The Roaring Girls – some thoughts on women in historical fiction

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Aphra Behn, sketch from a lost portrait 

Isn’t it reassuring to know that all those heroines of historical fiction, who found that they just weren’t maternal, or meek, or submissive enough – that they identified themselves more strongly as masculine, that they cut their hair, or wore breeches, or climbed trees – they were all sweet, frilly girlies, really: because with the right man, you can get better! 

Five hundred years ago – three hundred, two hundred years ago – women weren’t allowed to identify with masculine gender stereotypes. We conformed, to the Gospel according to St Paul; we learned in all subjection, we were respectful, we covered our hair and our bodies as we were taught, or we paid the price of social ostracism.

You know the old chestnut of the girl who dresses as a boy to follow her soldier lover to war and bring him home safe? Don’t get many of them in the 17th century. In fact, there are very few examples of a woman who enlists as a soldier during the English Civil Wars – maybe that’s because women were following the drum anyway, in the guise of camp followers, or maybe it’s because until the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 no one was looking, or maybe it’s because many 17th century women were more than capable of fighting the good fight in skirts, viz. Lady Derby, Brilliana Harley, Elizabeth Lilburne, I’ll stop now but I could keep going all night. The 17th century highwaywoman Moll Frith lived and dressed as a woman – as attested by her nickname, Cutpurse Moll – and anecdote reports that at one point she robbed Thomas Fairfax, shot him in the arm and killed two of his horses. Which must have pleased him no end…s

(An aside: Dr Mark Stoyle has done some recent fascinating work into the female soldier of the civil war period, covered in a recent Guardian article)

But it’s not really till the 18th century that we start to see the “mannish” woman appear – Kit Ross, who followed her man into Marlborough’s Army and then decided that she quite liked the Army life and lived as a soldier for the better part of ten years, serving in two different units undiscovered; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, that pair of unglamorous pirate captains, who were as fierce and merciless as any of their masculine counterparts – what’s interesting is that most of the 18th century women who disguised themselves as men disguised themselves successfully, and lived within close male communities undiscovered – or undeclared – for long periods, but that they also were considered as equals of their male counterparts. Kit Ross was officially pensioned off, despite the discovery of her gender; Anne Bonney and Mary Read were sentenced to an equal punishment to their male counterpart, Calico Jack Rackham.

So, you know, there are hundreds of years of history of women living successfully as men, competing with men, existing forcefully in a male-dominated society. Succeeding, on their own terms, against men. (If piracy is your thing, obviously.) Being acknowledged as comrades and peers, by men. Women in Restoration England were running their own businesses, their own coffee-shops, although they weren’t permitting female customers in those hotbeds of political discourse and dissent. Women in 1649 were presenting petitions to Parliament saying…”Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?”

And now, four hundred years later, we’re still seeing this denied in mainstream historical fiction.
The tomboyish heroine, that old romantic favourite, who’s not satisfied by a life of conventionally girlish pleasures, and who finds freedom and self-expression as an equal in masculine company – she changes, of course, when she meets the right man. (He “makes” her a woman, as often as not. *shudders*)

All those strong women, who lived and worked and loved as women in their own right, who ran businesses and ships and companies of soldiers in their own right – they just needed a man, to make them want to give up their independence and be hobbled by skirts again?
Seriously?

I was talking to Kim Wright from the arts programme Art2Art on Swindon 105.5 FM a while ago (just thought I’d drop that one right there, me on the radio, not swearing, not once. Hardly. Much. At all) – he had the idea that this sudden gender conventionality in fiction was a reaction against women’s freedoms in World War 2, where women were suddenly doing men’s work, men’s equals, threatening established masculine domains, and the womenfolk had to be groomed a little into getting back into their boxes after the war. And, you know, perhaps the reason for the popularity of that aggressively masculine, Chandleresque stuff was that a lot of women were comfortable within those boxes, too.

And that’s fine, if that’s what works for you, but it’s not right for everyone. We’re still promoting the idea of binary genders – of girlie girls and butch men – and pushing the myth that if you are not a pink princess, or a brave hero, you can’t have romance, you can’t have adventure, you can’t be successful. That to be atypical, in fiction, makes a character a curio, a freakshow. There was a Paul Verhoeven film called “Flesh + Blood” in which Rutger Hauer’s mercenary band contained, amongst others, two sniggering and not always very kind best mates, who were rough and tough, who always had each other’s backs, who were a pair of loutish young gentlemen always spoiling for a fight.
At the end of the film one of them is killed and you realise, by the response of the other, that these two testosterone-fuelled hooligans were a deeply loving and long-established couple.
And it’s not relevant to the plot, it’s just a throwaway scene where actually, these two brawling roughs are seen to have a capacity for deep emotion – but it’s two men who are in love with each other.

Does that matter? Yes. They’re a pair of aggressive street bravos who’ve systematically gone through life as their own two-person gang, and now all of a sudden one of them is alone, and we see a vulnerable, frightened side to him.
Does it matter that it’s two men? No. Or it shouldn’t. As Het Babbitt points out to Hapless Russell in “A Wilderness of Sin”, “There is, in my opinion, an insufficiency of people loving each other in this world, dear. As if it were something to be ashamed of.”

Takes all sorts to make a world, as they say in Lancashire, but if you’re going to write, the world is at your fingertips. Women, and men, in history fought hard to live outside convention, knowing they faced exposure, ridicule, social ostracism, even death, for disclosing themselves. And they still do, we have not yet come so far.

We owe it to readers to write those men and women back into historical fiction, not as plaster saints or  wayward sinners, but as real, rounded human beings. Just lke us.

Living In A Goldfish Bowl – what I love & hate about the internet

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As an author I’m expected to be all over social media and in a very real sense I mostly am: in a, literally, social capacity.

But I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late.
I prefer to deal with the real stuff – paying bills, meeting friends, shopping – in real life: going into a shop, engaging with a human being. The rest is a tool to facilitate that. It’s great having friends in lovely places like Turin and Malmo, but surely the idea in the end is that you meet in real life, rather than by private message?

I’m having a splendid set-to with an energy supplier currently, who really struggled with the idea that my name is not Ms T. Occupier but couldn’t respond to a physical letter in the post accompanying payments, requesting that it was changed. The idea of pen to paper blew their little minds. As a result of that, we couldn’t set up an online account and we couldn’t change our tariff from “Standard Overpaid” to “Online Cheap”. For twelve months.
Now, surely using the internet for paying your bills is a matter of choice: if it’s convenient, then yay. And if you don’t want to, it’s not obligatory…surely? Being penalised for preferring to engage with other human beings is disturbing.

It was a funny thing – I refuse to have a mobile phone, which some people find both unbelievable and inconvenient, but I actually don’t. And when I leave my iPad in my desk drawer – which I do, from time to time, quite deliberately – I am physically more productive. I bake more, clean more, play more. Read more books. Engage with more real people.
Some time ago I made a conscious decision to stop reading a certain kind of book, because it was making me unhappy. The worldview that genre presented was of a horrible, dark place, full of criminals and perverts and the occasional violent vigilante. It didn’t make me feel thankful that I didn’t live in that world: it made me identify with those characters, made me feel suspicious and aggressive. I feel like that a lot of the time on social media – she’s prettier than me, they’re having more fun than me, the world is a dark and dreadful place full of horrible people who just want to hurt each other.

It’s not. The media tells us these things because it makes us click through. We know that, in reality – it just doesn’t feel like it. And it’s not a matter of being Pollyanna – although, in my case it sort of is, because I think Pollyanna had a bloody good point: you cannot live at that pitch of fear and hatred, all the time. It messes with your head.
The internet’s very good at making people think and feel, but not so great at making people do. (Like the old somewhat counterproductive TV programme of the 1980s – Why Don’t You…. turn off your TV and go off and do something less boring instead? Because if you did the internet would be somewhat bollixed…) All that anger and fear and desire and anxiety, flicking our switches flick flick flick for as long as we’re glued to its screen. All that adrenalin – all those heightened emotions, all that arousal – where does it go? what do people do with it, when what they see and read puts them in that fight or flight by proxy situation?
Nothing, is what. There is nothing to respond to: no enemy to fight but pixels, and we’re left unsatisfied, a case of electronic coitus interruptus. Signing a petition after you’ve just been moved to tears – of fury or of pain – doesn’t release those emotions, it leaves you moving on still feeling angry or hurt.

It’s a lovely place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there…..

 

 

Lucky Readers! – a review of Patricia Finney’s Lucky Woman

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Oh, how I loved this book.

It is, in its odd, unromantic way, a love story: and yet it’s a wonderful, unusual love story between ordinary people involved in extraordinary things.

I often find with romantic fiction that we’re expected to empathise with our aspirational heroines: they’re the women we would be, or should be, if we could. I did not identify with Anna, not for one word of it: I did not read this book seeing the world through her eyes, and living her vicarious experiences.
– For which, I might add, I am profoundly grateful.
Nor did I fancy Tattoo in the least bit, although I was pretty sure that other people saw his appeal.

No, better than that. It was like sitting down with an old friend over a coffee while you catch up after a couple of years: I wanted to say “oh Anna you didn’t!” and “dump that shiftless goit!” and “well, I’ve been telling you that for years!”. With a bit of “oh pur-LEASE!!! Him? Seriously??” and “what, on the carpet? eep!”

It’s a bit of a Cinderella story – if Cinderella had been a middle-aged, square-set nurse with a background in martial arts who could have kicked the Ugly Sisters into the middle of next week, and if Prince Charming had had a bit of a paunch and a brutal haircut – and to say I found the end shocking would be an understatement. (But no spoilers.)
It was funny and sweet and grim and horrible all at once, and above all it was entertaining: written with a joie de vivre and humour even in the worst of times that was irresistible.

What happens to love? Where does love hide? In this modern reworking of themes from Jane Eyre, first published as ‘Love Without Shadows’ and now revised and updated by the author, Patricia Finney gives us the story of Anna Clements, overburdened and disappointed wife, mother and community nurse, who no longer believes in her own beauty and her own chance of happiness. Anna spends her days caring for the dying in southern Cornwall, UK, and then in the evenings she returns to a husband who has forgotten how to love her. Anna gives so much of herself, in her work and at home, but in return, she is taken for granted.
And then one day, a man rides into Anna’s life who is so obviously wrong for her, so obviously dangerous, that she is reluctant even to accept his help with the patient who knows him. He’s gentle and he’s caring, but as Anna begins to trust him, she also realises that he has a secret.
Patricia Finney is the author of the James Enys mysteries, ‘Do We Not Bleed?’ and ‘Priced Above Rubies’, and (as P F Chisholm) the Robert Carey novels, all available from the Kindle Bookstore.

Available on Amazon here

Making Lace While The Sun Shines

In amongst writing the Christmas novella (Apples In Store – set just after An Imperfect Enjoyment, and featuring a beau, a baby, a little sister, and a case of mistaken identity) and making phenomenal quantities of cake, I have a shocking craving to make needle-lace.

I’ve tried bobbin lace and I found it hard work. What with the cats and all, they have a habit of undoing as fast as I’m doing, and it’s not exactly portable.

So this is the design.

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It’s quite big, so I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. Possibly make it into a collar or a (modern – well, modern-ish) jacket. One of the things I like about needle-lace is it has a very three dimensional, sculpted quality: it’s not as fluid as bobbin lace.

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So as you can see from the drawing on card, I’ve couched down the outline: this is the back, but I’ve pressed down hard with a pen to give a relief outline on the dark side, so the stitches stand out to the eye.

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I’m planning to make each petal separately, for an even more sculpted effect. Here’s a close-up:

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The things we do in the name of vanity!

Bosom Buddies

– or, let’s talk about tits.

As I have been banging on about of late, I’m upping my 17th century game and I’m doing marvellous things with my everyday wardrobe.

This morning I slipped on a lovely olive green and white print blouse and my first thought was – ooo, low-slung tits, girl, pull ’em up a few notches. How unflattering. How dowdy. How –

How right for the shape of the blouse and the design period?

Convo I often have with a mate who is similarly built, but why would I aspire to have two rock-solid semi-spheres clamped to my ribcage, unless I happen to be involved in 1770s re-enactment? What with – as one Regency fashion commentator described – the “disgusting fleshy shelf”?  See this lady here with her low-cut bodice – a lady of ample chest, by the look of her – is she rocking the teetering titties, or are they sensibly secured?

(c) Valence House Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Occurs to me that the eye of the beholder is so wretchedly attuned to what we consider beautiful now, that anything that doesn’t conform to the right shape, regardless of size, looks wrong to us. We often see tavern-wench bodices, even when we should be working Lady Fanshawe’s discreetly low-cut charms, because we think up-and-at-’em is the look that women must have aspired to.

(Do we? Should we?)

This is me starting a revolution, right here, right now. The discreet charm of the boobs-goisie. Lower-cut and flatter. (Surely we’re not thinking that mature ladies might be represented as having aspirational mature figures, instead of fake porn-star tits?)

Have it!

But Is It Authentic?

A sort of conflation of ideas whizzing about today.

A conversation about 17th century re-enactment over on Facebook – about being too authentic, becoming intimidating, becoming contemptuous of those who don’t count stitches, or who use wool-blend fabrics. Now for myself, as an author, I consider re-enactment as research for my writing and vice versa. Thomazine’s snapped stay-bone in Imperfect Enjoyment – I’ve done that. (I still have the scar, too: I had to wear the things for the rest of the day, and it didn’t half bleed.)

I haven’t belted anyone in the face with the guard of my sword, but I have considered it. I digress.

And I admit it: I’m one of the stitch-counters. And what I find is increasingly it fills me with a horrible inertia. I have linen to make s new jacket, but I need silks to embroider it. Embroidery silks aren’t good enough: I need silk thread. I need metal spangles. I need – I need – I need.

And till I have, I do nothing.

Actually, I made a conscious decision with my polychrome coif, and my spangled jacket – not to make them period-correct, but to make them touchable, holdable. Hundreds of pounds worth of metal spangles on a jacket, and I’m going to let strangers pick it up, stroke it, hold it up, try it on? Or keep washing my coif after a couple of hundred grubby little fingers have stroked the ladybird or opened the peapods? But that’s what they’re for – to be touched and delighted in, not just admired from a distance. That was what the originals were for: to be worn and used and to give pleasure to their wearer as well as the people who saw them.

It’s the same with my new wardrobe: I want wool, I want silk, I want…I want to not start till I have all the things, rather than to use things I have that are not quite right.

My first thought in the authenticity debate was that it’s necessary, because what’s it for, otherwise? But I’m not sure now. I think it’s more the desire of the moth for the star, than a desirable outcome. I think I could spend my whole life not wanting to do better, but wanting to do nothing. Waiting for the perfect set of circumstances – all the aces, metaphorically, in my hand – before the time is right to do anything at all.

And then you get to be dead, and all the time is used up, and it’s never happened. That book half-written in your head but never started, that jacket you loved…all gone.

Carpe diem.

Sartorial Shufflings: 2

So, you know.

Old goth + autumn wardrobe crisis = on the whole, wtf??

I don’t – my previous publisher will testify – go in much for the public engagement. (You do talk a lot of nonsense on that Facebook apparatus, mind -R.) So jokes about having an authoring hat like Terry Pratchett notwithstanding, I tend not to have A Look.

Except I think I may be beginning to.

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The vintage gloves I’ve had for a while. The hat is based on a 1930s pattern, drafted by me with help from the New Vintage Lady’s blog. It started as an homage to her Dustbowl Hat and then it got… As previously stated, I’m just under six feet tall and conspicuously cinnamon. I don’t do understated.

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You’re looking at the hat,not the rosacea. Not that you would be so rude.

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It’s a sort of wild mongrel of 1960s hippy chic embroidery and 1930s pared-down elegance.

And I think I might be liking that look….