Back to Top

Tag Archives: Sandra Schwab

sketch of an Assyrian winged bull with the cover image of DEVIL'S RETURN

Earlier this year when I was in Berlin for the LoveLetter Convention, I visited the Pergamon Museum, which houses several truly fantastic artefacts from classical antiquity (like the huge, huge, HUUUUUUGE Pergamon Altar), among other things. I wasn’t really all that clear about those other things, so I was completely bowled over when I went through the entrance hall and up to the first floor & found myself facing the magnificent Ishtar Gate from Babylon. It is one of the most mind-bogglingly beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Lion from the Ishtar Gate, Pergamon Museum, Berlin
But I was almost as thrilled when I found several sculptures and bas-reliefs from other ancient cities of the Near East in another suite of rooms – like Mr. Human-Headed Winged Bull here. (I might have even squeed a little.) (Quietly.) (Totally on the inside.) (I think…)

human-headed winged bull in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin
All that inside squeeing was due to the fact that the hero of my novella DEVIL’S RETURN has taken part in Austen Henry Layard’s excavations of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrod, where he would have seen the same kind of statues and bas-reliefs I was admiring in the Pergamon Museum:

So Alex told them about Layard’s latest excavations, and their plan to prepare for his visit later this year. He described the alabaster sphinx that had been found in one of the buildings of Nimroud, and the strange creatures in the bas-reliefs: ferocious lions and winged bulls with human heads, dragons and fearsome monsters with heads of lions, bodies of men, and feet of birds.

Many of the 18th and 19th-century archaeological excavations seem to have been done in a rather haphazard way (“Oh, look! There’s a mound! Let’s dig it up and see what’s inside!”) and very often by people who were mostly interested in the pretty things they could drag back home and show off to their friends & acquaintances. (Lord Elgin and the sculptures from the Parthenon come to mind here.) (Though, to be fair, he seems to have primarily wanted to get them for the British Museum, not for his own sitting room.)

In other cases, archaeological excavations were motivated by a desire to give the finger to Britain’s neighbors across the Channel, in particular to the arch-rival France. Indeed, securing Assyrian antiquities for the British Museum to rival those in the Louvre was one of the main reason for the British ambassador in Istanbul, Sir Stratford Canning, to finance Layard’s first excavations. In 1846 Layard received additional funding from the British Museum itself for the excavations that are briefly described in DEVIL’S RETURN. The first of the artefacts Layard found (i.e., the bas-reliefs and sculptures he had removed from the walls of the ancient city) arrived in London in 1850 and were soon exhibited at the British Museum, where, judging from the long article in The Illustrated London News, they received considerable interest.

illustration of an Assyrian sculpture from an article in THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS
DEVIL’S RETURN is out now (Amazon | Kobo). Follow my adventurer-hero Alexander Crenshaw from the ancient cities of Assyria to the fashionable soirées of London high society, where he will face the biggest challenge of them all: his long-lost love…

Do you know the scene in Mary Poppins where Mary, Bert, and the children jump into one of Bert’s chalk paintings on the sidewalk? Something similar happened to me last weekend, though there were no dancing penguins involved nor any chalk drawings. Nevertheless, I suddenly found myself walking through the setting of a long-time favorite novel of mine.

Now, I have visited Britain often enough to know that strange feeling of familiarity that overcomes you when you walk through Burlington Arcade or take a peek into that seventh heaven of bachelorhood of the Regency period, Albany, or visit one of Britain’s numerous country houses: as a reader of historical romance, you’re bound to recognize these places from the novels you’ve read.

But what happened to me last weekend was a bit different, more visceral, probably because it was so unexpected: as a lover of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books set in Roman Britain, you don’t really expect to be easily transported back to that time by any place given that most of the remains of the Roman empire are mere ruins. Even Hadrian’s great northern frontier wall in Britain has been reduced to a mere stubble of its former existence.

I live near the lines of another of these great Roman frontier walls, the Germanic Limes, and a mere 40-minute drive from my town lies a reconstructed Roman fort, the first of its kind, re-built in the late 19th century.

a picture of the main gate to the Saalburg

Saalburg: Porta Praetoria (the main gate)

And as I was walking amongst the reconstructed houses, past the reconstruced barracks, I suddenly remembered a passage from one of Sutcliff’s novels, about how each Roman fort looks the same no matter where you are in the empire. They might not have looked exactly like the Saalburg (all the walls would have been white – something that historians back in 1900 didn’t yet know), but still I felt this sudden, keen connection to Sutcliff’s characters.

Indeed that feeling was so strong, that the sight of the eagle standard nearly made me burst into tears because I was so touched. (Alas, the Saalburg eagle not only is a fake, but it is also anachronistic, for these forts were manned with auxiliary troops rather than legions, and the auxiliaries didn’t have eagle standards. However, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who commissioned the building of the Saalburg museum, insisted on the eagle.)

a sketch of the military standards at the Saalburg

The military standards at the Saalburg

What I always find so fascinating about visiting museums and all those British country houses is that, for me, it is always the small things, the everyday items, that makes me feel a connection to the people of the past who used them. Amidst the exhibits in the Saalburg, you can also find pretty Roman shoes (which would make perfect summer shoes!), pretty dishes and vessels (have I already mentioned that I have this thing about tea sets?)….

a sketch of a small Roman vessel

A small Roman vessel from the Saalburg

…as well as pretty fibulae, Roman brooches. These come in all shapes, including cute, colorful animals:

a sketch of Roman brooches found at the Saalburg

Roman brooches from the Saalburg

You can just imagine a gruff Roman soldier buying such a pretty brooch for his sweetheart. (And then you start to imagine all kinds of things, and all at once your Muse is yelling into your ear how wonderful it would be to write a novel set here at the old Roman frontier, and then she forces you to buy all kinds of research books and… Oh gosh, I don’t just have a tiny problem in regard to tea sets, but also in regard to research books! *blushes*)

a picture of a pile of research books

My Muse made me do it

Now let’s hear it: Which setting of which novel or film would you like to visit? Pemberley, perhaps?

By now you’ve probably realized that I’m an utter geek when it comes to nineteenth-century magazines and newspapers and that I love putting all kinds of (mostly obscure) references into my stories just for the fun of it. And so, when I was writing A Tangled Web, the latest installment in my series about the fictional magazine Allan’s Miscellany, I just couldn’t resist including a reference to an advice column I had first heard about at a conference* a few years before: “Cupid’s Letter Bag” from The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.

Cover of The Englishwoman's Domestic MagazineLaunched in 1852 by Samuel Beeton, The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine was the first British magazine targeted at middle-class women (earlier women’s magazines were meant for an upper-class audience). From 1856 onwards, Beeton’s wife Isabella acted as “Editress” (and yes, that would be Mrs. Beeton from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management). Apart from poetry, serialized fiction, articles about famous people and fashion plates, the magazine included embroidery patterns, sewing patterns, and much practical advice concerning household matters (including recipes).

from The Englishwoman's Domestic MagazineAnd then there was “Cupid’s Letter Bag.”

If you consider the historical and social context, “Cupid’s Letter Bag” was a rather strange advice column, for rather than praising female passivity that was so much part of the Victorian ideal of femininity, it encouraged women to be more active and more intellectual.

In the November issue of 1853 one of the letters to the magazine (well, many of those worry letters were actually written by Beeton himself…) (fake worry letters!!!) started with,

 “Would it be very improper for me to send a few forget-me-not flowers to a young gentleman with whom I have lately become acquainted? […] He has given me bouquets many times; and when he left, he asked me to send him a few flowers of the forget-me-not, to let him see I had not forgotten him, which I did not exactly promise to do, although I fear by my manner I led him to expect it.”

The rather blunt answer was:

 “We think the vanity betrayed in the request of the gentleman is well left unsatisfied. He asked for the forget-me-nots, it appears, to let him see that ‘you had not forgotten him,’ not to remind him of you.”

This letter somehow struck my fancy, and I just had to include it in Allan’s, despite it being a bit too girly and fanciful for Allan’s. But hey, it’s my fictional magazine, so I can include whatever I want! 🙂

Now, without further ado, here’s the relevant snippet from A Tangled Web. At the beginning of the story Pel, the hero, arrives at the editorial office in a moment of crisis: the contributions of a new writer have turned out to be utter crap, and the editor (grumpy MacNeil) and his right-hand man (Robbie Beaton) are now discussing what can be used instead:

“What else have we got?” MacNeil shuffled his papers around. “A review of Gervase Carlton’s latest literary offering. A nice one, that.—An article from Our Man Abroad. More about the diggings in the Near East.” He glanced at Beaton. “We already have an Assyrian lion for that one, haven’t we, Robbie?”

In lieu of an answer, Beaton pointed at one of the woodblocks lying on the table.

“Right. Another worry letter for Cupid’s Letter Box?”

“I’ll write that one,” Beaton said hastily. “You’re such a cynic when it comes to love, Mac. Nobody wants to hear what you think about the plight of a young girl who…hm….is wondering about whether or not to send a posy of forget-me-nots to a gentleman of her acquaintance—”

MacNeil groaned. “And thus we all die from an overflow of sentimentalism…”

Unperturbed by the criticism, Beaton just grinned and shrugged. “Flo quite likes the overflow of sentimentalism. Says it gives the magazine a heart.”

The editor threw him a sour look. “Your wife’s taste is not always sound, Robbie. Just look at whom she has married!”

Whistling, Beaton gazed at the ceiling. “Which, if I’m not mistaken, was the making of our magazine.”

“Yes, yes. The search for the Mystery Maiden—all very romantic.” MacNeil made a dismissive gesture. “My brains must have been addled at the time.”


* The conference in question was the 2010 annual conference of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals, and the paper was Jennifer Phegley’s “Dear Mr. Editor: Courtship and Marriage Advice in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.

For today’s post, I originally planned to write something about murdered gamekeepers in the winter of 1843/44 (this is the backdrop for my current WIP, which starts with the murder of a gamekeeper), but because that’s a rather depressing topic and because I stumbled across something last night that bowled me over, I’m going to talk about something else.

Or rather, someone.

Mr. Shakespeare.

As you might know, my day job consists of torturing teaching students at Mainz University, and at the moment I’m teaching Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in one of my classes. One of the problems I always have with teaching a play is that the text doesn’t really come alive until it is performed. I always include a session on the Elizabethan stage, and if I have time enough, I also try to show at least excerpts from one of the many film adaptations of Shakespeare. (And I do like Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night with Imogen Stubbs as Viola and the dashing Toby Stephens as Orsino – even though Orsino is a bit of a wet blanket! – and – oh! – the wonderful Ben Kingsley as the fool. I haven’t yet figured out why this adaptation is set in the 19th century, but what the heck!)

So a few weeks ago I was looking for some more detailed info about The Globe, and I checked on YouTube whether I could find something featuring the inside of The Globe. Instead I found a short little film in which David Crystal and his son Ben talk about the pronunciation in Shakespeare’s time. (David Crystal is a linguist who in the eyes of academia has done the unforgivable: He has made his research topics interesting for the unwashed masses. This is generally considered to be A Very Bad Thing.) (Please note the sarcastic tone here. Personally, I think he is rather wonderful, and I heartily recommend his book The Story of English in 100 Words – fascinating stuff!) This is what I found:

(WP is supposed to embed this video, but I haven’t yet managed to embed videos on my own blog. Hmph. So I hope it works here.)

Fascinating, isn’t it?

But it gets even better! Last night I stumbled across this talk by Ben Crystal, where he talks about performing Shakespeare, about developing scenes using the invisible cues within the text itself, and, of course, about the Original Pronunciation.

It’s like… Ooooooh my! Light bulbs!

In the middle of that talk, I had to pause the film and order all of his books on Shakespeare. And then I wrote a quick e-mail to our course administration office and told them I’d like to teach a double dose of drama next term. Including a class on Shakespeare. 🙂


So let’s hear it: Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play? And what’s your favourite film adaptation of Shakespeare?


P.S.: I’m so going to model one of my future heroes on Ben Crystal! 🙂

Punch Dinner in 1895

Punch Dinner in 1895

An important aspect of Allan’s Miscellany, the fictional magazine in my new series, is the weekly staff dinner on Wednesday nights. The dinner will be first mentioned in the second volume, where (unlike in The Bride Prize) the staff of Allan’s actually consists of more than two people. This is the relevant snippet:

In the courtyard of Allan and Sons, the lanterns had already been lit Jack saw, as he strode towards the stars that led to the open upper gallery. When he pushed open the door at the end of the short passage, warm, mellow light spilled from the room, and Jack was greeted by the sounds of male voices and laughter.

This was ‘the Den,’ the editorial office of Allan’s Miscellany, whereat the large table dominating the room, a magazine was fashioned week after week, where flame-haired William MacNeil ruled his crew of writers and artists with an iron fist. It was here that the staff assembled on Wednesday nights to discuss the next issue over an opulent dinner sponsored by their publisher. After all, Uncle Allan had argued, Fraser’s had a dinner and Punch had a weekly dinner, too — and what was good enough for them was certainly good enough for Allan’s!

As you can see from this snippet, not just my inner history geek, but also my somewhat obsessive love for Punch are coming to the fore again. The aspect of community is something I find extremely fascinating about the history of nineteenth-century periodicals in general and the history of Punch in particular. Community was as important to Victorian writers as it is to writers today — or perhaps even more so: in some cases the very survival of a writer / artist and his family depended on the charity of his colleagues. Dickens, for example, often organised amateur theatricals for the benefit of a colleague or his family.

But also in their normal everyday lives and their work, community and personal relationships were important to the journalists of the time. One editor had the habit of leafing through rivaling periodicals, and whenever he saw a negative review of a friend’s book or a negative article about a friend, he would immediately insert a passionate rebuttal into his own magazine. Dickens broke with Bradbury & Evans, his publishers, because Punch (also published by Bradbury & Evans) had refused to print his open letter to the public, in which Dickens explained the reasons for his separation from his wife.

For some magazines, the communal factor became relevant even when producing the magazine: as mentioned in the snippet above, the inner staff of Punch met for weekly dinners (on Wednesday nights, of course *g*), where they discussed the topic and motif for the next issue’s large cut, the central one-page political cartoon. The Punch dinners were legendary; in a way, they were one of the most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs in London: you could only attend upon invitation from the editor.

Below you can see an idealized depiction of the Punch Table from the 1890s, with Francis Burnand (editor from 1880-1890) on the left, making the toast of the evening. To his right sits Sir John Tenniel, who illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books and had become a member of the staff of Punch in 1850. Dominating the background is a sculpture of Mr. Punch himself, and on the walls you can see portraits and busts of late staff members (e.g., the portrait of Mark Lemon, the first editor, is on the left; the bust on the left is Thackeray and the bust on the right is John Leech, the artist).

Punch Table 1891

Punch Table 1891

In my series, I use the weekly dinners to introduce readers to the staff of Allan’s, to depict the sense of community that binds these men together, and to show the development of the magazine: as the magazine grows in importance, so do the numbers of writers and artists. The dinners are also a great opportunity for me to plant Easter eggs and running jokes like Matthew Clark’s whoopee cushion. The following is another snippet from Falling for a Scoundrel, the second volume in the series (aka the WIP I was supposed to finish by the end of May *cue in manic laughter*)

“Jack! There you are!” Matthew Clark — theatre and literature — shouted. “You won’t believe what I’ve found in that curiosity shop I told you about!”

Behind him Lawrence Pelham, comic artist, emphatically shook his head. Do not ask! he voiced silently.

“It’s the most splendid thing!”

Gervase Carlton, who covered general news as Mr. Copperwit, smirked. “Knowing our Matt, I say he’ll inflict that thing upon us for years to come.”

“Thing?” Jack echoed, his brows raised. Having shed his heavy coat, he sank down onto his chair — which bleated like a dying goat.

Jack jerked upright, his hand on the knife he carried hidden at his side.

Matt grinned delightedly. “See? You’ve found it! It’s a whoopee cushion. Isn’t it the most splendid thing?”

Taking a deep breath, Jack let his hand fall to his side and reminded himself that his colleague couldn’t possibly know how close his precious new whoopee cushion had come to being separated from its whoopee forevermore.

~ Sandy

Get every new post delivered to your inbox
Join millions of other followers
Powered By