Friday Finds: Ghost: 100 Stories to Read with the Lights On, edited by Louise Welsh

‘in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.’ – Tim O’Brien, in ‘The Lives of the Dead’

I love a good ghost story. While I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat when it comes to scary movies, I feel like ghost stories are perfect reading material for this time of year (or, really, every time of year). And I think books are the perfect place to encounter ghosts. As the quote above says, stories are a ‘kind of dreaming’. They are like the ghosts of either the writer, or the characters, or some combination of the two coming to life in our minds, even if that writer is long gone. We resurrect them.

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Friday Finds: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (book review)

Welcome to the first Friday Finds: where I share mostly book recommendations (or recommendations of other cool things I’ve come across). For this week I wanted to chat about American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. This book came out in 2008 and it’s a novel inspired by the life of the former first lady Laura Bush. A friend of mine handed me the book when I visited York recently and while I was initially a bit unsure – I have no particular interest in Laura Bush and I don’t read a lot of political biographies or autobiographies – once I started it, I was totally swept away. It reminded me more of a sweeping 19th century novel – something like Anna Karenina maybe – that encompasses a coming-of-age story, explorations and reflections on love and marriage, a good bit of melodrama and tragedy, a smattering of politics, and a whole lot else in between.

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Madeira Mondays: changes ahead!

Almost two years ago, I sat down to write the first ‘Madeira Mondays’ post. I had just finished my Doctorate of Fine Arts (which was looking at 18th century historical fiction and forgotten women in the early American South), was working on a historical fiction novel, was volunteering as a costumed historical guide…basically my life was: all 18th century, all the time. This blog series was meant to be a fun way to share my research and passion by writing about all the cool (and bizarre) stuff I’d learned about during my PhD. I would share 18th century recipes and strange facts about 18th century underwear! My first post was on one of my favorite novels about this period of early American history: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes.

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Madeira Mondays: Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens (book review)

A few weeks ago, a billionaire went to space in a rocket. I’m really not impressed. What does impress me is the work that scientists and actual astronauts have been doing for years to map the heavens and better understand our place in this vast, incomprehensible universe. On that note, I wanted to recommend a book which I read last summer that combines two interests of mine: history and outer space. It’s a non-fiction book about the first ever global scientific collaboration conducted on Earth, which actually happened in the 18th century!

The book is Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf. It has adventure on the high seas, it has danger, it has rivalries, and best of all it has international cooperation (something that we could use a lot more of these days).

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Madeira Mondays: A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers (Book Review)

This book was such a pleasant surprise! I should say immediately that when I received it as part of my subscription to ‘How Novel’, which sends you a mystery book each month, I was a bit turned off by the ridiculous and goofy title: A Witch in Time.

The UK paperback version of it that I received had a lovely cover with intricate gold designs but the title…my initial reaction was to roll my eyes. I personally struggle with titles so – I get it. Titles are hard. And I know that titles should, ideally, from a marketing perspective, reveal something about the content of the book to those who haven’t read it. But to title a book about a time traveling witch…’A Witch in Time’? It’s actually a little bit insulting to this rather well written, well researched and overall interesting novel – to give it such a goofy title based on a bad pun! I am convinced the author did not pick this silly title!

That being said – I really enjoyed A Witch in Time (arg! I can barely write it!), which tells the story of a woman reincarnated in four different time periods (ranging from the 1890s through to the mid 2000s) and cursed to relive a doomed love affair in each. A lot of the book is about art (we meet several artists, painters, photographers, writers) and also about breaking the (sometime self-destructive) patterns of behavior that we find ourselves in – more on that in a second.

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Madeira Mondays: Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain (Book Review)

‘Imagine/you’ve spent hours walking the mountain/deeper and deeper in/until you’ve come to know its paths/its rocks and burns, its deer trails/as well as you know the surface of the leaf/held all day between finger and thumb’ – from Ben Dorain, ‘Part Five: Colour’

This is an immensely special book. It’s the sort of book where, as I was reading it, I kept putting little sticky notes next to phrases or words I liked – until the pages were too cluttered up with sticky notes and I had to force myself to stop.

Frequently I post on this blog about ‘historical fiction’ i.e. fictional works set in a previous era (usually the 18th century!). This book is not historical fiction per se but it certainly concerns history and approaches history in some pretty unique, challenging and ultimately really fascinating ways. It’s a book of poetry which is at once a loose translation of an 18th century Gaelic poem by Duncan Ban MacIntyre AND an entirely new poem by author Garry MacKenzie. Both poems explore a highland mountain called Ben Dorain, and specifically a herd of deer who live there. Both the old and the new poems are positioned next to each other – side by side – on each page. They intermingle, as past and present often do, into one new whole where, as MacKenzie writes in his introduction, ‘various voices and traditions speak alongside each other.’

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Madeira Mondays: ‘For I will consider my cat, Jeoffry’

‘(Christopher Smart’s) poem about his cat is to all other poems about cats what The Illiad is to all other poems on war.’ – TS Eliot

These days, lots of people post pictures of their pets online. We can see these pictures as little tributes, little celebrations of these animals – their cuteness, their ridiculous quirks, their personalities. Back in 18th century London, Christopher Smart, a ‘mad’ poet living in an insane asylum, wrote a tribute to his feline companion, an orange cat called Jeoffry, in the form a poem. The lines that he wrote about Jeoffry became some of the most famous words ever written about a cat in all of English literature, and over the ages, Jeoffry has become a bit of a literary celebrity.

Oliver Soden’s delightful little gem of a book Jeoffry, The Poet’s Cat: A Biography (2020) imagines the life of Jeoffry the cat himself and his misadventures in Georgian London.

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Writing Reflections: Thoughts on launching a book during lockdown

It’s officially been six months since my second poetry pamphlet, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, was released out into the world! And what an unusual six months it has been…

I wanted to take some time today to reflect on the unique challenges (and opportunities!) of launching a book at such a strange time and a couple of things I’ve learned along the way. I hope this will be helpful to fellow writers who are launching their own books or creative projects right now and interesting to those who want a bit of a peek into the process of releasing a poetry book.

I won’t be talking too much here about what the book is about – for more on that, check out this blog post from July! But these are poems about lots of things I’m interested in: history, art, desire, the unexpected places where the personal meets the political. They’re mostly funny and lighthearted. Gutter Magazine’s Calum Rodger generously described it like this in a review:

Carly Brown’s Anastasia, Look in the Mirror (…) intersperses sharp and funny patriarchy take-downs with ekphrastic poems on the Scottish Colourists. It’s a brilliantly-crafted assemblage full of wit, warmth and panache, ‘a suitcase so full / it would not / shut’.

Thanks Gutter!

Ta da! Here she is! The cover is very fun to stare at, and it was designed by the very talented James T. Harding.

The book came out with Stewed Rhubarb in July 2020. Stewed Rhubarb are a Scotland based independent press which specializes in spoken word poetry. So a lot of their poets (myself included) have a strong performance background and either write for the stage or have performed extensively. It was published as part of a series of four pamphlets, all from emerging poets based in Scotland (like myself!), called The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb. The whole project was the result of a successful crowd funding campaign in late 2019 and the books were all set to launch throughout 2020 and into early 2021. Mine was the second book in the series, the summer book.

Prior to the pandemic, Stewed Rhubarb had planned launches for my book in both Edinburgh and Glasgow in July 2020. AND there would have been launches for the other three books too AND there was meant to be a big party in December 2020 for all of the generous Fellowship subscribers who supported the whole project, as well as our friends and family. However, as you know, 2020…happened. All of those in-person celebrations had to be cancelled.

I was at a bit of a loss, quite honestly, about how I was going to be able to share this book with people – especially when a lot of the way that I’ve sold books (and found new readers) in the past has been at live performances. I’m a performance poet, after all!

Throw back to a live performance I did back in 2017, at the Quotidian Magazine Issue 3 Launch party.

So how the heck were we going to help people find this book?

First of all, luckily Stewed Rhubarb has an in-house publicist, the lovely Charlie Roy, who took the helm for the social media side of promoting the book (I am not the biggest fan of social media, quite honestly, although I do think it can be a useful tool. I’m not on Facebook, I’ve not updated my Instagram in about five years, and while I do have a Twitter profile, I often feel like that website drains my soul, distracts me from writing, makes me feel anxious and a whole host of other negative things. Basically, I use it sparingly!)

So what I set to work doing was finding online places where I could share poems from the book, and actually connect with and talk with readers live – which is what I love to do most of all! I reached out to organizations, universities, and festivals I’d performed with before, and to organizations that I saw were doing very cool online events. (This is something I’d recommend, if you’re launching your own project right now. Think about what resources/connections you already have and also spend some time researching online events/festivals/places you might want to be part of – there might be more than you think!)

Happily, there were many events popping up throughout the latter half of 2020, and I was able to share poems from the book quite often, perhaps more often than I would have if it had just been at local in-person events.

And, on the plus side, I got to share the book at international events and festivals that I probably would not have attended in-person, just out of logistical challenges, such as the readings that I gave at the American University of Dubai!

I’m grateful for the ingenuity of so many event organizers, who rapidly transitioned their events online. Here are some of the places where I’ve shared poetry from Anastasia in the last several months…

The Anastasia Virtual Book Tour

(Or, events where I’ve READ poems from the book, in the last six months)

  • ‘Meet the author with Carly Brown’, University of St Andrews’ Countdown to St Andrews online program for first years, a half-hour poetry performance and then Q and A with St Andrews university students, organized by the university library (August 28, 2020)
  • Sonnet Youth #13 (September 13, 2020), an online performance with the other three other poets in the Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb (You can watch this entire event online here!)
  • London Center for Interdisciplinary Research’s Poetry Conference at the University of Oxford, ‘International Poetry Reading’ (September 20, 2020)
  • The Stay-at-Home Fringe Festival, University of Glasgow’s Creative Writing department Open Mic night (October 9, 2020), invited to share poems from Anastasia alongside current members and alumni of the University of Glasgow
  • Inklight: The University of St Andrews’ Creative Writing Society (October 12, 2020), a half-hour performance and then Q and A with Inklight members
  • ‘A Poetry Evening with Dr Carly Brown’ at the American University of Dubai (November 24, 2020), an hour long poetry reading then discussion with the students

Aside from performances, another good thing that happened after the launch of the book was that a poem from it – ‘En Plein Air’ – was republished in Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman, as their ‘Poem of the Week’ in July. The poem is an ekphrastic poem, responding to a work of visual art, and the publication was accompanied by a very good description of what ekphrastic poetry is.

Excited me with The Scotsman

Two poems from Anastasia have also been re-printed in the American University of Dubai’s Poetry Journal, Indelible, in their issue on the theme of ‘Escapism’ (god knows, we all need a bit of escapism right now!). You can read the whole journal here. AND I’ve recently been approached by another writer about translating one of the poems from Anastasia into Spanish – so I’ll share more about that when I can!

It’s also gotten some very positive (and beautifully written) reviews, such as the one I mentioned earlier from Gutter, as well as this lovely piece in Sphinx Review.

Another delight, aside from these publications, reviews, and meeting people through the online performances, was seeing pictures and hearing stories of people reading the book in locations all over the world. While I’m not able to travel myself right now, Scotland is in serious lockdown, it made me so happy to hear friends from all over reaching out and telling me that they were reading the book. They sent me pictures of the book in their homes, with them at the park or on vacation, and told me stories of how they read it aloud to one another on camping trips. One friend shared that she had read a poem each morning with her morning coffee.

These stories were a joy and made me feel like I was connecting with people at a time when that’s what we all so desperately needed! It also made me happy that the poems could travel – even though I could not.

Anastasia hanging at the beach in Massachusetts, USA with my friend Emma

Anastasia chilling in my friend Miranda’s cozy window seat in rainy Glasgow, Scotland!

Anastasia travels to Bahrain! My friend Laala generously took this photo in front of the Bahrain World Trade Centre (which, fun fact, is apparently the first skyscraper in the world to integrate wind turbines. So cool!)

 

I don’t have any overarching take-away from this, except to say that I’m grateful to everyone who has bought and read the book, and everyone who has invited me to perform at their events.  While it is not the same performing over Zoom, it has opened up a whole new world of possibilities and I’ve certainly met new people, from all over the world, that I would not have encountered otherwise. And, in such a dark year, that was a beautiful and surprising thing.

I hope that Anastasia has brought some joy, entertainment, and even companionship to those who have read it. While most of our worlds are physically small right now, books can open up our intellectual worlds infinitely and remind us that we’re not alone.

Have you read ‘Anastasia, Look in the Mirror’ and, if so, which poem was your favorite?

Fellow writers and artists, do you have any tips for me on how you’ve been sharing work with audiences during this unusual time? 

If you’d like to grab a copy of Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, the easiest way to do so is to order it online on the publisher’s website here (they ship internationally!!)

Further links:

  • My blog post from July 2020 about launching the book
  • A blog post where I explore the historical research behind one of the poems, which is about the Salem Witch Trials (this one is perfect if you want more of the nitty gritty of writing one of the poems!)
  • Lots more general info about the book and what it’s about here
  • My editor Dr. Katie Ailes wrote a really fascinating post about the processes of editing the pamphlet together, you can find that on her website here
  • Stewed Rhubarb’s website, where you can find lots of excellent poetry pamphlets and full-length collections (if you enjoyed mine, you’ll probably find many others there that are right up your alley!)

Stay tuned for more ‘Writing Reflections’ this year, my friends, as well as more of my ‘Madeira Mondays’ series about 18th century history and historical fiction reviews. Please do subscribe to the blog so that you don’t miss any of that – as well as for news of upcoming performances and publications. Hope you’re having a good day!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Yellow Wallpaper (Book Review)

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity – but that would be asking too much of fate. Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it. – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper

I wanted to share with you a ghost story this week!

It is almost Halloween, after all. I went back and forth about which story to pick, and ended up settling on a story that was written in the 19th century, not the 18th, although it’s set in an old 18th century home. It’s about a woman who has been feeling unwell (a ‘temporary nervous depression’, she calls it) and travels with her husband to a fading ‘colonial mansion’ one summer, a space where she can (presumably) recuperate. Her husband, John, is a physician and forbids her from writing, or doing work of any kind, until she feels better. But the woman begins a series of secret journal entries, chronicling her growing obsession with the ‘yellow wallpaper’ which surrounds her, in the room where she’s being held.

At first the wallpaper is just an eyesore, ‘one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin’, but slowly it seems as though the pattern comes to life. It watches her. It moves. It is like the bars of a cage and, behind it, she sees a woman held prisoner, desperate to escape.

I’m talking, of course, about The Yellow Wallpaper written by celebrated American writer and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). 

The book cover from 1901. Stetson was Gilman’s first married name, which she sometimes went by.

This is quite a famous short story but one that I hadn’t actually read until a couple of weeks ago. Quite simply: I loved it. I loved everything about it, really. I loved the themes in it: the repression and infantilization of women at the time in both marriage and in medicine (she’s treated like a child by her husband, who is also her doctor, and her own beliefs about her own health are ignored), the importance of creativity and self-expression.

It is full of vivid and unsettling imagery and I could see this wallpaper so clearly through the narrator’s eyes, as she slowly descends further towards insanity:

…when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smoldering unclean yellow…

The story is on one level a critique of a specific psychological practice of the time to treat ‘nervous’ women, known as the ‘rest cure’. Gilman herself had suffered from postpartum depression, and was prescribed the ‘rest cure’. She wasn’t allowed to write or have any kind of mental stimulation – all she could do was ‘rest’ (which meant enforced seclusion and bed rest). Her doctor told her to:

Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time…Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.

(As quoted in the ‘Introduction’ to Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh)

The ‘rest cure’ was a treatment advocated by Silas Weir Mitchell, who is actually mentioned by name in The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman eventually rebelled against the ‘rest cure’, which had only worsened her condition, and began writing again. When she finished The Yellow Wallpaper, she sent a copy to Mitchell, but never received a response.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman c. 1900, photo via Wikipedia

Interestingly, according to this article I found from the American Psychological Association, the cure that Mitchell prescribed to women was very different to the one he suggested for men:

While Mitchell put worried women to bed, he sent anxious men out West to engage in prolonged periods of cattle roping, hunting, roughriding and male bonding.

So…women had to shut themselves away inside, and stop engaging in any sort of self-expression. Men should get out there and…ride some horses! It was called the ‘West cure’. I laughed so much when I learned about this, because it so clearly illustrates the misogyny and the cultural stereotypes of the time. Women were told to go back into the home, into the domestic sphere, while men experiencing what we might think of now as depression and/or anxiety were encouraged to just get out there, go outside and do some ‘manly’ activities (like hunting or herding cattle).

In any case, Gilman’s story is inspired by her experiences with the ‘rest cure’ and its negative effects, but it’s also a timeless story about how important it is for everyone to be able to express themselves. The narrator finds it a ‘relief’ to write. There is a great irony that everyone around the narrator wants her to stop writing (‘I verily believe (John’s sister) thinks it is the writing which made me sick’), but in reality it is the writing which is keeping her alive.

But is this a ghost story, Carly, you might ask? Well…I think so! And not just because I read it in the ghost story anthology, Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh. It’s quite a gothic tale (spooky old house, a woman in captivity, heightened emotions) for one. But it’s also a ghost story because the narrator is haunted by the yellow wallpaper. More broadly, she’s haunted and tormented by the confines put upon her by her husband and the male-dominated medical establishment of the time.

I know I’ve made it sound quite heavy, but it’s a brilliant story, very readable, and free to read online (it’s available here on Project Gutenberg).

Happy reading and happy halloween, my friends!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Is A Tale of Two Cities worth reading?

Charles Dickens was very much a man of his time.  Much of his fiction (almost all) was inspired by the world around him: specifically, the plight of the London poor. One of his most famous works (which happens to be a favorite of mine!), A Christmas Carol, was partly inspired by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several homes for London’s destitute children. He famously used to take long walks alone, all around London, and observe the world around him, getting inspiration for his books. Dickens and his characters – Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield etc. – are basically synonymous with 19th century London. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that one of his most famous novels – A Tale of Two Cities – isn’t set in Dickens’ familiar stomping ground, but rather in the late 18th century, during the French Revolution and The Terror.

A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction, and it takes place between London and Paris (those are the titular ‘two cities’) in the 1780’s and 90’s. I was drawn to it because I love A Christmas Carol (the book) and also because I was curious to see what Dickens, a man writing in the 1850’s, had to say about the late 18th century. The equivalent would be someone now writing about the 1960’s. There’s still a removal of time, but a much smaller one than if it were me or you writing about the 18th century.

A Tale of Two Cities is also considered a ‘classic’ and while I think that one shouldn’t feel any pressure to read any book simply because it’s well-known and famous – that goes for ‘classic’ as well as contemporary lit – I do think Dickens (like Shakespeare) is an author whose work has endured for a reason. Or several. One reason, I think, is that Dickens (again, like Shakespeare) can be read on two levels – for entertainment value (if you purely want a rollicking good read!) and also on a more analytical, thematic level. His books are amusing but also rich and thought-provoking. He’s a bit over-the-top sometimes, but he also writes with so much empathy and with close observation of humor behavior. And his outage at societal inequalities is sadly still quite relevant, just as it was in the 19th century.

So now you know what I think of Dickens generally, but how was A Tale of Two Cities specificially? A ‘classic’ worth checking out, or one to skip?

Overall, I really liked this novel. No surprise, because I like Dickens’ writing and I like the 18th century (as you know!). But there’s a lot to like here even if you aren’t crazy about either of those things.

It tells the story of one family that is caught up in the events of the French Revolution, and it asks a lot of questions about justice and guilt. One man is basically asked to pay for the crimes committed by his cruel, aristocratic family on the Parisian poor. He has rejected his family long ago and deplores their actions, but the revolution is imminent and the oppressed want blood. How do we make amends, when our ancestors and sometimes even our close relatives, have committed atrocities or acts of oppression? And how far is ‘too far’ when it comes to gaining justice and retribution for the crimes of the past?

My copy had brilliant black and white illustrations – like this one.

These questions are always interesting and I think they’re especially interesting in Dickens’ hands because this is a man who really fought for the rights of the London poor and has a clear empathy for the oppressed French poor and makes it clear why they revolted. We see that, to certain aristocratic nobles, these poor people’s lives are meaningless and expendable  A boy is crushed to death under a nobleman’s cart wheel and the noble doesn’t bat an eye. A noble looks down at one of his tenant farmers, on the verge of death, ‘as if he were a wounded bird, or hare, or rabbit; not at all as if he were a fellow creature.’

Yet Dickens also condemns the violence of the Revolution fairly explicitly. The primary antagonist of the story, the sinister Madame Defarge, is an embodiment of the Revolutionaries’ desire for revenge and for heads to roll (quite literally). She is a ‘ruthless woman’ with an ‘inveterate hated of a class’ which has turned her into a ‘tigeress.’ She’s violent, excessive and without mercy, but we do see why she’s this way and how she personally has been abused by members of the upper class. So her behavior is, at least, understandable. It’s this keen sense of specifically class-based oppression throughout that makes Dickens a good writer for this subject, because he’s quite ambivalent – the violence is reprehensible, but he gets why it happened. And he’s aware that it could happen again.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.

One of my favorite things about the book was Dickens’ descriptions of people. No surprise, the characters were super vivid and easy to visualize, down to the smallest player. A random jailer is described as: ‘so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water.’ And all of the main characters are vivid, and relatively complex, except one: Lucie Manette. She’s worse than Mina in Dracula. She has no personality or life outside of her self-sacrificing devotion to her husband and father. Dickens seems to have no interest in either her bodily or intellectual reality – she has a child and it grows to the age of a toddler in the space of about a paragraph or two. (How do these events change her?!) She’s gorgeous, everyone loves her and would do anything for her – in short, she’s a very silly and unexamined character. With another author I’d let it slide but there’s no excuse for it when Dickens can create a character like Sydney Carton – the sarcastic, drunken, intelligent, self-loathing, spiteful yet surprisingly tender character who plays a central role in the novel’s climax.

Sydney Carton is great and, quite frankly, the whole book is pretty great too. It asks if a man, a family, even a society, can be redeemed. It isn’t spoiling much to say that, for Dickens, the answer is yes. I’m a bit more cynical, but even so, it’s nice to hope.

It would be perfect reading if you enjoy things like Poldark, or other dramas set in this period revolving around one family. I cried a lot at the end of the book, actually. Dickens can be a bit melodramatic, but his earnestness gets me every time.

Let me know what you think of A Tale of Two Cities: have you read it before? Did you read it in school? Do you plan on reading it in the future? I’d love to have any reading recommendations from you as well, particularly any spookier books as autumn approaches!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Bonaparte aux Tuileries – 10 August 1792’, a painting depicting Napoleon (who would later become Emperor of France) witnessing a mob attack on the Tuileries Palace.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!