Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Unconventional Heroine in Historical Fiction

 This is an edited version of a talk I did for Bristol Literary Festival 2017 (‘Stories of Strong Women: Unconventional Heroines’). The original talk also considered the ‘feisty’ heroine, which I’ve written about in a previous blog - Xena Warrior Princess v Patient Griselda.

Historical fiction loves unconventional heroines. I take such a heroine to be unconventional both because she kicks out against the conventions of the time and place in which she exists, and because she challenges the reader’s image of women in the past.

She does work that’s deemed to be masculine: a quick scout around the internet turned up historical romances about a newspaper reporter, geologist, astronomer, and mathematician. She refuses to accept the subservient role foisted onto women: she says no to arranged marriage, she makes her own choices about where she goes and who she sees. Or she wears men’s clothes, and in donning them she also miraculously assumes knowledge of male spaces and masculine conventions of which women, middle and upper class women at least, were usually deliberately kept ignorant. In the popular history mystery genre, she may be given a traditional female role such as midwife or lady abbess, yet is able to use that position to apprehend criminals, despite the fact that she’s operating in an entirely male-dominated legal system.

Some writers claim to base their unconventional characters on real, pioneering women: women who were newspaper reporters, geologists, astronomers or mathematicians. The trouble is they sometimes get carried away and set their stories years before these pioneers were born.

Sometimes, though, the unconventional heroine is entirely imaginary. Da Vinci’s Disciples by Donna Russo Morin is about an imagined group of women artists trained by Da Vinci who overcome the obstacles in their way to practise their art. The Illusionist’s Apprentice by Kristy Cambron introduces a fictional apprentice to Harry Houdini who dresses as a man, is wealthy, and works in Vaudeville.

Of course, these stories sound like a lot of fun, and they are obviously very popular with readers, precisely because they show women challenging stereotypes. To that extent, they really function as feminist fantasies.  

For me, however, they are problematic in that the heroine’s unconventionality is defined in purely masculine terms. She may ride, shoot and dress like a man, run her estates as well as any man, be as learned as a man...the unconventional heroine is someone who has risen above the constraining feminine condition of her time simply by being more like a man – because the assumption is that what men do is vastly superior and important and interesting.

She may dress like a man...Music hall star Vesta Tilly

So while I think there is a place for feminist fantasies of this sort – because such stories can be exhilarating, inspiring and just good fun – I also think there’s a risk that they reinforce gender roles. And by projecting attitudes of the present onto the past we forget that gender roles are acted out differently at different times. In the 1890s it was possible to write a biography of the critic John Addington Symonds without mentioning his homosexuality. You can’t imagine a biographer leaving that out today.

In fact, this fantasy unconventional heroine in historical fiction has herself become something of a convention. Yet there are plenty of examples of women who were able to rise above some of the conventions that sought to hold them back for us to write about: the women who struggled to get an education, to train as doctors, to win the vote. I think we are doing those women – any women – a great injustice if we just depict them as moderns in fancy dress. 

Women who struggled to win the vote

Mary Wollstonecraft, one of my heroines, lived a bold, brave life: she lived with a man she hadn’t married, she had a daughter by him, and she wrote an impassioned argument in favour of education for women. But she couldn’t shake off every shackle of her upbringing, so you’ll find that her argument is decidedly in favour of education for middle class women, for women who were expected to marry and have children.   

And it’s her limitations, the limitations of her time and place, that make her interesting. Not that she lived in some never-never land where anything goes. I think historical fiction is ideally placed to demonstrate that the lives women lived (and live) are already interesting enough. And depicting women in their own context, trying to understand what they were up against, may bring us closer to appreciating just how amazing they really were.   

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Very Poor, Very Rich, or Very Bad: A Tour Around Bristol Archives

I had a fantastic afternoon at the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network behind-the-scenes tour of Bristol Archives on 17 October 2017. Archivist Allie Dillon explained that Bristol had been keeping records since 1381, when a Bristol Ordinance was made by the corporation stipulating that records should be kept under lock and key in the Guildhall. The earliest records in the collection date back to 1191. The Bristol Archives Office was established in 1924, and was only the second Archives Office to be established.

At that time all of Bristol Record Office’s four archivists were women, including city archivist Miss Elizabeth Ralph, who was the first female chair of the Council of the Society of Archivists. A tree in the grounds was dedicated to her in 1991, and it was recently rededicated by the Bristol Soroptimists –  you can find out more about Miss Ralph’s career on their website.

Initially, the Archives Office mainly looked after Bristol corporation records, but its collections have greatly expanded since then. They include Diocesan records (including probate and parish records), the records of the Bristol Commonwealth and Empire Museum which closed in 2008, court records, and records for public institutions such as the police and hospitals. In addition they hold business records, amongst them records for well-known Bristol firms Fry’s, Wills’s, and Elizabeth Shaw.
Advert for Fry's (The British Library of Flickr)
We had asked if we could see examples of records of particular relevance to women’s history, and an exciting collection of items was displayed for us. They included:-

A contract to build a new house in the High Street for Bristol merchant Alice Chester, who in 1475 funded Bristol’s first crane on the Welsh Back.

A 1709 inventory of Henbury House, owned by the Astrey family, as well as a letter written by Arabella Astrey to her sister declaring her intention to remain single and independent. Scipio Africanus, an African enslaved by the Astreys who is buried in Henbury churchyard, was in the service of Arabella Astrey.

A volume of the Registry of Servants to Foreign Plantations from the 1650s, giving details of young people who travelled to the colonies as indentured servants. The Registry was established because of the prevalence of kidnapping and transporting young people to work as servants in America and the West Indies. One of the volumes has an entry for Henry Morgan, who served a cutler before turning to piracy. 

The grave of Scipio Africanus (William Avery

Building plans for nineteenth and twentieth century Bristol buildings.

Red Lodge girls’ reformatory school records. The school was opened in 1854 by Mary Carpenter.

Glenside Hospital records, some of which include photographs of the women being treated for mental illness.

The First World War scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings collected by Maud Boucher – a particularly fascinating item, as it included a great deal of information about women’s employment during the war.

The records of the country’s first all-woman radio station, Fem FM. The station was set up in 1992 and over 200 women were involved in its week-long broadcasts – which included a Men’s Hour.

Photograph album of Margaret Duncan, who in 1918 travelled to West Africa to work as a post office clerk.  

We also learned about two interesting exhibitions in Bristol which are based on records from the archives:-

Empire Through the Lens, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery – photographs and film from the now closed British Empire and Commonwealth Museum collection. For further information see the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery website. 

Brave Poor Things: Reclaiming Bristol’s Disability History, Bristol MShed – the story of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things, founded in 1894, which provided social and training facilities for disabled children and adults. For further information see the Bristol MShed website.

Apparently, there’s a saying that you only got into the archives if you were very poor, very rich or very bad. Luckily that’s no longer the case. As the records we looked at show, Bristol Archives holds a rich and varied collection of material relating to women’s history. There are so many stories to be told and I came away thinking there’s material here for a dozen novels or non-fiction books! Alas, I doubt I shall get time to write them, but just looking at this material was a reminder of how much there is yet to discover about the women of the past.   

Friday, August 25, 2017

Dan Foster's Southwark: The Butcher's Block

In The Butcher’s Block, the second full-length Dan Foster Mystery, Dan is working undercover in Southwark in a case that sees him crossing paths with body snatchers, blood-thirsty revolutionaries, French agents and British spies.

In the eighteenth century Southwark was a smelly, noisy, dirty place, crammed with shipping and its associated wharves and warehouses handling coal, timber, pipe clay, corn and a myriad other goods. Many of its industries were not the sort we’d like to live next door to, such as slaughter houses, leather tanning, brewing, soap and candle making. There were workshops and factories producing hats, glue, sugar, needles, watches, guns and coaches. There were flour mills, distilleries, and breweries such as that owned by Henry Thrale, husband of writer and diarist Esther Thrale.

There were markets at Borough and St George’s Market, and men and women on the streets selling food, drink, ballads, ribbons, flowers, bread, and other goods. There were beef shops and chop houses, coaching inns, oyster rooms, coffee houses and tea gardens. Dan passes some of his time in the coffee room of the White Hart which was on the east side of Borough High Street. 

London’s only surviving galleried coaching inn, the George Inn, is now owned by the National Trust.

There were also prisons: King’s Bench, the Marshalsea, the Southwark Compter, the Bridewell, the Clink (destroyed during the Gordon Riots of 1780). There were dissenting meeting houses, and churches such as the one Dan would have known as St Saviour’s, which became Southwark Cathedral in 1905. The church of St John the Evangelist on Horsleydown, where Dan hides to spy out the body snatchers’ headquarters, was built in 1733. In the twentieth century it was known as Southwark, St Olave and St John. It was badly damaged during the Second World War and later demolished.

Some of the places Dan would have seen or visited during his investigation can still be seen today. 

Guy's Hospital
Dan visits Guy’s Hospital at the start of his investigation. The hospital was founded in 1721 by Sir Thomas Guy.

Tooley Street
Dan takes lodgings in Tooley Street at the print shop and home of the Chambers family. Mr Chambers has been prosecuted for selling radical books and has set up a new book and print sellers in Southwark where his wife and young daughters are engaged in a startling “family manufactory”.

Union Hall
The magistrate’s office Dan visits to consult his friend Reeves. The building was opened in 1781. The original facade has been retained.

Crossbones Graveyard
Though not one of the graveyards mentioned in The Butcher’s Block, the Crossbones Graveyard was close to Union Hall and was an additional burial ground for the overcrowded graveyard of St Saviour’s Church. It was a paupers’ burial ground and as such was a prime target for body snatchers, as the poor dead were buried in shallow graves in flimsy coffins, their bodies easy to steal. It was, of course, conveniently close to Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals.

Maze Pond

All that remains of Maze Pond, named after the fish pond belonging to the Abbot of Battle’s palace which stood on the site, is a street sign. The old network of streets and alleys lies under Guy’s Hospital. In 1795 a government spy called Powell reported that the Boatswain and Call in Maze Pond was the meeting place of Division 14 of the London Corresponding Society, the branch that Dan infiltrates during his investigation.

A medieval roof boss in Southwark Cathedral depicting the Devil swallowing Judas.

If you’d like to know more about Dan Foster’s Southwark, there’s a more detailed version of this article on the Dan Foster's World webpage


 The Butcher's Block: A Dan Foster Mystery

Available in paperback and ebook

For buying links see the Dan Foster webpage