Thank you for letting me into your inbox! In this very first edition of my newsletter, you’ll find:
who I am, for anyone who doesn’t know me
a link to a free story
the sad scandal behind a character in the BBC series Victoria
a short but beautiful piece of writing, from an oldie but a goodie on my bookshelf
a writing tip your teacher never told you - surprising but helpful, especially if you’re not a confident writer
and something you can do just for fun
Feel free to Scroll down…
First a bit about me
After publishing ten books for children, I’ve begun writing historical fiction for adults. I like fiction that’s thoughtful, evocative, inspiring and entertaining. I’m a stickler for a high degree of historical accuracy, because truth is important. I love sharing what I find and the stories I write, so I’m hoping you’ll enjoy them too.
If you’d like to read a piece of my fiction, click below for a copy of my short story ‘The Pavilion of Enlightenment’, shortlisted for the Historical Writers Association prize. In a wintry Qing Dynasty mansion, Lan the servant girl enters the forbidden library,
searching for her lost kitten, and finds more than she expects...
It’s FREE. The link will ask you to sign up for this newsletter - don’t worry, I will delete any double-ups.
Lord Melbourne’s marriage
I hail from the Australian city of Melbourne, named after a British Prime Minister, of whom we generally live in blissful ignorance. I knew nothing about him until I watched the BBC series Victoria during lockdown recently.
In Episode 3 of the first season, Lord Melbourne, played by a broodily handsome Rufus Sewell, stands with the young queen in front of a portrait of Elizabeth I. He remarks that not many marriages are happy. The series gives other dark hints of his scandalous past. But unless I missed it, viewers aren’t told the story of Lord Melbourne's marriage. And it's filmworthy in itself.
In 1805 the young peer William Lamb married 19-year-old Lady Caroline Ponsonby. (He didn’t become Lord Melbourne until his father died in 1828.) Lady Caroline was a passionate, intelligent and unconventional woman, who was literate in four languages, and liked cross-dressing as a page. Sadly, William and Caroline’s first child suffered physical and intellectual disability, or perhaps autism. A second child died soon after birth.
When Caroline Lamb read the poetry of notorious Romantic Lord Byron in 1812, she declared she ‘must know him’, and plunged into a three month affair. She is the one who reputedly said Byron was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. William Lamb took her off to Ireland to escape the resulting scandal. Byron turned to other women, but Lady Caroline remained obsessed with him. She wrote a letter to the poet enclosing a lock of her hair – and not from her head. She confronted him at a ball, and when he rebuffed her she picked up a knife. She was stopped from harming herself in the ballroom, but not from writing a revenge novel, which became an instant bestseller for its thinly-disguised portraits of her husband and Lord Byron.
Despite all the scandal, and his own extra-marital affairs, William Lamb did not disown his wife. They didn’t separate until 1825, when she requested it. Even then she lived in his family home, Brocket Hall. Unlike the abused children described in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, Lamb’s disabled son wasn’t institutionalised either, but also cared for in Lamb’s home. In 1828, Lord Melbourne returned from a government post in Ireland to be at Lady Caroline’s deathbed.
As a politician, Lord Melbourne opposed parliamentary reform and the abolition of slavery. Not admirable. Yet paradoxically, in his private life, he showed loyalty and compassion to wife and son. Why do I think his story is worth recounting? I’m not on a mission to redeem white colonial aristocrats as good guys. I’m not excusing the land-grabbing and genocide that went on here, a place named after Lord Melbourne and his queen, in her name. But on some present-day cultural soap-boxes, I sense an eagerness to denounce historically powerful men as complete villains. Lord Melbourne’s story suggests to me that the people of the past were complex and messy, deserving of understanding. Like the people of the present.
From my bookshelf
Speaking of the present, my parents are putting their house on the market - every drawer is jammed with stuff and with memories. Last week my son also decided to clean out his closet, dumping the soccer trophies, the schoolbooks and the toddler toys. I would like to hold on to all of it, the whole precious patchwork of the past. But I can’t. Nobody can…
At the same time as helping clean out, I’ve been reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It’s full of achingly beautiful prose. This passage resonated with me:
[We] could not leave that house, which was stashed like a brain, a reliquary, its relics to be pawed and sorted and parcelled out among the needy and the parsimonious… For even things lost in a house abide like forgotten sorrows and incipient dreams and many household things are of purely sentimental value… In the equal light of disinterested scrutiny such things are not themselves. They are transformed into pure object and are horrible. 1
That last word is something of a shock. It makes perfect sense in the novel, but I can’t say more without a spoiler, so I won’t. Except to say that reclassifying our everyday pieces of the past into junk is hard.
What are you reading that seems to sync with your life? Tell me about it, through return email or the comments on the newsletter page.
Writing tips your teacher didn't tell You
Almost everyone writes in our society: job applications, grant applications, visa applications, requests, instructions, thank you messages. And so on. As a writer, I've been surprised to find how many adult people get anxious about writing. This advice might take some of the fear and loathing out of it.
Writing Tip #1: First, forget about spelling and grammar.
Yes, really. What do you actually want to say? Put that down first. Ignore the red squiggles in Micorosoft Word. Have a couple of goes at it, until it's clear in your own head, and down on paper (or screen). Spelling and grammar are like shoe polish - they make writing look sleek and neat. But you've got to have the right shoes on to be going somewhere first :)
In later posts, I'll say more about polishing sentences. For now I want to encourage you that good writing communicates what you need to say, and you can figure that out.
Just for Fun
Finally, before I sign off, do you feel like something romantic, historic and time-wasting, just for fun? Here’s a jigsaw portrait, of someone connected to the content of this newsletter, and also my place of residence. You do it online as a mystery pic, or see the image by hovering over the icon at the top of the jigsaw. Change the number of pieces on the left if it’s too hard/easy. Enjoy!
This newsletter has been fun to write. Let me know which parts you liked: comment on the newsletter page or email me back.
'Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.’
Book of Proverbs 18:21
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping, Faber Modern Classics p209.