Women’s History Month – guest post by Liz Williams

Today’s guest is UK writer Liz Williams, writing about the work of Mary Gentle. Those few words hide so very much interesting stuff. I was going to write a lengthy introduction but I lost all the time to exploring her fascinating web presence. Liz needs her own essay. If someone reading this writes it, I’m happy to host it. She’s one of many women fantasy writers who have received recognition (shortlisted for many awards) and are still less visible than they ought be. Her writing and her web presence displays how very wrong we are to let this happen. Where does one start? With her novels, and with some of her other articles.

The first time I picked up a book by Mary Gentle it was, as was usual for me, the title which attracted me. It was Rats and Gargyoles, and for a reader who loved the Gothic, this seemed tailormade. I couldn’t put it down and I searched – in the days before the internet – for anything else by Gentle written in that world. I found it, in The Architecture of Desire and Left to his Own Devices, and I couldn’t believe, and still can’t believe, how many risks she took with this short series. (“I can’t believe she – ” will be a mantra running through this little article, by the way, so get used to it). The same characters, but different universes: radically different. One a kind of urByzantium (the city at the heart of the world in Rats and Gargoyles); an alternative Carolingian London (alternative because both Charles and Cromwell are women); and a version of our world in the yuppy 1980s. Couldn’t believe she’d done it; couldn’t believe she got away with it. I don’t think you could publish this kind of daring now, and with a female protagonist who was so many things: a lover, a fighter, a schemer, somewhat of a crook, and a rapist. Valentine, the White Crow, is not the stereotype feisty-yet-beleaguered heroine of so much urban fantasy. She sexually assaults another woman. She’s manipulative and unkind. And yet she is vibrant and comes to life in a way that many cardboard cut-out fantasy heroines simply fail to do. So does her lover Casaubon: huge, crafty, charming. No-one whom Gentle writes is off the shelf. Her characters are difficult and complex, often unsympathetic, sometimes downright unlikeable. Much like her worlds, in fact.

The City at the Heart of the world remains one of the great pieces of fantasy worldbuilding: fuelled by a magic taken mainly from the Renaissance Hermeticism. At its heart lies the knot of rats who, mysteriously, are human sized. They are like Narnia’s Reepicheep, gallant and flamboyant, but often less kind. There are sphinxes, the great Decans of the hours, and women with cow’s tails. The world of the City is fluid, with shifts between sexuality and species. You’re never quite certain what’s going on. I don’t know if anyone has yet done a study of the use of Hermetic magic and alchemy in the works of Mary Gentle, but they really should.

Orthe, the world in Golden Witchbreed and its sequel Ancient Light, is as strange, SF rather than Fantasy. Christie and Ruric Ohrlandis are another great partnership: Ruric, again, is very real, understandable even when we learn what she’s done. Ancient Light, in particular, demonstrates Gentle’s enormous capacity to take risks as a writer and makes huge demands on the reader. At the end of the book, I couldn’t believe what she’d done. It upset me for days. I still can’t quite get my head around it.

And then there’s Grunts! – a satiric fantasy whose heroes are those traditional villains, the Orcs. Again, this is Gentle refusing to play safe, and she carries this to an extraordinary degree with another, unrelated novel: Ash: a Secret History. Gentle normalizes women as fighters, women as mercenaries (she is herself a sword-fighter). Ash reads like a fantasy novel but it isn’t: it’s science fiction. It stands in my mind along with John Crowley’s Aegypt (which also draws on Hermetics) as one of the great novels of alternate worlds.

I caused a bit of a flap in the 1990s by taking issue with the description of China Mieville’s work and that of M John Harrison as the ‘New Weird.’ To me, China’s writing – which I think is superb, by the way – had the ground prepared for it by Gentle, and it annoyed me that she was left out of this new, hip category (not, I should add, necessarily by the two men mentioned, but by the wider genre as a whole). This is partly because critics have a tendency to run after the new shiny, like ferrets, but also because, sigh, Gentle is a woman. I’d love to know that she’s got her place in the genre canon: I think a lot of people find her work too strange, too imaginative, too – something. And yet I’ve never met anyone who didn’t at least profess to respect it. I’m still thinking about her work, years after I’ve read it and she has definitely been an influence on me in that she taught me through her work that you don’t have to stick to one thing, that you must constantly try to stretch the envelope, constantly try new things. And make your work as strange as you can. She’s one of those writers with whom you can’t wait to see what she does next, although I fear that the publishing industry does not quite ‘get’ her, and may never do so. If they do not, it will be our loss. I hope she continues to take those risks, and exhibits that daring, for many years to come.

Women’s History Month – guest, Milena Benini

My guest today is Croatian writer Milena Benini. I love her writing (and just ordered a volume that contains a vampire story by her), but I asked her if she’d write for this year’s WHM because she understands the language barrier that we all face when the best writing is not in a language we read or a culture that’s on our doorstep, and also because of something that struck me when I visited Croatia a few years ago as a guest of Croatian fandom.

Croatian literary culture is amazingly rich. It’s also complex. We’ve seen one aspect of the former Yugoslavian literary cultures in the work of Alma Alexander, and now we’re seeing quite a different one. Simple generalisations do not work when we’re trying to understand popular culture or fiction by women or fiction in languages that we ourselves don’t speak, yet we take refuge in them all the time. We also choose token authors. We choose a single writer as the only one we should take note of when we look at a gender, or a culture, or even a nation. These token authors can be brilliantly gifted writers, but they write as themselves, not as representatives. Milena shows us just how much we can miss when we don’t ask “What writers do women from this particular background read? How important are they?” Ask these questions and then we who come from other places, other cultures, can begin to understand fiction by women writers.

The best kept secret of Croatian (popular) culture: Marija Jurić Zagorka

Every country has a popular culture canon: Britain has Jane Austen, BBC comedies, and Vivienne Westwood; Americans have jazz and blues, Hollywood, and the hard-boiled writers; Italy has Calgari’s pirates, la Cinecittà, and Bonelli comics. Croatia is no different in that respect: it has a tradition of journalism (now largely devastated, but that is a different issue), popular novels, and film (again, largely devastated nowadays, but a different issue). The trick, however, the problem, the key element of this particular narrative is that all of these threads lead back to one woman: Marija Jurić Zagorka.

Born in a prosperous family on March 2 1873, Zagorka did not have a particularly happy life. She was educated in Zagreb and Varaždin, but plans to send her to Switzerland to a young ladies’ finishing school fell through due to her mother’s opposition. When the fifteen-year-old Zagorka expressed a desire to become an actress, her family reacted by arranging a marriage for her: her husband, Hungarian railway official whom she hadn’t even met before the marriage, was seventeen years her senior and required from his wife absolute obedience: later, she described her marriage as similar to being constantly “subjected to a moral inquisition” (Prohaska, quoted in Jakobović Fribec, 2006, 196). After three years, in desperation, Zagorka fled from her husband and Hungary, and returned to Croatia, where her family refused to accept her, even though her father secretly supported her with small sums of money, and helped her obtain a divorce. Because of her escape, and due to her own mother’s testimony, the divorce procedure left her husband blameless and Zagorka destitute, with no right to alimony of any kind. She settled in Zagreb, and started looking for a way to sustain herself independently.

Her first article was published in 1896 in Obzor, one of then most popular dailies. This made her the first female journalist in this part of Europe. After the article, Bishop Strossmayer, a hugely influential figure, personally supported her getting a job at the paper. The opposition to the very idea of a female journalist was so strong that, at first, she had to work in a separate room, for fear that the sight of a female colleague would be too much for the male journalists to bear, and that the newspaper itself would lose readership if they found out that a woman was working for them. She covered politics, both national and international, and quickly became a go-to anonymous expert in Croatian-Hungarian relations – anonymous, because the idea that a woman might not just be following but understanding and explaining political situation was inconceivable, so she was never signed under her articles. Later on, in 1925, she also founded the first Croatian women’s magazine, Ženski list, which she edited and wrote for. She also founded and edited another women’s magazine, and served as journalist or editor in a number of other prominent magazines and dailies in the region, including a period when she single-handedly edited the Obzor daily, while most of the male staff was in prison for counter-government activities. All of this should be enough to have her name in every textbook, but, of course, it wasn’t. Until very recently – and I mean the last ten or fifteen years, well within the 21st century – Zagorka’s name was barely mentioned in journalism histories of Croatia, and when it did appear, it was usually as a footnote, a curiosity, a “fun fact” for those too bored to read the actual text. Part of the reason for this lies, of course, in the mere fact that she was a woman. Another reason, however, can be found in Zagorka’s astounding second career, that of a novelist.

Zagorka started writing fiction even before she started working as a journalist: she published her first short stories in 1886, and even as a child, before her marriage, she had worked with local theatre, writing short plays. But true literary fame – of a peculiar sort – will come to Zagorka in the early 20th century, when she started writing historical novels. It is accepted lore that she was spurred to do so by the aforementioned Bishop Strossmayer, who apparently told her that historical novels would be the best way to awaken national awareness in the general public, resisting the pressure of Hungarian and Austrian cultures that produced most popular entertainment at the time. This is probably true, up to a point: however, to dismiss a literary career spanning more than half a century and producing literally thousands of pages and thousands of devoted fans as the result of a single sentence is to reduce Zagorka, once again, to the role of a poor lost female soul who wouldn’t know what to do with her life if a man hadn’t shown her the way.

Zagorka’s first historical novel, written in the period between 1912. and 1918., remains probably her most popular work: Grička vještica (The Witch of Grič) is a behemoth of a novel, consisting actually of seven tomes, of which the first, Tajna Krvavog mosta (The Secret of the Bloody Bridge) can be read independently, even though it shares characters with the rest of the saga. Set during the reign of Maria-Theresia, it tells the story of a young Croatian noblewoman, countess Nera, who is fighting against prejudice, particularly against the then still current witchcraft trials. The story, which includes dark passages, even darker secrets, forbidden love and court intrigue, but also social commentary, women’s issues and political question, could hold its own with anything written by Walter Scott or Charles Dickens, or any other famous writer.

Even here, the traditional story claims that it was supposed to be a one-off, and that it was the publisher’s thoughtless promise that there would be more of the story after the end of the first novel that produced the remaining six tomes. Some sources even talk about the “yoke of everyday writing” (Croatian Wiki* ) that forced Zagorka to produce her novels.

The first novel in the series was, indeed, very popular, and the first locally-written popular novel to truly capture the public; but it will be with the second one, Countess Nera, that Zagorka will become the legendary name that she is today. The sheer number of children named Nera (and Siniša for the boys, after the main male character of the saga) even today shows the enduring popularity of Zagorka. Published and re-published (with around 20 separate editions since World War 2, not including the repeated serializations), the brave young countess and her adventures left her trace on generations of Croatians.

She also wrote or at least co-wrote the script for the movie based on the novel, as well as the script for another historical spectacle, Matija Gubec, based on the life of a real serf from Zagorje who led the Peasants’ Revolt in 1573 and was later executed for his role in the events. Neither one of these movies (made in 1920 and 1917 respectively) was preserved, but, judging from the materials that did survive, they are today considered as key works in the development of Croatian cinema. Both are mentioned in just about every story of early Croatian film; again, Zagorka’s name only began appearing and her work credited in the 21st century.

But Zagorka did not stop there: she also wrote the first Croatian mystery novel (Kneginja iz Petrinjske ulice, Dutchess of Petrinjska Street, 1910), the first Croatian science-fiction novel (Crveni ocean, Red Ocean, 1934) numerous other historical novels (including a saga even more ambitious than The Witch of Grič, a 12-tomes story of Gordana, set in the 15th century) and a number of other works, among which the most famous is Kamen na cesti (A Stone on the Road, 1937), a semi-autobiographical novel in which Zagorka spoke about her life, particularly the pressures and hardships that she encountered in the first half of her life. Completely different from the rest of her work, this novel alone should have, again, put Zagorka’s name into Croatian literary canon, as it provides a chillingly realistic image of a woman trying to make her way through life alone in Zagorka’s time. Not only did this not happen: for decades, Zagorka was considered a worthless female hack who had only produced “stories for cowgirls” (reputedly this was the assessment by Ksaver Šandor Đalski, himself one of the immutable parts of Croatian literary canon whose works have not produced a single child’s name that I know of). This expression, “cowgirl” or “cow-herder”, kravarica, which also encompasses women working with dairy products, had followed Zagorka for a long time. Famously, her own first editor in Obzor called her “a cowgirl from Zagorje and, what’s more, infected with a socialist mentality and feminist notions” (Lasić 1986, 69).

The infection with socialist mentality did not help her much in the supposedly socialist post-World War II Yugoslavia: old and frail, Zagorka spent some time on the brink of starvation: when her still strong fan-base found out about her circumstances, they provided her with help. This show of affection restored Zagorka’s spirit, and inspired her to write again – or at least, that is the accepted story, since obviously the woman must have been incapable of desiring to write without outside support. Her last novel, Jadranka, was published in 1953. Zagorka died in 1957, still beloved by her readers, yet decades away from any serious critical appraisal or recognition.

Today, her apartment houses the Zagreb Centre for Women’s Studies and serves as a museum for her work: they have digitalised part of their collection of papers, and held numerous scientific gatherings dedicated to her life and work, in all of the areas where she left a trace. Her novels still get new editions every few years, and still get read. And, although this is not a personal essay as such, I must add, at the end, that most Croatian female writers I know inevitably count Zagorka as the gigantic, sometimes decisive influence on their lives and careers – myself included.

* Croatian Wikipaedia has been hijacked by a group of traditionalist, rightist editors with nationalist leanings: for them, Zagorka remains immensely important because of her open support for Croatian language and culture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; however, it is obvious that they do not want to give her too much credit, since she is a woman.

Jakopović Fribec, Slavica. “Jurić, Marija (1873-1957).” In: A Bibliographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms: Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries. Eds. Francisca De Haan, Krassimira Daskalova, Anna Loufti. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2006. 195-199
Lasić, Stanko. Književni počeci Marije Jurić Zagorke (1873–1910): uvod u monografiju. Zagreb: Znanje, 1986.

Guest post – from Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

In the music of the spheres, Love is the chord that holds everything together

Somewhere in her youth writer Jennifer Stevenson pieced together way too much about betrayal, loss, healing, death, and second chances. Wanting to understand, she soaked up information from family, books, and schools, ending up with advanced degrees in counseling and (I suspect) simultaneously realizing that she knew too much—and too little—about human nature.

On this journey it looks like she became interested in stories that addressed all the things she valued, and realized that 1) the bass note of her musical universe was the enduring nature of Love, and 2) all forms of human sexuality are real, no-we’re-not-kidding magic. Stevenson dove headfirst into reading about ancient religions, patriarchal suppression of joy and sexual expression, and how our ancient ancestors viewed the many forms of magic (yes, there are multiple kinds). Then she realized that writing fiction might be the only place she could address all these concepts in a manner any woman (and many men) might find entertaining. . .inspiring . . .


Stevenson’s work is all about how whether we like it or not, the world revolves around fertility I.E. sex, I.E. love. Why? Until very recently for humanity, fertility was everything. Raising up children—many of them—to adulthood was the only way to keep a homestead together, to have a roof over your head in old age, to see immortality in the face of a descendant. In pre-patriarchal religions almost every goddess was petitioned for abundant fertility, relief of sexual problems, and for safe pregnancy and childbirth. Even the warrior goddesses of many cultures were also fertility goddesses, something that first the men and then later cultures and religions tried to sever.

The curious can find over at Wikipedia a sampling of the fertility spirits and deities whose names are still known to us. Stevenson recommended to me Patricia Monaghan’s Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines (New World Library (May 6, 2014)). When I looked at parts of the world not as well known to me, I kept finding unusual names and the words “believed to be a goddess in [XYZ] culture.” The goddesses whose tales we still know are the powerful ones, the ones worshipped most recently–or still worshipped. Their names were impossible to erase and many were absorbed as wives to patriarchal gods or as saints.

With her highly praised novel Trash Sex Magic (Small Beer Press, June 1, 2004) Stevenson tackled class issues, sexualization of children, and animistic magic. Her family of trailer trash sex workers is deeply rooted to the land they have magically claimed. With this novel Stevenson set up three “rules” for what was happening and why. First, that sex itself is magical and transcendent—so much so that we instinctively attempt to tame and control it, essentially making it less magical. Second? That people can and do work magic all the time—they just don’t recognize it as magic. Her third premise is that people in the dominant American culture who are best at animistic magic mostly don’t know how they’re doing it. No one gets any training, they have no language or replicated ritual for their magic, and they may even be embarrassed about their powers and attempt to hide or dismiss them. Animistic magic is messy—but it’s powerful.

Once down the rabbit hole of multiple forms of magic, Stevenson could not resist examining where psychology and ritual magic intersected. Her Hinky Chicago books take place in an alternative contemporary world where magic is inexplicably erupting into urban centers. Some cities have already been overwhelmed. In Chicago, IL they cope with the weirdness and fight to keep it off the front pages of newspapers and social media.

Originally planned as romantic comedies where an alpha male was magically locked into a bed (and could not escape until he had satisfied a hundred women) the Hinky Chicago series morphed into questions about consent, self-image, personal power, sex workers, pornography, and sexual harassment. Its magic is rooted in curses reflecting deepest desires and personal character flaws, rebounding and resonating through time. Ritual magic weaves together scholarship and psychology—but emotion can undermine it every time.

Jen Stevenson once told me that most grimoires (written books of spells and reflections on magic) reflect what the men writing them pursued—the medieval equivalent of fantastic wealth, immortality, and their neighbor’s beautiful wife. (If you do a little research, you’ll find that the few grimoires found written by female magicians pursue different goals.)

These tendencies sent Stevenson off on another path. Jewish and Christian traditions (among others) have versions of demonic entities that exist to entice men and women into sexual “sin” as defined by the newer religions. If you read up on what the old dominant religions were in the areas where the new patriarchal religions began to flower, you will see everything that existed to celebrate and enjoy fertility and sexual congress was suddenly labeled as evil. In many cases, goddesses from earlier pantheons became demons of the next religious roundup.

Turn the kaleidoscope another 5 degrees and you may ask, “Where do retired gods and goddesses end up?” Stevenson suggests that many of them end up as incubi and succubi, working for the new religions (specifically, for the Regional Office—Hell—which tempts in opposition to what the Home Office—Heaven—claims it wants, including sex.) If your culture mistrusts sex, or women, or both, there’s work for sex demons.

Why not? Hell doesn’t want souls (no one can take your soul, it’s you). It wants people tempted to its side of the line. At least that’s one story—as we wander through the Slacker Demons books, we recognize two bloated, opposing administrations that are barely functioning. Working as a sex demon is a great way to duck dealing with your problems for a few decades. . .centuries. . . millennia.

But woven through the Slacker Demons and Coed Demon Sluts books is the mysterious woman called Delilah who implies that she’s a recruiter for Hell. Who is she? Does she really work for Hell? (Are the slacker demons and sluts themselves really working for Hell?) What’s her end game? It’s not really a spoiler to say that some powerful deities of love, sex, and fertility are still trying to push the ultimate drug—love. (Heaven and Hell, on the other hand, are pushing their version of sex, love and fertility. Cultural versions always come with strings attached.)

More—if ancient gods turned incubi sleep with the same person too many times, their power “rubs off” on their partners. They start to turn a mortal into a Power.
From It’s Raining Men:

With a wave, she silenced me. “Whether you love or not, the process will continue until you are fully yourself. Because your powers are activating, this will happen far more rapidly than it does to–” she stirred a hand vaguely in the air “–all these ordinary women.”
“It could happen to any of them? I don’t believe it! Why doesn’t anybody know? I can’t believe, with all these heavens and hells, that nobody knows what love can do!”
“You think all those heavens and hells want ordinary women to know that they could be goddesses?” Aphrodite gave a silvery laugh. “They would hide it from you. They have hidden it from you.”
“But you’re telling me.”
Aphrodite smiled. “Ah, but I am a reckless goddess. My purpose is to propagate life at all costs. If I give away the secret that sexual magical power is inherent in everyone and in everything? So what? It’s not really a secret. It is the juice that makes life happen when you throw a forkful of lightning through a mud puddle. . . .”

Stevenson calls the magic of the Slacker Demons series contagious magic—if you look hard for it throughout history, the belief in it may be older than dirt.
Her Coed Demon Sluts, on the other hand, are ordinary women offered a chance to solve (or avoid dealing with) their own problems by becoming succubi. When researching for her books, Stevenson asked a lot of men and women, gay and straight, what it would take to get them to sign a contract with Hell to become a sex demon.

A broad, informal survey of my acquaintance showed that my male friends, and my lesbian friends, all agreed that the reason they would sign up for a gig as a sex demon was simply the sex.“But my straight women friends had lots of different answers.“I’d do it for the power.“I’d do it to be the boss in bed for once.“I’d do it to have more fun in bed.“I’d do it for the money.“I’d do it because I’m bored.“I’d do it to be young / thin / healthy / normal.“I’d do it to make myself extraordinary.

A nearly immortal, nearly indestructible body, malleable to whatever you want to look like, free rent and utilities, thirty pieces of antique silver a month (so the pay ranges from excellent to sky’s the limit) and a requirement to eat 4500 calories a day or you get fat. You will like sex—the body is designed to be a man’s greatest fantasy. The price? Tempt three people a month into indiscretion—bonus if they act on it! The catch? You are still you—the problems you are running from still need resolving.

Of course craziness follows. And if you have a good imagination (and these women do) you can do—and be–all sorts of things with this body. The creative drive begins here. This is what Stevenson considers the shmoo form of magic—magic that can be or do anything through wish fulfillment. It’s an irrational magic, and this form is what infuriates people who rave against “making things up.”

Of course all these tales are talking about magic—sexual energy–as the ultimate metaphor, the creative impulse that humans struggle to understand, explain, corral, form into patterns, or simply accept as the oldest story ever told. Aphrodite is Life, and she’ll use whatever it takes to form new creations. Her job is to start things, to plant the first seeds—of love, bonds, marriage, child-rearing, community-building. You may start out toying with sex (or any other form of creation) but if you get hit with one of those arrows of love? You’re down the rabbit hole into wonderland. There is no greater drug, and romance readers return again and again for their favorite hit.

Of course romance novels are one of the most subversive forms of writing out there, celebrating variations of partnership and equality, the idea that committed relationships can and do work, and that the millions of complications thrown at lovers can be defused, averted, and overcome. But examining that facet of Stevenson’s mission is another story.

Where will Stevenson go next? I know she has promised her fans some funny romcoms, and has another Hinky Chicago book in the works. But she’s also mentioned a thriller delving into the dark side of knowing the soul of someone you love. In the meantime, remember the immortal words of Delilah the hidden goddess:
“Aren’t you tired of doing everything right?

Wouldn’t you like a second chance to go back and do it wrong?”

Partial bibliography of suspected and confirmed goddess, magic, and feminism sources for Stevenson’s works:

Art of Memory, Frances A. Yates
The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature), Mary Carruthers (Stevenson recommends reading The Book of Memory after The Art of Memory)
The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature), by Mary Carruthers
Devoted To You, ed. Judy Harrow
The Book of Goddesses & Heroines, Patricia Monaghan
Eros & Magic in the Renaissance, by Ioan P. Culianu and Margaret Cook
Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu, Ted Anton
Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Frances A. Yates
God of Desire, Catherine Benton
Golden Dawn Society writings
The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex, and the Woman in Question, Ruth Brandon
The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, Wayne Shumaker
The Qabalistic Tarot, Robert Wang
Real Magic, Isaak Bonewits
Reflections on Gender and Science, Evelyn Fox Keller
The Theosophical Enlightenment, Joscelyn Godwin
Women Who Run With The Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes

About Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
Cat Kimbriel walks both sides of her preferred genre’s line. She’s written about future world colonization with a gaze at odds with traditional space adventures, and writes alternative history fantasy about a tough young pioneer teen. She’s currently working on a contemporary fantasy about curses, forgiveness, and very different—even radical–ways of looking at the twilight worlds. She’s also working on a short Nuala piece and mulling over a new Alfreda novel.
You can find her fantasy & science fiction, including free samples, at her Book View Café bookshelf. Cat builds worlds that contain compassion and justice — come join the journey.

Women’s History Month – guest, Kelly Gardiner

On Emma Donoghue’s queer histories

‘Stories are a different kind of true,’ Ma tells five year-old Jack, in Emma Donoghue’s award-winning Room.

This urban contemporary thriller was a global bestseller, won numerous awards, and was adapted by Donoghue into a 2015 film for which Brie Larson won an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Actress.

Reading Room is a masterclass in voice, dramatic irony, and point of view. The entire novel is narrated by Jack, in a pitch-perfect child’s voice, and as a protagonist who has no idea what is really happening in the story, set in a room in a backyard, somewhere in modern North America.

It is also dramatically different from most of Donoghue’s other novels. From Slammerkin (2000) to her most recent, The Wonder (2017), this Irish-Canadian novelist and scriptwriter has been largely concerned with re-examining past lives, and particularly queer lives – something that apparently came as a shock to some fans of Room.

She is also a literary historian of note, with a PhD from Cambridge (her thesis was on friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction), and several books bridging the academic and popular cultural and literary history markets: Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 (1993), the biography We Are Michael Field (1998), and Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (2010).

In Inseparable, Donoghue traces the strands of overt and subtextual portrayals of lesbians, in particular, in literature throughout history and argues that they have become important and recognisable archetypes lasting into the twenty-first century. She categorised these portrayals as:
• the Cross-dresser (often as a Female Bridegroom)
• the Amazon
• the Passionate friends
• the Rival (to the hero)
• the Desperate lover/suicide
• the Monster
• the Devil-may-care lesbian
• the Icon (Donoghue 2010).

Several of these character types arise from ancient portrayals of Sappho, in particular, or of warrior women of antiquity. Donoghue argues that classical and early modern literature firmly embedded characters such as the Female Bridegroom and the Amazon in literature and, by extension, in the popular imagination, making queer women, masculine women, and women dressed in men’s clothes, familiar and even beloved. The Female Bridegroom story is one in which a woman wanderer (or picara), dressed as a man, is accidentally betrothed to or attractive to another woman – like Iphis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Oronce in Amadis de Gaule, or Viola in Twelfth Night. The Amazon story positioned the cross-dresser as a noble warrior woman, usually defending either her people or her family. Both appear repeatedly in literature and especially on stage throughout the centuries, providing an opportunity for public depictions of cross-dressing and same-sex attraction (and showing off women’s legs).

Donoghue’s analysis was incredibly important to my own work on historical representations of crossdressing women in my PhD thesis and post-doctoral writing about literary history. To those groupings of depictions, I added another two: Folly, and the Androgyne, both representatives of subversion, parody and masquerade – although Folly is also a fairground figure of laughter.

This also informs my creative work, as it clearly has for Donoghue. My novel Goddess, based on the life of the crossdressing, sword-wielding opera star, Mademoiselle de Maupin (also known as Julie d’Aubigny), makes a conscious reference to each of these archetypes, and also to the picaresque works in which they often appear; partly because earlier depictions of La Maupin’s life story inevitably categorise her as an Amazon or a Sappho. I reasoned that the real La Maupin might have read many of those key texts, such as Metamorphoses. I also wanted to recognise that legendary women like her helped along the development of those archetypes in literature, the arts, and the public imagination – through to her portrayal as a kick-ass babe in comics and popular culture today. I’m sure nobody noticed, but it’s there, embedded in the text.

Clearly, for women like La Maupin, all or any of those archetypes might apply to various stages of her life, and in the different versions of her character created by others over time. The Female Bridegroom, for example, was doubled and doubled again, in Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). These are forceful, sometimes unconscious, tropes that surface in depictions of many women, but particularly what is now called ‘the strong female protagonist’ (annoyingly, as if other female protagonists aren’t strong).

It’s no surprise, then, that these ideas crop up in Donoghue’s own historical fiction, particularly her 2014 novel, Frog Music, based on the lives of real women involved in an 1876 murder in wild old San Francisco. Jenny Bonnet is a frog-catcher, an enigma in death and in life, and in some ways the embodiment of the female wanderer, even down to the trousers she wears in spite of constantly being arrested for crossdressing. She runs down her destiny in the street – riding her bicycle right into Blanche’s swirling skirts:

But the voice – not a man’s, Blanche realises. Not a boy’s even. This is a girl, for all the gray jacket, vest, pants, the jet hair hacked above the sunburned jawline. One of those eccentrics on whom the City prides itself. (p13)

Blanche is an erotic dancer who is thrown into the role of amateur sleuth, although she’s not very good at it. She is driven to solve the twin mysteries of (spoiler!) Jenny’s death and her son’s disappearance, but ends up chasing red herrings through to the final pages. ‘The case,’ she decides at one point, ‘is goddamn unsolvable’ (2014, p 318). She is, like many young women, vulnerable and seemingly ruled by the men in her life, until she meets Jenny, who both implodes and explains her unstable life. Blanche remains as slippery as a frog, and poor Jenny, well:

‘Jenny should always have strolled, loose-limbed, up- and downhill, taking the whole City for her stage.’ (p 294)

What reads as a compelling Neo-Victorian novel is distilled through years of research and analysis in archives, and in ancient, early modern, and Victorian texts. The fiction wears this mantle very lightly. Jenny, the charming, cross-dressing frog-catcher embodies the spirit of the early modern Amazon who wandered the countryside, and the pages of the picaresque novels: a figure of pity, reverence, and fun, and always an outsider. She, like many of the characters that populate Donoghue’s historical fiction, is based on a real person from the past, and her story fuses Donoghue’s critical, historical and creative interests.
Fiction, after all, is a different kind of true.

Room trailer

Dr Kelly Gardiner is a novelist and a lecturer in creative writing at La Trobe University. Her books include 1917: Australia’s Great War, Goddess, and the young adult novels Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes. She is the co-host of Unladylike, a podcast on women and writing.

More on invisibility

This is last night’s post. I wanted something that would give you this kind of research and I didn’t want to write a post on it, for half the fun in history is the excitement. I managed to get a weather-change headache and left it a few more hours and lo, someone shared a thread on Twitter that showed all the things I was dreaming of. Including the excitement.

Enjoy it!

I’ll wait a few hours before I put today’s post up, just in case any of you want to follow the thread or remember you have a photograph just like this and are driven to find it. I have one, but no time to investigate. It’s of geology teachers on an excursion to a major South Australian mine 24+ years ago and I’m not sure that this female teacher even knew she was being photographed, for the photographer (my mother) retired early from teaching due to changes in government.

Women’s History Month – guest, Irene Radford

I know and love both of these women, which is why this post is today’s. The last few days have been quiet and frantic and what has got me through them is what often does: female friends and community. It’s a common factor that (until recently) was not seen as a critical part of historical cultures. Yet the shape of the friendships of women and the networks of women can determine the future of a society when it’s stressed. Irene Radford’s choice of subject illuminates this through the life of one woman, as well as reminding us that so many of humanity’s most interesting and important complexities are in the lives of people who are historically not always seen. I’ve written about this and spoken about this and, when I read this piece it struck me as gently ironic that my friends’ lives can illustrate it.

We’re changing the way we document people’s lives and the way we interpret them, but we need to remember that invisibility never implies unimportance and that communities matter whether they’re recorded or not. What Alma does with her fiction is remind us of this. She’s fought not only for her own visibility, but to change the way we read the stories of women. her fiction gives us that gift. Thank you, Irene, for letting us know and reminding us that just because a writer isn’t in the current spotlight doesn’t mean we should ignore her work.

For Women’s History Month, I have chosen to write about a modern woman who I feel is making history in the stories she writes by granting us the privilege of looking at our world sideways.

How do I describe a woman whose command of the English language is better than mine and it’s her second language? A woman whose stories are beautifully crafted and speak to me as if she whispered them directly into my dreams?

Color me green with envy. At the same time I love her like an older sister, but she’s ten years younger than me. She can be fierce and determined. Her heritage from Central European royalty gives her the demeanor of an offended duchess. We have a phrase in the Science Fiction Convention world of the Pacific North West, “The Duchess is not amused.” We all know that something has gone terribly wrong. These episodes often follow bouts of extreme vulnerability.

But through it all she observes the world keen eyes and empathy while calculating how she can turn it all into a story that will teach us about the impact of our own actions.

Her biography explains a lot of it.

Alma Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist, and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website, her Facebook page, on Twitter or at her Patreon page.

I first encountered Alma’s work at a World Fantasy Convention. I had just lost my mother and her husband was in early recovery from a stroke. Hard times for both of us. We bonded on the shuttle from the airport to the convention hotel. I bought The Secrets of Jin-shei in the dealer’s room and read it on the plane home, quite a feat for a slow reader with ADD. If you’ve read this landmark book (billed as YA fantasy but so much more) you’ll understand why Alma is my Jin-shei sister.

Since then we’ve gone on to beta read and edit each other’s books. I find a depth in her work as she examines life through her characters from a far different perspective from my own. Part of it is her Central European family culture. Her history classes dwelt on Justinian and Theodosia where mine concentrated on King John and the Magna Carta. Both stories are important. But we tend to look sideways at the ones we came to later in life than grade school.

And then there is Letters From The Fire. a heart breaking love story. This book started when the UN bombed Alma’s homeland to punish their leader for “War Crimes,” never taking into account the innocent lives brutally taken while their leader hid in a bomb shelter. Alma was living in New Zealand at the time and went weeks without hearing from beloved family members. She poured out her rage and anxiety in a chat room in the early days of the internet to the man she eventually married. This book evolved out of their correspondence. It continues to haunt me and gives me a new perspective in looking at her other work. There are at least two sides to every story, more often three or four. And they are all valid.

Because her natal country of Yugoslavia no longer exists on maps, but lives in the hearts and culture of its former citizens, she can empathize with refugees in many ways that most Americans can’t. Until hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans, mainstream citizens of the USA had never been involved or witnessed their own people traumatized by catastrophe that led to homelessness and seeking shelter elsewhere. I was very proud to have a story included in her anthology Children of a Different Sky. A percentage of the profits go to refugee organizations. The stories are luminescent and opened for me a whole new way of looking at our world.

From pseudo Chinese royalty mixing with peasants and breaking many other rules, to shape changers, to epic historical fantasy, and heart wrenching contemporary fantasy, I find myself rethinking reality with each new book. And isn’t that what literature is all about?

Women’s History Month – Rosemary Hayes

Rosemary Hayes has kindly written us another piece that helps explain the lives of women writers. In fact, Rosemary kindly wrote it for me last year, following last year’s theme, but last year I was not-quite-well and this year it works wonderfully to help us understand a more complex picture.

The Highs, Lows and Bits in Between for a Writer of Historical Fiction

I’m not by nature a joiner of groups but I am very glad I overcame my reluctance and signed up to two or three authors’ societies. One of the best things about being part of a network of writers is the support, encouragement and advice you get from colleagues when things aren’t going so well.

Yes, it is great to share successes, but in my view, even more valuable to share the failures, the bad times, when your confidence is so shattered that you can’t believe you were ever arrogant enough to call yourself a writer.

Knowing that you are not alone, that all writers, however apparently successful, have been through these experiences, can be the only thing that keeps you going and spurs you on to dig yourself out of that deep hole of waning self confidence.

There have always been blips in my writing life. It had begun so well and, initially, been so easy. I had written an historical novel with a twist of fantasy; a story I really wanted to tell and believed in, which had been brewing in my imagination for years. I’d put it away for long periods and then taken out again, tinkered with it, asked others to read it, incorporated their advice. And then, finally, entered it in a national competition here in the UK, after which I forgot about it again and got on with my life, looking after my three children and an assortment of animals, working part time, doing voluntary stuff, visiting aging parents, coping for long periods on my own while my husband worked abroad.

Okay, so that’s what women do at these busy times in our lives. We multitask, switching priorities when we have to, juggling, keeping all the balls in the air and, if we are lucky, managing to fit a little time into our lives to indulge in our hobbies. And, back then, I did see writing as no more than a hobby. Having written my novel I felt that I had, at least, achieved what I set out to do and if it never saw the light of day, never got to be read by anyone except family and friends, then too bad. At the time, I knew nothing about the publishing process, about agents or editors. I was impossibly green. It was only much later, when I went to work for a large publisher, that I realized how lucky I had been.

The national competition was run jointly by a well known publisher and the Book Trust and the results weren’t announced until months later. I had genuinely forgotten about it when, to my astonishment, I heard that my story was runner up in the competition and that it would be published.

These were the good times. I worked with a brilliant editor who taught me so much and helped me fine tune my work. Four more books were commissioned and I began to believe that I was a ‘proper’ writer. But then the editor in question went on to higher things and, as so often happens, the new editor didn’t particularly like my work, was looking for new voices, and no more commissions came my way.

That was my first time in the wilderness and there was a long gap before I was taken on by Penguin Australia and had a very happy relationship with them, writing many books over a period of about eight years. Three of these were historical novels, all based on events in Australia’s history, with which I have a particular fascination (more of this later). Then again, the wonderful editor with whom I had worked moved on, my ideas for new books weren’t accepted, the work dried up and no other publisher showed any inclination to take me on.

At these points in your writing life, unless you have incredible self-belief, it is very easy to lose faith in yourself as a writer. Even though, by that time, I had a bunch of published books to my name, it made no difference. A lot of navel searching went on. I had no background as an historian, so maybe I should never have attempted to write historical novels. But even at this low point, some of these events from the past just wouldn’t let me go and I continued to mull over ideas, do research, jot down plot structures.

A couple of years went by when neither agents nor publishers seemed interested in my proposals and then, just at the point when I was ready to abandon my writing, a commission came from Hachette for a trilogy of historical novels – a family saga, this time, from early Victorian times to the second World War. Although the stories were essentially about an English family and their triumphs and tragedies, an Australian thread sneaked into them (transportation for a petty crime, the gold rush). But they didn’t sell particularly well and, although the editorial team wanted more from me, marketing and sales felt the books’ sales didn’t justify further commissions.

This was when I became aware of a shift in emphasis from publishers. Editors’ enthusiasm for a wonderful story, a great idea, frequently had cold water poured upon them by the sales and marketing departments and by the accountants who, as larger publishers gobbled up the smaller publishers, became more and more influential, their eyes always on the bottom line of the balance sheet. Editorial had to go through endless hoops to commission books and often a quirky, original idea that had so grabbed an editor, failed to pass the scrutiny of those looking for a ready market and guaranteed sales. Or, if it did, it became so diluted as to be unrecognizable.

Those Hachette books were the last ones for which I received an advance based on a first chapter and a synopsis. After that everything changed. Now you have to do all the research, write the full story and submit it and, if you are very lucky, it is accepted. Admittedly, this is not true for high profile authors but if, like me, you are ‘mid-list’ this is how it seems to be.

Post Hachette there were more fruitless years, then a new publisher and four more books; and just when I felt I had got my feet under the table there, the company was bought by a larger publisher, the Young Adult list was axed and all the YA editorial team were out of a job and their writers abandoned. But at least I was not alone on this occasion; there were so many of us that we staged a wonderful party – a wake to mark the burial of the YA list!
Since then, I’ve been taken on by a small independent publisher – set up by an editor, as it happens, who was involved in publishing my first novel, so I have come full circle. But who knows where this will lead, how many more books I shall have accepted? There is absolutely no certainly in this game.

I’ve been in the business for a long time now and seen a lot of changes. From being nurtured as a newbie, having long and wonderful associations with talented editors, having launches and promotion all done for me by publicity departments, to this new and scary time for writers when editors are either over stretched or inexperienced (or both) and an author is expected to do most of his or her own marketing and publicity.

Of course there are authors who actively enjoy putting themselves out there on social media, setting up school visits, turning every possible marketing opportunity to their advantage, but what of those of us who do not? I am essentially a private person, at my happiest being left on my own to research and read, dream up stories to flesh out historical facts and write them as well as I possibly can. I don’t mind sharing my professional life with those who are interested (like you!) but I want to keep my private life private. Of course, I do the social media stuff, but not regularly and usually reluctantly – and I resent its banality. It is not what I am and I don’t really enjoy engaging with total strangers just to blow my own trumpet. And yes, I know I’m missing out in terms of sales – but ideally I’d prefer that my books spoke for me.

Back, then, to what I mentioned earlier – to my fascination with Australia’s past. I have spent most of my life living in the UK, so why this urge to write about Australian history? Why does it hold such appeal for me? Well I suspect it is because I came to it afresh when I lived there. In particular, learning about the voyages of the early Dutch mariners, ploughing their way up the coast of Western Australia en route to the East Indies, years before Captain Cook landed on the Eastern side of the country in 1770, and discovering that the first European settlers in Australia were two young men involved in the infamous Batavia mutiny and massacre, marooned on the West Australian coast in 1629. Other shipwrecks followed with more survivors, no trace of whom was found. What happened to these people? Did they integrate with the coastal aboriginal tribes? DNA evidence suggests that they did. There are so many untold stories – extraordinary stories of hardship, endurance and bravery. A rich vein indeed, which I shall continue to tap, whether for my own interest or for a broader audience of young people.

Rosemary Hayes was brought up and educated in the UK but has also lived in France, America and Australia. She has written over forty books for children. Her first novel, Race Against Time, was runner-up for the Kathleen Fidler Award and since then many of her books have won, or been shortlisted, for other awards. For many years Rosemary was a reader for a well known Authors’ Advisory Service; she now runs creative writing courses and workshops for adults.
To find out more about Rosemary or to order her books, visit her website
Follow her on twitter @HayesRosemary
Read her blog.

In October 2016, Rosemary Hayes took part in the 400th anniversary celebrations of the landing of Dirk Hartog at Shark Bay and spoke to school children and other groups in Western Australia about their rich maritime history as well as showcasing a new edition of her book ‘The Blue Eyed Aborigine’, about the Batavia mutineers. She has recently written another book ‘Forgotten Footprints’ about what might have happened to the survivors of the Zuytdorp shipwreck in 1712.

Rosemary will be visiting Australia again in 2018 to talk about her books and to visit the Melbourne based film company, Picture Co, who are developing a film based on ‘The Blue Eyed Aborigine.’

Women’s History Month – guest post by Jennifer Stevenson

This year is about not forgetting writers who really need to be seen. Some of those writers are still very much among us. The shadows start even when women do their best work. Jennifer Stevenson writes about one such writer. I’m very, very lucky and know both these writers, through Book View Cafe. This means that I can point out an obvious place to check if you want to find out what Jennifer’s talking about or explore Jennifer’s own work.

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel has been writing science fiction and fantasy for a long time. Her Nuala novels are among the earliest science fiction romances, delicately romantic compared with the lushly emotional stuff of genre romance, but romances all the same. Her short fantasy stories each visit a single constellation of emotions surrounding a speculative idea, almost surgically.

What I’d like to talk about, though, is a set of books I wish desperately had been around when I was eleven years old. The series is commonly referred to after its first volume, Night Calls.

Night Calls, Kindred Rites, and Spiral Path follow the adventures of Alfreda Eldonsdottir Sorensson, eleven years old when we first meet her in the Michigan Territory of colonial America. Her parents are land-rich and cash-poor pioneers whose cash crop is fur; they trap responsibly and maintain a positive relationship with Native American tribes in the area. In their tiny village of mostly-Norwegian-descended pioneers, everyone makes what they need or barters for what they can’t make. Persons with extraordinary skills are more valuable than things or money. They get around.

Allie’s family are practitioners, that is, gifted with extra-sensory talents that are partly-formally trained but mostly self-trained. Their practice is like everything else they do, built for work, developed under pressure, expedient rather than elegant, and definitely lacking a magickal pedigree. Bits of what we would now call ceremonial magic are mixed with hedgewitchery and a massive amount of pioneer and Native American woodcraft. They do what it takes to get ’er done and never worry about whether they’re qualified. What works, works.

The woodcraft is what won me over. My own family’s form of hedgewitchery is founded in German nature-lore, so I was enchanted with Allie’s family tradition of taking the kids out, one at a time as they were deemed sufficiently learned in woodcraft, and leaving them for a space in the wilderness to build shelter, find water, and feed themselves. In the second novel this skill set comes mightily in handy when Allie, fleeing bad guys in the dead of winter through the wilderness, holes up for days in a hidden shelter she builds out of boughs and snow. Every bit of magic is grounded, sometimes literally, in the wilderness surrounding Allie. From the bedrock up to the smallest bird, nature interpenetrates Allie’s magical education. You smell the wet bark, the decaying leaves, the snow—my god the snow, all the books so far take place in deep winter. You feel the sap rising in the tree trunks and hear the chickadee in the darkest woods.

Like any pioneer with extraordinary skills, Allie is drafted early into service to her community. At eleven she is apprenticed to a cousin who lives quite far away and serves other wilderness communities as midwife, doctor, psychiatrist, exorcist, and, well, whatever else is required.

These novels expand ever-outward, full of episodes and references that seem random until, sometimes late in the series, they resolve into life lessons, valuable alliances, mini-apprenticeships that empower Allie and expand the reach of her responsibilities.

This cycle of ever-increasing responsibility, knowledge, understanding, skill, responsibility, friendship with the mere human and alliances with others, and yet more responsibility help protect Allie’s stories from devolving into the sort of high fantasy that never did me any good as a child. Those fantasies, so often about boys, bestowed rewards—wealth, power, and universal adulation—upon the young heroes until they swam in a sea of self-importance. At eleven, the girlchild I was had begun to be aware that these rewards were not meant for me. What seemed real to me at the time was the looming avalanche of responsibility that the world couldn’t wait to dump in my lap.

Like the rest of her pioneer family, Allie copes. In her world, nobody over the age of four just cries, waiting for rescue. Allie is confronted by medical emergencies, monsters, and disasters that would take those high-fantasy boy-children two weeks and an army of special friends to handle. Allie assumes she’ll have to do this herself, right now, with whatever tools she can find and allies she can make. And most of the time the adults around her merely shrug and say, Yeah, that works. There’s little to none of the congratulatory ceremony one finds in high fantasy when a boy magician saves the day. Such overpraise seems somehow to diminish that boy’s heroism, while the understated respect Allie wins from her family and from mightier powers has the potency of a journeyman’s nod to an apprentice.

The saddest thing about these books is that they were written thirty years too late to save my eleven-year-old sanity. (In this they resemble Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, which also fill my inner child with might-have-been longing.)

The happiest thing about these books is that there will be more. Rumor has it that Kimbriel is at work on more Allie stories.

Women’s History Month guest – Adele Geras, writing about Dorothy Whipple

‘Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us.’ Thus Carmen Callil in an article in the Guardian celebrating the Virago 40th anniversary in 2008.

My immediate reaction to this was: ‘Have Carmen C and I been reading the same books?’ I couldn’t imagine why she had so taken against a writer whom I admired very much. Was she wrong or was I? In matters of literary taste, there’s no argument you can make to try and win someone over. We all have our blank spots. I, for example, am allergic to Tolkien. But Whipple? I could understand someone saying, ‘She’s not my kind of thing. I don’t like those sorts of books’. But to be ‘absolutely defeated’ by these novels? And to draw the infamous ‘Whipple line’ below which Virago wouldn’t venture? I didn’t get it.

My aim here is to persuade others that Whipple, in spite of a name that sounds like a brand of ice-cream dessert, is a writer more than worthy of their attention. I’d say she was astonishingly good and in surprising ways, too. Her novels are also enjoyable and readable. These are not qualities at which readers should scoff and, moreover, they are not to be taken for granted. There are highly esteemed books which are pretty well unreadable. It’s quite a relief to look at the first page of something and know immediately where you are and with whom and when. There’s no scratching of the head and thinking: Who’s saying this? What’s going on? When will things become clear?

Dorothy Whipple was not only a popular writer in her day but also a critically acclaimed one. Most of her novels became Book Society Choices and two of them (They Were Sisters and They Knew Mr Knight) were made into movies. Thanks to the admirable Persephone Books, whose beautiful silver-jacketed volumes truly do furnish a room, much of her work is now available. I’m going to discuss several of her novels, but before I do that, let me make some more general points about her work.

Whipple is a middle-class writer, and her subject is middle-class families. If you’re looking for deeds of derring-do, non-stop action, wars, thrilling landscapes and adventures; if your taste is for the experimental, the rebellious or the strange and fantastical, you’d be better off trying another writer. Whipple’s stories concern mothers and children, sisters, husbands and wives, and she is very good at delineating other relationships: with in-laws, with servants (and even not very rich people had live-in help in her day) and especially with those who intrude into a household in different ways and somehow wreck the careful balance that has been established there. She loves the daily detail of life: the food, the clothes, the running of a house, be it large or small. She is brilliant when it comes to financial matters, and They Knew Mr Knight has as its subject what happens to a family when money becomes all-important. Each novel has a moral, though it’s never overtly stated. Whipple sometimes uses her own belief in a benevolent God to provide comfort for her characters and an ending that might be deemed less than happy is made to seem better because, we are told, God is taking care of matters. I don’t regard this as any kind of barrier to my enjoyment.

Whipple may have an ice-cream name but she is neither sweet nor bland as a writer. Never less than acute, she’s sometimes positively Austen-sharp in her perceptions. She sees right through pretensions and often has a great deal of fun (there’s much to laugh at in even the most serious of her novels) at the expense especially of minor characters. Schoolteachers, neighbours, tradesmen, peripheral men and women on the fringes of the books, are as real as the main protagonists, without toppling over into caricature.

I particularly enjoy writers who pay attention to things like dress, jewellery, food, houses and gardens, but do not be alarmed if you think you hate that stuff. Whipple doesn’t go in for long descriptions which tire you out before you’re at the end of a paragraph. Rather, she manages to convey precisely what everything looks like and feels like in the most economical and deft of strokes.

Finally (and this is the most important thing of all about any novelist’s work), she makes her main protagonists come to life on the page and engage our emotions. We care deeply what happens to them. Occasionally, when truly ghastly things are going on, it’s very hard to read the words in front of you without holding your breath until matters improve. And sometimes, for some people (these are not cosy books) things get much, much worse. It’s also worth saying that while love is a very important part of Whipple’s subject matter, she is never sentimental and her style, whatever she’s describing, is never overwrought. She’s the least hysterical of writers, but that makes the emotional punch behind her words even stronger.

They Knew Mr Knight was published in 1934. This novel concerns Thomas and Celia Blake and their financial difficulties. It sounds as though it might be dull but that’s far from the case. The eponymous Mr Knight is in fact the Devil, though the allegory is subtly handled and what happens to each character is both fascinating and constantly entertaining. As an incidental pleasure: this novel includes one of the best and most amusing portraits ever of an irritating neighbour. Mrs Greene is a snob and a busybody. She is also jealous of Celia. At the lowest ebb of the Blakes’s fortunes, when Thomas has been arrested for fraud, we have this:

The arrest of her next-door neighbour was a godsend to Mrs. Greene. She was so absolutely in the know. To be able to tell everybody on the way to town, to sit in the café and tell it all over again, to walk home meeting fresh people and tell it again! She was quite exhausted and had to lie down after lunch before going out to tea and telling it again.

They Knew Mr Knight
is a story rich with event and incident, astute about the effects of poverty and wealth, interesting about what goes on between colleagues and neighbours and outstandingly sensitive in describing the nuances of family life: the problems which actually seem to grow out of the deep love you have for those closest to you.

In 1939, Whipple published The Priory. It’s a book in a genre I particularly like: the story of a house, Saunby Priory, and its inhabitants. The lives of the Marwood family, the way they’re bound up with the place, the financial difficulties involved in the upkeep of such a property, the upstairs/downstairs aspects of the story, and what happens to the protagonists, make for the sort of novel where drama and conflict, just because they are set in a reassuring context, might seem less unbearable, and yet the emotional force of every relationship is well-described and dealt with fully. Also, when twins are born to one of the Marwood sisters, we encounter Nurse Pye, a positively Dickensian creation who takes over the household in an almost sinister way. The novel is absorbing and wide-ranging, and particularly good about the problems of adjusting to being a mother for the first time.

They Were Sisters first appeared in 1943. Parts of this novel are so harrowing that I found it quite hard to read in places. The story is a simple one. There are three sisters. One (Vera) is unutterably vain and self-absorbed. Another (Lucy) is ‘the good sister’, anxious about the others and always striving to do her best for everyone. She is also the happy sister: happily married and with no children of her own. This makes her the ideal aunt and it’s thanks to her that the young children in the book have any kind of life. The children of the third sister (Charlotte) in particular need shelter and protection because their father, Geoffrey, is one of the most odious, abusive and loathsome men ever to be found within the covers of a novel. There are moments of unspeakable bleakness in this book, but the main thing I will remember it for is Geoffrey, who is a monster in a completely different way from other abusive men you’ve met in fiction.

Someone at a Distance (1953) is my favourite of Whipple’s novels. It’s a story about an English family: Avery and Ellen North and their children, Hugh and Anne. Avery’s mother hires a French companion called Louise Lanier and she acts as a kind of serpent in this Garden of Eden. It’s another book where you want at various times to shout out to the characters: Oh, don’t do that. Can’t you see what the consequence of that will be? Why won’t you listen to him? Why don’t you say something, etc. And yet Whipple has such control over her story, over her characters, that you are drawn along, deeply involved with everyone, even the detestable Louise. She is a magnificent creation and in this book Whipple does a really good job of describing French life as well. Having the book set in two places gives it its title. ‘Someone at a distance’ refers to Paul, Louise’s ex-boyfriend. He scorned her while she was still in France and everything that happens in the novel is as a result of her trying to punish him for his behaviour. The Norths are simply pawns in her extended and unpleasant game. It’s a terrific book, full of anguish, passion, jealousy and remorse.’Proper people in interesting situations’ is one definition of a good novel. I think that Whipple’s books are precisely that. If Carmen Callil is of the opinion that they are no more than women’s magazine fiction writ large, I think she’s mistaken. Do try these novels and see what you think. I’m willing to bet you’ll agree with me.

I know Adele through The History Girls. I’ve admired her works for such a long time and was delighted to find her also talking hsitory. That’s why I asked her here – she walks the talk, and the talk is beautiful. She offered me a rerpint for this celebration and it was so perfect, I said ‘yes’ for the writers of everyday life show so many wonders, and Adele explains why. This opens up Dorothy Whipple’s books, but also many others. This article first appeared in a magazine called “Slightly Foxed” in 2005.

Women’s History Month guest – Sharyn Lilley

I knew Sharyn first as a science fiction fan, an editor, and as a writer. She edited Life Through Cellophane (now Ms Cellophane) and a short storyof mine. I asked Sharyn for this, then, for the world is full of incipient irony, I was raced off to hospital myself. Most of this month will be writers talking about writers, but it’s important to see, sometimes, what lies beneath the surface. Some lives look as if their owner’s swimming upwater through shoals of pirhanas. It’s important to know this, that some of the prices paid are hidden. When we see the work of writers, this month, it’s worth keeping in mind the prices that some have paid. It’s another hidden element of history.

Gillian asked me a doozy this year. Ask me to tell you about Australia’s female bushrangers, and I can reel their stories off pat. Ask me about the Australian suffragette movement and I’ll not only tell tell you about Edith Cowan (who in 1921 became our first elected female politician) but also about the women before her, like Vida Goldstein, who ran for the Senate on three separate occasions (1903, 1910, and 1917) but – that’s not what Gillian asked me.

She wanted me to talk about me. Not about my experiences as a woman in fandom in more recent history (rural Australia of the 70’s and 80’s) But about how I write under interesting circumstances. She thinks I might have some pointers for others. Maybe she’s right, we’re about to find out. I’ve been stumped on how to approach this all month long. Then this morning two things happened. I read a quote about if all the people with rare, chronic illnesses were all put into one country, we’d be the third most populated country in the world. Our conditions might be different, but there are a lot of us, and we all deal with intriguing amounts of pain on a daily level. The second thing that happened was my dog tripping me over.

Welcome to my mind, it’s scatter-brained from pain and medication, but these two things brought me the realisation of how I write. After I picked myself up off the concrete, I hobbled back inside and posted this on facebook (please note the following doesn’t include my heart issues or my chronic illness, which I have lived with for the better part of three decades and lead to the heart issues):

Today: cartilage either side of sternum is inflamed, One shoulder is frozen, the other has multiple tears from joint through cartilage. Spine is degrading at base of skull and lower back region. Arthritis through shoulders and full length of spine, and sciatic nerves are not being friendly today. The idiot hound tripped me up as I stepped down off the back verandah, and I landed awkwardly on the concrete, grazing my knees and hands.
I sat there for a few moments, trying to work out which part of the body I could move first, in order to stand up. The idiot hound just looked at me like “What are you doing? Why are you sitting on the ground?” *sighs* No, I didn’t kill him, but today is going to need coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

Then I opened up my current manuscript, looked over at my notes on my cork-board, and wrote another thousand words. Every time I felt my brain getting foggy, all I have to do is sit back, and I’m looking at my notes. I know there are all sorts of writing programs and apps to help authors keep their research altogether. And when I am specifically looking for something, those are great time savers. But those times when brain fog sets in and I don’t have the wit to open up anything, sitting back and staring at hand written pages until the words start to make sense, is the one method I can utilise to keep me writing.

Having a publisher who is absolutely understanding, and allowing me to work at the best pace I can, is an incredible blessing. I think this is where small press can shine. I am beyond grateful that Snapping Turtle Books took my Y.A. science fiction series, and me, on for the long haul.

My other recommendation for trying to write, deal with family and real life stuff, when every muscle in your body feels like it’s on fire, and you could sleep for a week, except if you did, you’d only wake up tired, and you’d be even more behind: Laughter. It’s easy to do the “Oh poor me, I’m in pain” routine. It’s a lot better to find something to laugh at. Hunt down some old Damn You Autocorrect entries, or Texts From Dog, like this one; laugh and get back to work.