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Ask the authors: Historians on Christmas (and people) past


The festive season is upon us, and to celebrate we asked some of our authors about the figures from history they’d be interested in chatting to over Christmas dinner, and the Christmases past that most appeal to them…

Which figure from history would you invite over for Christmas dinner and why?

‘It would have to be Quentin Crisp who would be so interesting to chat with.’

- Stephen Bourne, author of Playing Gay in the Golden Age of British TV

‘I’d love to join Lady Gertrude Denman, the director of the Women’s Land Army and Women’s Timber Corps, for Christmas dinner at Balcombe Place in Sussex. The Christmas decorations, home grown festive produce and visionary conversation about feminism and the importance of the environment would make it a wonderful Christmas.’

- Joanna Foat, author of Lumberjills: Britain’s Forgotten Army

‘I would love to invite the renowned and celebrated author, Jane Austen. I believe she would be a lovely guest, but also would have fascinating conversation and observations, as well as being witty and amusing.’

- Melanie Backe-Hansen, author of House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door

‘Karl Marx, to ask him what he thought of the regimes constructed in the name of his ideas.’

- James Parris, author of The Man in the Brown Suit: MI5, Edward VIII and an Irish Assassin

‘It may be cheesy to choose someone for my book, but honestly I would say Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester (c1400-1452). She is such an enigma, I would love to find out if she really was awful like later accounts say, or if – as I suspect – she was a charming and interesting woman! I would love to ask her about her life, and find out whether the witchcraft accusations against her had any basis at all.’

- Gemma Hollman, author of Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville

‘Maria Callas - I am fascinated by her dual nature, her philosophy of life, her talent and, to be frank, her fabulous hair! I am writing a book about her, so it would be interesting to chat about the opera, her travels, the myths surrounding her legacy, and, of course, Onassis!’

- Lyndsy Spence, author of The Grit in the Pearl: The Scandalous Life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll

‘‘Dutchman’ Baldwin Brekemaker’s wife. He made the bricks for Ralph, Lord Cromwell’s Tattershall Castle in the 15th century, and she took over producing the bricks when he died. What an opportunity to find out what being a woman in that environment was like then.’

- Carolyne Haynes, author of Brick: A Social History

If you could go back in time and experience Christmas in any historical period, which would you choose and why?

‘I would like to visit the 1960s because everyone had such fun then and television at Christmas was brilliant!’

- Stephen Bourne

‘I’d love to visit Christmas in WW2 where I’d work alongside a merry gang of Lumberjills in the New Forest chopping Norway Spruce for Christmas markets, singing Christmas carols and telling funny stories around the campfire.’

- Joanna Foat

‘Of course, it would have to be the late Victorian period, by which time many of the familiar Christmas traditions had been established. From Christmas lunch with party games to Christmas trees, crackers and Christmas carols.’

- Melanie Backe-Hansen

‘The Christmas truce on the Western Front in 1914 to see how extensive it was, what the soldiers on both sides thought they were doing, and whether it would have been possible for them to end the war before it developed into four years of pointless slaughter.’

- James Parris

‘It would have to be the Tudor period. I would love to be at court with the huge feasts where you could have thousands of people. There was music, endless food, and the noise and hullabaloo must have been quite special! Also we always dream of white Christmases and this would be the perfect time for that, when the Thames used to freeze over and people would go ice skating and have markets and stalls on the ice.’

- Gemma Hollman

‘Revolutionary Cuba, where Christmas was banned! Or, if I must partake in the festivities, I'd go back to the Edwardian era and spend Christmas day with Jean Viscountess Massereene at Antrim Castle. As with her garden parties, she would be dressed in an elaborate costume and would tell everyone's fortunes, and summon Christmas ghosts. The ruins of the castle captured my imagination as a child, so it would be thrilling to see it in its heyday.’

- Lyndsy Spence

‘I’d like to spend Christmas in the late 17th century and be able to chat with people like Roger North - the excitement of the new ideas coming into the country with the renaissance. I’d rather not be in the servant class though...’

- Carolyne Haynes

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