women

Women in Historical Fiction #InternationalWomensDay #IWD2019

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I recently read a lovely book, ‘The Story Collector’ by Evie Gaughan, (review to follow soon) in which the historical female protagonist is that rare thing – a woman in historical fiction who actually behaves within the constraints and confines of her time. It reminded me of this post that I wrote a while ago, and, as the problem of ‘feisty’, unrealistic historical heroines is still one that I come across with depressing regularity, I thought I would post it again, in honour of International Women’s Day.

boxing-woman

My recent post about the portrayal of women of a certain age in fiction certainly seemed to strike a chord with many of you. So I thought I’d have another bit of a rant – this time about the way women are portrayed in historical fiction.

Now, I’m not talking about historical romance here, because to be honest it’s not a genre I read and I know that the female characters  don’t really have to be historically accurate (and I don’t mean that to sound demeaning).

In the historical fiction that I enjoy, there will be strong, likeable, intelligent female characters. These characters will often be inspiring and admirable. There are enough real historical women who have acted bravely and out of the bounds of convention after all. But, without exception, all of these women would have found it tough, and would have met resistance and hostility and often real danger.

So what really gets on my nerves in historical fiction is women who act rashly, or who are rebellious, or adventurous and who do these things without any consequences whatsoever. Women of upper class families who go out on their own, for example, without permission. And this is acceptable because after all, she’s a feisty one (god how I hate that word) and it’s all just a bit of a giggle.

And women who show no fear. Who stand up to adversity and discrimination and their fear, their anger, their frustration isn’t portrayed. I’m willing to bet everything I have that every single woman who stood on the gallows, accused of witchcraft was utterly, completely terrified. That every single woman who fell under suspicion and was arrested and tortured felt helpless. That every single woman who wanted more for herself than to be a wife or a mother felt totally frustrated and angry.

In too many books and films these women stand up for themselves and are defiant. Would they really have been? Or would they have crumbled, and cried and begged for mercy? And wouldn’t you? I think we do a disservice to these women when we write their feelings out of our fiction. These women were often completely, utterly, helpless and alone and would have had no agency at all. There would have been no one, absolutely no one to help them. It would have done no good for to be feisty. They just had to bear it and they just had to suffer.

I began reading a book the other week that was a best seller. The author is well-respected and very, very successful. I’ll admit I had my reservations before I began. The book is set in France, in the occupation. In the opening scenes, a local woman, very young, very clever, very outspoken, is put into a very difficult and scary situation that could end with her being killed. But she’s fine, because she’s strong, and brave and clever and beautiful and feisty. She stands up to the nasty Gestapo officer. And all is fine.

How utterly insulting to all those women who were left to deal with the occupation and who did whatever they could to keep themselves sand their children safe. What a judgement on those who weren’t feisty enough or pretty enough or brave enough. I wouldn’t be brave in that situation. I doubt that I’d stand up for myself.

I know fiction is make-believe. I know that people can act differently in fictional worlds to how they act in the real world. But I also feel so strongly that we owe it to the millions and millions of women that have suffered, that have been tortured and murdered and abused and vilified and subjugated, to portray them honestly. A woman that confessed under torture to things she hadn’t done, a woman that betrayed someone because she was scared for her children, a woman that didn’t do all the things she was capable of because she COULDN’T. Because not everyone was bloody Florence Nightingale (although she certainly had her struggles too). These women are part of female history too. And if you’re writing historical fiction, please show these women how they would have been. And please do remember – there weren’t many happy endings.

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Happy Lupercalia! #valentinesday

Lupercalia heart

Happy Valentine’s Day! Here is my annual Valentine’s Day post about the real ideas behind the celebration.

Yes, I know it’s Valentine’s Day and lots of you will be receiving bouquets of roses and planning romantic dinners (not me- my husband knows I have no time for the gross commercialism that is Valentine’s Day and is under pain of divorce not to buy me flowers – and I mean it), however, it would seem that Valentine’s Day has always had a lot more to it than hearts and flowers. In fact, it originates from an ancient pagan ritual that was celebrated for years before anyone had heard of Valentine.

In Rome, many centuries ago, the festival of Lupercalia was celebrated from the 13th to the 15th of February. On the 14th of February, a day devoted to Juno, queen of the gods and patron of marriage, young women would place their names on slips of paper put into jars. The young men would pick out a name and the two would spend Lupercalia together.

Lupercalia itself was a strange festival. It was held in honour of the gods Lupercus and Faunus and the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. The ritual began at the cave where Lupa the wolf was reputed to have suckled Romulus and Remus. A goat (fertility) and a dog (protection) would be sacrificed, and the goat flayed. Men would then run through the streets whipping women and crops with this flayed hide, in a bid to encourage fertility and to ease pain in any future childbirth. Not quite as romantic as a candlelit dinner, but this was ancient Rome.

lupercalia

So how did this rather wild sounding festival become the St Valentine’s Day of today? The rise of Christianity saw Pope Gelasius officially condemn the pagan festival, banning it at the end of the fifth Century. He declared that 14th February be St Valentine’s day. Although no-one really knows who this Valentine was, he is possibly an amalgamation of two different men. During the reign of Emperor Claudius, it was decreed that all marriages be stopped. A priest called Valentine was imprisoned for continuing to perform marriage ceremonies. In the 3rd Century A.D. another Valentine was imprisoned for helping Christians. He allegedly fell in love with the daughter of his jailer and cured her of blindness. This good deed did him no good whatsoever, as he was executed on 14th February 289 A.D. These two Valentines may be the ones at the heart of Valentine’s Day (sorry!).

Even the tradition of young women placing their names into a jar to be picked by a man was incorporated into this new celebration – with one rather huge difference. The girl’s names were replaced by those of saints; each man vowing to emulate the life of the saint whose name he picked for the coming year. Not quite as romantic as the original really.

So, like many other feast days and holidays, Valentine’s Day has its roots in something far from saintly. Still, whether you object to the commercialism or not, it’s as good a day as any other to tell someone you love them!

Valentines

‘Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy’ by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

Option B

Amazon.co.uk   Amazon.com

From Facebook’s COO and Wharton’s top-rated professor, the #1 New York Times best-selling authors of Lean In and Originals: a powerful, inspiring, and practical book about building resilience and moving forward after life’s inevitable setbacks.

After the sudden death of her husband, Sheryl Sandberg felt certain that she and her children would never feel pure joy again. “I was in ‘the void,’” she writes, “a vast emptiness that fills your heart and lungs and restricts your ability to think or even breathe.” Her friend Adam Grant, a psychologist at Wharton, told her there are concrete steps people can take to recover and rebound from life-shattering experiences. We are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. It is a muscle that everyone can build.

Option B combines Sheryl’s personal insights with Adam’s eye-opening research on finding strength in the face of adversity. Beginning with the gut-wrenching moment when she finds her husband, Dave Goldberg, collapsed on a gym floor, Sheryl opens up her heart—and her journal—to describe the acute grief and isolation she felt in the wake of his death. But Option B goes beyond Sheryl’s loss to explore how a broad range of people have overcome hardships including illness, job loss, sexual assault, natural disasters, and the violence of war. Their stories reveal the capacity of the human spirit to persevere . . . and to rediscover joy.

Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us. Even after the most devastating events, it is possible to grow by finding deeper meaning and gaining greater appreciation in our lives. Option B illuminates how to help others in crisis, develop compassion for ourselves, raise strong children, and create resilient families, communities, and workplaces. Many of these lessons can be applied to everyday struggles, allowing us to brave whatever lies ahead. Two weeks after losing her husband, Sheryl was preparing for a father-child activity. “I want Dave,” she cried. Her friend replied, “Option A is not available,” and then promised to help her make the most of Option B.

We all live some form of Option B. This book will help us all make the most of it.

I don’t read ‘self-help’ books very often, to be honest. But I’d read about the death of Dave Goldberg and knew about Sheryl Sandberg, so I was interested to read this.

I was initially sceptical though. Sandberg is a privileged woman; she has wealth, and opportunity, and surely her experience would be far removed from that of normal, ordinary people? I was worried that the book might be one of those that preached from a position of power and privilege, telling ordinary women how to cope, when the author has no idea at all of the everyday struggles that those women (and men) face every day. Add grief and loss to that, and could Sandberg really understand? (Check out Ivanka Trump’s highly insulting, ridiculous and just plain weird ‘Women Who Work – Rewriting the Rules for Success’ and marvel at the complete ignorance of normality).

But Sandberg is fully aware of her privilege. She knows that she is lucky and she understands that other women (I say women because it is still women who are more vulnerable, at least financially, after the death of a partner) will have more to face than she did after a loss like this. And this self-awareness and acknowledgement really made me warm to her. I also couldn’t help but be affected by the sheer honesty and rawness of her grief. I lost my mum before I was forty. I know that isn’t comparable to the loss of a husband. But grief is something we feel a little bit ashamed of at times; we don’t like to let it show, mainly, I think, because we’re worried it will make other people uncomfortable. So to read an honest account of an intelligent, secure and focussed woman falling to pieces through grief was, perhaps selfishly, rather comforting. Her description of her husband’s funeral was heart-breaking. And her emotions are real – she’s a real person, with real feelings.

I liked her, and I respected and admired the way she cared for her children and acknowledged their pain. So I felt far more open to hearing what else she had to say.

I know that Sandberg’s wealth will be a sticking point for many. I know that she can afford childcare, and she doesn’t have to worry about a mortgage. And she has a supportive family and a supportive boss – things that lots of other people don’t have. But that doesn’t mean that some aspects of this book can’t be helpful to more ‘normal’ people. As already mentioned, just reading someone else’s account of grief can help when you have suffered a loss – acknowledging that your feelings are normal and understandable and understood can be a great help. And reading about other people who have suffered horrific things but who have managed to build useful and fulfilling lives is extremely inspirational. And there is advice here that doesn’t hinge on having money – writing a journal, for example, and looking for positive things in even the bleakest of times is helpful for anyone.

There were a few places where things got a bit spiritual, which didn’t do it for me, but these were few and far between. What I really liked were the anecdotes about Sheryl’s own experiences and how she helped herself and her children not only to grieve, but to begin to move on, without forgetting their father – simple things like beginning new family routines and traditions while not forgetting the old ones, for example.

It’s well written too, and thoroughly researched. Definitely worth reading, and recommended for anyone going through a hard time and trying to cope, whether through a death, redundancy, anxiety and depression – there are things here that can help.

4 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy

The Myth of the Feisty Woman #wwwblogs #womensfiction #histfic

boxing woman

My recent post about the portrayal of women of a certain age in fiction certainly seemed to strike a chord with many of you. So I thought I’d have another bit of a rant – this time about the way women are portrayed in historical fiction.

Now, I’m not talking about historical romance here, because to be honest it’s not a genre I read. In the historical fiction that I enjoy, there will be strong, likeable, intelligent female characters. These characters will often be inspiring and admirable. There are enough real historical women who have acted bravely and out of the bounds of convention after all. But, without exception, all of these women would have found it tough, and would have met resistance and hostility and often real danger.

So what really gets on my nerves in historical fiction is women who act rashly, or who are rebellious, or adventurous and who do these things without any consequences whatsoever. Women of upper class families who go out on their own, for example, without permission. And this is acceptable because after all, she’s a feisty one (god how I hate that word) and it’s all just a bit of a giggle.

And women who show no fear. Who stand up to adversity and discrimination and their fear, their anger, their frustration isn’t portrayed. I’m willing to bet everything I have that every single woman who stood on the gallows, accused of witchcraft was utterly, completely terrified. That every single woman who fell under suspicion and was arrested and tortured felt helpless. That every single woman who wanted more for herself than to be a wife or a mother felt totally frustrated and angry.

When I wrote ‘The Black Hours’ I wanted to show that what happened to these women accused of witchcraft was terrifying. In too many books and films these women stand up for themselves and are defiant. Would they really have been? Or would they have crumbled, and cried and begged for mercy? And wouldn’t you? I think we do a disservice to these women when we write their feelings out of our fiction. What I was trying to get across with Alice, and with Maggie, was that they were completely, utterly helpless. Alice had no agency at all. No one, absolutely no one, was going to help her. It would have done no good for her to be feisty. She just had to bear it and she just had to suffer.

I began reading a book the other week that was a best-seller. The author is well-respected and very, very successful. I’ll admit I had my reservations before I began. The book is set in France, during the occupation. In the opening scenes, a local woman, very young, very clever, very outspoken, is put into a situation that could end with her being killed. But she’s fine, because she’s strong, and brave and clever and beautiful and feisty. She stands up to the nasty Gestapo officer. And all is fine.

How utterly insulting to all the women who tried to deal with the occupation and keep their children safe in whatever way they could, but failed. What a judgement on those who weren’t feisty enough or pretty enough or brave enough. I wouldn’t be brave in that situation. I doubt that I’d even stand up for myself.

I know fiction is make-believe. I know that people can act differently in fictional worlds to how they act in the real one. But I also feel strongly that we owe it to the millions and millions of women that have suffered, that have been tortured and murdered and abused and vilified and subjugated, throughout history, to portray them honestly. A woman that confessed under torture to things she hadn’t done; a woman that betrayed someone because she was scared for her children; a woman that didn’t do all the things she was capable of because she couldn’t. Because not everyone was bloody Florence Nightingale (although she certainly had her share of the struggle). These women are part of female history too. So, if you’re writing historical fiction, please be authentic to these women; to how they would have been and what they would have done. And please, do remember: there weren’t many happy endings.

Women of a Certain Age… #wwwblogs #womensfiction #amwriting

Warning – expletives

DVF quote 2

I’m not a huge fan of the term ‘women’s fiction’, but I can see, to a point, that it serves a purpose. There’s no doubt that some fiction is written with women in mind as a target audience, and, as a woman myself, I’m part of that target audience. I’m also forty-six, so I’m not particularly interested in reading about the trials and tribulations of women in their twenties and early thirties. I do like to read about women of my own age however, but there is something that’s been really annoying me about these women lately.

I’ve read a few books over the last few months where the main character has been in her forties or fifties. I should relate then, shouldn’t I? I should empathise and sympathise and see bits of myself, my hang-ups, my worries, my problems, in that character. But on many occasions recently I haven’t. And why? Because these women are all too often too bloody perfect.

To those younger women reading this – everything they say about reaching your forties is true. Yes, you will be more confident, yes, you will be more likely to not give a fuck (and in my case, for some reason a lot more likely to use that word). You will care a lot less about what people think about you. Those are the upsides. The downsides are mainly physical if I’m honest.

I like to keep fit and healthy. I’m lucky enough to be naturally on the slim side. But to maintain this, I go to the gym three times a week (ha – I try to go to the gym three times a week. And fail). I watch what I eat (without being too parsimonious about it). It helps, I think that I don’t eat meat or dairy. I’ve been religiously cleansing, toning, moisturising, exfoliating, face packing etc. for years. I still have wrinkles. My chin is sagging. I have jowls forming (gosh, I sound gorgeous don’t I?). I have cellulite. I have flabby arms. It’s because I’m forty-six. That’s all there is to it. I’m ageing.

So what does this have to do with books?

Well, I’m heartily sick of reading about women my age (or even older) who are perfect. Perfect physically. These women are so bloody gorgeous that younger men can’t resist them. They are flawless, perfect, the best-looking woman in the room. Well, maybe some women of that age are. But not women who, like these characters, drink a bottle of wine every night before falling into bed without moisturising then get up and work a fourteen-hour day in their high-flying accomplished career. Not women, who, like these women, seem to exist on huge restaurant meals, takeaways and (oh horrible clichés) chocolate and tubs of ice cream. Not women who, like these women, never, ever, ever exercise (unless it’s a romantic walk in the woods with a man twenty years younger).

Is it just me who wants a reality check here? Is it just me who can’t bear to read another scene where a young man removes an older woman’s clothes and gasps at her flawless beauty? I’m not saying older women aren’t gorgeous, because we are. But it would be nice if these fictional women were even slightly real. If they stressed over how they look naked, like normal women do.

Now, I’m a feminist. I wish women didn’t stress over their appearance, and I wish all men (as most do TBH) accepted us as we are – cellulite, thread veins, wobbly chin and all. But we do stress over it – even the most feminist among us. It’s human nature I think (and years and years of conditioning that tells us we’re only valuable because of our looks). Am I wrong to want to read about women like me? Women who look like crap in the morning. Women who do often drink a bottle of wine in one evening but then find it hard to answer an email, let alone work through twenty complicated case hearing files, or (for god’s sake) run their bloody cupcake shop or wildly successful internet dating site/detective agency single-handedly.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a bit of escapism. But I want to believe in these women, I want to like them. I certainly don’t want to be irritated by them. Otherwise, I find it very difficult to care about them, or what happens to them. And so very difficult to care about the book.

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Why you should be voting in the UK today

‘It is our duty to make this world a better place for women.’

Christabel Pankhurst

Regular readers of this blog will have probably realised that I have fairly strong political views, particularly on the subject of women’s rights. However, I don’t want to use this blog to ram my political beliefs down people’s throats. However, I do want to make the point that voting today is crucial – particularly if you are a woman. Your hard won vote should not be thrown away. Because it really was hard won.

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

It wasn’t until 1918 that voting rights were granted to some women in this country, and even then it was only women over thirty who met minimum property qualifications. It was 1928 before all women over the age of 21 could vote. 1928! That’s not even a century ago. Some of you reading this will have parents and grandparents that were alive then. It’s not that long ago. Can you imagine how that felt? How women must have truly felt like second class citizens? So worthless and unimportant that they weren’t even allowed to help choose who would have power over them? To choose who would make the decisions that would shape their lives?

I’m not going to go on about the suffragettes, except to remind anyone who is not voting today that these brave, selfless women were imprisoned, force-fed, beaten and sexually abused. And of course, Emily Wilding Davison was killed at the Epsom Derby on 4th June 1913, when she stepped in front of the King’s horse. These women were true heroes, willing to risk their liberty and put themselves in harm’s way in order to secure equality.

Emily Wilding Davison trampled by the King's horse

Emily Wilding Davison trampled by the King’s horse

I know it is easy to become disillusioned with politics and politicians, and you may feel that you genuinely don’t agree with any party or individual who is standing for election. If you think this, I would urge you to think again. Read the manifestos – most of them are online and it really won’t take long. I was surprised to find that I did agree with every single one of the policies in one manifesto I read – and it definitely wasn’t UKIP! It’ll take you about half an hour to make up your mind, and probably about half an hour to pop out to the polling station and vote. An hour of your day at the most. Surely you can spare that? After all, it’s a rather small sacrifice compared to the sacrifices these women made. Sacrifices made on your behalf, for you, so you could exercise your freedom. A freedom they didn’t have.

Suffragette1913