Cuppa and a Cake – in 1850s Kent – Sophia Tobin

We are so happy today – sitting in our finest taffeta bonnets, with a basket of chocolate muffins in one hand and The Widow’s Confession in the other, we are bumping long quite nicely as our horse drawn carriage takes care to not make our cobbled journey too discomforting. We gave our horse (Tartar) a few sugar lumps to sweeten him up which seems to have done the trick for our journey for the most part is gentle and we are able to look out at the sweeping landscape.

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This is the lady we are travelling to meet – Miss Sophia Tobin who her butler informs us that she loves chocolate and so as our horse turns into the street where Miss Tobin lives, the horse stops and gives us that final flourish of its mane as if to say – you go and enjoy yourselves (or maybe it was  a last ditch attempt to win a chocolate muffin) Well, I admit that just having walked up the grand path of Miss Tobin’s house, I ran back down and gave Tartar a chocolate treat. 🙂

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Finally we are here and we can’t wait to speak to Miss Tobin! The butler takes our bonnets and gloves and we are led through to a room of decadence and opulence – a grand open fire, and a  table dressed in the finest pottery with a feast to remember! And then Miss Tobin! – Good day to you Miss, how kind it is of you to invite us here to talk about your book. Our journey was very pleasant thank you. We have brought chocolate cakes….

Ooh yes we are dying to ask you about your novel and wondered if we might start straightaway, we have so many questions…our journey to 1850s Kent looks set to be a good one!

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A painting -Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside) – influenced and inspired the story. Can you tell us more about this?

It’s a painting by William Powell Frith in the Royal Collection. Frith was a very popular painter in the Victorian period and was known for his crowd scenes. Ramsgate Sands shows Victorian holidaymakers on the beach in Ramsgate (a town which is very close to Broadstairs, where my book is set). Looking at the faces in the picture, there are so many different personalities coming together on the beach, away from their normal way of life, and I thought that was a really interesting set-up. I was also intrigued by the fact that Frith holidayed in Ramsgate every year, and we know that he started making drawings for the painting in the summer of 1851. He had a rather unconventional personal life, and I loved the idea of someone like him being involved in the plot – so Ralph Benedict, one of the main characters was born. I still look at the painting a lot, and it always makes me happy.

 

Viking Bay in Broadstairs, Kent
Viking Bay in Broadstairs, Kent

Location is a big factor, indeed a character in this novel. Goodwin Sands, Broadstairs, Main Bay, the Shell Grotto at Margate. Which place if any intrigued you the most?

I love Broadstairs, because I grew up there, so it’s really familiar to me. I think the shell grotto is the most intriguing place, because it’s an elaborate underground grotto decorated with exotic shells, and no-one knows who created it, or why – it was discovered in the 19th century and has been a tourist attraction ever since. Plus it’s super-creepy, which I love. The Goodwin Sands also intrigues me, but, as the site of so many shipwrecks, it frightens me as well – for anyone involved with the sea, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

 

Wreck of the SS Mahratta on the Goodwin Sands, 1909. This was the first of two vessels of the name to be wrecked on these Kentish shoals.
Wreck of the SS Mahratta on the Goodwin Sands, 1909. This was the first of two vessels of the name to be wrecked on these Kentish shoals.

 

Your Mr Benedict is inspired himself by ‘ an artist on holiday’. Which location would you advise a reader goes to as inspiration for this novel?

I’d advise them to go to the seaside somewhere in the Isle of Thanet – so Broadstairs, Ramsgate or Margate. Whether it’s in blazing sun or high tide in winter, the coast is always full of drama and beauty, and it’s always changing, so you never get bored.

 

There are many themes in this novel – secrets from the past, shame, retribution, the woman’s role in society and superstition. Why is superstition so powerful to you think?

I think superstition is most powerful in situations when people can’t explain what’s happening or they feel helpless. It’s a way of putting labels on things, of creating the illusion of control. At one point in the book I mention the superstition of sailors with reference to their relationship with the sea, and it’s absolutely understandable, because they knew they were dealing with forces beyond their control.

 

Your book starts with a letter, promising to reveal all…….do you think a lot of people would have confessed by letter in days gone by and has technology spoilt this?

I’m not sure how many confessions were made by letter, but I certainly love the art of letter-writing and I hope we don’t lose it completely. I think there’s something very moving about someone considering their thoughts, then putting them down in ink on paper. When I’m writing, if I’m working on a difficult passage, I often turn off the computer and get my pad and pen out: writing that way just has a different dynamic. Having said that, I have received some wonderfully-written emails in my time, so I don’t think technology is spoiling it.

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When you aren’t writing, what you do enjoy doing?

Walking by the sea when I get a chance to visit Kent, reading, looking at art and being with my family. Plus, I’m very good at mindlessly watching television (and eating cake).

What songs would you have as a playlist for The Widow’s Confession?

Pompei by Bastille and Beethoven’s Five Secrets by the Piano Guys. It may sound like a strange selection but I listened to both of these songs repeatedly when I was writing – they just got me in the right state of mind. I have no idea why!

 

Which meal would you serve at a themed dinner for the characters in the novel?

The characters go on lots of excursions so rather than a formal dinner I think it would have to be a picnic: lemonade, pork pie, apples and cheese, all wrapped up in a white cloth and stored in a hamper.

Now you’re talking. Tell you what  – how about we pack up the rest of these cupcakes and this fine feast and head up to Broadstairs itself – recreating the atmosphere of the novel and could have our picnic there. We have a windbreak and I’m sure Tartar will be more than happy to take us. Just remember your gloves and your parasol!

So whilst we head off to have our picnic with Sophia – be sure to stop by her website to read more about this really great book: https://sophiatobin.wordpress.com/the-widows-confession/ and on twitter – @SophiaTobin1

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The Distant Hours – Kent – Kate Morton

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Kate Morton apparently based the fictional Milderhurst castle on Sissinghurst castle and visiting there you can definitely hear the walls whispering the distant hours..

Story in a nutshell

A letter arrives at the home of Edie Burchill and her mother, postmarked with the return address of Milderhurst Castle, Kent, printed on its envelope. It was sent many years ago and has only now been found and sent on.

Edie realises from her mother’s strange reaction that this letter holds many a secret. The two have never been close.

Many years ago –

During the war, Edie’s mother was chosen by Juniper Blythe, and taken to live at Milderhurst Castle with the Blythe family.

But years later, at the end of the war, the family experienced tragedy and the young Juniper Blythe was plunged into madness

The decaying castle and its stone walls would hide a wealth of secrets that the sisters would take pains to protect but at what cost?

Place and setting

The picture of open wooden doors leading on to a fountain in a wood immediately and literally drew me in at first. But the description on the back placed me inside the castle described within, even before I had opened a single page:

‘It started with a letter….”

“Inside the decaying castle…”

“The eccentric sisters Blythe”

“..other secrets hidden in the walls of Milderhurst castle..”

“…the distant hours….”

Not much remains of the castle today but the grand tower was apparently the inspiration for the tower which features so prominently in the novel. The surrounding gardens are perhaps the greatest feature of Sissinghurst. in another literary twist, the gardens were actually created by a writer called Vita Sackville West, and her husband. They designed it to be a series of rooms – much like those which Kate Morton brings to life in ‘The Distant Hours’  – each ‘room’ with a different character and a new view on another part of the garden. The gardens and rooms both lend themselves to yet another discovery both at Sissinghurst but also at Milderhurst. Restored  by one writer and brought to life once again by another, you will  find the links and literary history of this place enchanting.

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Sissinghurst castle – http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle

London –

             Barlow Street, Elephant and Castle where Edie lives

The old Kent Road – where Aunt Rita’s fictional shop Classy Cuts is located

                                    Primrose Hill, Portobello Market – Edie’s mum meets Tom in London here and they spend time in the area.

Booktrailer recommended!

A book about an author and his family. Three sisters with secrets to share. A girl who works for a publisher’s coming to find the mystery of her mother’s early life. And the story of The Mud Man written in the author in the book but which has a bearing on the story in the present day too.

I love novels about books and authors and this book within a book was so intertwined that it was thrilling on so many levels.

When we find out that the head of the Blythe family was Raymond Bylthe and that he wrote The True History of the Mudman, a section of which starts off the novel, I was intrigued..

It is moonless

It is moonless when the mudman comes

Does the Mud Man bring the storm or does the storm bring the Mudman?

But look , what’s that? – a shape, a mass is climbing up the tower wall.

I wanted to be Edie – a young, bookish woman who works as an editor in a publishing firm,  obsessed with Milderhurst Castle and its occupants – those eccentric sisters Blythe who still live there and the history of the author who wrote a famous children’s book.

Secrets of an old decaying castle  – were as enchanting as Edie thought they were and her personal thoughts and decisions were the same as I had – what were the distant hours and the secrets held in the castle walls?

I couldn’t wait to enter and walk along its ghostly passageways and touch its decaying walls to see if I could hear the distant hours spill their secrets. I longed to hear the history of how the mud man came about, the owner of the castle who wrote it in his tower and the reasons for the tragedy that occurred within its walls.

The way in which Kate weaves her spell in and out of every page is something I never tire of reading. An old castle and a letter that gets lost but then starts off one girl’s very personal misson is a joy to read. The fact that there are many secrets buried in the past just waiting to be discovered is a thrilling idea and the atmosphere is both chilling and fascinating.

I was entranced by the True History of the Mud Man and jealous that Edie got the chance to meet his family. Imagine finding out the true origen of your facourite childhood book? Wow.

An amazing book, and an amazing story which had me hooked right to the end. I urge you to read some of it at Sissinghurst. Its 670 pages may mean you make several trips 😉 but take your time, enjoy the atmosphere and the sounds and smells of the past because the writing is so vivid, you get to experience it all.

Hever Castle, Kent, England

On my history trail, I have recently made the journey I have wanted to make for a long time

– to Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn.

To enhance this trip with books as I an prone to do 😉  I read two books – one fact and one fiction, each of them playing their part in the great historical literary trail:

FACT – lady-in-the-tower

Alison Weir – The lady in the Tower. The Fall of Anne Boleyn

Alison Weir’s books really add to my understanding in a way that other books don’t as much. This was a fascinating read and clear and interesting all throughout. I thought I knew quite a bit about Anne Boleyn but boy how wrong was I?

Most of us will know that she was beheaded for failing to produce a male heir – but I discovered a whole new hidden side and many hidden depths to Anne and her story, making me want to get to know even more about her.
Weir is a very thorough but very clear researcher, and she presents what could be confusing information in a very easy to read and very enjoyable narrative. I got a sense of Anne’s family, their motivations, their background and lots lots more.

The history just leaps off the page and I read, fascinated with Anne and the clever way the author leads us through what we thought we knew but manages to make it all sound new and fresh.

FICTION – Phillipa Gregory  – The other Boleyn Girl

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This is a story about Anne Boleyn, the notorious woman who charmed Henry VIII into divorcing his wife, break from the Catholic Church in Rome, and marry her. But the book is not told through her point of view, but through the eyes of her sister, Mary. The portrayal of the family at Hever castle is again of interest and the trials and tribulations of not only Anne’s but Mary’s growing up and their involvement with the court and King Henry VIII  is very well done. Of course,  some events are elaborated or fabricated for the book as they were for the film, but Hever castle is a character in this book in its own right and explains what Anne must have experienced when she lived there with her domineering family.

My TRIP TO HEVER CASTLE

All of this led me to visit Hever Castle – the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. I can’t describe how I felt when I walked through the doors and wandered in the gardens as I imagined Anne Boleyn having been in these actual places many many years ago. Words can’t do my emotions justice. I am so fascinated by her and her role in history that it was a real insight and privilege to visit such a well preserved castle.

The gardens are beautiful and the whole place has an eerie presence to it as modern day visitor mull around the stunning grounds and castle, mingling with the ghostly figures of the turbulent past. I found it haunting in a surreal way as the pictures seemed to  whisper to me  as I passed by. If only walls could talk is a phrase that has never been more true.

And then I saw her, amongst all the pictures of her and her signature in the prayer books, I swear I saw Anne herself out in the garden through the ornate windows. And I imagine that she would have turned and smiled at all the visitors inside unaware that she was witnessing her own popularity and fascination which is still very much in evidence.

I wonder what Anne would have made of all the attention still heaped on her. What I do know is that it was a shame she lead such a turbulent life and only hope that she would have appreciated at least some of the beauty of Hever and its surroundings.

Visit the castle’s website here: http://www.hevercastle.co.uk/