women’s history

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.

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Fifty Shades of Feminism: Lisa Appignanesi (Editor), Susie Orbach (Editor), Rachel Holmes (Editor)

50 feminism

My son bought this book for me – knowing how annoyed a certain book and film with a similar title have made me recently! It sometimes feels these days that people don’t like to admit to being feminists, that it’s somehow overly political and radical, but I am a feminist and I’m proud to be one and proud that my son has the feminist symbol tattooed on his arm (brought him up right!). And I’m angry, very angry, at the way feminism is currently portrayed and diminished, with terms like feminazis and bleating ‘whatabouttery’ every time someone mentions that domestic violence is wrong and that there is still a pay gap in 2015! 2015!

I read a lot, mostly fiction, and have a TBR list that I doubt will ever be finished, so I haven’t read any political/cultural/social books in a long time. Of course, when I was younger I read lots of feminist works – Naomi Wolf, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinman, I even struggled through Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’. But the world has changed and feminism has changed too.

‘Fifty Shades of Feminism’, is a timely collection of essays that provides a small window on feminist thoughts and ideas today. The format meant that I could dip in and out of it, reading when I had the time – a real bonus for me. The compilation comprises of essays written by many different women from different cultures, with different experiences and different opinions about feminism and what it means to be a feminist. With contributions from women working  as novelists, barristers, politicians, comedians, and doctors, among others, and featuring such well-known women as  Joan Bakewell, Diana Quick, Meera Syal, Kathy Lette and Sandi Toksvig (her description of the young girl in high heels at the graduation ceremony is brilliant) there are definitely fifty shades of feminism here. Some of it I agreed with whole-heartedly, nodding along as I read, glad to see that other women feel the same way as I do. There were other contributions that made me cross and that I really didn’t enjoy – but I’m glad that the editors gave space to such a diversity of opinion and experience.

I have a sixteen-year-old daughter and the world she’s about to set out into is a scary place. It seems unimaginable to me that women are still treated like second class citizens (and they really are, and too many of us are far too complacent about it) and it frightens me that some young women think that they no longer need feminism. This book shows that they do – and is a fantastic way to introduce young women (and men) to the ideas behind feminism.

Read it, enjoy it and pass it on to your daughters and your sons.

And as for that other book – all I have to say is this:

50 grey

My rating:

gold star

Find a copy here

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be.
Find out about my historical novels ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.

A Witchcraft Tour of England

pendle witches

England has a long and varied history of witchcraft. As a tradition stretching back centuries, it is hardly surprising that there are a great variety of places that abound with legends, stories and histories about witchcraft, witches, persecution and execution. When researching the topic for my novel  ‘The Black Hours’, I came across lots of interesting stories and made a long list of places that I’d love to visit. Some of them I have been lucky enough to visit although I would like to visit again one day. In fact, what I’d really like to do is go on a witchcraft tour of England – spending time in all these places. All offer something interesting and informative; some are fun and have more to do with legend, myth and fairy tale than the brutal truth of the horror of the witch hunts; other places I have found to be spots where poor, misunderstood and persecuted women (let’s not forget that the majority of the witch hunt victims were women) can be remembered and honoured in some small way. These are the places I’d love to visit and re-visit.

The North West

300px-Pendle_Hill_Lancs

No witchcraft tour would be complete without a visit to Pendle Hill in Lancashire and it’s a great place to start. Pendle was the location of the famous 1612 trial for witchcraft. The accused all lived in the area, and ten were hanged on Gallows Hill. Of course, rumours now abound that the hill is haunted – TV’s Most Haunted has filmed there. As a sceptic I don’t believe that these women haunt the hill – I like to think they are at peace, free from the horrible persecution they suffered and no longer afraid. But I must admit I’m not sure I’d like to spend the night on the hill!

The North East

witch pricking

Margaret Brown and thirteen other poor souls were hanged on the Town Moor in Newcastle in 1650. Margaret was a victim of ‘witch-pricking’ – it was claimed she had a devil’s mark on her body that, when pricked by a pin did not bleed. She protested her innocence right up to the last according to Ralph Gardener’s 1655 book ‘England’s Grievance’:

“These poor souls never confessed anything but pleaded innocence and one of them, by name Margaret Brown, beseeched God that some remarkable sign might be seen at the time of her execution.”

The Town Moor is a place I’d like to visit, to pause for a moment and think about poor Margaret and the other terrified accused – hoping against hope that something would end their terror.

Yorkshire

mother shipton

I have heard a lot of stories about Mother Shipton and the ‘Petrifying Well’ or ‘dropping well’ in Knaresborough. It used to be believed that the water was magic – turning objects to stone. Now of course we know that the calcifying is due to the high mineral content of the water – but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. And Mother Shipton herself is an interesting character – allegedly born in a cave near the dropping well, she has become a legendary figure of folklore, renowned for her prophecies. There is a whole park devoted to her now, with the dropping well, cave, a museum, castle ruins and gardens. You can even buy a petrified teddy bear in the gift shop!

East Anglia

DSCF1380

This area was the stomping ground of Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General, subject of ‘The Black Hours’.  There are a wealth of places to visit – though few traces of the man himself remain. I’ve visited Colchester Castle and stood in the cells where Hopkins interrogated his victims (a very spooky and uncomfortable experience). I’ve also eaten dinner in ‘The Mistley Thorn’, a lovely pub that stands on the site of the inn where Hopkins set up his witch finding business and where he is rumoured to have lived. The food is lovely. I did get a bit freaked out when leaving though as we decided to go for a walk in the dark – and I have to say it was incredibly chilling to think we were walking where Hopkins may have walked. My imagination did get the better of me, but that might have been the wine.

 

The South

coven of witches

Burley is a very pretty village in the New Forest known for its connection with the witch Sybil leek. Leek moved to the area in the 1950s and opened a shop – ‘A Coven of Witches’ – still open in the village. There are now other shops in the village selling various witch-related items and a tea shop called ‘The Black Cat’. I’ve been to Burley several times and it is a really beautiful place – and a bit of light relief too!

The South West

Museum of Witchcraft

Two places of note in the South West – the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall and Exeter in Devon.

I won’t say too much about the Witchcraft Museum other than saying again how utterly fabulous it is – quirky and weird, packed full of witchcraft related stuff, but you can read about my visit here.

Alice Molland plaque

I regret not stopping in Exeter on my way to Boscastle as I would have liked to have seen the plaque at Rougemont Castle commemorating the execution of the Bideford witches and Alice Molland – you can find out about Alice here.

I know I have missed out some wonderful places but there are so many that it is hard to choose. And I know I have also ignored Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – I am planning separate posts on the history of witchcraft in these countries.

Do you know of any interesting places connected to witchcraft in England?  I’d love to know about them (any excuse for a holiday – I mean research!).

 

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be.
Find out about my historical novels ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.

Emmeline Pankhurst – Deeds not Words

emmeline
Today would have been the birthday of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement in Britain, lathough the woman herself did not believe this day to actually be her birthday. She always maintained that she had in fact been born a day earlier, on the 14th July – Bastille Day. Various books about her, including some written by her children, repeat this claim. Bastille Day would indeed have made an appropriate birthday, and Emmeline is said to have felt an affinity with the female revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille. In June Purvis’ 2002 biography, she is quoted as saying: “I have always thought that the fact that I was born on that day had some kind of influence over my life.”

Whether or not today is actually her 156th birthday, it is still an excuse, if one were needed, to celebrate the life of a remarkable woman to whom all women should be grateful. It is easy to forget that it was less than 100 years ago that woman were given the right to vote. If it hadn’t been for Emmeline Pankhurst, the fight might have taken a lot longer. And if you think suffragettes were like the rather dizzy mother portrayed in ‘Mary Poppins’ then think again; Emmeline and her colleagues were made of much sterner stuff, and the suffragette movement was no Disneyesque fantasy.

Emmeline was born in Moss Side, Manchester to politically active parents. This may have had some bearing on her own political views, as may have the French finishing school she later attended. The headmistress there believed that girls’ education was just as important as boys’ and subjects such as chemistry and book keeping were taught alongside the more traditional ‘female’ subjects.

Emmeline married at the age of twenty. Her husband, Dr Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer, was twenty four years older. He was a radical and a socialist and believed in women’s rights. The couple had five children. All their daughters, including Christabel, became active in the women’s’ suffrage movement with their mother.

wspu

It was Emmeline who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) a group dedicated to practical activism in order to obtain equal voting rights for woman. The group’s motto was ‘Deeds not Words’ and it gained a reputation for its tactics – these involved demonstrations, cutting telephone lines, destroying greenhouses at Kew Gardens and chaining themselves to railings. Many women were arrested and imprisoned, Emmeline amongst them. In Holloway, Emmeline staged her first hunger strike in an attempt to improve conditions for the other suffragettes imprisoned there. Other activists followed suit, and force-feeding began. Emmeline was spared this trauma however. As she recounts in her biography ‘My Own Story’, when officers tried to enter her cell, she held a clay jug over her head, threatening to defend herself.

Emmeline in prison

Emmeline in prison

Emmeline continued to break the law, continued to be imprisoned and continued to go on hunger strike, a process that proved extremely detrimental to her health. However, the First World War put a stop to the movement’s activities, and Emmeline threw herself into helping the war effort. She organised rallies, gave speeches and lobbied the government on the issue of helping women to enter the workforce in order to fill gaps left by fighting men. She also became involved in helping ‘war babies’; those children born to single mothers whose fathers were away fighting.
With the end of the war came the 1918 Representation of the People Act which granted the vote to certain women over the age of thirty.

Emmeline continued to be involved with politics. Surprisingly to some, she joined the Conservative Party in 1926 and was selected as a candidate for Whitechapel and St George in 1928. However, her health had been impacted by her frequent incarcerations and hunger strikes and she died that same year at the age of 69. Just eighteen days later, Parliament passed the Representation of the People (equal franchise) Act 1928, giving the vote to all women over the age of twenty-one regardless of property ownership. Finally, women had equality with men in terms of voting. It was a shame that Emmeline, after devoting her life and sacrificing her health to the cause, never got to see her dream fully realised.

More tales of witchcraft and sorcery – Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester

Researching my novel ‘The Black Hours’ led me to discover many strange and horrifying stories of persecution, suspicion and murder, most of which seem hard to believe in this day and age. Much of my research centred on Essex, East Anglia and parts of Kent in the period that Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General and antihero of my book, was operating. However, there have been many other instances of accusations of witchcraft in the UK, from both before and after Hopkins’ horrible reign. Predictably, most of them centred on poorer, older women, outcasts or those on the edge of society. However, the rich and powerful didn’t always escape.

Eleanor Cobham was the mistress and second wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. In 1441, she was imprisoned for the impressive sounding crime of treasonable necromancy.

Eleanor Cobham

Eleanor Cobham

Eleanor’s downfall came about through her interest in both astrology and the monarchy. Her husband was the fourth and youngest son of King Henry IV by his first wife Mary de Bohun. His brother was King Henry V. When Humphrey’s older brother died in 1453, Humphrey became heir presumptive to the English throne. Eleanor, perhaps feeling that the crown was within her husband’s grasp, consulted astrologers Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke. They predicted that the king, Henry VI, would suffer a life threatening illness. Word of this reached the court, and the two men were arrested along with Eleanor’s personal confessor, John Home. Under interrogation, Bolingbroke named Eleanor as the instigator of their predictions. She was arrested and tried.

Although she denied most of the accusations, Eleanor did confess to obtaining potions from ‘the witch of Eye’, Margery Jourdemayne. She denied that these potions had anything to do with the predictions however, claiming that they were purchased in order to help her conceive. Poor Margery was also arrested.

Not surprisingly, as a woman of some power and influence, and being such a close relative by marriage to the king, Eleanor escaped rather more lightly than her fellow accused. Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, Southwell died in the Tower and Margery was burned at the stake. Eleanor was sentenced to carry out public penance, forced to divorce her husband and imprisoned for life. She died at Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey in 1452.

Eleanor carrying out her penance

Eleanor carrying out her penance

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out about my historical novels ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.
Find out more about my editing services here.

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

The Hammer of the Witches

When writing my novel ‘The Black Hours’ I researched in depth the methods used to interrogate and persecute suspected witches. This was, on the whole, a rather grim process that occasionally reduced me to tears when I thought about the real women (and sometimes men) behind these often lurid and horrific accounts.

The backbone of my research came from the infamous ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ or ‘Hammer of the Witches’. This is a 15th century treatise that is basically a handbook on the way to identify, interrogate and prosecute those suspected of witchcraft. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic clergyman, and had three main purposes – to refute allegations that witchcraft did not exist, to set out the forms of witchcraft and the ways in which the craft can be identified and resolved, and to aid and assist magistrates in the prosecution of those accused.

malleus

What I found particularly dreadful about this treatise was its terrible attitude towards women. Although acknowledging that both men and women can practice witchcraft, the treatise argues strongly that it is women who are more susceptible due to their gender – women, according to Kramer, are more inclined to submit to temptation due to their inherent weakness as a sex; they are weak in faith and in character and more carnal than men, leading the ‘stronger’ sex into sin. Indeed the word ‘maleficarum’ is the feminine form of the Latin word for ‘witch’.

While I am aware that the times were significantly different, the utter hatred for the female sex is breathtaking.  Here are a few of the horrible assertions:

‘since they (women) are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.’

‘she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.’

‘No one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives. For when they do not kill children, then, as if for some other purpose, they take them out of the room and, raising them up in the air, offer them to devils.’

‘when girls have been corrupted, and have been scorned by their lovers after they have immodestly copulated with them in the hope and promise of marriage with them, and have found themselves disappointed in all their hopes and everywhere despised, they turn to the help and protection of devils; either for the sake of vengeance by bewitching those lovers or the wives they have married, or for the sake of giving themselves up to every sort of lechery. Alas! experience tells us that there is no number to such girls, and consequently the witches that spring from this class are innumerable.’

‘all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.’

What is also interesting is that Kramer backs up his assertions with references to the Bible. He references Ecclesiastics xxv:

‘There is no head above the head of a serpent: and there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman. I had rather dwell with a lion and a dragon than to keep house with a wicked woman.’

He also quotes St John Chrysostom commenting on St Matthew:

‘It is not good to marry! What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours!’

Kramer then turns to the philosophers, quoting Cicero:

‘The many lusts of men lead them into one sin, but the lust of women leads them into all sins; for the root of all woman’s vices is avarice.’

and Seneca:

‘A woman either loves or hates; there is no third grade. And the tears of woman are a deception, for they may spring from true grief, or they may be a snare. When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.’

Now you might think that these are only one man’s views (The Malleus Maleficarum is attributed to two authors, Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, but some scholars now believe that Sprenger was given joint authorship by Kramer in an attempt to give the treatise more authority) but, due to the development of the printing press, the treatise was able to spread widely through Europe. Who knows how many innocent women were tortured and murdered because of Kramer’s ideas and beliefs – beliefs that were held by many at the time? Is it any surprise that, faced with this utter contempt and hatred of the female sex, thousands of women lost their lives to superstition?

 

http://www.sacred-texts.com

 

http://www.shc.edu/theolibrary/resources/women.htm