On location: Dunedin, New Zealand

The Penrose & Pyke Mysteries are set in and around Dunedin, New Zealand. Readers who haven’t been lucky enough to visit (yet) might like to know a little more about the city.

Dunedin is built on the collapsed remains of a volcano, so the views are stunning. Fortunately, it’s a long extinct volcano, unlike our biggest city, Auckland, where the youngest of about fifty volcanoes is only 600 years old. This fiery past contributes to several outstanding features – very steep streets, beautiful black rock for building, and a wonderful harbour ringed to the south by the green hills, steep cliffs and beaches of the Otago Peninsula.

Aerial view of Dunedin in New Zealand
Aerial view of Dunedin in New Zealand (Source: Adobe Stock, by dudlajzov)

If you think I’m exaggerating the steepness, check out this video of the much-loved Jaffa Roll. In the past, thousands of the little round sweets were rolled down the steepest street in the world each year, but no more.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F42VcDVQ7Ro

The Otago Peninsula is known for its scenery and wildlife, especially the Royal Albatross colony, where you might see the birds soaring with their three-metre wingspan. Rare yellow-eyed penguins, blue penguins, seals and sea-lions are some of the other treats for lovers of fur and feather. And don’t miss the chance to visit the historic homes and gardens, like Glenfalloch and Larnach Castle (see previous blog post), built on the peninsula in the heyday of Victorian wealth.

Hard to believe now, but Dunedin was once the wealthiest and largest city in New Zealand, after settlement by Scottish, English and other immigrants was turbo-charged by the discovery of gold in the 1860s and the on-going wealth that flowed from sheep farming. The distinctly Scottish vibe are a legacy of those golden years. It’s not called the “Edinburgh of the South” for nothing.

Dunedin city is a treasure trove of Victorian and Edwardian buildings, from worker’s cottages to mansions, churches to civic buildings, hotels to factories, and the oldest (and prettiest) university in New Zealand. Hours of fun for the history buff, thanks to the relative lack of modern “development” compared to other cities. And all those students make for a lively place (not just for their infamous couch-burning parties).

Dunedin, NZ

Visit the railway station and shout for joy that a functional place can also be made beautiful.

Sadly, the only passenger trains these days are the tourist routes up the coast and into Central Otago via the Taieri Gorge – both must-do excursions with fabulous views, on routes hewn from rock in the 1800s.

The end of the Taieri line is a great place to start a cycling trip through Central Otago, along the old railway route all the way to Clyde, then back down the mighty Clutha River.

Apologies for the adjectival-overload … I admit to being just a teeny bit gushy about one of my favourite regions of New Zealand! I can’t resist adding some pics of my last bike trip thru Central Otago, as a bonus lure to come visit. Oh, the smell of wild thyme, hot from the sun on the rocks.

If you visit, bring a warm coat, stout shoes, and a sense of adventure.

Larnach Castle – a Celebration of Victorian Excess

I have to admit a fascination for the Victorian era. Industrial innovation, scientific advancement and exploration made for a heady mix of momentous change. And how those successful nouveau-riche Victorians loved to flaunt their newly-minted wealth!

One such man was William Larnach, who built New Zealand’s only castle in 1871. If you are in Dunedin, I’d highly recommend a visit. According to their website (https://www.larnachcastle.co.nz/), “It took more than 200 workmen three years to build the Castle shell and master European craftsmen spent a further 12 years embellishing the interior.”

While the castle is glorious and the location is spectacular, it is all the interior detail I loved the most. Birds in domed display cases, sumptuous furniture and accessories, and totally over-the-top interiors are just some of the delights.

As the website says: “Materials from all over the world were used – marble from Italy, slate from Wales, floor tiles from England, glass from Venice and France. No expense was spared in creating Larnach’s dream home! Many New Zealand native woods were also used – kauri ceilings, rimu floors and honeysuckle panelling. In 1885 a 3,000 square foot Ballroom was added.”

Since 1900, the castle has had many uses, “as a lunatic asylum, a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers and a nuns’ retreat. The Ballroom was once even used as a sheep holding pen!”, before falling into decline. 

Three cheers for the Barker family, for six decades of dedicated renovation to bring the derelict mansion back to its current extraordinary state.

William Larnach doesn’t appear in my latest novel, Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre, but he does provide some inspiration for the characters and locations.

His own history would scarcely be believed if it was written as a novel. He started as a banker (his bank on the Australian goldfields was “a tent and his equipment consisted of dogs, a gun, and strong boxes”), before moving to New Zealand when gold was discovered in the 1860s. From there he expanded into shipping, farming, landholding, politics, speculation and a career in politics.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end well. Economic depression led to financial difficulties, drinking and depression. In 1898, Larnach locked himself in a committee room at Parliament and shot himself with a revolver. His final legacy to the world of Victorian excess was the enormous mausoleum in the Dunedin Northern Cemetery, a miniature replica of Robert Lawson’s First Church.

Agog as I am at the ostentatious wealth of the era, my own interest is at the other end of the spectrum – the tarnished reverse side of the shiny coin of economic wealth. The machinery of mass production put many skilled workers out of a job or forced them into unskilled labour or, if things got really dire, workhouses. Others took the courageous decision to emigrate to British colonies, like New Zealand – a migration that had profound consequences for the indigenous population as well as the new immigrants.

While the divide between rich and poor persisted in New Zealand (as it still does), the balance of power was tipped towards workers, who were a scarce resource, and women, who were an even scarcer resource.

Thus, the late Victorian era was also a time of great social change here, achieving advances in workers’ rights and women’s suffrage that would not have been possible in other countries.

A great source of pride to Kiwis and, happily for me, a rich vein of background material to plunder for the first three books in the Penrose & Pyke Mystery series. The first book (with a workers’ rights theme) will be released this week. Thank you to all the lovely readers who have pre-ordered it. I hope you enjoy it!

NZ & South Seas Exhibition, 1889-90

As soon as I read about the marvellous New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, I knew it was perfect place for a scene in Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre.

"Eiffel Tower", New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition (Source: Hocken Library)

Grand exhibitions were all the rage in the 1800s, showing off the extraordinary innovation and prosperity of the Victorian period. The Dunedin event was hard on the heels of the 1889 World Fair in Paris, for which the iconic Eiffel Tower was built. Not to be outdone by the French, Dunedin constructed a replica Eiffel Tower, albeit scaled-down to 40 metres and made of wood. Featuring a steam-powered lift, which carried 16 people up to a height of 30 metres, and electrically-powered lights on the viewing platforms, it was a smash hit.

New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition (Source: Hocken Library)

The NZSS Exhibition also had a switchback railway (the humble precursor to roller-coasters – a bit of it can be seen in the photo above), a merry-go-round, musical entertainment, gardens and exhibits of everything imaginable from around New Zealand and the world.

The event was so popular that more visitors were said to have gone through its gates than the entire population of New Zealand at the time.

Entrance, New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition (Source: Hocken Library)

One can only imagine the wonder and excitement on their faces as they approached the Moorish-domed entrance!

A huge thank you to The Lothians blog for detailed information about a fascinating, but little-known, piece of history: https://the-lothians.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-new-zealand-and-south-seas.html.

A Win for the Workers

The next time you’re burning the midnight oil at work, spare a thought for how it used to be, when the ‘midnight oil’ was a feeble lamp lighting the piecework taken home by women after a long day on the factory floor. And give thanks to the campaigners for workers’ rights, who fought hard for better conditions (and who still do so).

My new book, Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre, was inspired by the events of 1890, in New Zealand’s biggest and wealthiest city (at the time), Dunedin. Many workers slaved for long hours in appalling conditions, although arguably with better conditions than they had faced in Britain, from whence most of the population had immigrated since 1840. Some workers even managed to get an eight-hour day, as first celebrated fifty years later, in October 1890, by our first Labour Day. (The cartoon lampooning the Employers’ Union Labour Day float is from the Alexander Turnbull Library.)

After the depression years of the 1880s, any job was better than none, even if the pay scarcely covered a subsistence living. Families often fended off starvation by sending their women and children to work.

Enter the Reverend Rutherford Waddell and his widely publicised sermons on the ‘Sin of Cheapness’. Waddell was the minister of the St Andrew’s parish, in an area so notorious for drinking and debauchery that it became known as the Devil’s Half Acre. It was so bad that Walker Street, which is the epicentre of events in the story, was later renamed Carroll Street in an attempt to blot out the taint. (Waddell photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library.)

Waddell’s powerful advocacy helped to establish the first union for working women, the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union. The first vice-president of the union was Harriet Morison, one of New Zealand’s (and the world’s) pioneering feminists, who later played an important role in the campaign for women’s suffrage and the temperance movement. (Harriet Morrison photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library.)

The government responded by setting up the Sweating Commission, which first convened in Dunedin on the tenth of February 1890, with Waddell as one of the commissioners.

Here’s a sample of one inspection by the Sweating Commission: ‘Factory crowded to excess. Badly lighted, and not ventilated. The building has three flats. In the upper one the sewing girls and clickers are in one room, and some of the employees are juvenile in appearance. The ground-floor is crowded with machinery and men, and the cellar is utilised as workroom for considerable number of men. The cellar from floor to ceiling is not more than 6ft. high, and two boys there are practically working in the dark.’

The photos below, of women working a clothing factory and looms at a woollen mill, are from the early 1900s, when conditions had improved significantly (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library).

The commission concluded that sweating did not exist, in the sense of the accepted definition, albeit with three dissenting commissioners, including Waddell. However, the evidence of long hours, poor conditions and inadequate pay was undeniable. The Liberal government subsequently made significant changes to labour laws, including the Factories Acts of 1891 and 1894.

For anyone interested, I’d highly recommend Ian Dougherty’s fascinating biography of Waddell – Pulpit Radical: The Story of New Zealand Social Campaigner, Rutherford Waddell (2018, Saddle Hill Press, Dunedin, New Zealand).

Women in Medicine, NZ

Chlorodyne advert (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand)

Medicine has always fascinated me – the life-and-death drama, the clever use of forensics to uncover the truth, and especially the weird (and frankly terrifying) drugs and equipment used in the past.

Like Chlorodyne, which promised to cure a startling array of complaints, from cholera to coughs to insomnia, but contained a mix of chloroform, morphine, hemp and goodness knows what else. (Image source: Alexander Turnbull Library)

In my new series, Penrose & Pyke Mysteries, Grace Penrose is determined to become the first female medical student in the country.

Emily Seideberg (Source: Hocken Library)

In real life, that honour went to Emily Seideberg, way back in 1891 (Image source: Hocken Library). Her success was just one of the firsts for women during a time of extraordinary social change in New Zealand. (Universal women’s suffrage was passed two years later.) Emily quietly defied societal norms and went about the vocation of becoming a doctor, although not without copping significant disapproval from the medical fraternity and ribbing from other medical students.

According to the recollections of Mr “Wullie” Goodlet, a former lab assistant: “Miss Siedeberg was the first lady to take the medical course, and I must say she deserved great credit for the way she stuck to her work in the dissecting room. She had a very unpleasant time among the male students. They did not want lady doctors  … The young men would throw the flesh at her every chance they got.

Professor John Scott (Source: Hocken Library)

Emily does not appear in the story (other than in spirit), but Professor John Scott, the visionary Dean of the Otago Medical School from 1877 to 1914, has a small part (Image source: Hocken Library). Emily Seideberg graduated five years later and gave exceptional service over her lifetime, for which she received a CBE. The second female student, Margaret Cruickshank, was also outstanding and so revered by her local community in Waimate that a statue was erected in her honour.

Emily Seideberg has a plaque on the historic walk in the beautiful old town of Clyde, one of the main towns of the 1860s Gold Rush in Central Otago. By one of those amazing twists of fate, the plaque is located right outside the old schist cottage I was staying in (where my family lived in the 1930s) and I was thinking about plot ideas when I literally stumbled upon her. And so, Grace Penrose was born.

Scenes from inside Versailles Palace

Spoiler Alert: Mentions several scenes in the plot.

The interior of the palace is fabulously ornate – a statement of power and prestige that could hardly be missed by visitors. The Hall of Mirrors is unforgettable today – how much more amazing it must have been in Louis XVI’s day, when mirrors were an expensive novelty. (Source: Jessica Kantak Bailey @Unsplash.com)

Yet for all its grandeur, 18th century accounts often mention the smell, the hordes of gawkers and the inconveniences. The smell came from a pungent mix of animals, rubbish, the marshy ground, unwashed bodies (bathing was rare as water was said to spread disease), disease, carelessly emptied chamber pots, and people relieving themselves in the corridors if they couldn’t find a convenient pot. Charming! Many aspects of royal life, even dining and childbirth, were carried out with an audience of enthralled on-lookers. The dining experience wasn’t helped by the fact that the food would often be cold, due to the long walk from the kitchens.

It’s well worth doing a tour if you get the chance to visit. Behind the grand public halls are the more intimate and even more beautiful private rooms of the king and queen (although ‘private’ is a relative term, given the number of advisers, courtiers, guards and servants who had access to even the most of intimate rooms, such as the queen’s bedroom). Two of my favourite rooms are the clock room and king’s library, featured in the book.

Queen's Bedroom (source: https://chateauversailles.fr)

As a statement of the richness of the décor at Versailles, it’s hard to go past the Queen’s bedroom. The hidden door, through which Marie Antoinette escaped when Versailles was invaded, is near the corner of the room. (Source: the official website of Versailles, https://chateauversailles.fr)

The story features the gorgeous works of Jean-Henri Riesener, favoured cabinetmaker to the royal household. This photo of Marie Antoinette’s private ‘Gilded Room’ shows a magnificent commode and desk by Riesener.

The commode is described in the Collections list as: “By the quality of its amaranth and satin veneer, framing a precious marquetry with diamond patterns and sunflower flowers, by the finesse and delicacy of its bronzes where dominate the floral motifs so dear to Marie-Antoinette, this piece of furniture is a magnificent testimony to the perfection and refinement of French royal furniture at the end of the Ancien Régime.”

The desk is described as: “veneered with amaranth wood and stained sycamore, rests on four tapered legs with octagonal section whose corners are underlined by twisted rods in gilded bronze; a ring with grooves and oves ensures the connection with the body of the table. It is decorated on its four sides with bas-reliefs of gilded bronze representing musical love games among clouds; symmetrical compartments show on a background of sycamore tinted in green an alternation of grooves and florets.”  (Source of image and descriptions: the official website of Versailles, https://www.chateauversailles.fr)

If you get a chance to visit Versailles, allow loads of time to explore and check out the fascinating official website before you go.

I also had hours of fun looking through photo books about the palace. A couple of recommendations:

Kisluk-Grosheide, Danielle and Bertrand Rondot (editors) (2018) Visitors to Versailles from Louis XIV to the French Revolution. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Yale University Press.

Delalex, Hélène, Alexandre Maral, Nicholas Milovanovic (2016) Marie Antoinette. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Scenes from the Versailles gardens

Spoiler Alert: Mentions several scenes in the plot.

The third book in my French Legacy Trilogy (The Last Child at Versailles) includes several scenes set in and around the Palace of Versailles, just outside of Paris, during the final few months of the reign of Louis XVI.

If you haven’t visited, here’s a taster of the some of the places mentioned.

The gardens of the Petit Trianon and especially the Queen’s Hamlet were (in real life and in the story) a peaceful retreat from the gruelling routines of court life for Marie Antoinette and her children. Here’s the tower the children climb and also the pretty but useless mill. (Source: Jeremy Bezanger @Unsplash.com and Roman Babakin @Shutterstock.com)

A far cry from the formal gardens that surround the Palace of Versailles. (Source: Clark Van Der Beken @Unsplash.com)

On the fifth of October, 1789, thousands of working women from Paris marched for hours in the rain to Versailles to protest the scarcity of food. Armed with everything from fish-knives to cannons, they must have been a terrifying sight, demanding bread and threatening violence. The imposing gates, guarding the front courtyard at the Palace of Versailles, could only hold the angry mob off for a few hours. (Source: Alexandre Brondino for the stormy image and Josh Arras for the gate @Unsplash.com)

Inspirational books for writing “The Last Child At Versailles”

The third book in my French Legacy Trilogy (The Last Child at Versailles) is set during the lead-up to the 1789 French Revolution and the dramatic years that followed.

There is a vast body of reference works on the revolution from both a broad historical view and from the perspective of key players. Fortunately, my interest was much narrower. I became fascinated with an insignificant young girl, whose real-life story is little known, but absolutely extraordinary. She was born into a family who served at Versailles, but circumstances gave her a grandstand seat on a world that was spiralling out of control.

Here, I’m sharing some of the books I used for my research, all highly recommended to give an intimate and captivating view of life at the court of Versailles and the brutal events of the French Revolution.

My primary source was the wonderful biography by Susan Nagel of Marie-Thérèse, the eldest child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. While her mother is one of the most famous (or infamous) women in history, Marie-Thérèse deserves to be much better known. Still a young girl when the revolution overturned her pampered life as a Child of France, she faced the invasion of her home at Versailles, a long and harrowing imprisonment, the deaths of her entire family, exile from her homeland, sensational rumours and blackmail, before becoming a leader and queen-in-waiting, with a final exile when she was on the cusp of becoming the queen of France (technically she was queen for twenty minutes).
Susan Nagel’s biography is highly readable and utterly fascinating. Find out more about her other books here
Antonia Fraser’s detailed biography of Marie Antoinette is another fascinating read. Daughter of the Empress of Austria, she was married to the heir to the French throne at the tender age of fourteen and became Queen of France four years later. She is infamous in popular culture for her lavish spending and disregard for the dire condition of the ordinary folk, but her real story is much more nuanced. Yes, she loved balls, fabulous clothes and expensive jewellery (she was the queen, after all), but she was also charitable and a devoted mother. Contrary to myth, she didn’t say “Let them eat cake” when told the people had no bread. And if you think modern social media can viciously slander celebrities, well, it wasn’t so much different back then, albeit via paper and word-of-mouth rather than world-wide digital exposure.
Another extraordinary woman of the era was Lucie de la Tour du Pin, who had an astounding aptitude for being present at major historical events, all recorded in her diaries. Caroline Moorehead brings us her remarkable story in Dancing to the Precipice, a reference to the grand balls which continued to amuse the court, even as Paris rioted. Honestly, if it was a fictional tale, you wouldn’t believe half of it!
Madame Tussaud, of waxworks fame, was another woman uncomfortably close to the revolution, observing it from both sides with her artist’s eye. Michelle Moran’s fictionalised story of her life is full of delicious details about clothes, people and lifestyles, as well as the terrifying events of the revolution. In this pre-camera era, the famed waxworks provided people from all walks of life with an intimate peek at famous folk. She often had to work at a feverish pace to capture the likenesses of the key players of the time, adding new tableaux as the royal and revolutionary figures cycled in and out of favour.
And finally, a gorgeous book of true tales and images from Versailles, with sumptuous pics of the palace, its furniture and treasures, the people and clothes, gardens and glories, produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An absolute dream for a writer looking for authentic details!

Full references:

Nagel, Susan (2008) Marie-Thérèse: the fate of Marie Antoinette’s daughter. Bloomsbury, London.

Fraser, Antonia (2001) Marie Antoinette: the Journey.  Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.

Moorehead, Caroline (2009) Dancing to the Precipice: Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution. Chatto & Windus, London

Moran, Michelle (2011) Madame Tussaud: a novel of the French Revolution. Quercus, London.

Kisluk-Grosheide, Danielle and Bertrand Rondot (editors) (2018) Visitors to Versailles from Louis XIV to the French Revolution. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Yale University Press.

Any questions?

Rose icon (Shutterstock)

I’ve updated my Goodreads author profile, so readers can now ask me questions at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/20512809.Rose_Pascoe

Or you are welcome to contact me via this website: send an email via the contact page, or follow my blog, or receive updates about new releases by signing up at the bottom of the home page.

Here’s a sample of answers to Goodreads questions:

Q. Where did you get the idea for your most recent book?

A. My ancestors arrived from Britain on sailing ships in the early days of the settlement of New Zealand by Europeans. Family legend has it that one branch of the family originated in France. It got me wondering – what drives a person to leave their home country for the ends of the earth? When I read more about French history, I stumbled on the little-known real-life character who became the heroine of The Last Child At Versailles. What an incredible life she must have had, growing up at Versailles at the time of the French Revolution! As soon as I read about her, I had to write the book.

Q. What mystery in your own life could be a plot for a book?

A. I spent my childhood weekends on the many and varied boats my father built. On one trip, we came across an island with hole in the middle. The mysterious thing was that we were never able to find it again, despite years of island-cruising, map-checking and asking other boaties. It became a family obsession! Reminds me of The Beach by Alex Garland, on a much smaller and way less exotic scale.

Q. What books are on your summer reading list this year?

A. Definitely Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. All the Light We Cannot See was one of my all-time favourite books.

Q. How do you deal with writer’s block?

A. I find a tiny, tangential hook into whatever I’m writing and force myself to write a couple of lines about it. I got blocked halfway through writing Last Child At Versailles, when I had a long gap while moving house. I found a picture of a beautiful period gown and started describing it … before I knew it, I had written a whole scene at a ball (never used – maybe another time!)

Book Giveaway

Last Child at Versailles cover

** Giveaway now closed. Thanks to all who entered and congratulations to winners. Hope you enjoy the story. **

US readers are in with a chance to win my latest novel, The Last Child At Versailles, via Goodreads Giveaways.

Entries are open until 19 November 2021 via this link: Book giveaway for The Last Child At Versailles (French Legacy, #3) by Rose Pascoe Oct 23-Nov 19, 2021 (goodreads.com)

To make sure fans from other countries don’t miss out, I’m also giving away 20 additional copies of the e-book (.epub version). Click on the “Contact” tab of this website by 19 November and send me an email with “Giveaway” in the message field.

Winners will be randomly selected from all entries. I promise not to use your email for any further purpose after sending out the e-book to the winners.

Good luck! And happy reading.

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” Anais Nin

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