fbook icon 60The Victorian Art of Scrapbooking


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Paper scraps have always fascinated me – not the kind you throw into the recycle bin, but the little decorative cut-outs I was fond of collecting and swapping with my friends when I was a child. We used to call them ‘swaps’. They came in sheets of embossed images joined by paper tabs. As far as I can recall, we didn't glue them into books - we just kept them in tins, ready to be traded with our school mates. 

JNorris Scrapbook 37The word ‘scrapbook’ dates back to the Victorian era when it was considered a genteel pastime for ladies to collect ‘scraps’ and paste them into blank books, together with such items as greeting cards, advertising ephemera and pictures cut from calendars, magazines and leaflets.

JNorris Scrapbook 45I’m privileged to have been able to borrow a scrapbook dating back to the 1890s, which belongs to my friend and has been passed down from one generation of her family to the next. Not surprisingly considering its age, the book isn’t in the best shape – its embossed linen and cardboard cover is hanging by a thread and there’s foxing on the pages. But the pictures themselves are in excellent condition. Today we photographed all the pages so that, even if the book eventually falls to pieces, there will always be a digital version.

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Scrapbooks play a part in my forthcoming novel, THE JADE WIDOW (September 2013). Suffice it to say that the making of a scrapbook provides comfort for a mother, whose son has gone off to war and a young woman longing for his return.

Here are some more images from my friend’s treasured scrapbook.

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Many thanks to Jan for lending me her family heirloom and to my husband for photographing the scrapbook.

Deborah O’Brien

April 20, 2013

In Search of the Emporium


On a recent trip to Beechworth and Myrtleford, we passed through the delightful little town of Yackandandah. Like my fictional Millbrooke, it boasts a lively Gold Rush past. I even found a building which could easily pass for Mr Chen’s Emporium. The signage says ‘Café’, but it’s now serving as the hairdressing salon. Here it is. What do you think?

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MCE b emporium 480w


Deborah O’Brien

April, 2013

fbook icon 60Elegant Architecture

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Ever since I was a very little girl, I’ve loved beautiful old houses. The very first one I fell in love with was my grandparent’s Victorian ‘boom-time’ villa in Ashfield. When they bought it, the place was in a bad way – rising damp, dry rot, peeling paint. My grandfather, a builder and carpenter, set to work on the renovations. Afterwards my grandmother, a dressmaker and milliner, decorated the interior with great flair.

The front façade was perfectly symmetrical with a tesselated tile verandah and iron lace. Inside, there were Italian marble fireplaces and twelve-foot ceilings. Sadly, the house was demolished in the Seventies to make way for a block of home units. Those units have, in turn, met the same fate, only to be replaced by a newer, flashier apartment building.

But I’m digressing. The real purpose of this article is to tell you about a very special house, which has not only managed to escape demolition but has also been restored to its former glory. When I was a child living in southern Sydney, the highlight of any trip to the city was catching a glimpse of an elegant Georgian villa on the banks of the Cooks River near Tempe. Not that you could see much of the house behind a dense screen of trees and shrubbery. All the same, I used to dream of seeing inside it one day.

Well, today the dream has become reality! There was an open day at Tempe House as part of Heritage Week. I missed last year’s because I was in the country, so I couldn't let this chance pass me by.

The house was designed by one of my favourite nineteenth century architects, John Verge, famous for the stunning Elizabeth Bay House and Tusculum. Although the Tempe House site is partly flanked by apartment buildings, the grounds remain largely intact, with vast lawns facing the water, as well as manicured gardens on either side, and it’s easy to imagine how it would have looked in its heyday.  

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Classical design has always been my preference – I suppose it’s because I’m a Libran, drawn to balance and symmetry. Tempe House is a perfect example of neo-classical architecture, gently understated yet meticulously detailed. Though it’s not a huge house, its rooms are spacious. If I could choose one feature I particularly liked, it would have to be the vaulted arch in the hallway with its cedar-framed fanlight.

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This weekend, the walls were specially hung with etchings and paintings by renowned Australian artist, Pamela Griffith. I’ve been an admirer of her work for years. Her evocations of Australian landscapes, flora and fauna are breathtaking.

Next to the house is St Magdalen’s Chapel with its exquisite stained glass windows. You can see some of the windows here.

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Deborah O’Brien

April 14, 2013


fbook icon 60A Country Sunday

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There’s nothing better than waking up on a crisp country morning to the distant pealing of church bells and a view of green hillsides dotted with newly shorn sheep. This past week we’ve had almost 100mm of rain, just under a sixth of our annual rainfall and the paddocks look as though they’ve been painted in Chrome Green Light. (As an artist who writes - or a writer, who happens to paint - I tend to see the world in terms of paint colours!)

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Here’s a picture of my morning view, complete with Monterey pines on the left. A kookaburra sometimes takes up position on one of the dead pine branches, where he scans the ground for movement. Whenever he spots a plump worm emerging from its hole, he swoops on his prey with alarming speed. Then he returns to his perch, awaiting further breakfast treats.

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At the bottom of the garden a slow-moving creek is home to our platypus. I use the word ‘our’ loosely because a platypus is the most independent of creatures, living its own life, except, of course, at mating time. In the mornings the platypus will most likely be found in the deepest parts of the creek, diving for yabbies and worms. Because the creature has extremely poor eyesight, it uses its bill to detect movement by way of electric impulses. A kind of platypus’s Morse code. I wonder what delicacies it’s foraged for breakfast today.

Speaking of breakfast ... I’m off to town now to have mushrooms on polenta with shaved parmesan and a cup of Lady Grey tea.

Deborah O’Brien

Sunday, March 3, 2013



fbook icon 60Adverbs and Chocolate

 Welcome to LINDT's Secrets of Chocolate

Image: Lindt Chocolate 

I have a confession to make. Just as I yearn to finish a box of Lindt chocolates in a single sitting, I'm also tempted to sprinkle my prose with adverbs. I can trace this tendency back to primary school days when we were encouraged to drop adverbs into our sentences in the same way you might add a generous handful of chocolate chips to a biscuit mix.  If you wanted a high mark for your story, you soon learned that lean, spare prose wasn't good enough. You had to produce a lavish confection loaded with modifiers.

Some years later, I read Stephen King’s wonderful book, On Writing and discovered I'd been committing a terrible sin.

This is what Mr King had to say:

‘… the road to hell is paved with adverbs.’

He was right, of course. And in my case, he might equally have said: ‘The road to hell is paved with chocolates’.

After that, I followed Mr King's advice and established some rules for myself: verbs and nouns are okay but exercise caution with adjectives, and extreme caution with adverbs. And ration yourself to two squares of dark chocolate per day.

Recently I’ve been writing an historical novel set in the Victorian era. It's a time period which allows me to indulge my secret passion for adverbs. You see, unlike the literati of the modern world, the Victorians loved them. In fact, you would rarely find an adjective or a verb without a modifier accompanying it.  ‘Dreadfully’, ‘exceedingly’, ‘awfully’ were favourites. The Victorians combined them with positive words: dreadfully nice, exceedingly handsome, awfully good to intensify the meaning of the adjective.

But before I proceed any further, let me dispel a myth. Not all adverbs end in ‘–ly’. In fact, some of the most useful ones don’t look like adverbs at all:

sometimes, often, seldom, never, ever, always, soon, already, seldom, now, nowadays, today, tomorrow, yesterday, then, …

perhaps, maybe, also, almost, only, just, quite, very, too, …

everywhere, nowhere, anywhere, elsewhere, backwards, forwards, …

And that’s just for starters.

So here's the thing. When people offer warnings about adverbs, are they just referring to the ‘-ly’ variety or to all of them? And if certain types of chocolate have a higher fat content than others, is it the same with adverbs?  Are the  ‘–ly’ variety more sinful than those I listed above? I really don’t know the answer. Perhaps someone can tell me ...

P.S. If I missed out on highlighting any adverbs, please let me know! 

Deborah O’Brien

February 22, 2013 


fbook icon 60Introducing THE JADE WIDOW

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There’s always a lot of nail-biting after a writer finishes a new manuscript and sends it off to the publisher. Is it as good as the last one? Is the beginning strong enough? Does the ending work? And should I have checked it just one more time before pressing the ‘Send’ button? When you receive word that your publisher likes it, the relief is palpable.

   Then the revision and checking processes begin. This time I decided to do chapter summaries and a timeline – not from the outset, but after I completed the first draft. For someone who doesn't plan her books beyond an initial premise and a few guideposts, it was like having root canal. (I’ve never actually undergone that particular dental procedure, but the words alone terrify me.) Nevertheless, the summaries and chronology were worth the pain, not to mention the tedium, because they revealed inconsistencies and errors which are best eliminated early.

As a Libran, I love balance. So I’ve structured the book in the same way that I arrange things on a mantel – symmetrically. My story starts in November, 1886 and then goes back to February of 1885, a tumultuous month in the history of New South Wales. From there the novel works itself forward to the end of the following year. Events come full circle … or do they?

THE JADE WIDOW is a sequel to MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM, picking up Amy Duncan's life when she’s thirty, but it’s also a stand-alone novel. I'm hoping new readers will enjoy meeting the Chen and Miller families, while those who've read MR CHEN will take pleasure in revisiting some of the characters they got to know previously in the historical thread of that novel. Eliza Miller, who seems to be a favourite with readers, plays a big part in this book. 

You'll also meet some intriguing newcomers, including a couple of rather engaging gentlemen. I have to confess that I fell in love with one of them in the process of writing him. Yes, I realise it was a very silly thing for a writer to do, but I’m afraid I couldn’t help myself. (I’ve done it before – with Charles Chen – so I really should have known better!)

THE JADE WIDOW will be released in the second half of the year.

Deborah O’Brien

January 28, 2013


fbook icon 60The Colour Lilac


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I’ve always associated the colour black with mourning. Black arm-bands, high-necked black dresses, black veils, jet jewellery. Recently I've been researching mourning practices during the Victorian era for my book, The Jade Widow. What I've learned is that there was a convention known as ‘half-mourning’, which allowed the grieving widow to wear lilac after the first year or two had passed.

For those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, you will know there is no such thing as grieving by halves. Not in an emotional sense. Nor can anyone set a timeline on the grieving process and expect a person who has been bereaved to follow it. ‘Grief has its own timetable,’ as one of the characters in my book says. ‘You can’t expect it to depart at a set time like a steam-engine.’

All the same, I'm drawn to the idea of lilac as a transition from sombre black and greytones to lighter, brighter hues, reflecting the journey from darkest grief towards hope and renewal.

But why lilac rather than any other colour? Well, it seems that lilac bushes have been a symbol of love and loss since ancient times. Whether this special significance derives from the flowers themselves or the lingering fragrance or even the heart-shaped leaves, I don't know. 

As for the sudden popularity of the colour lilac in the mid-1800s, there’s a very practical reason. Until that time, the colour had been extracted from mallow plants or from the glands of mollusks. Both processes would have been labour-intensive and expensive. No wonder purple was the colour reserved for royalty! Can you imagine how many mollusks would have been sacrificed to make a single vial of lilac dye? I don’t even want to think about it!

In the spring of 1856 everything changed when eighteen-year-old London student, Jade Widow Statue02William Perkin undertook a chemistry experiment which produced a lilac-coloured residue. Realising its potential as a synthetic dye, he dubbed it ‘mauveine’ and applied for a patent. In 1862, the year after Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria was seen wearing lilac – or mauve, as it came to be known - to the Royal Exhibition. And suddenly it became the hue du jour.

The colour lilac plays a symbolic role in my novel-in-progress, 'The Jade Widow' (September 2013), which is set in 1880s' Australia. But I had better not go into the details for fear of giving too much away. Suffice it to say that the widow in question is so reluctant to replace her black clothes with something less sombre that her friends have dubbed her ‘the black widow’.

Will she remain the grieving widow forever or will she embrace life again? I'm afraid you’ll have to wait and see! 

Special thanks to my friend Jan N. who first alerted me to the significance of the colour lilac in Victorian times.

Photo taken by my husband this summer before the heatwave - it's a buddleia not a lilac.

Deborah O’Brien

January, 2013


fbook icon 60Christmas


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Christmas is a very special time at our house. This morning my husband took some pictures of our Christmas tree decorated with the ornaments friends and family have given me over the years. Each one tells a story and reminds me of the giver. Some of them are handmade - exquisite little pieces of cross-stitch, folk art, beadwork and every kind of art and craft. But my favourite remains the clothes-peg reindeer my son made in kindergarten.

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Over the years a dear friend of mine, who lives in the country, has given me the most beautiful painted Santas, as well as quilted and embroidered wall hangings. Isn't the Santa gourd wonderful?

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My garden looks like Christmas too - the gardenias and hydrangeas are in bloom. Everyone asks me how I manage to grow such large gardenia flowers  - I really don't know. I have an entire hedge of them, but only one bush produces big blooms.  Maybe I'm just lucky.

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Wishing you a joyful Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year!


Deborah O'Brien

December 1, 2012 


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