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Hello from Hannah

Hannah in the Navy? Yes ... really ...

A letter from home!

I was in Dartmouth over the Easter Weekend. The little fishing port is home to a fabulous independent bookstore called Browser (please support your local bookstores whenever possible), and Britannia Royal Naval College which features in Murder in Miniature at Honeychurch Hall. Whenever I look at this majestic building perched on the bluff overlooking the harbor, I am filled with mixed emotions.  


When I was nineteen, I was accepted into the Women's Royal Naval Service as an officer cadet. At the time, the WRNS only took twelve female cadets a year who, after going through a grueling boot camp at a shore-based training camp aptly called HMS Dauntless then went on to Britannia Royal Naval College to finish their training. I also found out that "wrens" as they were called didn't go to sea and, with a shrinking British Empire, the chance to see the world was very limited. I had joined up because I desperately wanted to travel.


Getting out of the navy was harder than getting in but I did and slunk home with my tail between my legs. My parents were so disappointed and insisted I return all my going-away presents (travel clocks! Luggage tags!). I went on to work on a newspaper as an obit writer (the spark for the Vicky Hill mysteries about a young reporter doing just that) and do a slew of other jobs including being a flight attendant which I loved.


A few years ago, I was invited for a private tour of the BRNC. I was blown away by the beauty of the building, the exquisite paintings and most of all the pomp, tradition, and rich history. Gosh. I would have been a part of that.


Regrets in my life have always been about what I didn't do, rather than what I did. At the back of my mind, I often wonder how different my life would have been had I stayed a wren.  Ah, those wouldas, shouldas, couldas, are dangerous things …  


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The Elizabethan Selfie

I have never liked having my photograph taken and despite today's filters and a bit of flattering photo-shopping, (I'd love to have an hour-glass figure and no wrinkles, truly I would), I tend to avoid the craze. But a selfie is not a twenty-first century invention. It's been around forever.


Throughout the 16th and 17th century, miniature portraits were known as limnings or "pictures in little." The artists or "limners" were itinerant painters who were usually trained craftsmen. Limnings seemed to be a natural extension of their work as house painters or as coach and sign painters. It wasn't unusual for limners to prepare stock portrait canvases fully painted in advance except for the space where the face should be!


Measuring just 5 to 6 cm (2 – 2 ¼") in diameter, early miniature portraits were impossibly small and delicate. Usually painted in watercolour on vellum – a type of primed, translucent calf skin, the vellum was then laid onto a piece of card (usually the back of a playing card) with starch paste.


Yet, despite these minute dimensions they would have powerful effects on their viewers. Peppered with flowers (and sometimes flames of passion) they would have been the equivalent of kisses and emojis from our modern-day selfie. Oh, and just like today, these miniatures were "airbrushed" to show the subject in a flattering light. Sir Francis Drake had a wart on his nose but very few artists ever painted it in.


Featured here is a typical limning of a handsome courtier. I am feeling quite faint with longing.


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Frozen Charlottes? Who knew ...

I first came across a Frozen Charlotte when I used to visit my lovely friend Diana Swayne (sadly she passed away at the impressive age of 104). Diana was a passionate collector of antique dolls and bears - very apt given my heroine Kat Stanford's profession in the Honeychurch Hall series. I was so fascinated - or should I say, freaked out by these creepy dolls that she gifted one to me. I was determined to find a way to put one of them into a story and so Murder in Miniature was born. 


Naturally, I did a lot of research.


Frozen Charlottes were very popular between 1850 and 1920. They were also known as pillar dolls, solid china's, or bathing babies. Most had glazed china fronts with unglazed stoneware backs so that they could float on their backs in the bath. The hair was nearly always human hair.


These ghoulish dolls earned their name from Seba Smith, an American journalist who had written a poem called A Corpse Going to a Ball in 1843. There have been several versions of the original but in a nutshell, the cautionary tale tells of a young, vain girl who refused to wrap up warmly to go on a fifteen-mile sleigh ride because she did not want to cover up her pretty dress; she froze to death during the journey. The moral of the story? To always listen to your mother!


Little known fact: In Victorian times a frozen Charlotte was often put inside a Christmas pudding. This tradition continues to this day—although not with creepy dolls. Today, a silver coin is slipped into the uncooked pudding mixture which is then stirred by each member of the family. It's considered good luck to be the person who finds it on Christmas Day.


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