Friday, 15 December 2017

Discovering Diamonds: An Entertaining Interlude for Christmas

I hope you’ve not been missing out on the Discovering Diamonds Christmas blogs – but if you have you’re in for a treat when you catch up!

This “entertaining interlude for Christmas by a variety of authors” organised by Helen Hollick on the Discovering Diamonds blog is a bulging Christmas stocking full of tiny treats. With stories that take you on journeys around the world and into different eras, it’s a bit like a tin of assorted chocolates with something for everyone.   

Follow the links in the titles if you want to read one of these stories.

The first Diamond Tale, a short story set in 1960s Friern Barnet. Who remembers Jet Harris, bass guitarist of The Shadows? A lovely tale on the power of a song to evoke memories. 

A rearranged excerpt from the third Sea Witch Voyage, Bring It Close, by Helen Hollick in which that devilishly wicked pirate Jesamiah Acorne calls on an ex-lover to help him gain access to the Governor of Virginia’s house – where he is definitely not welcome. 

In 1914 British officer Nicholas Dawlish reflects sorrowfully on previous conflicts on the day Britain declared war on Turkey.  

Two lovers arrange a clandestine meeting on a cold, snowy night in this beautifully realised tale – but will their plans succeed?

That dreadful moment when you look down at your finger – and it’s bare!

The power of Welsh legend and storytelling in a story about the great Welsh poet Taliesin.

A story set in London in 1744 based on fascinating characters from The Jacobite Chronicles and the hunt for a stolen gem.

To London’s East End now and the hard struggle for existence for many in contemporary Britain – and the hope a lottery ticket brings.

Through Anglo-Saxon Britain tracing the fate of a mysterious stone known as a Sunstone.

Two treats today following the adventures of a plausible con man with his eye on a string of diamond-clasped pearls. Only problem – they’re still around the owner’s neck.

In London 1918, we discover the lure of diamonds – forged a hundred million years ago and polished to make men richer – or poorer.

An excerpt from Men of the Cross, in which King Richard weighs up his chances of defeating Saladin.

Finally, Diamond Tales also includes an exclusive preview of the next Dan Foster Mystery, which I’m currently working on. 

In spring 1798, Bow Street Runner Dan Foster is called to his second murder case in a week – one he’s been told to prioritise because of the victim’s high-society connections. As if that isn’t irritating enough, the lead officer in the case is Principal Officer John Townsend – and he and Dan are not exactly on friendly terms...

And there are still more fabulous Diamond Tales to come, with stories from Susan Grossey, Alison Morton, Nancy Jardine, Elizabeth St John, Barbara Gaskell Denvill, Anna Belfrage and Cryssa Bazos. 

So make a morning coffee date from now until Christmas with Diamond Tales!

Wednesday, 1 November 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, 18 October 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.