In Praise of the Plain Russet-Coated Captain (or, Why Historical Fiction Needs Anti-Heroes)

I was reading a review of a Bernard Cornwell novel this morning and once again I am inspired to set fingers to keyboard (around the cat, who is demanding cuddles with menaces)

Once again, you see, I cannot do the dashing white knight on his trusty steed thing.

Sharpe. Let’s take Sharpe. (Please, someone, let’s take Sharpe.)

You know when you open a certain genre of book, or a book by a certain author, pretty much to the last semi-colon what you’re going to get. You’re going to get an infallible hero, who may be wrong-footed but never fail. He will come good in the end – he will get the girl, kill the baddies, and save the entire planet. Laughing in the face of doom, and clearing tall buildings with one bound.
And, you know, that’s kind of nice. It’s all soft and comforting and cosy. No nasty surprises.

But history is full of nasty surprises.
After the battle of Naseby, the godly Army of Parliament hunted down and massacred over a hundred Royalist camp followers for the unpardonable sin of speaking their own native Welsh language, and therefore being suspected of being either whores, witches, or dangerous Irishwomen.
After the siege of Bolton, the Royalists massacred anything between eighty and two thousand people, both soldiers and inhabitants including women, making it reputedly the worst massacre on English soil.
That’s not nice stuff. On either side.

My Babbitt is anything but indestructible. He spends most of the books wrong-footed, miserable, irritated, wishing he was anywhere else but tagging on the back of the Army of Parliament. Periodically taking a pasting and then, being middle-aged, hurting. Not being irresistible to the fairer sex, even if he wanted to be. Missing his wife and wanting his supper, mostly, and wondering when he’s next going to get paid. And how he’s going to manage to run a troop till Parliament gets round to paying them.
A superhero, he is not. (He had a cape when he was seventeen, bought for the express purpose of impressing his first wife, but he never got the trick of not catching his sword hilt in its swirliness and Margriete told him he looked a tit in it, so he never really took to cape-wearing after that.)

Hollie’s a decent man, fighting a war he doesn’t want for a cause that’s shafted him fairly thoroughly, and committed to it for the sake of six troop of horse who expect him to stand their corner because he’s the only bugger stupid enough to open his big mouth in company.
Luce is a ditherer, a dreamer and a romantic. Luce is a nice boy who ought not to be let out of the house without directions. (Luce is not, bless him, officer material. But you work with what you got.)

Russell – well, Russell’s a bipolar functioning alcoholic with anger management issues, and certainly not someone you want to be on the wrong side of.

The Army of Parliament had a bad habit of not winning glorious victories. Powick Bridge – lash-up. Edgehill – no-score draw. Naseby – not the finest moment in Parliamentarian history, gentlemen. No glittering triumphs. No moral high ground.

No heroes. No villains.

Ordinary men – and women – on both sides, people of honour and principle, as well as ruffians and rogues: people fighting to defend their freedom of conscience, or just to stay alive from one week to the next. People not too dissimilar to me and you, standing up for what they thought was fair. A good cause, fought by good men, badly.
Now I ask you. Sharpe and his like – men of honour, or principle? Sexy, maybe, if you like that kind of thing. Love ’em and leave ’em, almost certainly. Daring and gallant and swashbuckling, probably.

Believable – maybe not.
Surprising, amusing, appealing, poignant, gripping – almost certainly not.

So, meh. More people read the adventures of Sharpe et al, knowing what they’re getting, than read the misadventures of one plain russet-coated captain of horse circa 1643, where believe me, they do not.
Be nice if millions of people read the Babbitt books. I’d like it. (He’d like it, the smart-mouthed Lancashire bugger. Be thrilled to bits, he would. In a sort of not-admitting it kind of way.) But…. Would I rather write books that make people laugh out loud on public transport, and three chapters later make them cry?
Where people tell me off because it can’t end like that?
(Google Burford, 1649, and work it out.)

Ah, hell, yeah, I would. Because Hollie Babbitt is real. He’s all the lads in 17th century history whose names never made it into the books, the ones that did their duty and stood their ground, that weren’t glamorous or poetic or noble or well-connected. He is what he is and God willing, the lad will remain a joy and a sweary, scruffy, appealing maverick from now until the end of the Civil Wars.

As you were, gentlemen.

The Road North – a ghost story

It occurred to me, rather suddenly, that the Eve of All Hallows and Edgehill fight were not so very far apart. Luce Pettitt – being twenty, and knowing it all, as twenty year-old men often do – doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a rational young man. 

But in October 1644, he might be about to reconsider that opinion….

It was October, and the mists curled up like woodsmoke from the sodden ground, and the nights drew in cold and cheerless in the Vale of York.

They were, however, a company who had been together in some guise or other these three years and more, and they could scratch cheer on a bare rock if need arose. There was a fire, and there was a jug of ale, and when you got more than three soldiers together on a dark night you had a choice of talk: horses, battles, women, or –

“Ghosts,” Colonel Hollie Babbitt said, and the corner of his mouth twitched without humour. “I don’t talk of what I’ve seen, gentlemen. Or rather, heard, but not seen…. ”

– Drew Venning’s dog, under the table, shifted uncomfortably. Tinners didn’t like this talk, where voices grew strange and ominous

Luce Pettitt rolled his eyes. “Oh, not this story agsin…..”

“What? If you’d ha’ been there, instead of under some lass’s skirt, you’d not be half so cocky! I heard what I heard, and I saw what I saw, and that I will hold to till my dying day. ”

“No faces,” Luce said. ” You said. ”

“No faces. A company of lads, marching north. And no faces under their helmets.”

” How d’you see ’em, then? If there was no -”

” Oh fuck off, ” Hollie growled, “taking the piss, think you’re a bloody hard nut, I tell you what, you wouldn’t be talking so big if you’d seen -”

” Or not seen, what with the lack of faces, ” Luce murmured, and someone cackled. Hollie growled again. “Smart-arse. No, it didn’t bother me, Lucifer. Decent enough drilled lads they was, from what I could hear, and a sergeant not unlike your man Cullis at the heel of it giving them holy hell on. Whoever they were when they were living, gentlemen, they were trained soldiers from head to heel just like me and you -” his eyes rested on Luce, off duty with his coat unbuttoned and his hair a bed-tangle, ” maybe more professional than some of us, Cornet Pettitt. Who was it this time, Margaret or Elizabeth?”

“Sarah,” Luce said, and yawned. ” – For variety’s sake. ”

“Jesus Christ I despair. No, the idea of a company of soldiers at their duty don’t trouble my sleep, so long as their duty takes them up the North road and not under my window at stupid o’clock in the morning. Wiser to be scared of the living than of the dead, if you ask me. ”

“Meaning the wench you’re married to?” Drew Venning murmured, and the colonel looked at him sidelong.

Especially the wench I’m married to. When a ghost can see to getting your tap stopped, captain, I’ll start paying heed to the buggers. Until then I reckon you can keep your bogey-tales. And with that, gentlemen, I’ll bid you a good evening.” He stood up and stretched, and then kicked the fire up again. “Bunch of old women. Don’t frighten yourselves.”
And with that, he was gone, swirling his cloak about himself into the darkness.

Lieutenant Russell, who had said nothing throughout this exchange, sniffed as the door closed and curled his lip. “Superstitious nonsense, fit for credulous fools.”

“You could just say bollocks, Hapless. It’s quicker. ”

“Kiss my arse, Cornet Pettitt.”

They were off duty. They could talk to each other how they liked, off duty. Most of the company were aware of the odd, careful new friendship between the officers of its company. “Do you not believe in ghosts, then?”

“I fear nothing from dead men, ” the lieutenant said cheerfully, with his mad slanted grin. “Only the ghosts in my head trouble me. They never leave by sunrise. But the past never really dies, does it?”

” Huh? ” – it had been a long day, and Luce Pettitt had spent most of it trying to direct idiots using nothing but a yard of silk whilst mounted on a shatterbrained mare, and he was tired. And then he remembered why particularly they spoke of ghosts and dark fancy – because in a week, it would be the Feast of All Hallows, the night when the dead came back to watch the living.

And two years ago this day, or thereabouts, the lieutenant had lost his beauty and a good deal of his wits at the great battle at Edgehill. And Luce – who was still, mostly, beautiful, and who retained most of his common sense – thought that it must indeed cast a long shadow. And possibly why his friend was odder, and spikier, than was customary even for him, this night.

It did not make him any the more comfortable company, but then most of the company was minded to be bleak. It was late autumn, it was cold, it was wet, it was miserable, the better part of them were boys out of Essex and Suffolk and they missed their homes. And the bloody war went on.

It had ever been thus. York had been a city when the legions had marched into Britain – oh, and some of them had marched out. That was one of the stories they told around the fires at night. (And scared the shit out of Hollie Babbitt, who would rather die than admit it. But the Ninth. Who had never gone home to Hispania. Whose nailed boots had gone thump thump thumping into the mists at York, and had never come back. Swallowed up by the dark and the mists. You heard them, they said, sometimes. Their hobnails ringing on the cobbles, their sergeant barking out the orders to march out –
But you never saw them. You heard them. A company of foot, making ready to march North into Scotland. That was the bit that had rattled Hollie, alone in the dark: the thought of being advanced on and overtaken on the road by a company of foot who was not there. )

“I am not good company, this night,” Russell said, sounding sad about it. ” I think – were I to stay and drink with you – it would not end. ”

“Prettily?” Luce suggested , and the lieutenant dipped his head.

I am not like to end prettily, Pettitt. I am minded to brood, I think. Tonight. I think it best that it is done sober. And alone.” And then, not being much in the way of a dissembler even when honesty did him no credit, he corrected himself. “Best done sober…but probably won’t be.”

” I’m not cleaning up after you, ” Luce said, and meant it. “If you must puke, open the window. And Hapless?”

The marred boy stopped with one arm in the sleeve of his coat.

“Leave it open, if you’re minded to be sicky, eh?”

It was, Luce thought, a night for seeing unquiet souls by. And how it would be, if you did – if they were sad, or angry, or pitiful – if they knew they were spirits, even, or if they were simply outside and afraid and wondering why you could not see them or hear them or talk to them: greedy for what you had enjoyed, being living, and yet set aside from it for all eternity.

“It’s a horrible thought,” he said, and the young blue-bonneted ensign passing by him at the time jumped about three feet in the air.

There was little supernatural about Connell, and Luce knew the lad by sight. He mostly looked terrified, presently. “Don’t tell me you’ve seen a ghost as well,” he said, ” what with Rosie being annoyingly mysterious about it, and bloody Russell stalking about being slightly more alarming than the dead people -”
The lad shook his head, bemused.

“Sit down and have a drink and don’t tell me about it, then. Particularly if it was the Ninth Legion with no faces under their helmets. I hate that story. ”

“Hwhat?”

” No faces. Colonel Rosie reckons -”

Connell shook his head blankly. “But that iss folly, how could they keep their helmets on without heads?”

– the boy was a Highlander, Luce reminded himself. Hence the heathen superstition and the sibilance. “No faces, I said. Do keep up. Heads with nothing on the front of them.”

“Then hwhat-?”

” Dead people in tunics marching about, Ensign Connell. Lots of them. It’s not normal, sir. ”

“It iss perfectly normal where I come from,” the lad said – and grinned, as if it was funny, “- we haff the Second Sight, on the islands, it is pairfectly commonplace, that off which you speak.”

“Oh. Oh, I thought you were – you know, the Highlands -”

Connell’s level black brows raised, no more than a fingernail’s width, but his point was made. “Sorry,” Luce said feebly.

” My grandmother. She had the Sight, now. She told my father he would be drown’t in the sea and so he wass, in the great storms, and he not even in his boat in the water but drawn up for repairs on the beach, and a great wave came up from the deep.waters and took him -” the ensign’s voice had dropped to a low croon and all the hairs stood up on Luce’s neck, “- but I, she said, I was not born to die in water, I.wass born restless in my mother’s belly and here I am, rootless yet. She said I wass born with the wanderlust on me and I should not rest easy till I had my own plot of earth and maybe not even then, hm?” And then he laughed, a sudden boy’s giggle. “This is not a cheerful thing to speak of, with the mist coming in under the door and the wind making unchancy noises in the chimney! ”

“Let’s stop,” Luce said, with enthusiasm. ” How’s your arm? ”

“Marvellous, I thank you,” Connell said, and rolled his shirt sleeve back obligingly to show the great purple patchwork where the medics had pieced him back together, after the great battle at Hessay Moor. “Ass good ass new. A pox on Malignant gunnery, I say…I shall be wagging my flag ass bravely ass ever, soon, and kiss my arse to His Majesty.”

“I’m glad.” – and Luce meant it, for it had been touch and go for the young ensign, and after those first hectic days when any man who could wield a bone-saw un a straight line had been hard at it, he had not seen the ensign. (The Scots commander, my lord Leven, and Hollie Babbitt, having served together in Europe and sometimes on the same side, preferred not to be in the same place at the same time.) “You must be very new healed, though?”

The ensign nodded ardently. “I am, so. I am like a new man.”

“Well, much though I hate to sound like an old graybeard – or your mother, for that matter – as a medical officer, even a very junior one, I would commend that you get in out of the night air. Falling-damps are not healthy, especially in a weakened state.” He closed his eyes, the better to.remember the most modern scientific theory about bad airs.

“Quite,” a much more familiar voice said, ” God knows what I’m doing stood here in it.- Lucey, who are you talking to? ”

“Ensign Connell, from Leven’s company – you remember, the young man who had his arm brake by shot at midsummer, and then the wound was poisoned and we had it all to.do again? Do you remember – well, really, Hollie, what are you doing here, for that matter? ”

All muffled up in his scruffy old cloak, Hollie shoved mist-damp hair out of his eyes and grinned ruefully. “I remembered the date. The boy Hapless tooled up clasping a bottle of brandy like it was a long-lost girlfriend, and I counted on me fingers and rearranged the duty rota. What I don’t want is our bright lad out tomorrow with a hangover and a fierce desire for attitude adjustments, if you get me. So he’s got his hands full taking out a sentry patrol that’s jumping at shadows – on grounds that idle hands are the Devil’s playground – and I’ve come to get you before you get bored without the company and start likewise.”

” Don’t be ridiculous, ” Luce sniffed. “I’m not that much of a child. Ensign Connell was very impressed by my expertise.”

” Connell, ” Hollie said, very carefully, after a brief pause, “has been dead a week. He died before we left York, brat. I should know – they borrowed the old bastard to preach over him. I don’t know who you been prosing on to, but it weren’t Connell. ”

Luce stared at him, a cold ripple running down his spine. “But it was, Hollie. He showed me his arm. I’d know my own handiwork anywhere. He was the first man I’d worked on – really had to fight for, I mean. He can’t be dead! His arm – it was healing, it had healed, beautifully, he would have had the full use of his fingers sgain – he can’t be, I saw him! He was looking forward to taking up his old post again!”

Hollie gave him a smile that was oddly shy. “Aye. And maybe that’s why he came, then. It wasn’t his arm that took him, brat. God knows what it was. He just never woke up. Maybe he knew it mattered – he mattered – that it would trouble you, if you thought it was summat you could have done. ” And ducked his head, and muttered, “I used to dream of Margriete. Sometimes. After she died. Or she came to me. Dunno. But that she was all right, that I hadn’t- ”

“Yes.” Of course. It explained why Hollie was quite so casual about ghosts, then. He had his own. Of course. But of all men, he understood, and did not laugh, or cross his fingers.

“Come on, then, brat. I’m not so bothered about running into dead men walking. I’m more bothered about the live ones, who’ve still got half a watch to cause havoc tonight if they’ve a mind to.” He put his hand out, and touched Luce’s shoulder gently. “He’ll be all right, Luce. If you were worried. I don’t reckon as he’ll want for company, you know?”

They could have been talking about Thankful Russell. They were not, of course. Both of them knew that. “No,” Luce said, and swung his cloak over his shoulders. ” No, I imagine they can always find a space for a keen officer. Wherever he comes from. “

The Alchemy Of Memory – remembering Diana

I had meant to write a blog post all about the way music entwines itself with my writing, mostly inappropriately and unhelpfully.

And instead I received news that I lost a dear friend, and one of the longest-standing and fiercest fans of my books. So I’m going to write about Diana instead.

She’d fallen in love with Thankful For His Deliverance Russell a couple of years ago, in the days when he was no more than a rather prissy young lieutenant in the New Model Army, and she loved seeing how he grew up through the books into a mostly-competent officer in his own right. I was just reading back over our messages on Facebook and she really did love that boy. She particularly loved – and shaped – the awkwardness and the kindness and the desire of his early courtship with Thomazine, when he wasn’t sure most of the time if he was coming, going or been, and how far it was appropriate to do any of them with his old commander’s daughter. She’d been there, she knew whereof she spoke, and she wasn’t backwards in telling me when I’d got it right. (She wasn’t always tactful about it either, I might add. If I got it wrong, I got it very wrong.)

I think Diana was probably about as delighted as both Russell and Thomazine when they finally got together. I sent her the first draft of the novella Entertaining Angels and she messaged me at some ridiculous hour in the morning to tell me that she’d just finished it, she was in tears and that the ending was Just. Right. He deserved his happy ending, she said. What next?

So I said, the usual pro forma is they get married and they live happily ever after.

Well, she said, I wouldn’t believe it, not with those two – Zee wouldn’t just put up with his funny moods and she won’t be shy in telling him either. And if he spends the rest of his career overlooking sheep in Buckinghamshire he’ll be bored to tears within the month. So it’s never going to be happy ever after, because those two are far too lively to disappear into domestic obscurity peacefully.

Had it not been for Diana, Major Russell would have been very lovely and very chilly and very proper, and he probably wouldn’t have been very much different from the literary ice-maidens who throng the pages of romance having their drawers melted by the Right Girl. And as it is, there was a Diana, and he became wry and very aware of the difference in their ages and rather embarrassed about being quite so keen on what he would tactfully call country matters, and Thomazine became fiercely protective of her darling (what scar?) and most enthusiastic about knowing all about the aforesaid country matters so often as she might contrive.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, Thankful and Thomazine Russell know sometimes you have to get hurt before you can become real, and they are more real because Diana loved both of them.  I’m sad that she won’t be around to review the second one. I’m more sad that she won’t be muttering about the cover art and cheering the release. She’d have liked that he will be carrying on adventuring well into his sixties, with his other half continuing to pester him for sexual favours despite the fact that technically he’s supposed to be brooding and disfigured and all that. She’d have been delighted that there will be fat blonde Russell-babies and a horrible little black dog and a number of indispensable horses.

 An Abiding Fire is your book, duck-lady.

In The Dark – guest post from Linda Stratmann

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Sharing a taste for the Victorian gothic and the spine-shivering stories of M.R. James, Linda Stratmann is my guest to talk about the world of the spiritualists – the world of the heroine of her mystery series, Mina Scarletti…

In the 1870s, the decade in which I have set my Mina Scarletti mysteries, spirit mediums were a popular diversion. Hardly any serious investigation had been made into their claims, and the field was open for charlatans to make a living and sometimes a fortune, out of the curiosity and grief of others.

The spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century began in 1848 with a game played by two bored sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, aged 12 and 15 in Hydesville New York. They created bumping and tapping noises using an apple on a string or cracking their toe joints, and claimed that they were in touch with spirits. The sisters became a sensation and began to give séances before large audiences. It wasn’t long before other people suddenly discovered that they too had mediumistic powers.

By the early 1850s spiritualism had arrived in the UK as an exciting novelty and party entertainment. Rappings and knockings conveyed important messages on the subjects of love and money. The fickle Victorian public was always looking for something new, however, and the next craze was for table tipping. This was rather more dramatic than bumps and bangs since the tables around which the visitors sat seemed to take on a life of their own, trembling, tilting and even rising up into the air. Spirits, who seemed to be crouching underneath the tables usually in the vicinity of the medium’s foot, would also convey messages by knocking the table legs.

This new diversion became so popular that the celebrated physicist Michael Faraday subjected the animated furniture to rigorous testing, and established that the lifelike motion was caused by unconscious movements of the sitters. On occasions when tables actually rose into the air it was thought that they had been given a little lift with artfully concealed wires and the help of an accomplice.

As the years passed, interest waned, and the public was hungry for new excitement. The time was ripe for the arrival from America of 22-year-old Daniel Dunglas Home in 1855. Home was a talented clairvoyant and medium whose speciality of levitation soon brought him fame, and he was deluged with gifts and given free accommodation. Importantly, Home knew that knockings and tappings just weren’t enough any more. His sitters wanted visual stimulus; they wanted to see the ghosts. For these effects it was essential that séances were conducted in near darkness. Home produced glowing spirit hands and looming faces that his clients recognised as lost loved ones. His reputation was severely dented however, when an elderly widow took him to court in 1868 after he had induced her to make over her considerable fortune to him. The court ordered him to return the money and he decided to continue his career abroad. There was however, no lack of mediums willing to take up the luminous mantle.

The ultimate in ghostly appearances was the full body manifestation and was a particular speciality of the female medium. She would retire to a cabinet or behind a curtain, and the sitters would then be encouraged into the lusty singing of hymns. The purpose of the singing was supposedly to reassure onlookers of the religious purity of the proceedings. Its actual purpose was to mask the sound of the medium changing her costume. She would emerge, radiant in the draperies she had previously concealed under her voluminous skirts, diaphanous fabric that glowed in the dark due to an application of oil of phosphorus. Sitters were easily deluded into believing that they had seen a spirit dressed in gorgeous robes. There was an important warning however. Under no circumstances should anyone attempt to light the gas lamps, or take hold of the figure. The divine creature, it was explained, was actually composed of material drawn from the medium’s body. She might speak, even take tea with the sitters, or offer kisses to the gentlemen, but any excessive light or attempt to take hold of the figure could cause the spectral material to rush back into the medium’s body so fast that she would die. When sceptics who were determined to expose imposture did try to grasp the apparition, they found it to be all too solid and the medium very much alive.

The professions of medium and stage magician were not far different and before long special equipment was being manufactured for the production of supposedly supernatural effects. In 1864, American brothers Ira and William Davenport toured Britain with a sophisticated new act. They had a specially constructed cabinet, and were securely tied up inside together with some musical instruments, which were heard to play and even seen to fly through the air.

A watchmaker called John Maskelyne saw the Davenports’ performance and felt sure that with the aid of a trick cabinet he could easily duplicate their act. He was so successful that he went on to become a highly celebrated stage illusionist.

Most scientists were skeptical of psychical phenomena and did not wish to involve themselves in investigating them, but there were a few who embarked on serious studies. These early investigators felt that there was a possibility that they were seeing evidence of a wholly new branch of science, something that would one day be validated and accepted. The thrill of potential discovery could well have made them a little too eager to believe what they were unable to prove. Those mediums who later admitted that they had defrauded the public said that scientists, with their enquiring minds and keenness to understand phenomena, were the easiest subjects to dupe. In1882 the Society for Psychical Research, which included both believers and sceptics, was formed ‘to conduct scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.’ It still exists today.

It is tempting to think that the Victorians were gullible, but they were looking for certainty in an uncertain environment. The eye is easily deceived in darkness, and they had no means of recording events, relying instead on memories of fleeting glimpses, unable even if they dared to try, to cast a rapid bright light on the proceedings. The Victorian dark séance did not survive the invention of the pocket torch.

Linda can be found at her website www.lindastratmann.com

and you can buy her books here –

Mr Scarletti’s Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 1

Mr Scarletti’s Ghost

The Royal Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 2)

The Royal Ghost

An Unquiet Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 3)

An Unquiet Ghost

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