Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Serpents in the Garden": Guest Post by Author Anna Belfrage

A few words from Anna Belfrage
First of all, thank you, MK for hosting me today. It seems to me you and I have quite some things in common, principal among these a love of chocolate, autumn and Dryden – and Friesians! Today’s post, however, is not about any of these things, instead I thought I’d share with you one of the inspirations behind my latest release, Serpents in the Garden.
Since times immemorial, people have used plants as medicine. Even today, most of us will have a recipe or two, handed down through the generations that can be used to cure all sort of ills. In my family, we do a decoction of linseed, lemons and sugar that is allowed to boil very slowly over many hours. The resulting syrup does wonders for a cough – plus it tastes very nice.

My mother-in-law also does some sort of mustard seed poultice that supposedly relives pain in aching joints (it does; radiates quite some heat), there’s the face mask consisting of cold oatmeal plus a handful of herbs that soothes sunburns and generally irritated skin, there’s the meadowsweet decoction that relieves a banging headache AND disinfects minor wounds… Plus we have nettle water (great for your hair), lime-leaf tea to soothe anxiety, infusion of raspberry leaves to encourage labour (as in childbirth) – as you can see, as a family we have quite the selection of herbal cures.
I always wonder how people came to amass so much information about herbs and stuff. Reasonably, now and then things must have gone very, very wrong, with the patient dying rather than recovering despite all those potions and concoctions. Take foxglove for example; a lethal plant if the dosage is too high, an excellent way of treating a heart-condition if not. How many died as Ms Witch & Healer adjusted the dosage? (I assume Ms Witch & Healer would be one of the casualties herself. People don’t like it when their healers kill their loved ones…)
Originally, healing was mostly left to women. The lady in skins that collected herbs in Neolithic times evolved into the wise woman – a recurring feature in most ancient societies. Leapfrog some centuries, and such matters were left to the local midwife, who would not only attend births, but also offer advice on other health matters. By now, however, there was a rather vociferous male body that scoffed at the ancient knowledge most wise women and midwives possessed. No, these men argued, healing – in all its guises – was best left to men, men who belonged to powerful guilds such as the Company of Barber-Surgeons, or that of the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries.
Female healers were marginalised. They were laughed at for not being properly trained, they were subtly threatened with the potentially lethal label of “witch” if they didn’t desist from their healing efforts. The men, meanwhile, began collecting and documenting all information they could find about herbs and medicinal plants. In the 17th century, the Company of Apothecaries decided to go one step further by establishing their own garden in which all these marvellous healing plants were to be cultivated.
Amazingly, the garden still exists today. Ancient trees rustle in the wind, plants from all over the world throng the neat flower beds. Brick walls create the impression of a secret garden, somehow removed from the bustle just outside its gates.  
I first visited the Chelsea Physics Garden several years ago – a spur of the moment thing, more driven by my gardening interest than by my historical interest. The moment I set foot inside, I just knew I would have to include this location in one of my books. Narrow flowerbeds extended in all directions, there was an absolutely wonderful section dedicated to deadly plants, and if I closed my eyes, I could imagine myself transported back in time, to when the garden was a testing ground for wannabe apothecaries, allowing them first-hand contact with various plants.
Some years later, I returned. The garden was as magical this time as the first time – well, maybe a bit more, but that may have been due to the warm September sun and the excellent lemon drizzle cake. This time round, I knew “my” garden, one of the more important locations in Serpents in the Garden. After all, I’d spent months reading up on it, imagining it, filling it with my characters. So when I closed my eyes, I saw Jacob Graham standing before me. Tall, with thick blond hair falling to his shoulders (somewhat lank; young Jacob could do with a shampoo), light hazel eyes that glinted in the sun. His breeches were dirty. His shirt was just as dirty, and he was obviously using the shirt-tail as a towel of sorts. Thick woollen stocking covered his calves, he’d stuck his feet into heavy clogs and his fingernails were rimmed with dirt. At present, his attention was focused on the plants in the nearby bed, long fingers alighting on the deep blue flowers of wolf’s bane. “Deadly,” he recited slowly. “If ingested it will kill you right painfully, but in correct dosages it relieves gout and aching joints. Aconitum,” he added, forming the Latin carefully. 
For me, Chelsea Physics Garden will always be that magical place when my gardening interests and passion for history collided, thereby creating a spark – well, more of a bush-fire – of inspiration. Should you ever be in London, I would warmly recommend a visit to this marvellous garden. Sit on a bench and allow your thoughts to drift away, closing out the sounds of modern life. No more traffic on the nearby road, no shrill tones of ringing mobile phones. Instead, the slapping of oars on water as a barge makes its way towards the garden’s water gate. The sound of young male voices arguing over the properties of hyssop and St John’s wort, the faint, acrid stench from the river’s mud. A fragment of times gone by, brought to life by the wind that dances through the tree-tops, by the sunlight that dapples the grass.
Anna Belfrage is the author of The Graham Saga – so far five of the total eight books have been published. Set in seventeenth century Scotland and Virginia/Maryland, The Graham Saga tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him. 

Serpents in the Garden
After years of hard work, Matthew and Alex Graham have created a thriving home in the Colony of Maryland. About time, in Alex’s opinion, after far too many adventures she is really looking forward to some well-deserved peace and quiet.

A futile hope, as it turns out. Things start to heat up when Jacob, the third Graham son, absconds from his apprenticeship to see the world – especially as Jacob leaves behind a girl whom he has wed in a most irregular fashion.

Then there’s the infected matter of the fellow time traveller Alex feels obliged to help – no matter the risk. Worst of all, one day Philip Burley and his brothers resurface after years of absence. As determined as ever to make Matthew pay for every perceived wrong – starting with the death of their youngest brother – the Burleys play out a complicated cat and mouse game, and Alex is thrown back into an existence where her heart is constantly in her mouth, convinced as she is that one day the Burleys will achieve their purpose.

Will the Burleys succeed? And if they do, will the Graham family survive the exacted price?

Serpents in the Garden is the fifth book in Anna Belfrage’s time slip series featuring time traveller Alexandra Lind and her seventeenth century husband, Matthew Graham.

Publication Date: March 1, 2014
SilverWood Books
Formats: Ebook, Paperback

Tour Hashtag: #SerpentsintheGardenTour

Graham Saga Titles
Book One: A Rip in the Veil
Book Two: Like Chaff in the Wind
Book Three: The Prodigal Son
Book Four: A Newfound Land
Book Five: Serpents in the Garden
Book Six: Revenge & Retribution (coming August 2014)
Book Seven: Whither Thou Goest
Get the Book
About the Author
I was raised abroad, on a pungent mix of Latin American culture, English history and Swedish traditions. As a result I’m multilingual and most of my reading is historical – both non-fiction and fiction.

I was always going to be a writer – or a historian, preferably both. Instead I ended up with a degree in Business and Finance, with very little time to spare for my most favourite pursuit. Still, one does as one must, and in between juggling a challenging career I raised my four children on a potent combination of invented stories, historical debates and masses of good food and homemade cakes. They seem to thrive. 

Nowadays I spend most of my spare time at my writing desk. The children are half grown, the house is at times eerily silent and I slip away into my imaginary world, with my imaginary characters. Every now and then the one and only man in my life pops his head in to ensure I’m still there. I like that – just as I like how he makes me laugh so often I’ll probably live to well over a hundred.

I was always going to be a writer. Now I am – I have achieved my dream.

For more information, please visit Anna Belfrage’s website.  You can also find her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.


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