Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Rules for Writing "Feminist Re-Imagings & Re-Imaginings" Historical Novels

I hope you’re still paying attention because these Rules, by novelist India Edghill, originally published in the Historical Novel Society’s magazine Solander, are absolutely indispensable if you want to get ahead as a feminist historical novelist.

by India Edghill

1. All heroines are goddess-worshippers. If necessary (i.e., they are the daughter of the Jewish High Priest of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem), they are secret goddess-worshippers.

2. To be Politically Correct and not Offend Anyone, all gods are one god and all goddesses are one goddess. This means you don’t need to research their actual names or attributes, which is a real time-saver. Just remember that the deity the heroine worships is called simply “The Goddess”. To remain PC, from time to time try to remember that The Goddess has a Consort, The God (a deity who bears about the same vital relationship to The Goddess as Ken does to Barbie).
2a. In pre-Christianity historical novels, the goddess is properly called “the Great Mother”, even when the goddess actually worshipped has a perfectly good name, such as Isis, Asherah, or Inanna.
2b. In post-Christianity historical novels, Jesus is properly referred to as “the White Christ”, not to be confused with either the Lone Ranger or the Man from Glad. He may, however, be confused with the Goddess’s Consort.
2b.1. In which case, the Virgin Mary may, if you like, be confused with the Great Mother.

3. All goddess worshippers are pacifistic, politically-correct, and ecologically sound.
3a. All cultures that worship goddesses treat women well. All monotheistic cultures treat women badly. This holds true even though it requires ignoring such facts as sati in India (which has lots of goddesses) and female infanticide in pre-Islamic Arabia (which had lots of goddesses).
3b. All monotheistic cultures deny women any rights. This holds true even though it’s the Holy Qu’ran that grants women a half share in their father’s inheritance, rather than the zero share they got under the pan-Arabic pantheism that preceded Islam.

4. All monotheists are Bad
4a. Although they are pantheists, the Ancient Achaeans are Bad because they worship a Sky Father and drive out the Earth Mother.
4b. Although they are pantheists, Vikings are Bad because they worship an All-Father.
4b.l. Unless the book is a Viking romance, in which case I suppose the All-Father and the Great Mother can elope to Las Vegas for the weekend.

5. There are only two religions: The Old Religion and The New Religion. One of them is Good and one is Bad. Unfortunately, which is which varies according to time period.
5a. In Dark Ages fiction, Paganism is properly called The Old Religion, and is a Good Thing. It is opposed to Christianity, which is called the New Religion, and is a Bad Thing.
5a.1. This seriously confuses those of us who grew up reading historical novels set in the Tudor period, during which the Old Religion was Catholicism (a Bad Thing), and the New Religion was Protestantism (a Good Thing)
5a.2. But in novels about the English Civil War, the Cavaliers are Catholic and Good and the Roundheads are Protestant and Bad.
5b. In historical novels set in the 20th century, NeoPaganism is called the Old Religion, even though its name means “new Paganism” and you’d think it would be called the New Religion and Christianity would now be called the Old Religion. Well, it isn’t.

6. Whatever the Old Religion is, people practicing it are burned at the stake. This holds true even in countries where witches were hanged and only heretics were burned

7. Important Note: When referring to the “witch craze” period, remember it is A KNOWN FACT that nine million women were burned. Ignore modem serious research indicating that the number was more like 500,000 over a 300-year period. Ignore the trial records, if necessary. (In fact, it’s always best to ignore any facts that contradict the PC view on anything). In addition:
7 a. All those accused of being witches were women, because it’s all about male hatred of women, really. Again, ignore the trial records, if necessary (including all those defendants named named Henry, John, WaIter, and Philip).

8. Anyone accused of witchcraft actually is a follower of the Old Religion (whatever it is this book). They are never a devout Christian who is falsely accused.

9. All goddess-worshippers are expert herbalists and midwives.

10. All Christian priests are hypocritical bigots.
10a. Friars, however, may be sympathetic, if they’re not actually goddess-worshippers in disguise.
10b. Nuns may be unworldly nature-lovers or bitter bigots. Abbesses, however, are always narrow-minded.
10c. Abbesses are always sexually frustrated, cherishing an unholy passion for 1) the convent priest, or 2) the nubile new postulant, or 3) Jesus.

11. All goddess-worshippers enjoy their menstrual period as a time of womanly empowerment that proves their Oneness with Nature. No woman ever suffers cramps, migraines, nausea, bloating, or uncontrollable mood swings during her womanly “moon cycle”.

12. When the Bible is quoted to prove woman’s Subjugation to Man and her Inherent Vice, the quote will always be from the King James version, even though that translation dates from 1611 and your book is set in 1250.
12a. Whatever the book’s historical period, the patriarchal monotheistic villains will refer to Satan and the Devil, whether the concept’s been invented yet or not.

13. All lesbians are Good, because they prove the True Sisterhood of All Women. Unless the lesbian is an Abbess (see 10c above), when she’s merely Repressed and Embittered. There may or may not be a gay guy; if there is, he is the only Nice Man in the book. All heterosexual men beat their wives. Remember that:
13a. All goddess-worshippers are violently tolerant of all varieties of sexual behavior.
13b. All Christians are violently intolerant of any variety of sexual behavior.

14. No man in a feministly-reimaged historical novel ever does anything worthwhile.
14a. All worthwhile achievements were really done by goddess-worshipping women.
14b. If the man is an historical figure who is well-documented as having definitely done something, the idea was really given to the great man by a goddess-worshipping woman.
14b.1. Unless he stole the idea from a GWW.
14b.2. Unless the accomplishment is a new weapon. All weapons are invented by men.

15. No heroine in a feministly-reimaged historical novel ever does anything bad, because women are inherently gentle and nurturing, dedicated to peace, harmony, the Great Chain of Being, Oneness, and the Circle of Life.
15a. This is why you probably won’t see feministly-reimaged historical novels about
i. Catherine de Medici or

ii. The Empress Wu or
iii. Ranavalona of Madagascar
anytime soon.

India Edghill’s novels include Wisdom’s Daughter: A Novel of Solomon and Sheba, and Queenmaker: A Novel of King David's Queen.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Our England is a garden...

You'd expect a post with such a title* to have Kipling connections but really it's about Kent, which is known as the Garden of England for its bountiful hops and fruit orchards. In particular it's about this exquisite medieval manor house near Sevenoaks where we spent a happy day:

*first line of The Glory of the Garden

Ightham Mote

Ightham Mote (pronounced Item: I asked) has a long and complicated history, beginning in the mid-14th century. There are Tudor, Jacobean and Victorian additions and the furnished rooms reflect this, from the medieval and Tudor chapels (the latter having a unique barrel-vaulted ceiling with painted panels) to early 20th-century bedrooms and library. Oh, and a moat. And a Grade 1 listed half-timbered dog kennel which you can see in the courtyard in one of the photos above. It's owned by the National Trust which spent 15 years and £10 million restoring it and who also look after its estate of several hundred acres.

After looking round the house and delightful gardens, we took a three-mile walk around the estate woodlands and lanes. The first half of the walk regaled us with a Wordsworthian profusion of wild flowers, some of which I know, others I'm guessing at after squinting in my little pocket book of wild flowers. I'd love to hear from people who know more about wild flowers than I do! That's probably most people.


Lesser Celandine

Ransoms (Wild Garlic)

Germander Speedwell

Dog Violet

Wood Anemone

Yellow Pimpernel

Lady's Smock (Cuckoo Flower): thanks to Carla for identifying

Ground Ivy or Bugle?

Greater Stitchwort?

Yellow Archangel

Wood Spurge

Red Campion?

May Blossom

On the second half of the walk, the views over the Kentish Weald (below and the blog header) in beautiful spring sunshine were breathtaking. My camera scarcely does them justice):

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Rules for Writing Victorian-Set Historical Fiction

Here are the essential rules for this very popular genre, also known as “clog and shawl sagas”. The late Catherine Cookson was the undisputed queen, and there is no shortage of successors. These Rules originally appeared in Solander, The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, in December 2001.

by Sally Zigmond

1. There’s always trouble up factory/mill/mine (always referred to as t’factory, t’mill or t’pit).

2. Britain was a smaller place then. It consisted only of The Industrial North (Yorkshire, Manchester and South Shields) and London (West End, sleazy and rich; East End, sleazy and poor, but full of loveable rogues).

3. Rain falls for 360 days a year. On 4 days, the sun is shrouded in smoke, soot and grime or never seen as everyone toils day and night in the factory/mill/mine. Star-crossed lovers always spend one day out on’t moors in brilliant sunshine, make a baby, then return home in a violent thunderstorm, after which they are forcibly parted or dead.

4. The main characters are: rich and wicked factory/mill/mine owner; rich and wicked factory/mill/mine owner’s son; rich and virtuous factory/mill/mine owner’s son; poor and virtuous factory/mill/mine worker; rich and virtuous factory/mill/mine owner’s daughter; rich and wicked factory/mill/mine owner’s daughter; poor and virtuous daughter of factory/mill/mine worker (delete where not applicable).

5. The necessary love interest occurs when a male from list 4 falls in love with a female from list 4 (write names on cards and throw in the air). This inevitably leads to 3 or 1 or both.

6. One of the men is a Luddite. Another believes in progress. They are probably brothers (either rich or poor, but both virtuous). They are at odds until the penultimate chapter when one saves the other’s life (see 1 and 10).

7. The wife of the factory/mill/mine owner is an invalid. The virtuous factory/mill/mine worker is a widower and his daughter is dying of consumption. Only the virtuous contract consumption. The wicked enjoy robust health.

8. The wicked factory/mill/mine owner always cuts wages or lays workers off to pay his or his son’s gambling debts or his daughter’s dressmaker (see 1). Or the virtuous factory/mill owner may be forced to cut wages or lay off workers to pay his wife’s medical bills. His guilty conscience leads him to drink or death (see 1 and 7).

9. There is always a strike at the factory/mill/mine and the wrong (virtuous) man is always accused of being the ring-leader and is thrown in gaol where he dies or is saved by his enemy (see 1 and 6).

10. All factories/mills/mines have leaking roofs, lethal machinery and dangerous chemicals. They always blow up or burn down in the penultimate chapter (see 1).

Chasing Angels

Sally Zigmond has written Chasing Angels, a fictionalised account of the life of Henriette d’Angeville, who was the first woman to personally organise a successful ascent of Mont Blanc in 1838. (A woman did get to the top thirty years earlier but she was basically carried and pushed up half unconscious as a publicity stunt.) It was published by Biscuit Publishing in 2006. Her next novel will be published in 2009.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Book Review: Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light

Nellie Boxall came to work as a live-in servant to Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1918 and stayed until 1934. During those 18 years, a running battle was fought between mistress and servant

for control and for mutual understanding…Virginia wrote obsessively about Nellie in her letters and diaries; she felt sick after their arguments, furious, guilty, bewildered and disgusted by it all; sometimes she anxiously sought to appease Nellie, sometimes she burst out violently and defensively.

Fascinated by the ferocity of the feelings involved, Alison Light took this fraught relationship as her starting point for Mrs Woolf and the Servants,

a story about mutual – and unequal – dependence but…also about social differences, about class feelings and attitudes…I wanted to know much Nellie and Virginia’s story was special to them and how much it was an inevitable product of the servant relationship.

This led her back from the 1930s to the 1880s when Virginia and Vanessa Stephen were growing up in an upper middle class Victorian home with a regiment of servants to tend to their every need. The servants were mainly country women who “went into service” at twelve or fourteen because changes in the rural economy left them without work in their home villages. One such was Sophia Farrell, who remained in the Stephen family’s employ most of her life, first as cook-housekeeper to Virginia’s parents, then to members of the younger generation when they set up their own households in the 1900s.

But by the time Nellie Boxall came to work for the Woolfs, society was changing. The line that separated mistress and servant was beginning to erode: the seemingly inexhaustible supply of servants was drying up and social deference was not what it was. Alison Light uncovers the hidden life stories of those who served the households of Virginia and her siblings and uses them to show why and how the master-servant relationship changed and what it cost the people involved. As well as Sophia Farrell, loyal and deferential, and the volatile Nellie, we also meet the garrulous, giggly Lottie Hope, brought up in one of the homes founded by the now little-known Edith Sichel to train orphans as domestic servants, Grace Germany, “the Angel of Charleston” the oft-unsung mainstay of the bohemian household of Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa, and the capable, cheerful local Sussex girl Louie Everest who “did” for the Woolfs for many years.

But this is more than a fascinating study in social history. It also offers illuminating insights into the influence of the servants on the lives of the Bloomsbury set, and especially on the inner life and the writings of Virginia Woolf. As adults, Virginia and Vanessa saw themselves as liberated from the servant-dependent constraints of Victorian society but they still needed servants, however “difficult” they might be, to do the domestic chores that allowed them the time and freedom to pursue their artistic lives. Yet servants, no longer living in separate quarters behind the proverbial green baize door, intruded into the privacy of their employers – heard, for example, in the creaking floorboards and through the thin walls of Monk’s House, the Woolfs’ country home. Alison Light imagines Mrs Woolf thinking,

One would never really have a room of one’s own whilst they were in and out. And what if one’s housemaids were not so different after all in their dreams and desires? What if they had souls like one’s own?

Light shows us other paradoxes too: as a member of the Labour Party, Virginia subscribed to notions of equality, but she could never rid herself of inherited class snobbery; and the Bloomsberries and their friends never completely shed their dependence on “the servants”. Although Virginia eventually became a competent cook after Nellie Boxall was finally sacked and replaced by a “daily”, we may smile when Light tells us that

Lytton Strachey’s sisters couldn’t boil an egg and had to wait on the servant’s day off for one of their younger relatives to come in and light the stove before they could put a kettle on.

As for Virginia Woolf’s writing, the servants, despite their ignorance and their interruptions, were often her window on the world. She frequently jotted down their tales and gossip as potential copy for her fiction and essays, “the chinks of light glimpsed through the thick hedges of class feeling which boxed her in.” And they were sometimes in her thoughts on the nature of self in relation to others. She even included a lavatory attendant’s viewpoint (based on an overheard conversation) in a short story, though she dropped it from the final draft.

Written with clarity, vigour and sympathy, Mrs Woolf and the Servants is a gem of social history writing which also gives us the opportunity of seeing the Bloomsbury set in general, and Virginia Woolf in particular, from a new and sometimes surprising angle.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Book Review: Daphne by Justine Picardie

A novel about Daphne du Maurier and the Brontë sisters? Sounds like the perfect book to curl up with on the sofa for an intriguing evening or two. And so it proved - with one or two reservations.

In 1957, Daphne du Maurier is a best-selling novelist living in her beloved Cornish hideaway. But as the story opens she discovers that her husband, a war hero and now treasurer to the Duke of Edinburgh, is having an affair. He's also having a nervous breakdown, which is why he's in a London nursing home. Daphne, who's had a few affairs herself, decides to make the best of things and to take her mind off it all, she embarks on research for a book she's had in mind for a while: a biography of that sad and neglected Brontë, Branwell, who died of drink and drugs, a failure in the shadow of his sisters.

Daphne's investigations bring her into epistolary contact with J. A. Symington, a scholar employed by the Brontë Society until he was booted out under suspicion of having stolen some original documents. This much is fact, and the resulting biography, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, was published in 1960. Most of Daphne happens in the (presumably made-up) letters Daphne exchanges with the embittered Symington, and in the private thoughts each has about the circumstances of their own lives. It's a tale of literary sleuthing (was Branwell the real author of some of Emily's poems and perhaps even of Wuthering Heights? What happened to Emily's handwritten notebook of her poems?), interwoven with ruminations on the past (Daphne's troubled relationship with her difficult, possessive father; Symington's fraught dealings with fellow-Brontë scholars).

There's also a parallel strand set in the present day: a young Cambridge graduate is doing a PhD on Daphne du Maurier and the Brontës. She, too, has a troubled past (her childhood) and an unhappy present, having recently married a much older academic divorced from a clever and beautiful wife, who haunts both him and his rather mousy new spouse.

The Daphne and Symington parts work very well, showing a mastery of pace and tension almost worthy of du Maurier herself. But the modern strand seems leaden and superfluous, the girl irritatingly wimpy and whiny and the parallels with Rebecca too clunkingly obvious to mean anything.

But the real fly in the ointment for me was the author's persistent habit of running sentences together with commas instead of separating them with full stops or even semi-colons. This happened once or twice on almost every page. Call me a pedant, but I found it annoyingly distracting: it interrupted the flow of the narrative and in some cases I had to re-read to get the sense. Aaargh.

On the other hand, the dust-jacket is a dream. That woodcut is so evocative of the 1950s. And I love the way Bloomsbury has provided not only head- and tail-bands on the spine of this book, but also a woven-in silk(y) bookmark. Bloomsbury seems to do this with many of its books and I wish other publishers would follow suit. Books are beautiful things and elegant touches like these make them a pleasure to handle as well as to read.