The Apothecary’s Daughter – London 1665 – Charlotte Betts

apothecary

Fire, plague and an evocative journey back in to London of the 1660s

Story in a nutshell

1665.

An apothecary shop in Fleet Street London

Susannah has led a happy life growing up in the sights sounds and smells of her father’s apothecary shop. Since her mother died, she and her father have been close and so when he announces that he is to remarry, she is nervous. The new wife is determined to see Susannah out of the home and so begins a series of misfortune for the young girl. and while her life unravels, the plague and the great fire of London are sweeping the capital. Can her courage and determination save herself in a a city falling apart? can a man in her life help or hinder? What secrets does he hide?

Place and setting

Fleet street - where the apothecary shop is Thames street - the wedding breakfast is held in crown and cushion here and is where the warehouses are Wood street - arabella rents a house here St Brides  where king charles is killed Pudding lane - where the great fire is said to have started.
Fleet street – where the apothecary shop is
Thames street – the wedding breakfast is held in crown and cushion here and is where the warehouses are
Wood street – arabella rents a house here
St Brides where king charles is killed
Pudding lane – where the great fire is said to have started.

London during the time of the Great Fire would have been a terrifying place to be and this atmosphere is stunningly evoked in this novel.

What must it have been like to witness such horrific events and to be at the heart of them as fear and the fight to survive took over. The quiet that hovers over the characters as the fire is first noticed is chilling when you read how it all develops from there –

She returned to the window. An explosion at one of the river front warehouses perhaps? A fire would be hard to control if the warehouse held brandy or timber.

The fire soon then spirals out of control and it is both shocking and scary to be there as it happens –

Suddenly the crackling of the fire in the roof above was drowned out by a thunderous groan. Flaming thatch and tiber crashed to the floor and a blas of searing air hurled her backwards.

The setting is further evoked with the pestilence that is the spread of the plague. Knowing as we do now that it spread quickly and killed so many, this was like being there at the very start of it all –

Living in fear of plague symptoms appearing, she examined herself at frequent intervals for buboes or discoloration on her skin. Ever tickle in her throat, each suspicion of a headache or hint of nausea sent her into a flutter…

As this situation develops too, the transportation of bodies to the plague puts increased the darkness ye shocking reality of what the city and its people went through at this time. Susannah has a very rough time set against all pf the trauma around her as she has escaped one horrific situation only to find herself in another with an unhappy marriage at a time when women were not expected to do anything other than marry. A fascinating portrayal of London at a key point in history through the eyes of a very well developed character indeed.

Thoughts

This was a very interesting and enthralling read and I cant believe I hadn’t come across it earlier. A novel which mixes fact and fiction so well that you feel as if you have experience of working in an apothecary shop by the end of it. You learn the smells, the potions, about the work which goes on there and it is a vivid and evocative read.

Having watched the Great Fire on television recently,this was a timely read for me and this novel really brought out the fear and the general sense of helplessness mixed with hope. Susannah was a great ‘ guide’ since she allowed us to see so much  – not just regarding the position of women in society, the devastating effects of the fire and the plague, but the dangers of medicine and childbirth, the difficulty of having to depend financially on a man and the desire to be independent.

I felt I learned a lot about many things in this book although never once did it feel like I was.  (Islington used to be considered as the countryside don’t you know!) A great writer who sets such simple and easy prose to create such complex and heartrending scenes is a talent indeed. The work of the Apothecary was a world I had never been into before and I felt surrounded by glass bottles and potions and how sad Susannah felt to leave it all behind.

I’m very glad the story continues in The Painter’s Apprentice  – Susannah is a very interesting and captivating character.

Advertisements

The Miniaturist and its evocative book cover

Following on from yesterday’s excited post about the upcoming novel The Miniaturist, we wanted to share something else with you about this amazing book. The cover itself.. perhaps one of the most amazing, detailed and imaginative we have ever seen here at The Booktrail…..

The house on the cover was built from scratch by the most remarkable artist! It’s the kind of cover where, just as like when looking at a real dollhouse, you have to look and look as you can’t take  your eyes off it. Every time you look you see something else – just as every time you read the book, you discover something else. magical on every layer……

The detail of the cover show the detail that was exhibited in the real dollhouse in the Rijksmuseum – the very same houses that wealthy women of the Golden Age would furnish as a sign of their status in society. Rather how we buy cars and houses today – you see some things just don’t change.

The amazing designer Katie Tooke – just look at what she’s achieved! – designed the cover for the novel

the-miniaturist-978144725089001

The setting is captured so perfectly in the artwork –

The large grand houses of the time

The paintings on the wall

The ornate moldings of the decoration

The dress of the day


Both the novel and the cover are incredibly evocative and we could see the fire on the cover as we did in the novel, its orange glow on the checkered tiles.We see Marin and Johannes upstairs with Rezeki the dog.  Nella stands downstairs alone having just moved to Amsterdam and entered this house to be with her new husband who she has only met at their wedding.

Nella waits for the biggest adventure of her life. She is about to meet The Miniaturist....
Nella waits for the biggest adventure of her life. She is about to meet The Miniaturist….

Standing alone with her parakeet Peebo, she is poised for adventure….

As we are..

July 3rd 

The Miniaturist is published in the UK

Runaway to Ohio with Tracy Chevalier

lastSetting- Ohio, USA

Jilted by her fiance in England, Honor Bright, a Quaker woman, decides to accompany her sister Grace to America to help her adjust to hew life as a pioneer woman in rural Ohio. But then tragedy strikes, and Honor is faced with trying to find her own way in a strange and often hostile land.

 

Times are hard for people – and they are especially hard if you are a slave. When Honor meets such a person, she has a lot to learn. Setting this story of slavery and hard times in the Midwest enables Chevalier to beautifully evoke the landscape and the climate very well.

Ohio - image courtesy of Wikipedia
Location of Ohio – image courtesy of Wikipedia

 

The setting becomes a character as she describes and illustrates the history and legacy of slavery and the people who suffer it. For example – What happens to those who appose or blatantly disobey the Fugitive Slave Act? What extremes do they have to go to in order to try and make things right? What happens if they get caught? And who is looking to catch them out?

The flavour of the American midwest is not only evoked by setting of course – the way of life and the social mores of the time are examined such as the difference between English quilting and the American way of doing it, recipes between the two countries, culture and much much more.

On hearing that this young girl is off to Ohio, a sailor on the crossing makes a comment –

Ohio! The sailor snorted. ‘ Sick to the coast, love. Don’t go nowhere you can’t smell the sea, that’s what I Say. You’ll get trapped out there in all them woods.’

 

Knowlton_Covered_Bridge_Monroe County, Ohio - image courtesy of Wikipedia
Knowlton Covered Bridge, Monroe County, Ohio – image courtesy of Wikipedia

 

On seeing a covered bridge for the first time-

The bridges crossing streams and rivers from her childhood were stone and humped. Honor had not though that something as fundamental as a bridge would be so different in America.

 

Although a fictional book, there is also a lot of historical fact and circumstance interwoven into the story – the lives and suffering of the Quakers was a particular subject I had little awareness of so this was interesting to me, the underground railroad system and the subject of immigration and well, when it boils down to one thing – a poor young girl miles from home and desperately trying to survive and make sense of the world around her.

 

A Quaker bonnet of the type that Honor would have worn - image courtesy of Wikipedia
A Quaker bonnet of the type that Honor would have worn – image courtesy of Wikipedia

History really does repeat itself in many ways when you think of it like that Chevalier takes us back there and lets you experience the world through Honor’s eyes. A treat for historical fans and for those who like a good plot with a strong setting as essential to the story.

 

For more on this novel and Tracy Chevalier’s writing, then take a horse driven carriage over to her website – http://www.tchevalier.com/

Travelling back to Victorian London

The yard by alex grecian

I have always wanted to travel back to the Victorian era to see what it was like  – what it smelled like, tasted like and sounded like.

After reading The Yard by Alex Grecian, I feel that I have at last realised a dream of mine. And whilst the dream was at time more like a nightmare – given the vivid imagery of murders not long after the infamous  Ripper killings – it was a very realistic time travelling journey.

I walked along the streets of London paved with gaslights saw the passing Hansom cabs as modes of transport  and walked to my destination of the imposing bleak building at the heart of the story:  Scotland yard.

What I found particularly fascinating was the fact that I was the only person there from the future and so I could see how the process of DNA detections and CSI were still very much in its infancy. I watched and so wanted to try and help the police in their search for the killer but we were separated by two worlds – the literary against the real and the future against the past.

The Victorian London era made the story that bit more interesting and exciting. Although dark at moments, there were many chinks of human kindness which shone through particularly in the character of Kingsley the pathologist. Different attitudes of people back then and the shocking levels of social depravation really made the novel even more vivid.

According to the book, the murder squad of Scotland yard was set up due to the public losing trust in the police following Jack the Ripper and that fact that a policeman had been murdered. Times were changing and so was the nature of policing.

So although I like to visit places when reading books, London was not the main attraction in this book but the birth of forensic science was and how we coped without it and how we acted when it was discovered. The Yard  focuses on fingerprints and how they were first discovered and put into practice in police work. There is general disdain for the practice except for a few forward thinking people and it was fascinating to read how something we take for granted today could be so vilified back then.

The book as a whole  was a riveting, fast, hard-to-put-down mystery of London’s underbelly, depravity and trauma. I may not want to visit this side of London  in the real world but my literary travels will see be back as soon as the follow up hits the shelves.

Richard III, England

Lots of history to go back into!
My lovely collection of historical fiction – well some of it. Too many books to fit on one photo!

The news that the skeleton of Richard III has been found recently is a very exciting discovery in my opinion. Since I read a lot of historical fiction, I have recently read a lot on this infamous character from the past.

Many people will think they know a lot about him whether by history lessons or from reading Shakespeare.  However, a book I recommend in order to find out about him further, and his role in perhaps one of the biggest mysteries of all time: is ‘The Princes in the tower’ by Alison Weir.

The book reconstructs the entire chain of events leading to the double murder. I’ve read a lot of her books and particularly enjoyed her historical novels. But since meeting her on her book tour where she was presenting her book  ‘Mary Boleyn the Great and Infamous Whore‘,  I bought several of her fiction and non fiction titles which I have been working my way through ever since.

As both an historian and a writer of historical fiction, I admire her writing and writing style. And I was no less impressed with her research behind the murder of Edward IV’s two young sons, Edward V and Richard, the Duke of York, at the hands of Richard III – who usurped the English throne during the War of the Roses.

She reaches her verdict that Richard is solely responsible for ordering the two princes deaths while locked up in the Tower of London. However, she does provide thorough evidence against Richard. She also manages to really describe the  life in pre-Tudor England, by explaining how anti-Richard sentiment was often exaggerated for the benefit the Tudor rules who followed the Plantagenets.
In hindsight, Richard III will always be the wicked and power-hungry hunchback as depicted by Shakespeare. But what this book gave me was a insight into a remarkable figure in history. One whose remains I have seen discovered on ‘The King in the Car Park’ programme on Channel 4 as well as my rediscovering of him through Alison’s book.

For true history buffs like myself, I recommend travelling down to Bosworth field where Richard III was killed in battle in 1485. The modern landscape differs markedly in appearance from that of 1485 as the former open fields have been enclosed by straight hedges for example and there is now a  canal which was opened in 1804 and a railway in 1873.

Nevertheless, to really appreciate the life and the man that Richard 3 was, reading this book and visiting Bosworth field is to take a step closer to the past.

Mistress of my fate, London and Paris

Mistress of my fate tells the story of Henrietta Lightfoot in 1789 who states on the cover –  ” 22nd October 1789 – I shall never forget that day. I shall never forget the decision I made.”

Oooh I thought, tell me more….and so I started to read……and this novel I found very interesting indeed.

Henrietta Lightfoot is a innocent  young girl who just wants to be accepted by her aunt and uncle and to be best friends with her cousin. Mistress of My Fate tells the story of her never-ending struggle to try and find her place in life. However, life is never a smooth path, least of all in the  late 1700s and soon Henrietta finds herself drawn down a path she had no intention of following.

Henrietta herself opens the book with the phrase ‘My dear reader, how pleased I am that you have purchased this volume”…..”Now you may know the truth”.

The book carries on in this intimate and completely compelling first person style and I felt as if I was sitting next to Henrietta throughout her adventure and ordeals.  Her wit and character reveal themselves more effectively using this style and it is a pleasure to read. We, the readers, go on the story with her – from the eloquent drawing rooms of the social elite, to the debauched world of the demi-mondaine in nineteenth century London.

And the start to Henrietta’s ordeals and troubled life? – She falls in love with the wrong man and even when she tells him she feels the same but that they cannot be together for he is intended for her cousin, he pursues her. And this is where her troubles begin as she has to make some difficult decisions in a world which is both hostile to single women and too quick to take advantage of someone so young and inexperienced with the ways of a changing society.

I really enjoyed this book with its intimate setting and style and found many interesting parallels to how life can be nowadays. One wrong turn in life can lead to another and situations can escalate horribly quickly out of our control. However, it also carries the message that perseverance and determination against all odds is perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of the human spirit.