From my blog...

A Pre-Raphaelite Artist & a Church in Wales

St. Deiniol's Church, Hawarden, Wales

St. Deiniol’s Church, Hawarden, Wales

“Be sure you go into the church and look at our Burne-Jones window.”

I had just arrived in Hawarden, Wales and was being escorted up two flights of stairs to my room in the residence wing of Gladstone’s Library when my guide mentioned St. Deiniol’s Church and its window.

“Burne-Jones?” I asked, a little breathless from the climb. “The Pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones?” As if there was any other artist by that name who designed stained glass windows.

“That’s the one,” she assured me.

I’ve been a long-time fan of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, and had seen exhibits of their work in museums in San Francisco, New York and London. I hadn’t expected to find a window by Burne-Jones in a parish church in this small village in Wales.

StD7From my bedroom I could see St. Deiniol’s churchyard, and I soon learned that there had been churches on this site dedicated to the 6th century Welsh saint for over a thousand years. Some elements of the current edifice have been traced back to the 14th century, but St. Deiniol’s had been through several restorations and one fire, and as a result, most of it was now 19th century work. Still, once I was inside, it felt awfully old to me.

I made a number of visits to the little church over the next two weeks, slipping in for quiet contemplation. There were, I discovered, several Burne-Jones windows, but the real stunner was the 1898 west window.

Burne-Jones Window, St. Deiniol's, Hawarden, Wales

Burne-Jones Window, St. Deiniol’s, Hawarden, Wales

It portrayed a Nativity scene, and anyone familiar with the Pre-Raphaelites would recognize the Burne-Jones style in the designs incorporated into the fabrics portrayed and in their lush draping. Like much of Burne-Jones’ work it suggested the medieval. The Pre-Raphaelites were inspired by the medieval past, and Burne-Jones’ gave his artwork a dream-like quality, more beautiful than the middle ages could possibly have been.

Burne-Jones Tapestry, Adoration of the Magi, Exeter College, Oxford

Burne-Jones Tapestry, Adoration of the Magi, Exeter College, Oxford

This was not the first nativity scene of his that I’d had the good fortune to see. I’d visited Oxford’s Exeter College church the year before where a tapestry, The Adoration of the Magi, hung. The works were quite different, but both were memorable. When you’ve seen a piece by Burne-Jones, you don’t easily forget it.

There were other artistic elements within St. Deiniol’s that moved me. On the wall of a side chapel an angel plucked the strings of, appropriately, a Welsh harp. Spanning the nave was a carved wooden cross that I thought quite unusual.

Hawarden War Memorial, Remembrance Sunday, 2014

Hawarden War Memorial, Remembrance Sunday, 2014

It had been placed there in 1915 to commemorate William G. C. Gladstone, who was killed in France only three weeks after he had arrived at the front. His tragedy, like so many others, has been commemorated across the nation every Remembrance Sunday, and 2014’s centennial year would be no exception.

On the north side of the church there was a monument dedicated to former Prime Minister William E. Gladstone, the grandfather of that younger William who died in the Great War, and the founder of the library where I was studying. An angel hovered over the bronze sculpture of Gladstone and his wife, Catherine, lying side by side, and everywhere there were memorials to relatives and to parishioners whom they would have known. In fact the church was crowded with memorials and memories. It was crowded with the past.

StD4The past, of course, was my reason for being in Wales at all. And so I spent most days studying Anglo-Saxon history in the library while occasionally making my way to the little church that had its history in its walls and, thanks to Edward Burne-Jones, in windows that so beautifully evoked the medieval.

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The Ghosts of Christmases Past

12 NOVEMBER, 2014 Christmas Window, London

12 NOVEMBER, 2014 Christmas Window, London

Did you notice that, this year, the Christmas shopping season began considerably earlier than in the past?  Christmas decorations now appear in store windows right after Halloween – pumpkins to pine trees in the blink of an eye. Many shops ignored the traditional start of holiday sales known as Black Friday, and had their doors wide open even on Thanksgiving Day.

This frenzy of shopping throughout November and December is relatively new, if you consider the past 1200 or so years of Christmas traditions. In centuries past, the four weeks before Christmas – Advent – were a time of prayer and fasting, culminating in a feast on December 25. In the 9th century, it was the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great, Boarwho extended the Christmas Day feasting into January, so that the celebrating lasted a full twelve days, starting on Christmas day and lasting until Epiphany on January 5. The Anglo-Saxons must have needed all the carbs (from beer) and protein (from boar) they could get to last them through the long, lean days of winter until the next great feast at Easter, but the celebration did not start until December 25.

The medieval Christmas feasting that was embraced in England from the time of King Alfred (9th century) all the way through the reign of Charles I (mid-17th century) stopped abruptly, though, when the Puritans came into power. The stern Puritans believed that the celebration of Christmas was an abomination, and so they cancelled it. From 1644 until 1681, there was a law on the books in England forbidding excessive celebrating at Christmas.

PILGRIM_FATHERSAnd it was those same stern Pilgrims who founded the New England colonies across the sea. They must have been admirably courageous, stoic and resilient to endure those early, desperate years in the American wilderness. But they were also hard-nosed, flinty-eyed, no-nonsense, religious zealots. (I write this as one who, my genealogy-minded sister has informed me, had an ancestor on the Mayflower.) On Christmas Day in 1620, at Plymouth, the Pilgrims showed their contempt for Christmas by spending the day building their first structure in the New World. No feasting, no singing, no holiday, and not even a religious service. It stands to reason when you think about it. The need for shelter against a cold New England winter must have trumped any thoughts of celebration. Nevertheless, even as late as 1870, Boston public schools were open on Christmas Day, and students were expected to attend or else.

In the southern colonies of America, the story was a little different. Jamestown was founded in April, 1607, not by Puritans but by members of the Church of England. Their first Christmas was not recorded, possibly because by Christmas of that first year, only 38 of the original 104 settlers were still alive. The deaths of two-thirds of their company over eight months must have been a bitter blow. But the intrepid John Smith describes a 1608 Yuletide feast of shellfish, meat and poultry that he celebrated with the Indians when he and a dozen of his companions were foraging for food outside the settlement. Bleak as it may have been, Christmas Day was observed in early Virginia.

ChristmasTraditionWhen the later colonies were founded, they celebrated Christmas with the traditions they brought with them from the old world, whether they were Dutch or English, Polish or Portuguese. As the colonies became a melting pot of nationalities and religions, the earlier Puritan prohibition against celebrating Christmas faded, and even in Boston folk kept Christmas however they wished. Thomas Jefferson described his 18th century Virginia Christmas as “a day of mirth and jollity”.

DickensChristmasOver in England, where the Industrial Revolution had emptied villages, the exhausted, dispirited urban populace had no energy for celebration. Luckily for all of us, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1853, and he is credited with reviving the spirit of Christmas in Britain. In America, the March girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) celebrated the season not by shopping, but by making presents for Marmee, giving us a tender picture of a thrifty New England Christmas. By the time President Grant declared Christmas a Federal holiday in 1870, the kinds of excesses that had offended the Puritan settlers no longer characterized the feast. It had become a time of nostalgia and hope, of family warmth and communal ties, of tradition and good cheer. Alas for us, it would become the Season of Shopping soon enough.

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The Greatest Gift I Ever Gave

Some months ago, the editor of my university’s alumni magazine called with a request: “Could you write an essay for us on the theme of ‘The Greatest Gift I Ever Gave’? Is there a story like that in your past?” Continue reading

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Celebrating Book Clubs

PegasusIf you belong to a Book Club, raise your hand. See? I knew it. Lots of you. I have this theory that Book Clubs deserve a good deal of credit for keeping the publishing industry (and their authors) going. Continue reading

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The Literary Feast at Gladstone’s Library


Gladstone's Library, Hawarden, Flintshire, Wales

Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire, Wales

I am into my second week as Writer-in-Residence here at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Wales. Continue reading

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The Splendid Bookshop

“The book shop is just here.” The clerk at the Grande Hotel do Porto penciled ‘LELLO’ on the city map in front of me. Continue reading

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A Personal Reflection on Fatima

The old basilica at Fatima.

The old basilica at Fatima.

I never intended to visit Fatima when I planned my recent trip to Portugal, mostly because I had no notion of where Fatima was. Continue reading

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Guest Post at English History Authors Blogspot

Ermine Street. Photo: Wikimedia

I’m guest posting at the English History Authors Blogspot, writing 4 consecutive posts about England’s Royal Roads. Part I, The Icknield way appears Sept. 7. I hope you’ll come along for the ride!

Part II, Watling Street. Sept. 8

Part III, The Fosse Way. Sept. 9

Part IV, Ermine Street. Sept. 10.

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The Historical Blog Slog

Whenever I put together a history-related blog post, it’s not something I’m writing off the top of my head even if the material springs from research I’ve been doing for the past nine years. I need to double-check everything to make sure that I have my facts straight. Sometimes I’m writing about something that is only tangential to the novel I’m working on, so I have to research it in as much depth for the blog post as I would if I were going to include it in my book. It usually takes several days, so I do not commit to such a blog post lightly. I am absolutely certain that I am not alone in this. If you’ve read history-related posts on any of the historical sites on the internet, you are probably seeing the results of a great deal of hard work. The website English Historical Fiction Authors a website to which many wonderful historical novelists contribute, is an excellent example.

Sometimes, as in the piece I posted on this site last December about Anglo-Saxon Art, the research material is right on my bookshelf.

A selection of my research books.

A selection of my research books.

Other times I have to go further afield for information. The essay titled Mapping England that appeared on the EHFA website in January, for example, demanded a couple of trips to UC Berkeley to pore over their map collection using books I couldn’t possibly afford to have on my shelf.

The bucolic UC Berkeley campus.

The bucolic UC Berkeley campus.

Once I’ve gathered all the necessary information it has to be distilled and combined into a thoughtful (I hope) essay that is not so terribly long that readers will give up half-way through. I try to keep my posts under 1000 words, preferably closer to 600. (This one is almost 400 words.)

And that brings me to a 4-part series of historical posts that I’ve written for the EHFA website that will appear there on Sept. 7, 8, 9, & 10. The series is about medieval Britain’s 4 royal roads. If I’d combined their fascinating histories into a single blog post it would have been so long that a reader’s eyes would cross. Therefore, at my request, author and web-mistress Debra Brown has given me permission to spread my posts over those 4 days. So, starting this Sunday and continuing through Wednesday, I will be, essentially, hijacking the EHFA website. I will post a link on this page, and I hope that you will come along for the 4-day ride.

Coming Sept. 7: Britain's Royal Roads

Coming Sept. 7: Britain’s Royal Roads

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Into the Woods…Again

OSFThere is a timeless quality to my journey to Ashland every year. Granted, attending six plays over three days sweeps me into a make-believe world, even if the plays haven’t all been penned by The Bard. But there are other elements to the timelessness as well.

Memories of earlier visits hover around me while I’m there, some from so long ago that they seem like another lifetime.

Playing around at OSF in...2003?

Playing around at OSF in…2003?

Lithia Park, my destination every morning before breakfast, appears unchanged from year to year, as if it had been placed under a sleeping spell.

Lithia Park, Ashland

Lithia Park, Ashland

And then there is the 1883 vintage McCall House, the inn that was once a home, where Lydia McCall’s tintype portrait graces the wall of my bedroom and the furniture is as Victorian as a set from an Ibsen play.

Captain & Lydia McCall Room. McCall House, Ashland.

Captain & Lydia McCall Room. McCall House, Ashland.

Toss in an outdoor theater that resembles, however vaguely, Shakespeare’s Globe, and it’s no wonder that I feel like I’m in Never Never Land.

Elizabethan Theater, Ashland. Photo:

Elizabethan Theater, Ashland. Photo:

I love arriving. I hate leaving. We book our room two years in advance, just to make sure we can come back.

McCall House B&B. Full.

McCall House B&B. Sorry. Full.

And what about the plays? A few words about this year’s highlights:

Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, Mark Bedard. Photo:

Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, Mark Bedard. Photo:

The Cocoanuts: Two years ago the OSF production of the Marx Brothers’ vehicle Animal Crackers had me laughing so hard I was in tears. The same actors – none of whom, in real life look like Groucho, Harpo or Chico, but on stage…!!!! – returned for this production and once again they were brilliant. The story was completely silly, the music (early Irving Berlin) was gorgeous, the performances exceptional, and the ad-libbing and audience interaction had everyone in hysterics. Some poor man whose phone rang in the first act took some verbal ribbing and a long, cold stare from Groucho. The poor guy took it in stride. Then the phone rang a second time (!!!!). All three actors climbed into the audience and after merciless banter, they confiscated his phone. An added spark of genius: they worked his phone into the closing lines of the play.

Rachael Warren, Miles Fletcher, Javier Munoz, Robin Nordli, Jennie Greenberry

Rachael Warren, Miles Fletcher, Javier Munoz, Robin Nordli, Jennie Greenberry

Into the Woods: This was the outstanding production for me this year. It’s one of my favorite musicals, and everything about this OSF production was exceptional and magical. The director and cast made this play their own. Standout performances, especially, by some of my favorite actors here: Anthony Heald (Mysterious Stranger), Miriam Laube (the Witch) and John Tufts (Rapunzel’s Prince). But really, you know, every performer was awesome. (And yo, OSF, I caught the nod to Maleficent.) If I could I’d drive to Oregon tomorrow and watch it again and again.

Crab, played by Picasso; with actress K.T.Vogt

Crab, played by Picasso; with actress K.T.Vogt. Photo: OSF

Two Gentlemen of Verona: An all female cast made this play intriguing. I’ve seen female actors take on male roles before – Helen Mirren as Prospero, for example, but this was a first. I enjoyed it, and had no problem translating the female actors on stage to men. I have to tell you, though, that the huge white dog who played Crab stole every scene he was in, with actress K.T. Vogt’s help.

Kate Hurster, Dan Donohue. Photo:

Kate Hurster, Dan Donohue. Photo:

Richard III: This was the final play that we saw, and it was a perfect ending to our stay in Ashland. It was very, very well done. Only the wooing scene between Richard and Anne Neville did not quite work for me, but since IT NEVER HAS I fault Shakespeare, not the actors.

Do I want to go back and do it all over?
I wish—- ♫

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