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Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Seventeenth Century Christmas tale (and recipe)

Christmas is coming and the goose etc, etc...I should be downstairs up to my elbows in Christmas cake, marzipan and mince pies but instead I am footling away on my computer, doing a very unseventeenth century Christmas blog for the Hoydens and Firebrands so I thought I would share a Christmas blog and one of my favourite Christmas recipes!

Of all the heinous offences laid at the feet of the puritans, the banning of Christmas raises the most interest. Oliver Cromwell is generally credited with this crime but the fact is that the abolition of Christmas (or “Christ’s Mass”) as a feast day and holiday predated Cromwell’s rise to power and was the outcome of the puritan domination of Parliament in the 1640s.

Christmas had always been celebrated in England with traditions predating Christianity itself eg the “holly and the ivy” goes well back into pagan times. The traditions of wassailing, carols, feasting, mummers, plays and general drunkenness, general frivolity and idleness were not looked on favourably by the puritans who believed that not only was it pagan but also resounded with Roman Catholic undertones. The puritans believed in a pure (hence the name) form of worship and devotion, based on the scriptures and felt that even the reformation had not gone far enough. ( I am sure we will hear more about the puritans as this blog grows!)

In 1645, a “Directory of Public Worship” was produced in Westminster to replace the prayer book (for more information see ) and in 1647 the parliament passed an ordinance abolishing the feasts of Christmas, Whitsun and Easter and in the 1650s this was taken further with a specific ordinance ordering shops and businesses to remain open on 25th December .

Despite the ordinances and the threat of penalties (that included fining and being placed in the stocks, many people continued to covertly celebrate Christmas behind closed doors. For an account of one family’s perilous decision to continue the practice of Christmas, see the diaries of William Winstanley. Winstanley was an Essex farmer who “believed it was the duty of all Christians to celebrate the birth of their Saviour, with joyous festivity and open-handed generosity towards friends, relations and more especially the poor." (Alison Barnes author of William Winstanley: The Man Who Saved Christmas available here ).

In 1660 the monarchy was restored and the Christmas ban was lifted, although, not surprisingly, after 18 years it took some time for it to return to its familiar time of carousing and good cheer.

As we contemplate the “stress” of Christmas, is there, perhaps a pause for consideration that perhaps the puritans were not all that wrong and that a purer form of worship and remembrance of Christ’s nativity should have a place in modern society? I would love to hear your thoughts…and in the meantime I would like to share a genuine seventeenth century recipe wit h you.


250g flour,  1 tsp nutmeg, 250g suet 1 tsp cinnamon, 250g dark (Barbados) sugar, 250g each of sultanas, raisins, currants and mixed peel
250g grated new carrot, 100 slivered blanched almonds, 250g grated raw potato, 1 large wineglass of brandy or sherry, 3 or 4 tsp mixed spice

1. Mix all ingredients thoroughly and put in greased basins, covered with greaseproof paper and a cloth.
2. Steam for 8 hours.
3. Cool and change cloth.
4. Re-steam for 3 hours and serve with brandy butter, custard etc.
Notes: can be made not too long in advance and it can be frozen. It makes one large and one small wonderful, dark, very rich pudding!

(This blog was originally posted to the Hoydens and Firebrands blog in December 2008)

A very happy Christmas.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Welcome at the end of the World

As I straightened from tying my boot laces, I glanced out of the window and caught a spray of foam on the still ocean. Not quite believing what I had seen, I looked out in time to see a juvenile Southern Right Whale rising from the ocean and then crashing, back arched into the water. I pressed my hands to the glass of the window, trying to bring myself closer to this amazing animal, conscious of the privilege he afforded me in sharing this moment of utter joy in being young and alive.

Hastily picking up my pack, my husband fumbling for the binoculars, we ran outside in time to see the young whale disappear around the point of the lighthouse rock. We caught up with him again. Like a synchronised swimmer he poised nose down in the water, that beautiful white tail slapping at the water with the joy of a child banging on a saucepan, before he slid away under the water and out of sight.

A walk of 19kms had brought us to the old lighthouse at Wilsons Promontory, the most southern point of the Australian mainland. Although the "Prom" itself has been a National Park for many years, the lighthouse remained Commonwealth property, shut off from the hundreds of bushwalkers until very recently when it was reopened to offer accommodation in the old light house keepers cottages to the not-so-intrepid bushwalkers who like a little comfort at the end of a long day's hike, a sort of remote bed and breakfast (providing you bring your own bed and breakfast).

Built as one of a string constructed in the 1850s to protect the passage from Europe to Sydney through Bass Strait. It is hard to even begin to imagine the lives of those early lighthouse keepers and their families. Even today the lighthouse on the Prom is an isolated place, only accessible by foot - a walk of some 19kms from Tidal River which in turn is some 50kms from the nearest town. One such family, the Musgraves lived at the light in the late nineteenth century. There Mrs. Musgrave bore 7 children and buried 2. Their 12 year old son would take the only horse and ride the 100 miles to the old Yanakie homestead for mail and mutton. Supplies came in by boat once every 3 months. And yet, despite the isolation, the children's memories of their lives in these isolated light houses (and Wilson's Promonotory was not the most isolated!), is one of happy times and it was a life that continued right up until the lights became automated in the early 1980s.

We were met by Ailsa Richter who, with her husband, Chris, still 'man' the lighthouse as they did for years before autmoation. They raised their children in this isolated place and so deeply ingrained did their love of the sea and the Prom become that they returned as Rangers and together have built up a history of the Prom, its families and the life they led. Chris took us on a tour of the lighthouse and as he spoke of the old building and the work he did to keep the light blazing shone from him like the beacon that kept the shipping safe for all those years.

From the balcony on the lighthouse, we watched as a rain squall blew in from the west and retreated to the warmth of the old house as the wind shook the foundations. We now understand the meaning of those weather forecasts that promise "gales east of the Prom". We marvelled at man's ability to tame the wilderness, snuggling down in our sleeping bags, completely exhausted and at peace with the world.

Our return loop took us to Waterloo Bay where we stopped for lunch, alone on this completely by ourselves, on the beach at Waterlooo bay to once more see this spirited youngster rejoicing in the freedom of his world. All our wordly worries and cares vanished like the foam his frolicking created. A precious moment in time, impressed on us both.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What is it about Heyer?

I have only recently started to read Georgette Heyers wonderful Regency romances and it is quite a stable to work my way through!

So far I have read THE TALISMAN RING and A CIVIL CONTRACT (a book that is no doubt historically accurate but somewhat bleak!). However on the strong recommendations of Heyer fans I launched myself into the 18th century Alastair family trilogy THESE OLD SHADES (the book cover pictured here is clearly historically inaccurate as it must be set in the 1750s/60s not the regency), THE DEVIL’S CUB and THE INFAMOUS ARMY. I confess to reading the last one first, more out of my own interest in the Battle of Waterloo (did you know that until recently Sandhurst used this book as a textbook of the most definitive description of the battle?). So having encountered the Lady Barbara Childe, I turned to her family story beginning with her great grandfather Justin (THESE OLD SHADES) and her grandfather (THE DEVIL’S CUB).
Coming to both these books with 21st century eyes, I have to confess I really wondered what on earth I was getting into with them. When we first meet Justin Alastair he is mincing down a street in Paris wearing high heels and a purple coat. He then proceeds to buy a young boy to use as his page. Hmmm….? As for Dominic, by the end of the first few chapters we have met an immature homicidal maniac with a mother fixation. One of my reading rules is I have to fall in love with my hero… and there is nothing immediately lovable about either Justin or Dominic. So why did I read on? Why couldn’t I put these books down?
I think Heyer’s strength is in her writing. She has a wry , witty style that gives humanity to her characters, particularly her heroines and somehow these truly despicable heroes, who put the BAD into 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', are redeemed. (An example of the wonderful repartee that had me in stitches is found in the scene in THE DEVILS CUB where the truly awful Mrs. Challoner visits Lady Fanny and Lady Fanny gets it into her head that Mary Challoner is some by blow of the Duke of Avon).

I know many of you are Heyerites of much greater devotion than me, so I would love to know what is it about Heyer that not only makes me want to read to the end but makes these heroes worthy of my devotion?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Vale Marysville

The world has watched in shocked horror, the devestation wrought by the terrible bushfires that have burnt through some of the lovliest parts of Victoria over the last week. At times like this it makes us realise that Melbourne is a small town and the rules of six degrees of separation dictate that no one remains completely untouched. Although I know two people who lost their lives defending their home and others who escaped, only to lose everything, in some ways it is the loss of the little town of Marysville that has become emblamatic of the fires. Five hundred people lived in the town - barely a dozen buildings are left standing and it is estimated the death toll may rise to one hundred - a fifth of the town's population.

I am not alone when I say Marysville always held a very special place in my heart. We arrived in Melbourne in 1968 and in July 1969 we took our first holiday - to Marysville. Mum booked us in to a slightly ramshackle old guest house called, at that time, Mt. Kitchener Lodge. We shared a large room with three beds with saggy matresses and chenille bedspreads that had seen better days. Meals were taken in the communal dining room and in the evenings, the hosts organised different sorts of entertainment. I can still recall a game that involved a blindfolded tour of 'Lord Nelson's life' - where a chewed up minty passed for his eye and the child had to insert a finger into an orange for his eye socket. Gruesome but great fun!

It was in Marysville that I met my first Aussie BBQ. On a day of pouring rain (yes, it used to rain in those days, Virginia!) all the guests tramped down to the football ground and we huddled under the shelter, watching the rain, the smell of cooking sausages and onions mingling with the scent of the wet gum trees, eating sausages wrapped in white bread with onions and tomato sauce. I thought I had never tasted anything so wonderful in my life.

We went back every year for the next 4 years. Sometimes in winter (my favourite time of year) and sometimes in summer. The ownership changed and the lodge was rechristened "Mountain Lodge". A swimming pool was built (luxury!), we played croquet, I learned the rules of "21" (played with matches) and I read my way through the entire works of Agatha Christie (the local store had an unending supply!). I rode horses, hired from the hacking stables in those happy days before insurance and compulsory head gear (see photo age 11 - the horse was called 'Cisco'). We walked the ferny gullys and climbed to Keppels lookout and stuffed ourselves on Devonshire teas (another new taste sensation for me) at the Fruit Salad Farm.

Our last holiday to Marysville was in September 1973 when I was fourteen. Who would be 14 again? Gawky, socially inept and terminally embarrassed by my parents. The photo says it all really - the compulsory Saturday evening entertainment - a bunch of equally miserable teenagers entertaining the guests with "Rocky Racoon" (that's me on on the far left). It all belongs to a far off, more innocent time.

I have been back to Marysville many, many times and more recently twice in the last six months. I had forgotten how pretty it was and in a moment of impulse, I grabbed the brochure for the local real estate agent. I had it pinned to my fridge until last week. Ironically my husband and I had walked the firebreak to the north of the town and talked about how this resilient little town had survived Black Friday of 1939 and the Ash Wednesday Fires of 1983. It seems third time unlucky.

I know the strength of the community will rebuild it again but the old guest houses are gone now and it will never be quite the same again.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Alison Stuart Interviews – Kit Lovell, hero of THE KING’S MAN

AS: It’s 1654, England has been under the rule of Oliver Cromwell for the last three years, and things are looking pretty grim for the supporters of the late Charles Stuart and his son, currently in exile in France. I have with me one of the King’s most loyal supporters, Christopher Lovell.
KL: Please call me Kit, everyone does.
AS: I believe things have been tough for your family since the defeat of the royalist cause, Kit?
KL: They certainly have, Alison. My father and I took the royalist side in the wars of 1642-1648. Father died in the defence of our home and I went into exile. Most of the estate has been sold off and my step mother and my sister live in the ruins of the family home. I send them what money I can make off gambling and …other means, whenever I can but I’m afraid I’ve not been very much help to my family.
AS: I thought you had a brother?
KL: I don’t wish to talk about Daniel. He was lost at the battle of Worcester in September 1651. Stupid young fool thought he would follow in my footsteps. Not particularly worthy footsteps to follow in! My step mother blames me of course…
AS: So what have you been up to since the battle of Worcester?
KL: Oh, I spent an uncomfortable few months as a prisoner but managed to escape. Since then I’ve drifted between Paris and London, trying to make whatever money I can to keep body and soul together and a decent pair of boots on my feet.
AS: I hear you have something of a reputation with the ladies?
KL: Now don’t believe everything you hear, Alison. It’s true I have managed to land a wealthy widow as a mistress who keeps me in the manner to which I am accustomed and obligingly gives me the time I need for my other occupation.
AS: Which is?
KL: Cards and, oh yes, planning the overthrow of Cromwell’s regime and the restoration of the King.
AS: Any success?
KL: Well, I’m very good at cards but every plot to overthrow Cromwell is foiled by that master of spies, John Thurloe. Cromwell picked a wily man as his Secretary of State. Trouble is it’s hard to know who’s in Thurloe’s pay and who can be trusted these days! Even the most loyal of the King’s men may have good cause to turn coat. Let’s talk about women…that’s my favourite subject…
AS: You told us about your mistress, do you have any other women in your life?
KL: I take it you are referring to that infuriating music teacher, Thamsine Granville? I rue the day I ever saved her life!
AS: What happened?
KL: The stupid girl had just lobbed a piece of rock at the Cromwell’s coach. If she’d been caught…well I shudder to think what would have become of her.
AS: Why would she have done such a thing?
KL: Thamsine is like me, the flotsam of war. Her family also paid a price for supporting the King. In her case she found herself thrown out of her home and living off the streets of London. If I hadn’t saved her that day she would have been forced into prostitution just to keep herself alive. Now I’m stuck with her.
AS: What do you mean?
KL: Look, my life is… complicated. I’ve got a job to do and she’s a distraction I don’t need distractions. I’ve got the girl a job at an inn, what more does she want?
AS: You, perhaps?
KL: I don’t want romantic attachments, Alison. Anyone who gets involved with me is just going to get hurt. I use people for my own ends and she may find she’s no different.
AS: What do you mean you “use people”?
KL: Is that the time? I really must get going. The plotters are meeting at the Ship Inn and I’m expected. Perhaps I will see you there?
Read Kit and Thamsine’s story in THE KING’S MAN by Alison Stuart
For more information on the period, how the story came to be written and to read an excerpt go to


The Australian Romance Readers Convention (ARRC09) is coming up next month and I will be appearing on a panel with Stephanie Laurens, Anna Campbell, Sara Bennett and Kinley's pretty august company! I will be the quiet one on the end!

The topic of the Panel is "What's so great about rakes and assorted historical heroes?" It should be a lot of fun.

I don't write about rakes... not sure I could if I tried. My heroes are men with pasts, dark secrets that make them the way they are.

So in honour of ARRC and the panel, I am repeating an early blog I did which is a "Character Interview" with the hero of BY THE SWORD, Jonathan Thornton. I will post an interview with the hero of THE KING'S MAN in the next day or so.

I hope you enjoy them! (They were a lot of fun to write)

Interview with Sir Jonathan Thornton Bt. at Seven Ways Hall, Worcestershire.
JT: Are we on?
AS: Let me adjust that microphone…going live…
AS: Sir Jonathan Thornton, welcome. It’s 1660 and London is buzzing with the news that the King is to be restored to the throne. As a loyal supporter of the royalist cause how do you feel about that?
JT : Well, delighted, of course. It’s been a hard time for those of us who remained loyal to the King.
AS: In what way?
JT: Our estates have been subject to heavy fines and the continual threat of sequestration. As an outlaw, had I inherited Seven Ways on my grandfather’s death, the entire estate would have been forfeit.
AS: But didn’t your grandfather find a solution to that problem?
JT: He did. The old fox left it to my young cousin, Tom Ashley, but even the Ashley family’s parliamentary connections couldn’t entirely prevent the privations of the last few years. Of course, my marriage to his mother didn’t help much either.
AS: There were those of us who were surprised at your decision to settle down with Kate. You had, how can I put it, a wild youth?
JT: I can’t deny that I was the cause of my parent’s despair on more than one occasion. My mother , god rest her, never recovered from that troop of Parliamentary horse trampling her garden and ruining her orchard. Of course I look back now and regret that I never really made peace with my parents before they died.
AS: Any other regrets?
JT: Of course I have regrets. I’ve always had a tendency to act with my heart rather than my head and people I care about have got hurt in the process, badly hurt. Thank heavens for the wisdom of age and the love of a good woman to knock some sense into me.
AS: I presume you are talking about Kate?
JT: Of course.
AS: And how did you meet Kate?
JT: She was working in the garden at Seven Ways. I’ll never forget it. She wore an old, shabby gown and a battered straw hat. I thought I’d never seen a woman look quite so lovely. At the time I had a price on my head and no intention of falling in love. That’s what I mean about my heart ruling the head. Talk about a doomed relationship.
AS: But you managed to overcome the problems?
JT: We did, but our happiness came at a price. If you have a little time to spare, let me tell you the story….
Read Jonathan and Kate’s story in BY THE SWORD by Alison Stuart
For more information on the period, how the story came to be written and to read an excerpt go to

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Australia - The Movie (A review)

I wanted so much to like Australia - The Movie. Not just because I am a huge fan of Hugh Jackman but there is also so much to love about Australia - the Place!

I was so disappointed. After three long, long hours, I was left feeling like someone who has been given a large box of chocolates, has scoffed the lot and feels both slightly ill and unsatisfied.

Firstly how can you define this movie? Is it epic, is it romance, is it drama, is it a western, a war movie, is it fantasy? It is all of those things and none of them. You are left with a mish mash of all the genres with a heavy handed overview of political correctness. The treatment of the politics of the Stolen Generation is dealt with so much better in THE RABBIT PROOF FENCE.

The characters, with the exception of the Aboriginal actors (particularly young Brandon Walters who plays Nulla) were completely two dimensional. The baddies were bad and wore black hats just so you knew who they were and the goodies were good. The acting was stilted and wooden and the dialogue...oh my god! I stopped counting the number of times poor Hugh Jackman said "Crikey" and when he had to say "Shut your damper hole", I nearly fell under the seat! Who says that...ever???

The plot divided into two completely separate stories - lacking a clear story arc for either. One hour into the movie and they have arrived in Darwin, then follows filler during which everyone lives happily ever after and then on to the war and the bombing of Darwin. Now, if the story commenced in 1939 then three years have passed since the drive to Darwin and yet Nulla has remained exactly the same age! Continuity problem? Just one of many and I won't even go into the historical inaccuracies.

The winner is the wonderful Australian outback which is beautifully filmed. I think it was mostly filmed near Bowen in far north Queensland. I love the Australian outback and I hope that this film inspires people to come and visit but don't expect to find this Wild West frontier. 90% of Australians are urbanised and are unlikely to say "Crikey" even when provoked!