All posts by francesthomas

I was born during the War in South Wales, where my mother had gone to escape the bombs. My mother’s family was Irish and English, my father’s Welsh. Later we moved back to South London where I grew up. Since I was an only child, I read lots of books and when the books ran out, I made up stories, a habit I’ve never lost. Later I went to a convent school, where I was bad at needlework and netball. The headmistress didn’t like me because my hair was untidy – still is, I’m afraid. I read English at London University and took a teaching course. I married a historian, Richard Rathbone, and I have two daughters and two grandchildren. My most interesting work, apart from writing, was working with young dyslexic people. Contrary to what many believe, dyslexics can become passionate readers and imaginative writers – I look forward to seeing several of my ex-pupils featuring in the Booker Prize shortlist one day. My first children’s book, The Blindfold Track, was published in 1980. I’ve published many since, for children and adults, but I especially enjoy writing for children. My children’s books have been translated into ten languages. We lived for many years in North London, and I still think London is one of the most exciting cities in the world. But a few years ago, we decided to make a complete break, and came to live in this beautiful part of mid-Wales where we used to spend our family holidays. I now live here very happily, trying to learn Welsh (ond mae’n mor anodd!) going for walks on the hills, writing and painting.

World Enough and Time

               In life, there isn’t a lot you can do about Time. Like it or not, it goes on in just one direction, inexorably. Sometimes it seems to be passing slowly (hospital waiting room) or whizzing by (fun evening with friends or family) – but those are just perceptions. You can’t hold on to a lovely moment, or fast-forward tedious or tragic weeks out of your life.

That’s where  a writer has the advantage. If you’re a writer, you can play all sorts of tricks with Time; you can stretch it out, or curl it up into a ball, you can bend it, tangle it,  twist it, do anything you like with it. Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway make a single day last for hundreds of pages,  while The Count of Monte Cristo  unfolds over years. You can go back into Time Past, as in Puck of Pook’s Hill, or jump into Time Future; The War of the Worlds;  you can change the past altogether, as Joan Aiken so brilliantly does, so that we can visit the England of James III. 

I used to love time travel stories,  and one of my childhood favourites, which I’ve recently found again, thanks to the power of the internet, was Sun Slower, Sun Faster  by Meriol Trevor,  a story which takes two young twentieth century children on a tour of  the history of Catholic England.  It’s still a compelling read, though it has more history, and more religion, in it than a modern child would probably want. But the central story, where a Jesuit priest escapes from Elizabethan pursuers is genuinely exciting still. Writing time travel stories can present problems of management - ( I felt that Audrey Nifenegger in The Time Traveller’s Wife made unnecessary work for herself by having her hero arrive back in past time naked)    – but Meriol Trevor overrides all of these. Her twentieth century children arrive back in history appropriately clad, speaking and understanding the language, and are taken as ‘cousins’ by the historical children they encounter. When they return to the twentieth century , no time has passed, so no-one has missed them.

Historical novels for young people aren’t fashionable at the moment. When I was a young reader, Fantasy barely existed, and historical novels offered the kind of imaginative escape that Fantasy does now. I loved Hilda Lewis, Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece, Rhoda Power. And especially, of course, Rosemary Sutcliff, who made the Dark Ages no longer dark to so many of us. I believed that she must have been a great traveller herself to have written so evocatively about so many times and places – what a shock to find that a childhood disease had rendered her almost immobile – but that’s the power of writing for you.

If you’re writing a historical novel, you’ll find that as you write, you’re actually inhabiting that time in your head, so that you return to your own time with a lurch of surprise.  Probably, you’ve done a good deal of research into your period, though of course you try not to let it show.  Yet you often find that when you make a guess where you don’t have the facts to hand, that guess  turns out to be almost spookily accurate.

The writer of straight historical fiction has to solve problems, too:  how do your characters speak? Authentic sixteenth century dialogue would be quite unreadable, but you have to be careful that you don’t let  twenty-first century idioms contaminate your style. You want a style that your reader hardly notices, yet which feels authentic.  Also you need to avoid letting all that lovely research you’ve done hang heavy in your prose. We’ve all read the equivalents of ‘By’r lady,’exclaimed Dickon, fingering his parti-colored liripipe, the latest fashion from the court of King Louis…’  And yet your reader needs to feel immersed in your chosen century. It’s not easy.

But, when it works, it’s great fun. And until Thomas Cook offer us Time Travel excursions via EasyJet, the best way of going back in time is to write or to read about it.

 

The Plot Thickens

Well, I’m hoping to talk about my new book soon, the last volume in The Girls of Troy sequence.  But while I’m waiting to have something to show, I’m recycling some older blogs. Here’s one I wrote in 2011.

The Plot Thickens

               Help! I’m going too fast! My writing I mean. Wait a minute,  isn’t that a good thing? What about this dreaded writer’s block you lot are always banging on about?  Well, yes. That can be bad too. And writing away at ninety miles an hour doesn’t feel bad. It feels great, in fact.

But…it isn’t always the right thing for your story.  You can go too fast for your own good; you can speed too lightly over the surface.  Sometimes you just need to slow down and let the plot thicken.

Strangely enough this can be harder than making a story shorter.  I rather enjoy cutting a manuscript down. Out with it! off with its head! I cry , as I slash and burn page after page.  And usually, it’s much better for it.

 

But adding – that’s another business. What do you add? For a start, certainly not the dreaded ‘description’ that they were always telling you to put in at school. Who wants page after page telling you exactly what colour the cushions were, or how the sunset streaked across the sky? No, what you need to put in is the small, but telling detail. And that needs concentration, and concentration is good, because it’s what’s missing as your fingers hurtle over the computer keys. Maybe all it takes is the replacement of a weak and vague verb by a strong and suggestive one.  Maybe, it’s looking harder and harder at a scene your eyes have just flicked over, and saying to yourself, now what exactly is going on here?  Your villain, for example, whose speech you’ve had such fun with – is his villainy going to come across to the reader? No? Then look at him again. Hard. What exactly is he doing as he speaks?  Maybe he’s shredding to bits a flower from the bunch of flowers the heroine has thoughtfully placed in the centre of the table. Maybe there’s a small nervous tic in the corner of his eyelid that betrays something about him that we haven’t noticed.  Maybe he’s lovingly stroking his adored dog… Or maybe none of these things, but something much more relevant and vital noticed by you, the writer.

As I write this, I scoop up from my brain a couple of instances where the tiny observed detail has brought someone or something to life.

When we first meet Dorothea Brooke, in Middlemarch we’re not very taken with her. She’s sanctimonious and priggish, and we wonder how we going to endure spending several hundred pages in her company. In the first scene, she’s going through her mother’s jewellery, and because she thinks she despises jewellery, intends to give it to her more frivolous sister. But she’s seduced by the beauty of the gemstones; her pious mask slips for a second, and we realise that we’re getting to know her a bit better than she knows herself, and that it might actually be rewarding to spend those pages in her company:

         ‘They are lovely,’ said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on her finely-turned finger and wrist, and holding towards the window on a level with her eyes. All the while her thought was trying to justify her delight in the colours by merging them in her mystic religious joy…

Aha, Dorothea! Got you!

 

And here’s Dickens, the master of the tiny telling detail, introducing Little Dorrit’s vain and self serving father, living like a lord in the debtor’s prison. A well intentioned workman makes the ‘mistake’ of trying to give him a few coins, rather than slipping them discreetly to Little Dorrit. The Father of the Marshalsea is outraged, and once again, we feel we’re being told all we need to know about him:

The Father of the Marshalsea had never been offered tribute in copper yet. His children often had, and with his perfect acquiescence it had gone into the common purse, to buy meat that he had eaten, and drink that he had drunk; but fustian splashed with white lime (the workman) bestowing halfpence on him, front to front, was new.

        ‘How dare you!’ he said to the man, and feebly burst into tears…

 

And, oho! We know you too, Mr Dorrit!

 

The plot has thickened, not through a build up of verbiage, but by choosing the exact ones to help us ‘see’ the characters ; ‘feebly’  ‘perfect acquiescence’  ‘trying to justify her delight’  The effect is easy, almost unnoticeable, but Eliot and Dickens didn’t achieve it without a great effort of concentration, of pure and focussed vision. So when I feel myself rushing in my writing, euphoric though this can be, I have to tell myself, slow down, think, go deeper, not faster….

 

 

 

 

Edward_Thomas

I’ve just been reading with great enjoyment  the new biography of Edward Thomas by Jean Moorcroft Wilson. I’ve written about Thomas before,  after we visited his grave last year. He’s a difficult and complicated person who somehow draws you back and back again to his poems;  deceptively calm, they give you that sense of encountering something familiar that you recognise instantly, dusty nettles in the corner of a yard, a tiny railway station glimpsed in passing, a road gleaming after rain, making you feel that he’s writing for you personally.  There’s something about their quiet strength that reminds me of the work of Eric Ravillious, whose work we visited the Dulwich gallery last week to see; both use pastel colours, sometimes radiant , sometimes sombre, turning a keen gaze upon the everyday and apparently banal. Ravillious too gives you the sense of transmuting your own experience,  a third-class railway carriage (even for those too young to remember them) a greenhouse full of cyclamen,  into something timeless and archetypical.  And both men, the writer and the painter, demonstrate a quality usually described as ‘quintessentially English.’ To try and describe what this means would require a whole other blog post, would have to take in music, Elgar and Vaughan  Williams as well, and I fear would be beyond my fairly puny critical powers, so I shall leave it at that.

I’ve chosen one of my favourite Thomas poems, ‘Words’, in which he uses the conceit that words choose the writer rather than the other way around.  But Thomas’s choice of words, and his ability to position them so as to draw out their cadences,  is exquisite. Who else, in ‘Adlestrop’ could make the names of two English counties into one of the most beautiful lines in poetry?

 Words

UT of us all

That make rhymes

Will you choose
            Sometimes–
          As the winds use
           A crack in the wall
           Or a drain
          Their joy or their pain
              To whistle through
           Choose me
           You English words?
          I know you
         You are light as dreams
,        Tough as oak,
         Precious as gold,
            As poppies and corn
        Or an old cloak;
             Sweet as our birds
            to the ear,
             As the burnet rose
              In the heat
               Of Midsummer
            Strange as the races
            Of dead and unborn:
             Strange and sweet
              Equally,
             And familiar,
               To the eye
             As the dearest faces
             That a man knows
             And as lost homes are:
              But though older far
                Than oldest yew
              As our hills are, old
             Worn new
                Again and again:
               Young as our streams
                After rain:
               And as dear
              As the earth which you prove
             That we love
               Make me content
               With some sweetness
                 From Wales,
              Whose nightingales
               Have no wings
               From Wiltshire and Kent
             And Herefordshire,
           And the villages there,–
               From the names, and the things
           No less
           Let me sometimes dance
             With you
            Or climb,
            Or stand perchance
            In ecstasy
             Fixed and free
              In a rhyme,
              As poets do.
                                   Edward Thomas

Going For Gold

Well, it’s actually our golden wedding today, although neither of us is a great one for  ceremonies and parties so we’re keeping it  fairly low key.  Still, fifty years is a long time, and we’re quite surprised to find that we’re still both here. Though looking back on that day fifty years ago, I find I don’t remember it with much pleasure. My mother, who was a sweetie but a very ardent Catholic, was upset because we wanted to get married in a registry office. Thus the wedding had to take place on a Saturday because she was  too ashamed to let anyone at the school where she taught know that her daughter wasn’t getting married in church. And Richard’s wicked stepfather decided to throw a wobbly, because we were getting married on a Saturday – the Sabbath.- so he managed to make himself ill – I think it was intentional - On the wedding day we had to troop into the bedroom where he was lying pale  and unsmiling in his pyjamas,  and make anxious noises. I’m sure he was all right again the following day.

In those days – and maybe it’s the same now, you couldn’t just go through the motions and have a Catholic wedding. You had to confess and go to communion in the Nuptial Mass, and your partner had to receive instruction, (which would have gone down well with Father O’Moron and Richard), and promise to bring your children up as Catholics.

I never wanted a fancy wedding with a meringue dress, but looking back on it, I think people could have been a bit nicer to us. It felt more like a funeral; no-one smiled (except my father who got a bit sentimental)  and no-one took a single  photograph. I  was sorry to upset my mother, but I couldn’t see any alternative. Some years later, when she was dying, Father O’Moron took me aside and hissed in my ear that I had broken her heart. Still, this didn’t so much upset me, as to confirm me in my belief that , though Jesus talked of love and kindness, religion as an institution seemed to be mostly about exclusion and wishing sin on others.

Anyway, fifty years later we’re still here. I have no idea what happened to Father O’Moron, but I don’t wish him any good.  But Richard and I are still talking and still enjoying each other’s company. There have been difficult times, but on the whole things could be much worse.We decided that while we don’t really enjoy being in our seventies, it’s better than the alternative. So we’re going to celebrate quietly with our nice family – two daughters, who are still talking to us and are doing well in their lives, lovely partners and friends, and probably the two nicest grandchildren on the planet. ( Or so we think anyway)  So if you’ve got a glass to hand  -always a good idea-  do raise it to us and share in our quiet celebration..

Goodbye, Eleanor

It’s always a shame when you have to abandon a  writing project; I’d been planning to write a biography of Eleanor Farjeon and had started research. But biographies take a great deal of time, energy and commitment, and I decided sadly that because I don’t have much of those qualities at present, I wasn’t going to be able to   carry on with it.

Over the period that I’d been researching her, I’d grown quite fond of Eleanor.  I first became interested in her partly because she seemed to know so many people, and straddle so many litereary eras; in her youth she was a friend of Edward Thomas, D.H. Lawrence and a clutch of artists and musicians. Later she became a prominent writer  and champion of childrens’ books- and she supported herself and the man she lived with for many years purely through her writing – as someone who’s never managed to make anything like a living by  writing I’m always impressed by people who can do this.

She was an intensely romantic soul, and always needed to be in love with someone; most famously with Edward Thomas. He was married to Helen,  and  though he was very fond of Eleanor  and seemed to crave her company, was not in love with her.  After his death, she lived for many years with George Earle, a married teacher, though that did not stop her having a passionate though platonic affair with an American musician when she was in her fifties. At the end of her life, her companion was the homosexual actor Dennis Blakelock.

But all her life, she was writing and writing. Her father and two of her brothers were writers, and it came as easily to her as breathing. Much of what she wrote was light verse, perhaps unfashionable now, but she also wrote some lovely sonnets , one of which I’ve quoted in an earlier blog. She’s perhaps best known today for the lyrics of ‘Morning Has Broken.’

She  appeared to be a cuddly. cosy person,  uninterested in fashion or glamour, a homemaker, who adored cats. Though she was always able to drown unwanted kittens, which shows that she had  a surprising ruthless streak too. Perhaps all writers need one, though not for drowning kittens,  Everyone seemed to love her and she had an extraordinary gift  for friendship.  I’ve enjoyed her company over the time I’ve been working with her, and I shall miss her.  I hope someone else will want to write her biography now.

Meanwhile, I’ve just brough myself a present, which arrived in today’s post – a new biography of Edward Thomas by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, so I see I shall be spending more time in her company, and the fascinating, depressive man who was the love of her life.

 

On tidying up and clearing out

messy studySomebody once said that a writer’s best friend is her wastepaper basket, and I’ve always found a strange satisfaction in throwing stuff away – you feel , that like getting poison out of your system, your writing will be better for the destruction. But recently, the controlled chaos in which I’ve always worked  has turned into chaos pure and simple – I could always lay my hands on things, now they seem to vanish forever. So clearly a great turn-out and chuck-out is called for,  and I’ve just embarked on this, pulling out drawers and opening folders and seeing stuff which I haven’t looked at for years, in old-fashioned wobbly typewriter print, on thin copy paper, now yellowing away. I can remember the intensity and devotion  with which I wrote these things, and now I look at them and just see dull words and storylines I don’t care about. So out they go, and good riddance to them. Then there are novels which never saw the light of day and probably now never will, but I can’t quite bear to chuck these – not yet at least.  Short stories which took so much effort and attention, now sitting limply on the page. Who’d ever want them? Out with them. At least I can convince myself that these dull pages were helping me to hone my craft, so there was some point to them.

But some day there’ll be people looking through all this stuff – probably my daughters, who’ll turn to each other and say with bewilderment, ‘Now what the hell are we supposed to do with all this? Why on earth did she keep it all?’  Well, you, whoever you will be, you can chuck them if you want; it’s just that I don’t quite feel like doing it myself, not quite yet.

I suppose I’m about one-third of the way through the process ( you can see how dedicated I am by the fact that I’ve taken time off to write this)  My husband came in and looked around  and said ‘You call this tidy?‘ Which of course it wasn’t, nothing like, but tidying up is one of those things that gets worse before it gets better.

Of course many writers destroy their own work, and not always for the right reasons. Fanny Burney, aged 15, made a bonfire of her writings, probably because someone had told her that writing was unladylike, though fortunately whe changed her mind and went on to write one of the most popular novels of her day. Some writers, like Larkin and Hardy, leave the dirty work up to others, asking that the stuff be burned after their deaths – an unkind burden on a friend, I think. And sometimes, the post-mortem destruction is just vandalism, as when John Murray destroyed Byron’s memoirs, or Charlotte Bronte probably destroyed Emily Bronte’s second novel.

Still, no masterpieces are being destroyed in my study. The process is entirely cathartic. And maybe one day, when the room is clean and neat as a new pin, I’ll post a picture of it for you all to admire.

The real Troy

 

9781781323236-Perfect.indd

Heinrich Schliemann, genius and charlatan, liked to tell the story of how he’d been inspired by a picture seen at the age of eight, of the burning of Troy, which had made him vow that one day he’d discover its ruins. In fact, his interest doesn’t seem to have been alerted until,  a middle aged and wealthy merchant, he was travelling the plains of Turkey, and became interested in looking for the disputed site. An English diplomat called Frank Calvert believed a hill called Hisarlik was the real site of Troy, though he didn’t have the money to excavate it, and the place seemed too small to have accommodated all the dramas of the Iliad; no space for ‘topless towers’ here.  Actually, there were not just one, but nine cities built on this site, one on top of the other, until the mound of debris was fifty feet high.  As one city was destroyed, by earthquake, fire, or hostility, another would be built on top.  The space was small, but large enough to house the royal citadel of a city that would sprawl over the plain around it. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that in order to build the final city, the Roman-Greek Ilium Novum, much of the hill had been levelled, destroying the archaeology beneath. However, there would  have been plenty of Homer’s city left to find, if Schliemann hadn’t acted with such disregard. Fired with enthusiasm, he bought the site, and then embarked on a destructive and vandalistic dig.  Hordes of Turkish workmen  gouged a great chasm in the remaining walls, scattering huge stones everywhere over the plain, where they could now only be of use for building by the locals. In particular, he destroyed most of a wall of beautifully made limestone blocks, believing it was too fine to belong to his period, and went on digging ruthlessly down and down. Finally, he stopped at the second city on the site, known as Troy II, which he decided was the authentic Troy. There he had the luck to find a huge cache of treasure, abandoned as though the inhabitants had fled from a catastrophe. He spun a romantic story that his schoolgirl bride, Sophia, was with him at the time – though she wasn’t – and had her photographed in what he decided were Helen’s jewels. These jewels, which he smuggled out of Turkey. ended up in the Berlin Museum,  where they were believed to have vanished during World  War II, but in yet another of the strange convolutions of this story, they have since turned up in Russia, looted by Russian soldiers, and the Russians seem to have every intention of hanging on to them.

But these jewels, whoever they belonged to, certainly didn’t belong to Helen; they were hundreds of years older than that.  And by now, much of the ‘real’ Troy  (Troy VI) , the city he had believed to be ‘too fine’ to be his Troy, lay destroyed and unsalvgeable, scattered  over the plain. Recent more sensitive excavations  have since found traces of Troy VI and have managed to piece together the picture of a royal citadel, of fine stone houses and high walls; but for all his enthusiasm and energies, one can’t help wishing that someone other than Schliemann had excavated such a crucial and evocative site.

When Homer composed his epic, the Trojan War had been over for many hundreds of years; 1250 BC is a possible date – and Troy VI does seem to have been destroyed by fire, though how this related to the story of the Iliad can’t be known.

But far from being an imaginary city, Troy and its kings seem certainly to have existed, and was known , and was known to the ancients .  Homer called it Ilion, and the Hittite kings referred to it as it as Wilusa.    Perhaps it would spoil the legend to know too much about it; I’ve never been to Hisarlik, but apparently the tourist, in the absence of much else to see on the site, is greeted by a huge and hideous wooden horse, so maybe I’m better off with my imaginary Troy, of gleaming walls and white buildings.

(Michael Wood’s book ‘In Search of the Trojan War’ is an excellent account of the Trojan story, and to be recommended to anyone who wants to find out more.)

Imagining Troy

9781781323236-Perfect.inddA war that may never have happened, in a city that may never have existed, fought by heroes and villains who have left no record in contemporary archaeology or inscriptions- the Trojan War is almost a ghost account, trails of words left hundreds of years after the event,the story of a war in which there are no winners, no happy endings, only destruction on destruction; yet this story is one of the crucial founding myths of modern Europe.
Something probably happened at the place we now know as Troy, probably there was an equivalent of Agamemnon who waged war on the city and ultimately destroyed it, but it’s the accumulation of legend and myth around this unrecoverable moment of history that has turned it into the rich legend that we know. Something similar happens in British history with our own legends of King Arthur – there may very well have been a heroic leader, and something about him attracted the accumulation of stories to his name over the following hundreds of years, though probably there never was a sword in the stone, a Round Table, a Holy Grail, it doesn’t matter because the power of the legend is so strong. Likewise, Agamemnon, Helen, Achilles, Hector might never have existed, or might have stepped out of other legends. At any rate, the stories persisted and coalesced, and by the time of Homer, came together to make one of the great stories of all time. Some scholars have doubted whether there was an actual Homer, and supposed the story was put together by a series of oral poets over time. Yet it seems to me that you can hear the voice of a single gifted poet in the Iliad, a poet who has shaped his material skilfully and deliberately. He ignores most of the famous events of the story, the abduction of Helen, the Wooden Horse, and instead concentrates on a period of just fifty-one days, that takes place right at the end of the war. Moreover, it’s the psychological aspect of the war he’s interested in; ‘I sing of the wrath of Achilles – the corrosive anger of just one man and how it affects the course of the war. His sympathies are evenly divided; if anything, he’s on the side of the Trojans. (Did he encounter Trojan exiles with their wealth of stories in that island of his?) And though generations of public schoolboys were brought up to think of it as a valiant heroic epic, it’s actually very much an anti-war poem. Rather than a gung-ho celebration of slaughter, there are heartwrenching details of the deaths of these young men, and the effects on their families; Pedaeus, a bastard boy brought up with loving care by his stepmother, the two sons of aging Phaenops, too old to breed more sons, Hypsenor, son of a revered priest, Abas and Polyidus, sons of an ‘aged reader of dreams,’ who can have no dreams for them any more – you feel these deaths as personally as you feel accounts of young men killed in battles today. It’s an astonishing feat, especially for something probably composed seven hundred years before the birth of Christ.
‘How do you write a story for children on the Trojan War ?’ a woman said contemptuously to me the other day, though I don’t know whether she was berating me for hubris, or the unsuitability of my subject. Well, fortunately for me the conversation was interrupted before I had to find an answer. But the fact is, there are so many stories in the Trojan War that that you can choose among them- in my case, in the second volume of my Girls of Troy series, The Burning Towers, my real subject is poor tragic Cassandra and her poisoned gift of prophecy, though I tell the story through the viewpoint of her slave girl Eirene, an intelligent devotee of the goddess Athene. Eirene watches Cassandra and her fate, but manages to find a life of her own at the end. It was hard to find an optimistic ending out of so much tragedy, but in a story for young people, I like to finish on a note at least of hope.

Of course, there was a Troy, a real city, and its story is almost an epic in itself. Next time, I hope to blog about the real Troy.

Books that change over time…

Of course, it’s the reader that changes, not the book. But it’s strange how books can have an on-going existence in the reader’s mind that the writer can never have intended. For example, I love some of the early chapters of Villette because they convey to me like nothing else the excitement and the romance of going abroad for the very first time; travelling nowadays has lost much of its romance, and even seeing somewhere you’ve always longed to see can’t match the thrill of that first cross-channel ferry to Calais all those years ago, and realising, this is abroad, this is different.
But my jury’s out on Lucy Snowe – sometimes I like her, sometimes I want to chuck stuff at her.
As you change over time, so do your perceptions. This can be especially true of the books you read as an adolescent. Wuthering Heights has often been described as a book for teenagers – and so it is, with its passionate, despised, handsome hero. But when you grow up, and when Heathcliff grows up, what a difference. The last time I read Wuthering Heights as an adult, I gave up at the point where he was strangling puppies. No, that isn’t a hero, merely a psychopath. The late Angela Carter once said words to the effect that most women spend the first half of their lives looking for Heathcliff, and the second half wishing they’d never found him.
And Jane Eyre – as a teenage girl, Rochester, mean, moody and magnificent, seemed to be just the sort of man one would want for a lover. Frances Towers’ wonderful story ‘Tea with Mr Rochester’ describes how he might appear to a teenage girl; ‘Mr Rochester belonged to that part of Prissy’s experience which was too poignant to be shared. Her voice would go all trembly if she tried to tell Bunty about Thornfield Hall. ‘Jane, I’ve got a blow -I’ve got a blow, Jane!’ Was ever a woman so honoured? He was so strong, so fascinating. And rather wicked…’ Yet now, he seems to me just garrulous and self-pitying. And he isn’t very nice to Jane, playing with her affections and trying to trap her into a bigamous marriage. An American Professor friend of mine told me that she’d read Jane Eyre with a crowd of undergraduate young women, but instead of finding Rochester magnetic and attractive, they thought he was simply unpleasant and manipulative. Maybe today’s young women are too smart to fall for these destructive and controlling men (though Fifty Shades of Grey is doing all right.)
I’ve been working through my usual reading of comfort books recently. Jane Austen is always there of course. I’ve reread Emma, which doesn’t change, except to get even better every time. But I’ve also reread Mansfield Park, another of my favourites, though I know it isn’t popular. The main problem in Mansfield Park is Fanny Price of course. I’ve always felt sympathetic towards her, given her disastrous start at Mansfield Park, and the continual put-downs of Mrs Norris. Mrs Norris is my favourite Austen villain.( She reminds me, though I probably shouldn’t say this, dear Reader, of my grandmother.) Fanny shows great fortitude in her beliefs. We may not agree with her reasons for her hostility to the amateur theatricals, but we can understand them. And she stands up bravely, if tearfully,to her bullying uncle when he wants her to marry a man she doesn’t even like, let alone love.
I always feel that Mansfield Park is a story with a sad ending. By the time she gets round to marrying Edmund, we no longer care; and neither it seems does the author, who dismisses this important event in a paragraph. The real story is that of the relationship between two incompatible people, Henry and Fanny. Henry behaves impeccably in Portsmouth, but just as we feel Fanny might warm towards him, Jane Austen pulls the rug from under our feet. Every time I read the story I hope that this part of it might be different, but it never is. So how has the story changed for me, then? Well, for the first time, I’ve become really annoyed with Fanny. Not a joke, barely a smile, just endless prosing and high principle. And why does she have to be so physically weak? Why is walking across the park enough to make her retire to a sofa with a headache? And why is Mrs Norris’s strength in walking seen as one of her flaws? Remember Elizabeth Bennett striding boldly through mud and rain, to be with her sister. Jane Austen, you can do better than that, we feel. And surely, a ten-year old girl, the oldest sister, who has emerged from the mess of the Portsmouth family would have developed some survival strategies to help her out at Mansfield? Okay, I know all the rest of you got there a long time ago, but these are just my feelings of last week.
Another comfort book which I’ve just read, and feel hasn’t changed for the better, is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Of course is has enormous charm and atmosphere which is why we love it. But I’m worried about those girls. At first they seem to be behaving like children, but Cassandra is seventeen and Rose is nearly twenty-one. And they sit shivering and starving in their bleak kitchen while their horrible father ignores them. The story was published in 1949, which brings it not far short of the period my own schooldays and youth when girls certainly wouldn’t be acting in that way; but you feel she is writing about an earlier time, the twenties or thirties. But there was nothing to stop a young girl getting a job in those days, even though the choice of work was limited. All the women in my family worked during that period, teachers, nurses, clerks, shop assistants. It wasn’t felt to be demeaning, and it put butter on the bread and woollen coats on their backs. So what is it that stops these two girls getting work? Just laziness and snobbery, really. They don’t think of themselves as lower-middle class, like the working women of my family; they’re just posh without having any money to be posh with. I’ve also just read The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West, set in the Edwardian age, and all those girls, Rose, Mary and Cordelia, also from a bitterly poor family with an improvident father, are all determined to work. So it could be done.
Am I just getting picky in my old age, or becoming more perceptive, and shaking scales from my eyes? And of course there are books which change for the better as you develop and understanding of them, and I haven’t mentioned any of those. What about you? Do you find books change over time? And is it mostly for the worse or for the better?

Strong women…

GreeceOctober10 276Last week’s post,in which I remembered editors who didn’t think my heroine was ‘feisty’ (horrible word!) enough, got me thinking about strong female characters, and how the writer sets about portraying them. Well, I don’t think I have ever written about a weak and feeble heroine – why would you?- but my heroines have frequently been confused, uncertain, afraid; they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t show some of these characteristics at certain times. However, what makes – I hope – for interesting reading, is how they manage to cope with- and overcome- these feelings.
Of course, if you’re writing about a woman of the past, you have to pit her against constraints that a modern woman wouldn’t know. I’ve placed much of the story of the Girls of Troy series in a sort of classical Greek background, as this is a period we know more about than the Mycenean/Trojan world. But for all their fine words about democracy and freedom, the men of classical Greece gave their respectable womenfolk a pretty bad time. Mostly women were confined to their quarters, where they spent their days weaving and spinning. The fairly foul Hipponax said of women;’There are two days when a woman is most pleasing – when someone marries her, and when he carries out her dead body.’ Even noble Pericles declaimed that ‘the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men.’ Women would have had a pretty hard time being ‘feisty’ under those circumstances.
However, I’m sure that women managed to find ways round some of those strictures and find some freedom and fun for themselves. Hermione, the heroine of ‘Helen’s Daughter’ escapes the Mycenean court on at least two occasions, and at the end of the story is about to make her own decisions about marriage. Eirene, the heroine of my forthcoming ‘The Burning Towers’ is a slave, so her freedoms are even more restricted, but she manages to steal away to pursue the private devotions to her goddess which are so important to her. Electra is the heroine of the last in the trilogy and she is going to haveto behave in very unwomanly ways to take part in the terrible revenge which is to be her fate.
So what constitutes a ‘strong woman,’ either historical or contemporary? There seems to be a feeling, at least in YA books, that to be strong, a woman must be a sort of imitation man, dressing like a man, and wielding killer weapons. True, Katniss Everdene is a successful version of this character – she’s sympathetic and the books are well-written- but there also seem to be a lot of violent girl characters around. Murder and violence don’t do men many favours either- it would be a much better world if they learned to be softer and more ‘feminine’ but that doesn’t seem to be the way things are going.
So what constitutes real strength? A strong woman stands up for herself and learns to combat bullying. She isn’t fazed by internet ‘trolling,’ Mary Beard’s recent response of engaging with some of her ‘trolls’ is a truly strong and courageous one. A strong woman uses her natural empathy to relate to people, rather than thinking that authority means being rude and peremptory. (I had an eye test the other week; the male oculist peered through a machine at my eyes, and simply snapped over his shoulder to an observing student ‘She’s got cataracts.’ Luckily I knew this already, so it wasn’t a shock, but I can’t imagine a women doctor conveying the news so rudely and so brutally.) Often strength consists in not saying, or doing. Strong women will of course fight for their families, often getting no recognition for doing so, especially if they are poor. But truly strong women don’t need to constantly tell you how brave and fierce they are, ( I’ve known some who delight in spinning long narratives the sole purpose of which is to tell you how rude they were to some hapless person. ‘I can be rude to you too, if I choose,’ they seem to imply. Well, yes, and often they are too, but this isn’t strength, just an unpleasant character flaw.)
So who are my favourite woman characters in fiction? Surprisingly I can’t think of too many offhand, but these are some who spring to mind:
Beatrice and Olivia,
Elizabeth Bennett,
Flora Poste,
Miss Jean Brodie,
Jo March,
Marigold ( from Jane Gardham’s Bilgewater)
Berie (from Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?)
So who are your favourite literary females? I’d love to hear.