Tutankhamun On The Telly (1)

Hi everyone.

Well, it wasn’t the “kind autumn” I’d been hoping for after the “cruel summer” I referred to in my last post! Just as I was beginning to feel I’d turned a corner, I was ill again (or maybe just totally exhausted after the less than agreeable year I’ve had) and ended up having to go AWOL for a whole month. Now I’m working round the clock in an effort to catch up but also trying hard not to overdo things  so that I don’t become ill again.

While I was out of action, I didn’t do any work at all on My Dear Elsie but I did watch all four episodes of a new ITV drama called Tutankhamun which launched on UK television on 16th October. I was very interested to see this because the premise for the drama was the story of the discovery in 1922 of the Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun’s tomb by the archaeologist Howard Carter and his famous patron Lord Carnarvon.

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Lord Carnarvon at Howard Carter’s home on the Theban West Bank. Photo credit: Harry Burton

In case you are wondering what this has to do with my proposed book and this website/blog, Lord Carnarvon (or the 5th Earl of Carnarvon) was the brother of Lady Winifred Burghclere. As you will know if you have read the static pages on this website, my grandmother’s close friend Ethel North was Lady Burghclere’s lady’s maid and travelling companion for many years, including those covered by the discovery of the tomb. In the letters and postcards that Ethel sent to my grandmother while she was employed by Lady Burghclere (and on which My Dear Elsie is based), there are many references to Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter’s discovery. In particular, there is a fascinating fifteen page letter that Ethel wrote in 1928 when she and Lady Burghclere visited Egypt and were shown round the Tutankhamun excavations and relics by Howard Carter himself.

As for the drama series, I must admit that I watched most of it either laughing out loud or shouting “That would never have happened!” at the television. It did cheer me up, which was probably what I needed, but not for the right reasons! I’m not a big fan of biopics at the best of times but when you feel you know the characters that are being portrayed and have some insight into the background to the story, it’s difficult to keep a straight face at some of the more preposterous elements.

I suppose I should have been alerted to the fact that the series was going to play somewhat fast and loose with the probable truth by the advert for a well-known supermarket which preceded the opening titles. It described the product it was promoting as a “fantasy drama”. Although I hate to be critical of a fellow scribe’s work, I can’t help feeling that the writer Guy Burt had been given a brief by whoever commissioned the series to “sex it up”. Literally at times! I thought this was unnecessary really, given that it is already a cracking story. But then I suppose he was writing a drama series for ITV and not a documentary for BBC4!

In fact there are so many things from Tutankhamun that I’d like to comment on and link to some quotes from Ethel’s letters that I think I shall have to stop for now and write a second blog post as soon as I can. So watch this space and providing I can stay standing, I’ll be back very shortly.

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Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter in 1922. Photo credit: Howard Carter and Arthur Mace

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A Cruel Summer With General Haig

Are you familiar with the song Cruel Summer by the 1980s girl-group Bananarama? Well, that title sums up how I feel about the last few months although to be fair there is a way to go before it beats the summer of 2013 which was definitely one of the worst times of my life.

If anybody had said to me in March that the flu-like symptoms I was experiencing would get worse instead of better, that I’d feel too dizzy to look down, that I’d have to walk with a stick and that one weekend I’d sleep for 40 hours, I’d never have believed them. And if they’d told me that all these debilitating symptoms were caused by hayfever even though I’d never had it before in my life, I’d have thought they were mad.

But believe it or not, hayfever has pretty much knocked me off my feet for the last five months. In addition, I’ve also had a cancer scare although thankfully everything is OK, some unexpected “emotional” problems that I could really have done without and enough money worries to last me a lifetime.

But I’m back! Not quite firing on all cylinders but definitely getting there and keen to crack on with my book My Dear Elsie before anything else happens to me.

I mentioned in a previous post that Lady Carnarvon (yes, “the ” Lady Carnarvon) had unexpectedly got in touch and that I’d sent her some of Ethel North’s letters to my grandmother that I’d already typed up and researched. If I’m honest, I was really hopeful that this might lead to something. After all, it was Lady Carnarvon we were talking about! Unfortunately, although she sent a very nice email saying how much she’d enjoyed reading them, she didn’t seem quite so bowled over as I’d hoped (or even presumed) she would be which was rather a disappointment.

However, while I was ill I had an unexpected conversation with a neighbour that I’d never really spoken to before, about Ethel’s letters. Her enthusiasm for the project and her interest in it, really fired me up again and made me determined to keep going, despite all the many setbacks there seem to have been along the way.

So it was quite a milestone to have recently reached the halfway point (I hope!) in terms of typing up and researching the end-notes for each letter. There is no doubt in my mind that it’s the letters themselves and their fascinating content which inspire me the most and make me really keen to share Ethel’s musings with the rest of the world.

For instance, the letter I’m currently working on which was written when Lady Burghclere and Ethel were staying in Rome for six weeks in 1926, has some really interesting insights into the character and personality of General Douglas Haig. As I’m sure you are aware, General Haig was Commander In Chief of the British Expeditionary Force during WWI and is particularly associated with the Battle of the Somme.

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General Douglas Haig with Sir Henry Rawlinson, Querrieu, July 1916. Photo credit: Lt Ernest Brooks, Imperial War Museum Collection

This is what  Ethel says to my grandmother about one of the most important and also controversial military leaders that Britain has ever had.

“My dear, I love him. He is so shy and quiet. It is very difficult for me to believe he commanded the British Army and he talks in such a slow, almost hesitating way. So different from what one imagines of a great soldier. He’s not what you call a sightseer (sic) really but he likes these little trips around Rome. He sits in front with the driver and one sees the soldiers peeping forth, for as soon as we get outside the walls of Rome, out come his maps.”

She then goes on to talk about the problems that the General and his wife (whom Ethel describes as “..very sweet but terribly old looking for her age”) appear to have in dealing with their eldest daughter, “a real, young modern” according to Ethel.

“G.H. can do nothing with her and he’s been awfully kind to her, riding one old horse himself to hounds and giving her three young and fresh ones, so that each day’s hunt may be as enjoyable as the preceeding (sic) one.  He tries to point out to her that her mother is none too strong but I fear it has but little effect. Strange. He can command an army but one girl of 18!!!”

I really enjoy these little insights into famous names from history that Ethel provides. The same letter also has some interesting “gossip” about the Royal Family as the then Duchess of York was expected to give birth at the end of April or beginning of May and was due to move into a house at the bottom of Green Street, near to Lady Burghclere’s London residence.

“The King and Queen are awfully pleased. The Queen said a strange thing the other day to Lady Margaret [Lady Burghclere’s sister]. In talking about the Duchess she said, ‘Yes, she is such a dear little thing and so kind and friendly towards us.’ This is much for a Queen to say!!”

Of course, as I’m sure you’ve already worked out, the Duchess of York was our present Queen’s mother and the impending royal birth was that of Queen Elizabeth II who was born on April 21st 1926.

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The christening of HRH Princess Elizabeth of York, July 1926. Photo credit: George Grantham Bain Collection at Library of Congress. Photographer unknown

And that’s all for now but I will be back soon, health permitting, with more updates. Hopefully it will be a kind autumn!

 

 

Football Fever

I daren’t even look to see how long it is since I last posted anything on this blog but I just wanted to let you know that I am still in the land of the living!

It’s been a bit of a strange time in my life recently (it’s felt like I’ve taken a few steps forward and about 27 back) and for some reason, much as I enjoy blogging, it often gets relegated to the bottom of the pile when there is a lot of other stuff going on.

As I type this, I can hear the cars tooting their way along the A47 Hinckley Road as Leicester City fans make their way back from the  “party in the park”.  This took place earlier today, along with an open-top bus tour through the city centre, to celebrate Leicester City football team’s amazing achievement of winning the premier League title/trophy for the first time in their 132 year history.

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Riyad Mahrez (a key player in Leicester winning the Premier League 2015/16) takes a free kick.  Photo credit: Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford and Largs, UK

Even if you have no interest in football and are living on a remote island off the corner of Mars, you have probably heard this incredible story. “Little Leicester City” with its team of rejects and no-hopers took on the financial Goliaths of the Premier League and beat them at odds of 5000-1. Some are calling it the greatest sporting story ever and who am I to argue?

I’ve supported Leicester City for about 40 years now and although I’m delighted for the team, the manager and the fans, this story has also been tinged with sadness for me that my parents, who were lifelong  Leicester fans, are not here to witness this amazing event.  However, I’ve also felt extremely grateful to them that their passion for football and all things LCFC was passed onto me and has been such a source of pleasure (as well as some discomfort!) for a huge part of my life.

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Double Decker Stand at Filbert Street where I used to sit with my father watching Gary Lineker play for Leicester City. Photo credit: Samlcfc at English Wikipedia

When I read Ethel North’s letters to my grandmother, it took me by surprise how many references she makes to the Leicester City football team. She was obviously very interested in their progress and clearly knew that my maternal grandmother and grandfather also had great affection for them. Here are a couple of examples:

“So pleased to receive letter, but what on earth did you save the cutting for? Fancy telling me that and not even telling me the score or even telling me who scored? I wrote to Doris  but no answer and after 5 weeks that is your answer. Doesn’t matter. I’m in the heart of this country and “football” is a long way off.”

I have worked out from the dates that this probably refers to Leicester City losing 3-7 to Burnley in the first round of the FA Cup on 8 January 1921. It was written on a postcard that Ethel sent to my grandmother from Cordova, Spain.

“I am not going to write at length now but will write more fully after I’ve been in Madrid for a day or so. Will you please save me and send me a cutting out of the papers about Fulham and Leicester on Saturday. I shall not see a paper for three months except a miserable continental thing and I want to hear how the football goes on.”

I’m sure Ethel would have been pleased to eventually discover that Leicester City beat Fulham 2-0 on 28 January 1922 in the second round of the FA Cup.

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Johnny Duncan “an indelible Leicester City great” (1922-1930) seen here relaxing in Scotland. Photo credit: Jenny Blackhurst

I was also quite surprised to discover that Ethel enjoyed watching ice hockey, a very “unladylike” sport, which I also enjoyed (from the safety of the stands!) when I lived in Nottingham and regularly went to see the Nottingham Panthers play.

She discovers this affection for the sport during a trip to Canada with Lady Burghclere in February 1925:

“I have been each Saturday to see the crack teams play ice hockey. It is the national game here, taking the place of football and I do believe I am more thrilled over the former than the latter. The skill is amazing. Altogether I’m a very happy and extremely interested person.”

Ethel’s interest in football and even ice hockey seems to add to my view that she was quite a “character” in many ways as in those days, a woman interested in football and ice hockey would be quite unusual. Fast forward almost 100 years and I’m sure she would have been delighted to see the current football team achieve such an incredible feat and put her home town of Leicester very firmly on the world map.

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Leicester City are Champions of the Barclays Premier League May 7 2016. Photo credit: Jonathan Machlin

 

Lady Carnarvon Gets In Touch

Well, it’s not every day that a member of the aristocracy gets in touch. Sadly not by King’s Messenger, herald or even a royal carrier pigeon, just by good old email.

And not just any aristocrat either but none other than Lady Fiona Carnarvon or the Countess of Carnarvon to assign her with the correct title. Yes, the Lady Carnarvon,  wife of George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and the one whose ancestral seat and current home is  Highclere Castle, the real life setting for the TV series Downton Abbey.

I actually wrote to Lord and Lady Carnarvon in November 2014 when I was first thinking of trying to get Ethel North’s letters, that I inherited from my grandmother, published as a non-fiction book. I only wrote as a matter of courtesy, really. In places, Ethel is rather disparaging about certain members of the Carnarvon family, especially Almina, the 5th Earl’s wife and the current Earl’s great-great grandmother and I wanted to make sure that the family were OK with me doing this.

I’m quite sure that Ethel only picked up these views from her mistress Lady Burghclere (the 5th Earl’s sister and the current Earl’s great-great aunt) but I still felt it was only polite to let them know. As it happened, I didn’t receive a reply but decided at the time that no news must be good news.

Lady Carnarvon actually contacted me to ask permission to use the image of Lady Burghclere that is on this website and which I was fortunate to obtain from Ethel North’s nephew, Michael Foster. Images of Lady Burghclere seem to be quite scarce as unlike her more flamboyant brother, she doesn’t seem to have courted publicity.

In one of her emails to me, Lady Carnarvon mentioned that she loved reading old letters and found them fascinating. She is an historian and has had three books published herself on key members of the Carnarvon family, including one about Almina. (http://www.ladycarnarvon.com/about/)

I decided that I had nothing to lose and asked her if she’d like to read some of Ethel’s letters that I’d already transcribed. Much to my delight, she said she would.

In the end, I decided to send her what amounted to the sample copy that I had been sending out to literary agents, before I decided to concentrate on trying to find a publisher by another means. I haven’t heard back from her yet but I’m really hoping that she finds the letters as interesting and informative as I have. I’m sure I don’t need to say how helpful it would be to have her on board with the project.

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted and in the meantime, I’m continuing to type up and edit the letters on a daily basis. Ethel and Lady Burghclere are currently in Canada at the moment. It’s February 1925 and 24 degrees below zero. Next stop… America!

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Almina Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon at the Coronation of Edward VII, 1902 (Public Domain)

 

 

So How Was It For You?

So how was it for you? I must admit I shed the odd tear and although it was about as action packed as a plum pudding, I still enjoyed seeing everyone’s faces as they received their happy endings courtesy of Saint Julian of Fellowes.

Yes, of course I’m talking about the last ever episode of Downton Abbey which those of us in the UK were able to watch on Christmas Day after we’d stuffed ourselves silly on sprouts and all the other stuff we only eat once a year.

It will be missed, there is no doubt about that and by me in particular as I’ve felt a huge affinity to the series because of Ethel North’s letters to my grandmother recounting her time as lady’s maid to Lady Winifred Burghclere, sister of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. I often found myself looking at those fabulous interior and exterior shots of Highclere Castle in Berkshire where most of the “upstairs” scenes were filmed and imagining Ethel strolling around the magnificent grounds or helping Lady Burghclere dress for dinner in one of the beautiful bedrooms when they were visiting Highclere.

But all good things must come to an end and no doubt there will be some spin-offs from the series or even a film, not to mention endless repeats on ITV2 for many years to come.

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Highclere Castle AKA Downton Abbey. Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Darren Deans

I have to confess I didn’t actually watch the last ever episode on Christmas Day but saw it on  New Year’s Eve instead. It felt fitting that the episode ended with a celebration of New Year and a “looking forward” to the future, whatever it might bring.

I’m certainly curious as to what could happen in 2016 regarding Ethel’s letters to my grandmother and my attempts to get them published as a non-fiction book. A great many things happened last year that were very unexpected and it felt like a really important stage in the “journey” I seem to be undertaking. It was not without its setbacks (the copyright issues and the problems with agents to name two) but it was also the year I discovered and subsequently met some of Ethel’s living relatives, an experience I shall never forget!

Although I haven’t set any definite New Year resolutions regarding my proposed book, I do feel strongly that I should like to be much closer to having transcribed and researched all the letters at the end of 2016 than I am at the start. I should also be very pleased indeed if I could finally, once and for all, find out exactly who the copyright holders are as I’m now leaning much more towards self-publishing the book than I was before and therefore probably need to sort out the copyright issues myself. A little matter of having to raise almost £1000 to pay a solicitor who specialises in intellectual property is all that is holding me back at the moment!

Anyway, whatever 2016 holds, I look forward to sharing my progress with you.

Happy New Year!

 

 

PS. Merry Christmas!

My last post was originally going to be a Christmas related one but it got rather hijacked by Downton Abbey so this is just a very quick extra one to wish you all a Merry Christmas and to thank you for your interest in this website and blog since I set it up earlier this year.

Ethel mentions Christmas quite a bit in her letters to my grandmother and I thought it might be a nice little Christmas treat to include a snippet from one of them. The letter I have chosen is dated December 6 1923 and this extract both amuses me and also shows that nothing about Christmas has changed much in almost 100 years!

Here is her first paragraph.

“I’m thankful to come home and sit down peacefully to write. I have been out shopping this afternoon and Oxford St is impossible. People hang about so – gaping here and gaping there, hindering  those who would be about their business.”

I think we get a bit of an insight into Ethel’s character in that snippet as well, don’t you?

Anyway, all that remains for me now is to once again wish you a Merry Christmas and a very happy and peaceful new year. See you in 2016!

Farewell To Downton Abbey

So the Big Day is almost here. Only one more sleep to go. I know we say this every year but it really is amazing how quickly it seems to come round. And of course, this year we’re probably approaching it with even more of that strange mixture of excitement and dread than usual because at last, it’s nearly time for the Downton Abbey Christmas Special. Not only that but this year’s festive offering will signal the end for one of the most successful and popular television dramas of all time.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably thrown in a couple of extra packets of tissues along with the brussels sprouts because there will be tears and not just because no one likes brussels sprouts.  I suspect that this episode will be less about Christmas and more about tying up loose ends (and there are quite a lot of loose ends) as well as giving as many characters as possible a decent send-off. Of course we have questions. Will Edith finally find a man or is she destined to be a Single Parent for the rest of her life?  Will Mary realise she’s made a terrible mistake in marrying What’s His Name and elope to Florida Keys with Tom? Will the Dowager Countess finally reveal the brand name of her anti-ageing cream?

Like most people who’ve followed the series from the very beginning, although I must confess it was only because of Ethel’s letters that I started watching it in the first place, I shall definitely miss it. However, I’m also slightly concerned that if interest in all things Downton begins to wane, I might find it harder to interest a publisher in My Dear Elsie. I’m not too worried though as I believe there is plenty of fascinating stuff in Ethel’s letters to delight readers who have never even heard of Downton Abbey, if such a person actually exists.

Anyway, short of kidnapping Julian Fellowes and keeping him prisoner in Mrs Patmore’s pantry until he’s written another series, there isn’t much I or anyone else can do about it. In the meantime, I shall keep working on the book and who knows what 2016 might bring?

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Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey
Picture by Mingle Media TV https://commons.wikimedia.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Quick Update

As my late mother was fond of quoting slightly inaccurately, “The best laid plans of mice and men are want to go astray”. When I set this blog up, I had every intention of posting on a far more regular basis but to quote another famous and sadly-no-longer-with-us bard, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Life is certainly  quite challenging for me at the moment for reasons I won’t bore you with and as a result, I haven’t managed to blog for a while. However, I have made a concerted effort tonight (despite being nearly deafened by fireworks) and so here I am to bring you a quick update on where I’m at with the ongoing quest to get my collection of Ethel North’s fascinating letters to my grandmother into print.

Well, not a great deal has happened since the story was given lots of coverage on my local radio station a few weeks ago. If I was expecting a posse of publishers to come knocking on my door as a result, I was sadly disappointed. I did have a call from someone who was interested in putting the letters onto an audio CD which got me quite excited for a few days, until I discovered that because I don’t own the copyright to the content of the letters (only the letters themselves), I would be breaking the law if I recorded them without the copyright holders’ permission.

Incidentally, the current copyright situation is one of the reasons why there are very few, if any, quotes on this website from the letters themselves and also why I’m holding out for a “proper” publisher, rather than looking to “self-publish” them.

Since the Radio Leicester interview, I’ve been working hard on re-writing the proposal and sample copy in the light of some of the critiques I’ve received, ready to try it with some more literary agents.  Also, as well as working on publicising this website, I’ve started typing up and researching some more of the actual letters which is the bit I enjoy the most.

I recently made contact with someone who used to be one of my editors at The Guardian newspaper when I was a freelance journalist. She is now a “celebrity” journalist and writer in America and helpfully told me about the Duchess of Devonshire’s book of collected letters In Tearing Haste, which apparently sold “like wildfire” over there. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about trying the American market so at the moment, my plan is to send the proposal for My Dear Elsie to a few more agents in the UK, then set my sights on the US.

I can’t close this post without a quick mention of the fact that there is only one more new episode of Downton Abbey left to be shown on UK television, assuming you don’t count the Christmas special. How will we survive? I watched the penultimate episode tonight and was quite tearful so goodness knows how many tissues I’ll get through next Sunday!

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Radio Leicester Comes Calling

It’s a very strange sensation lying in bed at 6 a.m. and hearing yourself on the news but that is what happened to me today and it wasn’t just the 6 a.m. news, either. Every half an hour from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. I was a “news story” on BBC Radio Leicester or at least the Ethel North and Lady Burghclere letters were.

It’s all thanks to a Press Release I sent out last Monday to a selection of newspapers and radio stations, in an attempt to get some publicity for Ethel’s letters to my grandmother and to try and drive traffic to this website.

Radio Leicester, my local radio station, contacted me within 12 hours of receiving the release and on Wednesday morning, I did an interview with Jo Hayward, one of the Breakfast Show presenters. It was aired three times on this morning’s show along with lots of additional coverage in the news bulletins (which I hadn’t expected) and several plugs for the website and my desire to find a publisher for the letters.

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My living room after Radio Leicester’s visit with Ethel’s letters and memorabilia scattered around.

It probably helped that the sixth and final (sob,sob) series of Downton Abbey begins on ITV in a couple of days so they had something topical to hang the story on but even so, it was far more publicity than I could have hoped for.  I was able to read some brief extracts from Ethel’s letters (with the incredibly atmospheric Downton theme tune playing in the background!) including a small section of the one from her visit to Egypt where she and Lady Burghclere were shown round the Tutankhamun excavations by Howard Carter himself.

Apparently BBC Online have also shown an interest in the story and are hopefully going to publish it, together with a link to my website.

So not a bad start, especially as I was competing with some pretty major news stories today including the Syrian refugee crisis, the latest FIFA scandal and the start of the Rugby World Cup.

The interview is currently available on the BBC i-player and if I can work out how to do it (any help gratefully received!) I’ll try and embed it into the website.

Here is the link, so why not have a quick listen if you have three and a half minutes to spare? There is a photo of my hand holding one of the letters there, as well!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p032tfhq

A Very Strong Link To Downton Abbey

OK, so I know the thing about how you shouldn’t assume that your book is the best thing since sliced banana just because your mother/best friend/ neighbour/neighbour’s dog thinks it’s the best thing since sliced banana but do you know what? I really, really thought I had something here with my proposed non-fiction book ‘My Dear Elsie’, based on the letters I inherited from my grandmother. I mean, how many books are out there which satisfy all the following criteria?

1. A very strong link to Downton Abbey, the highest rated UK drama series of the last decade across any channel and estimated to have been watched by 120 million people in 220 countries, although probably not all at the same time.

2. Anecdotal and often amusing stories that no one living now is likely to have heard before concerning leading figures of the 1920s and 1930s including King George V, the Prince of Wales (later Edward Viii), Sir Winston Churchill, Lord and Lady Carnarvon, Evelyn Waugh (author of Brideshead Revisited) and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

3. Detailed descriptions of being shown round the excavations of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber by the very man who had discovered it a few years earlier, Howard Carter himself.

4. Fascinating glimpses into what it was like travelling all over the world to some very exotic locations with the gentry in the days before commercial air travel was possible and it took weeks to get anywhere by train or ship.

5. A remarkable story of the extremely close friendship which developed over a period of 14 years between a high-ranked member of one of the leading British aristocratic families of the day and a dressmaker, born in a butcher’s shop in the back streets of the provincial city of Leicester.

6. Fact rather than fiction as the book is based entirely on a large collection of old letters and postcards discovered in the back of a wardrobe and not having seen the light of day for over half a century.

7. A parallel story running alongside the letters which explains how the letters were discovered and everything which then ensued, a story which one reader described as “Very inspiring. Moved me close to tears.”

So how come no literary agent, apart from the first one I sent it to who said that he thought it would probably become a bestseller but didn’t want to represent it, has done anything other than a) Tear the sample copy to pieces (not literally of course) b) Reject it with a standard rejection email c) Ignore it?

Your guess is almost certainly as good as mine. In the meantime, I’ll continue to work on this website and maybe add another page or two. Then I might send the proposal and sample copy out to some more agents. There must be one agent out there who loves the book (and wants to represent it) just as much as my neighbour’s dog does.