Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Writing the (un)dead by Anne Rooney

Anne Rooney by Luki Sumner, House of Sharps
Our guest author for February is special in a new way. Anne Rooney has been helping behind the scenes since we started this blog last July. While not listed as one of us, she has performed the valuable role of Technical Support for the whole group, teaching us much and resolving our mistakes and muddles. And believe me, many of us were on a steep learning curve when we started!

So we were delighted to discover that, while not technically a historical novelist, Anne has been introducing some historical characters into her latest series - and a bizarre and fascinating mix they are!

About Anne:

Anne Rooney writes fiction and non-fiction for children and adult non-fiction on a bizarre range of topics. She has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow for several years, and blogs as Stroppy Author. Anne lives in Cambridge with one-and-a-half daughters, a pig, two ferrets, a population of chickens that varies according to the appetite of the fox, a tortoise and possibly a turtle.

Over to Anne:

Thank you, History Girls, for inviting me to guest here. I'm not a real History Girl - I just lurk behind the scenes, bullying the electrons when things go wrong in a digital kind of way.

Although I haven't published a historical novel, I've dragged a few historical characters  into the twenty-first century to feature in my forthcoming vampire series (stifle that yawn, please; these are a very different kind of vampire).

A historical novelist writing about a real figure does a lot of research into the person's real life and times. But what if you want your historical figures still to be alive? You don't need to know just what they were like hundreds of years ago - you need to drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century and look at what they would be like now. It's all very well to know how Samuel Pepys or Henry VII behaved then, but how would they be after they'd witnessed the First World War and the Space Race?

Take a step back. Vampires live a long time. Conventionally, they live forever. Mine don't exactly live forever, but because vampirism is a disease that eradicates telomere* shortening, they live for at least ten times as long as non-vampires. Diseases strike at random, so although many vampires are just routine folk, some are not. Amongst my vampire coterie I have [spoiler alert] Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, Louis Pasteur, Elvis Presley and Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper - well, I could do what I liked with him because no one knows who he was. But the others can't be made up.

Anton Raphael Mengs, self-portrait
That's not strictly true. I made up the character Ignace before I decided he was previously known as Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. I'd written the first book in the series and named the principal vampire Ignace. Then I was looking up Guillotin to see if he would fit into the second book, set in Paris, and discovered his second name was Ignace and I had sort of used him already. But I'd use the picture on the right while writing him. On the basis of this portrait, and not any information about the man (it's actually Anton Raphael Mengs, a painter born in Germany in 1728), I'd written a character who was slick, debonair, a bit of a rake, and - incidentally - the chief vampire of the western world. But by happy coincidence Ignace shared a name with Guillotin, and that's who he became.

Joseph Ignace-Guillotin
The task then became not to recreate Guillotin as he would have been in the late eighteenth century, but to develop him as he would be now, in 2012, if he were still alive. So we have a man who invented the guillotine and is a vampire. Why did he invent it (or refine it, actually, though he's generally credited with its invention)? The usual reason given is that he did it to make execution less painful. Why did he care? He needs a motivation. And here it is, all laid out ready in real history...

The mother of Marie Antoinette was Maria-Theresa of Austria. In 1755, Maria-Theresa sent her private physician, Gerard van Swieten, to investigate vampirism in Moravia. He (being a vampire, in my world) reported back that vampirism is a load of b******. So MT outlawed all those vampire-killing tactics people were using. This naturally led to a surge in the number of vampires, and something had to be done. That something was the French Revolution. (And you thought it was all about oppressed peasants and a broken system? LOL! That's what they wanted you to think!)

Guillotin's eyes and nose on Mengs
Because all his aristocratic vampire friends were being killed in rather unpleasant ways and he couldn't stop them dying, Guillotin invented (refined) a way of killing them that would be relatively painless - the guillotine. (Because we all know vampires can be beheaded, staked or burnt.) Indeed, three of the six articles he presented to the National Assembly serve the purposes of vampire dynasties extremely well:
  • Article 4: No one shall reproach a citizen with any punishment imposed on one of his relatives. Such offenders shall be publicly reprimanded by a judge. [So you can't persecute the relatives of a vampire, assuming they are vampires, too - which they probably are]
  • Article 5: The condemned person's property shall not be confiscated. [Vampires have built up enormous wealth over their centuries-long lives; vampire families are not about to hand it over to the state]
  • Article 6: At the request of the family, the corpse of the condemned man shall be returned to them for burial and no reference to the nature of death shall be registered [goes without staking, and if they were not beheaded, it might be possible to fix them. And we don't want doctors looking too closely]

What can be extracted from his story to draw Guillotin as he would be now, if he'd continued to live? Well, he took credit for inventing something he only appropriated and improved, so that suggests a certain degree of self-importance, selfishness, opportunism, even arrogance. He has turned his not-inconsiderable intellect to the task of working out how to kill people with minimum pain. Though the aim is compassionate, the task is gruesome. Perhaps it takes a certain amount of detachment to tackle this problem? Perhaps it takes so much detachment that this character is rather lacking in empathy. And from this, I developed Ignace as he is now, two hundred years later.

Ignace is a psychopath. Using Simon Baron-Cohen's Zero Degrees of Empathy as a handbook to  psychopathy, I made him type zero-positive: someone whose psychopathy is not deliberately turned to harm, and often produces flashes of inventive, scientific or mathematical genius. The interest in solving the logical problem of how to kill people with minimal pain that he showed in the 18th century has become, in the 21st century, an obsession with discovering the scientific nature of vampirism. He runs a research centre in Russia; he is ruthless and some of his methods are less than ethical. But - like many psychopaths - he is superficially charming and sexually attractive. He seduces the Jack Wills model vampire when she is newly-turned vulnerable (and 350 years his junior). He excuses the awful things he does (such as buying slaves from the flesh markets of south-east Asia for his experiments) with a cool logic. He wrong-foots his wife into killing her lover to prove a point. And he keeps a very high profile prisoner in his castle for 800 years. (The prisoner's identity will be revealed in series 2, but HG readers will guess from the clues.)

So much for Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur is also a vampire, working in Ignace's research centre near Yakutsk. In life, Pasteur was a passionate scientist. He was so keen to find a vaccine to protect people against rabies that he sucked the saliva from the mouths of infected dogs with a pipette. I took this passion, and his portrait (right), and made a man who is jovial, compassionate, has a sense of humour and is fiercely intelligent. He is still dedicated to science, but he's a realist. He's found that he can't prove vampirism is a virus, and is biding his time, doing pointless experiments so that Ignace continues to fund his research while he hopes for inspiration or luck. Luck comes in the form of a young Iraqi refugee and Pasteur instantly recognises the boy's brilliance. Pasteur doesn't look very jovial in this photograph, but of course people didn't smile for photos in the 19th century.

Dmitri Ivanovsky

Another 19th century scientist I've recruited is Dmitri Ivanovsky, the Russian biologist who first identified viruses. The Dutch scientist Beijerinck is usually credited with the discovery of viruses - but he did eventually concede Ivanovsky's prior claim. So I made Ivanovsky a modest man who is kind and helpful, unassuming and self-effacing. He's also rather fragile - as he looks in this photo. Maybe he wasn't like that - maybe he was very cross that Beijerinck got the credit first off, and should have been motivated by bitterness. But I don't read Russian, and there don't seem to be any accounts of Ivanovsky's character in languages I do read, so I reckon he's fair game. He and Pasteur are foils to Ignace's ruthlessness.

There's nothing much historical to say about Jack the Ripper except what we can deduce from his crimes. I've made him a zero-negative psychopath following Baron-Cohen again, as that seems fairly consistent with what he did. My editor wanted him to be a ridiculous,  figure - more a John Christie - but that didn't seem in keeping with the accounts of his crimes. So he's tall, strong, rather handsome and very frightening. He's also calculating and ambitious. There will be more of him in the second series. He started as a minor character, but - appropriately - has claimed a larger part and won't be pushed away. I'm not brave enough to mess with him.

Elvis Presley
How would Elvis Presley be if he were alive now? For one thing, he works in a chip shop (in Eastbourne). We know that because Kirsty McColl said so ('There's a guy works down the chip shop swears he's Elvis'). He's still a talented musician; overweight, with a tacky hairstyle and too much hair dye. Elvis has only been a vampire since the 1970s, so there was no need to consider how his character would have matured and crystallised over centuries. But he's still dealing with his fate.

Elvis is very resentful of Ignace, who insisted he disappear with a fake death because an Elvis who didn't age or die would be a serious embarrassment. (Vampires who refuse to disappear with a fake death have to be disposed of. J.F. Kennedy is a prime example of this sort of stroppy vampire, addicted to success.)

I don't think there's anything quite comparable to keeping historical figures alive and functioning until the present. It's not like a time-slip or having someone wake from a coma, as they have experienced all the intervening years. There's no surprise at modern technology, no ignorance of the social and political scene. (Indeed, the vampires have all the time in the world, so they're rather good at keeping up with developments.) Instead it's a question of intensifying the normal maturing of characters - finding the key traits of a person and distilling them far beyond what would happen over a normal lifespan. It's a very unique kind of challenge - and thrilling. I think I'll be trawling history for people to drag out of the grave for a long time. Just off to polish my spade...

* telomere = a bit of spare chromosome at the end each chromosome. It doesn't code for anything useful, but each time a cell divides and the chromosomes reproduce, a bit is lost from the end of the chromosome. For most of our lives, it's a bit of useless telomere that's lost, but eventually the telomere is all gone and the useful part of the chromosome starts to be eroded. That's why old people go wrong easily - their chromosomes are getting cut off.

The first six Vampire Dawn titles are published in March 2012 by Ransom Publishing: Die Now or Live Forever; Drop Dead, Gorgeous; Life Sucks; Every Drop of Your Blood; Dead on Arrival; In Cold Blood. They are short, intended for readers who can't tackle a full-length novel. (Age 12+)

Follow Anne Rooney on Facebook or twitter: @annerooney. Follow the vampires, if you dare, on Facebook or twitter: @vampiredawn.
Websites: Anne Rooney; Vampire Dawn

February competition

Two History Girls have new books out now and we have some to offer as prizes.

To win one of three copies of Marie-Louise Jensen's The Girl in the Mask, answer this question:

"If you were a notorious 18th Century highwayman (or woman in disguise), what alias would you give yourself?"

To win one one five hardbacks of Katherine Roberts' Sword of Light, try this one:

"If Lord Avallach gave you one of his fairy horses, what would you name it?"

Leave your answers in Comments below, mixed in with comments on Anne Rooney's blogpost.

Closing date 7th March.As usual, only UK entrants. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Notable History, by K. M. Grant

Music is notably absent (see what I did there) from most novels, historical or otherwise, except as a useful scene setter: a lyre in a Tudor romp; a piano in a Victorian parlour. I think even Dickens largely gives it a miss.

This was wise. As somebody once said, ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture: it’s a really stupid thing to want to do’. Stupid, probably. Tempting, absolutely - and not just writing. I recently tried to describe to my husband the delights of the Rhinemaidens’ song at the beginning of Act III of Gotterdammerung. Boredom in seconds. When I plugged in my iPod, he was charmed (well, as charmed as he ever is by Wagner, about whose genius we will never agree).

In his overview of my current obsession, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Peter Williams asks ‘what kind of language could convey the realm of the imagination opened up by its very opening bar?’ I agree. But writers capture that realm of imagination in different ways. Music isn’t only about describing the music itself; it’s an integral part of imaginative memory.

For example, I remember almost nothing about the film Elvira Madigan, but every time I hear the Andante of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 I see a field of spring flowers and two impossibly beautiful people in love tastefully doing what people in love often do.

It’s impossible to hear Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice without images of Disney’s Fantasia bubbling up. Poor Mickey! Sometimes the associations are not nice. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example, is a player in A Clockwork Orange. Bach’s Passacalia and Fugue in C minor accompany the bloodbath in The Godfather, and I refuse to watch the Hannibal Lectern film in which, so I believe, the Doc does something frightful whilst listening to the Goldberg’s Aria.

It’s wonderful how music transcends its own time far better than books. Early novels are rightly part of the canon of literature, but who really reads Richardson’s Clarissa for pleasure? It’s stuck in the eighteenth century. The music of J. S. Bach (died 1750), on the other hand, still surprises and delights. Quite often, I’m listening to something unfamiliar and am amazed to find it’s not far short of three hundred years old.

Music is fluid and adaptable; it lives and breathes, so doesn’t date as words date. In some senses, there’s no such thing as historical music, apart perhaps from early operas. Once you’ve got over the shock of the big burly hero as castrato (listen and weep), Handel’s Tamburlaine is an ordeal verging on torture, particularly if the director insists on all the da capos. I take my hat off to modern audiences who pay good money to sit through it.

My work in progress, set in 1794, has five girls learning to play the Goldberg on a new-fangled pianoforte.

This is an unsigned pianoforte, made in 1795. The image comes from the Frederick Collection.

Part of my research is attempting to learn Variations myself, about which I'm writing a blog. The book is a historical novel, yet by moving the Goldberg onto the piano, I’m bringing it up to date, as it were. Old music played on a familiar instrument (even if my girls' pianoforte is hardly a modern Fazioli, see below) marries the past and present more easily than, for example, re-writing Walter Scott in modern idiom. I would never attempt to do that. (Do you have trouble with Walter? I'm afraid my attention soon starts to wander.)

Yet danger lurks in writing a historical musical, as it were. I’ll get into trouble for all manner of reasons: the variations were written for two manual harpsichord, not a piano; although the aria and two variations do appear in Sir John Hawkins' History of Music, there’s no record of an extant copy in London before the nineteenth century; it’s a work of difficulty far beyond five girls, at least three of whom are indifferently talented. Daunted? You bet. Disheartened? Occasionally. But the joy of writing about music is that just listening counts as work and I can never get quite enough of that.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Lies, Damned lies and statistics by Mary Hoffman

We're having a brief reflective pause on the History Girls blog today to look at some vital statistics. This has nothing to do with Emma Darwin's post on wearing the right underwear but is an inside peek at what topics people have been drawn to since we started in July 2011.

Those who administer a blog are privy to a special "Stats page". Anyone can see that we've had nearly 92,000 "views" since we started and have 258 followers. But you have to be an "admin" to know that our most popular post ever, with 1,200+ views is Caroline Lawrence's on Roman Christmas. (Actually the real most popular post with 500 views more than that is Pauline Francis's Guest Post on Elizabeth the First and perfume. However that one has also attracted the most Anonymous Spam comments, so I think we can suspend belief about some of those hits. Something about that correlation brought the Spammers out in force - I daren't put the link again).

The majority of our pageviews are from the United Kingdom, as you might expect, but nearly half as many are from the USA and it's interesting to see there are twice as many views each from Russia and India as from Italy!

Facebook drives more traffic to the site than does Twitter. The greatest number of Comments (26) used to be for Katherine Langrish's blogpost on Torture as Entertainment but that is now neck and neck with H.M. Castor's post on The Bewildering Boleyn.

If you look at the Cloud arrangement of labels on the right-hand side, you would think that our major pre-occupation since we started has been Cross-dressing! That's because Caroline Lawrence suggested we might take up a theme in a given month and ten posts in September/October responded to that idea.

But Christmas was equal with Cross-Dressing in the number of mentions!

It will be very interesting to look again at the end of June and see what the Stats have been after a whole year of blogging. But just a quick thank you to all our followers, commenters and page-viewers - even the Spammers. We are very pleased that the figures are so healthy.

Louisa Young will be back soon

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Death and Poetry in the Karoo - Dianne Hofmeyr

I have fallen under the spell of a vista. It has stirred up a deep-seated identity with soil and rock. I’m lost in a world of sepia, ochre and rust where having forgotten to pack my camera, I’m forced to look harder. Through a portal of soaring rocky folds that seem made of ancient paved brick where the road crosses the river 25 times, I come to the Karoo.

Karoo… the name is odd. It comes from a language of clicks - karo, karro - meaning ‘hard’ or ‘dry’. And it is dry and hard, with a gaunt, spectacular grandeur that subdues me. I can’t imagine its impact on the young British soldiers who were first offloaded here in 1899. Names like Outeniqua, Oudtshoorn, Meiringspoort, Weltrevrede and words like kopje and veldt must have faltered on the tongues of men from Harlech and Bristol who came to fight a war against the Boers in the semi-desert of the Karoo. Is this the place that gave name to the soldier Mad Carew in J. Milton Hayes’poem The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God ?
In 1901 when Rudyard Kipling was sent to report on the Anglo-Boer War, he wrote of the soldiers who sat through cold nights guarding the single train line that ran through the Karoo, from ambush by the Boer commandoes. It's a vision of stark loneliness in a very dark world.
Sudden the desert changes,
The raw glare softens and clings,
Till the aching Oudtshoorn ranges
Stand up like the thrones of Kings—

Ramparts of slaughter and peril—
Blazing, amazing, aglow—
’Twixt the sky-line’s belting beryl
And the wine-dark flats below.

Royal the pageant closes,
Lit by the last of the sun—
Opal and ash-of-roses,
Cinnamon, umber, and dun.

The twilight swallows the thicket,
The starlight reveals the ridge.
The whistle shrills to the picket—
We are changing guard on the bridge.

(Few, forgotten and lonely,
Where the empty metals shine—
No, not combatants—only
Details guarding the line.)

We slip through the broken panel
Of fence by the ganger’s shed;
We drop to the waterless channel
And the lean track overhead;

We stumble on refuse of rations,
The beef and the biscuit-tins;
We take our appointed stations,
And the endless night begins.

We hear the Hottentot herders
As the sheep click past to the fold—
And the click of the restless girders
As the steel contracts in the cold—

Voices of jackals calling
And, loud in the hush between,
A morsel of dry earth falling
From the flanks of the scarred ravine.

And the solemn firmament marches,
And the hosts of heaven rise
Framed through the iron arches—
Banded and barred by the ties,

Till we feel the far track humming,
And we see her headlight plain,
And we gather and wait her coming—
The wonderful north-bound train.

(Few, forgotten and lonely,
Where the white car-windows shine—
No, not combatants—only
Details guarding the line.)

Quick, ere the gift escape us!
Out of the darkness we reach
For a handful of week-old papers
And a mouthful of human speech.

And the monstrous heaven rejoices,
And the earth allows again,
Meetings, greetings, and voices
Of women talking with men.

So we return to our places,
As out on the bridge she rolls;
And the darkness covers our faces,
And the darkness re-enters our souls.

More than a little lonely
Where the lessening tail-lights shine.
No—not combatants—only
Details guarding the line!

Thomas Hardy wrote two poems highlighting the blight of the Anglo-Boer War. The first, A Wife in London written in 1899 is about the irony of a wife receiving a letter from her husband on the day after she has received the news of his death. The second Hardy poem, Drummer Hodge, is about a young man ignorant and innocent of what lies ahead who wouldn’t have known the meaning of the strange words that give meaning to the Karoo but whose body would become nourishment for the veldt in years to come.

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined - just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew -
Fresh from his Wessex home -
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.

I wonder if Rupert Brooke had read Hardy’s Drummer Hodge when he wrote these lines in The Soldier in 1914?
IF I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

Reams could be written of this war and of the soldiers who never returned to their families in England and of the Australians who gave their support to Britain. And reams could be written of the Boers who suffered and died under Kitchener’s Burnt Earth Policy and the Boer wives and children who were rounded up and put in Concentration Camps and died of cold, starvation and typhoid.
My maternal great grandfather from Yorkshire had his sheep farm in Natal expropriated during the Anglo-Boer War. My paternal grandfather fought on the side of the English. In my husband’s family there were those that fought on the side of the Boers. No wonder I feel a deep sense of identity with this vista of the Karoo.

Some of the History Girls will be putting up books they've recently read (without reviews) at the end of their posts. These are two I've recently read - the first by our own History Girl, Louisa Young, short-listed for the Costa which deals with the ravages of WWI and The Sisters Brothers which is a cowboy story with a difference set in similar terrain to the Karoo which was short-listed for the Booker:

Saturday, 25 February 2012


I’ve written here before about my joy at moving to Scotland, and my grand romance with Edinburgh isn’t over, but I have let my heart stray. Now I’m in love with a railway line.
My business and family lives have me shuttling between London and Edinburgh several times a month on what must be one of the world’s greatest train journeys. It’s given me an idea for a book.
For the East Coast line is an historian’s delight – especially if you sit on the right hand side of the carriage on the way up to Scotland, or the left-hand side on the way down south. The route takes you past breathtaking sights, loaded with history. My fantasy book traces that line, telling the stories of many of the places you pass.

There are all the obvious ones: the big cathedrals at Peterborough, York (above),
and Durham (below) - and even Lincoln when there’s a problem and the train gets diverted.

There are the magnificent bridges at Newcastle, the wild sea coast looking out to Holy island, and the beautiful man-made taming of that coast at Berwick-upon-Tweed (still at war with Russia, some say, thanks to a cock-up of treaty drafting in 1856).

Along parts of the journey, the train runs parallel to the A1, which is itself the successor to the ancient road that joined south and north from the earliest times. The settlements whose stations fly by so fast that it’s hard to read the names on the signs are the old stabling and coaching centres of centuries ago: Grantham (home town of Isaac Newton and Margaret Thatcher – now apparently raped by the identikit warehouses of the retail trade); Darlington (which still sings of a past of prosperity and industry); ancient Dunbar, Prestonpans, and many more.
If you’re a regular on the line, you can afford to look out of the other window at the crucial moments. While everyone else is gasping over the sea view at Berwick, you can catch the majestic Tweed carrying the weight of Borders history through rolling hills. From the high track above Durham there’s an unmatched panorama of Victorian domestic and industrial building, and a steep, straight road that looks like a ski jump in the winter. At the other end of the route, just outside King’s Cross, there’s Alexandra Palace, high on a hill: birthplace of television news, and the site of a dramatic fire in 1980. And all that is a just a hint of the gems along the way.

Just imagine being able to make the journey with a book that told you about some of the great events, from invention and industry to battles and bombings, that have taken place just beyond the carriage window. I would love to write it. Any takers?

Friday, 24 February 2012

"Pepys Visits The Broads"

By Katherine Langrish

June 23rd

This morning to rise early in readiness for our water excursion, myself having slept at the house of the Cardinal in readiness therefore. At seven come the rest of our party, they being The Scoutmaster, the Muffin man, and Long John. Great bustle and to-do, there being a great variety of things to be taken… At Horning did receive our boat the Sea Mist, a fine roomy craft that is to be our home for a sennight. The Muffin man and the Scoutmaster being the only ones not acquainted with petrol engines, we three others did listen avidly to the teachings of the young man from the boat hirers, feigning ignorance thereof. Whereat much merriment, we being all in high spirits.

June 24th

Sunday, and a most fair, pleasant and lazy day. Did rise early, being awakened at five thirty by the Muffin man, shouting ‘Pike! Pike!’ he, being a light sleeper, hearing the whirr of the reel running out. A fine fish, and being landed and killed, was put to soak for the removal of the muddy flavour that doth afflick freshwater fish. After breakfast did sail to Hickling Broad, a prodigious stretch of water and all so a-sparkle with the sun and dotted with white sails that we did cry out in admiration… Caught by the wind and thrust broadside into the weeds, whereat much laughter and quanting and towing off. So with much fishing and sailing passed the rest of this day… Supped off the morning’s pike with much others and did listen to the service broadcast and the music following and so to bed…

June 25th
A glorious day. Returning to Potter Heigham for provisions, we did moor the boat and go in a body to the shoppe, where the Cardinal did borrow a pair of scissors, and the others making a most ungodly rush at me, and holding my arms, the Cardinal did cut off my moustache. The shoppe people very nervous and distrait, thinking they were to witness a falling-out. Sailing round Horsey Mere the engine did conk out, but occasioned no anxiety, there being plenty of room in which to drift. The wildfowl here a most marvellous sight, this being a bird sanctuary. Did find out and remedy the engine trouble, this being a blocked petrol pipe. Meals being taken when we were hungry, they consisting very finely of all the things that men chuse to eat among themselves, most tasty and abundant. The Cardinal’s dog to swim most grandly, which the Cardinal do attribute to her tail not having been docked…

The year? 1928. The author? My grandmother Emmeline (known to all as Linnie), writing from the viewpoint of my grandfather, her husband William (aka ‘Sam Pepys’). He and his brother and three friends had gone for an ‘all boys together’ spree on the Norfolk Broads in a boat called Sea Mist, and my grandmother – who stayed at home – had the inspiration to write it up as a Pepysian spoof and sell it to ‘The Anglers’ News’. It must have done well, as she followed it up next year with a similar article, ‘Pepys Fishes in Lincolnshire’.

To my great delight this article and these pictures recently came to light with the discovery of a long-lost family photo album.  I'd never seen any of them before, and so I hope you'll forgive this very 'family-historical' post.  But here is a picture of my grandmother – my mother’s mother – as a girl in her twenties. She was born in 1892 and her name was Emmeline Mary Sherwood, though everyone called her ‘Linnie’.

Her own grandfather was a Yorkshire farmer: one cast from a rather different mould than the taciturn cliché: he was a poet (though none of his poems seem to have survived), the inventor of a number of farmyard improvements including a mechanism called the drop-platform plough, and – by all accounts – a bit of a dreamer. Maybe having a poet for a grandfather inspired my grandmother; maybe she was encouraged by her mother, a Knaresborough innkeeper’s daughter who went to Oxford in the 1860’s and read theology – without, of course, being awarded a degree. At any rate in 1905, thirteen-year-old Linnie wrote a poem on the death of the actor Henry Irving. It was published in the local paper. The editor told her parents to encourage her to continue writing. And she did.

No more than today, however, could one then rely upon making a living from writing. She trained and worked for Underwood’s as a demonstration typist – a useful skill for a writer, which opened the path for her to work during 1911 as personal secretary to the Earl of Leitrim in Rosapenna, County Donegal. For propriety’s sake she stayed not at the house, but in the Rosapenna Hotel owned by the Earl, and was known to all by the nickname ‘Miss Yorkshire’. Here it is, in a postcard she stuck into the album:

 – and here - possibly in the room pictured below! - she was proposed to by a visiting Malaysian prince, the son of the Sultan of Johor, but refused him, being already engaged to marry my grandfather William Thornber, also of Yorkshire farming stock, who earned a living as one of the early breed of motor mechanics.

Once married and with children, Linnie began writing stories and poems as a way of augmenting the family income. She also wrote plays for the Sheffield Repertory Theatre: the first, ‘Grey Ash’ (a supernatural shocker about an accursed violin) was broadcast by the BBC, and after that several more of her plays were broadcast. There’s apparently even a recording of her reading one of her stories, and how I wish it were possible to track it down.

As her three daughters grew older, perhaps Linnie had more time to write. Her first book ‘Bitter Glory’ was a historical novel about the romance between Chopin and George Sand, and it was published in 1935 under the male pseudonym ‘Leon Thornber’. You can see the rather unlikely cover below on the left, with Sand glancing coquettishly at the portrait of Chopin.

 However, the book is well researched and serious. It’s of its time, of course:

There was a certain apartment, very large and square and lofty, on the Chausée d’Antin, and there it seemed that spring had taken laughing refuge against the cutting winds and flurrying snow of winter’s last despairing stand. A bright fire leaped on the hearth, casting rosy shadows on the pale panelled walls and the polished floor strewn with rich rugs as bright as summer.

We don’t go in for that sort of fanciful flourish these days (but I like it). And it was well received, although for her next books Linnie stuck to places and people she knew well. Her next book, ‘And One Man’, 1936, was based on her own family history.  Here's her hero, Jude Wayland, waking up in a Yorkshire farmhouse on a bitter winter’s morning:

In the big kitchen below him, he could hear Sarah, his brother’s wife, moving about her morning tasks with the maids. Fire irons rattled, dishes and cutlery clattered, the wooden pump on the sink groaned and gushed, there was a rattle of pails in the outer kitchen. Then someone dragged the coal bucket across the tiled floor, and the noise of it set Jude’s teeth on edge. He sat up in bed in sudden fury. ‘For God’s sake,’ he cried, ‘can’t Sarah keep those women quiet? She knows Dad’s ill.’

One of the most colourful characters in the book, Dicky Lismore, is based on her own father Sam Sherwood, a successful commercial traveller with an eye for the ladies. He meets Jude on a train to ‘Stelborough’ (Sheffield), and rattles on in a style which my mother tells me was pretty much verbatim:

‘It’s a rum place, Stelborough. Filthy, but where there’s muck there’s money, and where there’s money, women go in for being soulful and arty. It’s full of music. Some of it is good, too, but not all. I heard the Messiah there once. God, what a row! Half a hundred withered spinsters piping out, ‘Unto us a son is born,’ and then the basses chipped in ‘Wonderful.’ And it would have been wonderful too, judging by the look of them. They were past the bearing age.’

Her third book, ‘Portrait in Steel,’ followed the fortunes of the Sheffield steelworks via the personal history of one Nicholas Brough, who begins as an idealistic youth at the start of the first World War and ends up in the thirties as ‘a damned hard man’. This novel takes in the wartime steel boom, the slump of the twenties, and the resurgence of the steel industry as the Spanish Civil War starts to bite. It was published in 1938, and the whole of the second edition was bombed in its London warehouse during the blitz and went up, literally, in smoke.

After that she never published another novel, although my mother tells me that she did begin writing one. It had a supernatural theme involving black magic, and as she read it out chapter by chapter to the family, my mother and her sisters were agog with excitement to find out what would happen. But they never did. Linnie was always rather superstitious. Somehow she must have managed to scare herself. She stopped writing it, and after her death my mother could not find any trace of the manuscript.

I was only four years old when Linnie died. My memories of her are hazy, and from a child’s viewpoint – her full blue skirt: the Chinese wastepaper basket under her dressing table, the many pots of bottled fruit she made each summer stacked along the shelf in the passage upstairs, and the dressmaker’s dummy which lay on top of her wardrobe like some sort of pallid Egyptian mummy-case. When I stayed overnight and shared her room, I did not dare to turn my back on it.

Here are two publicity shots of her, taken in 1924 and 1930.  I wish mine came out anything like so well...
How much I should like to sit down with Linnie Thornber and talk about her books and my books and the craft we share!  But as that's not possible I’m just very happy to be able to read the account of my Grandad's far-off and golden 1928 holiday, in my Grandma’s delightfully flippant style:

June 27th
Voyaging from Stalham, did find a most delectable spot, where we did stay all day, fishing and engaging in sports ashore. A great catch of fish, but maggots running short, the Cardinal says they are to be cherished in future. A boat anchoring near, did disclose four lovely wenches, whereat we were all delighted, but should have fared better had their parents not been aboard also. The Cardinal and Long John out at twilight to whisper to two of them. Supped on fish and fruit and coffee, an ungodly mixture which liketh us mightily. 
So ends this day.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

German Silesia - from revolution to degermanisation, by Leslie Wilson

After the First World War, Poland, which had previously been split up between Germany, Austria and Russia, was now reinstated as a nation. At the same time, the future of Upper Silesia was in question. Naturally, both Germany Poland wanted this important mining and industrial area - and those members of the Allies - notably France - who desired above all the weakening of Germany were keen that Poland should have it. There was a plebiscite to decide which nation Upper Silesia should belong to.

There was apparently a suggestion, which wasn't taken on board, that the post-war settlement should allow Silesia to be an independent nation. That might well have satisfied the feelings of Silesians. But the plebiscite gave them the choice between becoming either 'Polish' or 'German.' The polls yielded a majority in favour of remaining German (59.6%). However, in the eastern parts of the region, the majority voted for Poland. Though Germany at first assumed that the poll result would give them the whole of Silesia, eventually it was decided that a segment (containing some of the richest industrial assets, such as Kattowice) was shaved off the east of Upper Silesia, and became part of Poland. During the campaign, there was brutality and intimidation from both nationalistic parties, and several Polish uprisings, culminating, post-referendum in 1921, in a bloody battle on the Annaberg. My grandfather, who was from Lower Silesia, fought there on the German side.

It's a line in his cv, a medal hanging next to his First World War medal. 'Für Schlesien,' it says. 'For Silesia.' He died in 1968, years before I got really interested in the topic. So I can't ask him about his motivation or his experiences. I do know that - as I've said in last month's blog - he was far more 'German' than my grandmother.

Anyway, the remainder of Silesia remained German, though the Silesian language was still spoken, that odd mixture of West-slav and German dialect; it continued to be spoken all the way till the end of the war, though the official language was German. Silesia, of course, went through the traumatic experiences of the rest of Germany during the next twelve years. First there was the horror of the Inflation period, then the gradual economic reconstruction, during which time my grandparents married and had one child - only one, because my grandfather said the times were too bad to have more children. But heavy unemployment and high child mortality persisted, even in Upper Silesia.

At this time my grandfather was studying hard for promotions in the police force. He was, like many of his colleagues, a Social Democrat. The SPD (Social Democratic Party) was the strongest party for many between-the wars years in the western parts of Silesia, while the Catholic Centre dominated in the east, unsurprisingly, given the largely Catholic character of that region.

There was an increase in violent anti-Semitism during those years, and in 1920, during the Kapp Putsch, six Jewish citizens of Breslau were murdered by the Freikorps (nationalistic extremists). Jews were discriminated against in their careers, and in public life. Nevertheless, the Nazis were for a long time a minority party, whose election percentages remained in single figures.

In 1929, the Wall Street Crash tolled the death-knell of Germany's fragile economic reconstruction, tossing millions into unemployment and poverty, and hugely boosting the popularity of both the Communist and the Nazi party. Their supporters formed paramilitary organisations who fought pitched battles in the streets - one of my mother's early memories was of mattresses being put in the windows to keep the bullets out of the houses. My grandfather, then stationed in Hindenburg/Zabrze, was out there, policing those battles, trying to keep his men from joining in, because - I have read - 'nowhere in Germany were the police harder on the Nazis than in Upper Silesia.'
In the 1932 elections, the Nazi upsurge amounted to 43.5% in the Breslau electoral division, 48% in Liegnitz - both in Lower Silesia - but only 29.2% in Upper Silesia, where the Catholic Centre remained strong. The Communists were also stronger in Upper Silesia than in Lower Silesia, though they only got 17% even there. As the world knows, in 1933, Paul von Hindenburg, the president after whom my mother's birthplace had been renamed, faced with the danger of civil war, decided to invite Adolf Hitler to become Chancellor. That was in January. On 27th February the Reichstag went up in flames, and the purge of the Left began. Communist and Social Democratic politicians were dragged off to 'wild' concentration camps, many of them murdered. Hermann Goering drafted a new law - to reform the civil service. The police came under this law, and my grandfather's career was severely threatened.

I've told the story, with very little alteration, in Last Train from Kummersdorf. He was accused of being a 'Leftist' - which he was - and saved because my grandmother went to 'a very important person' to plead for him But I shan't write at length about that today. In 1938, my grandfather was moved to Graz, in Austria, at the Anschluss, and never returned to work in Silesia, though there were many family visits.

In 1939, a faked 'Polish raid' on a radio transmittor in Gleiwitz was the excuse for a long-planned German invasion of Poland - and those parts of Silesia which had gone to Poland were returned to German rule. In an eastern corner of that section was a place called Auschwitz.

97% of the population of Kattowice/Kattowitz were frightened enough to claim that they were really Germans - but the Nazis ignored these assertions, and made their own division into Germans; ethnic Germans who hadn't asserted their German nationality before the invasion; persons of indeterminate origin, and Poles who hadn't been 'anti-German.' It was bad luck to be in the 'indeterminate' category. Worse luck to be Jewish, of course. But the horrors of the German occupation of Eastern Europe are well-known. Auschwitz moved into its dreadful place in history. There's something else, that I only found out recently, which is that throughout Silesia monuments and inscriptions that related to the Piast duchy of the past were erased during the Nazi period.

Silesia was a major location for munitions production during the war - but also a 'safe' area, supposed to be bomb-free. Towards the end of the war, there were almost half a million evacuees living there. But in 1944, the Americans, operating out of Italy, got their bombers as far as Upper Silesia. The end was coming.

On land, the Russians had already crossed the frontier into Poland. The rape and slaughter some members of the Red Army inflicted on civilian populations were useful propaganda to keep the Germans fighting to the bitter end. They weren't just 'atrocity stories,' though. Silesia suffered its share of this when the Soviet troops got there. And its Gauleiter, Hanke, decided to make a 'heroic' last stand in Breslau (now Wrocław). To which end he drove, old people, women and children out of the city, in temperatures of -15C. About 18,000 people of them died. Hanke didn't stay to the end, however. Like most of the Nazi leadership he ratted on the people, but not by committing suicide; he left by plane before the city fell, and was never heard of again. Breslau was left in ruins.

Many Silesians fled before the Red Army, and got a cold welcome further west; some refugee 'treks' like the ones I've described in Last Train from Kummersdorf were still wandering around a year later, unable to find anywhere to stay. The diarist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich described a barefoot Silesian child in one of these miserable processions who said: 'My feet hurt.' She lifted them up and they were raw and bleeding.

This time, the whole of Silesia was given to Poland. Churchill was against it, but Stalin insisted, because he wanted territory to resettle the Poles he intended to drive out of their own homes in the Polish Ukraine and Byelorussia. The official transports were formed in spring 1946, but even before that it was the turn of German Silesians to be driven from their home. Some were taken to prison camps, where many died.

One may say that this only mirrored the dreadful crimes Germany committed in Poland, but I think that's a cop-out, because those who suffered weren't necessarily the guilty parties. Neither the children who died in freezing cold railway carriages, or the little girl with the bleeding feet deserved what happened to them. Nor, I think, had my crusty old great-grandfather from the mountains, who hated the Nazis, and, having been deported at the age of ninety, died in a displaced persons' camp in the new East Germany, refusing all my grandfather's attempts to bring him to the west, because he couldn't believe he'd never see his home again.

In Upper Silesia, it was the middle classes who were deported. The working classes remained and were largely polonicised, which caused some suffering. They were to speak Polish, not Silesian, and all German-language inscriptions were now erased, just as the German government had tried to erase all trace of the Polish past. Even gravestones had the German writing hacked off. Here's one, in a churchyard in Zabrze.

In Lower Silesia the entire population was removed.Here's one of the deportation lists.

Meanwhile, new Silesians arrived, the people from the new Russian territories who were given the choice between becoming Russian or moving - or no choice at all. Traumatised and homesick, though these people were, glad to find themselves moving into the often comfortable homes the Germans had been expelled from - right down to furniture, crockery, and bottled fruit and jam- many of them never really settled down in Silesia, always afraid that the Germans would return and they would be be driven out again. The next generation, happily, is more settled.

And what does all this mean to me, personally? As a teenager, my school history books declared that Silesia, like Poland, had been invaded by Germany during the War, and that the Germans who were deported had been semi-criminal carpet-baggers. I knew this wasn't true. When I told people where my mother came from, people looked blank, so I gave up, and said my grandfather lived in the Rhineland.

But I can remember my grandmother weeping about family members 'driven out in the middle of the night, into the snow.' And I used to look at my toys and make mental lists of which ones I'd take, if we in our turn had to flee. That has given me, in adulthood, sympathy with the refugees and asylum-seekers so vilified in current society.

Many Germans, even, look askance at you if you say your family comes from Silesia - perhaps because of a pain they can't deal with. And I do wonder why people can't deal with what is, after all, simple historical truth? Silesia was my mother's birthplace, and my family's home. Now other people live there and it's their home. I totally accept that, but the country is nevertheless part of my identity. Why should I pretend otherwise?

In 2009, I finally visited Silesia, having wanted to for years. But I'll write about that next month, to stop this one getting as long as War and Peace.

At the moment, I'm reading Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge's biography of Vera Brittain; this is because I've just re-read Testament of Youth, and I wanted to know what someone else thought of her.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Even the Ghosts are Reading Books - Emma Darwin

Everyone knows that writers are also readers, and by writers I don't (for once) just  mean novelists. We need books, and we need more books than we can afford or house, so we need libraries. But we also need books, as far as is possible, when we need them: not before (because working with too much research is like trying to catch a waterfall in a cup) and not after (because it can be hard to re-route a story which has gone off on mistaken rails). I have friends who almost live in the gorgeousness of the new British Library, which has moved out of the Victorian-neoclassical glories of the British Museum Reading Room to live next to the Victorian-gothic glories of St Pancras station. I have other friends who bring joy to their local librarian's heart by using every drop of all that professional expertise, but neither of those are quite what I need; the essence of my practice as a writer is that when I'm doing research, fact-checking is the least important part of it. The more important stuff is what I can't really know that I'm looking for, so certainly couldn't find in a catalogue.

One day back in the 1840s, the story goes, the great historian Thomas Carlyle was sitting in the British Museum, waiting for the books he'd ordered to be brought from the bookstacks. He waited for an hour and a half, unable to get any further with what he was working on, and when they arrived they were the wrong books. And because of how the Library worked and still does, even if he did re-order them, by the time they'd been retrieved and brought to him, most of the working day would be over. Up he got and walked out, and on his way home to Chelsea he vowed to found a library where scholars could go into the bookstacks for themselves, browse, find and retrieve what they wanted, and take it home.

The London Library began on the first floor of the Traveller's Club, in Pall Mall, and Thackeray was its first auditor. It grew fast, and soon moved to its current home round the corner in St James's Square; Eliot (George), Dickens and my own great-great-grandpapa were among its early members. Its current president is Tom Stoppard and you'll see many a face you recognise from a book jacket and many more that you don't, as you look up from where you're tucked in a corner in Science & Miscellaneous Quarto, digging among the early books about photography. (Why is Photography not in the Art Room? Well, the library was founded only four years after Fox Talbot patented the Calotype, so I'll forgive them.)

But it is, very emphatically, a working library not a social club: this blog entry gives you a better idea and more pictures than I possibly can. There is now very nice room tucked up in the eaves to have coffee and eat the sandwiches you brought with you, as there wasn't when A S Byatt set the first scene of Possession there, but that's about the only visible concession to modern habits. Oh, and the enormous e-library you can get at from home, the wifi, and the Twitter account: just follow @TheLondonLib. It's recently somehow found space in a very crowded corner of the world to enlarge itself considerably, mainly thanks to the success of another member's little book of comic poems about Cats: Eliot (T.S). Essentially, though, it's just the nicest place in London to work, and the library that best combines practicality (once you've got the hang of its idiosyncratic classification system) and scholarship, and that's why I and thousands of other writers of every kind are members.

But none of all these delights would be worth the membership fee if it didn't do what I want. A central tenet of the Library's philosophy is that knowledge grows, develops, shifts, but it is never outdated. And so, unlike public libraries they never get rid of a book. This is particularly useful for the historical novelist, because the pre-siftedness of a history book may well not tell me what I need to know.

So, in The Mathematics of Love Stephen and Lucy drive along the north coast of Spain, from San Sebastian to Bilbao. Google Earth and a cheap plane ticket could tell me about the physical geography, but what about the human geography? I only found the answer by kneeling on the iron-gridded floor of the bookstacks, in Topography>Spain: an 1860s guide to travelling in Northern Spain, complete with engravings by Honoré Daumier. There was an overloaded diligence staggering along those mountain roads, the costumes of market women, farmers, sailors, priests and nuns, evocations of crumbling villages and bustling towns, the usual English horror of Catholicism and the pity for the picturesque peasants that they weren't allowed to know any better... even a picture of the writer preaching Evangelical Protestantantism to a group of urchins on the beach. And most delightful for me, were observations of the lingering scars of the Peninsular War. Perhaps the innkeeper the author found more welcoming than most in San Sebastian was the son of the man who welcomed Stephen fifty years before. For A Secret Alchemy the formal history books were essential, of course, as I was dealing with real historical characters, so some of the time my booklist looked more like a historian's, even though I'd hesitate to show it to the really proper historians around me in the Reading Room.

And the Work in Progress? All I'll say now is that not only has that shelf of very early photography books been well-explored, but the one I have on my desk at home has patches of chemical stains. And since the science, like the art, of photography, is eternally restless, I can probably narrow down those stains to about twenty years or so. I wonder who put them there? It's not really essential to the novel that the 1913 Baedeker to Southern France, which is next to it on my desk, has pencil notes in the margin about mountains climbed and hotels stayed in. It has a list in the back, in the same hand, as the scholars say: Photographs, and a plan for the week. Who was it?

You'll have gathered by now that for this historical novelist, at least, part of the joy of the London Library is that I'm walking (kneeling, writing, longing for coffee) in the footsteps of my fellow-members of and in the past. They have their stories too, and since the Work in Progress has real historical people in it, and some of them were members of the London Library, maybe all I'll have to do is sit there, at one of the quiet single desks in some corner of the stacks, and listen for the whisk of petticoats or the harrumph of a handsome pair of whiskers. In the London Library even the ghosts are reading books.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Fanny Burney by Imogen Robertson

I was inspired by Marie Louise Jensen’s post on Aphra Behn, so may I put forward another pioneer, the wonderful Fanny Burney? Virginia Woolf said "All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds." Fanny Burney she called “the mother of English fiction”.

Novelist, playwright, diarist and letter writer she is one of those stars of the 18th century whose liveliness and delight in skewering her characters (real and fictional) made the period come alive for me.

In fact, I’m indebted to her whole family. Her father was a respected musicologist who travelled Europe to study music, I used his observations of castrato singers writing of Anatomy of Murder; and her sister Susan left in her diary a wonderful account of the opera season of 1781 which was also invaluable.

Fanny remains my favourite though. She published her first novel, Evelina, anonymously in 1778, and it was an instant hit. She seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed hearing her friends praise the book to her, not knowing that she wa

s the author, and laughed at herself for it. When her identity became known, she found herself admired and befriended by Hester Thrale, another writer of very useful letters, Samuel Johnson and Sheridan. If her play of the following year, The Witlings, is anything to go by, not all her acquaintances were literary luminaries of such standing.

This play, never produced in her life time, has a very thin plot that serves as a vehicle for a full-blooded satire on amateur writers and their admirers. There is Mr Dabbler, who wants nothing more than an opportunity to read his verses and have them praised; Lady Smatter who misattributes every half-remembered quote she comes up with; Mr Codger who never manages to finish a thought, because everyone about him is so keen to speak themselves, he never gets beyond his ponderous introductions and my favourite, Mrs Sapient who states the obvious and banal as if it is the fruits of long study. We’ve all got a bit of those character in us. The play has real vigour and bite. It’s also very funny, and the non-romantic hero, Mr Censor, has such a talent at cutting these monsters down to size, you could call him a sort of proto-Darcy. Actually even though Witlings was never produced (women writing comedy was pushing it a bit), Burney was a huge influence on Jane Austen. Does this, for instance, sound familiar? ‘The whole of this unfortunate business," said Dr Lyster, "has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE.” (from Cecilia 1782)

Sorry, I can’t resist just quoting a moment from Witlings:

Lady Smatter: I was reading, the other day, that the memory of a poet should be short, that his works may be original.

Dabler: Heavens, madam, where did you meet with that?

Lady Smatter: I can’t exactly say, but either in Pope or Swift.

Dabler: O curse it, how unlucky!

Lady Smatter: Why so?

Dabler: Why, madam, ’tis my own thought! I’ve just finished an epigram upon that very subject! I protest I shall grow more and more sick of books every day, for I can never look into any, but I’m sure of popping upon something of my own.

Lady Smatter: Well but, dear sir, pray let’s hear your epigram.

Dabler: Why,— if your Ladyship insists upon it — [Reads.]

Ye gentle Gods, O hear me plead,

And kindly grant this little loan;

Make me forget whate’er I read

That what I write may be my own.

Lady Smatter: O charming! Very clever indeed.

Beaufort: But pray, sir, if such is your wish, why should you read at all?

Dabler: Why, sir, one must read; one’s reputation requires it; for it would be cruelly confusing to be asked after such or such an author, & never to have looked into him. especially to a person who passes for having some little knowledge in these matters.

The whole play is online here. It’s well worth a read. Now, I can’t cram half of what needs to be said about this woman into a blog post, so can I recommend the brilliant biography of her by Claire Harman? Just to turn that suggestion from a temptation to a necessity, think of the following choice nuggets, (and this is aside from her importance from a literary point of view). She was a witness to the madness of King George III. He chased her through the gardens at Kew. She wrote one of the most harrowing accounts of surgery pre-anaesthesia that exists, describing her mastectomy; and here’s the one that really makes my eyes widen thinking of what she saw and experienced in her life - she was four years older than Mozart and died the year Cézanne was born.

Monday, 20 February 2012

'An Unsuitable Job for a Woman?' by A. L. Berridge

A few months ago I visited a military museum as part of my research for ‘Into the Valley of Death’. The wonderfully obliging curator showed me every detail of the uniforms, but when I asked when the regiment’s smooth-bore muskets were replaced with the Minié rifle I saw for the first time he was unprepared. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, hastening to look in the records. ‘I thought you’d be writing a historical romance.’

There was no need to ask why. Several members of the Crimean War Research Society had already asked ‘Are you writing a romance?’, and I somehow don’t believe they’d have put the same question to a man. Yet before I start ranting about sexism, there’s actually good statistical foundation for these assumptions. If you browse the authors in the Historical Novel Society, there’s no doubt ‘romances’ are written overwhelmingly by women, while ‘action and military’ are very firmly the province of men. There are exceptions, of course, and writers like Robyn Young, Philippa Gregory and M.C. Scott have all proved women can more than hold their own in a military world, but in general there’s a truth to the expectation that women don’t write war. What I want to know is – why?

The best explanation I can think of lies in the adage that we should only write what we know. As someone with imagination I’m not sure I agree with that, but when I read the novels of men like Douglas Reeman or George MacDonald Fraser, it’s impossible not to recognize that someone who has actually fought in a war will have far greater knowledge and understanding of it than I can aspire to.

It’s also true that the one place where nobody bats an eyelash at the nature of my research is the Crimea itself, and when I attended the parade on Sevastopol’s National Day it was easy to see why this was.

(Is it just me, by the way, or is that poor lad in the middle struggling to find somewhere safe to put his elbow?)

We can see this kind of scene everywhere now, but women in the Ukraine have been an essential and active part of the military since the days of Russian rule, and I was moved to see so many of them marching with the veterans of WWII.

Here, at least, is one place where no-one thinks it strange that a woman should be interested in the business of war.
But I don’t believe military service is the only factor. Many of the foremost male writers in this field have no more experience than I do, but still no-one queries the credentials of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, Robert Fabbri or Simon Scarrow – and I doubt anyone asks if they write romances. There’s something else at play here, a long-standing perception that the subject of war is somehow unsuitable for women.

I first encountered this at the age of 8, when my sisters and I were so fascinated by the film ‘Zulu’ that we not only ‘played’ it relentlessly, but even wrote an appalling series of ‘Zulu Weekly’s about it. All might have been well had our poor parents and schoolfriends remained the only unwilling recipients of this dross, but we also sent one to the actor Stanley Baker himself, and the next thing we knew the Cambridge Evening News was at the door. An article about our insatiable blood-lust appeared the next day, and a week later they were back with a camera.

Yep, that's me with the plaits. Sorry.
We were too excited by the glory to recognize the tone of the previous article, and when the BBC asked my father to participate in a discussion about the impact of cinema on impressionable minds while we performed Zulu dances in the background, we were devastated when he said no. Apart from the insanity of actually wanting to be filmed frolicking in nothing but gym knickers and cotton wool, we simply didn’t get what it was all about. I thought it was our age that made us exceptional, but my mother pointed out wearily that boys much younger than us played at violent westerns all the time. What made this a story was the fact that we were girls.

I should have seen it, really. We should have known when the reporters wanted us to wear skirts for the picture, and when the photographer wrapped one plait round my shoulder to make sure it would show. We certainly should have suspected it when the question we were repeatedly asked was ‘And are you all really bloodthirsty?’ We weren’t, actually, and the one shot of the film we none of us liked was the (now ridiculously tame) close-up of a spear plunging into a soldier’s chest, but we could see what the nice adults really wanted and obediently gave them a resounding ‘Yes!’ They wanted freaks – nice little girls who liked blood and gore – and I’m afraid that’s what we gave them.

But it’s not the ‘gore factor’ that militates against us now. The Patricia Cornwell school of pathologists analyses mutilations to the human body even Jack the Ripper didn’t imagine, and no-one says women shouldn’t write crime. Nor is it the horrors, and no-one reading Karen Maitland’s ‘The Gallows Curse’ or Michelle Lovric’s ‘The Book of Human Skin’ ever doubts the ability of women to ‘write dark’. It’s just war.

And only real ones. We can write fictional or legendary ‘maybe’ wars, as in Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’, but real wars that people died in – no. There's perhaps a fair point there, in that such wars should never be trivialized or glorified – but why would a woman be more likely to do this than a man? No-one could read Louisa Young’s beautiful ‘My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You’ and fail to be moved by the truth and poignancy with which she conveys the real tragedy of war.

But there is a difference. We’re allowed to write about war as a background to a love story or a setting for a tragedy of human endurance; it’s only the day-in day-out action of it that’s not apparently our business. ‘Into the Valley of Death’ is my first full-scale venture into writing about war, and while it’s concerned with the pity and horror of the Crimea I can’t deny there's excitement and adventure too. Yet there’s plenty of that in the work of Bernard Cornwell, and I doubt many would question his suitability to write it. It’s just women who shouldn’t go there. Just us.

The closest women should get to war

It seems there’s a perception that women must always be dilettantes, that their involvement trivialises what should be a very serious masculine rite. I felt this first when researching for my novels set in 17th century France, and approached a local fencing club for help checking the choreography of my sword-fights. The very helpful Secretary duly forwarded my query to one of their experts, but I don’t think I was meant to see the reply. The man responded to the Secretary without seeing I was copied in, and all he said was ‘Tell her to watch “The Mark of Zorro”’.

Yet whatever one may think about that man (and trust me, I have), the fact remains that somewhere under the sexism is a real and legitimate point. War may at times seem a world of almost masonic mystery where women shouldn’t tread – but how would women feel if a man wrote a novel set in a community of nuns? War is different. There is a kind of unique brotherhood forged between men who stand under fire together, who face death and privation, who have to maim and to kill and stay sane. There is a kind of comradeship very different from that normally enjoyed by women, and if I can’t even acknowledge it then how on earth can I write about it? I do acknowledge it, I’ve talked extensively to modern day veterans to attempt to understand it – but why should I even try?

Perhaps because I write about people: my ‘men’ are as important to me as my ‘women’, and my interest is almost wholly in character. If we’re considering gender stereotypes, then there may be some truth in the idea that men are more interested in facts and women in emotions, but that’s a lousy reason for a woman not to write about an event when emotions can never be more heightened, friendships can never be more intense, and the personal stakes can never be higher. It’s a rotten reason for saying women shouldn’t write about war.

Why they should is another matter – and seeing how long this already is I’ll have to save it for another post. All I’ll say here is that if there’s one thing we History Girls all have in common it’s our ability to care about characters who lived a long time ago and went through experiences we will (hopefully) ourselves never know. Among many others, I care about men who were soldiers.

Is that so very wrong?


A.L. Berridge's website
'Into the Valley of Death' comes out May 2012.