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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.
A little something from the new book – something of a departure for me, a light time-slip romance with a playwriting 17th century hero – Pen Corder, aka the White Devil.
He did not recognise himself, painted and jewelled like a trollop – his hair braided up and tucked under a sinister black velvet hat, a great glass pearl teardrop dangling from his ear.
He did not much care for the shading on his cheekbones and about his eyes, that he thought made him look more angular and more feline than was strictly human. He looked like a minor demon, he thought, and couldn’t quite stop himself from glancing over his shoulder lest the ghosts of his poor mortified parents should appear there at the sight of their only son mincing on a stage in an ill-fitting white satin doublet.
He could not do it. Every single word had seeped out of his head, and he could not remember a line of it. Mayhem poked his head round the door. “Decus et dolor,” he said – the boy spoke theatre-slang like a professional, the product no doubt of a misspent youth poking actresses. “Kate says five minutes?”
Pen took the awful hat off, forgot his hair was braided, and ran a shaking hand through it. “Tell her I’m sick,” he said.
“So was she. Out of the window, God be thanked, or Orietta would’ve ended being poisoned in her underlinen.”
“I have forgotten the words!”
“So just go and scowl. You’re the villain, aren’t you? Five minutes.”
He could not do it. The door closed behind Mayhem, and outside he could hear a murmurous swelling of voices.
Oh God, they actually had an audience.
He couldn’t do it.
He couldn’t not do it, for they depended on him.
Pen clapped the disreputable hat back on his head and scowled at his horrible black-eyed, red-lipped reflection. “Decus et dolor,” he said to himself, swallowed hard, and stepped out into the unknown.
Two years ago, I hit “publish” on Red Horse, and I thought that was going to be it, all over and done with. The cover was awful, it hadn’t been properly edited or formatted, but it didn’t matter – I’d written it, and I loved it.
And I still love it. I am still more than a little bit in love with Captain Hollie Babbitt (even when he was as mad as Russell) and Lucey still makes me smile and I still cry a bit at the idea of the rain falling on the dead of Edgehill and what Hollie does about it.
(And of course, I thumb my nose at the Palatinate Pest. Always.)
But of late, I’ve started to feel that it’s not – I’m not – enough.
There were a few of us who, so to speak, graduated 1642 together: palled around together on-line, messaged each other, wrote anthologies together. Supported each other. And some of us have gone off and some of us are still ploughing the 1640s furrow and some of us don’t really write at all any more.
It’s not a competition. Reading someone’s review of a 2016 in which some really quite horrid things happened and skipping to where they say what articles they published in what magazine and thinking – I’m going to submit to them.I’m going to do that,like some kind of historical barracuda. (Shiny! Shiny!)
My friend’s book was reviewed in the TLS. Did I think huzzah! Well done? – or did I think how can I do that?
Friends have been Kindle bestsellers, and I wasn’t happy for them, I was looking for ways to copy them instead.
Well, Entertaining Angels was #1 for the better part of a month. Am I proud? Am I happy? No – I’m prowling round looking for ways to carry on promoting it, to keep pushing it beyond its natural shelf life.
Publishing contract? Yes. Wonderful. Now I want another one, a better one. Richard and Judy time. Prime time. More awards. More reviews. More sales. Always more, more, more.
I was chatting to one of my friends earlier. She was impressed that I’d sold something like five thousand copies of Angels in three months. Did I say – thank you? Yes, it is a good little book, isn’t it? No, I dismissed it. Not good enough. It pretty much sells itself.
I had a lovely review of Red Horse over Christmas and it pulled me up, rather.
Five thousand copies of a book in three months, a hundred new followers a day, Times Literary Supplement glowing reviews…they’re all great,aren’t they? But someone laughed out loud at the grumpy exchanges between Hollie Babbitt and Luce Pettitt, and that’s worth just as much. Someone cried over a shy middle-aged intelligence officer’s friendship with a girl, and that’s worth its weight in gold. Someone is talking to me about the Arundells of Trerice as if they’re real, living people, and that’s priceless too.
My success is mine. Your success doesn’t detract from mine, and nor should it add to it, trying to cover myself in a little reflected glory.
Two years ago I would have been happy with that review for its own sake: not for the status, not for the ranking, but because someone liked my book.
And that’s my New Year’s resolution.
I may not write every day. I may not be committed. I may not be professional.
But I will be happier.