Thursday, 17 April 2014

Pink for a girl?

In His Majesty's Confidential Agent, I wrote that Burke, on arriving in Buenos Aires, was struck by the fact that the buildings are mostly in shades of red, so that the predominant colour of the city was pink. He turned to his travelling companion, O'Gorman, and said, ‘I see your painters have a feminine touch.’

I put the line in as a mildly amusing introduction to O'Gorman's explanation that the houses are that colour because the plaster is mixed using blood from the cattle slaughtered in the city, giving some indication of the scale of the cattle industry there.

When Accent came to edit it, I got a polite note asking me to check if pink was a feminine colour in 1807. It's another example of the joys and frustration of writing historical novels. Colours seem a particular problem for me – see my post on the colour of Nelson's flag at the Nile.

It seemed unlikely that Google was going to help, so I went instead to a couple of online groups of historical authors. Within hours, I knew more about gender and colour than I could ever have imagined.

It turns out that the idea of pink for a girl and blue for a boy is a comparatively recent one. In 1918, the advice given to American parents was:
“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
My wonderful historical writers chipped in with personal recollections of the same period:
I inherited a box of baby clothes that belonged to my dad and my uncle when my uncle went into a nursing home. They were identical --my uncle and my dad were only 11 months apart--but one set was pink and the other blue-green. They were pretty girly--especially a couple of baby bonnets with satin rosettes and a couple of Spanky MacFarland tams, complete with pompons in blue green and rose pink. I thought they were my aunts but my aunt was eight years younger and her baby clothes were in another box--more Shirley Temple.
I was flabbergasted when dad told me the pink clothes were his. He laughed and showed me baby pictures of him and Uncle George. The pictures were black and white but I recognized the clothes. I had always assumed that the babies in the picture were girls but no.
Part of the thinking that pink was a suitable colour for a boy seems to go back to the time when soldiers wore red coats. Boys would wear pink coats as a (literally) pale imitation of Redcoat uniforms. Back in the late 18th century, pink could be a dashing colour for a man – there's a nice example HERE. Back then, though, girls often wore pink as well.

Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence 1794. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

They would even use cosmetics to heighten the pinkness of their skin, as detailed in an 1807 advertisement courtesy of the Two Nerdy History Girls blog
A. PEARS, Perfumer, No.55, Wells-street, Oxford-street, having, after a variety of experiments, brought to perfection his beautiful ALMONA BLOOM or LIQUID VEGETABLE ROUGE, respectfully presents it to universal attention, as an indispensible Companion to the Toilet, and for the introduction of which he has been so happy to meet with the concurrence of every Admirer of the Female Complection.    This Composition is infinitely superior to all other preparations for admitting a free perspiration, by softening the Skin, preventing Eruptions, and firmly adheres without the least tint being removed so as stain a cambric handkerchief. It is of the consistency of Cream and of a most beautiful light red hue ; but to expaciate on the whole of its excellencies in this contracted space is impossible.
So was pink a feminine colour or not? The answer, it seems, is that at the beginning of the 19th century the question would have appeared quite ridiculous. The idea of associating particular colours with gender is, as far as I can see, a distinctly 20th century preoccupation.

So after a few hours, Burke's remark changed to 'I see your painters favour a roseate hue.'

Many thanks to the eagle-eyed editors at Accent Press and to all those who piled in with links and comments when I asked for help.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Field trip

Until this weekend, I'd never been to Portsmouth.

The home of the Royal Navy is also the home of several naval museums and famous ships, including Nelson's Victory. As the Burke books are set around the Napoleonic wars and warships feature in them, I thought Portsmouth was well overdue a visit.

Most of the museums are set in the Historic Royal Dockyards, where ships from the 19th century sit close to very 21st century warships that are berthed in their home port. The juxtaposition brings home to you how much the Navy is a continuing thread in Britain's history. It's an amazing place and I'll definitely be visiting it again.

The Victory is probably the most famous vessel there. Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Victory is still technically a commissioned ship of Her Majesty's Royal Navy, being the flagship of the First Sea Lord, who uses it for formal entertaining. Mostly, though, it is a museum, still being lovingly restored back to the state that it was in when it led the British in their greatest naval victory against the French.

The sequel to His Majesty's Confidential Agent is being polished up and it includes a description of the Battle of the Nile (another of Nelson's victories) as viewed from the gun deck of a British man o'war. Being able to walk the gun deck of a ship of that period has helped me understand better what it must have been like, though a lovely sunny afternoon safe in dry dock can give only the faintest idea of the horrors of that same deck when filled with cannon smoke and hundreds of men serving the guns amid the noise of battle and the stench of death.

Warships then and now are both beautiful and terrible things. At least this weekend, we could admire the beauty knowing that, for now, the Navy's big guns are silent.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014


For those of you who haven't already seen it on Facebook, here's the cover.

Although most of the story is set in Argentina, it starts with Burke in Saint-Domingue (part of modern Haiti), where he fought with the Regiment of Dillon, a regiment made up mainly of Irishmen, but fighting under the French flag. The real James Burke fought in the Regiment of Dillon, but it's not a particularly well-known military outfit. So when Accent Press wanted a cover with a strong image on it, the temptation was to settle for a stock shot of a British redcoat. But I really wanted the cover to be authentic (notice the genuine early 19th century map in the background) and eventually we found a battle re-enactor who likes to dress up in – yes, you guessed it – the uniform of the Regiment of Dillon. And doesn't he look dramatic?

So there we are: a beautifully authentic cover.

Publication date is 8 May and then you can get to admire it on paper.

Monday, 7 April 2014


I'll be writing a lot more about "His Majesty's Confidential Agent" and its hero, James Burke, but let's start with the basics. What's the book about?

Well, it's about James Burke who was a spy in Argentina... Oh, what the heck, let's just give you the book blurb.

James Burke never set out to be a spy. But with Napoleon rampaging through Europe, the War Office needs agents and Burke isn't given a choice. It's no business for a gentleman, and disguising himself as a Buenos Aires leather merchant is a new low. His mission, though, means fighting alongside men who see the collapse of the old order giving them a chance to break free of Spanish colonial rule. He falls in love with the country – and with the beautiful Ana. Burke wants both to forward British interests and to free Argentina from Spain. But his new found selflessness comes up against the realities of international politics. When the British invade, his attempts to parley between the rebels and their new rulers leave everybody suspicious of him. Despised by the British, imprisoned by the Spanish and with Ana leaving him for the rebel leader, it takes all Burke's resolve and cunning to escape. Only after adventuring through the throne rooms and bedrooms of the Spanish court will he finally come back to Buenos Aires, to see Ana again and avenge himself on the man who betrayed him.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

I'm on a horse

Observant readers will notice that I've changed my profile picture. As "His Majesty's Confidential Agent" features our hero riding round Argentina, I thought I'd show a photo of me on a horse in Argentina. This is the full picture:

This was taken at El Calafate, in Patagonia. It's cheating, really, because in the early 19th century (when "His Majesty's Confidential Agent" is set), Patagonia, although nominally under Spanish control, was not really part of Spanish America. Wild and desolate, it was left pretty much alone. Even today, as you can see from the expanse of nothing at all behind us, it's hardly over-developed. It is extraordinarily beautiful, though.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

New publisher: new approach

"His Majesty's Confidential Agent" marks a significant departure for me. New publisher: new style of book.

I hope that at least some of you reading this blog have read "The White Rajah" or "Cawnpore". If so, you will know that these are quite heavy books which could hardly be described as having happy endings. They've had some excellent reviews, but the style and subject matter meant that they were never going to have massive sales. Much as I enjoy writing angst-ridden novels about betrayal, despair and death, I couldn't help feeling that it would be nice to write a book that more people would read. Hence "His Majesty's Confidential Agent".

My hero is James Burke. I know the name is similar to one I've used already, but he was a real person, so I'm stuck with it. He started his military career in the French army, but moved to the British, where he distinguished himself as a spy. He worked in Buenos Aires ahead of the British invasion of 1806.  My story ranges across Haiti, Spain, Brazil and Chile, but most of it is set in what is now Argentina. I have a wholly unreasoning love of Buenos Aires and I was excited about the idea of setting a novel there.

James Burke's story reflects my feelings about Buenos Aires. It's exciting, sexy, morally ambiguous and has some very dark undercurrents but it is, above all, great fun.

If you have read my other books and thought that it would be nice to see a historical novel of mine that doesn't end in tears, "His Majesty's Confidential Agent" is the one for you.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Publication date!

His Majesty's Confidential Agent will be published by Accent Press on Thursday 8 May.

I'm very excited about this and will be telling you more (much more) about this book over the next few weeks.