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…..

 

 

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.

A Garden of Earthly Delights

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There are times when you’re just in the right place at the right time.

It’s a funny thing. You might have noticed but most of me is pretty firmly rooted in the 17th century, almost all of the time.
I occasionally venture into the field of Dark Age re-enactment but it’s strictly domestic: half the time I’d be pushed to tell you what century I’m in, although I could probably tell you what I’m cooking while I’m doing it.
But anyway – I’m possibly less femme when I’m in Anglo-Saxon kit than when I’m in the 1640s, but, you know. That’s where we are.

And as you probably also know, for the last couple of years I’ve been rather idly working on a period herb garden. Which is coming on beautifully, thank you, and I think you’ve probably all heard about the various trials and tribulations of Russell Lovage, who came to me as a little sprout something like seven years ago and has refused point-blank to die on me ever since. (I’m very fond of Russell Lovage – yes, of course that’s why he’s called Russell, he is as grimly indestructible as the fictional version – and he has now rewarded me with a crop of little Lovagelings, most of whom will be going to loving forever-homes over the next few weeks.)
And I thought that was going to be it, that was going to be me swishing decoratively through the lavender bushes in a neat coif and a big skirt stooping to break a twig here and a leaf there, inhaling the scents of clove carnation and balm and considering my still-room….

And then someone asks if the re-enactment group we belong to want to be involved in planning and creating an Anglo-Saxon garden at Escot – Edcott, rather, I might say: the Anglo-Saxon village – to which the answer is HELL YEAH. I don’t love my fingernails that much.
It’s damp, it’s overgrown, it’s going to be hard work. I’m looking at a tray full of heart’s-ease – banwort, to the Saxons, and wild pansy to us now – that would love a new home in a shady wood, and obviously the Lovagelings, they could go feral out there. I’ve got woad seeds – though maybe they need to be renewed: I’ve had them for a while without the room to plant them.
I have visions of enough space to grow strewing-herbs: meadowsweet and woodruff and mint and costmary and probably fleabane to keep our little friends at bay when one is ankle-deep in rushes.
To be able to give our resident herbalist a sufficiency of exotic herbs to physic most ailments: tansy and feverfew for headaches and dill for colicky bellies and the nine herbs of power – Mucgwyrt, Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and Attorlaðe (identified as cockspur grass (Echinochloa crus-galli) by R. K. Gordon; partially defined by others as betony (Stachys officinalis) and Stune, Lamb’s cress (Cardamine hirsuta) and Wegbrade, Plantain (Plantago) and Mægðe, Mayweed (Matricaria) and Stiðe, Nettle (Urtica) and Wergulu, Crab-apple (Malu) and Fille Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and Finule Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Cooking and washing and beautifying herbs – the pot-herbs, marigold and soapwort and nettle for cordage and wrapping cheese -the vegetables, Good King Henry and fat hen and purslane and ramsons, all the forgotten green vegetables that would have heralded spring to people who lived on what they could store and grow.

What it’s not going to be is my lovely, mannered, 17th century herb-garden – which exists and is real. It is an actual thing and I go out and cut things from it to use, and it has lovely things in it like primroses and violets for candying, and gillyflowers for scent. I suspect that the Edcott garden will be a much earthier, and probably swearier place, where a whisper is not the sound of a silk skirt on the gravel but is more likely to be the sound of a grubby small child wondering if parental eyes are still on the ripe strawberries.
(I am told there will be pigs. There will also, I feel, be sage – and this is not an idle threat – the first snout that uproots my Lovagelings is likely to find itself stuffed with an apple and spit-roasted. Just, you know, saying…)

It’s going to be fun, and a voyage of amazing discoveries. That’s all what I’ddo, if anyone were daft enough to give me free rein. Fortunately they’re not or we’d be knee-deep in lovage and mint, and if anything happens at all I’ll be being restrained and encouraged by friends with strong backs and common sense.
Watch this space. No – not that one: the green one, there.

Practising Writing Gratitude

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.

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….

 

 

The Eye Of the Beholder

You will notice, if you read my blog or follow my Facebook page, that I will do almost anything but post photos of myself.

And, you know, you might think that’s a silly female vanity, the authorial equivalent of “does my bum look big in this?” – an affectation.

And you might also think well, hang on, this lass writes about a romantic lead with a conspicuous facial disfigurement, with a degree of authority. I wonder if that’s significant?

Once upon a time, you see, there was a girl who was pretty, who had perfect porcelain skin. And attracting men was a sport – “the night I pulled ten guys one after another in the Ritz Ballroom”. I didn’t have to be kind, I didn’t have to be thoughtful, I didn’t have to be clever or considerate or thoughtful. I was just – pretty. First thing in the morning, I was pretty in smeared eyeliner. Last thing at night, I was pretty and glamorously raddled.

I was not kind.

I didn’t need to be, because I was pretty. I could have all the attention I craved, just by having big green eyes and a slightly forlorn droop to my mouth and good cheekbones.

I don’t think I ever didn’t get – even if only briefly – a man I wanted. I think it would have done me the world of good if I had. It would have taught me a little humility, I think: that just looking the way I did, did not guarantee me any preferential treatment.

And then one day I wasn’t. All the things I took for granted – that I could go out to a nightclub with a pound in my purse and no cigarettes, in the sure and certain knowledge that someone else would buy my drinks: not bothering to be on time,because the pleasure of my beauty was enough, or to be particularly civil to people I didn’t like – I suddenly had to learn all those things, fast and hard. People had always wanted to be my friend, not for the pleasure of my company, but because of how I looked. Being the friend of the most beautiful girl in the world has its perks. Being the man who dated the most beautiful girl in the world… Well, you get the idea.

And then suddenly this girl who had never had to conform, had never had to learn to please or flatter or charm, had to grow a personality.

Which I did, and it’s not a bad one: it has a certain wry dark humour that it had not previous, a degree of self-mockery that would have outraged that proud beauty.

The irony of rosacea is not lost on me: old age wouldn’t have troubled me – doesn’t trouble me – I still have good bones, and big green eyes and a slightly forlorn droop to my mouth and good cheekbones.

Even a tragic disfiguring scar like Russell’s would have its own ruined glamour.

Instead, it’s spots. Blisters and rawness and a burned-looking redness, patches where the skin is dry and it cracks like plaster next to teenage zits.

Sometimes it looks okay, sometimes I can cover it up with makeup and people don’t think they can pass remarks, no matter how sympathetic, about that girl’s poor face. (Which is not burned, and nor does she have chickenpox.)

Sometimes it gets so miserable and sore that I have to take antibiotics, and it’s itchy and infected and so swollen that those lovely cheekbones I still have disappear.

So – no, there are no photos of me, if I can help it. I don’t mind that I’m not the same beautiful as I was. I’m different- pretty now: I built that new personality quicker than Redrow Homes, and it’s in the charm, now, and the smile and – yeah, it has wrinkles about the eyes and a laugh that can strip paint off walls but what of it? It listens, it’s funny and literate and intelligent and witty and loving.

But you can’t see that in a photo.