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).

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)

NZ Crime and Mystery Writing

A big night tonight for New Zealand crime and mystery writing – the annual Ngaio Marsh Awards will be presented at the Word Christchurch festival. Congratulations to all the authors short-listed. (https://wordchristchurch.co.nz/programme/the-ngaio-marsh-awards/)

New Zealand is brimming with terrific writers, many of whom don’t get the recognition they deserve. I suppose, like most things, it comes down to the huge hype and marketing dollars channelled into overseas blockbusters.

So why not make a resolution to read more local stories? If you need inspiration, there is no better place to turn than to “Crime Watch”, Craig Sisterson’s fabulous website, which reviews kiwi crime fiction (https://kiwicrime.blogspot.com/).

Personally, I have a fairly low tolerance for explicit violence and gore, which rules out a lot of crime writing, but there are still plenty of cleverly plotted novels with engaging characters to dive into. I’d recommend Vanda Symon’s “Overkill” for a true kiwi crime experience. The lead, Sam Shephard, is a young female police officer, who is not afraid to kick a few ute tyres and face down the trials and tribulations of her small rural town in Southland.

If you like historical mysteries, you might like to read the “Sergeant Frank Hardy” series by Wendy Wilson. The first book “Not The Faintest Trace” is a free ebook, set in the rugged backcountry of 1870s New Zealand, with characters as diverse and gnarly as the scenery.

Or try a dive into a classic ‘Golden Age’ mystery by our very own Ngaio Marsh, New Zealand’s grand dame of the genre. She wrote 32 crime novels between 1934 and 1982 and ranks alongside the greats of this era, like Agatha Christie.

Happy reading!

Kate Mosse, Carcassonne & Arles at Christmas

Who else is jumping with excitement at the prospect of reading the next book by Kate Mosse? The City of Tears is the sequel to The Burning Chambers (2018) and hits the shelves 14 January 2021 (https://www.katemosse.co.uk/).

The City of Tears is set in 1572 at the height of the Wars of Religion between the ruling Catholics and the minority Hugenots. It features Catherine de Medici (see my Chenonceau blogpost) and the Feast Day of St Bartholomew’s, so is certainly won’t be lacking in historical drama!

Kate Mosse is one of my favourite authors and very hard to beat if you’re into French history and eloquent storytelling. I was hooked as soon as I read Labyrinth (2015), set in 1209 in the medieval fortress town of Carcassonne in southern France, at the time of the religious persecution and massacres of the Cathars. Labyrinth is a gripping dual-time tale of a mysterious book and the young woman who must keep its secrets safe.

I enjoyed the book so much that Carcassonne went to the top of my travel bucket-list. Here are a few photos, which only hint at the splendour of the place.

We were there just before Christmas, which is wonderful time to travel in France if you don’t mind a spot of cold weather, far fewer tourists and divine Christmas markets. By one of those incredible pieces of luck that befall travellers with flexible plans, we arrived in Arles during their Christmas Festival, on the very night the old town square was transformed into a stunning piece of acrobatic-operatic-visual artistry. Even if you don’t make the Christmas extravaganza, Arles is well worth a visit for its Roman amphitheatre and theatre (still in use) and its Vincent van Gogh links, amongst many other attractions.

The surrounding area of Provence remains firmly on my post-vaccine bucket-list, as we didn’t have time for Camargue Nature Park Nature Park (flamingos and wild horses) and Avignon.

Old Books and a Rocking Chair

Dear friends are renovating at present, which leaves me in the blissful position of caring for a lovely old rocking chair and a pile of books.

With so many tempting new books published every year, it’s easy to forget the delicious pleasure of re-reading an old favourite.

My fingers felt that old tingling when I found ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 2008) in the pile.

Now, I have to admit a tiny addiction to the film version, to the point that the book version was a dim memory. What a pleasure to pick it up again one night and read until the wee hours. Characters bursting with genuine character, the allure of an island setting, the historical back-drop of WWII, and lashings of heart-warming romance and laugh-out-loud humour.

High Tide in Tucson’ (1995) was in the pile too. I’m a fan of Barbara Kingsolver – ‘Poisonwood Bible’ makes my all-time favourites list – but this was one I hadn’t read. Here’s an extract from the blurb of this beautifully-written and eclectic collection of musings on society  (http://www.kingsolver.com/books/high-tide-in-tucson.html):

‘In these twenty-five newly conceived essays, she returns once again to her favored literary terrain to explore the themes of family, community, and the natural world. With the eyes of a scientist and the vision of a poet, Kingsolver writes about notions as diverse as modern motherhood, the history of private property, and the suspended citizenship of humans in the animal kingdom. Her canny pursuit of meaning from an inscrutable world compels us to find instructions for life in surprising places: a museum of atomic bomb relics, a West African voodoo love charm, an iconographic family of paper dolls, the ethics of a wild pig who persistently invades a garden, a battle of wills with a two-year-old, or a troop of oysters who observe high tide in the middle of Illinois.’

Writers will savour the ‘Not-So-Deadly Sin’ essay about letters from fans who suspect her stories are autobiographical. As she so amusingly points out, why would she risk using her family and friends as fodder for stories, when it is so much more fun making stuff up? Or as she puts it, with far greater eloquence: ‘Now I spend hours each day, year after year, sitting at my desk with a wicked smirk on my face, making up whopping, four-hundred-page lies. Oh, what a life.’ So true!

For anyone facing challenging times (and who isn’t?), the ‘High Tide in Tucson’ essay is a joy to read. Lessons in life from a displaced but determined hermit crab and a grinding stone abandoned in a desert cave – exquisite!

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