The Roaring Girls – some thoughts on women in historical fiction

Aphra_Behn
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.

Kitty, My Rib – the story of Katie van Bora

download
Now I have two heroines in this world, and one of them is Elizabeth Cromwell (well, dear, if you wanted orange sauce, you shouldn’t have made war on Spain, should you?) and the other is Katharina von Bora, die Lutherin. After those two stubborn, domesticated, marvellously level-headed females is Het Babbitt patterned.

There is an argument which I often hear, and it goes something like – but women in the 17th century, they were the weaker vessel, right? Poor dependents, meek and milky and subservient…. right?
Well – some names to look up, to begin with, then. Bess of Hardwick. Elizabeth Cromwell. Elizabeth Lilburne. Brilliana Harley. Anne Fairfax.

All noblewomen? Hardly. Elizabeth Lilburne and Elizabeth Cromwell were merchant’s daughters – and Bess of Hardwick knew how to make a penny work for its living, by all accounts.

But die Lutherin is sadly neglected. Her 16th-century life-story reads like something from a lurid romantic fiction – convent-educated, she was brought up in cloisters until at the age of 24, she started to become interested in the growing reform movement and became unhappy with her secluded life within the Cistercian monastery. Now, the weaker-vessel argument would have die Lutherin meekly submitting to male domination, right? Um, nope. She wrote to Martin Luther, a 41 year old rebel, subversive and politically active cleric. An excommunicated priest, mind, who was not known for his tactful expression of his opinions. Katie von Bora wrote to Martin Luther – a man she had presumably never met formally in her life – and asked him to bust her and another twelve nuns out of the Cistercian monastery.

And he did. They were smuggled out in the back of a cart, in herring barrels. A credible fiction author could not make this up.

Luther, despite being the man behind the Reformation, now had twelve rogue nuns on his hands. Their families wouldn’t take them back, this being a breach of canon law, and so he found them all husbands. In the end, there was only Katie left. He found her husbands. Nope. Eventually she gave him the ultimatum – sorry, Martin, the only man I’m taking is either you or Nicolaus van Amsdorf, your friend. (Check out the portraits. She made a good call in Martin.)

Katie von Bora then took on the massive tasks of a) running the enormous monastery estate atWittenburg, where they boarded at the Cistercian monastery, b) running the brewery there, c) running the hospital, d) looking after all the students and visitors coming for audience with the notorious rogue priest behind the Diet of Worms, and e) keeping an eye on Martin, who had not been exactly the most promising of eager bridegrooms – he admitted himself that before his marriage his bed was often mildewed and not made up for months on end. By the sound of Katie, she’d have put up with neither the mildew, the unmade bed, nor the grubby husband.

The Luthers had six children (not all of whom survived to adulthood, sadly), Katie had one miscarriage, and they brought up another four orphans. This was not, clearly, a nominal marriage of platonic and dutiful affection. Martin freely admitted prior to his marriage that despite his clerical celibacy he was aware of the existence of the female form, even in spite of the mouldy bed. Had it not been for the admittedly rather pretty Mistress van Bora, it’s not impossible that the Protestant clergy would have remained formally celibate for many years – not that Martin and Katie were the first, but their wedding set the seal of approval on clerical marriage. It was a long and happy marriage, if often short of money, and even then it seems that she had the habit of accepting gifts from benefactors on his behalf, and putting the money away for the rainy day that seemed to follow the Luther household around.

They were married for almost twenty years, and he had counselled her to move into a smaller house with the children when he died, but she refused. A sentimental attachment to the marital home where she’d been happy and useful for so long? Struggling financially without his salary, she stayed stubbornly put until soldiers in the the Schmalkaldic War destroyed farm buildings and killed the animals on their farm, and she was forced to flee, living on the charity of the Elector of Saxony until it was safe for her to return to Wittenburg. Bubonic plague then forced her to flee a third time, this time to Torgau, but she was thrown from her cart near the city gates and very badly bruised, and died less than three months later.

She was not buried near to her Martin in Wittenburg, but since one of the Lutheran doctrines was that “It is enough for us to know that souls do not leave their bodies to be threatened by the torments and punishments of hell, but enter a prepared bedchamber in which they sleep in peace,” – she probably didn’t mind too much.

Ladies  and gentlemen, a toast to die Lutherin, Katie von Bora – the role model for the Mrs Cromwells and Mrs Fairfaxes, the domestic rock on which a political citadel stood firm.

The Addiction Of Non-Fiction – the pitfalls of writing history….

I’m doing quite a lot of work at the moment on a non-fiction book, a biography of Sir John Arundell, “Jack For The King” – the man who held Pendennis Castle for the King, aged 70, against everything Thomas Fairfax and the Army of Parliament could throw at him.
He’s an absolutely fascinating chap, and the main thing I’m discovering is that there’s an awful lot of rubbish written about him.

As an instance: one source has him down as having five sons, three of whom died young in the service of the King.
Another one has him down as having four.
A contemporary sexton’s account has one of John’s sons as an ensign who died at the battle of Windmill Hill, in Launceston, in 1643, and being buried there.
One of his sons turns up recorded as a brother in some accounts.

And all of that’s interesting – it’s fascinating – to unpick, but the problem is that when I’m not unpicking the tortuous genealogy of the Trerice Arundells, I’m a novelist.

So okay. I’m assuming, if you read my blog, you either read or write historical fiction, so I’ll give you a scenario.

Three members of a family die within eight weeks, one long summer: a mother, a son and a daughter.
Plague is reported in neighbouring parish records, but mortality bills aren’t kept in the parish where they’re buried.
Father is away at the time with two of his other sons, about twenty miles away in a castle under siege.

Now you could extrapolate a number of things from that. You could interpret it to mean that one son hadn’t gone with his father and his brothers to the castle’s defence, and that perhaps the family were intending to not put all their eggs in one basket, leaving at least one of the male line on the family estate to make sure that no roving Roundheads settled themselves there while all the handy Arundells were locked up inside Pendennis keep.
You could interpret it that all three died of the epidemic that we know was rife in the locality (although we don’t know what it was.)
You could interpret that after burying her eldest son and her daughter in the space of a month, unsupported by her husband and her other sons, worn out by war and worry – Mrs Arundell died quietly two weeks after her firstborn.

You could, and a novelist probably would, and a historian can’t.

It’s interesting to try and keep a narrative in your head when you’re writing a biography, but it’s also tempting to attribute thoughts and feelings to the people in it. (We assume that Mrs Arundell loved her husband and her children, and that their absence, and loss, would have grieved her. We don’t know it, because we have no evidence to support it: none of their correspondence survives. Although the fact of six children implies a degree of familial affection, doesn’t it?And again, with my novelists’s head on, I interpret a lack of correspondence to mean that he didn’t spend prolonged periods of time away from her, if he could help it.)

It’s out there. The information that’s going to make up a coherent whole is out there. It’s just piecemeal, and the trick is to find the pieces that are in the original jigsaw, and not the pieces that have been put in two hundred years later by someone with an agenda of their own. And I know what the picture looks like.
At the moment, it’s as if someone’s jumbled up two or three separate jigsaws, all equally interesting. (Little brother Thomas. And that’s all I’m going to say. Little brother Thomas deserves a monograph of his own, if only to blow a particular persistent myth about the Civil War in Cornwall right out of the water…)

I think I’ve got the corners. I think I’ve got eight corners, actually – John and little brother Thomas – and that’s all right, because let’s just say that you’re not going to mistake one for another in their particular avenues of activity during the 1640s.

Thomas’s picture is significantly different than John’s, and that’s going to make things easier, too.
But for now, it’s back to looking for straight edges.

Making Provision for Those That Shall Be Maimed In This Present War – Medical Care in the English Civil War

Originally blogged on the English Historical Fiction Authors website, a year ago today:

Making Provision For Those That Shall Be Maimed In This Present War

But on this anniversary of the battle of Edgehill, I think it bears re-blogging.

After the first battle of the English Civil War at Edgehill on 23rd October 1642, the people of Warwickshire found themselves with an estimated butcher’s bill of between one and two thousand men injured in the fight.

Camp-followers and soldiers’ wives who followed the Army were able to care for their injured menfolk, but a casualty list of such magnitude was beyond either their capability or their resources. Most sword-cuts were not able to penetrate the sleeve of a buff-coat – but not every soldier owned a buff-coat. A musket-ball was an ounce of lead, and would break thinner bones, such as ribs; thicker bones, such as limbs, tended to be shattered on impact. Not, as you can imagine, the sort of injury with which the ordinary woman – or, indeed, the ordinary medic – would be greatly familiar with from a civilian existence!

It is not known whether either Army’s medics operated a triage system. What is known, however, is that after Edgehill as many casualties as possible were removed to a more stable environment to provide the best care. In the Army of Parliament both Lord Brooke and the Earl of Essex are documented as having provided funds for the ongoing care of their casualties by local people: a receipt presented by Katherine Hobson of Warwick, after the battle, shows that she received £25 for the care of around 150 men. (Kington being Kineton, ie Edgehill)

These are to certifie to all those whom these may any wayes concerne
That I Katherine Hobson of Warwicke dureing the time of wars imployed by the Lord Brooke in the Attendinge & dressing of the wounded soldiers that came from Kington battel (wh[i]ch said Souldiers were in number aboute Seaven score & the said battell was in The year of our Lorde God 1642) I say Rec[eive]d of Mr Richard Lacell then Bayleff of Warwicke the sume of Twenty five pounds, for the buying Of necessarys for the said Soldiers

It is not known whether the King’s troops enjoyed a similar care: the wholesale destruction of His Majesty’s always-lackadaisical administrative paperwork after the surrender at Oxford means that it is impossible to say with any certainty. It may be guessed from contemporary Royalist sources that perhaps it was not always the case; it was conceded by many that the Parliamentarian medical services were far superior to the King’s, despite having men such as the physicians Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) “the English Hippocrates”, and Richard Wiseman (1625-1686), the greatest English surgeon of his day, in the ranks. These practitioners fought in opposing camps. Sydenham was a cavalry officer for the Parliamentary forces, whereas Wiseman was an ardent Royalist. Moreover, Wiseman became a personal friend of King Charles II, just as the pre-eminent physician William Harvey (1578-1657) had been a good friend (and hunting partner) of King Charles I.

Sydenham was enrolled at Magdalen College, Oxford, at the beginning of the war, and qualified as a Bachelor of Medicine in 1648 – presumably using some of the experience and knowledge gained in active service, in his practice. Wiseman wrote a book on field surgery, Several Surgical Treatises, and was an advocate of early amputation on the field of battle as well as an expert on gunshot wounds – also, presumably, using his field experience! He was of a similar age to Sydenham, but had entered the ranks of Barber-Surgeons just before the Civil War. (One of the main differences between doctors and barber-surgeons was that doctors were academically trained, and barber-surgeons were apprenticed.)

Edgehill seems to have been significant not only for the aftercare of its soldiers but for the fortunate coincidence of cold weather conditions which saved the life of many left on the battlefield unattended. The eminent physician to Charles I, William Harvey, who was present at the battle of Edgehill reported:

… that Sir Adrian Scrope was dangerously wounded there, and left for dead amongst the dead men, stript; which happened to be the saving of his life. It was cold clear weather, and a frost that night; which staunched his bleeding, and at about midnight, or some hours after his hurte, he awaked, and was faine to draw a dead body upon him for warmth-sake.” Harvey was also familiar with the best way of raising body temperature: “I remember he kept a pretty young wench to wayte on him, which I guess he made use of for warmth-sake as King David did, and he took care of her in his Will.

On 25 October 1642, within hours of the stalemate at Edgehill, Parliament passed an Act that for the first time acknowledged the State’s responsibility to provide for the welfare of its wounded soldiers and also for the widows and orphans of those killed -“An Ordinance of both Houses, declaring their Resolutions of making provision for those that shall be maimed in this present war, who are in the service of Parliament; and for the wives and children of those that shall be slaine“. Three weeks later, on 14th November with the pressure for care for the wounded rising, Parliament formed “The Committee for Sick and Maimed Soldiers” to rationalise the organisation and implementation of its aftercare arrangements.

Edgehill was significant not only as the battle which began the English Civil War, but, to a degree, the battle which began the concept of state responsibility for those hurt in its service. Diverse wounds and missing limbs often prevented returning soldiers from earning a living – these survivors seem to have been given a lump sum of £2 (in context, a colonel of horse in the New Model Army, three years later, would have received wages of a pound a week: £2 was a hefty lump sum, but not enough to retire on!) whilst a regular pension was agreed on. Significantly, widows and dependents of soldiers were also allowed to enter a claim for maintenance, provided they were able to provide relevant war records. Many of these widows were also in the position of having cared for injured soldiers who were wholly unrelated to them, after battle: Hester Whyte cared for wounded Parliamentarian soldiers after Edgehill, “who continued at her house in great misery by reason of their wounds for upwards of three months. She often sat up night and day with them, and in respect of her tenderness to the Parliament’s friends, laid out her own money in supply of their wants.” (Petition to the Committee of Safety for Warwick and Coventry)

There is much, much more to be said on the matter of Parliamentarian care of its soldiery – the hospital structure, the diet of sick and hurt soldiers, the value of opportunities afforded for women to be recognised in paid employment outside the home. In 1657 four women were interviewed for the single position of ward Sister at a London soldiers’ hospital. A nursing post in one of the London soldiers’ hospitals would have attracted a wage of 5s per week, with accomodation and food provided. (Set that against the widow’s pension of 4s per week, and it’s a much less impressive deal.)

That, however, is for another day entirely. On this anniversary of the battle of Edgehill, let us raise a toast to the Committee for Sick and Maimed Soldiers: the first of its kind in England.