About Merryn Allingham
Posts by Merryn Allingham:
While watching the opera at La Fenice, Nancy Tremayne is shocked to see a woman fall to her death. But how did this tragedy occur?
Newlywed Nancy is accompanying her art professor husband, Leo, on a work trip. As she explores Italy’s beautiful city on the water, she finds herself compelled to uncover the mysterious circumstances surrounding the woman’s death. Leo is adamant it was an accident but his assistant, Archie, reluctantly helps Nancy despite his seeming coldness to her. Nancy’s determination to reveal the facts puts her in harm’s way more than once. As she learns more about Venice’s secrets she realises she may be forced to make a choice – the truth, or her life?
The capital city of Turkey has been the centre of one of the most powerful empires in history: first as Byzantium, then Constantinople and finally Istanbul. Most of the many palaces in Istanbul are from the Ottoman period and in A Tale of Two Sisters I mention three of them:
Yıldız Palace, meaning ‘star’ was built at the end of the eighteenth century and was the residence of Abdul Hamid II (the reigning sultan in A Tale of Two Sisters) from 1889 until 1909.
Dolmabahçe Palace was built in the mid-nineteenth century and was home to six Ottoman sultans and the last Ottoman khalifate. The name Dolmabahçe comes from the Turkish dolma meaning ‘filled’ and from the Persian bahçe meaning ‘garden’. It was a move towards a more Western style of architecture and after the Republic of Turkey was established, the palace was used as the presidential residence.
Finally Topkapı Palace, the setting for A Tale of Two Sisters. Built in the fifteenth century, it served as the main residence and administration headquarters of the Ottoman sultans until they built Dolmabahçe Palace by the waterside. Topkapı is the largest and oldest palace in the world still surviving.
At one time, the palace housed some five thousand residents, a city within a city. The surrounding walls were about three miles long. During the four hundred years of occupation, each sultan added a different section or hall to the palace, depending on his taste or on the needs of the time. The palace became a maze of buildings centred around a series of courtyards protected by different gates. It is so vast, there’s space to mention only a few places – those that play an important role in my novel.
The palace is onion-layered, with a succession of gateways leading from one courtyard to another, progressing from public space to private. Anyone could pass through the initial gate, the Imperial Gate, though on foot – only the sultan would ride. This led to the first courtyard, called the Court of the Janissaries (soldiers). The second gate has two guard towers and is called the Gate of Salutation, because everybody had to salute the sultan before going through it. Only the sultan and people working in the palace could pass. I made this the main gate that first Lydia, then Alice, pass through into the Court of the Divan in A Tale of Two Sisters.
The third gate is the Gate of Felicity – this is where the sultan and his court celebrated important events. The first building in this courtyard is the Audience Hall where the sultan received his viziers or foreign ambassadors. The magnificent audience chamber was barred to everyone else but Lydia nevertheless managed to infiltrate!
And behind this hall is the old library – and in A Tale of Two Sisters, a completely imaginary new library as well!
But to pass on to details of the harem, since this is where the majority of the novel’s action takes place.
There were four hundred rooms in the harem, a vast and bewildering complex of labyrinthine passageways, cloistered rooms, grand salons and intimate courtyards, the outside world seen only through screened windows. At one time, it supposedly housed 150 concubines.
The eunuchs’ quarters, a mere fifty rooms, led on to those inhabited by the Valide Sultan, the sultan’s mother. She was very much the power behind the throne and her rooms testify to her importance. Below is an image of some of the beautiful Iznik tile work that decorates almost every part of the palace, but is particularly rich in the Valide Sultan’s quarters. There were bronze fireplaces to warm the rooms in winter and fountains to cool them in summer.
The so-called Golden Way was the passage that joined the Valide Sultan’s quarters to her son’s. Proximity and ease of communication was crucially important for a woman who had her hands on power and was the arbiter of everything that went on in the harem.
With so many women housed together and without access to the external world, it was important they provided each other with stimulating company, as well as learning together the arts and skills that would stand them in good stead in their later lives. Below is a picture of the communal space where they would gather and talk.
A place of great sociability as both my heroines discover. As was the hammam or marbled bathhouse below – a significant centre of female social life in Ottoman times.
The sultan and his sons lived in the harem, too, and the oldest and finest surviving room in Topkapı is the Privy Chamber of Murat III. It still retains its original interior from the fifteenth century.
Topkapı is vast and fascinating, beautiful and haunting, and a brief article can’t begin to do it justice. But the images I’ve posted above were very much in my mind when I wrote A Tale of Two Sisters. Here’s a farewell look at an amazing piece of architecture.
The slave system in the Ottoman Empire was very different from that of plantation life in the US and the Caribbean. Males could be either military or domestic slaves and females almost always domestic. Within the gender segregation, there was a racial hierarchy at work, too. African women were cooks and given menial work, while white female slaves performed more specialised tasks like making and serving coffee or attending dinner trays or acting as nursemaids. Nineteenth century European women visitors reported that slave women had an astonishingly large amount of leisure time and freedom of speech and action inside the harem. They saw the slaves’ lives as preferable to those of domestic servants in the West.
Also slavery was temporary. White women were obliged to serve as slaves for nine years but black women from Africa only seven, as they were thought less well-suited to a colder climate. When a woman was freed from slavery, she received a legally valid certificate of emancipation. She could ask to stay with her former master’s family for life and would be looked after, or she could request to be married. If she chose to marry, she was given a trousseau, jewellery, home furnishings and often a house of her own. The freed slave received a pension of life from his or her former master and would keep strong ties with their former family. Many former slave women, particularly those trained in the harems of the elite, married men of high position.
As a result, it was possible to see slavery as a vehicle of upper mobility, a social ladder, rather than a badge of disdain. (This is something that Lydia Verinder in A Tale of Two Sisters finds almost impossible to understand.) Many young girls from poor families volunteered therefore to become slaves. Or their families sold them into slavery, believing they would have a better future. Others might be captured during tribal raids and sold to slave dealers for profit. Whether voluntary or forced, slavery was seen by both children and parents as a transitory phase leading to social advancement.
Another attraction was the benign treatment slaves received in Ottoman harems. Young slave girls were raised as part of the family, often bought at ages six or seven or even as infants when they were provided with wet nurses. The child would be given a new name and assigned to an experienced slave woman. The young slave ate the same food as the family and her clothing was of similar quality. She was trained in elaborate Ottoman etiquette and practiced by waiting on older slave women before directly serving the family. She would be taught to speak and read Turkish and also taught the basic beliefs and practices of Islam. She learned to sew and embroider and, if she had musical talent, taught to play an instrument or to sing or dance. Both Alice and Lydia in A Tale of Two Sisters are, at different times, entranced by the skills of the women they live with.
Sometimes young female slaves were bought as companions for the young girls of the family and given the same education. They learned to read Persian and Arabic, and in later centuries, English and French. Some trained as nursemaids for the children of the family. Once they had completed their term of servitude, they were married to Ottoman men, or they might be released before their term was completed, as the emancipation of slaves was considered an act of great moral value in Islam. Because of their beauty, charm and cultivation, these girls were highly sought as brides and quite often married into the family they’d grown up in. A cultivated female slave might often be preferred by a man as being far less expensive to marry than a free Ottoman woman of the ruling class. The duty of finding a husband for slave girls fell to the mistress of the house and it was a point of honour to marry her slaves well.
If the girl opted not to marry, she was taken care of for the rest of her life. Slavery was strictly regulated by Islamic law. A slave girl’s rights and the master’s or mistress’s responsibilities towards her were clearly defined. Once purchased, no slave girl could be turned out on the streets. The owner had either to sell her, free her, give her to someone else or provide for her himself. If she had a child by the master, she gained the legal status of ‘mother of a child’ and could not be sold or given away and became free when her master died, if not freed beforehand. The child was acknowledged as legitimate and free and could inherit the same as a child from a legal marriage. The mother was then often married to her master or to an outsider and given a dowry.
If slaves were unhappy, they could ask to be resold and had the legal support of the law. If owners refused, they could run away but could not obtain freedom in this way before their term of servitude was complete. If they ran away, they had to apply to a slave dealer who would sell them to a new owner and inform the former master.
In the imperial harem, the female slaves were primarily servants, though some were used as concubines. By the end of the fourteenth century, concubinage played a major role in royal reproduction. There were a number of benefits to the Ottoman dynasty:
- It was preferable to have female consorts whose allegiance was exclusive to the sultan rather than having wives from a pool of hereditary nobility, who might challenge the sultan’s power.
- A royal consort usually had only one son because as the prince’s mentor as well as his mother, she needed to devote herself completely to his training and protection. It would not have been legally possible to force a free Muslim wife to restrict herself to one son.
- With the high infant mortality rate from disease, it was more logical not to rely on one woman’s ability to produce sons for the continuation of the dynasty.
Most slave girls were not concubines, however – only those at the top of the palace training system, who excelled in intelligence, character and accomplishments as well as beauty, were eligible as concubine candidates. In addition to being a residence for the royal family, the imperial harem was a training institution – a kind of royal finishing school. The women destined to be concubines were often trained by the sultan’s mother herself. The Valide Sultan in A Tale of Two Sisters has complete control over every woman and every slave in the imperial harem. She is second only in power to the sultan himself. For the vast majority of slave women who were not concubines, there was the opportunity to rise through the administrative ranks and enjoy a permanent career within the imperial harem or be married to a husband in the Ottoman military or administrative elite.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the period in which A Tale of Two Sisters is set, a stereotype persisted in Europe that Turkish wives were slaves and chattels. The truth, however, was very different since the legal status of Turkish women was, in fact, better than that of European wives. The Turkish wife had absolute control of her property and the law allowed her to do what she wished with it – either on marriage or if she later inherited . And she could act independently of her husband, maybe sue in court, be sued herself, without regard to him.
Within their own homes, Turkish women had absolute sovereignty and were treated with courtesy and respect. Outside the home, they were similarly respected. It was considered a sin to stare at women in public, for instance. And if a man behaved badly towards a woman, regardless of his position or religion, he would not escape punishment.
The harem was a sacrosanct space, not just a place where women were guarded, but a place of retreat to be respected. The word ‘harem’ actually means sacred or forbidden and did not only relate to a female space. (In Ottoman usage, for instance, the inner courtyard of a mosque was a harem) Within this sacred space, a husband had the right to enter the apartments of his wives at all hours, but rarely availed himself of the privilege. The women would resent such an intrusion. Instead, one room of the harem was kept for the master and it was here he would meet his chosen wife. Lydia, one of the two heroines of A Tale of Two Sisters comments ironically on the fact, an irony completely lost on her Turkish companion.
Female and male parts of the house were therefore clearly demarcated. Children mixed freely with adults and were included as a natural part of harem activities, with Ottoman women being devoted mothers. Victorian female visitors, accustomed to children being kept in totally separate quarters, often concluded that children in Ottoman families were overly indulged. Young boys remained with their mothers in the harem until they were seven, then would begin to participate in male company in the semalik, the male portion of the house. Girls remained in the harem until they married and took on the responsibility of running their own households – from childhood they were trained to be wives and mothers.
Good manners were prized in this society and personal cleanliness,too, was seen as essential. Baths and hammams abounded and the harem itself was clean and orderly. Wooden floors were covered with carpets beaten daily, and the rest of the house scrubbed every week. No dirt, dust or foot mark was allowed – every man and woman, regardless of rank, would take off their outdoor shoes for indoor slippers. The cleanliness and order of the imperial harem is one of the first things that strikes Alice, one of the two heroines of A Tale of Two Sisters.
The harem itself was a collection of spacious but sparsely furnished rooms. There was a large meeting room in the middle, with smaller rooms branching off – this was the anteroom where the women socialised, along with their female guests and female slaves. A gallery bordered the whole, with windows most often looking out onto the garden. Any windows that faced the street were covered with latticed shutters. In the homes of the wealthy, marble fountains were sometimes found in the anterooms.
Furnishings consisted of built-in sofas or divans, wooden platforms raised off the floor, often on three sides of the room. Elegantly designed cushions made from silk and brocade, or embroidered with gold wire upon white satin, provided the seating. A fourth wall might contain a large cupboard where bedding was stored during the day, together with shelves to house water pitchers, sherbet goblets etc. Wall hangings were largely absent – perhaps a few framed yaftas or texts from the Koran – or the rooms were wainscoted with cedar or painted with flowers. By the end of nineteenth century, European influence saw chairs begin to appear, along with the odd console table and mirror. It made for an eclectic mix.
At meal times slaves delivered various dishes of food to the anteroom and would collect the trays later. In winter, the room would be heated by a brazier, resembling a short round table in which hot ashes were emptied and then covered with a large cloth. People would sit with their feet under the table and as much of their bodies as possible under the cover, to keep warm.
Harems were thus gregarious and social places. All the women and young children of the house lived and worked together, including the mother-in-law if widowed, and sometimes aunts, and numerous female slaves. Large harems could have up to a hundred slaves to perform daily household tasks. In addition, female friends, relatives, neighbours, were always welcome. Ages, races and statuses mingled but a strict etiquette was observed: the mistress and distinguished guests sat on the sofa, women of lower social status at a distance on cushions on the floor. If a mother-in-law lived with her son, she headed the social hierarchy, in imperial as well as household harems, and was held in the highest esteem and shown great deference. A wife could not seat herself before her husband’s mother has taken her place, could not be the first to help herself to dishes etc. The mother-in-law had the final say in all matters relating to the harem and oversaw its daily functioning. The role of the Valide Sultan in the harem of Topkapi Palace is simply a larger and more prestigious example of this unwritten law at work.
Women spent virtually all their time within these rooms. If there was a garden, the women would walk there regularly though always with a companion. If they went out publicly, it was with another woman or with one of their female slaves. Only elderly women could go alone! And so a natural modesty was assured. If a woman’s behaviour aroused the slightest suspicion she might be unchaste, she was despised and her husband and family humiliated. Even neighbours would feel their honour tarnished.
It’s clear that the stereotype lodged in the European mind was a long way from the truth!
Separated by time and distance, two sisters seek answers for all they’ve lost.
When Alice Verinder’s beloved sister Lydia goes missing, Alice boards the Orient Express bound for Topkapi Palace in Constantinople, determined to find her.
Lydia was governess to the Sultan’s young children and though her letters spoke of exotic delights and welcoming hosts, the reception Alice receives is decidedly cold and answers unforthcoming.
Now, as Alice digs deeper into the secrets of a land foreign to her she has only Englishman Harry Frome to help her. But as their search uncovers unforeseen dangers and exposes an unexpected passion, is Alice ready for the truths they’ll uncover?
Revenge, it’s said, is best served cold – but there are times when it comes red hot.
Luke Trelawny, the new Earl, has returned to England, toughened by years abroad and very much his own man.
Six years ago he was jilted by his beautiful childhood friend, Cassie Latimer, three weeks before the wedding, and when he meets her again, a dangerous temptation hangs in the air.
It’s revenge, though, not love, that Luke seeks. He will teach Cassie a lesson and show her that he can command her, body and soul – then he’ll walk away.
But can he truly suppress a love that has never died?
Appearances don’t always reveal the truth. Grace Latimer knows that better than most. A troubled past has trapped her in illusions of commitment and comfort – until Nick Heysham charms his way into her world. Commissioned to recover a prestigious architect’s missing designs for the Great Exhibition, he persuades her to assist in his research. The mystery of the Crystal Palace seduces Grace, and once she discovers clues about a forbidden Victorian love affair, she is lured into the deep secrets of the past… secrets that resemble her own.
As Grace digs into the elusive architect’s untold story, the ghosts of guilt and forbidden passion slip free. And history is bound to repeat itself, unless Grace finds the courage to break the glass …
How do you survive when your world falls to pieces? When Megan Lacey’s lover dies in a car accident, she retreats to a small coastal town certain, she will never recover from his loss. Until, that is, she discovers everything she’d thought real has been an illusion.
Grappling with a series of catastrophic events, Megan finds herself walking back into the past to an older story of love and betrayal.
Slowly and and irrevocably, she is drawn to Sophia, a Victorian woman who once occupied the same cottage and who, in so many ways, is her counterpart. But centuries later, can she help the woman escape her fate? And can the past help Megan herself find happiness?
Elizabeth Siddal was first seen by Walter Deverell working in a milliner’s shop. She posed for him as a model for Viola in his painting, Twelfth Night, and went on to work for Holman Hunt, posing for him in A Converted British Family, then for Millais in his famous painting of Ophelia, and finally for Rossetti. Rossetti fell in love with the pale red-haired milliner and transformed her life by encouraging her to launch an artistic career of her own. But rather than being known as an artist, she is generally remembered for Rossetti’s images of her, seen in numerous portraits, sketches and drawings – sitting, reading, sewing, resting, and at her easel. (Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal)
Women who worked as models were frequently seen as passive, silent beauties, discovered by artists and then delivered onto the canvas. In fact, they had a good deal of active intelligence and ambition. They were usually from lower middle and working class families, and had to use whatever gifts and talents they possessed to best advantage. Though less clearly successful than their male compatriots, many of the women were active artists in their own right — Siddal and Marie Spartali Stillman, for example.
For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, art education and professional recognition for women remained separate and unequal to that of their male peers. In the last years of the eighteenth century, the prestigious Académie des Beaux Arts in France limited female membership to four. In England, the Royal Academy of Arts had only two female founding members.
Not until the second half of the nineteenth century did women artists make significant progress when more art schools opened their doors to women, prominent dealers represented them, and public institutions acquired their work. The Royal Academy Schools finally admitted women in 1861, but female students initially were only allowed to draw draped models. However, other schools in London, including the Slade School of Art proved more liberal. By the end of the century, women were able to study the naked, or very nearly naked, figure in many Western European and North American cities.
One reason why nineteenth century female artists have been rendered well-nigh invisible was the prevailing Victorian view of womanhood. The passage that follows is from Elegant Arts for Ladies published by Ward Lock in 1856.
An English lady without her piano, or her pencil, or her fancy work, or her favourite French authors and German poets, is an object of wonder, and perhaps of pity… All accomplishments have the one great merit of giving a lady something to do; something to preserve her from ennui; to console her in seclusion; to arouse her in grief; to compose her to occupation in joy…
A woman’s accomplishments are a way of keeping her from boredom; they are not to be taken seriously, and this includes any light sketching — if it were allowed. A visualisation of the same sentiment can be seen in Stanley Baldwin’s painting a year later.
The stereotype was able to persist because many middle and upper class families felt that learning art was a waste of time for young girls and clashed with the interests they should be pursuing in music and French. Ladies might draw — a feeble skill was acceptable — but they must not draw well since this was judged unfeminine. Notions of femininity explain the delicate, dabbling figure above whom it’s impossible to take seriously as an artist. Femininity was a major requirement of the ideal Victorian woman.
Whatever a woman’s wishes in mid-Victorian society, she was required to be and to act in a certain way, and a place was found for women in art only if they fitted notions of an archetypal womanliness. Qualities that did not fit this archetype were labelled ‘masculine’ by critics, and any woman who expressed such qualities was effectively desexed. Any challenge to the stereotypical image of woman, and therefore of woman’s art, put the artist beyond the pale.
Baldwin’s sketcher above was not expected to display her work — except for the approval of eligible bachelors — nor to sell it. And since showing and selling went together, she would not exhibit. Nearly all shows of artwork were underpinned by commercial considerations, and it was thought highly unbecoming of a lady to earn money from any of her activities. Indecorous, too, to draw attention to herself in any public sphere. Sophia, my Victorian heroine in House of Lies, dreads discovery that she has sold her work under a male name.
It was possible to exhibit as an amateur, but this was not considered serious art. The amount of work by female artists seen by the public at the Royal Academy and other institutions was only a small proportion of the work that women were, in fact, producing. A combination of modesty, lack of encouragement, and the fear of commercialism, destined their work for the album or the parlour walls rather than for the exhibition-room.
This article is based on research undertaken for my novel, House of Lies