Deeds not Words: Scene 1

I’m calling these posts scenes rather than chapters because I want to focus on some specific vignettes in my writing, and I may pad it all out later. I’ve found out that Kitty Marion was speaking to Emily Wilding Davison the evening before that fateful Epsom Derby, at the W.S.P.U Bazaar in the Empress Rooms in Kensington. Davison had spoken to Marion about ‘making a protest’ at the Derby, but noone knew at the time exactly what she was up to. Maybe Davison didn’t even know herself. Anyway, I want to reconstruct that meeting and conversation. But I thought the best place to start in any story of the Suffragettes is with that fateful day, the most iconic moment of the movement. Then, I can delve into the lesser known aspects. See this as a kind of prologue. This is at drafting stage. It’s only my second draft (my first draft was handwritten). If you have any suggestions or feedback, please comment. And without any further ado:

4th June, 1913

A woman positions herself at Tattenham Corner. She is unaccompanied, unusual for one so conservatively dressed. Unlike other lone women who frequent such occasions, she has not rouged her face that morning, and stares resolutely into the middle distance. The crowd presses eagerly at her back. It swells and cheers in anticipation of the oncoming riders, only the woman isn’t cheering. She’s somewhere around middle age, not beautiful, yet striking. Her gaze is steady. It’s a beautiful early summer’s day, but she wears a long, dark coat over her dress. Next to the woman, a frightened little girl clutches her mother’s hand. It may well be her first derby, and there are a lot of animated men in the crowd. 

Oncoming hoofbeats reverberate the turf, thud-thud-thudding in time with her frantic heart. She clenches her fist, unclenches. Her hand is clammy, and perspiration is beading her brow. Sweating is unladylike, but how can she not? Her face is shaded by her straw hat. She is rapidly expending her last few seconds of anonymity. Does she know she will soon be made a martyr to the cause? Does she know how Emmeline’s hands will quiver as she reads the news? She will be relegated to that category of celebrity whose stardom is only achieved in death. Girls who never knew her will weep at her funeral, for the Supreme Sacrifice.

Her intentions will be picked over with a fine-toothed comb and then sieved. Some grains will be lost in the weaving of history, so we say. But we forget that our only private sphere is our mind. Nobody can peer in, there are no windows. Nobody can draw intention out like from a magician’s hat. She has written of sacrifice, but what does that mean? A return train ticket, hidden in the folds of her coat, is that proof? Many will hold it up and say here, here it is, it wasn’t suicide (that dirty word). But routes of enquiry must be exhausted.

She draws a breath, pulling a scarf out from under her coat, striped with purple, white and green. The horses are almost upon them, flanks gleaming, spit mixing with spittle. The crowd, goading, pushes her towards the barrier. But she looks calm. She picks her moment, picks her target. Anmar, the King’s horse. The onlookers have exactly four seconds to register the impending tragedy. Anmar snorts, rears up, tries to jump the interloper. He only manages to get his front hooves off the ground before the force of their combined momentum pushes jockey and rider into the collision with the force of a galloping steam train. But for the fraction of a second, horse and woman eye each other, and know they are captives. 

A sickening crunch. The woman’s body flips like a rag doll, like a puppet on strings, extremities splaying. The horse screams. The crowd wails. Chaos reigns. 

The woman still clutches a scarf balled into her left hand, forming a fist. When you electrocute yourself, instead of letting go, your hand forms vicelike grip. You could save yourself, but you are forced by instinct to clutch what will kill you even tighter. Perhaps it was supposed to unfurl over the King’s horse like a banner, the ultimate irony. But instead she has taken it to the Great Beyond. Her eyelids flutter. A slow ooze of crimson blood trickles down her forehead. She is breathing, but she is already dead. She lies on her back in the damp grass of the Epsom Derby. We will never know whether she succeeded or failed. 

A policeman, one of the first one the scene, notices the scarf. He is more composed than the others, more alert. This isn’t business as usual, but he has seen worse on the streets of Whitechapel. He looks around. Nobody is looking at him. Clusters of frantic onlookers: bookies, jockeys, spectators – the men trying to keep the women back. Not for your eyes, madam. You’ll go weak at the knees. The horse neighs pitifully. The fallen rider groans. Her eyelids flutter. A man proclaiming himself a doctor is already leaning over her prone body, listening to her laboured breathing and wiping the blood from her temple. 

The policeman prises the scarf from her clammy hand. He stuffs the fabric into his pocket with the facial expression of a guilty schoolboy. But he is helping her, really. So he thinks. No need for them to know that she’s one of those women, if women are what they are. No need for anyone to know that it might not have been an accident, at least not yet. Suicide is a sin. Add that to their mountain of sin. 

But it’s no use. She’s wearing the colours underneath her coat.

Historical Fiction

Historical Fiction- Settling on a Time Period

This week, my brain has been buzzing trying to settle on a time period for my historical fiction project. It has to be something I love, but I was torn between choosing something completely new and going over something I already studied at BA level. Diving into a new historical era would be exciting, but re-visiting an era I’ve already studied would make the weight of research easier. Here is my shortlist so far:

1) 1930s Moscow during the Great Purge

One thing I am certain about is that I want to write from the point of view of a woman. I have studied the USSR briefly during first year, and I have a personal interest in the topic, so I think I could have a good stab at making a believable setting. My extremely basic knowledge of Russian and the Russian psyche does put me off though.

I would be writing from the point of view of a party functionary’s wife during the terror that was Stalin’s Great Purge. She suspects that she and her husband are being closely watched by the KPD, but her husband is trying to keep her in the dark about it. I could cover their arrest, questioning and harrowing journey to the Gulags in Siberia. I am wondering whether it would just be far too depressing to capture the reader’s attention.

Image result for moscow 1930s

2) Kent, 1381: The Peasant’s Revolt

I studied the Peasant’s Revolt in second year, so my background knowledge is still solid. I think the it’s a fascinating historical period because, for a brief few weeks, the whole social hierarchy threatened to turn itself on its head. I would write from the point of view of a woman caught up in the revolt. Maybe she owes money to the local Abbey and Bishop, as many did. Maybe she is an indentured labourer (villein) tenant, an unfree resident who owes labour every year as a form of tax and who cannot move or marry without the landowner’s permission. She travels with the mob to London where they successfully storm the Tower for the first and last time. I am sure women were involved in the uprising, and have subsequently been skimmed over. It would make for a fascinating area of research, but I’m sure the documentation will be both scant and highly biased towards the ruling classes.

Maybe her husband could be captured and hanged for taking part in the revolt, and she lies to save herself. I think women are still far too often either presented as long-suffering, self-sacrificing, virtuous beings or shameless whores, with no grey area in the middle. It’s the classic ‘two Marys’ approach: the pit or the pedestal. I want to write an ambitious and morally ambiguous character, just like so many male historical figures.

Image result for 1381 peasants revolt

3) Badley, Suffolk 1348: The Black Death

I also studied a module on the Black Death in final year. The next village to my hometown in Suffolk was completely wiped out during this pandemic, and it never recovered. There are barely a couple of houses left there to this day. It would be interesting to see if there are any records of the Black Death at this time. Sometimes you get lucky and some rolls remain with names and dates, and sometimes they are lost to history. Again, the documentation here is likely to be scant and I would have to think hard about how I would be writing the dialogue. Middle English is almost unintelligible to the modern ear (think struggling through Chaucer). On the other hand, it would certainly be a challenge to try to get under the skin of an ordinary female villager at that time. Maybe she survives as her whole family perishes. Again, it’s likely to make an extremely depressing episode, but happiness is rarely a source of inspiration for writers.

Image result for 1348 black death

4) Wittenberg, during the German Reformation, 1517

I think it would be far too challenging to try to write from the perspective of Luther himself, but it may be possible to write as if you were someone close to him. However, I haven’t studied the Reformation in Germany in any depth, apart from the first translation of the Bible into German, which wouldn’t be very useful here. The weight of research here would be quite daunting, and I would have to grapple with the nitty gritty of Reformation thinking, and there was often only a wafer of difference between the new Protestant way and Papist orthodoxy (if you’ll pardon the pun). Another complicating factor is that there was no one stream of Reformation thinking: Tyndale’s assertions differed from Luther’s, which differed from Calvin’s which differed from Zwingli’s. It would be extremely difficult not to confuse any of this, and I’m not interested enough in theology to pull it off. So I’ve abandoned this idea before it really had a chance to germinate.

Image result for martin luther

5) Edwardian Britain: The Suffragettes

I’m almost certain I’m going down this alley of research. I’ve never actually studied the Suffragettes (gulp), but I have more than a passing interest. I’ve read Caitlin Davies’ Bad Girls, a history of Holloway Prison, and I’ve recently listened to a couple of podcasts by Fern Riddel on Kitty Marion, the most badass Sufragette you’ve never heard of.

I think we far too often see the Suffragettes as a peaceful, middle-class movement, when a good proportion of the activists were militant and working-class. We often conveniently forget about their targeted bombing campaign. Many of their contemporaries saw them as terrorists.

Luckily for me, Kitty Marion left us extensive autobiographical papers which have only recently received the attention they deserve, having been published in their own right and having been the focus of Fern Riddel’s book, Death in Ten Minutes. I think it would be great fun to re-write some of these episodes as historical fiction, either from the perspective of Kitty Marion or by inventing a Suffragette closely based on her biography. I think the latter would give me more creative freedom. I would have to do some extensive research into the Suffragette movement and Edwardian London, but I feel like it would be greatly rewarding. I set out to write from a woman’s perspective, so what could be more appropriate a subject than the Suffragettes?

Image result for kitty marion
Historical Fiction

“Why Historians Should Write Fiction”

My response to Ian Mortimer’s fantastic post (which you can find here), and my own musings on the subject.

Historians often look down on historical fiction. The same words, “your book reads like a novel”, is usually a compliment in the mouth of a reader and an insult in the mouth of a historian. Historians worship at the altar of facts, of truth, of evidence-based reporting. However, the more you study history the more you realise how elusive an ‘objective fact’ or truth actually becomes.

I studied history at university, and I remember becoming frustrated at the objectivity demanded of me. History is inherently exciting and passionate, full of love, battle, loss and betrayal. Why couldn’t I write ‘I’ in an essay? Why couldn’t I use adjectives? I instinctively wanted to bring my own subjectivities to the subjects- the exact opposite of what was demanded of me. Historians like to pretend that their writings are free from personal biases, but all writing is subjective. So why should historical fiction be valued any less?

“As a novelist, I tell lies, Whoppers. All historical novelists do.”

Ian Mortimer

When writing historical fiction, you realise there is a completely different set of questions you have to start asking, which is exactly what Mortimer highlights in his piece:

“Did taverns provide meat in Advent 1567, did physicians wear beards?”

Ian Mortimer

You suddenly realise the vast amount of detail required of you. Naturally, it is impossible to fill in all the gaps. Nobody could possibly know the exact thickness of rushes on the average Elizabethan London tavern floor, nor the exact names and mix of customers at any one time. Of course, novelists have to fill in the gaps with inventiveness, which is all part of making a story believable.

We cannot just look for evidence to base our narratives upon, or we would be focusing solely on the documented machinations of the upper classes, somewhere which both history and historical fiction have spent far too long dwelling. The further down on the social strata one slides, the less documentation there is. Should we therefore avoid placing ourselves in the shoes of those in a salubrious tavern on the South side of the Thames, 1587? As Mortimer states, all historical fiction is ‘unsatisfactory’, as we can ultimately never perfectly imagine the past. But it shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Historians look at the evidence of what people did and said, what they wrote and left behind. But historical novelists have to look beyond that, they have to look at why people did and said what they did, they have to build up believable motives, and they have to imagine dialogues between characters that would never have been recorded. This often brings out ‘universal’ facets of human nature. We are all paradoxical and capricious beings, capable of love and betrayal in the same breath. Why did Henry VIII discard Anne of Cleves? Was it because she was ‘ugly’, as is still oft-repeated to this day, or did she wound his pride by failing to recognise him in costume? Would that have been enough for him to reject her? Was his masculinity really so terribly fragile? Or could it have been a mutual decision, was Anne just as disgusted by him? The historian wouldn’t have to answer these questions, as we know the marriage failed quickly. But the historical novelist would have to construct a chain of motive linking these events, of the whys and wherefores.

When writing historical fiction, it’s hard not to become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the task.

“It teaches you how little you know about the minutiae of the past”

Ian Mortimer

How would they have lit a lamp? Would they have had oil lamps, beeswax candles, tallow? What would they have smelt like? How often would they have washed their undergarments? Would they say goodnight to their children and tucked them in, or was that a job for the maid? Would they have had a maid? If so, how many? How long would it have taken to light the fire and cook the breakfast? When would they have got up in the morning? What would they have eaten, and how did that change due to religious festivals and seasons? I would need all this information and more to even begin to describe the daily routine of an upper working-class family at any point in the past. As Mortimer states, there is a different sort of truth behind all the facts and dates.

Book Reviews

My Recent Historical Fiction Obsession

I’ll be starting an MA Historical Fiction module on the 1st of February. I have a joint BA in History so I’ve always been fascinated by the past. Reading historical fiction offers a perfect fusion of history and literature for me.

I’d always dabbled in the genre and enjoyed fast-paced bestsellers from authors such as Philippa Gregory. The Other Boleyn Girl was a complete revelation to me, as, like most people, I had gotten a bit sick of the over-representation of Anne Boleyn in anything Tudor, along with either another character assassination or attempt at resurrection. Anne Boleyn is such a polemic historical figure that portrayals of her are never anything but extreme. She’s either the harlot or misunderstood heroine, the witch or Protestant reformer. Gregory’s focus on her long-forgotten sister was a master stroke. And she had Henry VIII’s son (possibly even two sons). Why didn’t anyone know this?

The Other Boleyn Girl: Philippa Gregory: 9780006514008: Books

I feel extremely naughty and ignorant for saying this, but I’d honestly never even heard of Hilary Mantel before I saw the required reading for the module in December. This turned out to be a huge gap in my knowledge which was easily remedied. I’ve now read both the first and second books in her Wolf Hall trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. In the Waterstones sale, I’ve just treated myself to the third, The Mirror and the Light, as well as Gregory’s newest book, Dark Waters. I usually never order anything from Waterstones on account of it being so bloody RRP-priced, but I also had a voucher for being only one of two students who showed up to my University school’s Christmas Zoom quiz. Once again, I reaped the rewards of being an insufferable teacher’s pet. When they arrived last week, I breathed in the new book smell rapturously, and I’m looking forward to finally starting them after getting through my current brick of historical fiction, Charlotte Lynne’s Die Zwölfte Nacht. Honestly, historical fiction tends to come in cinderblock-style bricks rather than books. Genre conventions dictate they must be between 500 and 1000 pages long.

Wolf Hall: Winner of the Man Booker Prize (The Wolf Hall Trilogy): Hilary Mantel: 8601404196355: Books

Mantels books are masterpieces, and I can’t stress that enough. They are masterpieces. The reason why I didn’t bother writing individual reviews for them was because I’m fairly sure most of Britain knows this already. She’s won the Booker Prize twice, and might just win it a third time with her final addition to the trilogy, which was released just last year. I’m just really late to the party. I was in such a Mantel-fuelled fangirl haze I even watched her documentary, Return to Wolf Hall, on BBC iPlayer. If anything, her working-class background, fractured childhood and odd mannerisms had me fangirling even harder.

The Mirror and the Light: Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020 (The Wolf  Hall Trilogy): Mantel, Hilary: 9780007480999: Books

Her focus on Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s pig-faced shadow, was a stroke of genius, and her detailing of court intrigue through the eyes of a blacksmith’s son couldn’t have been more insightful. There are so many disparate threads to the story, and such a wealth of characters it certainly has a Game of Thrones feel to it, yet perhaps even more difficult because every character and event is the result of painstaking research as well as boundless imagination. Cromwell is constantly being underestimated, and you don’t particularly like the character- Mantel is far too clever an author to make her protagonist completely morally good, but you’re also rooting for him through all his machinations. The claustrophobic atmosphere of an increasingly volatile King and the knife-edge of the English Reformation only increases as the net slowly tightens around Cromwell, culminating in his fatal error: fixing the declining and capricious Henry up with the (apparently) repugnant Anne of Cleves.

Bring Up the Bodies: The Booker Prize Winning Sequel to the Best Selling  Wolf Hall, a Masterful Work of Historical Fiction (The Wolf Hall Trilogy,  Book 2) eBook: Mantel, Hilary: Kindle

Reading historical fiction in German is another step up the tricky scale. I may be fluent, but until I read my first German historical brick a few years ago, I realised I had no idea what the words for chamber, codpiece, tunic, shilling, jousting, executioner etc. were. Obviously. So It’s been a learning curve. Finding Tudor fiction originally written in German was a huge bonus, as they tend to translate so much out of English. They translate so much from so many languages that if you pick a random book up in a random bookstore in Germany, there’s almost a 50/50 chance it was originally written in some other language. Now, obviously I also enjoy reading translated fiction too, and I often read books translated into German from either English or another language entirely, but I can’t exactly choose translated fiction to translate into English during my modules. No, I need original German fiction for that. So, who knows, I may end up translating some Charlotte Lynne for my Process and Product module this term.

Die zwölfte Nacht by Charlotte Lyne

I’m really enjoying Die Zwölfte Nacht (Twelfth Night) at the moment, and I love its focus on the changing seasons. Its 650 pages are split into twelve huge chapters (another genre convention of historical fiction – absolutely whoppingly huge chapters. What’s that all about?), each chapter ending on our around the 6th of January, which is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, or Twelfth Night, or Epiphany if you’re Orthodox. We’ve kind of lost the tradition of celebrating Christmas over twelve days, and many people often forget that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were just the start of the festivities, culminating in a night of debauchery and social turn-tabling on the 6th January. However, its focus on the Seymours and Wolf Hall also feels very Mantel. It came out at around the same time, so I’m thinking Lynne may have taken more than a little bit of inspiration from her English counterpart.

I’ve never actually written any historical fiction myself, but I’ll have to this term, so watch this space.