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.

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.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (Except In Oliver Cromwell’s House)

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In my wanderings throughout the internet I came across this splendid gem on a website called “The Foods of England”. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if it were true?

“There is a curious story that roast veal in Orange Sauce was Oliver Cromwell’s favourite dish, and that when no oranges were available, his wife Elizabeth used beans instead, saying something along the lines of “You should have thought about orange sauce before you declared war on Spain.” This tale is told at Cromwell’s House in Ely, in ‘Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine’ by William Carew Hazlitt (1902) and may originate in a spurious little cookbook titled ‘The Court and Kitchin of Elizabeth, Commonly Called Joan Cromwel, the Wife of the late Usurper, Truly Described and Represented’ published in 1664.”

This cookbook was originally written by triumphant Royalists with a perverse sense of humour, intended to show Elizabeth Cromwell up as a frumpy provincial housewife, more fitted to life on a backwater country estate than at Whitehall – and just as a by the by, this was published in 1664, and she died in 1665, so I hope she thought it was as funny as I did. I love the idea of the Lord Protector of England’s foreign policy being dictated by what his wife wanted on the table, though. And oranges, believe it or not, are quite popular in 17th century cooking, although normally with capon or fowl rather than veal. Perhaps Mrs Cromwell didn’t like chicken?

The Good Huswife’s Jewll for the Kitchen (1594) suggests that Mrs Cromwell should… “take red wine, Synamon, Sugar, Ginger, the grauie of the Capon, or a little sweet butter: slice an Orenge thin, boyle it in the stuffe, when your Orenges be tender, lay them vpon your sops, mince some of the rynde and caste on the sops, and so serue them.”

To boil a capon with oranges, after Mistress Duffield’s way, …“take a Capon and boyle it with Veale, or with a mary bone, or what your fancie is. Then take a good quantitie of that broth, and put it in an earthen pot by it selfe, and put thereto a good handfull of Corrans, and as manie Prunes, and a few whole Maces, and some Marie, and put to this broth a good quantitie of white wine or of Claret, and so let them seeth softly together: Then take your Orenges, and with a knife scrape of all the filthinesse of the outside of them. Then cut them in the middest, and wring out the ioyse of three or foure of them, put the ioyse into your broth with the rest of your stuffe, then slice your Orenges thinne, and haue vpon the fire readie a skellet of faire seething water, and put your sliced Orenges into the water, & when that water is bitter, haue more readie, and so change them still as long as you can finde the great bitternesse in the water, which will be sixe or seven times, or more, if you find need: then take them from the water, and let that runne cleane from them: then put close Orenges into your potte with your broth, and so let them stew together till your Capon be readie. Then make your sops with this broth, and cast on a litle Sinamon, Ginger, and Sugar, and vpon this lay your Capon, and some of your Orenges vpon it, and some of your Marie, and towarde the end of the boylin”

There’s also a thickened version of Mistress Duffield’s recipe in the same recipe book, using egg yolks to thicken the sauce into a sort of Christmassy custard. I’m happy to say that Robert May in “The Accomplish’t Cook” gave a much plainer and simpler recipe: “Take slices of white-bread and boil them in fair water with two whole onions, some gravy, half a grated nutmeg, and a little salt; strain them together through a strainer, and boil it up as thick as water grewel; then add to it the yolks of two eggs dissolved with the juyce of two oranges.”

On the other hand, there’s mutton with lemons.
When your Mutton is halfe boyled, take it vp, cut it in small peeces: put it into a pipkin, and couer it close, and put thereto the best of the broth, as much as shall couer your Mutton, your Lemmons being sliced verie thin, and quartered, and Corrans, put in pepper grose beaten, and so let them boyle together, and when they be well boyled, season it with a litle Uergious, sugar, pepper grose beaten, and a little sanders, so lay it in fine dishes vpon sops. Jt will make three messe for the table.
This version sounds a little less – festive, sorry Oliver – but in the early 17th century (and earlier) sanders, ie sandalwood, was used for colouring rather than flavouring. It’s red, but I’d be inclined to replace with a little saffron, just to give it that slightly aromatic, musky taste.

So – apologies to the Lord Protector, but I’m with Elizabeth on this one. A much better use of oranges can be found:
Take your orenges, and lay them in water a day and a night, then seeth them in faire water and hony, and let them seeth till they be soft: then let them soak in the sirrop a day and a night: then take them forth and cut them small, and then make your tart and season your Apples with Sugar, Synamon and Ginger, and put in a peece of butter, and lay a course of Apples, and betweene the same course of apples, a course of Orenges, and so course by course, and season your Orenges as you seasoned your Apples, with somewhat more sugar, then lay on the lid and put it in the ouen, and when it is almost baked, take Rosewater and Sugar, and boyle them together till it be somwhat thick, then take out the Tart, and take a feather and spread the rosewater and Sugar on the lid, and set it into the Ouen againe, and let the sugar harden on the lid, and let it not burne.

And failing that, you can always use them to make marmalade – after all, everyone in the 17th century knows of the aphrodisiac properties of marmalade, don’t they?

Putting Your Trust In Princes

“No,” Russell says, very firmly. “I will not countenance it.”
Hollie sniffs. “Oh, straighten your face. Call it a starburst, if you like, instead of an arsehole.”
The marred lieutenant closes his eyes and looks pained. “I will not countenance it. I am not – it is not funny!”
“Why do you care? Do you carry ’em?” Hollie wants to know, and then says nothing, very smugly.

Luce is trying not to laugh, not very successfully.
See, it’s a bit like this. They had colours, previous. Quite inconspicuous colours, they were, a rather discreet shade of madder-red quartered with a white cross on a black background: several previous careful owners. It was possibly His Majesty’s musketeers at Marston Moor that finished them altogether – that, or the red mare’s habit of pivoting in circles on her own axis, at a point when the said colours were underneath her. (So, to be fair, was Lucey. Not one of his better days.) Or, possibly, the dog’s tendency to sleep on them. Whichever. By the end of the Yorkshire campaign, Hollie’s colours were in rags.
And then Hollie decided –
“I did not decide!” he says indignantly, “Henrietta decided I should have summat a bit more befitting!”

So Het decided to make something that was more befitting to her husband’s status as a respectable senior officer.

“That wench wants her sight tested, she thinks you’re respectable,” Captain Venning – whose own troop colours are an unremarkable blue and bear neither the form of a fish nor a pie, to Hollie’s disgust – mutters darkly.

They began life as Het’s best company silk skirt, a garment she has possessed since her girlish youth. Hollie is prepared to be indignant about the sacrifice of the said garment, until Luce points out that anything that fitted her in her girlish youth is unlikely to be a comfortable fit after two years of marriage, a daughter, and provisioning the bottomless likes of one Colonel H. T. Babbitt.
“Are you suggesting that my wife has increased?” Hollie says, and Luce raises his eyebrows.
“She’s my auntie, sir. Ihave known her some time. And, well, you are known to be a good solid trencherman, when the mood is on you. She was ever possessed of a competitive streak.”
“I dunno where he puts it all,” Venning mutters, not quite under his breath, “he never seems to get no fatter.”

It’s a sunburst. It’s a black sunburst, a black sun with spiralling black arms, on that silvery birch-green background.

“You’d have to be some kind o’ special to have an arsehole looked like that!” – Venning’s determined to make the best of it, and Hollie is determined that having found a device that will give alarm and distress to the more proper members of his company he’s sticking to it.
Russell won’t even look at it if he can help it, which is going to make following it into battle awkward. Luce giggles every time he looks at it.

“Lot o’ work she put into that,” Hollie says smugly, and there is a shy tenderness in the way his hand lingers over the silk.

But a motto? That’s going to be difficult.
Baiser mon cul, is Hollie’s suggestion.
Luce favours Classical allusion, if they must -Contritionem praecidit superbia. Arrogance goes before contrition – pride before a fall.

But in the end they go with Russell’s preference, as much as to shut him up as anything else.

Put not your trust in princes.

A SONG – A Counterblast to the Bawdy Works of the Earl of ROCHESTER

 

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THE COLONEL TO HIS LADY, WHEN ABSENT AT WAR 

ABSENT from thee as salt from meat

Then ask me not, why seek I battle?

Thy choiceless lover must retreat

To wander ‘midst the cannons’ rattle

(Lucey if you think 32 pound shot rattles you whelk you need to stand a bit closer – H.)

 

Dear from thy board then let me fly

From all the pleasures of my home

From bread not stale, and mutton pie –

Thy absence I endure to roam.

 

Far from my love I find my duty

Midst maids more fair, or finely dressed

Yet fix’d is my idea of beauty

On thy comfortable breast

 

For H___, though your love is no poet (his bloody cornet is tho’,  more’s the pity – H.)

Though flattered much, and tempted less,

He has, thank God, the wit to know it –

And the sense to love what he has, best,

Spring, and tulips

I know it’s only January 2nd, but that’s all right, here in west Cornwall it’s almost half past four and it’s still daylight and I have seen the sun today, so as far as I’m concerned it’s spring.

Next month I will be in Brugge, in pursuit of the Russells. (And, in passing, in pursuit of a young Hollie Babbitt in Amsterdam. I don’t know quite how he’d feel about the Kalverstraat now. When he lived there – and he lived in Amsterdam for a goodly part of his adult life, poor lamb – the Kalverstraat was the flesh-market, it was the place you went for the spring and autumn beast sales. It was where he bought his black horse Tyburn, as a two year-old, for a ridiculously small sum of money. Yes, Tib was bought as meat on the hoof. It’s the posh end of Amsterdam now – the touristy end.)

It’s a funny thing: one of the things that grieves me about modern gardening is how low-maintenance it is, one can either have scent or beauty but not usually both, and everything is meant to be easy to grow and easy to care for, and in the days of Tulipmania men sold small wrinkled bulbs for the price of a small estate , and it was the work of a team of gardeners to care for them as if they were babies. (The tulips, that is, not the gardeners.),

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This beauty is Amiral de Constantinople, one of the only two varieties of parrot tulip to survive from the seventeenth century.

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And this is Zomerschoon – and this is the painting by Balthasar van der Ast of the Zomerschoon tulip of the height of Tulipmania.

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And this – the Tulip Museum – is where I’m headed for an afternoon in Februar.

Wish me luck….