Archive for May, 2009

Who on earth is Tom Plunkett, I hear you ask ;0)

Tom was, in fact, a real-life dashing figure from the Regency period.  When Juliet, Georgia and I visited Winchester and Chawton recently, one of the points on our whistle stop tour was Winchester Cathedral. There was one item in that beautiful building I was really keen to see – the roll of fame memorial to the Rifle Brigade. The memorial lists those riflemen who have particularly distinguished themselves in battle since the formation of the regiment.

Tales from the Rifle BrigadeThe roll call starts with the name of the Regiment’s founder, Major General Coote Manningham. In 1800, Coote Manningham, along with Lieutenant Colonel William Stewart, used what they had learnt while leading light infantry to train an Experimental Corps of Riflemen. The philosophy was to train the Rifle Corps for a different type of warfare – one which allowed for small groups of skirmishers (equipped with the new, formidable Baker rifle as opposed to the standard issue musket) to operate ahead of the main infantry and harass the enemy with aimed shots. Their uniform was also notably different. Riflemen wore dark green jackets rather than the red coats of the infantry regiments; pantaloons, rather than wool breeches, and black accoutrements rather than white. All, of course, designed to allow riflemen to make the best use of natural cover and the forerunner of modern day camouflage dress. Riflemen were also encouraged to think for themselves and use their initiative which was another departure from the accepted military conventions of the time.

The Rifle Corps was renamed the 95th Rifles in 1803. The 95th went on to gain fame in the Penisula campaign and beyond, and were dubbed ‘the rascals in green’ by the French.  In 1816, the 95th Rifles became the Rifle Brigade.

Famous names from the Peninsula/Waterloo campaigns can be found on the memorial in Winchester Cathedral, including Captain Sir John Kincaid and General Sir Harry Smith (who appeared in Georgette Heyer’s A Spanish Bride). And here’s where we come to the legendary Tom Plunkett, who has the added distinction of being the ONLY private rank soldier to be listed on the memorial from that period.

Rifle Brigade memorial, Winchester Cathedral

Rifle Brigade memorial, Winchester Cathedral

Tom was a real-life ‘Sharpe’, a remarkable man and reputedly the finest marksman among the crack shots in the Rifles. His disciplinary record was hardly exemplary – he was not averse to arguing with officers if he felt the occasion warranted it! – but he was proud, witty, brave and esteemed by his peers. All contemporary accounts agree he was ‘bold, fit, and athletic’ man, in the ‘prime of manhood; with a clear grey eye, and handsome countenance’. He first gained fame for his marksmanship during an attack on Buenos Aires in 1807, but his name went down in the history of the Regiment for an amazing feat performed two years later during retreat from Corunna. Tom raced ahead of the line and, lying on his back, he rested his rifle on his crossed feet with the butt under his shoulder, he fired at and hit a French General at an astonishing range, probably between 200 and 400 yards. He went on to fight throughout the Peninsula War and at Waterloo, where he was wounded.

Tom married a lady who had been disfigured when caught in the explosion of an ammunition wagon at Quatre Bras, and, while his life after discharge from the army was difficult and he died an inauspicious death in 1851, the bravery and skill of the remarkable Tom Plunkett lives on, his name one among the hundred or so brave men from the Rifle Brigade commemorated on the roll of fame in Winchester Cathedral.


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The BBC dramatisation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is being shown on BBC Four on Sunday evenings at 7pm. Although it has been repeated on UKTV Drama, this is the first time the BBC has shown it since its initial broadcast in November/December 2004. Episode 1 has already aired, but you can catch up with Episode 2 on 24th May.

North and South gave the delectable Richard Armitage his first leading role on television. His wonderful portrayal of Victorian millowner John Thornton in Sandy Welch’s adaptation was to prove his breakthrough role on British TV. North and South also stars Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale, Lesley Manville, Tim Piggot Smith, Sinead Cusack, Brendan Coyle, Pauline Quirk and Anna Maxwell Martin.

It’s a gem of a production and not to be missed. And arguably it has the best TV screen kiss, EVER.

According to the Weekend magazine in last week’s Daily Mail, the success of North and South is “at least partly …because of the smouldering Mr. Armitage, playing a kind of Industrial Revolution Darcy…..”

Yes indeedy. Richard’s performance as hero John Thornton caused some of us to deluge the BBC messageboard afterwards and even get a mention in The Times. If you are new to Richard Armitage and wondering what all the fuss is about, perhaps these will give you a clue ;0) …

Richard Armitage

Richard Armitage (John Thornton)

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Going beyond the bedroom door …
Recently, an article written by novelist Maeve Haran in The Telegraph hit on a common problem for writers and especially writers of romance: how to write that perfect sex scene.
It’s something I had to face a few months ago. One novel that I’ve been working on for a few years now (I’m a very slow writer!) hinged on a crucial sex scene. I had to find out if I could do it (the writing, not the actual act itself!). My first foray into the experiment was with a scene for a long short story I was in the middle of writing – and I hadn’t even reached the bit where the hero and heroine got together. I’ve never worked harder on a piece of writing. I spent months on a piece of text barely two pages long! How could I create that tender mood? How could I make it sensual? When to time it in the story? What to call the body parts? It was a nightmare. Is there anything even vaguely erotic or romantic about the words used to describe the male sexual parts? Even worse are the ones used for women! And it is so subjective. One person’s eroticism is another’s vulgarity.
Ms Haran cited Birdsong and Atonement as having tender, erotic sex scenes which work but I can think of others in slightly less highbrow novels. Nora Roberts’ Hidden Riches is one. The author has the two main characters battling their growing attraction until we are desperate for them to get together. The sexual tension ratchets up to such an extent that it pops off the page. Interestingly for me, the writer gets them together physically before the emotional knots are ironed out. Untangling those continues the tension until the very end. But I won’t give that away!
Another example, which springs to mind, is Fiona Walker’s Snap Happy. Juno, a happy-go-lucky comedienne, finds herself landed with a surly but sexy New Yorker for a flatmate. They sleep together at the beginning of the book in a realistically described and very funny one-night stand that affects both of them far more than anticipated. The writer then teases us by keeping them arguing and misunderstanding one another until the resolution. I gave this to a friend, citing it as one of my favourite sex scenes only to have it rejected – she didn’t like the size eighteen heroine – the very reason I liked it so much! Written sex is as subjective and divisive as the real thing.
One of my all time favourite films is Ten Things I Hate About You. In this American high school update of The Taming of the Shrew, Kat is sent to the school counsellor only to find the woman writing a sex scene for her romantic novel. After trying out a lot of hopeless vocabulary, Kat supplies her with the word ‘tumescent’. It demonstrates just how fine the line is between laughable and sensual. As I pore over my laptop, while trying to create that elusive mood, the scene often springs to mind. And it doesn’t help at all!
Jilly Cooper, wise lady that she is, once said that to make a sex scene work, the reader has to care about the characters. Perhaps that’s the real key to it all?
Latterly, I’ve erred on the ‘leave them at the bedroom door’ side of writing sex. It’s more fun to use your imagination. And it means I avoid having to find ways of describing things which are too difficult to put into words! Tumescent members anyone?

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Jane Austen's House at Chawton

Jane Austen's House at Chawton

Three of the For Romance Readers ‘team’ have just spent a very enjoyable weekend on the Jane Austen trail – following in her footsteps, if you like.

Elizabeth Hanbury, Georgia Hill and I joined a lovely group of C19 ‘colleagues’ in Hampshire. About 40 of us visited Winchester Cathedral and saw Jane’s grave and memorial plaque, then had a guided tour of her haunts round about. ‘Haunts’ is the operative word as one of the more poignant stops was outside the house in College Street where she spent her last weeks. We then followed the path of her small funeral procession to the Cathedral. Cassandra had to stay behind, as women weren’t allowed at funerals in those days. We know from her letters that she was devastated at the loss of her beloved sister: ‘She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow.’

We saw Chawton, Jane’s home for the last eight years of her life, at its best the next day in the spring sunshine. It’s a charming village in its own right, without the added attractions of Jane Austen. It was here that Jane wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion, revised Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility, and started Sanditon. Her house, now the Jane Austen Museum, is ‘very happily situated’ on the Winchester road and we know she and the other members of her household – Cassandra, Mrs Austen and Martha Lloyd – enjoyed speculating about the passing traffic. Her brother Edward had a huge house on the outskirts of the village next to the church, where we visited the graves of Cassandra and Mrs Austen.

Highly recommended – and there should be more events than usual this year as the Jane Austen Museum is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Jane’s arrival in Chawton!

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I want to tell you a secret.

Come a little closer.   Closer still.

That’s it.

Are you listening carefully?

OK, then I’ll begin and tell you about a charming little secret that’s tucked away on the web, and in Bloomsbury and Notting Hill Gate.  Not everyone knows of its existence, but those of us that do subscribe avidly to its output. And the name of this deliciously enjoyable hidden gem?

Persephone Books

Persephone Books was created ten years ago by Nicola Beauman. It’s aim was to reprint neglected novels, short stories, biography, poetry and cookery books, mostly by women and mostly dating from the early to mid-twentieth century.  From small beginnings, Persephone now has 15,000 people on its mailing list, of which I’m one.  All Persephone books are beautifully presented. They have elegant grey covers with glorious patterned endpapers and matching bookmarks.  The Persephone classic series – nine books in all – have wonderfully evocative colour covers. Persephone sell their books by mail order and they can be ordered from their web-site, by telephone or snail mail. Alternatively, you can visit one of their shops.  A real treat. Oh, and their books make perfect gifts too.

So why not try Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson, the light-hearted, charming and funny tale of Miss Buncle, a long term resident of a cosy English village who decides to supplement her income by writing a novel about her village under the pseudonym John Smith ; or enjoy Few Eggs and No Oranges, a daily diary kept by the indomitable Vere Hodgson during the war.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (Persephone Classics)

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (Persephone Classics)

You might have indirectly heard of Persephone Books books recently and not realised it. The Hollywood film, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, starring Amy Adams, was adapted from the wonderful book of the same name by Winifred Watson.  Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is published by Persephone Books and is one of their most popular titles.

Persephone Books are celebrating their tenth birthday this year. They’ll be holding birthday celebrations on Thursday 18th June at their shop in Lamb’s Conduit Street, where there will be lunch, tea, canapés and wine all day, and a special birthday offer on books!

I’m looking forward to one of their autumn titles – A New System of Domestic Cookery by a Lady (actually Mrs Maria Rundell!) originally published in 1806. Persephone will be republishing the 1816 edition, and Maria Rundell’s book was the household bible for all Jane Austen’s contemporaries and beyond, until the arrival of Mrs. Beeton.

I can’t wait to read this slice of Regency life, but *whispers* Persephone Books is our little secret so don’t tell anyone else 🙂

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Today was the 150 year anniversary of the opening of the Albert Bridge over the River Tamar.

Us Devon/Cornwall folk know that the Tamar river marks the dividing line between Devon and Cornwall. So it’s quite an important landmark.



The bridge is perhaps not the most pleasing to look at. It is however, a stroke of genius – just like the man himself.

The bridge usually only carries trains these days, but it was open today for people to walk across to mark to anniversary. A BBC news article here tells you more:


Of course I’m telling you all this, because in my first novel:

Love Engineered, the story is based around an Engineer – the new Brunel, and the building of a bridge across the Tamar!

In my novel, there is a competition to design the bridge. In real life, the work was commissioned to Brunel. But there was a competition to build a bridge in Bristol that he won.

Brunel even makes a cameo appearance in my novel.
However, my story isn’t so dull that it’s about bridges all the time – the main theme is a love story.

To purchase a copy of Love Engineered, go to my publishers website here:



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