Juliana Hill Cotton

In the early days of my research into the character of Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) I came upon the work of a scholar called Juliana Hill Cotton. In particular her paper Death and Politian, published by Durham University in 1954, was so dense with useful information that, having underlined everything I needed, I found it would have been quicker to underline the three or four sentences of no interest. What I have is a photocopy neatly underscored throughout in blue ink, a striking document I refuse to be parted with, no matter that I have a husband with a whizz-bang new scanner and a desire for a paperless future.

It is lofty in tone and full of phrases which imply much without actually saying anything concrete. You can’t get to the end of this paper without believing that Poliziano was murdered, one of several unexplained deaths in the same year that Juliana was the first to notice. In Appendix IV she tabulates all the ‘murders’ of 1494, and it’s quite a celeb list. Read Hill Cotton, you believe in murder, and you get to think that the prime suspect is Piero de’ Medici, but she never ever states this explicitly. Read Hill Cotton and you become fastidious in reading footnotes, trying to find out how she’s got this stuff into your brain without committing herself. She is the mistress of suggestion.

Was Angelo Poliziano murdered by his pupil, Piero? Find out in 'The Rebirth of Venus'!

I was young; I was ill-educated; I was in awe of all scholars but JHC was at the top of the pile. Over my years of research I met many scholars and all turned out to be helpful, kind, sympathetic, even a bit jealous that I was writing a novel. (It seems everyone wants to write a novel, really.) Anthony Grafton, F W Kent, everyone involved with the great Ficino project at the School of Economic Science, and Albinia de la Mare, Keeper of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, all looked benevolently on this oik who was writing fiction and did their best to help.

I got to know Albinia (Tilly) quite well and each time I was in Oxford (I lived in London at the time) I took her to tea at the Nosebag. I asked her once about the mysterious Juliana Hill Cotton who was apparently writing a thesis on Poliziano. Tilly promised to let me know if she heard anything about her.

One day I got a call — get to the Duke Humphrey Library tomorrow, Juliana will be there.

I arrived at the Bod the next day and Tilly introduced me to an elderly woman with long grey hair done up in a bun, every inch as formidable as I had expected. Here was the scholar I had always feared to meet, the one who would fulfil my forebodings.

She was nice enough at the start. We went to the King’s Head for a cup of coffee and must have talked affably although I have no recollection of the conversation. Undoubtedly it would have been about Poliziano, to whom she was as violently attached as I was, even if she did say spiteful things about his character. I do remember her saying, as we walked back to the Bod, that I should drop all this academic stuff and get married and have a life.

She had her thesis with her; I asked if I could look at it. I was duly deposited in the Upper Reading Room and there, in studious hush, I was given five minutes. Five minutes!

Of course, this work was like her paper only with knobs on. If I’d have had blue ink and a ruler… but no, I limited myself to making a note in my notebook. Suddenly there was a screech and she was flying at me like a banshee. From behind some stack close-by, she had been watching to see if I lived up to her worst fears, and I did. I was plagiarizing her work! Stealing it! What happened next was a full-blown row in the Bodleian Library which took the Keeper of Western Manuscripts to calm down.

‘Don’t worry!’ Tilly whispered to me as we were pulled apart, all flailing arms and loosening hair, ‘she’s not going to be with us long and her papers will come to us when she goes.’

I gave it about 20 years before I dropped in at the Duke Humphrey to ask. They remembered Tilly de la Mare, of course, but had no recollection of Juliana or any record of a deposit of her thesis. I toyed with the idea of finding her thesis  and completing it and publishing it (under her name, needless to say) because, without doubt, it will be the best, most detailed work about Poliziano ever. Pamela Tudor Craig and Carol Kidwell both put me off that idea, telling me to get a life (I’d already got married by that stage).

So all went dormant until recently when one of our esteemed Commentators on this blog, Judith Testa, became interested in the story and I promised to make some enquiries.

I went to the Bod this week to get a new reader’s pass. There have been many changes in that ancient building, including the installation of a lift for which I am mighty thankful, because each time I go enquiring about Juliana, it’s the same process, only the length of time in between visits is such that I forget the protocol. So you swipe yourself into the library with your card, and walk up the many flights of stairs to the Duke, stairs made for little medieval legs that are quite tiring for modern ones, and when you get there they say, ‘You can’t bring your bag in,’ so you go back down to deposit it, then make your way up again. Then they tell you to swipe yourself in, with the card which is in your bag downstairs. I tell you, I’m not the only person gasping and wheezing on those stairs. So now there is a swanky lift and I didn’t think twice about using it when I had to go back down for the card.

Safely entered, I spoke to a lady on the desk and explained my quest. A lot of the pomposity has gone from the Bod — Debbie said she’d make enquiries and would email me. Which she did, the following day. She wanted to know if I knew when Juliana died.

I started googling. Half an hour later, this person emerged from the ether, a Juliana I did not know and would never have known, who lived locally and not remotely, who had a dear, sweet husband who established the Sudan Archive at the University of Durham. In his retirement, Richard worked with her on her researches. According to his obituary in the Independent, ‘They made a touching pair, working together at the Bodleian, she sitting beside him after she could no longer work.’

I feel sick that we lived in the same city and I did not know, did not become her friend. There’s no mending that now, but at least I’ll pursue my enquiries to the end this time. Next stop, probate office, to find out who got the papers. I find it improbably that Richard did not deposit them somewhere safe, and where would be safer than the Bod?

Or did someone tell him pompously that they would not accept unfinished theses? I shall find out.

Meanwhile on a US forum for Italian Studies, it seems that the papers of JHC are sought-after, given the difficulty in locating them, especially the appendices. I have almost the full set, so if anyone needs them for serious research, get in touch. I’ll be putting a full bibliography up on my website, lindaproud.com (under Notes).

Of the trilogy, it is in The Rebirth of Venus that I am most indebted to the work of Juliana Hill Cotton. As a novelist, I don’t have to suggest anything, I can state my ideas explicitly, but I felt very nervous of accusing an historical figure of murder, even in fiction. When I found the real murderer, however, such sensibilities went out of the window. All I’ll say here is that it wasn’t Piero de’ Medici.


Publish and be Damned

An unfolding story has come my way, a morality tale of today. A Facebook friend posted a link to a blog where an author was being hounded to death. She said she had hesitated in publishing the link but of course I went straight to it. And now you want to know, don’t you? Well, sorry, I’m going to resist. The lass involved has had way too much publicity already and, really, it’s like watching a public execution.

This is the story. A young woman writes and publishes a novel. She contacts a literary blogger in the US who downloads the Kindle edition and writes a passably good review. He says it’s a compelling story which would have carried him to the end if her grammar weren’t so off and her sentences so badly composed that he had to untangle them to get the meaning. He gave a couple of examples and proved himself right. Obviously no editor had had sight of this book.

And then it begins. She is young, this author, and hasn’t learnt the tricks of good behaviour. She fights back and accuses him of downloading the wrong version. He denies it. She posts three good reviews from Amazon (which all sound strangely alike). He gets cross. Others wade in and tell her she’s being an idiot. And then it begins, the baying of the Maenads for the blood of Orpheus.

Not that she is Orpheus, of course, and nothing like him, but she had a story in her she wanted to tell, obviously couldn’t find a mainstream publisher and either published it herself or with what is loosely being called an ‘indie’ (more anon).

Now I know the grammatically correct like to snap at your errors. We’ve all experienced it, and probably from both sides: snapping and being snapped at. What made this so awful was that it was a mob of the grammatically correct, all snapping at once. It was like watching a fox – not a good fox, but one who had just eaten a flock of sheep, but a living being nonetheless – corned by the hounds and then torn to pieces. This young author was eaten alive.

She fought and fought and every time she made a comment, she proved the blogger right for she could not write a sentence without a mistake in it. When it comes to English, she hasn’t a clue. But language can be taught whereas story telling cannot. The only thing she lacks is the humility to recognise her need for help. And she has died for it, metaphorically (I hope it’s metaphorically).

I had read down the scroll of comments for half an hour before realising that the scroll bar had barely moved. I fast forwarded. Nothing more seems to have come from the author after a two-word expletive  in capitals addressed to everybody. But the baying went on and on and on for days. It went ‘live’ on Twitter and Facebook and the author’s reputation lay in ruins before the blogger was persuaded to call a halt and stop the thread. One of the last comments told the author that she would be ill-advised ever to write under her own name again.

Now, the girl was in the wrong, and we all love to see pride take a fall, and aren’t we all just weary of the flood of bad books? But what was it like for her? Putting myself in her shoes, I wondered how I would cope with what one person described as a meltdown. All dreams and aspirations vanished in an acid bath of truth. So publicly. I would find it very hard to go on living.

So then I started to worry. Why did she go silent suddenly? No ego, no matter how vaunted, could self-justify to the extent being required of her. Was she jumping off a bridge right there and then? Was someone filming it for YouTube?  Of course, given the peculiarities of our modern world, the other version of what happened next is that she is now a star, or at least a celebrity, and for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps we shall hear.

A few words on indie publishing… I think the word is being misused. As I see it, there are four types of publishing:

  1. mainstream
  2. independent
  3. self-publishing (including assisted publishing)
  4. vanity publishing

(Print on demand can happen in any category and is not a separate one in itself). When it comes to the third-party validation we all crave, mainstream publishing is the best option, given that some stranger likes your work enough to risk money on it. What could be better?

As I understand it, an indie publisher is a small, probably new concern which does not belong to anyone else, i.e. is not part of a conglomerate. It doesn’t have the clout of mainstream, or the publicity budget, but it offers the enthusiasm and personal attention the big guys often don’t provide. Lindsay Clarke’s recently published The Water Theatre comes from Alma and is doing very well.

Self-publishing is when the author prepares his own book for publication, right through to print and production. To do it properly, the author may need to hire an editor and proof-reader, a cover designer and typographer. This is expensive, obviously, but the author has total control over text and cover, and takes the lion’s share of the sales profits (well, perhaps not the lion’s share if Amazon is involved). This is not so expensive if the writer dots her own i’s and crosses her own t’s and knows what a book looks like (if you think this is silly, everyone knows what a book looks like, read on…). When the professional approach is bypassed, the results are often risible, and this is giving self-publishing an otherwise unjustifiable bad name.

The poems of Devon-born Ray Kidwell Q.C., collected by his wife, Carol. Cover painting by his son, Nicholas.

Many people going this route opt for professional assistance. This is where you have to be careful or you will stray into the last category, but there are firms around that really will assist you and you need to look for them (relying perhaps on personal recommendation). We have an imprint of Godstow Press (a legitimate indie) which is ‘author-funded’ in which we do all the editorial and design work in association with the author. We know we’re the real thing because we retain – and exercise – the right to refuse books and only accept those which have passed our literary standards and fit our list, same as in mainstream. I’m not going to name it as we’re already too busy but here’s our latest, Ray Kidwell’s A Murmur of Surf, put together with the love and at the expense of his family and selling well.

Which brings us to the last: vanity publishing. This is the shark in the water, and the one which is bloodying the names of indie and self publishing. Vanity publishing is when you pay someone to do your book and they offer you the world: an ISBN! listing in all the main databases! sales in the trade! You name it. They offer everything except what an author really needs: an unbiased opinion and a good editor.

So, what does a book look like? I’m hastily writing a short guide on this very important topic. With the sudden rise of Kindle, and its indiscriminate offer to ‘publish’ (i.e. make available) anything anyone downloads on to it (which makes Amazon the largest vanity publisher in the universe), it is becoming imperative that the world’s population has a quick lesson in what a book looks like.

The first book I downloaded from Kindle was a 75p version of War and Peace. OK, you get what you paid for, but I got an awful lot of free white space because the book was laid out like this blog, with double lines between paragraphs, which looks preposterous when it comes to dialogue.

And last week my husband paid nearly £40 for a text book from the hoary old publishing firm of Routledge which begins on the left hand page. Call me old fashioned but…

I am just plain TIRED of the amateurism now abounding in publishing since the cursed computer made my generation of professionals redundant round about the turn of the century. The world is awash with early retired editors, researchers, designers. If you need to publish your own book and need help, it should be quite easy to find one to assist you. It will cost, of course, but be worth every penny.

Sorry, said it was a morality tale, but it ended  up like a sermon! Nevertheless, the moral is, never answer a critic back, especially if he’s right.

Happy writing – and get help when you need to!