 1,106,400 litres of water rise every day to fill the baths. This is approximately 13 litres per second. It rises from the Pennyquick fault, which thanks to Roman engineering, flows directly to the bathing pools. There are an estimated 43 minerals in the water, including calcium, sulphates, sodium and chloride. There are also some traces of iron, which causes orange stains on rocks and stone. Sometimes, the water may appear to bubble. This is caused by gases escaping.

Archaeological evidence suggests the site of the baths was a worship centre for the Celts. They dedicated the springs to the goddess Sulis, a life-giving mother goddess, who the Romans associated with Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. When the Romans invaded, they kept the name Sulis, as seen in the name Aquae Sulis, but frequently referred to the goddess as Minerva-Sulis or Sulis Minerva. Before constructing the bathing complex, which took around 300 years, the Romans built and dedicated a temple to the goddess.

Builders began by creating a wooden foundation in the mud surrounding the thermal spring, then constructed a stone chamber lined with lead. In the 2nd century AD, a wooden barrel-vaulted ceiling enclosed the building, dividing it into several sections, including a caldarium (hot bath), tepidarium (lukewarm bath), and frigidarium (cold bath). Bathers usually started in the tepidarium, heated by underground lead pipes, which directed water from the spring into the baths. Here, the bathers acclimatised to the heat before moving on to the considerably warmer caldarium. The rich usually brought attendants to rub their bodies with fragrant oils before taking a plunge into the freezing water in the frigidarium to close the pores.

Bathing was not the only activity available at the baths. Alcoves provided spaces for business meetings, philosophical discussions, or a place to meet friends. Evidence suggests visitors played board games, gambled and consumed food and drink. In other areas, musicians performed while people received certain treatments, such as manicures and pedicures.

Many Roman towns contained a bathing house, but people travelled far and wide to experience the curative waters provided by Sulis Minerva. People with various ailments travelled to Bath to drink the water or submerge their ailing bodies. Others visited to ask the goddess for advice or vengeance. Over 130 lead or pewter curse tablets have been discovered, asking Sulis Minerva to punish a wrongdoer. Many of these relate to petty crimes, such as the theft of a towel. Often, the accuser did not know who committed the crime, but they believed the goddess would know and mete out punishment accordingly.

Excavation has also revealed thousands of coins, jewellery, dishes and cups, many containing a dedication to Sulis Minerva. When not asking the goddess for requests, people gave sacrifices and gifts. Unlike contemporary religions, where gods and goddesses are worshipped across the world, the Roman baths and temple became the point at which the human world could communicate with the presiding deity.

Not much remains of the Temple of Sulis Minerva, which stood next to the baths. During excavations and sewage works, a handful of artefacts have been unearthed, which are now in the Roman Baths museum. A gilded bronze head belonging to a statue of Sulis Minerva was discovered by workers in 1727. Its body has never been found, but it is believed it once wore a tall Corinthian helmet. Other items once belonging to the temple include a relief carving of the goddess wearing a gorgon mask and parts of a carved pediment, which may also feature a gorgon. According to Greek mythology, the hero Perseus killed the gorgon Medusa and gifted her head to the goddess Athena, the Greek equivalent of Minerva.

The baths remained popular for many years, permitting both men and women entry. At one time, men and women could not visit together, but further construction provided separate changing areas for the different sexes. Builders also raised the floors of the baths to escape the rising water levels caused by the frequent flooding of the nearby River Avon. These floods also sent mud into the water system, which accumulated in the Sacred Spring. The higher the bath floors, the further away they got from the underground heating, rendering it useless. The number of visitors dropped rapidly, and the inhabitants of Aquae Sulis gave up the losing battle against the floods. Eventually, mud and debris found their way into the temple, damaging the walls and causing the building to collapse. The baths suffered a similar fate, and the ceiling crashed into the swamp below, where people once bathed in the thermal water.

The story of the Roman Baths did not end there. During the 12th century, John of Tours (d.1122), the Bishop of Wells, built a new bath over the once-Sacred Spring. The pool became known as the King’s Pool and is where Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), the wife of King James I (1566-1625), bathed on 19th May 1613 on the recommendation of the court physician, Théodore de Mayerne (1573-1655). Anne returned in 1615 to bathe in the newly constructed Queen’s Bath, decorated with the inscription Anna Regnum Sacrum (Anne’s Sacred Kingdom).

During the 18th century, father and son architects John Wood, the Elder (1704-54) and John Wood, the Younger (1728-82), designed a new building to house the King and Queen Baths. Basing the design on the original Roman Baths, the neoclassical building also contains the Grand Bath, which the general public used. Next door, they built the Grand Pump Room, where visitors could “take the waters”, in other words, drink it, or attend social functions.

Further expansion of the baths continued during the Victorian era. During the late 19th century, statues of Roman Emperors and Governors of Roman Britain were placed on the open terrace surrounding the Grand Bath. Over time, the elements have eroded some features, particularly the faces, but a new protective wash prevents further damage. The statues represent Julius Caesar, Emperor Claudius, Emperor Vespasian, Governor Ostorius Scapula, Governor Suetonius Paulinus, Governor Julius Agricola, the Head of Roma (symbolising Rome), Emperor Hadrian and Emperor Constantine the Great. These men lived between 100 BC and 337 AD, and all had significant connections with Britain, or Britannia, as it was then known.

The Roman Baths stayed open until October 1978, when a young girl contracted naegleriasis and died. The fatal brain infection is caused by Naegleria fowleri, more commonly known as a “brain-eating amoeba”, which lives in untreated waters. The Baths closed for several years to tackle the microorganism, but it never reopened for public use. In 1979, the psychiatrist Herbert Needleman (1927-2017) documented the dangers of lead exposure. Lead interferes with the normal functioning of cells in the body, chemically displacing vital elements, such as calcium, zinc and iron. Although Naegleria fowleri still poses a risk, the lead piping delivering water to the baths is also a health risk.

In 1982, a new spring water borehole was sunk to provide safe, clean water for drinking in the Pump Room. This water also fills the pools at the nearby Thermae Bath Spa, which opened in 2006. Here, visitors can experience the effects of the healing waters in a modern environment and receive various treatments.

Although the waters at the Roman Baths are out of bounds, visitors to Bath can wander around the Grand Pool where people of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries once congregated, and before them, the people of Roman Britain. The entry fee also incorporates the Roman Baths museum, which houses artefacts from the Roman period. Objects include over 12,000 Denari coins and the gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva.

The museum building preserves the remains of the original Roman Baths. With the help of projections and CGI, the museum recreates scenes in the original changing rooms and saunas to help visitors understand how the original baths were used. The 1.6 metres deep frigidarium or plunge pool is also part of the self-navigated tour, as is part of the Roman drainage system.

Visitors should expect to spend a couple of hours at the Roman Baths. There are thousands of objects on display in the museum, spanning four centuries. Many of the items were found in the sacred pool and are presumably offerings to Sulis Minerva. Several metal pans, known as paterae, are inscribed DSM or Deae Sulis Minerva, suggesting people used them to make offerings of holy water. There are also many curse tablets on display, which are some of the earliest examples of prayer in Britain.

The Roman Baths is a very popular tourist destination, and it is not uncommon to see queues of people waiting in the courtyard outside Bath Abbey. For this reason (and the recent pandemic), visitors must book their tickets in advance. Ticket prices change throughout the year depending on school term time, bank holidays, and so forth. They also cost more at weekends. In November, for example, an adult ticket costs £20 on weekends and £17.50 on a weekday. Students and seniors (65 +) received £1 off their entry, and children cost between £10 and £12.50. Visitors can expect to pay at least £3 more during peak times.

For more information about booking tickets, visit the Roman Baths website.


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Alexander: The Making of a Myth

Alexander the Great built an empire that stretched across the world and rode across the sky on a flying chariot, or so the legends say. This winter, the British Library is exploring the myths surrounding one of the most famous figures of the ancient world. With objects and books from 25 countries, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth examines the narratives that made Alexander a universal icon.

Alexander was born in Macedonia in 356 BC and died aged 32, by which time he had built a vast empire stretching from Greece to India. Legends about the great leader only began circulating after his death, making it difficult to extract the truth from the fiction. Even Alexander’s name does not remain constant in the legends and stories. In some cultures, he is called Iskandar or Sikandar, from which the anglicised “Alexander” developed. There are also many discrepancies in his appearance. A bust dating from the first or second century BC depicts Alexander as a beautiful youth. In contrast, an illustration in Johann Hartlieb’s Das Alexanderbuch (The Alexander Book, c.1444) shows Alexander with two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw.

Plutarch, a Greek historian, compiled one of the earliest biographies of Alexander around AD 100. Originally written in Greek, copies were translated into Latin and spread across Europe. From these, writers developed the “Alexander Romance”, which contains a largely fictional account of Alexander’s life. The text includes invented letters from Alexander to his teacher, Aristotle (384-322 BC), describing the fantastical beasts he met in the East.

The earliest surviving illustrated copy of the Alexander Romance dates to the 13th century. It was written an estimated 1,800 years ago in Greek before being translated into many languages, including Coptic, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Syriac and Hebrew. By the publication of the first illustrated version, the lines between fact and fiction had long disappeared. One artwork in the Historia Alexandri Magni kept in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, shows Alexander entering Rome on horseback, with bowing senators welcoming him on one side and the public waving palm leaves on the other. Whilst it is plausible that Alexander received a hero’s welcome, the palm leaves suggest the writer or illustrator wanted to elevate Alexander to the same level as Jesus Christ, who received a similar welcome in Jerusalem.

Alexander’s parentage differs between stories. Today, the consensus is Alexander was the son of Philip of Macedon (382-336 BC), the 18th king of Macedonia. The Alexander Romance claims the serpent-magician Nectanebo tricked Alexander’s mother, Olympias (375-316 BC), a Greek princess, into bed by disguising himself as the dragon-like Egyptian god Amun. Nectanebo II ruled as the pharaoh of Egypt from 358 BC until his deposition in 340 BC. Yet, the Persians regarded Alexander as the half-brother of King Darius III (380-330), making Alexander the legitimate heir of the Achaemenid Empire. With at least three possible fathers, different cultures believed Alexander was the rightful heir to either Macedonia, Egypt or Persia. Incidentally, Alexander conquered all three places during his short life.

Another half-truth, half-fiction legend about Alexander involves his horse, Bucephalus. Many artworks depict Alexander riding into battle on a fierce war-horse, which not only symbolises Alexander’s victories but also his physical feats and training to become a military commander. When Alexander first met Bucephalus, named after a type of branding mark anciently used on horses, the horse was a savage, man-eating beast. According to the Alexander Romance, King Philip locked the animal in a cage, where 15-year-old Alexander later discovered him. Immediately, the horse bowed before Alexander, acknowledging him as his master.

An alternative story claims that whoever rode Bucephalus would be king of the world. Many had tried and failed to tame the beast before Alexander, who realised the horse was afraid of its own shadow. Turning Bucephalus towards the sun so that his shadow fell behind him, Alexander stroked Bucephalus soothingly before jumping onto his back. The tale suggests Bucephalus immediately became tame, but regardless of whether it was instant or took time, Alexander rode Bucephalus during all his military campaigns, including in Greece, the Middle East, and India.

It is not certain who tutored Alexander in the art of warfare and military leadership, but between the ages of 13 and 16, Alexander received an academic education from Aristotle. Philip considered other scholars, such as Isocrates (436-338 BC) and Speusippus (408-339 BC), before settling on Aristotle. For a classroom, Philip provided Aristotle with the Temple of the Nymphs at Mieza, in ancient Macedonia, and agreed to rebuild Aristotle’s home town of Stageira in place of payment. During Philip’s earlier campaigns, he raised Stageira to the ground and enslaved or exiled the inhabitants.

Alexander spent most of his school days in Mieza with other children of Macedonian nobles, such as Ptolemy (367-282 BC), Hephaistion (356-324 BC), and Cassander (355-297 BC). Known collectively as the “Companions”, these friends became Alexander’s future generals. Hephaistion was “by far the dearest of all the king’s friends; he had been brought up with Alexander and shared all his secrets.” Several writers refer to Alexander and Hephaistion’s relationship in a similar vein to the mythical Achilles and Patroclus, suggesting they may have been more than friends. Ptolemy became pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt and Cassander the king of Macedonia following Alexander’s death.

Aristotle taught Alexander and his companions about medicine, philosophy, religion, logic, and art. Alexander developed a passion for the works of the Greek poet Homer, particularly the Iliad, which references the aforementioned relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Alexander also learned quotes from memory, such as lines written by the Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 BC). As for politics, Alexander picked up most of his knowledge by talking to Persian exiles at his father’s court. Philip granted Persian nobles protection after they opposed his enemy, Artaxerxes III (359-338 BC).

Philip of Macedon passed away in 336 BC, making his son the new king of Macedonia. Within ten years, Alexander expanded his empire and became the inspiration for many rulers over dozens of centuries. Alexander’s first major success was the defeat of the Persians at the battles of Granicus and Issus in present-day Turkey, followed by conquering Egypt and finally overthrowing King Darius in 331 BC. In Egypt, Alexander left his greatest legacy: the foundation of the city of Alexandria. This was the largest of the twenty-or-so cities named after Alexander throughout his empire. Stories also claim he erected the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

When Alexander first set his sights on Egypt, it was under the rule of Persia. Although King Darius controlled all of Persia, he delegated areas to his governors. Alexander defeated the Egyptian governor, was greeted as a liberator and was crowned the new Pharoah. Naturally, Alexander’s actions riled Darius, who met Alexander in battle at Gaugamela in modern-day Iraq in 331 BC. This was the final meeting between Alexander and the Persian armies. Realising he was outnumbered, Darius fled from the scene, only to be injured by two of his men. According to legend, when Alexander caught up with Darius, he ordered the two men’s execution and comforted the mortally wounded king. During his final moments, Darius allegedly asked Alexander to look after his family, marry his daughter Roxana and preserve the Zoroastrian religion.

Despite Alexander’s supposed distress over Darius’ death, he continued to capture the remaining parts of the Persian empire. In 326, Alexander reached Punjab, India, where he defeated King Porus. Some legends claim Alexander spared Porus’ life, who then made Alexander a subordinate ruler as a way of thanks. Other stories allege that Alexander killed Darius and continued his journey to China, although some scholars do not believe Alexander travelled so far east.

Regardless of the outcome, all the stories about Alexander’s army in India involve facing colossal war elephants. A coin dating to 323 BC depicts King Porus sitting on the giant animal while Alexander, riding Bucephalus, attacks him from behind with a spear. Different versions of the story propose a variety of ways Alexander overcame the army of elephants. The Shahnameh (15th century), the longest poem ever written by a single author, suggests Alexander ordered his blacksmiths to build 1,000 oil-filled iron horses, which he set alight in front of the advancing Indian army. Terrified of the flames, the elephants fled, taking their riders with them. Das Alexanderbuch contains an alternative account in which Alexander used red-hot pokers to scare the elephants.

Alexander did not spend all his time fighting but also focused on spreading peace throughout his conquered lands. While in India, he met the Brahmans, a group of priests who believed “greed is the root of all evil and we will leave this world naked and without our possessions.” In many illustrated versions of Alexander’s history, the Brahmans are naked, while Alexander and his men dress in ornate clothing. Fictitious dialogues between Alexander and Dindimus, the king of the Brahmans, suggest the king convinced Alexander there was no point waging war when the Brahmans had no possessions to lose.

In China, if indeed Alexander reached the country, he defeated two champions, Tengu and Kanifu, the latter of whom turned out to be a woman. On his way home from China, Alexander received news that the Russians had captured Queen Nushabah of Persia, so he immediately changed his route to liberate the queen and defeat her captors. After seven violent battles, Alexander defeated the Russian leader and returned Queen Nushabah to her native country.

With so many countries now part of his empire, Alexander became associated with many cultures and religions. The Egyptians acknowledged Alexander as the son of the Egyptian god Amun or the former Pharoah Nectanebo. He also appeared in Christian, Jewish and Islamic texts. Despite promising King Darius to preserve the Zoroastrian religion, many Persians accused Alexander of destroying the religion. According to the Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209), Alexander tore down the temples, burned the sacred texts and introduced Islam to Persia.

In the Babylon Talmud, a primary source of Jewish law, Alexander bowed down before the High Priest, Simon the Righteous. Also known as Simeon the Just, the priest went to Antipatris to meet Alexander as he marched through the Land of Israel in 332 BC. Alexander’s men criticised their leader for bowing to the priest, but he assured them he had received instruction to do so in a dream. Alexander went on to demand a statue of himself placed in the Temple, but Simon explained this was impossible. Instead, the High Priest promised that all the sons born of priests in that year would be named Alexander.

According to the Sefer Alexandros Mokdon (Tales of Alexander the Macedonian), Alexander attempted to get into the Garden of Eden. After being told “No heathen or uncircumcised male may enter,” Alexander was secretly circumcised. This claim demonstrates Alexander wanted to conform to Jewish practices, or at least this is what the Jews chose to believe. Yet, in the 18th-century Ethiopian Zena Eskender (The Story of Alexander), the writer claims God chose Alexander to be a prophet. “For I have set thee to be a prophet unto Me by reason of the purity of thy body, and through thy prayers which have come unto Me.”

In the Qur’an, Alexander is associated with the story of Dhu’l-Qarnayn, whose name means “two horns”. The name coincides with the idea that Alexander had two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw. According to the story, Dhu’l-Qarnayn (or Alexander) travelled to the end of the world, where he built a wall to separate the barbarous peoples of Gog and Magog from the righteous. Gog and Magog also appear in the Hebrew Bible, where they are viewed as enemies to be defeated by the Messiah.

Regardless of Alexander’s religious status, he believed in polygamy and had several wives, most notably Roxana and Stateira. Scholars also question Alexander’s sexuality, referencing his close relationship with his companion Hephaistion and a slave called Bagoas. During his campaigns, Alexander met many powerful women, including Queen Nushabah, who he rescued from the Russians, and Kanifu, who he defeated in China.

Alexander first met Roxana after the death of her father, Darius. Their marriage was celebrated across the empire, and some accounts claim Alexander was captivated by his new wife’s beauty. Soon after, Alexander married another of Darius’ children, Stateira. Roxana, besieged by jealousy, never got on with Stateira and killed her after Alexander’s death in 323 BC. Another story reveals Alexander received the daughter of King Kayd of Hind (India) as a tribute to avoid war. The author writes that Alexander married her “according to the Christian religion”.

Over time, Alexander’s legendary feats have become more mythical with the insertion of fantastic beasts, such as griffins and dragons. The Alexander Romance claims four griffins carried Alexander and his chariot across the sky, and a Persian poem by Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) describes Alexander’s adventure to the bottom of the ocean in a glass diving bell. To make this all the more unbelievable, a French version of the Alexander Romance reveals he travelled with a cockerel to tell him the time and a cat to purify the air. While submerged in the water, Alexander came face-to-face with monstrous creatures, including giants with sword-like horns. Various stories also tell of Alexander’s victory over a dragon, which he fed several poisonous cows.

Alexander desired to become immortal, but many oracles foretold his death, such as the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, which told him he would die soon and never see his mother again. While in Punjab, the risk of a mutiny urged Alexander to return to Babylon. On his arrival, the still-birth of a half-human, half-creature was taken as an omen of Alexander’s pending death. Soon after, Alexander fell terminally ill and passed away in June 323 BC, aged 32. No one knows the cause of Alexander’s death, although some suggest typhoid fever.

Different cultures and religions continue to debate over Alexander’s final resting place. According to Persian tradition, his funeral procession was conducted as per Alexander’s wishes, with one arm hanging loose to show that he went to the grave empty-handed. Other stories talk of an elaborate carriage that carried Alexander from Babylon to Egypt. Historians believe the original plan was to take the body to Macedonia, but for reasons unknown, the funeral procession took a different route. The Persians wanted Alexander’s body to be interred in Iran, but the Greeks insisted he should be brought to them. Finally, an oracle allegedly decided, “His remains belong in Alexandria.”

The Bibliotheca historical, written by the historian Diodorus Siculus between 60 and 30 BC, describes Alexander’s funeral carriage as having a golden roof, a net curtain, statues, and four iron wheels. Sixty-four mules pulled the carriage while roadmenders, mechanics and soldiers accompanied the procession to ensure it all went smoothly. Artists have used this description as a base for paintings, such as André Bauchant’s (1873-1958) Les Funérailles d’Alexandre le-Grand (1940), which depicted Alexander’s companion, Ptolemy, as a pharaoh at the head of the procession.

The whereabouts of Alexander’s body remains a mystery, despite many quests to find it. Historians and authors have professed many theories, including the mistaking of Alexander’s bones for St Mark, but there is no concrete proof. Writings about Alexander’s death and burial are largely fiction, as is the majority of his life. Yet, Alexander has been and remains an inspiration for many leaders, from Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) to Henry VIII of England (1419-1547) and Louis XIV of France (1638-1715).

For someone who conquered so much land during a short period, there is relatively little information about Alexander the Great. It is also debatable whether he deserved the epithet “the Great”. In capturing so many countries and defeating other rulers, he left a lot of destruction in his wake. In dying so young, Alexander did not have time to rebuild ruined cities and place his mark upon the world in the form of architecture. Nor did he dramatically change the various cultures and religions in his Empire, except for mythical stories, the majority of which appeared long after his death.

The British Library tells the story (or stories) of Alexander the Great through a range of media. Books and illustrations from the past centuries reveal the different cultural beliefs and varying histories of the young emperor. Videos and audio, such as George Frideric Handel‘s (1685-1759) opera Alessandro, demonstrate the impact of the legendary man up to the present day. For those who know very little about Alexander, the exhibition provides a wealth of information, but visitors may come away with more questions than answers.

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open until Sunday 19th February 2023. Tickets cost £19, although over 60s can visit for £9.50 of Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays (excluding holidays).


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Another Five Book Reviews

Zeroes
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Published: 23rd September 2015
Goodreads Rating: 3.76 out of 5
Reviewed: August 2015

The author of the Uglies series, Scott Westerfeld, has teamed up with co-writers Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti to create this exciting whirlwind of a young adult novel. Many people wish they had a superpower, but what if there really were people with them? Zeroes is a story about a group of teenagers with special gifts, but these unique abilities may be more dangerous than you imagine.

The superpowers in this novel are not as conventional as the famous comic heroes. Some can control crowds with their minds or destroy electricity, and one blind character can even see through the eyes of others. Collectively these teenagers are called the Zeroes, but only amongst themselves.

Despite how cool it may seem to have these powers, their gifts can get them into trouble. One of the teens, Ethan, accidentally finds himself involved with drug dealers and a bank robbery, resulting in the police taking an interest. Whilst trying to get him out of this mess, the rest of the team causes even more trouble, making things worse and eventually leaving Ethan in a life-threatening situation.

Told through six different characters, the reader gets the opportunity to learn about the individual powers and how each person deals with them. The novel is fast-paced with an explosive ending – literally. It is almost impossible to put it down. With an equal mix of male and female characters, it is suitable for all readers who enjoy Young Adult fiction. You will find yourself wanting more.

Mosquitoland
Author: David Arnold
Published: 3rd March 2015
Goodreads Rating: 3.88 out of 5
Reviewed: September 2015

Now and then, a book comes along that renders you completely unable to explain how much you loved it. Mosquitoland is one of these. Sixteen-year-old Mary Iris Malone – although only her mother can call her Mary, so please refer to her as “Mim” – has had enough of her new life in Jackson, where she has moved with her Dad and Step-Mother. She is angry at her parent’s divorce and wants to see her mother, so that is exactly what she intends to do.

It is 947 miles from Mosquitoland – that is Mississippi to the average person – to Cleveland, Ohio, where Mim’s mother is. Mim’s objective is simple: “Get to Cleveland, get to Mum.” However, her reasons are beyond difficult to explain. On her journey, Mim attempts to clarify her reasons by writing letters to an unknown character named Isabel in her journal. Yet these letters are not the only significant parts of this story.

Taking a bus to Cleveland seems like a straightforward mission, but for Mim, many detours are in store. Events that could potentially ruin someone’s trip provide Mim with the opportunity to make new friends, examine what it means to love, and confront her demons. By joining up with two extraordinary characters along the way, we, as readers, get the opportunity to explore the lives of others experiencing similar situations to Mim and thus question how we define love and loyalty.

David Arnold writes with a certain amount of intelligence, making this book a pleasure to read. Although a young adult novel, Mim’s astuteness makes her appear older than she is, yet not in a way that alienates the target reader. Mim’s perceptions give the reader the ability to view life in a way they may never have thought about before. Arnold has managed to put unexplainable feelings into words, which are guaranteed to make the reader sit up and exclaim in delight that someone has finally understood their personal, complicated feelings.

Although the storyline in Mosquitoland only covers five days, so much happens, making Mim’s trip more of an odyssey. The ending, however, is not completely satisfying. By no means is it a bad ending, but it leaves so many questions unanswered, such as what happens to Mim’s new friends, Beck and Walt? Do they get a happy-ever-after? It is almost frustrating that we will never know.

As indicated at the beginning of this review, it is impossible to put into words how good this book is – but let us say this: Mosquitoland is sure to give top Young Adult authors, such as John Green, a run for their money.

Alice Takes Back Wonderland
Author: David D. Hammons
Published: 26th September 2015
Goodreads Rating: 3.57 out of 5
Reviewed: November 2015

When a book starts with “‘Do you know fairy tales are real?’ asked the cat,” you know you are in for a magical ride. Nearly everyone knows the tale of the seven-year-old girl from nineteenth-century London who falls down a rabbit hole and spends a day of madness in the magical world of Wonderland. In David D. Hammons’ version, Alice was a young girl from twenty-first-century Missouri. On her return to the real world, she was diagnosed with ADHD and Schizophrenia and forced to believe that the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter were figments of her imagination. But ten years later, a white rabbit appears and leads Alice back to the world where nothing makes sense.

All is not well in Wonderland. The Cheshire Cat is dead, and the Ace of Spades is in charge. Barely anything is the way Alice remembers. Everything looks far too “normal” and similar to the real world. Ace is determined to remove the wonder from Wonderland and create a place where madness is forbidden. Alice has a big fight on her hands as she tries to end this former playing card’s tyrannous reign and restore Wonderland to its original insanity.

Alice Takes Back Wonderland is not purely a retelling of Lewis Carrol’s famous story. Although many well-known and loved characters appear in this book, so do others from a variety of fairytales: Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and various tales from the Brothers Grimm. As readers will discover, all is not exactly as it should be for these characters either. Despite the contrasting, magical stories, Hammons has imaginatively merged them all, resulting in a humorous Young Adult novel.

Although mostly focused on the goings on in Wonderland and the other fictional locations, it is also a subtle metaphor to describe what Alice’s life had been like back in present-day America. For a decade, Alice was forced to take medication to help her understand the difference between reality and fantasy. It got rid of most of the nonsense thoughts she picked up during her first visit to Wonderland. In a way, that is what the Ace of Spades is doing to characters he believes are mad. He is taking the wonder out of them, just like the pills took the wonder out of Alice.

Lovers of fairytales will love this book, especially those who grew up reading Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. In some ways, it is a continuation of the original tale, yet in other ways, it could be viewed as an alternative way the story could have gone. Primarily targeted at young adults, Alice Takes Back Wonderland is much darker than Carrol’s version and combines a mix of real life with fantasy. It also goes to show that no one is too old for fairytales!

Front Lines
Author: Michael Grant
Published: 16th January 2016
Goodreads Rating: 4.09 out of 5
Reviewed: January 2016

Michael Grant, mostly known for the Gone books, is back with this groundbreaking new series, Soldier Girl. This first book, Front Lines, begins in 1943, shortly after the Americans entered World War Two. Whilst a historical novel, Grant has fictionalized it with an alternative situation where women were allowed to join the American army. This tale, told by an anonymous woman, follows three teenage girls through their experiences in the early part of the war.

Rio Richlin, 16, Frangie Marr, 18 and Rainy Schulterman, 18, all volunteered to train as soldiers and play their part in the war effort. Being female, none of them believed they would be placed on the front lines, shooting and killing enemy soldiers. The first half of Front Lines describes the discrimination they faced during their training from their male contemporaries, whilst the second half, set in Tunisia, reveals the true horrors of war.

Grant did not solely focus on the gender controversy. Two of the characters had other traits that were widely discriminated. Firstly, Rainy was Jewish, and although anti-Semitism was not on such a grand scale in America, there were still occasions when she witnessed negative judgments of her religion. Secondly, Frangie was black. At this time in America, there were still many people who detested black people and thought of them as a subclass. Frangie was placed in a segregated section of the army specifically for “nigras.”

Front Lines ultimately reveals that in situations of life and death, everyone is reduced to a raw being – everyone is the same regardless of race, gender or beliefs. Grant illustrates that women can be just as strong as men and that people who are usually looked down on deserve the same amount of respect as the average person.

Whether due to its female voice, or the fact that Grant is writing with young adults in mind, this story was a lot more interesting and relatable than a large chunk of historical war novels. Despite the allusion to dates and chronological events, it was almost like reading something set in the present day.

Ultimately, there was not much to dislike about this book, although perhaps some of the love interests were unnecessary. I highly recommend this book to young adult readers. Although a fictional account, it educates the reader on the horrors of war and the bravery of soldiers. While nothing can compete with first-hand experiences, Front Lines gives a good sense of World War Two action.

Nineteen Minutes
Author: Jodi Picoult
Published: 5th March 2007
Goodreads Rating: 4.15 out of 5
Reviewed: February 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. Many 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 been 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 he has endured throughout his entire school life. He has no friends, is constantly miserable, and possibly suicidal, so on a typical morning in March 2007, he decides to permanently fix the situation. 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 own 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 at 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 had before. Alex, a single mother, also opens herself up to a romantic relationship, something she has had no time to seriously 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 felt, yet they would not pick up a gun. Likewise, by putting themselves in the victims’ shoes, readers will think about how they would feel in the same situation. Yet, would anyone be willing to admit that they made someone else’s life a living hell? There is no easy 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. 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 will not encourage everyone to read this book. Yet, Picoult has excelled 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!


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Champollion le Jeune

Until 19th February 2023, the British Museum is exploring Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in an exhibition supported by BP. Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt contains many examples of beautiful symbols that once represented a written and spoken language used in North East Africa. These symbols remained a mystery for thousands of years, although medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars deciphered a few of their meanings. In 1799, an artefact was found by chance, containing the key to unlocking the ancient language. With the help of the French philologist Jean-François Champollion, the world has a much better understanding of one of Earth’s oldest civilisations.

In 1799, French soldiers, preparing for battle with the Ottoman Empire, decided to rebuild an old fort in Rasheed, Egypt. In doing so, they found a broken stone in the rubble that contained carvings of three scripts: Greek, hieroglyphs and another form of Egyptian writing (demotic). Realising the stone’s importance, the soldiers rescued it from the rubble. At the time, the Europeans knew Rasheed as ‘Rosette’, meaning ‘little rose’, which is why the artefact is known as the Rosetta Stone today.

After French forces surrendered during the Battle of the Nile, the Capitulation of Alexandria treaty stated the French must give any Egyptian antiquities to Britain. As a result, the Rosetta Stone travelled to England, where it remains in the British Museum.

From the Greek, scholars translated the inscriptions on the stone. It contains a priestly decree from 27th March 196 BC, drawn up by a council of Egyptian priests in Memphis. The text praises the acts and honours of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, the king of Egypt from 204 BC until 180 BC.

Jean-François Champollion was born on 23rd December 1790 in Figeac, in Southwestern France. His father, Jacques Champollion, was an infamous drunk, and his mother, Jeanne-Françoise Gualieu, does not feature much in her son’s biography. Instead, Champollion grew up under the care of his older brother, Jacques-Joseph (1778-1867). At the time, his brother was an up-and-coming archaeologist, so Champollion was often called Champollion le Jeune (the young). Champollion eventually lost this nickname after surpassing his brother in fame.

In 1802, Champollion attended the school of the Abbé Dussert, where he discovered he had a natural talent for languages. During his two years at the school, Champollion started learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other Semitic languages, such as Arabic. He also developed a keen interest in Ancient Egypt, which his brother and Abbé Dussert encouraged.

Champollion’s aptitude for languages caught the attention of Joseph Fourier (1769-1830), a French mathematician who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) on his Egyptian expedition in 1798, during which the Rosetta Stone was discovered. Following the expedition, Napoleon entrusted Fourier with the Description de l’Égypte, which catalogued all the artefacts and hieroglyphs the French uncovered. Fourier invited 11-year-old Champollion to view the document and other Ancient Egyptian items. Champollion was instantly enthralled, especially after hearing that the hieroglyphs were unintelligible. From that moment on, Champollion determined to be the first person to decipher them.

In 1804, Champollion began attending a school in Grenoble, where he studied Coptic, a language similar to Egyptian. These studies proved useful during Champollion’s later attempts at translating the Rosetta Stone. From 1807 to 1809, Champollion attended a college in Paris, where he studied under Baron Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), the first Frenchman to attempt to translate the Rosetta Stone. Champollion also received tuition from the orientalist Louis-Mathieu Langlès (1763-1824) and former Coptic monk Raphaël de Monachis (1759-1831). Champollion divided his time between the Collège de France, the Special School of Oriental Languages, the National Library, where his brother worked, and the Commission of Egypt. So engrossed was he with his studies, that Champollion began dressing in Arab clothing and calling himself Champollion Al Seghir (the Arab translation of le jeune).

Champollion first began studying the Rosetta stone in 1808, when he was 17 years old. Around this time, he was starting to suffer from various health issues, including gout and tinnitus, most likely brought on by the unsanitary environments around Paris, yet his brother encouraged him to continue with his studies. To start with, Champollion relied on trial and error, changing his direction of research each time he hit a dead end. Like many other scholars, Champollion relied on other Egyptian artefacts, particularly papyrus, not realising there was more than one type of script. A cursive style known as Hieratic was the main script used in Egypt between the 3rd millennium BC and the first millennium BC. The Hieratic script could be read in any direction, depending on the circumstance. Conversely, the Rosetta Stone is written in Demotic script, which was only read from right to left.

Demotic script bridged the gap between Hieratic and Coptic, of which the latter came into use in the 3rd century AD. Another form of writing also developed between the two periods. Known as Sahidic or Thebaic, many early Coptic texts were written in this dialect, for example, copies of religious writings, such as the resurrection of Jesus. Champollion surmised that by studying Sahidic texts, such as the Askew Codex, containing translations of the Gnostic Pistis Sophia (teachings of the transfigured Jesus and his Disciples), he would notice similarities with the writing on the Rosetta Stone. He also looked for similar symbols, particular those representing place names.

Meanwhile, in England, Thomas Young (1773-1829), a 41-year-old Egyptologist, began working on the Rosetta Stone in 1814. Whilst Young and Champollion were rivals, Young’s efforts to decipher the text helped Champollion eventually crack the code.

Champollion and Young’s rivalry encouraged others to join the race to become the first person to decipher the Rosetta Stone. Egypt soon became a popular tourist destination, and many scholars and archaeologists visited the country to unearth more inscriptions to assist in the translation. These items, including drawings, proved useful to Champollion, particularly sketches of hieroglyphs by the copyist Frédéric Cailliaud (1787-1869).

Champollion agreed with Young’s theory that Demotic script consisted of words (or ideas) and phonetic signs. Earlier hieroglyphs may not have been read aloud, but the influence of the Greek language on the Egyptians encouraged them to include verbal language in their symbols. This observation proved to be the vital key to translating the Rosetta Stone. On 14th September 1822, Champollion excitedly exclaimed to his brother, “Je tiens l’affaire, vois!” (“Look, I’ve got it!”), and promptly collapsed from exhaustion.

Whilst Champollion had not translated the entire Rosetta Stone, he had identified and successfully deciphered several royal Egyptian names, such as “Ptolemy” and “Ramesses”. Testing this discovery on other symbols, Champollion found “Thutmose”, the name of a ruler often mentioned by classical rulers. He also found “King Taharqa”, who lived between 690 and 664 BC. Royal names were indicated by a particular symbol, and Champollion quickly discovered another sign to indicate common names.

Annoyed that Champollion was receiving all the credit, Young argued that Champollion relied on the work of other people to push him in the right direction. Young also claimed Champollion’s translations were inaccurate. For example, Champollion deciphered the names “Antiochus” and “Antigonus”, whereas the Greek text said “Antimachus” and “Antigenis”. Young thought this was proof that Champollion should not receive all the accolades but many scholars were happy to overlook Champollion’s errors. Despite Young’s protestations, Champollion continued to develop his ideas for the next five years before proclaiming on 1st January 1829 that he had nothing further to add. He had perfected his “alphabet” and could apply it successfully to all the monuments in Egypt. Unlike other scholars, Champollion grasped the structural logic of the language.

In 1828, Champollion finally had the chance to visit Egypt on an expedition with his friend and fellow Egyptologist, Ippolito Rosellini (1800-43). Champollion’s understanding of hieroglyphs made a fundamental difference, allowing far more insight than previous expeditions. A tomb discovered in 1817 was thought to belong to King Psamtek I, but with Champollion’s expertise, the name was correctly deciphered as “Sety”.

After a year, Champollion returned to France with at least 100 pieces for the Louvre Palace, now the Louvre museum. These objects left Egypt with the permission of the Ottoman authorities in Egypt, unlike the Rosetta Stone, which was taken from the French by the British. The true ownership of the Rosetta Stone remains a controversial issue.

Champollion did not limit himself to the translation of the Rosetta Stone. During his studies, he helped translate several monuments and inscriptions, including the fictional Teaching of King Amenemhat, which Champollion initially failed to realise was a work of fiction. Champollion was also the first modern scholar to identify King Ahmose as the founder of the 18th dynasty of Egypt (1550-1295 BC).

Champollion’s achievements not only deciphered a writing system but also uncovered one of the oldest written languages in human history. Aside from being able to translate hieroglyphs, scholars now understood how Egyptians measured time and years, commemorated ancestors, or in some cases, attempted to erase people from history. Whilst Champollion died young at 41, his legacy still lives on.

Champollion’s studies were all-consuming, but he also enjoyed life outside of work when he could. After two failed attempts at love, Champollion married Rosine Blanc (1794-1871), the daughter of a well-to-do family of Grenoblean glovemakers. At the time, Rosine’s father disapproved of the match but changed his tune after Champollion’s reputation grew. Champollion and Rosine had a daughter, Zoraïde, but Champollion’s work schedule prevented him from watching her grow up. Being away for weeks, months, or even years at a time put a strain on the marriage, yet they remained faithful to each other. Rosine and Zoraïde lived with Champollion’s brother, meaning Champollion did not need to worry about their well-being when he was away.

After returning from a second expedition in 1831, Champollion was appointed to the chair of Egyptian history and archaeology at the Collège de France by King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850). Unfortunately, Champollion only gave three lectures before illness forced him to give up the post. Exhausted by his labours during his scientific expedition to Egypt, on top of his chronic poor health, Champollion died after suffering a stroke on 4th March 1832 while in Paris. His burial took place in Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Paris, where his grave is marked with a tall obelisk.

A lot of Champollion’s work was published after his death. His brother edited portions of Champollion’s papers and published his almost-finished Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian in 1838. Controversy over Champollion’s decipherment claims continued for many years, but after Champollion’s work helped his student Karl Richard Lepsius (1810-84) successfully decipher the Decree of Canopus, dating from 243 BC, Champollion’s reputation as the true decipherer of the hieroglyphs was cemented.

In Figeac, Champollion’s birthplace, he is honoured with La place des Écritures, a giant reproduction of the Rosetta Stone by American artist Joseph Kosuth (born 1945). Yet, Champillion’s greatest legacy is the continuation of his work by contemporary Egyptologists. The British Museum has Champollion partly to thank for the amount of information they packed into the Hieroglyphs exhibition. Ancient artefacts can only tell scholars so much about the lives of the Ancient Egyptians, but being able to decipher hieroglyphs gives them access to thousands of years of information.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is not an exhibition about Jean-François Champollion, although he is mentioned a great deal. The British Museum comments on the information these hieroglyphs unlock, including poetry, international treaties, shopping lists, tax returns and many stories about ancient beliefs. Yet it is Champollion’s initial decipherment in 1822, exactly 200 years ago, that has inspired the exhibition, so he deserves as much attention as the objects on display.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is on view at the British Museum until 19th February 2023. Tickets cost £18 (or £20 at weekends) and must be purchased in advance. Members and under-16s can visit for free.


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The Astronomers’ House

In the back garden of 19 New King Street, Bath, a German-born British astronomer doubled the known size of the solar system when he discovered a new planet in 1781. Initially named Georgium Sidus after the King, the discovery earned the astronomer instant fame across Europe and the attention of King George III, who hired him as the astronomer of the Court. The man in question was William Herschel, and the planet is known today as Uranus.

In 1981, 19 New King Street opened as a museum about William Herschel and his family, exactly 200 years after he discovered Uranus. The house forms part of a terrace originating from 1764. Whilst it is not pretentious like some neighbouring buildings (the Royal Crescent and the Circus), the house has five floors, including a basement. Although very little documentation exists of the house’s original decor, careful research into the era revealed the style and fashions of the day, which the William Herschel Society used when returning the interior of the building to the 18th and 19th century. Today, the museum is open on Tuesdays to Sundays for those wishing to see where the astronomer once resided.

Born in 1738, Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel grew up in Hanover, Germany. He was the fourth of ten children born to Issak Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. As a keen oboist, Issak encouraged his children to study music and enrolled a couple of his sons as musicians in the Hanoverian Guards regiment. When war with France seemed imminent, Isaak sent Wilhelm and another son, Jakob, to England, where Wilhelm changed his name to the English equivalent, Frederick William Herschel.

Known mostly by his middle name, William quickly learnt English and earned money playing the oboe, violin, harpsichord and organ. In 1761, he acquired the position of first violin in the Newcastle orchestra and started writing symphonies. He wrote a total of 24 symphonies and several concertos during his career as a musician. In 1766, Hershel took on the role of organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath and encouraged one of his younger sisters, Caroline, and three brothers, Dietrich, Alexander and Jakob, to join him in the city. Together, they performed many concerts, with Caroline singing soprano solos. Later, in 1780, Herschel became the director of the Bath orchestra.

Herschel’s interest in music led to his fascination with astrology. After reading Harmonics, or the Philosophy of Musical Sounds (1749), by the mathematician Robert Smith (1689-1768), Herschel came across another work by the same author. Entitled A Compleat System of Opticks (1738), the book explained how to build a telescope, which led Herschel to seek more information on the subject. A local mirror-builder gave Herschel lessons, which helped Herschel develop light-gathering surfaces for use in his hand-built telescopes. He dedicated many hours of the day to grinding and polishing mirrors, often assisted by his brother, Alexander.

At the time of Herschel’s developing interest in astronomy, he and his sister, Caroline, lived at 7 New King Street, a few doors down from the current Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Caroline, who took on the role of housekeeper, despairingly wrote, “It was to my sorrow that I saw almost every room in the house turned into a workshop.” Although Herschel continued to practice music, giving students lessons in various instruments, he spent his spare time working on his telescope.

In 1774, Herschel and his sister moved to Walcot in the suburbs of Bath, where there was plenty of space to build a large telescope. Here, Herschel began studying the rings of Saturn and the Great Orion Nebula, noting his observations in an astronomical journal. Unfortunately, the location proved too far from the centre of Bath, where Herschel and his sister still performed in concert halls and churches. In 1777, they returned to New King Street, taking residence at number 19. The house had a larger garden than it does today, making it a perfect spot for Herschel’s telescope. Unfortunately, he also crammed his instruments into every room of the house, much to Caroline’s disgust. Since Herschel used horse dung for his telescopic mirror moulds, Caroline can hardly be blamed for her protestations.

In 1779, the Herschels briefly moved to 5 Rivers Street, although it is unclear why. Whilst it was closer to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Bath, where Herschel hoped to become a member, the house had no garden. Herschel set up his telescope in the street, where he quickly drew attention. Whilst some saw Herschel and his telescope as a fascinating landmark, horse-drawn carriages had difficulty navigating around him.

Herschel moved his telescope back to 19 New King Street in March 1781, where on the night of the 13th March, he made a discovery that changed the world. The discovery of Georgium sidus, later Uranus, earned Herschel the Copley Medal and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The following year, George III appointed him “The King’s Astronomer”. Herschel and Caroline moved to Datchet, near Windsor, to be closer to London, where he could focus on his astronomy career. By this time, Caroline was more than a housekeeper. In Bath, she became her brother’s assistant and helped him record his findings, which resulted in three catalogues of stars and nebulae. Caroline made a few discoveries of her own, using a telescope built for her by her brother. (For more information, see my blog about The Lost Heroine of Astronomy.)

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy explores William Herschel’s life in Bath and his achievements throughout his career. It also recognises Caroline as an astronomer in her own right and includes the work of John Herschel, William’s son. Herschel married Mary Pitt in 1788, with whom he had one son in 1792. John proved just as intelligent as his father and studied mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he won the Copley Prize in 1812. Despite embarking upon a legal career, John abandoned this in favour of his father’s passion, astronomy.

In 1820, John Herschel became one of the founding members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and after his father’s death in 1822, completed William Herschel’s catalogue of nebular stars with the help of documentation kept by his aunt, Caroline. John is also recognised for his pioneering work in the field of photography, in which he worked closely with William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77) at Lacock Abbey. He coined the words “positive” and “negative” concerning photography and developed a fixing agent.

Like his father, John Herschel also had a passion for music and often played the flute or violin in concerts. Later in life, he became the Master of the Mint, a post once held by the scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Failing health put an end to his career, and John passed away in 1871. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

John Herschel never lived at 19 New King Street, but his portraits currently feature on the walls of the ground-floor reception room. The room also houses illustrations by John, which he produced while using a camera obscura. Other objects include mirrors made by William Herschel and a model of the 40-foot telescope he made when living at the Observatory House near Windsor.

Also situated on the ground floor is the dining room. Handprinted wallpaper gives visitors the impression of 18th-century fashions, as do the framed maps and cartoons. The wooden table in the centre of the room was once part of a larger extending table from the Observatory House. At some stage, the table was divided by various members of the Herschel family, most likely during an inheritance dispute.

Not all the objects in the dining room date to the time of William Herschel’s time in Bath. A longcase clock made by John Roberts of Bath dates to the early 19th century, as does a stick barometer made by Jacob Abrahams. Nonetheless, Herschel likely owned similar items because they would have been of use during his nocturnal observations of the sky.

William Herschel used the first-floor drawing room as a study and workshop. It is also surmised that he slept in the room amongst his machinery and tools. Most of the items on display relate to astronomy and are on loan from the Greenwich Royal Observatory and the Royal Astronomical Society. A brass drum orrery made by George Adams around 1782 demonstrates the movements of the planets in relation to each other. This particular machine includes Uranus and its moons. Whilst some people, such as George III, used orreries as playthings, Herschel and other scientists found them useful for practical demonstrations during talks and lectures.

The drawing room leads into the music room, where scientific instruments resting on the harpsichord indicate Herschel’s fascination with astronomy encroached on his musical career. John Bernard (1756-1828), an actor who received singing lessons from Herschel, recalled, “His lodgings resembled an astronomer’s much more than a musician’s, being heaped up with globes, maps, telescopes, reflectors etc, under which his piano was hid, and the violoncello, like a discarded favourite, skulked away in a corner.”

The basement of the house features a typical Georgian kitchen, complete with an early 19th-century cooking range. With the help of a servant, Caroline prepared food here for her brother, whilst in the next room, Herschel used a furnace and smelting oven to make his telescopic lenses. When setting up the workshop, Herschel had the foresight to create two exits. According to Caroline’s diary, Herschel and one of his brothers attempted to pour 538 pounds of molten metal into a handmade mould, but the liquid splashed onto the ground, causing bits of stone flooring to fly in all directions. Both men survived after hastily escaping through separate doors. The cracks on the workshop floor are still visible today.

The basement leads out into the garden, which is below street level. It is hard to imagine a large telescope in the considerably shortened garden, but its original length is what initially attracted Herschel to the property. When the Herschels lived at 19 New King Street, they benefitted from an orchard at the back of the house. The current layout, designed by the Bath Preservation Trust, features cypress trees and maintained borders.

Within the garden is a statue of William and Caroline Herschel by Vivien Mousdell. Commissioned for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Herschel, the stone sculpture depicts Herschel gazing up at the sky whilst Caroline holds a quill pen in one hand and a piece of paper in the other, on which is drawn the solar system with Uranus at the centre. The statue was unveiled by Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012), the president of the British Astronomical Association. Another sculpture, entitled Seedhead by Ruth Moillet, represents the position of Uranus in the solar system.

A small extension at the rear of the house contains a small exhibition and a few hands-on activities for children. These include simple arts and crafts and a toy version of an orrery. During half-term and end-of-term holidays, the museum hosts specific events targeted at children to teach them about the universe.

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy provides an insight into Herschel’s life and discoveries. It also allows people to imagine life in 18th and 19th-century Bath. Whilst other museums in the city, for instance, No. 1 Royal Crescent, explore the lives of the rich and their servants, William Herschel’s former residence introduces the typical home of the general population. Yet, Herschel was by no means an ordinary man. His genius, passion and perseverance earned him a place in British and international history.

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy is open Tuesday to Sunday between 10am and 5pm. Tickets cost £9.50 for adults and £4.50 for children, except during the Summer Holidays (£11.50 and £5.50).


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Simeon and the Cardiff City Mystery

Dear Simeon,
A strange new mummy has recently appeared in the Ancient Egyptian section of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. Wrapped in layers and layers of bandages, it was found in a broken display case alongside other Ancient mummies. Forensic scientists have yet to establish whether the mummy, nicknamed ‘Tut’ after the Egyptian King Tutankhamun, is an ancient artefact or merely a prank designed to discredit the reputation of the museum. Chief Arvyl Crackit of the CBI (Cardiff Bureau of Investigation) has been called in but she needs extra resources and wants YOU to investigate who put the mummy there and what weapon they used during the break-in.
Good luck!
From Treasure Trails

Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) felt very important after receiving this message from Treasure Trails, so he immediately packed his bags and travelled 190 miles from London to Cardiff. In his haste, Simeon failed to realise his best friend, Sammy Sloth, had stowed away in his bag. After getting over the initial surprise, Simeon agreed that Sammy could help him with his mission, so long as Sammy was on his best behaviour.

Since the crime occurred in the National Museum of Wales, Simeon and Sammy headed towards the museum in Cathays Park to search for clues. Whilst they did not have time to explore the collection, they discovered the museum opened in 1922, although construction began in 1912. Sammy thought the distance between these two dates was very suspicious, but Simeon patiently explained that the First World War put a halt to the building work. The museum contains collections of botany, art, geology, and zoology. It originally had an archaeology section, but this has since moved to St Fagans National Museum of History.

Next to the museum, dozens of people milled around in smart clothes and dresses, waiting for a newly married couple to emerge from a Baroque-style building. Built of Portland stone, this is the City Hall, which opened in October 1906, a year after Cardiff received its city charter. The hall replaced the town hall and was constructed using the world’s first all-electrically operated building site.

Simeon and Sammy did not dare enter the City Hall just in case they gatecrashed someone’s wedding. Instead, they combed the exterior for clues. Two World War II memorials commemorate the lives of those lost, including Polish soldiers, airmen and sailors. A more prominent war memorial honours the victims of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Designed by English sculptor Albert Toft (1862-1949), the monument features several bronze figures representing different concepts. On top of the plinth, a winged figure holding an uprooted olive tree depicts peace, while below, on the western side, a seated male figure with a sword and shield illustrates war and courage. On the eastern side, a seated female figure holding a wreath leans on a shield to resemble grief.

Further down the road from the war memorials, Simeon spotted a statue of Gwilym Williams. Unsure if the gentleman held any clues to the Treasure Trail mystery, Simeon decided to look into the statue’s identity, just in case. Born in London in 1913, Williams belonged to a deeply religious family who encouraged him to study theology at Oxford University. In 1938, Williams became a priest at St Asaph Cathedral in Denbighshire, Wales.

In 1945, Williams moved to Bangor to work as a Lecturer in Theology at the university. He also served as a Canon of Bangor Cathedral and later the Bishop of Bangor. In 1971, Williams also took on the position of Archbishop of Wales, which he held until his retirement in 1982.

Although religion was Williams’ primary love, he was also passionate about the Welsh language. During Margaret Thatcher’s (1925-2013) term as Prime Minister, Williams openly challenged her over her attempts to reduce the status of the Welsh language. Determined to prevent Welsh from dying out, Williams arranged for the Bible to be translated into Welsh and supported the development of the first Welsh television station S4C, which launched in 1982. Following the publication of the Welsh Bible, Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022) invited him to preach at Westminster Abbey.

After learning that Gwilym Williams died in 1990, Simeon determined he was not responsible for the crime, so hurried off with Sammy to explore Bute Park. Comprised of 130 acres, Bute park originally formed the grounds of Cardiff Castle, once owned by John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute (1847-1900). His father was known as the founder of modern Cardiff but passed away when John was only six months old.

The 3rd Marquess of Bute oversaw the restoration of Cardiff Castle and developed the grounds into a public garden. Restrictions were later imposed in 1858, preventing people from accessing the gardens, so Bute divided some of the land to create Bute Park. Bute’s head gardener, Andrew Pettigrew, helped landscape the new park. It is predominately grassland but also features an abundance of trees along the pathways. Simeon and Sammy spotted several carvings made from old tree stumps, but these did not help them in their quest to solve the mystery case.

Before Simeon could search for more clues, Sammy distracted him by shouting, “Look! Stonehenge!” Simeon patiently explained to the excited sloth that Stonehenge was in England, but he agreed that the circle of stones was certainly suspicious. On closer inspection, the stones were not part of an ancient monument but were placed there in 1978 to celebrate Cardiff hosting the Welsh National Eisteddfod.

The National Eisteddfod of Wales is an eight-day poetry and music competition, which takes place every year in different Welsh locations. The event stems from druidic practices of prehistoric times, which took place within structures similar to the Gorsedd Stones in Bute Park. Gorsedd is a Welsh word meaning “throne” and refers to a community or meeting of bards to promote literary scholarship and the creation of poetry and music. Arranged in a circle, the structure usually consists of twelve stone pillars and a flat-topped stone, known as the Logan Stone, in the centre to serve as a platform or stage.

After determining the Gorsedd Stones were not ancient relics, nor relevant to their Treasure Trail, Simeon and Sammy returned to the footpath and made their way around the outskirts of Cardiff Castle. Unfortunately, the castle was closed following the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, so Simeon and Sammy could not explore the old building.

Fortunately, Simeon and Sammy could enjoy seeing the castle from the outside and learn about parts of the fortress from various information boards. One board told them about the former “Swiss Bridge”, inspired by the bridge across Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Constructed in 1875, it provided a direct route from the castle over the moat to the gardens. In 1927, the Swiss Bridge relocated to the Dock Feeder Canal but fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1963.

Another bridge, still intact, once led to the West Gate. The gate once formed one of the main approaches from the west into Cardiff but later became obsolete when a new bridge opened across the River Taff in 1796. In the past, industries near the West Gate included corn mills dating back to the 12th century. Excavations in the early 20th century discovered the locations of the channels that once contained the waterwheels. Water no longer filled these channels because the 19th century Dock Feeder Canal redirected the watercourse north of the castle. In recent years, archaeologists discovered fragments of pots, bowls, jugs, leather sword scabbards, coloured glass, decorated pottery and clay pipes. Some of these objects may have belonged to the aristocracy living at the castle, but others reveal the lives of poorer people who probably worked at the mill.

With their heads full of information but still needing to solve the Treasure Trail mystery, Simeon and Sammy hurried out of Bute Park and started to explore the many streets of Cardiff. While searching for clues along Westgate Street, they came across Principality Stadium, also known as Millennium Stadium. Initially built to host the 1999 Rugby World Cup, it has become the national stadium of Wales and hosts a range of sporting events. It changed its name to Principality Stadium in 2016 after signing a 10-year deal with the Principality Building Society.

Not wishing to waste time, Simeon and Sammy took a shortcut through Cardiff Market. Situated in the Castle Quarter of Cardiff, the indoor market dates to Victorian times. The building consists of two shopping levels, the ground floor and a balcony. Although it opened in 1891, a farmers’ market had been in the city since the 18th century.

There are three entrances to Cardiff Market: one on Trinity Street (where Simeon and Sammy entered), one on Church Street, and one on St Mary Street (where Simeon and Sammy exited). The market was once the site of Cardiff Jail, and the gallows were positioned near the St Mary Street exit. Richard Lewis (1807-31), better known as Dic Penderyn, was famously hanged here on 13th August 1831 after stabbing a soldier during the Merthyr Rising. Working-class men rioted because they were unhappy with their low income, particularly those working in the coal mines in Merthyr Tydfil, a town 23 miles from Cardiff.

Vowing to come back to enjoy the many delights in the market, such as fresh bread, fish and delicious fruit, Simeon and Sammy continued making their way through the streets of Cardiff. At the end of Queen Street, they came across “perhaps one of Wales’ most iconic statues”. The statue recognises Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960) as the founder of the National Health Service (NHS). Bevan was a Welsh Labour Party politician and the Minister of Health in Clement Attlee’s government between 1945 and 1951. He led the campaign for free medical care at point-of-need across the UK, resulting in the creation of the NHS in 1948.

The statue of Aneurin Bevan was commissioned by South Glamorgan County Council during the 1980s. Robert Thomas (1926-99), who produced many sculptures around Cardiff, created the statue, which was erected in 1987. The lifesize (6 ft) cast bronze figure wears a suit and leans forward as though frozen in time while moving. A 7 ft pedestal raises Bevan above the head of shoppers, upon which gold letters read “Founder of the National Health Service”.

Simeon and Sammy spotted several statues during their exploration of Cardiff, but the one that stood out the most honoured Betty Campbell (née Johnson, 1943-2017), Wales’ first black head teacher. Campbell grew up in a multicultural community in Cardiff, where her family experienced financial hardship. Despite her circumstances, Campbell worked hard at school and earned a scholarship to the Lady Margaret High School for Girls. As a working-class black girl, Campbell struggled to make her teachers take her seriously, but their discouragement made Campbell more determined to succeed.

Betty Campbell became pregnant at 17 and left school to marry Rupert Campbell. After the birth of her third child, she learned that the Cardiff Teacher Training College had started accepting female students. Campbell immediately applied and became one of the first six women to attend the college. Campbell became a teacher at Mount Stuart Primary School, where she taught for 28 years. Campbell noticed people assumed she was not as good at her job because she was black, so inspired by activists like Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), Campbell started teaching her pupils about slavery and black history. Around this time (1970s), she also became the head teacher of Mount Stuart and turned the school into a multicultural-friendly establishment.

Campbell became a member of the Commission for Racial Equality, founded in 1976, Campbell’s reputation as a supporter of black rights grew rapidly across Cardiff and in 2003, she was awarded an MBE for services to education and community life. When she passed away in 2017, hundreds of people lined the streets to pay their respects.

The statue of Betty Campbell was erected in Central Square in 2021. Designed by Eve Shepherd (born 1976), it depicts a 13 ft bust of Campbell’s head and shoulders surrounded by ten children of various ages around the base. Simeon and Sammy had great fun pretending to play with the children.

Finally, Simeon and Sammy’s trek around Cardiff brought them back to the National Museum of Wales, where they solved the final clue and reported their findings to the Treasure Trail headquarters. Little did Simeon and Sammy know their adventure was not quite over. Simeon heard on the grapevine that King Charles III (born 1948) intended to visit the city and that he would stop for a short while at Cardiff Castle. “Doesn’t he know the castle is closed?” enquired Sammy. So, Simeon and Sammy decided to investigate.

A queue of people informed Simeon and Sammy that a select number of people were allowed to enter the castle grounds to greet the King. After looking at the length of the queue and discovering that some had been waiting since 3 am, Simeon and Sammy gave up any hope of getting into the castle. To cheer themselves up, the pair treated themselves to an hour boat trip to Cardiff Bay and back. When they returned, the queue had disappeared, and a kind lady told them there was still room for a few more people in the castle. Without hesitation, Simeon and Sammy rushed through the gates and joined the crowd and camera crews hoping for a glimpse of the King.

After waiting patiently, Simeon and Sammy were awarded a glimpse of the new King as he waved to the crowd before entering the castle. As if that was not exciting enough, Simeon and Sammy had their photograph taken with the Royal Welsh Guards and a small horse. What a great way to end their travels to Cardiff; they solved a mystery and met (sort of) the King. This is certainly a trip Simeon and Sammy will cherish forever.

To purchase the Cardiff City trail from Treasure Trails, click here.

Did you know, Simeon is now on Instagram? Follow his latest adventures at @theadventuresofsimeon or on his personal blog page.

If you enjoyed this blog, here are some of Simeon’s other adventures.
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part Two
Simeon goes to Grantham
Simeon and the Cable Car Mission
Simeon and the Quest for the Roman Hoard
Simeon and a Tale of Two Bridges


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

5 More Book Reviews

The Expatriates
Author: Corinne O’Flynn
Published: 16th October 2014
Goodreads Rating: 4.20 out of 5
Reviewed: November 2014

The Expatriates is the first book in the Song of the Sending young adult fantasy series by Corinne O’Flynn. Seventeen-year-old Jim knows he was not originally from this modern world. He can tap into animals’ minds and has friends with other abilities. Brought up to believe that his original world had been destroyed, Jim is shocked when he receives a message saying he is needed back home. Jim’s life is completely turned upside down, and he finds himself running for his life with his two friends, Sam and Charlie.

After discovering how to return to his homeland, he quickly learns that he has been told lies all his life. He never realized he was such an important person, nor that this put him in serious danger.

Jim’s story is fast-paced and exciting as things go from the relatively normal to the completely unexpected. O’Flynn has done a great job of contrasting modern California with the fictional medieval world, Bellenor. Not only does it seem like the three friends have stepped back in time, but the place becomes gradually more and more magical.

As well as his two friends, Jim has a tiger called Bak as a companion. He can connect with Bak’s mind, and it is clear that they share a close bond. Readers will fall in love with Bak and his toddler-like sentences as he converses with Jim. This was a nice touch to the general story.

The reader is only introduced to a couple of mythical creatures. Although one is familiar by name, they are a reimagined concept rather than the way they are typically portrayed in existing fantasy fiction. This uniqueness helps this book to stand out amongst others within this genre.

There was a romantic aspect to the story, but it felt a little unnecessary, although it may appeal to some readers. The pace of the book made it quick to read, which, by no means a bad thing, resulted in a lack of depth in some areas.

Overall, The Expatriates is a brilliant book. It appeals to people’s sense of adventure but also plays on emotions. Having an animal as a key character and being able to get into its thoughts is an interesting concept. It will be intriguing to discover what happens next.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Author: Cheryl Strayed
Published: 20th March 2012
Goodreads Rating: 4.04 out of 5
Reviewed: December 2014

Recently brought to the big screen starring Academy Award Winner Reese Witherspoon, Wild is a true account of Cheryl Strayed’s epic hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). For three months, Cheryl treks from Mojave, California, through Oregon before finishing at the Bridge of the Gods.

Wild is a compelling story that reveals a young woman’s determination and bravery to complete her impulsive walk of eleven hundred miles. Ill-prepared and still struggling with her mother’s death a few years earlier, Cherly sets off, unaware of the strength she would need to complete her challenge.

As Cheryl writes, the reader learns how she survives the severe changes in weather conditions, her lack of food and money, and her damaged feet, including missing toenails. Cheryl Strayed’s story is an inspiration to readers as she proves that a human being can go above and beyond expectations in extraordinary circumstances. Despite having the truth laid out on paper, it is impossible to imagine the emotions and physical exertion Cheryl must have gone through.

A good thing about this biographical tale is that Cheryl’s narrative does not solely focus on the PCT but refers back to events of the past that have made Cheryl who she is today and influenced her decision to begin the trail. The reader begins to know the real Cheryl and understand what she is feeling and thinking at different points in the book.

Although reading about someone going for a long walk may sound unappealing, it is so beautifully written and full of raw emotion that it will be enjoyed by many readers.

All Fall Down
Author: Ally Carter
Published: 20th January 2015
Goodreads Rating: 3.85 out of 5
Reviewed: April 2015

Ally Carter has become well known for her Gallagher Girls series and Heist Society series and is now back with a brand new young adult series: Embassy Row. After witnessing the death of her mother three years earlier, sixteen-year-old Grace is shipped off to Adria to live with her ambassador grandfather at the United States embassy. Well known for her daredevil, rebellious history, she is now expected to settle down, become more ladylike and attend international balls. Grace, on the other hand, has other plans.

Grace is convinced her mother was murdered and that she knows who the murderer was. The only problem is no one believes her: not her grandfather nor the many psychiatrists, and even her friends have their doubts. So, Grace does what any “self-respecting mentally unbalanced teenager” would do and takes matters into her own hands.

It is exciting to read about Grace putting pieces of the puzzle together by investigating underground tunnels, tailing a scarred man around the city and behaving like James Bond. As the plot begins to climax, it is difficult not to rush through the novel to discover how it ends.

As well as the mystery storyline, Ally Carter also explores the theme of mental health. Naturally, Grace has had issues since the death of her mother and finds herself, time and again, trying to convince people she is not crazy. Readers who have experienced mental health problems may relate to not being taken seriously and understand Grace’s frustration.

Overall, All Fall Down is a fantastic and exciting story to read. The air of mystery and the feeling of suspense keeps the reader on their toes as they race through the book. It is also refreshing to read a young adult novel that does not focus on a teenage love story. 

Extraordinary Means
Author: Robyn Schneider
Published: 26th May 2015
Goodreads Rating: 3.94 out of 5
Reviewed: May 2015

Extraordinary Means is a coming-of-age novel by Robyn Schneider that promises to live up to the expectations of John Green and Stephen Chbosky fans. Set in the near future, Lane Rosen has spent his seventeen years studying and ensuring he achieves his best at school. With high hopes of getting into Stanford, he is distraught when he is sent to Latham House, a sanatorium in the Santa Cruz Mountains, after contracting tuberculosis.

Although in today’s society tuberculosis is curable, Schneider has invented a total drug-resistant TB, which is highly contagious and needs to be contained. Lane finds himself in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by other teenagers with the incurable disease. Here he meets Sadie Bennett, with whom, after a shaky start, he develops a close relationship.

Ironically, whilst suffering from an illness that could kill him, Lane learns there is more to life than school. With his new friends: Sadie, Nick, Marina and Charlie, Lane becomes more adventurous and starts to relax and have fun whilst they wait for scientists to come up with a cure. The only trouble with this waiting game is that the odds of some of them not living long enough to see this cure is very high.

Narrated by both Lane and Sadie, Extraordinary Means is a love story with a heartbreaking ending. Readers feel for the teens as they are separated from their families and forgotten about by their friends. Unlike other potentially terminal illnesses, they cannot have support from their loved ones because of the risk of spreading the disease.

There is an underlying sadness to the novel, as the reader knows that no matter how much fun the characters have and no matter what their hopes and dreams are, the chances are something dreadful could happen. With this in mind, the story becomes much more powerful and moving as Sadie, Lane, and friends are determined to keep on going and enjoy their lives on a day-to-day basis.

Schneider is an excellent writer who has created a contemporary romance with a unique setting. The imagination involved with tuberculosis could almost describe the novel as dystopian, minus the science fiction aspect. Extraordinary Means is the perfect novel for young adult fans, but a warning: it could break your heart!

Dreamland
Author: Robert L. Anderson
Published: 22nd September 2015
Goodreads Rating: 3.53 out of 5
Reviewed: July 2015

“Dreams come true. So do nightmares.” Dea Donahue has spent her entire life travelling from one state to another, starting school after school and walking other people’s dreams to survive. Dea, like her mother, is a dream walker, but she must keep this a secret from everyone else. She must follow the rules: do not walk a person’s dream more than once, and do not let the dreamer see her; otherwise, the monsters will find her. Or so Dea’s eccentric mother says.

Dea’s mother is very paranoid, afraid of many things, particularly mirrors, and has a strange obsession with clocks. At any moment she may decide they need to pack up and leave, but Dea has had enough. Especially now that she has met Connor, the first boy to ever treat her nicely, the first boy she could call a friend. But when Dea’s mother goes missing, Dea needs to take a closer look at her mother’s obscure fears to track her down. At the same time, there are rumours going around suggesting that Connor may not be the nice guy Dea thinks he is.

Dreamland is both a fantasy novel and a murder mystery. It is as though Robert L. Anderson has written two different stories and then seamlessly merged them. The main narrative focuses on Dea’s predicament, but Connor’s life is constantly present underneath it. The real-life quality of the storyline makes the incidents Dea experiences all the more creepy.

Part three of the book becomes more fantasy-like, which is a little confusing, and it is difficult to see the setting in the way the author perceives it. The narrative eventually returns to the real world and progresses with Connor’s story. It is not until this point that the reader realizes that Dreamland is part murder mystery.

As a whole, Dreamland is a gripping read that is difficult to put down. Readers are plagued with questions and anticipation as they wait to discover why Dea can dream walk, the significance of the mirrors and clocks, and what happened to Dea’s mother. Once these are resolved, a whole bunch of new questions crop up.

The ending is mostly satisfying, although it is not completely clear what happens next. Although the reader knows where Dea and Connor both end up, it is up to the reader to interpret what their lives are like once the story ends. Yet, Dreamland is a worthy young adult book to read. It is different to other novels in the genre and brings a whole new concept to the table. 


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Winslow Homer

For the first time, the National Gallery in London displays a selection of works by American artist Winslow Homer. Known in the United States for his depiction of leading issues of the 19th century, such as the Civil War and racism, Homer remained popular in America for many years after his death. Although he briefly stayed in England, Homer did not attain the same popularity in the United Kingdom. The exhibition, Winslow Homer: Force of Nature, provides the opportunity for people to discover the paintings that Americans have loved for over a century.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 24th February 1836, Winslow Homer grew up in a middle-class family consisting of two parents and two brothers. His father, Charles Savage Homer, was a businessman, constantly seeking out “get-rich-quick” schemes that never came to fruition. Charles eventually left his family to seek his nonexistent fortune in Europe. Homer’s mother, Henrietta Benson Homer, taught her son to paint with watercolour and encouraged his interest in art. Despite his father’s selfish money-making endeavours, Charles found an apprenticeship for his son with the lithographer J. H. Bufford, who introduced Homer to the world of engraving and illustration.

Homer found work with Harper’s Weekly, one of the most popular middle-class magazines in New York City. Whilst Homer turned down a permanent position on the magazine’s staff, he worked as a freelancer from his studio in Boston, producing drawings to illustrate articles on various subjects. Homer also attended classes at the National Academy of Design in New York to expand his artistic horizons. By the time the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Homer was an established illustrator and an up-and-coming oil and watercolour painter.

The Civil War became the focus of most American magazines, so Harper’s Weekly sent Homer to the Union Army Front in Virginia to draw illustrations. The artists covering the war were the 19th-century equivalent of sending photographers and news reporters. The work was dangerous and exhausting for Homer, but he produced some of the most powerful images of the Civil War. Several of these he reproduced as oil paintings, such as Sharpshooter (1863), which depicts a Union rifleman sitting in a tree, aiming at an unseen target in the distance. Homer said the scene was as close to murder as anything he had ever seen, and he frequently questioned the morals and human stakes of the war.

Homer believed the most powerful images derived from focusing on specific details. He said, “When you paint, try to put down exactly what you see. Whatever else you have to offer will come out anyway.” Homer did not draw what he wanted people to see but instead painted what he could see, whether boredom and hunger or terror and violence. Although he did not physically fight during the Civil War, Homer likely suffered emotionally and psychologically after witnessing the horrors of battle. When he returned home, his mother noted he had changed so much that not even his best friends recognised him.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the country entered a period of reconstruction. With the abolishment of slavery, African Americans became free citizens and received, to some extent, the same civil rights as their former masters. Homer spent some time in the southern states, where slavery was once prevalent, and soon realised that the Civil War had not solved America’s problems. He noted that reconstruction was not working and began depicting post-war African American life in his paintings.

In A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876), Homer demonstrated the new social relationships between former slave and mistress. The African American women in the painting were once the property of the stern white woman, but now they are her employees. Rather than working for nothing, they are paid for their work, which means they must pay for their board and lodgings. Former slaves received very little money for their work, which meant they remained in slave-like conditions because they could not afford to move away.

The silent, sad girls in The Cotton Pickers (1876) are no longer slaves, but their workload has not changed. They picked cotton before the war and are still picking cotton afterwards. Whilst Homer’s beautiful depiction of the cotton fields makes the painting pleasant to look at, it is full of deeper meaning. Homer never explained his artwork, but the lack of joy on the figures’ faces suggests their lives have not changed since the abolition of slavery. Former slaves still lived in a deeply racist world where the rise of white supremacists, such as the Ku Klux Klan, found alternative ways of policing African Americans. Shortly after the completion of this painting, Jim Crow laws were implemented, which enforced racial segregation in society.

In 1881, Homer moved to England for a couple of years. Initially, he travelled to London, but after a week, he moved to Cullercoats, a fishing village in what was once Northumberland (now Tyne and Wear). Homer became a part of the Cullercoats Artist Colony, who frequently painted the “Cullercoats Fish Lasses” going about their work. These women, some as young as 14, worked in all weathers, cleaning fish and mending nets. Many of these workers carried their babies and children on their backs while they worked despite the bracing strong and bitter winds. When they were not working, the women frequently stood at the water’s edge, awaiting the return of their husbands, fathers and brothers.

During the 19th century, the life of a fisherman was dangerous. There was no guarantee that the men would return safely to shore. Drownings and shipwrecks were a daily occurrence, and Homer spent much of his time in Cullercoats recording and observing the perils at sea.

During Homer’s time in Cullercoats, a large ship called the Iron Crown foundered at the mouth of the River Tyne on 20th October 1881. The villagers raised the alarm and everyone, including Homer, rushed to the shore to begin rescue operations. While the more skilled men sailed out in lifeboats, Homer documented the event on paper with quick sketches, which he later developed into dramatic oil paintings.

Homer returned to the United States in 1882 and began demonstrating his skills in watercolours as well as oils. After spending a few months in New York, Homer settled in Prouts Neck, Maine, a small coastal town that reminded him of Cullercoats. Whilst the elemental, austere location gave Homer lots of inspiration for his paintings, he began to travel south during the winter because the warmer climate was better for his health. He visited places such as Florida, the Bahamas, Barbados and Bermuda and observed the various ways of life. Many of these works featured bright colours, reflecting the sundrenched scenes and different cultures.

Although Homer produced more watercolour paintings in his later years, he continued to work in oils for larger, dramatic scenes. His trips to Florida and the Caribbean involved crossing the Gulf Stream, a warm, swift current in the Atlantic Ocean. He chose to paint an imagined scene depicting a lone black sailor in a state of peril. Before producing The Gulf Stream (1899), Homer created several watercolours representing the different parts of the sailor’s journey. For his oil painting, Homer chose to surround the boat with sharks while the sailor lies defeated on the deck with only several stalks of sugar cane to sustain him.

Many people have tried to interpret what Homer was trying to say in his painting of The Gulf Stream. Although people frequently asked Homer to elaborate, he always refused. Some suggest the sugar cane is an allegory for the fate of African Americans because it was once a predominant product of enslaved labour in the Americas and West Indies. Others are more concerned about the man’s fate, noting both the presence of the frenzy of sharks in the foreground and the silhouette of a ship in the background. Contemporary critics comment on its relevance to today’s society, particularly in relation to migrants crossing the Mediterranean and the migration of Cubans to America, many of whom lost their lives in the attempt.

By the end of Homer’s life, he was one of the most famous living American artists, but he did not reach financial stability until 1900 at the age of 64. The money he received from museums for his paintings was relatively good, and his father’s death two years before meant Homer no longer needed to pay for his father’s care.

For the final decade of his life, Homer continued producing watercolours and oils, but he turned his attention to nature, from which no hidden messages can be subtracted. Homer once told an art student, “Leave rocks for your old age – they’re easy.” Following his own advice, Homer focused on rocks upon the shore, rarely including signs of human life.

Homer’s final oil painting, Driftwood (1909), included a lone figure in the bottom right corner, once again prompting people to question the meaning of his work. The rest of the painting is similar to Homer’s other scenes from this era, which focus on the violent sea crashing over rocks. The man is attempting to move a large piece of driftwood, a task that seems futile as the crashing waves approach. Some have interpreted the figure as Homer facing his impending death. Whether or not Homer knew he was dying, he passed away the following year at the age of 74.

Most artists experience a decline in popularity after their death, but Homer has remained popular in the United States. Homer never taught in schools, but many students chose to study his work, both before and after his death. Homer did not offer much advice about painting techniques but encouraged artists to “Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.”

Homer continued to inspire and influence Americans throughout the 20th century. In 1962, the US Post Office honoured Homer with a commemorative stamp. The image showed a copy of the painting Breezing Up, which Homer painted between 1873 and 1876. It depicts a relatively calmer sea than in his later works. In 2010, the Post Office produced another stamp featuring another of Homer’s paintings. It was printed as part of a series of “American Treasures”.

Newspapers during the 1890s called Homer “Yankee Robinson Crusoe, cloistered on his art island” and “a hermit with a brush”. Homer never married and spent most of his time alone. In 1909, he declined an invitation to spend Thanksgiving with his brother because he preferred to stay home and paint. Due to his reclusive nature, very little is known about Homer as a person. The subject matters of his paintings suggest he liked nature and the outdoors, particularly by the sea. Earlier works indicated which side he supported during the Civil War and how he felt about the treatment of African Americans, but none of these interpretations are fully reliable. Despite Homer’s prolific output and popularity, the man remains a mystery.

Unlike artists of the Renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age and other European eras, Homer’s popularity did not spread outside of his home country. Other Americans, such as Andy Warhol, became known for their controversial topics and styles, while Homer’s powerful paintings were overlooked. The National Gallery, with support from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is finally introducing the UK to this phenomenal artist. With 50 paintings on display, Winslow Homer becomes the next artist in the gallery’s attempt to introduce major American artists to a European audience. Previous artists in the programme have included Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.

Winslow Homer: Force of Nature is open until 8th January 2023. The standard admission price is £12, although some concessions are available. Tickets must be booked in advance.


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5 Book Reviews

Broken Realms
Author: D. W. Moneypenny
Published: 28th April 2014
ISBN13: 9780996076418
Goodreads Rating: 3.67 out of 5
Reviewed: August 2014

Broken Realms is a brilliant science fiction novel and the first instalment of The Chronicles of Mara Lantern by D. W. Moneypenny. Set in present-day Oregon, it deals with metaphysical ideas and bizarre creatures – a very intriguing read.

Mara Lantern is a young adult who has left school to work in a gadget repair shop, where her natural talent for restoring machinery is put to good use. At the commencement of the book, she is being driven to the airport by her New Age-obsessed mother in order to fly out to San Francisco to visit her father. Once the plane is airborne, it is clear there is something terribly wrong. Bright blue light flashes throughout the aircraft and the passengers around Mara appear to be distorting: growing fangs and snouts and changing eye colour. What is even stranger is a redheaded boy is running down the aisle, closely pursued by a clone of Mara.

In an attempt at an emergency landing, the plane crashes into the Columbia River – a crash impossible to survive – but everyone does. All the passengers and crew are pulled out of the river unharmed, all except Mara, who is found unconscious on the pavement with a head wound.

Detective Daniel Bohannon is assigned to the case to investigate the cause of the crash, but when some of the survivors start displaying super-human or animalistic traits, it becomes clear this is no ordinary situation.

Whilst the investigation continues, Mara begins to deal with what she saw on the plane. With the help of a fellow survivor, Ping, and the redheaded boy, Sam (who claims he is her brother), she begins to learn that her world, her life and human existence, in general, is not all she believed it to be.

Although Broken Realms is accurately described as a science fiction and fantasy novel, there were times, particularly during the police investigations, when it also felt a little like a crime thriller. There is nothing particularly bad about that, but to begin with, it was as though two different genres were competing with each other depending on which character’s point of view was being read.

What helped to make this book so great were the excellent writing skills of D. W. Moneypenny. It was written so clearly that vivid images came to mind whilst reading. The pace of the narrative was quick, and at no point did it stop being exciting.

Another good thing (admittedly others may not see it as such) was that there were no romantic attachments between the characters to detract from the main storyline. This meant the novel was completely focused on the plot without unnecessary interruptions.

Broken Realms is a highly recommended book for science fiction and fantasy lovers. It leaves the reader wanting to know what is going to happen next. So now the wait for the next book in The Chronicles of Mara Lantern begins.

The 100
Author: Kass Morgan
Published: 3rd September 2013
ISBN13: 9780316234511
Goodreads Rating: 3.57 out of 5
Reviewed: August 2014

The recently televised novel The 100 by Kass Morgan is the first in a unique dystopian series set centuries into the future. Cataclysmic nuclear and biological wars rendered Earth uninhabitable, forcing humans to create a new life in space on a large ship. Three hundred years later, scientists judge that the harmful radiation that destroyed Earth may have reduced or even completely disappeared, meaning that the planet would finally be safe for humans. To test this theory, the Colony sends one hundred adolescent lawbreakers with the mission to begin to recolonize Earth.

The novel is told from the point of view of four characters: Clarke, Wells, Bellamy and Glass. The first three are on the drop ship to Earth, but Glass escapes at the very last second and remains behind. Although there may be a hundred people on this mission, none of them has any idea what to expect or how to live on a planet. It does not help matters when the drop ship crash lands, leaving them, particularly Clarke, the only one with medical knowledge, in an even more difficult situation than they were anticipating. Meanwhile, back on the ship, Glass discovers that human life may be in as much danger there as it would be on Earth.

Each character has flashbacks to their life on the ship, which gradually reveals the events leading up to them being convicted as criminals and thus sent to their new lives or even possible deaths. Due to this, there was less action set on Earth than there could have been – there was not enough time for a Lord of the Flies situation to arise. Yet, it was fascinating to imagine their reaction to the first time they saw the sunset or felt the rain, being mesmerized by bird songs and enjoying their first-ever piece of meat.

As with most young adult novels, there is the inevitable romance theme consisting of conflicting feelings and love triangles. The overall situation some of the main characters found themselves in was due to actions they committed in the name of love. Sometimes this theme could get a little annoying and hinder the dystopian side of the story, but it would not have been able to function without these elements.

Kass Morgan concludes The 100 at the peak of the climax, leaving us desperately wanting to find out what happens next. This is a highly recommended book for young adult readers who love science fiction.

The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Published: 26th April 1993
ISBN13: 9780385732550
Goodreads Rating: 4.13 out of 5
Reviewed: October 2014

It has been over twenty years since Lois Lowry’s controversial children’s story The Giver was published, and it certainly deserves its status as an essential modern classic. Jonas has grown up in the perfect world of the Community whose survival relies on strict rules and rituals. Adults are assigned spouses and children (one boy and one girl) as they take up their roles within society. At the beginning of the book, Jonas is approaching the end of his eleventh year and feeling apprehensive about the Ceremony of Twelve, where he will be assigned a job for him to do for the rest of his adult life. Jonas gets selected as the Receiver of Memory – a very rare position – and begins to experience memories from humans who lived a long time ago. For Jonas, this is exciting until he begins to see the flaws in his perfect world.

Dystopian literature has become popular over the past few years, and it would not be surprising if it were The Giver that inspired these contemporary works. Lowry claims that she did not intend for The Giver to have a sinister feel about it; she was writing an adventure story and exploring the concept of the importance of memory, but it turned out to be much more thought-provoking. As the children’s novelist Margaret Mahy (The Haunting) pointed out, up until the publication of this novel in 1993, Lowry was best known for her funny stories about Anastasia Krupnik, resulting in The Giver being even more shocking and unexpected.

The Giver highlights that attempting to produce perfection can often result in the loss of good things as well as the bad. The notion of the ideal world may seem like a wonderful proposal, but in order to achieve it humans would have to do away with free choice. In ironing out the inequalities and injustices of the present world, everything becomes the same for each individual.

It is a difficult concept to grasp, particularly for a child. Although intended as a children’s series, The Giver and its following instalments are more suitable for young adults and older. The only issue with this is that the writing style was targeted at a younger audience meaning that the story is short and lacks depth. If written for older readers, there would have been the scope for it to become a much lengthier novel.

There are a lot of mixed reviews surrounding this book, although they have changed greatly since the original publication. To begin with, The Giver was banned in some areas, but the dystopian theme has become accepted in today’s society. What many people comment on now is the oversimplification of such strong ideas. Then again, as already mentioned, it needs to be emphasized that this book was aimed at children, thus the language reflects the reading skills of its target audience.

The Giver is a gem of a book that is not only enjoyable, but also educates the reader on the dangers of attempting a utopian society and why it is important to retain human memories – even the bad – in order that wisdom can exist. Those who have become fans of contemporary dystopian novels, for example, Divergent by Veronica Roth or Delirium by Lauren Oliver, will love this series.

Our Zoo
Author: June Mottershead
Published: 9th October 2014
ISBN13: 9781472226358
Goodreads Rating: 4.15 out of 5
Reviewed: October 2014

Many people in Britain may have recently watched the drama series Our Zoo on BBC1 about the Mottershead family who moved to Oakfield, Upton, in 1930 with the aim of building a zoo without bars. Based on a true story, the drama over exaggerated the difficulties the family faced in developing what became the famous Chester Zoo. Until 2010 when TV producer Adam Kemp approached her, June Mottershead had never thought about making her history available to the public. The truth had to be bent slightly for the television production with the removal of certain characters, added romance, and laws prevented chimpanzees from being filmed. So, June Mottershead has penned the true story, also called Our Zoo, which is just as fascinating as the scenes shown on screen.

June was only four when she moved to Upton with her parents, grandparents, her fourteen-year-old sister Muriel, and a selection of animals. The BBC1 drama only focused on her father, George, seeking permission to build his zoo despite the petition against it. In the book, this occurs within the first few chapters, then continues until June’s marriage to her husband Fred Williams in 1949. The period of the narrative also jumps around depending on the animals or events that June is describing.

A large chunk of the book focuses on the effect the Second World War had on the zoo. As can be expected, the rationing of vital products took its toll on the animals’ diets, and although the zoo never took a direct hit, the Liverpool blitz caused havoc by destroying the glass tanks in the aquarium. On the other hand, the number of animals rapidly grew, as it was not just humans that became refugees during the war.

It was a delight to read about June’s relationships with some of the animals, particularly Mary the chimpanzee, who was also June’s best friend as a child and behaved in a human-like manner. As well as the happy moments, there were the inevitable upsetting accounts of the deaths of some of the animals, either from old age, illness or accidents.

While Our Zoo cannot be described as a novel, it neither has the feel of an autobiography. The conversational tone of the writing made it a pleasure to read and easy to visualize the scenes. This easy-to-read book is a strong recommendation for those who enjoyed the BBC adaptation and wish to find out what happened next. It does not matter if you have not watched the drama, as it is still a fascinating story to read.

The Outcasts
Author: John Flanagan
Published: 1st March 2012
ISBN13: 9780440869924
Goodreads Rating: 4.38 out of 5
Reviewed: October 2014

The Outcasts is the first book in the Brotherband Chronicles about teenage Hal and his small team of misfit friends. Set in times when to be a warrior and be part of a crew on a wooden ship were some of the highest honours, all boys, when approaching the age of sixteen, have to endure months of exhausting training. The popular boys form Brotherbands containing the candidates with the most potential, leaving Hal and seven other social outcasts to form another group: the Herons. Despite their severe disadvantage, Hal must encourage the Herons to use their brains to outwit the strength of the other Brotherbands and defeat them at the challenges the instructors set and become the ultimate winners.

Hal is an instantly likeable character. He is talented, intelligent, kind and thoughtful, and makes an excellent and inspiring team leader. Although this book is set in a fictional historical period, there are many things that a young reader can relate to, for example, bullying and racial discrimination.

As well as the Brotherband training, there are a lot of ship and sailing references, which may appeal to male readers of a certain age. The author, John Flanagan, realises that many people today would not be familiar with the ins and outs of sailing and has included a glossary explaining numerous nautical terms used during the novel. These are defined in an easy-to-understand way, as the target audience is those aged ten and upwards.

There is a limited number of female characters, suggesting that these chronicles are written with male teenage readers in mind. Despite this, it is still an enjoyable, exciting book regardless of your gender. The character developments are excellent, and the Herons are an admirable team.

Initially, it took a while to get into the story. The reader does not meet Hal until part two of four because it begins twelve years before the main timeline. Throughout this section, the only characters are adults, to which the target audience is less likely to relate. For this reason, and due to some of the violence, I would recommend this book for ages thirteen and older rather than the “10+” suggested on the back cover.

Overall, Brotherband: The Outcasts is a brilliant book, and it was refreshing for a young adult novel not to revolve around a romantic relationship. The next book in the series promises to be as exciting as the first.


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