On Princes and Princesses


I’m still knee-deep in researching 19th-century Bavaria. It’s a little disconcerting when inside your head, you’re surrounded by ladies in towering hairdos or spaniel curls, wearing great big swoopy gowns; gentlemen in top hats and tail coats; steam trains and horse carriages – and then you look up, and the realities of 21st-century life are staring you in the face. The writer’s dichotomy…

But anyway, there was something I ran across in the course of my research rabbit-trailings. Have you ever wondered why there is such a proliferation of princes and princesses in fairy tales? I have. But I think I may have found the answer.

One of the things that I was looking up was the German titles of nobility, and to my surprise I found that “prince” is ranked below “duke”. In the English system, “prince” is the highest title you can possibly hold, short of “king” or “queen”, and princes and princesses are in quite short supply. As far as I can see, only the immediate offspring of the monarch get that title, and even then it seems to be restricted to the male line. According to Wikipedia, there’s all of seventeen British princes and princesses living today; and the list of all princes and princesses since 1714 is short enough to fit inside two Wikipedia articles (here and here).


A real-life prince: Ludwig I, Crown Prince of Bavaria. Painted by Angelica Kauffmann, 1807.

In the German system, on the other hand, “prince” or “princess” doesn’t necessarily denote “child of king”. Yes, it does mean that, too, but it can also be a translation of “Fürst”, which is a lower-ranking title of ruling nobility than “Herzog”, i.e. “duke”. So a “prince” can be a ruler of a – wait for it – principality, a small realm that doesn’t qualify as a kingdom, so its ruler isn’t a “king”. Germany, up until 1871, was a patchwork of those small principalities and duchies (unlike England, which has been one large kingdom for more than a thousand years). Add to that the fact that among the German nobility, all children get the title – not just the eldest son – and you have more counts, baronesses, marchionesses, grand dukes and what-have-you than you can shake a stick at. And yes, princes and princesses too.

So, seeing that most of the well-known fairy tales of the Western tradition originate in mainland Europe, that would explain why we can have so many princes and princesses wandering in and out of fairy land. They were pretty normal, as far as blue-bloods go. And even when they were rulers, they didn’t necessarily reign over vast island nations like Our Gracious and Noble Queen, but maybe just a little postage-stamp realm, next door to another equally minute patch of principality.

That’s how you can get princes like the one from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Swine Herd”: “Once there was a poor Prince. He had a kingdom; it was very tiny. Still it was large enough to marry upon…” In fact, his kingdom is so tiny, at the end of the story “the Prince went home to his kingdom, and shut and barred the door.” That ending always tickled my fancy as a child – a kingdom so small, you can shut the door on it (and leave the bratty, stuck-up princess outside, as she deserves).

So there’s one mystery solved. You might get a prince – there’s enough of them around – but his kingdom could be kind of tiny. However, if you’re proper princess material, you won’t mind that. At least so long as there’s no peas under the mattress.

Life, the Universe, Princes and Princesses. Mine’s the one in the blue tunic, thank you.


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Wordless Wednesday: Waiting for Mr Tumnus



26 October 2016 · 16:50

A Thousand Rooms: A Guest Post by Helen Jones

Some months ago, my writer friend Helen Jones of Journey to Ambeth was asking if anyone wanted to beta read her latest book, A Thousand Rooms. Yes, please, I said. So she sent it over to me, and I have to say, it’s one of the best indie books I’ve read. And as of yesterday, it’s published! So, in honour of that event, Helen has come over and written a guest post for us here. One of the things she and I have in common is that we’re both Europeans who’ve done a fair bit of travelling, so I asked her to talk about how the things she has seen in her wanderings inspire her writings. Over to Helen:


‘The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.’ St Augustine

Recently, a writer in a group I’m part of commented that she was feeling short of ideas, the stories that used to come to her so easily tapering off. The group response was unanimous. ‘Go outside.’ ‘See the world.’ ‘Come back to real life.’

As writers we create, our stories born of inspiration. But where do our ideas come from? I realise that writers need an interior landscape to plunder – after all, the Bronte sisters lived quite sheltered, shy lives, yet were able to write stories of deep passion and emotion. As I’ve said before, you don’t have to live with dragons to write about them. Yet they were no strangers to love and loss and emotion, and that is the landscape they chose to wander with their words, creating tempests from what, in their own lives, may have been more like gentle breezes. We each of us have our own unique life history, our own moments seen and experienced, and each of those moments can be the spark for a story. However, as we told the writer in our group, sometimes you need to step away from the desk and look for ideas elsewhere, or take yourself somewhere where ideas might come and find you. As writers, by nature we are observers, and we pull detail from the world around us wherever we are. I’ve written a short story sparked by an unusual outside light I saw on a walk in my neighbourhood, and another one inspired by a spate of leaks in our newly purchased home.

On my Instagram profile, I describe myself as a traveller. I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of this planet, though there are many places I’d still like to visit. But travel is not always about moving through space – in recent years I’ve wandered worlds within imagination, stories taking me to places beyond anywhere I’ve seen.

And yet, they still hold echoes of real world locales, a gleaming palace on the California coast transplanted into the magical gardens of Ambeth, a castle in Wales, favourite childhood haunt, now holding a secret that could change the world. And a dead girl roaming the streets of Sydney, her erstwhile home my old apartment, her old office the same one where I used to work.

My latest novel, A Thousand Rooms, was inspired by a real event. When I lived in Sydney I used to walk to work and, one sunny morning, came around a curve in the road to see a woman lying on the pavement under a blanket, two police officers crouched next to her. The accident hadn’t happened long before – there were no other emergency services there yet, and the bus that had hit her was pulled up to the kerb a little further along, the driver sitting on the verge with his head in his hands. The area wasn’t cordoned off, either – I walked right through the group, past a young woman on her phone in tears saying ‘she’s dead, she’s dead’, past the police officers and the dead woman. As I passed her I looked down. One of her arms was sticking out from under the blanket, the skin smooth and unmarked, adorned with a silver charm bracelet. I remember thinking that she’d got up that morning and chosen that bracelet along with everything else she was wearing, not imagining she’d be dead before lunchtime.

Then I kept walking. I had a busy day ahead, there was nothing I could do to help and I needed to get to work. I made it through the day but that evening, when my now-husband and I were driving somewhere, I made him stop the car, opened the door and threw up. Reaction hit me hard – even now, fifteen years later, I still feel sorrow for that unknown woman and her sudden death.

In A Thousand Rooms my protagonist, Katie, like the woman on the road that morning, dies suddenly. And then nothing happens. No angels or relatives appear, and she doesn’t feel any different – she just remains Katie, wandering around Sydney, unsure what to do next. As I wrote the story it unfolded from that initial event, research taking me through different afterlife mythologies, imagination adding characters and twists. But without that first spark of inspiration, who knows whether I would have written the book at all.

Of course, you don’t need to travel far or be part of dramatic events to find inspiration. When we told the writer in our group that she needed to see the world, we meant only that she needed to find a different outlook, whether that was in her garden, or farther afield. You don’t have to go far to find stories, but you do have to go outside, once in a while, and help them to find you.

dsc_8827Helen Jones was born in the UK, then lived in both Canada and Australia before returning to England several years ago. She has worked as a freelance writer for the past ten years, runs her own blog and has contributed guest posts to others, including the Bloomsbury Writers & Artists site.

When she’s not writing, she likes to walk, paint and study karate. She loves the idea of finding magic in ordinary places; as a child she and her grandmother used to visit the woods on Midsummer’s eve to look for fairies – whether they found any or not, is a story for another time.

She now lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and daughter, and spends her days writing, cleaning, thinking, and counting cats on the way to school.

A Thousand Rooms can be found here: myBook.to/AThousandRooms

And  you can follow Helen on her blog, Amazon page or Facebook page:





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Why the Death of Roger Ackroyd Matters

And yet another good post on detective fiction, from Christa at Chorister at Home (it must be the day for it). Her musings shed some light on my own preference for British detective stories over American ones.

Chorister at Home

American Murder Mystery detective: I’m going to solve this murder because it’s horrible and dramatic and linked to me through my tragic backstory.

English Murder Mystery detective: I’m going to solve this murder because I don’t want to be late to tea.

A while ago we stumbled across the above quote on the internet. It made us laugh, and then it made us think, because we’re not sure it does justice to either classification of mystery.

The English murder mystery traditionally comes from a place of optimism. In it the world is inherently good, as are the people in it. When the detective is invoked it is because a Wrong has been committed that puts that goodness in jeopardy. It becomes the duty of Poirot, Campion, Wimsey, et al to restore that goodness, to preserve civilization. For that reason we often fail to see the corpse, or if we do…

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In Defense of the Detective Novel

My friend E. L. Bates just wrote this quite excellent piece on the value of detective fiction. I agree with everything she says – and her point about the timeliness of detective novels is an interesting one. Check it out and see what you think.

StarDance Press

This essay came out of some thoughts I had on detective novels and their function in society. I’m not sure any of it is terribly earth-shattering–I’m fairly certain it’s all been said before–but it was important to me, so I wrote it all out, then decided it was worth polishing and sharing. So here it is.

Truth, justice, mercy. All very big, abstract concepts that can be hard to wrap our heads around in concrete terms. What is truth? How do we balance justice and mercy? To whom do we show justice, and when is mercy appropriate? If I were to tell you I was writing a story exploring these concepts, you might reasonably expect some weighty, literary piece of work, with dense prose and a somber tone. What you might not expect would be a detective novel.

Yet it is in mystery stories that I have had some of…

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Wordless Wednesday: Autumn Rainbows



19 October 2016 · 11:07

The Princess and the Glass Piano

There once was a princess of Bavaria… No, this isn’t the beginning of a limerick. For one, I’m not much good at rhymes. And for another, this line has too many syllables in it. So, no limerick. Just a little story that I stumbled across in my current research rabbit trails: the story of the Princess Alexandra Amalie of Bavaria.

schonheitengallerie1I was looking up the Gallery of Beauties, a collection of 36 paintings in Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, which I got to see last year on my trip to Germany (pardon the blurry photo). King Ludwig I of Bavaria was a notable connoisseur of feminine beauty, and so between the years of 1827 and 1850 whenever he met with a particularly beautiful young woman, he commissioned a portrait of her to be hung in his gallery. Yes, some of those ladies he had affairs with, but most of them are just beautiful girls he liked to look at. They came from all walks of life – one of the most famous one is “die schöne Münchnerin” (the beautiful Munich girl), Helene Sedlmayer, who was a shoemaker’s daughter and servant girl delivering toys to the royal palace.

1826_alexandraBut the one whose story caught my interest was about as far from a peasant as you can get – she was, in fact, Ludwig’s own daughter. Alexandra Amalie, born in 1826, really was beautiful (notwithstanding the weird early-Victorian droopy spaniel-ear curls she wore. Can’t blame her for the fashion aberrations of her time). And gifted, to boot – she has several published books to her credit.

But she was also a bit, um, disturbed. By the sounds of it, she was a germaphobe at a time when germs hadn’t even been discovered (the accounts describe it as “an obsession with cleanliness”). And then one day, when she was around 23, she was found to be sidling awkwardly down one of the corridors of the palace. Apparently she was of the firm conviction that when she was a child, she had swallowed a glass grand piano, which was still inside of her – so if she walked normally, straight on instead of sideways, she might get stuck in doorways. Or the piano would shatter, or something.

Yup. That’s some delusion alright. Then, so the story goes, one day when she was throwing up, some quick-witted servants chucked a little model piano in the bucket of barf, and told her that she had now vomited up the instrument and was rid of it. Unfortunately, the account I read didn’t say if it cured her of her grand delusion. But I do hope it did – it must be awfully uncomfortable to be living with a glass piano in your belly.

Incidentally, Alexandra Amalie was the aunt of Ludwig II, the Bavarian king who squandered massive amounts of state funds to live out his fantasies, building several “fairy tale castles” (including Neuschwanstein) so he could pretend to be a medieval monarch or be dining with the French Sun King Louis XIV (who’d been dead for almost two centuries by then). Apparently he came by his, uh, imagination honestly.

And those are the kinds of things you can learn about when you’re hopping down the research rabbit trails.

Life, the Universe, a Princess and a Grand Glass Piano. Aren’t you glad you know about her now?

PS: Most of this story I got from unverified Internet sources, chiefly Wikipedia and a couple of other sites. So it’s pretty much hearsay; don’t take it as quotable material – if you’re trying to do real research on the royal house of Bavaria, keep digging.

PPS: The English writer Deborah Levy wrote a radio play about Alexandra Amalie, The Glass Piano, which was produced by the BBC in 2011. Quite interesting – you can listen to it here.


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