Georgian Fantasy Opening Chapter -- 1400 words

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The Judge

Truth. Order. Moderation.
Staff member
Nov 10, 2008
nearly the New Forest
Since HB has -- belatedly -- led the way in acknowledging his 9,000th post with a return to the old established tradition of putting work up for critique upon reaching 000 figures, regrettably a tradition more honoured in the breach than the observance nowadays, I thought I'd better show willing, too.

This is something new I was considering last summer, but which I didn't take any further than this opening chapter for one reason and another, but New Year and all that, I was wondering if it was worth pursuing. Briefly, it's a fantasy-detective premise set in Georgian England, with a tiny bit of alternative history thrown in for good measure. That alt-history lies in a concord in 54 BC between British-Celtic female druids and Rome’s Vestal Virgins, which later leads to the creation of the Collegium of Drya Vestals. Now, 1400 years after it was founded, during which time it had to bend to the storm winds of Christianity, the Collegium is returning to its pagan roots and its wood-magic. It has also begun to allow senior Vestals to perform ceremonies for private individuals, which is why one of them is here.

I've got some concerns over it, but I'll wait and see if they're picked up in the comments. Sorry it's on the long side at just over 1400 words. NB All the names are placeholders, hence the Drya's daft name and the proliferation of Bs for the others.


Whispers. Furtive, excited, delightedly shocked.

“Is that really her? The Vestal?”

“Who else would dare wear the stola?”

Women’s whispers. Thin needles of electrification, surrounding her, charging the air in the room.

“Whatever was the Collegium thinking in sending such a person here?”

Muffled whispers. Spilling from pale, painted faces, concealed behind fans of vellum and ivory, lace and mother-of-pearl.

“Gracious, she’s so very tall.”

“And so very black.”

Wasp whispers, darting ever closer. Stinging.

“What is the world coming to if a slave is allowed to become a Vestal?”

Each sting draws fresh blood, ignites flames of loathing in her breast.

“I’ve heard the colour won’t come off no matter how hard you scrub them.”

She resists the compulsion to turn, to confront the whispers; forces herself to remain at the window. She only moves her gaze, raising her eyes from the alders and willows trembling at the edge of the distant lake, to the oaks and sycamores sweeping down to the slighted ruins of the old castle beyond.

Beneath the whispers, in counterpoint, a drone hum. Male voices spewing from meat-coloured faces – beef-bloody, pork-slabbed. Not muffled by fashion, but pitched low, lip service paid to her status.

“Don’t mind her colour meself, served in the Indies after all, but thought she’d be a damn sight more womanly.”

“One hears stories, of course."


"Unnatural practices of a carnal nature. Scurrilous, no doubt. Yet one cannot help wondering what befalls at the Grove. So many women without male control.”

More stinging pain, more flames of hatred. Her expression blank though the fire in her soul crackles and spits, like green pine ablaze; thirty years in the Order providing the appearance of composure but never yet the reality.

Louder rumbling from the powdered, periwigged drones.

“All this for a blasted tree. In this day and age. Ludicrous superstition.”

“Gray’s a sailor; they’re superstitious to a man.”

“It’s pagan heresy. The whole diabolic cult should be extirpated, the false temple and its trees destroyed, the women and their credulous supporters subject to penalties as with the Papists.”

Discipline tells her to remain aloof, impervious, but her heart yearns for retribution, to show the parasites her power. The Amici hear. As ever, oak responds first – beams above, floorboards beneath, shivering at her call. With them, she could destroy the whole swarm of insects. Satinwood chairs and card tables, mahogany desk and longcase clock, sycamore bookcases, all quivering, waiting to be used. Walnut stock of a fowling piece above the mantel, boxwood case holding duelling pistols on the desk, both thirsting for blood. Even the birch spills, shuffling in their vase on the mantelpiece, eager for her word.

Discipline holds. She compels her mind to calm, quietens the Amici.

Then among the waspish, droning buzz, a hornet.

“Damn me, but she’s ugly!” Loud, imperious, lordly in his own conceit. “Sure it ain’t a man in disguise? Ought we to look, see if there’s a pizzle under all that outlandish clothing?”

Ridiculous vapours from the wasps, vapid reproaches from the drones. She pays no attention. The blaze of angry hate flares higher, and damping down the flames takes more effort. She succeeds, but broods on retribution.

What if she were to avenge herself? Not on all the insects, merely on one? Covertly, so her powers remain concealed as required by the Order? Which of the Amici would she use? Oak, too dangerous. Satinwood, mahogany, sycamore, all too large, too obvious. Walnut and box, still too overt. Birch spills, too weak.

There. A fan wielded close to the hornet. The fan’s guards stained and lacquered to resemble costly tortoiseshell, but beneath the paint, plain cheap deal. The slivers of pine tremble under the touch of her mind, releasing their long-forgotten memories of life – cold wind blowing sleet from the mountains, the cry of eagles, the howl of wolf and skitter of deer, the companionship of resin-scented brothers stretching mile after mile over the Scottish uplands. Majesty reduced to a painted, lying trinket in a fat woman’s hand.

Laughter from the hornet. “Face like that, black as my horse to boot, no surprise she’s a Virgin, eh, for who would want to ride her?”

An eruption of fire, a volcano of hate, discipline overwhelmed. The slivers of pine heed her call. The fan tears itself from the woman’s grasp, flings itself at the hornet’s face.

A scream of pain. A clatter as the bloodied fan drops to the floor.

She doesn’t move, doesn’t shift her gaze from the patient trees, doesn’t allow her expression to alter, but in her grim heart RoseOak laughs.


I should have been threading my way through the crowd, greeting, smiling, playing the role ordained for me, not quite lady of the house, not quite housekeeper, and my part should have been enacted not in the cramped confines of the library, but in the great drawing room, its furniture mostly removed in order to cope with the numbers, for the Admiral had invited half the county to the ceremony. Yet the crush in the room and my failure of duty were all too soon the least of my concerns.

Our being in the library and not the drawing room was due to the Drya Vestal herself. With the Admiral in tow, she had stalked though each of the rooms on the piano nobile, looking not at the new and expensive furnishings he had purchased, but at the view from each window. Upon reaching the library, she could not be persuaded to move further. The Admiral’s guests were there because their frenzy to be in her presence overrode their sense of decorum, as it did mine, for I stood in the corner, scarce able to tear my eyes from her. I had seen eminent women before, influential and aristocratic women, for until his final illness Great-Uncle Thomas had entertained widely. Yet whatever power those women possessed came second-hand, from their father’s rank or their husband’s money. She, though, Lady RoseOak, she was power incarnate and I was transfixed.

My absence of good manners went unnoticed, the women too absorbed in spiteful gossip, the men with lewd remarks. Then Mr Eliot spoke. An intelligent, gracious man, the embodiment of moderation in all things save his dislike of Catholics and Dissenters, and, as it appeared, the Collegium of the Drya Vestals. I would have listened with interest to his argument, but I was immediately distracted, and thereafter incident piled upon terrible incident, until all was forgotten.

The distraction came – I can scarce write this without thinking how absurd it must sound – as the room shuddered. No volumes shifted in the bookcases, the many paintings – ships, ships and more ships by indifferent artists, and one exquisite Canaletto – moved not one hair’s breadth on the walls, the fragile porcelain lids of the Chinese jars upon the mantelpiece made no sound, yet the sensation was as palpable to me as though the earth had quaked beneath us. No one but I appeared to notice, however, for the gossip and lewd talk continued uninterrupted. Indeed, the lewd talk temporarily increased in depravity and volume, for, as though summoned by the shuddering, Mr Edgar Wilson appeared. His offensive remarks ended the gossip and talk as the room’s convulsions had not.

Several ladies felt offended enough to enjoy an attack of the vapours, which recalled me to my duty as I sent a footman for sal volatile and a few feathers to burn. Some gentlemen provided aid to the vaporous by assisting them to the chairs and window seats, while others, Mr Eliot not excepted, reproved Mr Wilson. Whether they would have extracted the apology demanded of him, I cannot say, for after he burst forth with yet more offence, a second strange incident occurred: old Mrs Browning hurled her fan at him, cutting open his cheek.

I was dealing with the aftermath of this assault – not least endeavouring to comfort the tearful Mrs Browning herself, who claimed the fan had flown from her grasp – when the Admiral’s nephew, Mr Barker, appeared at my side.

“Have you seen the Admiral, Miss Barrington? It is surely time for us to think of commencing the picnic dinner.”

Mortified at this further dereliction of my duty – for I was charged with the arrangements for this strange meal – I was about to reply that I had not seen him for some half an hour, when a piercing scream came from outside. The Admiral had been found. His body, that is.
First few sentences reveal nothing about the POV character, which I found unusual, but the text was interesting enough to read on. The first section did have something of a literary feel overall, rather than a genre one.

The second section certainly felt like a period genre, which left me wondering whether there was a mismatch between the voices and therefore markets. However, my second thoughts were that this could be pitched as literary with fantasy elements.

My one big criticism is that the events in the first section seemed to be repeated in the second, which means the story felt like it was lacking a sense of progression.

Overall, though, the aloof female narrative is something I've seen in quite a few successful works - I get the sense that it's popular. So I'd be very interested to see how this project develops :)

Btw, what's happening with the Renaissance fantasy?
Firstly, Wow! Very interesting and fresh in so many ways, yet feeling stuck.

I'm unsure how polished this its for you? so my comments may be insignificant. Also, honestly, I may be less used to this style of writing due to my initial instinct of, leave it on the shelf. Not my usual taste.

I love the sting, flair and whip of the bitchy ladies, wasp and hornet helping signify the loose and carefree spite.

I love the freedom in your descriptions of the distractions, but feel I needed to know more, to help anchor me in this particular scene.

I like the readiness of the timber to her call, however, I have a problem not being alerted to it and her role in this piece as Magically endowed.

Indifferent artists? - feels like the artists were indifferent about what to paint, and therefore unlikely to make it onto any gentrified wall.

However , for the gossip? this "for" doesn't feel like it fits and especially with a later, correct " for, as though summoned by.

It also feels a little like the normal and certainly cultural, niceties and decorum, have been dropped with not one person noticing. This seems a little unreal to me, (especially with the bitchy nature of the ladies and their competitive nature) that all would leave their culture at the door for this one event. However it may be true that the event, is that exceptional!....However I did not feel or have enough information to know that it was.

overall it's quite difficult to read with a slightly stunted flow. I think this may be purposeful though? I would work with it provided I'm given a break and time to qualify what I've read. It feels quite Alice in Wonderland.

I would love to see more context to help define how I feel. As I said this is not my usual go to, so I may be less helpful.

Very interesting piece.
I enjoyed this; however the first half seems to be bloated and slows down the action.

Usually I recommend some narrative between dialogue to help sort out different speakers; however in this the speaker is not important until the victim shows up. And all the narrative seems more distraction toward world building that could go on elsewhere. May a few lines kept to delineate the women from the men in whispering.

The extraneous emoting could easily be reduced to a few lines about her restraint until you reach the climatic portion with the 'hornet'.

I think you could tighten it by excluding a majority of the extraneous and focus on the most important pieces to carry the story. Even all the stuff having to do with Amici could be shortened as the reader only need know two parts the oak that shakes the room and the pine that moves the fan. The rest you can possibly build elsewhere. The don't feel necessary here.

The second half flows better and does a great job of building the surroundings and even capturing the mood of the room and it occupants that make some of it redundant in a small sense. Removal of the extraneous from above will actually strengthen the value of those passages in the second half.

This just my personal opinion and preference and there's always the chance I missed something of importance in the narrative in the first half that is important and isn't just a means of shoehorning in world-building.

Would love to read on--the Admiral is a mystery at the end.
I like the second part much more than the first.

Regarding the first, I always dislike it when the author withholds a character's name for no clear reason. The disconnected voices are a bit disconcerting, to my mind. I'd be inclined to dial them back a bit too: nobody quite says "This is about Race and Gender" but it's pretty close. I find it odd that they would go to the trouble of having the priestess in just to loudly insult her, especially if she has any (potential) genuine power.

While the second half seems to tell the same story, I think it flows better. I could imagine a sort of pastiche Jane Austen voice working quite well: I've never read it, but I've got a feeling that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell has a style a bit like that. I would be interested to know how the collegia has survived and how it integrates into Georgian society: one change can have a lot of ripples, of course. So ultimately, if the story read like the second half, I'd keep going.
I may be in the minority but I preferred the opening sequence. I had enough information to follow the fantastic and historical aspects and enough story to keep me interested. Also, really effective descriptions that set the scene without bogging it down.

My problem was the shift to the second section. The shift of perspective was confusing and left me uncertain about the relative importance and roles of the main characters. Whichever section people prefer, I suspect this shift is the real problem here.

That said, the premise and characters certainly seem worth exploring for me as a reader.
Have to agree with Brian in questioning the merit of recounting the same scene from two perspectives. I think, either start the 2nd scene from the fan-slap (being harsh, the first three and a half paragraphs are essentially equivalent to a movie panning shot, and I think they could be condensed without missing much), or pick one, rather than head-hopping in more or less the middle of a dramatic moment.

Which perspective, then, brings more to the table? That depends on whose narrative voice continues in the story, imo, and it's hard to say without wider context on the plot and structure. They're both well written in entirely different ways, which is probably what contributes to the disjointed sense you get when reading (also the switch from 3rd to 1st, but that's just a personal bugbear of mine unrelated to any broader value judgements). Personally, if it were me, I'd go with Miss Barrington just because I get the (unjustified?) impression that she is the true protagonist of the story, and the character with the greatest development arc ahead. The character-building which you develop in the 1st part (ie. sassy magic foreigner with unexplained powers takes no crap) could probably be conveyed within the narrative of Missy B, for example (and please forgive me the indulgence here of playing with your characters for a moment, I mean no offence):

"It was you, wasn't it?" I asked, studying her expression for any hint of guilt. "You threw that fan at Mr Wilson?"

Her dark gaze flicked to me with cursory interest. "Did I?"

"I - I thought I sensed..." I trailed off, embarrassed, as I searched for the right way to describe the curious shuddering that had filled the room. "Something."

"Something?" RoseOak curled her tongue around the word, as if she were mocking me. I felt my cheeks redden.

"It's not so ridiculous," I countered, wincing at the unintended defensiveness of my tone. "You are the Vestal, after all, and, well... " I cast a furtive glance around, but we were alone, the other guests too caught up in the events of the moment to bother checking us too closely. Still, I lowered my voice before I spoke. "He deserved it."

This time, RoseOak's stare was sharp. Her gaze travelled over my form, and when it returned to my face, there was something heated about it that made my skin prickle and my cheeks flame. I swallowed, but did not lower my gaze; could not, in fact.

The Vestal smiled. She lent close, until I could inhale the strange, exotic scent that wrapped around her, and tilted her head as though I were a mystery she sought to unravel. When she spoke, it was in a whisper of her own. "Tongues are sharp," she said, lifting a finger to my mouth without touching. "But against a splinter, what hope do any of us have?"

Okay, I'll stop now, I swear :p. That was just a (bad) example of a way in which RoseOak's magic and culpability could be conveyed without needing to delve into her narrative consciousness to reveal it. Of course, this might not be in line with the ideas you had for the story at all, in which case forgive my impertinence.

In any case, returning to minor nitpicks, I think you may have overdone it slightly with the whispers. These two in particular:

"Unnatural practices of a carnal nature. Scurrilous, no doubt. Yet one cannot help wondering what befalls at the Grove. So many women without male control.”

“It’s pagan heresy. The whole diabolic cult should be extirpated, the false temple and its trees destroyed, the women and their credulous supporters subject to penalties as with the Papists.”

seem rather verbose for something you'd whisper to your companion in a crowd as someone passed, even giving it a 10% Georgian surcharge :p If you're trying to establish that the prevailing attitude is racist and sexist, I think you do so in the first few well-chosen lines. Too much and you risk giving your reader a headache from beating them over the head with a defamatory thesaurus, in my opinion.

Other than that it was well-written and I'm obviously well intrigued enough to read on, or I'd not have spent so much time giving you my 200cents :lol:
I really liked the premise - the Vestal Virgin combo, connection with the trees and their wood. I found that the writing gave me vivid pictures in my head. I don't have a problem with the scene being repeated from two viewpoints. However, I really dislike all edgy present tense writing, which is how the Vestal Virgin part struck me. I also found it a bit dramatic in its vocabulary -
Thin needles of electrification, surrounding her, charging the air in the room.
However, equally I can see you were using it to get an effect, which worked. Unfortunately, while I like the story, the style of that opening section is so not to my taste, that I couldn't read a book with much of that in it. I like the premise enough that if the book was mostly in the second voice in your sample, I'd push through the edgy bits, but only if they were a page or two at a time.
I would also agree on the point that if she is that powerful and famous, they'd have all known more about her.
It also felt to me that you were possibly repeating modern stereotypes of race and gender in the georgian period. Regarding gender, Jane Austin has some powerful women in her books - Lady Catherine de Burgh for instance - and Elizabeth Bennett does not in any way come across as repressed. I know very little about race in the period. So what I am saying/asking in an indirect way is "have you researched attitudes to gender and race in the period and how people would actually behave"?
I am also put in mind of a book that came out in the last couple of years - can't place its name - which was also set in the Georgian period and had a black magician raised by a white gentleman magician as one of the two central characters. The other central character was a teacher and women were forbidden from using magic. It was much lauded, but I gave up on it as it had no joy to it is the best word I can think of using - and it was also busy hitting the reader over the head with the message "Georgians were racist". I prefer books where the characters at least some of the time enjoy their life and the challenges thrown at them - not saying unalloyed blue birds - but say Codex Allera by Butcher - a ton of awful things happen, but it has energy and the characters are busy working their way around the problems.

Edited to add - it just struck me - why is the vestal virgin so enraged? As in yes, people in the room are behaving very badly - but hasn't she encountered this all her life?
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More random thoughts on introducing a new element to an established period, mainly because this is something I find pretty interesting.

It seems to me that the ultimate decider of whether you behave respectfully to someone – leaving aside whether you personally like them – is whether you feel that you ought to, and whether you fear some kind of punishment for not doing so. In a feudal society, you don’t insult the knights because they can beat you up, and you don’t insult the bishop because you’ll go to Hell (and he can tell the knights to beat you up). The king might resent the fact that a wizard is coarse and grumpy, and complain to his minions, but until the king can be sure he’s got the jump on the wizard, he’ll have to put up with it. And woe betide anyone who loses that power (King Lear gave his power away and look what happened to him). I suspect there would have been a lot less witch-hunting in history if the witchcraft had been of the fireballs-and-lightning variety.

It might be that you can be very respected in one area but not in another: I remember seeing a Victorian painting depicting the bravery of a particular Indian soldier, but I can’t see him being promoted to officer, no matter what he did in battle. There would be glass ceilings, and (perhaps more interestingly, from a writing perspective) glass walls. So you could have a society where sorceresses are highly respected, but as an exception to other women (and probably regarded as unnatural, if useful). However, I could imagine that the existence of the Guild of Lady Wizards might well accelerate the position for all women (and the inevitable backlash), especially if the sorceresses demonstrated non-magical skill as well. One interesting detail I once read – in a Warhammer manual, no less! – was that female wizards were in high demand as wives, as they’d obviously be very useful to have on board – but there was always doubt as to where exactly their magical loyalties lay.

Obviously this wouldn’t apply here, but there’s interesting potential. A lot would probably depend on how known the Vestals are and, perhaps more importantly, how much damage they are known to be able to dish out. The religious implications could be very interesting, too.
Thanks, all. You've confirmed my own fears about it, not least the jarring effect of the change of voice, and the lack of progression in the second scene which is Artemisia writing in her journal. I was thinking about it again overnight, and I thought I had an answer for that latter issue, by interleaving the scenes and showing them in tandem, rather than one after another, but undoubtedly that would only add to the dislocation effect as there would then be several very short scenes and continual POV and voice changes.

To answer a few points in case they're of any interest, Artemisia would have been the main narrator of the book via her journal entries, acting as Watson to the Vestal's Holmes as they try to find the Admiral's murderer, but at this point she won't be privy to any aspects of the wood-magic, or have the faintest idea it's even possible. Vestals aren't seen as sorceresses, just as relics of very ancient custom, wheeled out at grand public events, intriguing for their rarity. (It's a bit like having a Beefeater or Black Rod coming in full regalia to search your neighbour's cellar or knock on his front door -- you're going to want to see it, even though you don't expect anything much to happen.) So without RoseOak's POV the magical elements -- which would be necessary for the plot and the denouement -- would be wholly inexplicable. RoseOak is not the kind of person to indulge anyone's questions, either, unfortunately, and this wholly unfamiliar environment and its toxic gossiping, after 30 years immured in the temple to which she was brought at the age of 8, is only adding to her taciturnity as well as her inner rage.

Hmm. Not sure I can pull the rabbit from the hat on this one to make the opening work as I need it to, so it looks like another one for the Dead Ideas Drawer.

Btw, what's happening with the Renaissance fantasy?
The pseudo-Italian Renaissance one, with the religious dogma elements, is buried deep in a heavily padlocked chest of drawers in a locked and barred cellar guarded by ferocious dobermans and will never again see the light of day. The pseudo-Breton one, with the three-people-in-a-single-body, is currently the subject of extended Drama Queening, but unless there is a minor miracle, it looks to be heading for a chest of drawers and cellar very similar to the first one.
The pseudo-Italian Renaissance one, with the religious dogma elements, is buried deep in a heavily padlocked chest of drawers in a locked and barred cellar guarded by ferocious dobermans and will never again see the light of day.

Ah, that's a shame - I remember feeling that I'd given overly-harsh feedback on that, but I thought the overall story was sound and the concept intriguing.
Having read this before, but forgotten all the details, I really liked it. I agree with some of the comments above, especially about the length of some of the whispers -- but you don't need to report all of them verbatim, I'd have thought, as she could summarise their tone and content, having heard much the same many times before. (She wouldn't then even have to hear them clearly to know what they contained, which might be more realistic.) I'm not sure if it's a problem that she doesn't actually do anything for some time, just stare out of the window. Even if you don't want her to be active straight away, you could perhaps have her briefly think about her journey there, or her purpose in coming.

I didn't have a problem switching to Miss Barrington's POV, but I can't say how much of that was because I'd read it before. From my current perspective, yes, there is some repetition which you could try to minimise, but that didn't much bother me. I wonder if the major "problem" with it is that the word limit forces you to stop where you did, before the scene has really got beyond what we already know. Since it very quickly would advance into new territory, it might not be as much of an issue as it seems.

I also wonder if the prose style in RoseOak's POV is a bit stark and forbidding, with all its sentence fragments. Making a few of them into sentences, e.g. "Thin needles of electrification surround(ed) her" might make it more accessible, and using past tense rather than present might tie it in better with the other narrative. Would you lose anything from that? Anyway, that's a question of style, which is obviously personal.
Something that has just struck me whilst writing my WIP is that your opening scene has a real feel of crowd with many remarks and many viewpoints. Your descriptions of the space in which the crowds are gathered is limited, but enough, however It feels like the movement of the vestal through the scene may be key to grounding this section allowing the static ( gob smacked) POV of RoseOak to follow.
Maybe, through a thin corridor of a crowd and not stunted in a fixed room. This movement or the vestal through the corridor of spite might help direct, the venom, and sting, and whip, a comment here, a bitch from there, left, to right.... as she moves slowly and purposefully through.

This is imbedded in your piece already, but I wonder if you meant to or not.
Thanks, both. I'll have a think, see if I can reconcile the Vestal's character with something a little less stark/abrasive in her POV.

Ah, that's a shame - I remember feeling that I'd given overly-harsh feedback on that, but I thought the overall story was sound and the concept intriguing.
I'm pretty sure you didn't -- in fact my memory is that you gave some really helpful points re the aniconism issue in particular, and threads for that Italian one were put up years ago, so I'd be surprised if it still rang any kind of bells for anyone here! The Breton was was much more recent, but I only put up a couple of extracts of that.
Hokay. So having written on this thread, my mind ran on on the premise for bits of today. Have come back to it and find that some of what I was going to say is probably superseded - but going to say it anyway. :) Here it is, some thoughts which if all used at once would be contradictory. :) I think your concept is a great idea, which has sparked a whole range of "what ifs" in my head.

Without you explaining the whole Druid Vestal Virgin thing first, I think the opening would have been super cryptic.

Druid Vestal Virgin order - money. Monastic orders and Oxbridge Colleges have been given land and houses and money down the centuries - so they finished up as major landowners. Did the same happen to the order? If yes, how did they hang onto it all through Henry VIII land grab. (No reason they couldn't just how.) Also if yes, do they have large estates, or small packets all over the place. If they are a major landowner, then they will be respected anyway, whether or not people believe in them.

How did the Catholic Church react to them? Did it try for a sort of cult of the Virgin Mary approach and try to co-opt them and fail? (I was going to say "what about witchcraft" - but I think Toby sorted that one :) )

As Toby said about power - and how that would impact on how the people are treated. One of the cool things on alternative histories is how changing one relatively small thing could have massive knock on effects. (I would also note that in the Medieval period, some Abbesses were pretty powerful people - general impression, don't have a reference.)

Also regarding power, a note on reading Georgette Heyer (who did a lot of research on the world behind her books) - at one point a character is given advice to the effect that if a young lady is an heiress, then any oddities in her manners will be seen as charming originality, but as she is not an heiress, then she needs to be more careful in her behaviour.

If RoseOak is high in the order, what are her motivations? Has she been groomed/chosen for power? Is she trying to protect her order? How does she protect it? Scare the pants off people with its power, or be just a little bit different but only a fraction and otherwise seem normal? So while the fan stuff is cool, why would she do it? And why do something covert or is she just indulging in a petty snit?

I had thoughts on how to introduce the power of the order at the start of the book. Rather than start with RoseOak in the room, have her travelling to the Admiral's house in a carriage and six. On toll roads there were toll gates which had to be paid, but the Royal Mail would blast on its horn and the gates be flung open. So does her order have the same privilege but its own special horn note? It would make them pretty important - could argue something about druids having access without let and hindrance to the breadth of the land, so legally they couldn't be stopped by a gate, hence it is opened.
She could be sitting in the carriage (swaying around) vaguely noticing that sort of background stuff, while thinking about the letter the Admiral wrote to get her to go there, how she normally wouldn't do it, but he was so genuine and respectful - and it was nice he sent a whacking big bankers draft to pay for regular changes of post horses so her trip would be as short as possible to minimise the interruption to her.
She arrives at his house and finds he has invited everyone - maybe he comes out to welcome her and says he wanted everyone to see so they could be encouraged to support the old faith.
She thinks "oh b***er, I wouldn't have come if I'd known it would be wall to wall t***ers"

Complexions in the period - you have a lot of red faces. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot's snooty father doesn't like the Admiral who rents his house, because any man who goes to sea has his complexion ruined. Also, see what academics reckon Mr Darcy would have really looked like - Academics reveal what Mr Darcy would have looked like... and it's not what you think

Role of women - seriously recommend you dip into
Earlier than your century, but it makes the point that modern thinking is seeing the pre-Victorian and pre-Industrial revolution period through a distorting lens of the Victorian period and it was not more repressive to women than the Victorian period but a lot less. Explains the economics of it and is based on evidence from landowners letters between husband and wife about estate management, and guild records of the trading classes.

Regarding racism and what could be achieved - I remembered commentary on Porthos in the recent TV production being played as mixed race - and here is one of the articles - including that Dumas father's mother was West Indian - and he rose to be a general in the revolutionary army, at least for a while.
The role of race in the life and literature of Alexandre Dumas: The
Mention of a biography of Dumas senior in there which might be useful.

Something else that might be grist for the mill on London behaviour (rather than provincial) - Regency rather than Georgian, but they were a lot racier in London than might be expected
Regency History: Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806)
and the letters between the Lennox sisters
Not read it myself, just saw the TV series based on it.
Btw, just a thought - a taste of the first section would be fine, with the second section moving it forward to the death. That way we'd appreciate the context, while still having a sense of the story moving forward.

Alternatively, you could save something of the first section until later - that may make better sense technically. Yet aesthetically the contrast when using both at the beginning is startling and memorable, and provides a real sense of promise.

Thanks, both, for the further thoughts.

Montero, you've clearly spent a lot of time and effort on your post, for which I can only thank you for your kindness, though I feel very guilty that you've taken so much trouble over it. I really wouldn't want anyone else to be put to so much work checking out things I'm already aware of, though, so just to confirm I'm not coming cold to the Georgian period since it's been an interest of mine for years, I've done specific research on certain matters already and I'd obviously do more as required if I took this forward, and though it's not going to feature much, if at all, on the page, I have largely worked out the backstory/history of the Vestal-Druid union and the Collegium's travails and fluctuating fortunes over the centuries.

Thanks again, everyone, for the help/ideas/advice/comments. All much appreciated.
@The Judge - you're welcome. I'm having fun.

I was just writing this when you posted your above post -
Further thoughts on my riff of arriving by carriage as the opening:

1. She should be travelling with a servant - not just for respectability but for a back-up useful for the period. (In story terms they could be a Mrs Hudson, or a Bunter.....)
2. On arrival, if travelled any distance, she could reasonably expect to have a recovery period - as in arrives late afternoon, big event the next day. That would give you a scene in which she has dinner with the Admiral and the other character, they are all being pleasant, what is going to happen can be discussed, bits more about the VV order, the reader can get to know the Admiral a bit - so they can regret him being killed. It gives RoseOak a chance to be pleasant - or at least not stressed - before the stress starts the next day. Space to build in a bit more of the world.

Other thoughts
Is RoseOak typical of her order or atypical? Is she a maverick who likes investigating stuff and travels a lot, or part of the hierarchy and is more controlled?

In terms of polite female behaviour, just watched Kew's Forgotten Queen - BBC Four - Kew's Forgotten Queen about plant artist Marianne North. She had money, she had an obsession - painting plants. There was a description of her from a hostess abroad (forgotten which country) but Marianne basically walked in the door and rather than wanting to sit down, or respect the siesta was "right, where's the xxx?"
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Not knowing anything about the magic::
Is it possible for it to be a double edge thing, meaning could it be used both destructively and as a means to control her temper.
I was thinking that if you dripped in references while she tries to use each different type to calm her after the insults and work your way to the oak which then cases a rattle as she loses control--so to speak and then have her move on until the 'hornet' shows and she's onto the pine and once again slips--or perhaps allows it to slip on purpose.

Just a thought. however again I don't know the nature of the magic here and it might all be destructive.
Thanks again, Montero, but the carriage idea wouldn't work in the circumstances of her being ordered to come here, and I've already got the servant angle fully covered, thanks.

An interesting thought, tinkerdan, and she will in fact use living trees to calm herself at some point, but the wood in the room can only respond to her energy, it won't replenish it in the same way. Thanks for the suggestion, though.
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