The Apothecary Poet

The Apothecary Poet

Like my hero Sinclair, the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) studied to become doctor but unlike Sinclair’s his heart was not really in it. Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne are among the most famous love letters ever written. As next-door neighbours, they exchanged numerous short notes, and occasionally more passionate letters.

Fanny Brawne

Keats trained as an apothecary at Guy’s Hospital from 1815 to 1816 and attended lectures on the principles and practice of surgery by the famous surgeon Sir Astley Cooper who also makes a brief appearance in my novel. In 1816, Keats received his apothecary’s licence, which made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon.

Keats’s desire to become a poet led him to abandon medicine soon after he completed his training. In his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ recalls his experience of caring for the dying:

The weariness, the fever and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows spectre-thin, and dies.

Ironically, it was his medical training that made him such a good carer for his brother Tom when he died from tuberculosis. In giving that care Keats became infected with the disease himself; there was no inoculation at the time, the now well-know BCG vaccine was first used in humans in 1921. Infection for Keats meant certain death but not before, he fell in love and wrote some of the world’s greatest poetry and love letters. Here is one of them.

“25 College Street, London

My dearest Girl,
This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content. I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time. Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else – The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you again[s]t the unpromising morning of my Life – My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you. My sweet Fanny, will your heart never change? My love, will it? I have no limit now to my love – You note came in just here – I cannot be happier away from you – ‘T is richer than an Argosy of Pearles. Do not threat me even in jest. I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet – You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist: and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often “to reason against the reasons of my Love.” I can do that no more – the pain would be too great – My Love is selfish – I cannot breathe without you.  Yours for ever, John Keats

Their love story was made into a film – Bright Star in 2009. It stars Ben Whishaw as Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny. It was directed by Jane Campion, who wrote the screenplay inspired by Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats; Motion served as a script consultant on the film. The film was in the main competition at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, and was first shown to the public on 15 May 2009.The film’s title is a reference to a sonnet by Keats titled “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”, which he wrote while he was with Brawne.

For more see: http://englishhistory.net/keats/letters/love-letter-to-fanny-brawne-13-october-1819/

Julia Herdman writes #historical #fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29  Also available on:

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The London Earthquake

The London Earthquake

On the 8th of March, 1750, an earthquake shook London. The shock was at half past five in the morning. It awoke people from their sleep and frightened them out of their houses. A servant maid in Charterhouse-square, was thrown from her bed, and had her arm broken; bells in several steeples were struck by the chime hammers; great stones were thrown from the new spire of Westminster Abbey; dogs howled in uncommon tones; and fish jumped half a yard above the water. London had experienced a shock only a month before, namely, on the 8th of February 1750, between 12 and 1 o’clock in the day and at Westminster, the barristers were so alarmed that they imagined the hall was falling!

Most people (including academics) saw the tremors as the work of God. However, The Gentleman’s Magazine, (founded by Edward Cave, alias ‘Sylvanus Urban’, in 1731) which was interested in everything, told its readers that there were three kinds of earthquake; the ‘Inclination’, which was a vibration from side to side, the ‘Pulsation’, up and down, and the ‘Tremor’, “when it shakes and quivers every way like a flame.” Scholars were agreed that the origins of earthquakes were to be found in the underground voids with which the earth was believed to be honeycombed, especially in mountainous regions; but whether it was the surges of air, water or fire within these caverns that were the actual cause of the shock was still disputed.

Despite only the minor damage, Londoners were worried. One earthquake was remarkable, but two earthquakes in a month was unprecedented. Were they a warning from God? Thomas Sherlock, the Bishop of London, was sure of it. In a letter to the clergy and inhabitants of London, he called on them to “give attention to all the warnings which God in his mercy affords to a sinful people…by two great shocks of an Earthquake”. He pointed out that the shocks were confined to London and its environs, and were therefore ‘immediately directed’ at that city.

On Sunday, March 18, at about 6 pm, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight were shaken, and, as they trembled, the air vibrated to a noise like the firing of great guns. The shock was even felt, though faintly, at Bath. On Monday, April 2, at about 10 pm, Liverpool and an area about 40 miles round vibrated to ‘a smart shock of an earthquake’ for two or three seconds.
1750 was a year when the earth trembled up and down the land. The weather was also considered freakish. People lived in trepidation waiting for the next catastrophe.

The last, and strongest, English earthquake of 1750 shook Northamptonshire and several other counties, just after noon on September 30. It was ‘much stronger than that felt in London”, and lasted nearly a minute. Part of an old wall in Northampton was thrown down, a lady in Kelmarsh was tossed from her chair, and all over the shaken district people ran into the street. At Leicester, a rushing noise was heard, and the houses heaved up and down. The convulsion caused terror, but passed off with only the loss of some slates, chimney parts, and a few items of glassware. Near Leicester, an unfortunate child was shaken out of a chair into a fire, and was ‘somewhat burnt’.

Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1 is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29

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The Leadams of Tooley Street

The Leadams of Tooley Street

Tooley Street in Southwark is the location of my new novel Sinclair. Today is it’s one of London’s best known streets, home to London Bridge Station and the London Dungeon, and is close to the London Shard and City Hall.

Running parallel to the Thames on the south side Tooley Street is one of the oldest streets in London. Its name is said to be a strange corruption of its former name, St. Olave’s Street, which is hard to believe but I suppose we’ll just have to accept what the local experts tell us on that one.

It’s a thriving place today with state of the art offices, clean and tidy streets and modern communications and although it was no less thriving in the past it was a very different place then. Here are some of the residents and trades listed as living and operating in the area in the 18th and 19th century:

Wharfingers (warehouse owners), merchants, instrument makers, factors, and agents; outfitters, biscuit-bakers, store-shippers, ship-chandlers, slop-sellers, block-makers, rope-makers, engineers, and then there were the surgeons who worked at the great charitable hospitals: Guy’s, St Thomas’ and the London.

My novel is set in eighteenth century Tooley Street in a house inhabited by my family’s ancestors for three generations. They owned an apothecary shop at No. 65 and worked as surgeons at Guy’s Hospital just a stone’s throw away. Members of the Leadam family pop in and out of the historical record; appearing in trade directories, hospital correspondence, or as witnesses in Old Bailey cases or giving evidence to Government enquiries on issues such as public health.Some members of the family are mentioned in magazine and newspaper articles of the day and some have published obituaries and their own publications.

In my story which is a fiction not a family history, a Scottish doctor down on his luck comes to live at No 65 Tooley Street after the unexpected death of Christopher Leadam who is based on the real Christopher Leadam who was born in Yorkshire and worked at Guy’s hospital as a surgeon and was secretary to one of its weekly committees. He died young leaving a widow, whom I have called Charlotte Leadam in the book and a teenage son. My story focuses on his widow’s struggle to keep the apothecary shop open and get her son, John, trained as a surgeon.

Illustration: Guy’s Hospital, London, opened 1725.

You can read my fictionalised account of life at No. 65 Tooley Street in Sinclair.

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Writers of Influence – Philippa Gregory

Writers of Influence – Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is an English historical novelist who has been writing since 1987. I have always enjoyed her books and have been inspired by her approach. The best known of her works is The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), which in 2002 won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award from the Romantic Novelists’ Association and has been adapted into two separate films.

Gregory has rejected the traditional way of writing about historical events which either centres on men deemed to have made history or, if they focus on women, the women are written into largely in romantic roles. Gregory writes about women as the makers of a history which exists in parallel with the history of men; links women on equal terms with men’s traditionally superior role; or highlights the disadvantages affecting women who, despite these, operate capably with intelligence and fortitude.  The women are also often portrayed as manipulative, cruel, antagonistic to other women and veritable ‘lionesses’ on behalf of the men in their family – son, brother, husband or father. They also neglect, or are actively antagonistic, to daughters, sisters, or mothers.

Speaking to Kate Kellaway in the Observer in 2013 Gregory says she always puts women centre stage in her work.  “The more research I do, the more I think there is an untold history of women.” She says that whenever she is writing about a remarkable woman, people comment that the woman was “exceptional”. But she thinks there were lots of remarkable women “striving for their lives, trying to satisfy their own needs”.

Gregory is fascinated by the way patriarchy operates: “In the medieval world, patriarchy is naked. Nobody pretends to respect women. Women are criticised as sexually uncontrollable or stupid. In our society, you’ll sometimes get a remnant of this – you know, when a man wants to help park your car. It is an absolute insult.”

However, it has been said that the lack of ‘sisterhood’ amongst her female protagonists raises the question: how feminist are Gregory’s historical novels? Firstly, Gregory places women at the centre of her work. In non-romantic work, this is an important feature of feminist fiction. Secondly, women are acting in as wide a community as the men with whom they are associated. The only activity in which they are not physically present is in battle. Admittedly this is a major portion of the lives of men: it was the work of kings, would-be kings and their supporters. However, while uninvolved directly in the wars to win land and crown women are also depicted in physical and life-threatening battle. One of the most dangerous is their fight to bear a son. Gender controlled the means by which women and men fought for the crown or land. Gregory makes it abundantly clear that women’s dangerous role was to provide a male heir for either purpose. Women and men united in seeking advancement for their family. As individuals, women were pitted against each other, often as pawns of the male members of their family.

In an interview with the Radio Times in 2015, Gregory said that she, “didn’t set out to be a woman’s historian or a feminist historian. It’s how it turned out, really. I was those things, but I didn’t think my work would reflect that as closely as it has.” Gregory, who has a PhD in 18th century history said, “The books which really mean a lot to me and that have sold hugely worldwide do tend to be those ones where I’m looking at women who have been previously either totally ignored or really neglected – or else it’s a new view of a woman we know well.”

Gregory is writing historical fiction that is soundly researched and realistically charts the tempo of the times. However, by placing women at the centre of her work she provides a feminist account of that history. Most importantly, Gregory graphically illustrates the discrimination against women that is the foundation to the history she writes.

She has written novels set in several different historical periods, though primarily the Tudor period and the 16th century. Reading a number of novels set in the 17th century led her to write the best-selling Lacey trilogy – Wideacre, which is a story about the love of land and incest, The Favoured Child and Meridon. This was followed by The Wise Woman. A Respectable Trade, a novel of the slave trade in England, set in 18th-century Bristol, was adapted by Gregory for a four-part drama series for BBC television. Gregory’s script was nominated for a BAFTA, won an award from the Committee for Racial Equality, and the film was shown worldwide.

 

Sources:

Women’s History Network,  Wikipedia, Kate Kellaway, The Observer online, July 2013, Ellie Walker-Arnott, Radio Times, August 2015.