“Romantic fiction, at its best, has a lot of truth to say about the human heart. It gives readers the chance to dream and aspire.” So said Joanna Trollope, keynote speaker at this year’s RNA Conference summing up two of the most enduring and appealing aspects of the genre.
Yes, I’ve just returned from the Romantic Novelists Association annual conference, this year held at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London. As if the conference itself is not inspiring enough for a writer, to be in the surroundings of this extraordinary historical site was enough to take my breath away. Permanently. For the entire three days.
In Tudor times Greenwich Palace, reputedly Henry VIII’s favourite palace and the birthplace of Elizabeth I, lay on the site. Then in 1694 The Old Royal Naval College was established by charter with the aim of providing relief and support to seamen and their dependents. The site was planned by Sir Christopher Wren and during the first half of the eighteenth century various illustrious architects, such as Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart completed the design. The outcome is magnificence on a vast scale as you can see here on the ORNC website.
The conference took place in Queen Anne Court, built between 1696 and 1733. To be walking (and enjoying our Saturday night barbecue!) in a place with such a long history and such illustrious connections was staggering. I attended the most stimulating and inspiring talks from, amongst others, jay Dixon on adding colour to your manuscript – literally a discussion of the effect that different colours can have on a story – and Susanna Kearsley on the fascinating byways of historical research. Sarah Duncan did one of the best presentations I have ever seen on the most common mistakes in manuscripts (and after my last book I needed that!) Kate Hardy was incredibly helpful to a pantser like me with her guide to planning your manuscript.
But it wasn’t all work! On Saturday afternoon I played truant from the conference for an hour and went to take a look at The Painted Hall. Christopher Wren had submitted the designs for the hall in 1698, and the roof and the dome above were already in place five years later. James Thornhill's decoration, however, took nineteen years to complete. For his ‘great and laborious undertaking’ Thornhill was paid by the yard – and eventually knighted. While Thornhill worked, more and more pensioners were coming to Greenwich. They couldn't eat in the Hall while he was working and once it was finished it was both too grand and too much of a tourist attraction to be used for regular dining.
The allegorical theme of the huge and exuberant Lower Hall ceiling is apparently the triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny, and it pays due tribute to William and Mary and British maritime power. Within the oval frame are the four seasons represented. the most interesting is Winter, which was modelled by one of the Greenwich pensioners, John Worley, an energetic fellow who was still being punished for drunkenness and swearing at the age of 96. Beyond the arch in the Upper Hall (you can just see it in the photo) Queen Anne surveys the continents of the world. America is reputedly represented by an image of Pocahontas. On the west wall Anne's Hanoverian successors, George I and his family, are shown in sober glory. The whole Hall is overwhelming in scale. Fortunately mirrors are provided to help visitors avoid neck strain so we could all enjoy looking at the ceiling without the danger of injuring ourselves!
Once The Painted Hall was completed it stood empty until January 1806, when the body of Admiral Lord Nelson was brought here to lie in state after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar. It felt extraordinary to be standing on the spot where Nelson had lain and where so many people had come to pay tribute to him and his achievement.
In 1824 the Hall became the ‘National Gallery of Naval Art’ or Naval Gallery for short – and remained so until 1930s, when its contents were transferred to the newly created National Maritime Museum. By 1939 the Painted Hall was once again in use as a dining room. It remained in daily use until the Royal Navy's departure in 1998. On the day that we visited there was a wedding reception taking place in the hall which I should think would be the most memorable venue imaginable!
Our own dining was in no way inferior. On the Friday night we held our Gala Dinner in the Trafalgar Tavern. Built on the site of the Old George Inn in the year of Queen Victoria’s ascension, 1837, The Trafalgar Tavern is a stunning late Regency building. We took our pre-dinner champagne outside on one of the elegant balconies and for dinner I was lucky enough to sit in one of the bay windows with a view across the Thames to the City of London.
Oh, and a word on the accommodation. There wasn’t enough room for all of us in the purpose built new university accommodation so about 15 of us were in Devonport House, a five-minute walk away. I later discovered that the lawns fronting Devonport House used to be the main burial ground for the Greenwich Hospital and that there are still some monuments there plus the odd grave or two. This was a purpose-built graveyard that already included a mausoleum for officers built by Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1713 and 1714. When it was first built it had open arched columns but they were filled in sometime about 1820 and the whole building re-roofed, possibly to deter grave robbers. Admiral “Kiss me” or “Kismet” Hardy was buried there in 1837 as was Tom Allen, Nelson’s personal servant. When building work took place at Devonport House in the 1920s, 1247 skulls and 58 boxes of bones were dug up for removal to East Greenwich. Which puts an entirely different complexion on the things that went bump in the night whilst we were staying there!
All in all a fabulous time! Here I am at the barbecue with my wonderful editor Kim Young and last but not least, here is a pair of my conference shoes!