Newsletter 8

Welcome to the Christmas issue of our occasional newsletter for December 2007.

Latest News

The manuscript of Jack Tar is almost finished and will soon have to be surrendered to the tender care of the publishers. Because finishing a book always becomes more and more frantic towards the end (there is always just one more manuscript to look at) we have not managed to see the Tutankhamun exhibition at what was originally the Millennium Dome at Greenwich in London, and has now been renamed ‘The O2’. Despite the fact that the famous golden mask of the pharaoh is not on display and the tickets are expensive, those who have seen the exhibition (called ‘Tutanhkamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs’) seem to agree that it is worth the effort. The exhibition is scheduled to run until 30 August 2008, but if you don’t see it, or want some background reading beforehand, we would recommend our book The Keys of Egypt, published by HarperCollins – well, we would, wouldn’t we? The book tells the story of how several men tried to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs in the years after Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, when the scientists he took with him revealed the treasures of Egypt to the western world. The effort to decipher the hieroglyphs developed into a race, which a Frenchman eventually won – an exciting story ranging across Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic Europe and, of course, Egypt itself.

Hieroglyphs really are the key to understanding Egypt because a vast amount of Egyptian art is composed of them, although sometimes this is not immediately apparent. Pictures of the gods and goddesses, for example, are usually hieroglyphs, and because they are painted larger than other symbols in any situation, they are rather like the large, ornate, capital letters in medieval illuminated manuscripts. If you know nothing of hieroglyphs, a good place to start is our Little Book of Egyptian Hieroglyphs,
published by Hodder & Stoughton, which is a basic introduction. It will not teach you how to read a hieroglyphic text, because that takes time, effort and determination – the sheer number of symbols that have to be memorised is daunting enough – but you should be able to recognise names such as Tutankhamun and Cleopatra in hieroglyphs. There is also a fun section showing how names can be written today in hieroglyphs using a simple, reduced alphabet. Next time a friend comes back from Egypt with a souvenir that has their name in hieroglyphs, you can read it for them with the aid of this book. It is an ideal Christmas stocking-filler.

Christmas Lights

Christmas is a northern, cold-climate phenomenon. Particularly for city-dwellers, it is now difficult to imagine just how cold, dark and long the winter nights were before the invention of gas lighting, let alone before the ever-present glow of electric light. Candles were expensive, tapers and rush-lights produced even less light, and open fires were inefficient, burning fuel at a rapid rate. Before easily distributed sources of power such as gas, oil and electricity, only the very rich, with enough servants to fetch fuel and constantly tend fires and lights, could hope to be comfortable through the winter months. For the majority of the population in cold climate countries, the further back in time you go, the harsher the winters seemed, irrespective of the actual climate. From earliest times the approach of winter, with dwindling availability of food after the harvest months, and dwindling daylight, was a time of apprehension. It was only natural, therefore, that the point of midwinter, around 21 December by modern dating, was a time of rejoicing. The depths had been reached, days would start to lengthen, and there was a hope, if not an expectation, that the worst of winter was over.

The working day was at its shortest because of the lack of light, with plenty of spare time when little useful work could be done outside. Indoors there were tough calculations to be made to ensure that the cost of candles and tapers to be able to see to work by did not create too much of a hole in the money earned by that work – better to use every minute of the cold light of day and huddle by the fireside or under the bedclothes during the long nights. In his A Nocturnal upon St.Lucy’s Day, being the Shortest Day the early 17th-century poet John Donne summed up the solstice as: ‘Tis the year’s midnight … the world’s whole sap is sunk … as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk.’ Over a century later, in Dr. Johnson’s beloved London, his biographer James Boswell recorded just how dark the city was. Writing into the early hours at his lodgings after his fire had gone out, Boswell accidentally extinguished the single candle by which he was working, and was left in total darkness. He felt his way downstairs to look for the tinder box, but ‘this tinder box I could not see, nor knew where to find. I was now filled with gloomy ideas of the terrors of the night. I was also apprehensive that my landlord, who always kept a pair of loaded pistols by him, might fire at me as a thief. I went up to my room, sat quietly till I heard the watchman calling “Past three o’clock”. I then called to him to knock on the door of the house where I lodged and got my candle relumed without danger.’ It would be nearly fifty years before gas street lighting softened the winter blackout in London.

Well into the Victorian era the working hours in both towns and cities and in the countryside, were reduced by the lack of light in winter, leaving most people with time on their hands but with little chance to use that time because of the darkness. In such a situation, it was easy to find an excuse for a celebration at the point when the situation changed for the better – to echo Winston Churchill, Christmas was not the end of winter, nor the beginning of the end, but it was the end of the beginning. Despite the expected frosts of January, floods of February and storms in March, people felt like celebrating because they had survived until now, and might have a reasonable chance of making it through to the spring. This sentiment is literally prehistoric, with archaeological evidence pointing to rites to celebrate the midwinter solstice long before the earliest records of pagan practices. The Christian festival was bolted on to this midwinter celebration at quite a late date, as the 4th-century Christian, Syrus, recorded:

‘It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.’

Because Christianity was the state religion of the late Roman empire, Christmas officially became a festival to replace that of the deity Sol Invictus – the Unconquerable Sun – whose festival was on 25 December, the midwinter solstice in the old Julian calendar. Both festivals were attempting to supplant a much older, simpler and more deeply felt sense that the seasons had turned for another year and things would start to improve rather than becoming gradually worse. In one way or another light and heat remained essential elements of Christmas festivities, and the Yule Log produced both. The simple idea of accumulating a quantity of fuel to keep warm through the Christmas period is an obvious one, and was adopted early. In his 1648 poem ‘Ceremonies for Christmas’, Robert Herrick described the Yule Log and the custom of keeping the last piece to use as kindling to light the log the following Christmas – a simple ritual also found in ancient fire-worship and sun cults:


Come, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas Log to the firing;
While my good Dame, she
Bids ye all be free;
And drink to your heart’s desiring.

With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in his spending,
On your Psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-tinding.

Drink now the strong beer,
Cut the white loaf here,
The while the meat is a shredding:
For the rare mince-pie
And the plums stand by
To fill the paste that’s a-kneading.

Yule Log

The Yule Log became the common term but many regional variations existed, such as Yule Clog (Devon), Yule Block (West Midlands and West Country) and the Gule Block (Lincolnshire).

The Feast of Christmas Past

By the middle ages Christmas was established as a long festival – the twelve days of Christmas. In most medieval manors the villeins were excused any work on the Lord of the Manor’s land during the twelve days (not a great loss, since the days were so short – he had better value from twelve days work in midsummer) and the Lord often produced a feast for the villeins. The downside was that they had to present him with gifts of farm produce, which provided the ingredients of the feast. Such aristocratic ‘generosity’ would not have hindered the spread of various local customs across Britain whose main practical purpose was to disguise begging at Christmas time. The one that survived longest and is best known is the custom of wassail. Originally ‘wassail’ was just an Anglo-Saxon toast meaning ‘good health’, but it rapidly developed into a begging ritual where songs were sung while the wassail bowls were passed around for contributions of drink, food and money. In his introduction to wassailing songs in Folk Song in England A.L. Lloyd hit the nail on the head: ‘Dread of hunger is the source of many folk customs and songs, and the sacrifices, ritual feasting, festivals of fire and light that celebrated the passing of the winter solstice and the advent of the season of seed-sowing and new beginnings, had so firm a grip on the hearts of the people that the Church was impelled to take over the ‘satanic’ celebration.’ Yet the customs persisted, as did the songs. The last verse of what is sometimes called ‘The Gower Wassail’, which was recorded in the early 20th century from an inmate of a workhouse in the Gower Peninsula of Wales, is:

Here’s we jolly wassail boys growin’ weary and cold
Drop a small bit of silver into our bowl
And if we’re alive for another New Year
Perhaps we may call and see who do live here.

Somehow the practice of deafening passing shoppers with amplified Christmas songs while rattling collecting boxes of small change seems a travesty of this tradition, however worthy the charity concerned. In short, ‘Christmas isn’t what it used to be!’. Perhaps surprisingly, nostalgia itself is something of a Christmas tradition with a long history. The Illustrated London News for 26 December 1874 carried an article called ‘Christmas Time Forty Years Ago’, which harked back to the good old days:

‘Railways have done much to facilitate intercourse between all parts of this tight little island, and the good they are doing, besides the material benefits they confer, in enlarging the minds of dwellers in remote districts, is hardly calculable. But those who can remember the time when railways were not, look fondly back on the old coaching days … As Christmas time drew near, the coaches were sometimes laden with holly and mistletoe, and always with huge packages of good cheer. Occasionally the coach drew up at a gentleman’s seat [mansion] by the roadside, and some one or more passengers alighted … This was always an event of interest. Then, too, might often be seen a troop of schoolboys swarming on the top of a coach, mad with delight as they were borne homeward for their Christmas holidays, playing all kinds of antics, beating drums, blowing horns, and wildly screaming. But, somehow, the sounds were not discordant, for the genius of the time harmonised them; and some of the boys’ obstreperous glee passed into the hearts of the beholders. Yes, the old coaching days had their pleasures.’

Such scenes are as reminiscent of a Harry Potter film as they are of a Dickens novel – all make use of simple themes of nostalgia and sentiment. The realities of Victorian England were harsher, and the Illustrated London News for 10 January 1863 carried a long report on the cold comfort of ‘A Christmas Dinner at Albion Schoolroom, Ashton-Under-Lyne’:

‘A large dinner-party assembled on the 26th ult. [December] within the walls of these magnificent new Sunday-schools. About 850 persons connected with Albion Chapel and its Sunday-schools sat down to the good old English fare of roast beef and plum-pudding, which was provided at the expense of one or two benevolent gentlemen. There were 27 rounds of beef, 240 plum-puddings, 4 loads of potatoes, and 100 4lb. loaves, provided for this numerous Christmas party. The room bore quite a festive appearance with its flags and banners of every hue; and the welcome words, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!” occupied a prominent position. A band of stringed instruments played during the dinner; and, after full justice had been done to the contents of the table, a number of glees were sung. Mr Mason, who presided, made a spirited speech. He said:- “Can any one deny that this is a glorious sight to behold? [not if they knew what was good for them!] To-day let us forget the cotton famine. ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’, and while at other times I would commend with all my heart prudence, economy, and foresight, to-day I would say ‘Let us make merry and be glad,’ and I wish you from my heart of hearts a merry Christmas and a happy new year. To-day let us forget boards of guardians, relief committees, and pawnshops. I think it is proper and fitting on an occasion like the present to meet together as we are doing to-day and forget our trials, anxieties, and the prospects of the immediate future.”’

Having reminded them all of how hard the times were, in case their ‘feast’ of beef, potatoes, bread and plum-pudding had dulled their memory, Mason went on,

‘I ask you, my friends, are you not proud of your country and your county? Who would have thought that the calamities of Lancashire would have evoked such a glorious spirit of kindness from the peer towards the piecer [a worker paid sweat-shop style for each finished piece of work, rather than by the hour], and from the highest in the land down to the humblest factory worker, as this great crisis of ours has done? Yes, let us be proud of our country, and let us be proud above all of the county of Lancashire. And if there is one thing more than another of which we have a right to be proud, it is the exhibition of that noble, manly, self-reliant, self-sacrificing, peaceful, intelligent, loyal spirit of the working classes of Lancashire.’

As if to point up how little had changed since the medieval lords of the manor gave their semi-slave workers a Christmas treat, the article concluded with,

‘Mr. Hugh Mason, who presided, is the only millowner whose factory is working full time, and it was mainly through his liberality that the dinner was given. He is an influential and active member of the Central Relief Committee in Manchester as well as of the Borough Relief Committee of Ashton-Under-Lyne.’

At least Mason was trying to help, but for those then old enough to remember the pre-industrial Christmases of their childhood, it may well have been a time of nostalgia. Nearly thirty years later, in January 1890, The Illustrated London News recorded the charitable works that Christmas: ‘In all the workhouses of the metropolis the inmates were treated to extra fare at dinner, accompanied in most cases with beer. In some cases, however, no alcoholic or malt beverages were given, the poor people having, instead, an unlimited quantity of lemonade, ginger beer, tea, or cocoa.’

White Christmas

The 1890 January edition of The Illustrated London News also published a review of the weather over previous Christmases, deftly lifted from a rival newspaper:

‘From details with respect to the Christmas weather of the last fifty years, given in the Daily News, we learn that the mildest Christmas Day during the past half-century was in 1852, when the thermometer rose to 52 deg. [Fahrenheit]; while the coldest was in 1870, when the thermometer never exceeded 28 deg. In the fifty years there have been eleven brilliantly fine Christmas days, ten fair, and twenty-six Christmas days when the weather has been “dull”. Snow fell on only five Christmas days in fifty years, though the ground may have been white on other occasions through previous falls.’

Perhaps the classic Victorian ‘White Christmas’ was as much a matter of nostalgia then as it is now.

Christmas Post

One thing that has changed dramatically over the years is the Post Office service at Christmas. The same January 1890 issue of The Illustrated London News carried a report on the 1889 experience:

‘The Christmas postal work in London in 1889 was greater than ever, in regard to both parcels and letters. Of parcels alone … there were 1,150,000 in addition to the ordinary number, and it is calculated that of these no fewer than 100,000 contained turkeys, fowls or game. Christmas puddings passed through the post to a greater extent than on any previous occasion, and many of them were destined for distant parts of the globe. In the parcels department alone 1500 extra hands were engaged, and the total number of regular and auxiliary servants engaged at Christmas in London postal service was 20,000. Letters showed a still more astonishing increase than parcels, and in the five days from Saturday until Christmas Day inclusive no fewer than 50,000,000 postal articles, consisting chiefly of letters, passed through the General Post Office. This was at the rate of 10,000,000 a day – a total that has never before been reached in this or any other country. At one private dwelling-house, no fewer than 240 letters, believed to contain Christmas cards, were delivered on Christmas Day … Contrary to the rules of the department, two live doves were consigned through the parcel post, and, notwithstanding the unexampled pressure of the season, the birds were delivered safe and sound.’

Christmas Books

Recommending books for Christmas is always a space-filler for newspapers, magazines and newsletters at this time of year. Victorian magazines had plenty of space to fill, and The Graphic for 19 November 1887 carried part IV of a long (and long-running) list of recommendations. Here are a few books they recommended for children:

‘The good old times have not yet lost their glamour for practical modern lads, and so many of the most entertaining books hark back to past ages. Some tell of chivalric days in Merrie England, like “John O’London” (Ward and Downey), where bishops and knights, outlaws and oppressed maidens play a stirring part. History and fiction are neatly mixed by Mr. Somerville Gibney, whose gallant hero aids Roger Bacon to manufacture gunpowder, and finds this discovery very useful in sundry daring exploits when he enters the service of a second historical celebrity – Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln … Further back in the realms of romance, many a familiar knight and hero live again in the pages of “Stories of Old Renown” (Blackie) – Guy of Warwick, Hogier the Dane, Robert of Sicily, Patient Grissel, and other old friends. Mr. Ascott Hope tells their tale afresh in winning style to suit the present juvenile taste, while Mr. Gordon Browne’s pencil further brightens the recital … Last among the boys’ books comes a new edition of Dr. Macdonald’s “Gutta-Percha Willie” (Blackie), the cute lad who could turn his hand to anything, and whose history awakens the regret that Dr. Macdonald contents himself with reprints instead of giving us something fresh.’

The Graphic then moved on to books for girls:

‘Stepping over the Border, to roam “In Cheviot’s Glens” (Oliphant, Anderson, and Ferrier) under Miss J. Stoddart’s guidance will introduce the girlish reader to an agreeable Scotch love-story, where a strong gipsy flavouring relieves the commonplace of such homely Northern sketches. – Scottish farmhouse life is also amusingly portrayed by Mrs. Sanders in “Matthew Dale, Farmer” (same publisher), which has deservedly reached a reprint, the heroine being as good a model to girls who must earn their own living as Chrissie of Edward Garrett’s “Equal to the Occasion” … The act of weaving fairy fancies seems somewhat lost nowadays, when it is needful to fill the gap by old favourites such as J.R. Planché’s version of “D’Aulnoy’s Fairy Tales,” and “Laboulaye’s Fairy Tales” ( Routledge). Fully illustrated, these two volumes are stores of amusement for the nursery bookshelves. And when Nurse finds her small charges discontented she may warn them to prove, by the experience of “The Bubbling Teapot” (Blackie) that an English girl’s lot is the happiest of all under the sun. By the aid of this magic teapot Miss Champneys changes one little maiden into divers nationalities in turn, and a very chequered time the child endures.’

For determined last-minute shoppers, the edition of The Graphic for Christmas Eve carried part IX of its list, with recommendations for adults that inevitably included celebrity biographies:

‘The Jubilee year is a fitting time for biographies of our Royal House. So Mr. G. H. Pike’s plain and practical portrait of “Albert, the Prince Consort” (Hodder and Stoughton) sets the public and private life of our Queen’s husband before the multitude who cannot avail themselves of Sir Theodore Martin’s biography. A few more personal details would have been an improvement, but … To pass from biography to natural history. The Rev. J.G. Wood is a master in the art of presenting Zoological knowledge in popular style, so that his “Romance of Animal Life” (Isbister) furnishes yet another useful and amusing collection of chapters on natural history … Next we come to another element, the sea, for a useful work on “Ships, Sailors and the Sea” (Cassell), by R. J. Cornewall-Jones. Britons form so essentially a maritime nation that boys will certainly enjoy learning about the various types of shipping and their construction, about lighthouse and life-saving apparatus, about navigation, storms, flags, the merchant and naval services, and a host of other nautical details, well and plainly described. The chapters on battles, wrecks, and exploration are less interesting, and it is rather a rash assertion that “the annals of Arctic exploration are probably closed forever”… The Americans are adepts at condensation; witness Mr. J. Dimitry’s admirable rendering of Rabelais in “Three Great Giants” (Ticknor, Boston). Most people will agree that Rabelais is too strong meat for babes, but no exception could be taken to the history of Grandgousier, Gargantua, and Pantagruel, as given here, with the interest maintained and the coarseness purified … America also contributes some pleasing girlish books. Very happy proved “Their Pilgrimage” (S. Low) to the quartet of lovers whom Mr. Charles Dudley Warner pilots amid Transatlantic sea and country resorts, fashionable and secluded. True, the love-episode is merely a pretext for Mr. Warner’s characteristic portrayals of holiday life and scenery; but he gives us a charming book, capitally illustrated by C.S. Reinhart.– Another familiar American pen, Miss Louisa Alcott, only provides some scattered short stories, “A Garland for Girls” (Blackie), but they are told in her own attractive style; while a further pretty maidenly posy appears in “A Flock of Girls” (Trubner), by Nora Perry.’

Forgotten Books

Luxor, looking towards the Valley of the Kings, from a balloon.
An aerial view of Thebes and the Valley of the Kings, Egypt

At least in the West Country, the winter has been mild so far, but the days are still short and gloomy, and it reminds us that this is the ideal time of year to be in Egypt. Especially if you are planning a trip there, one of the best background books is A Thousand Miles Up The Nile by Amelia Edwards, first published in 1877. Edwards was born in London in 1831, the daughter of an army officer who had served with Wellington in the Peninsular War. She had a very good voice and might have made a career as an opera singer, but she was also a gifted writer and initially became a journalist. She soon turned her attention to books, and published eight novels in the years 1855–80. She also edited books on art and history. In 1873–4 she travelled through Syria and Egypt and fell in love with the Nile Valley. Egyptology became her passion, and A Thousand Miles Up The Nile is a very lively account of her journey through Egypt in 1874. The book is fascinating on several levels. Firstly it is so well written that the language seldom sounds stilted and typically Victorian to the modern ear, even when she being informative rather than recording or entertaining. Here she is talking about Philae, an island in the Nile upstream from Aswan:

‘With the French siege [under Napoleon] and the flight of the native population closes the last chapter of the local history of Philae. The Holy Island has done henceforth with wars of creeds or kings. It disappears from the domain of history, and enters the domain of science. To have contributed to the discovery of the hieroglyphic alphabet is a high distinction; and in no sketch of Philae, however slight, should the obelisk that furnished Champollion with the name of Cleopatra [and helped him decipher hieroglyphs] be allowed to pass unnoticed. This monument, second only to the Rosetta Stone in point of philological interest, was carried off by Mr. W. Bankes, the discoverer of the first Tablet of Abydos, and is now in Dorsetshire. Its empty socket and its fellow obelisk, mutilated and solitary, remain in situ at the southern extremity of the island.’

They were not to remain there much longer, for the real island of Philae was submerged by the waters of the Nile after the building of the Aswan dam in 1971. Work on the dam had begun in 1960, and a rescue operation co-ordinated by UNESCO moved the standing remains from Philae to nearby Agilqiyya which forms the island of ‘Philae’ that tourists see today. Many of the sites and monuments that Edwards describes have changed or vanished since her book was published.

Edwards and her companions were travelling on the Victorian equivalent of a modern Nile cruise boat, but it was smaller and powered by sail. There was inevitably more interaction between the passengers and crew than on a present-day cruise, but the same divergence of interests and occupations at the places where the boat stopped. At Luxor the passengers went to see the ruins, while the crew were left to their own devices:

‘In the afternoon we took donkeys, and rode out to Karnak. Our way lay through the bazaar, which was the poorest we had yet seen. It consisted of only a few open sheds, in one of which, seated on a mud-built divan, cross-legged and turban-less like a row of tumbler mandarins, we saw five of our sailors under the hands of the Luxor barber. He had just lathered all five heads, and was complacently surveying the effect of his work, much as an artistic cook might survey a dish of particularly successful méringues à la crême. The méringues looked very sheepish when we laughed and passed by.’

We are not told where the sailors were heading after their shave, but Edwards continued:

‘Next came the straggling suburb where the dancing girls most do congregate. These damsels, in gaudy garments of emerald green, bright rose, and flaming yellow, were squatting outside their cabins or lounging unveiled about the thresholds of two or three dismal dens of cafés in the market-place. They showed their teeth and laughed familiarly in our faces. Their eyebrows were painted to meet on the bridge of the nose; their eyes were blackened round with kohl; their cheeks were extravagantly rouged; their hair was gummed and greased, and festooned upon their foreheads, and plaited all over in innumerable tails. Never before had we seen anything in female form so hideous. One of these houris was black; and she looked quite beautiful in her blackness, compared with the painting and plastering of her companions.’

Edwards’s book is essentially the travelogue of an intelligent and knowledgeable tourist in Egypt who has a gift for writing. It is a glimpse of ancient Egypt, interwoven with a glimpse of English tourists in the Victorian age and of everyday life in the Egypt through which they are travelling. It is also a constant reminder, on many levels, of how some things change while others remain the same: a reminder that history is not a flow but a kaleidoscopic jumble, and that ‘progress’ is neither constant nor always for the best, and certainly should not be taken for granted.

The journey through Egypt that is documented in this book had a profound effect on Edwards, who realised that the ancient monuments were being mutilated and destroyed at an alarming rate. With the help of some established Egyptologists, she founded the Egypt Exploration Fund to excavate, investigate and preserve the monuments and spent much of the rest of her life in publicity and fund-raising. She considered scientific exploration and recording of the monuments as the only way to combat the widespread destruction that she witnessed in Egypt and single-handedly managed to kick-start the rescue of ancient Egypt from the ravages of the modern world. Her book has drifted in and out of print over the decades, and seems to be out of print at the moment, but many libraries are likely to have a copy.

Edwards died in 1892 and is buried in the churchyard at Henbury, just outside Bristol. Her grave is marked by an obelisk and is covered by a stone slab carved in the shape of an ankh – the Egyptian hieroglyph meaning ‘life’.

Monument of the Month

Grave Stone
Gravestones in Chawton churchyard

Just to the south of the chancel of the church of St Nicholas at Chawton in Hampshire are the graves of two women called Cassandra. Their gravestones stand side-by-side and are dedicated to Cassandra Austen, who died in 1827, and Cassandra Elizabeth Austen, who died in 1845. The curious Christian name of Cassandra was common in the family, because a distant relative, Cassandra Willoughby, had been wife of the man who became the first Duke of Chandos – in the late 18th century aristocratic connections were something to be cherished and displayed. When asked the origin of their unusual name, the Cassandras could proudly point out their heritage. Cassandra Austen, born Cassandra Leigh in 1739, married the Reverend George Austen in 1764, and Cassandra Elizabeth Austen was their eldest daughter, born in 1773. In all the couple were to have six sons and another daughter. Two of the sons, Francis and Charles, became naval officers, while the daughter, Jane, became a novelist.

Considering the deep and detailed research that has been carried out into everything that was ever vaguely connected with Jane Austen, we know relatively little about her and less about her family. Many of Jane’s surviving letters were written to her sister, Cassandra Elizabeth, such as that of Friday 29 January 1813, sent to Cassandra from their home in Chawton, where she writes: ‘I want to tell you that I have got my own darling child from London.’ By this she means one of her free copies of Pride and Prejudice. The publishers had not been generous, but had only offered five free copies, most of which were already marked down for members of her family. She goes on to say that she is happy that Cassandra is away at the moment, ‘as it might be unpleasant to you to be in the neighbourhood at the first burst of the business. The advertisement is in our paper today for the first time.’

Jane was, in any case, an avid reader of newspapers – it was the only way of gaining news outside the immediate circle of family and friends – but she would have been on the lookout for mentions of her book. At this stage she was still writing anonymously as ‘A Lady’ and that is what she means by it being unpleasant for Cassandra. She rightly anticipated that such a new book would be talked about, and people might not always be kind in their comments. Jane liked to exploit her anonymity, though, and gleefully reported to Cassandra, ‘Miss Benn dined with us on the very day of the books coming, and in the evening we set fairly at it, and read her half the first vol. … and I believe it passed with her unsuspected. She was amused, poor soul!’ Poor soul indeed if, years later, she remembered her reaction to the book after the author shed her anonymity.

In all of this, there is more information about Jane than there is about her sister and mother, and that is the case with most of her letters. The two Cassandras remain shadowy figures, glimpsed in passing in Jane’s letters. Their importance lies in the fact that for nearly all of Jane’s life they were her closest companions – her sister, Cassandra Elizabeth, older by two years, was her confidante and ‘sounding board’. They both outlived Jane, who died at Winchester in 1817 and was buried in the cathedral. Her sister Cassandra was her executrix, and helped by their brother Henry, ensured that Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were soon published. She also had charge of all Jane’s letters and other papers, and spent several years considering what to do with them, but two or three years before her own death Cassandra burned a great many of them and cut pieces out of some others. Lamented now by historians as a great loss, the papers were destroyed to protect Jane’s growing reputation in the short term. Jane had grown up at the end of the 18th century, when candid and even rude remarks were more acceptable, especially in private letters to relatives, but by the 1840’s the evangelists were well on the way to establishing the coy and sentimental (and often hypocritical) ‘respectability’ of the later Victorian era. To the very last there was a Cassandra ready to provide protection for Jane.

Competition Results

The fifth Earl of Carnavon, who financed Howard Carter’s work in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, did not live long after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Only a few months later, he was bitten by a mosquito and the bite turned septic. He developed blood poisoning, for which he was treated in hospital at Cairo, but died there on 5 April 1923. It was around his death, which came relatively soon after the tomb was opened, that the myths of the curse of Tutanhkamun were woven. Carnarvon’s body was brought back to Highclere Castle, where he was born, and was buried on top of Beacon Hill within the Highclere estate, near Newbury in Berkshire.

Competition [now closed]

In Provence, southern France, there is the famous Avignon bridge (probably best known through the song ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon’) which was built between 1177 and 1188. Sometimes known as the Saint-Bénézet Bridge, only four arches now remain, because the bridge was repeatedly swept away and eventually abandoned in 1680. Also in Provence is another, more enduring, bridge that is equally a tourist attraction. This is the Pont du Gard. The competition in this newsletter is to tell us who built the Pont du Gard and what it was for. Was it, A. Built by the Romans to carry an aqueduct. B. Commissioned by Pope Clement VI, resident at Avignon in 1346, to carry a road. C. Built by Gustave Eiffel in 1877 (before he built the Eiffel Tower) to carry a railway line. The first correct answer drawn out of the hat will win a hardcover copy of our book Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. This is the updated edition, 450 pages long, with a mass of information and illustrations, which was published in 2004 by Facts On File. It is on sale in the USA, price $70.

In the Next Issue

Roman Bridges, Portchester Castle and regulars like Monument of the Month.