31 October, 2013

Affinity, by Sarah Waters. Book review

Virago Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-86049-692-9. 352 pages

Affinity is set in Victorian London in 1873-1875. All the main characters are fictional.

Lonely Margaret Prior, unmarried at twenty-nine, has not recovered from the recent loss of her lover and her father in quick succession. Facing a bleak future as a companion to her controlling mother, Margaret becomes a Lady Visitor at Millbank women’s prison, hoping to find a purpose in her empty life. There she encounters the enigmatic Selina Dawes, a spiritualist medium imprisoned for fraud and assault after a séance went disastrously wrong. Margaret finds herself drawn to Selina, first by curiosity and then by an infatuation bordering on obsession, leading her to run a terrible risk...

Affinity is a dark, atmospheric psychological drama. The dreary, dehumanising environment of Millbank women’s prison is superbly realised, as is the stifling world of the wealthy middle-class lady to which Margaret belongs.  Most of the novel is set in a London winter, and the short daylight hours, gaslight and ever-present fogs add to the atmosphere of oppression.  This makes the book rather a gloomy read to begin with; the reader is drawn all too readily into Margaret’s depression.  Because it is so well written and the settings are so well portrayed, I carried on reading despite the dreary subject matter, partly in a spirit of antiquarian interest in the late Victorian prison system and the strange world of Victorian spiritualism.  Then the plot takes a sudden shattering twist right at the end.  It’s impossible to say much about this without spoiling the surprise, so I will just say that the ending made all the gloomy build-up worthwhile.  This is definitely not a novel to give up on halfway through; the revelations continue literally to the last page.

The novel is told in the form of two alternating first-person diaries.  Margaret’s diary forms most of the book, and tells of her experiences as a prison visitor, her meetings with Selina and the consequences. Selina’s diary outlines the events that led up to her imprisonment. The paperback helpfully typesets the two diaries in different fonts, although the two women have such distinctive voices that they are easily distinguished by style alone.  Margaret’s character emerges clearly from her diary, almost as thoroughly imprisoned by social conventions and duties as Selina is by the walls of Millbank. The recent death of Margaret’s beloved father, following close on the loss of her love (a woman, who married Margaret’s brother) have left her terribly emotionally vulnerable. When she believes she glimpses even the faintest possibility of love, Margaret is prepared to do almost anything in its pursuit. The result is heartbreaking.

Selina’s diary is oddly emotionless, and she remains something of an enigma, at least to me.  I still cannot make up my mind about her: charlatan or victim?

The novel is beautifully written in clear, stylish prose.  Margaret’s diary contains a clever mix of reported speech (“She said, Had I seen….”) and actual dialogue, adding to the sense of Margaret’s emotional detachment from most of the routines of her life.

There is no historical note, perhaps because the characters and events are all fictional.

Dark, stylish psychological drama set against the eerie background of Victorian spiritualism.

29 October, 2013

October recipe: Pear and chocolate layer cake

I’ve posted several autumn recipes for apple cakes, here, hereand here.

The other traditional fruit of a British autumn is the pear. Pears are at their best in late autumn, and the combination of pears and chocolate works particularly well.  If you have a glut of pears, this delicious cake is a good way to use them. Here’s the recipe.

Pear and chocolate layer cake

5 oz (approx 125 g) wholemeal flour
5 oz (approx 125 g) self-raising flour
6 oz (approx 150 g) butter
3 oz (approx 75 g) ground almonds
2 oz (approx 50 g) light brown soft sugar or caster sugar
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) almond essence
1 lb (approx 450 g) pears (about 12 oz [approx 350 g] after peeling and coring)
1 oz (approx 25 g) cocoa
2 teaspoons (2 x 5ml spoon) baking powder
4 oz (approx 100 g) dark brown soft sugar
2 eggs
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) milk

Peel and core the pears. Cut into approx 1 cm cubes

Rub the butter into the wholemeal and self-raising flour until it resembles breadcrumbs.

Put approximately 2 oz of the mixture into a separate bowl. Stir in the ground almonds and light brown soft sugar.  Add the almond essence and the white from one of the eggs, and mix well.  Stir in the chopped pears.

Stir the cocoa, baking powder and dark brown sugar into the rest of the mixture.  Add the egg yolk, remaining egg, and milk.  Mix well.

Grease a shallow baking tin about 8” (approximately 20 cm) square.

Spread half the cocoa mixture in the bottom of the cake tin.

Spread the pear and almond mixture on top.

Spread the rest of the cocoa mixture on top (so you end up with a layer of pear and almond mixture sandwiched between two layers of the cocoa mixture).

Bake in a moderately hot oven at approx 180 C for about 1.25 to 1.5 hours, until the cake is firm and a skewer comes out clean.

Mark into squares. I usually expect to get about 16 squares.  Cool in the tin for about 30 minutes.

Remove the squares from the tin, cool on a wire rack.

This cake will keep for 4-5 days in an airtight tin, and can be frozen. 

27 October, 2013

Autumn fungi

Fungi are at their most spectacular in autumn, especially after damp or wet weather, when all manner of weird and wonderful specimens can be found growing in damp grass, on trees, or amongst the leaf litter of a British woodland.  They appear only fleetingly, as what we recognise as 'fungi' are just the fruiting bodies, produced to spread the fungus' spores to new territory.  As soon as the spores have been released to drift away on the wind, the fruiting bodies have done their job and many will shrivel and disappear within a few days.

Many conservation charities, such as local wildlife trusts, the National Trust or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) organise guided fungi walks in the autumn, with an expert on hand to identify the fungi.  If you thought fungi were just dowdy little brown mushrooms, prepare to be surprised. The sheer variety of colour, shape and size is astonishing:

Some of the fungi found on a fungus walk

Close-up of some of the finds. The red and green fungi are called rustulas

These purple fungi are called Amethyst Deceivers (a romantic name if ever there was one)

Earthball fungus, with a section cut through it to show the spores in the centre

Section through a stinkhorn egg.  The white area in the centre will eventually form the stalk, while the outer layer will form the cap and the striated middle layer will form the spore-containing gills.  A mature Stinkhorn lives up to its name (!), and is best avoided.

Turkey's Tail fungus

11 October, 2013

Rhun son of Urien

Rhun (also spelled Run, Rum) was a son of the warrior-king Urien of Rheged (see post on Urien Rheged).  Unlike the more famous Owain son of Urien (see post on Owain son of Urien) , Rhun did not become a hero of medieval Arthurian romance.  He is mentioned in Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae as an important churchman. What can we say about him?



Both the Harleian and the Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North) genealogies end with Urien and do not mention any descendants:

[U]rbgen map Cinmarc map Merchianum map Gurgust map Coilhen

--Harleian Genealogies, available online 

Vryen uab Kynuarch m Meirchavn m Gorust Letlvm m Keneu m Coel

--Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online 

Historia Brittonum

The following Easter Edwin himself received baptism, and twelve thousand of his subjects with him. If any one wishes to know who baptized them, it was Rum Map Urbgen: he was engaged forty days in baptizing all classes of the Saxons, and by his preaching many believed on Christ.

 --Historia Brittonum, chapter 63, available online

Urbgen is the spelling of Urien used in the Harleian genealogies. Rum (also spelled Rhun) son of Urien was presumably a churchman, if he was engaged in baptism and preaching. 

Readers familiar with Bede will have spotted that Bede gives a different account of Edwin/Eadwine’s baptism. More on this in another post.

The Chartres manuscript of Historia Brittonum says in its preface that the compiler used as a source ‘excerpts made by the son of Urien from the Book of St Germanus’ (Clarkson 2010, p 120). Rum or Rhun is the only son of Urien mentioned in the text of Historia Brittonum, so presumably this comment refers to him.

Annales Cambriae

626   Edwin is baptized, and Rhun son of Urien baptized him

--Annales Cambriae, available online

This entry agrees with the statement in Historia Brittonum. The date differs from that given in Bede, who says that the baptism took place in 627 (Book II, Ch. 14). It may be that the compiler of Annales Cambriae copied the information from Historia Brittonum (or vice versa), or that both were drawing on material about Eadwine’s baptism that was not available to, or not used by, Bede.

Llywarch Hen poetry

The medieval manuscript ‘The Red Book of Hergest’ contains several poems attributed to Llywarch Hen (Llywarch the Old).  According to the genealogies, Llywarch was a cousin and approximate contemporary or Urien, and the poem ‘The Death of Urien’ describes Llywarch carrying Urien’s severed head after Urien had been assassinated.  The poem also mentions warfare in the aftermath of Urien’s death:

On Friday I saw great anxiety
Among the hosts of Baptism,
Like a swarm without a hive, bold in despair.

Were there not given to me by Run, greatly fond of war,
A hundred swarms and a hundred shields ?
But one swarm was better far than all.

Were there not given to me by Run, the famous chief,
A cantrev, and a hundred oxen?
But one gift was better far than those.

In the lifetime of Run, the peaceless ranger,
The unjust will wallow in dangers;
May there be irons on the steeds of rapine.

 --Llywarch Hen, The Death of Urien, translation available online 

This passage is followed by a stanza describing attacks on Owain, the son of Urien celebrated in the Taliesin poetry (see post on Owain son of Urien), so it seems likely that Run is also to be understood as a son of Urien, facing enemies after Urien’s death.


Three Fair Womb Burdens of the Island of Britain:

The second, Owain and Morfudd daughter of Urien and Anarun archbishop of Llydaw, by Modron daughter of Afallach their mother

-- Welsh Triads, available online 

‘Anarun archbishop of Llydaw’ could be a reference to Rum or Rhun ap Urien, who appears as a churchman in Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae.  ‘Llydaw’ is the Welsh name for Brittany.  However, an alternative variation of the same Triad mentions only Owain and Morfudd, without ‘Anarun’, so he may be a late addition.


Two sources refer to Rhun in contexts that associate him with the Christian church:

  • Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae say that he conducted a high-profile baptism;
  • Historia Brittonum says he preached Christianity and made many converts;
  • The preface of the Chartres manuscript of Historia Brittonum says that it includes extracts made by the son of Urien from the Book of St Germanus.

The consistency between the two sources may indicate no more than copying from each other during the centuries between the events of the late sixth and early seventh century and the final writing of the medieval manuscripts in which both sources have come down to us. Or it may indicate that both were drawing on information preserved in other sources about Rhun’s career.

In addition, one of the Triads refers to a son of Urien (brother of Owain and Morfudd) called ‘Anarun archbishop of Llydaw’.  ‘Anarun’ may be a variant of Rhun or Rum, and describing him as ‘archbishop’ is also consistent with the idea that he was considered to be an important figure in the Christian church. However, ‘Llydaw’ is the Welsh name for Brittany, a curious (although not impossible) location for the son of a north British king. Furthermore, an alternative variation of the same Triad refers only to Morfudd and Owain, without mentioning ‘Anarun’, so I would be cautious about this Triad.  If ‘Anarun’ is intended to be the same figure as the Rhun/Rum mentioned in Historia Brittonum, it is consistent with Rhun having been a churchman of some importance, but I would not put too much weight on it.

Although ‘the son of Urien’ referred to in the preface to the Chartres manuscript is not named, the only son of Urien referred to in the text is Rhun, suggesting that the preface also refers to Rhun.  If so, it would indicate that he was a scholar, which is also consistent with his having been a churchman. 

The poem attributed to Llywarch Hen apparently portrays Rhun in the role of a warrior and ruler, describing him as ‘peaceless ranger’ and ‘the famous chief’.  This is not necessarily inconsistent with Rhun having also had a position in the Christian church. Sigeberht of East Anglia retired to a monastery after he had reigned for a while, and was later recalled for an important battle (Bede Book III Ch. 18). Aldfrith, who became king of Northumbria after Ecgfrith’s death in 685, was also a religious scholar, described by Bede as ‘well-read in the Scriptures’ (Book IV Ch. 26).  Gildas says that Maglocunus (usually identified as Maelgwn of Gwynedd) had entered a monastery for a while before renouncing his vows and becoming king. 

Rhun may also have been both secular ruler and churchman at different times in his life.  Perhaps, like Aldfrith, he was a churchman who was pressed into service at a time of crisis; or perhaps he sought an alternative career in the church after Urien’s death.

The account of Eadwine’s baptism differs from that given by Bede (more on this issue in another post).

Assuming that Rhun son of Urien is also the Rhun named as grandfather of Rhianmellth in Historia Brittonum, Rhun fathered at least one child.  This is also not inconsistent with his having held an important position in the church.  If he entered the church late in life, he may have married and established a family before entering the church. Also, although monks were not permitted to marry, other Christian clergy in post-Roman Britain were allowed to marry and raise families; St Patrick says in his Confessio that his father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest.

More on Rhianmellth in a later post.

The Llywarch Hen poetry portrays Run as a chieftain and fighter in the aftermath of Urien’s death, implying that he was of fighting age when Urien was killed.  The date of Urien’s death is not known, although as Urien was fighting the sons of Ida at the time, it presumably occurred before Ida’s grandson Aethelferth became king of Bernicia in 593. 

If Rhun was involved in the baptism of Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria in 627, he must have been an adult at the time. As this was a high-profile event and would presumably have been conducted by someone senior, he was probably well into middle age.

This is consistent with a birth date for Rhun somewhere in the third quarter of the sixth century. He cannot have been born much before 550, as otherwise he would have been too old to participate in Eadwine’s baptism in 627 (if he was born in, say, 550, Rhun would have been 77 at the time of Eadwine’s baptism, which would make him a venerable figure but not necessarily too old to take part in a religious ceremony).  At the other end of the range, if Urien’s death occurred close to 593, Rhun would have had to have been born no later than about 578 to be of fighting age by then (if he was born in, say, 578, he would be 15 in 593).  If Urien’s death was earlier, Rhun’s latest plausible birth date would be correspondingly earlier.

It is not known when or how Rhun died.


It seems clear that Rhun son of Urien was considered to have been an important churchman in the early seventh century.  The Llywarch Hen poem implies that he was also a secular ruler and warrior.  He may have held both roles at different times in his life.

It is not known what position Rhun held in the Christian church. If the ‘Anarun archbishop of Llydaw’ in the Triad refers to Rhun, it may indicate that he held a senior position.  This would also be consistent with his involvement in a high-profile baptism ceremony, and with his status as a member of a royal dynasty. He may have been a bishop.  Depending on his age and when he embarked on his clerical career, he could perhaps have been one of the bishops or ‘learned men’ who attended the Synod at Chester in the early seventh century (see earlier post A bishop of Chester? for more information on the synod).

The Llywarch Hen poetry suggests that Rhun was a ruler and warrior in the aftermath of Urien’s death. Whether he was a king of Rheged, and if so, whether he ruled jointly with one or more of Urien’s other sons, is not known.  The political status of Rheged after Urien’s death is uncertain.  It may be significant that the genealogies stop at Urien, which may indicate that he was considered the last significant ruler. Conversely, it may indicate that they were compiled in Urien’s time and not subsequently updated to reflect his descendants. If Rhianmellth was Rhun’s grand-daughter, her marriage to Oswy of Northumbria suggests that the Rheged dynasty still retained a high status in the early seventh century, and may also have retained at least some political and military power.

Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede.  Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X
Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online 
Clarkson T. The Men of the North. Birlinn, 2010. ISBN 978-1-906566-18-0.
Gildas, On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, available online
Harleian genealogies, available online 
Historia Brittonum, available online 
Llywarch Hen, The Death of Urien, available online 
St Patrick, Confessio, available online
Welsh Triads, available online