Category Archives: History

More journeys, but not mine

Two quite different and extraordinary books. The first a mixture of historical fact, myth and magic coupled with a searing currently relevant story of a family escaping from Syria. How might that work?

The contemporary heroine is a synaesthete (another – See Red Sparrow) and the book in partly set in Homs (See – Sea Prayer). Which considering this book was selected at random is slightly odd.

Salt and StarsIn The Map of Salt and Stars, the two stories are sectioned together in pairs. So in the historical-myth-magic section we follow the adventures of Rawiya, a young girl who leaves home to become apprentice (as a boy) to the twelfth century scholar and mapmaker Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi engaged by Roger II of Palermo to make a map of the known world and in the contemporary section we follow the story of Nour.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar has skillfully woven the historical strand with parts of the stories of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights and also the stories of Sinbad the Sailor. These myths or fairytales are combined in a wonderfully starry tapestry following the actual known progress of al-Idrisi and his companions around the lands bordering the Mediterranean.

Rawiya’s partner in the contemporary world is Nour. She has grown up in New York, but on the death of her father, her mother and two older sisters return to Homs, and a quasi-uncle Abu Sayeed. The situation changes in Syria and the family are forced to flee, with devastating consequences. Nour, bolstered by her father’s wonderful story telling (as described above) treads courageously through the journey, in her head following in the footsteps of Rawiya.

The salt of the title are the tears that are shed along the way; but in all circumstances good people look to the stars hopefully, for stories and for comfort. No one who looks at the stars can be truly bad. This is what Nour/Rawiya firmly believes and it is borne out in her adventures.

But this is not all sweetness and light. There are passages in both sections that are unbearably tragic, and losses in one section are inevitably mirrored in the other, in much the same way as the exhibitions of tremendous courage and survival.

FrazierVarina is a book of a very different complexion. Charles Frazier has returned to Cold Mountain country; this time following the flight of Varina Davis away from the Federal troops and bounty hunters with a gaggle of children, not all of them her own. Accompanied by two faithful coloured retainers.

Varina is the wife of Jefferson Davis, upon whose head there is a bounty, and a suspicion that they are complicit in the death of Abraham Lincoln, and therefore guilty of murder and treason.

They are far away to the south before this small party hears about this; Jefferson has still not joined them and better it were by far that he had not.

This is historical fiction of the highest quality. A beautifully constructed story built upon the few details know about Varina and about her husband. Reconstructed over a period of weeks when one of the children, now grown up seeks her out to fill in the gaps in his own knowledge of himself, when he can only remember fragments of that terrible time.

So the sections switch from Saratoga Springs in 1906 to Varina’s youth in 1842, and the events of the American Civil War between about 1865 to 1879-93 as remembered by the two of them.

My knowledge of American history lags far behind that which it should, in spite of Gone with the Wind and other books. But Frazier brings it into focus in all its horror, messiness, mud and stink; the tragedy and betrayal of the African Americans; the brutality of the war itself and the unforgiving nature of the winners. It is all here and it is all pretty horrifying.

Read and learn.


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Books for the journey

I daresay most people now take e-books on journeys, but I have loaned my Kobe reader and also the journey was only to Scotland, so I took four books with me.

One by an American author that I have only just discovered, and cannot imagine why I haven’t read any of her previous novels, of which there are nine, plus eight non-fiction titles and two books for children. Oh joy, because Anna Quindlen is a find!

QuindlanAlternate Side is a particular sort of domestic novel, in line with novels by Barbara Pym, but even funnier and taut with bitchiness, gossip and neighbourhood squabbles and American. Which makes it sound horrible, but it isn’t.

Nora and Charlie Nolan live in a dead-end street in New York City. The neighbourhood is a close knit community of middle-income families, with one block only housing people of low or no incomes. Most of the people in this street have servants, housekeepers or domestics and most of these are coloured.

Although an urban setting, this block has a village atmosphere: a summer barbeque party hosted by different families each year and a Christmas party at the Fenstermacher’s house, coffee mornings for gossip and dog walking chatters.

And then there was Ricky, the handyman they all used for the small stuff: dripping taps, washing machines that refuse to drain, clothes dryers that were not functioning properly – that sort of thing, and then there was The Parking Lot.

At the opening stage of the novel, Charlie has finally achieved a parking space in the one lot on the street that was not built upon. Everyone who did not have a parking space on this lot were reduced to on-street parking and it concomitant problems. Problems that applied to Ricky every time he turned up in his van.

Life drifts on, seemingly happily, for all the people on the block until one day a sudden act of violence throws everything into confusion, and the cracks begin to appear on both sides of the street, with harrowing results.

There is a marvellous sense of humour bubbling along in this book. Nora has an acute eye and Anna Quindlen nails perfectly the way women gossip and speculate about each other, while still remaining friends. And it is the women who carry this story along, although they are most of them married.

I loved this book and will go back and find some of the others. I finished this on the train and then read the next book before getting to my final destination.

Ghost WallGhost Wall is the latest novel from Sarah Moss (Night Waking, The Tidal Zone and others – posted April 11, 2018and this novel is set in Northumberland, a wild and beautiful county, still largely unpopulated in its boggy moorland heights. Looking out of the window just as I started reading, I realised I was actually passing through the eastern end of the county.

This book is a chilling reminder that families are all unhappy in their own way.

Sulevia, more commonly called Sylvie (and wouldn’t you be?) is a teenage girl on holiday with her parents, her father has a passion for historical reconstruction and they have joined with a group of university students in ‘experiental archaeology’ led by Professor Slade. I have no idea whether such a discipline actually exists, but the aim is to live for a short time as if you were part of (in this case) an Iron Age settlement.

So poor Sylvie and her mother are dressed in coarse tunics, Sylvie and the other students are sent foraging on the moor or beach for berries and food. Her mother is left behind to tend to the cooking over an open fire, with an iron pot to cook an assortment of grains and roots, with the occasional rabbit. The students are two young men, Dan and Pete plus one young woman, Molly who refuses to take the whole thing seriously.

Not taking it seriously is a luxury Sylvie is unable to entertain, her father is adamant that she sleeps in the roundhouse, a construction of withies and deerskins on a mattress of straw and sacking without any accommodation for modernity (except for toothbrushes and tampons) or for the fact that there is a convenient shop a short distance away.

Hanging over the whole experiment is the haunting story of a human sacrifice, a bog girl found preserved in the peat.

This is a very short book, 160 pages only, but it rises to an unbearable and disturbing conclusion; there are plenty of hints in the build up to give you a sense of direction, but it is still shockingly chilling once the momentum builds up.

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a whole pile of books

I have been reading a lot since the bad weather started and three books were literally un-put-downable, such that I was still reading at 3AM. Which is fine, but I realise rather indulgent.

The Collector

So for the serious one first. The Collector is a translated recollection (in a very real sense) of the life and collections of a Russian family called Shchukin, but particularly Sergei Shchukin, by Natalya Semenova and André Delocque, translated by Antony Roberts.

The Shchukin family were immensely wealthy Russians, they had a near monopoly on fabric manufacture, and interior fabric items such as curtains, bed linen and bed covers and other designer accoutrements of the bourgeoisie.

There were several brothers who collected: Petr whose interest was mainly in Russian artefacts of all sorts, a John Soane of Russia you could say; Ivan, who collected paintings and Sergei who collected specifically French Impressionists.

André Delocque is Sergei’s grandson and helped with the material and research. Sergei was a man of extraordinary vision, buying paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Whistler, Puvis de Chavannes, Cottet, and a great many more. Sergei went regularly to Paris and met most of these painters, particularly Matisse and Picasso, whose pictures he bought long before either of them were famous.

Even before the Revolution in Russia, this outstanding collection was willed to the people of Russia together with the impressive Trubetskoy Palace, Moscow, for which many of the paintings by Matisse were commissioned and in which they were housed.

This I followed with a wonderful new historical novel by Victoria Glendinning about a group of nuns in Shaftesbury Abbey in 1535, at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Abbess was confident that such an Abbey would not be targeted, she was Dame Elizabeth Zouche and had influence in high places. How wrong can one be?

The main character, Agnes Peppin, has been sent to the Abbey by her parents because she fell pregnant. Obviously, unmarried and now spoiled, her only recourse was to take holy vows. Actually, this never was fulfilled as the Abbey was destroyed, stone by stone before her novitiate was completed.

So she was out in the world again. But her life, and her observations, since this is a first person narrative, give us a very complete insight into the gentle, and not so gentle life of a community, followed by its exceedingly painful exodus. More painful for the elderly nuns and for the Abbess herself.


It is both a gripping look at the times and an affecting story of the strong and the weak, and the powerless. Agnes lives to see Thomas Cromwell executed, Henry VIII dead and her own lover, Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet) imprisoned and executed.

This reminded me very strongly of HMF Prescott’s A Man on a Donkey, but The Butcher’s Daughter is much more concentrated than this older novel, though the earlier book remains one of my favorite historical novels of all time.

The other three by Simon Mawer, AN Wilson and Louis de Bernières were all of a completely different sort. And these were the ones that I read through at one sitting each.

So Much Life Left Over has characters that appeared in a previous novel, The Dust That Falls from Dreams; though cleverly it is a stand-alone novel and not having read the previous book would not detract in any way from this emotionally taxing story. In fact, my tears streamed through the first three chapters and then the last three, but that says more about me than maybe anything about the book.

Rosie and Daniel have moved to Ceylon with their daughter Esther to start a new life after the horrors of World War I, in which Rosie had been a VAD and Daniel a fighter pilot. Daniel loves everything about the life they lead there, but Rosie finds herself increasingly bored and dissatisfied, a personal loss which has affected them both drives a wedge between them, and eventually Rosie insists that they return to England.

This is a love story as much as anything, but also has humour and beauty; the characters of Rosie’s family in particular are uniquely individual and unusual; her mad mother and strangely peripatetic, golf-loving father; her sisters and their wonderful partners and then Daniel and his friends. It is all captivating and brutally sad, as the end comes as World War II starts in all its forbidding darkness.

Prague Spring has one of those giveaway titles that tells you where you are and when. Two rather feckless university students decide to hitch-hike around Europe together in the long vac of 1968; but lacking a definite destination and due to a lot of arguing and finally, decisions made at the toss of a coin, they end up in Dubček’s Prague.

Having got through the Czechoslovakian border, they are trudging along the road hoping for a lift, when the diplomatic car of the First Secretary to the British Embassy draws up. Simon Wareham, with his girlfriend Lenka, have returned from a visit to Munich and thus accommodated they all arrive in Prague.

Lenka is living, unofficially, with Simon in his embassy flat so Ellie and James go to live in her apartment. And so there they all are, with the nemesis of the Czechoslovakian dream hovering on the borders…

Aftershocks was a very strange novel for me to read.  In a preface, AN Wilson writes very firmly that this is not a book about the earthquakes in New Zealand. Now, I have been to Christchurch both before and after the earthquakes, and so although this novel is set in an imaginary island in the Pacific, I could not but read it as if, in spite of what Mr Wilson said, it was about New Zealand.

His discretion lies in the knowledge that he was only a visitor to Christchurch, that therefore he could not possibly know what is was  like to live through such a traumatic experience – but at the same time, he fills the novel to the brim with what amounts to an hour by hour description of those events.

All that said, the novel is seen with a perceptive and kindly eye upon a number of characters who for one reason or another will turn out to be closely related. It has a first person narrative of a slightly different complexion, since much of the time this “voice” is more that of the Chorus in a Greek tragedy, rather than the straightforward narrator.

To the extent that I accept his disavowal with a pinch of salt, this novel touched me deeply and was read in a single day. It is a beautiful story, not least because it captures something of the distance that there is, emotionally, between families that are left behind in England when, say, a beloved daughter takes up a job, in this case Dean of Aberdeen Cathedral in the far-off Pacific Island.


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Not the Man Booker 2018

The laptop catastrophe has meant lots of reading and no blogging. Here are four excellent novels of merit that I have read recently, anyone of which could have been on the Man Booker list:

Michael Arditti – Of Men and Angels

Patrick Gale – Take Nothing With You

Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley

Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls

ArdittiOf Men and Angels is a strange books, it is really the story of how the Angel Gabriel, Michael and other angels, but especially Gabriel, have been portrayed in human storytelling. Going back particularly to the part played by the angels in the telling of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the saving of Lot and his family.

Each section, and there are five, brings us nearer and nearer the present day. The opening section, By the Rivers of Babylon, deals with the familiar story and its origins in various scriptures, The Bible, The Koran and other Babylonian texts; the next section tells the story of the traditional Guild that staged the Lot story in the York mystery plays of the Middle Ages; moving on from the fifteenth century we arrive in Florence at the time of Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities and finally more or less to the present day to Los Angeles, the City of Angels.

As a quick run through literature, painting and poetry this is quite a feat. There is drama, passion, humour and imagination. Each section is prefaced with a short introduction in the “voice” of Gabriel, but then the narrative takes off into a realm of its own. His/her wonderment at the way men imagine angels, at what point they acquired wings, sex and other attributes. It is a researched and well trodden topic, but here is gets the full panoply of treatments from the forbidding flaming sword of Michael, to the number that can dance on the head of a pin and finally to the creation and destruction of the modern city of the plains, Los Angeles.

GaleAn entirely different book from a prolific and favourite author, Take Nothing With You is a love story with a terrible difference. The narrator has only recently recovered from the loss of his long term partner and has found, online, a new friend; Eustace has just a day to reflect on his life and his new happiness before embarking on a radical, aggressive treatment for thyroid cancer.

The novel covers his strange childhood, his love of music and his cello teacher, Carla Gold, his adolescence and growing awareness of his homosexuality and the dramatic turn of events that leads to his parents’ separation.

This is set still in the age of Aids and HIV as a deadly disease, Eustace is surviving and the cancer is just the beginning of what might be the downward spiral. Meeting someone online throws up difficult decisions, about revealing his cancer and the treatment.

Patrick Gale’s writing is informed, insightful and full of gentle humour. There is a tremendous sub-plot which the intuitive reader will have understood immediately, but which the young man, the narrator, remains entirely unaware of. It is never spelled out, so it becomes distinctly possible that Eustace remains ignorant even to the end.

This is a stunning coming-of-age novel, complex, transitory, confusing. Patrick Gale never disappoints and this one has all the hallmarks of a masterly pen.

Melissa HarrisonAll Among the Barley is set in the years immediately before the Second World War, even the shadows have not started to fall. In a rural community a young girl, Edie Mather, watches as her life slowly disintegrates; with the coming of a journalist, Constance FitzAllen from London, the young girl begins to see her life from a different perspective.

She is not aware how very destructive are the motives behind Constance’s questions, and Constance inveigles herself well and truly into the farming community, only in the end to upturn the tables.

The narrative is bookended with the voice of an elderly woman returning to her community after a near lifetime in an institution – care in the community is the name of the movement, and that did not go well for anyone.

Melissa Harrison has a wonderful eye for detail and ear for cadences. Like Jon MacGregor we are made aware of the seasons. For lives in a farming community at that time, before mechanisation and industrial farming methods, the seasons and the weather were key.

Belief in influences that were unseen but deeply felt, tradition, superstition and magic were commonplace. Health and ill-health were transparently part of daily life, hospitals and doctors came at a cost, so why not go to the healers, who were mostly women.

England in all its past magnificence and glory is on these pages, and read now it is possible to take fully on board what was swept away by the coming conflict. The absolute unawareness of impending disaster hangs over this novel from start to finish.

The ending is one familiar to many farming families in its bleak tragedy.

Barker GirlsFinally, back to a re-telling of The Iliad. This must be the most richly mined resource in literature, after perhaps The Holy Bible. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Margaret Atwood, Madeleine Miller and many, many more have mined this great epic and Pat Barker is no exception.

Abandoning the First World War, she has turned her gaze on to the Greeks and Trojans. In The Silence of the Girls, she reminds us that there were two women at the heart of the Trojan War.  Helen obviously, since her abduction (or elopement) led to it all and Briseis, a Trojan princess who is abducted after the sack of Lyrnessus and awarded to Achilles, filtched from him by Agamemnon when he was forced to give up his own prize and all that followed from that fateful decision…

The narrative is Briseis’ summation. Long after the war is over and Achilles is dead, she looks back at the lives of the captive women in the seemingly endless war at the base of the walls of Troy. Slaves and concubines to their captors, they still had to make a life. It might not have been the one they had chosen, but to survive they had to put up and shut up. And that it the point really. The Iliad is all about the men; this novel is also all about the men, and Achilles mostly but the women are there, ever present and not speaking much.

There is an exquisite moment when Briseis’ silence speaks volumes…

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/9

Total laptop crash has delayed things somewhat, and I have read quantities of books during the enforced break in communication.

So to the last two Man Booker titles: Normal People by Sally Rooney and Washington Black by Esi Edugyan.

The Sally Rooney novel has had so much publicity and hype that is surely must be on the short list when that is published (20th September), unless the judges are put off by the seeming ubiquity of this novel. I do not read many papers, but it has been all over the ones I do read, so I assume other papers and radio programmes are also bigging-up this book. I have seen some pretty extravagant claims – “JD Salinger for the 21st Century”, for example.

2018 BLL RooneyNormal people is a love story, but with a twist. It is clear to the reader what is going on, but somehow, like ships that pass in the night, Connell and Marianne keep arriving at the same place but slightly at different times. They meet over the course of the book several times, from childhood sharing chocolate spread through to adulthood and new jobs, each time they seem on the brink of getting it together…

Whether or not this is Salinger, it is an interestingly tantalising narrative, plainly spoken. Any novel that covers childhood to adulthood could be described as “a coming of age plot”, this one has been judged highly.

2018 BLL EdugyanWashington Black is of another order entirely for it covers the life story of a black slave who by miraculous means escapes from the island sugar plantation by balloon with his white owner’s brother. His subsequent adventures are also a little short of miraculous. As a slave-to-freedom narrative, this novel has its moments and those are quite graphic and absorbing.

The underground railway features briefly, as do some white people who are odd but good; the bad people are entirely bad and generally white.

I don’t personally find this novel as satisfactory as her previous Man Booker nomination, Half Blood Blues, which I rated very highly. There are other and better slave-to-freedom novels and I just wonder whether it is quite tasteful for anyone, whatever background, to make so little of this transition, in this case through almost magical means.

I think that both of these will make it on to the shortlist, so there is no shadow choice


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Off piste – not The Man Booker

Two other books I have completed are neither of them alternatives to the Man Booker Longlist. Tracy Borman‘s first novel, The King’s Witch is possibly the start of an historical trilogy and Red Sparrow is a spy story.

Red SparrowJason Matthews, the author of Red Sparrow, was once in the CIA, so like Ian Fleming and John le Carré, he writes about something he knows intimately: spying against the Russians.  The Cold War while technically over, continues to fascinate readers and writers alike. This book is set in present day Russia and comes with glowing recommendations from various sources. It is American, unlike the other two authors cited. The story is gripping and the book an absolute page turner. A riveting novel, for me it slightly disappoints because there is an element of magic involved.

One of the main characters, the eponymous heroine, is a synesthete – this is a relatively rare condition in which the person emotionally sees and feels everything in colour, Domenika however, is an extreme case and can also “see” personal auras, which gives away the moods and feelings of the people she is with. And here is my problem – whether or not such a condition exists, in a spy novel this capacity becomes part of the toolkit and for me that makes it magical.

Everything else is as one would hope: suspenseful, alarming and first rate. And there is another novel to follow this one, and naturally a major motion picture to be released!

BormanThe King’s Witch [hopefully the first of three novels, which is suggested in one of the tributes] is set just at the point at which Elizabeth I dies and James I of England and VI Scotland arrives on the throne of England.

As history relates, this was a difficult time for Catholics and for healers.  James had a phobia about both and many, many innocent women died as a result of his obsession with witchcraft, and the machinations of his sycophantic disciple, Robert Cecil, eventually created Baron, Earl of Salisbury as a reward for delivering both Catholics and witches to the evils of torture, burning and disembowelment.

Frances Gorges ( e pronounced as in Ganges) is a young woman, a herbalist and daughter to two secret Catholics.  Longford Castle in Wiltshire is their family home, still standing and now owned by the Pleydell-Bouverie family. She becomes, against her wishes, companion to Elizabeth, the daughter of James I and Anne of Denmark, but she is caught up in the web of fear, conspiracy, suspicion and licentiousness that dominates James I’s court.

Tracy Borman has filled in the gaps of this remarkable story, with a believable ingenuity. The characters all exist in the historical sense, quite how strong and to what extent their relationships follow exactly this pattern, is part of the craft of historical fiction writing. Like Hilary Mantel, the research is thorough, the inspiration and imagination still abides by certain rules, but expands and elaborates for the enormous benefit of the readers

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To go to the sea in ships

There are plenty of fictional accounts of London’s Thames waterside, Charles Dickens to name just one, so it is rather wonderful to read this account by Margarette Lincoln detailing the lives and trades of real people involved in commissioning, building, provisioning and manning the great ships that traded and fought for Britain in the age of Cook and Nelson.

M LincolnTrading in War is a fully examined look at the maritime adventures of Britain through the lens of the people who lived, worked and sailed from the Port of London. It is hard to reconcile the picture of London’s Dockland two hundred years ago with how it is today; yet interestingly, the parallels between 1718 and 2018 are not hard to find.

The book traces the history of shipbuilding on the Thames from about the 1760’s through to a period shortly after the defeat of Napoleon. It covers all the trades associated with the river, from watermen, lightermen and sailors through to sawyers, caulkers, shipwrights, to the land based trades of chandlers, biscuit manufacturers and sailmakers.

Largely centred north of the river in Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse, the south banks do get an also-ran mention, sadly especially in terms of crime. But this is not to forget the shipbuilding docks in Deptford and Greenwich.

Margarette Lincoln identifies the families, follows their fortunes and outlines in particular the stresses of such a fluctuating profession. For example, in peace time – maritime adventures were mostly about trade, the two largest companies The West Indian Company and the East Indian Company both used private shipbuilding docks for their ships; though probably for provisions and chandlery they would use the same companies as the Admiralty. Meanwhile the Admiralty shipbuilders might languish; the reverse became true during the American War and the war with the French, when navy vessels were at a premium and both Admiralty docks and private docks were occupied at full stretch. as many as 54 warships were outfitted in any one year from a single dock in Deptford.

There are startling parallels between the eighteenth and 20th centuries though. The construction of West India Dock and The London Dock were fiercely contested, so that it was some several years before either could be constructed; similar to the competition between Gatwick and Heathrow, the expansion of docks, as opposed to open river docking was fought over, and then there was further rivalry between the construction of the two sites, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. The Wapping site required the destruction of several areas of residential and commercial buildings, around 2,200 in all, putting many families out of their homes and businesses while the Isle of Dogs had other problems; but once built the docks altered completely the nature of the districts surrounding them, not least by tearing the heart out of the community. Furthermore, these developments, by displacing so many people led to changes in the populations of areas further east and north, like Shoreditch and Hackney.

The building of the docks altered the livelihoods of many people on the river in much the same way as containerisation in the 1970s and 80s emptied the Port of London of any trading ships, thereby leading to the domestication and gentrification of much of the area, both north and south of the river all the way from London Bridge to beyond the Isle of Dogs on the north and down to Deptford and Greenwich on the south bank.

I loved this book. I loved learning about the wives and widows of famous explorers and sailors like Captain Bligh (he of the Mutiny) and Captain Cook and the lives of the Barnard families (shipbuilders) and of merchants like J Robinson who had a carpet and furniture warehouse in the Ratcliff area.

The term “warehouse” only entered general use in this period to denote a superior type of “shop”. I wonder what J Robinson would have made of a department store!

It is in the nature of a seafaring community that many women, wives as well as widows feature more prominently that in other walks of life. The menfolk being away, pressed or serving in the navy, for long periods; lives and livelihoods had to be maintained, and these women mastered the art magnificently. Frances Barnard took over the Deptford shipyard on the death of her husband and continued to manage it until the ages of her sons meant that a man could take over again. However, it says much for her that when she did hand it over some ten years later, it was still a profitable business. One has to respect these women, who in an age when they had absolutely no power, they thrived.




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