Babbitt, children, new books, ponderations, present, sad bits, writing

Sharper Than A Serpent’s Tooth

For various reasons, I have been thinking on the nature of Hollie and Lije Babbitt’s wary relationship…. on abusive childhoods, and on how abused children grow into damaged adults.

The brief background to Hollie’s, is that he was brought up by his strict godly father, after the death of his mother. And as he grew up, being Hollie, he rebelled against everything his father taught him, and tried his damnedest to do the opposite. While Lije, fearing for his boy’s immortal soul if he carried on in his wilful disobedience, tried to beat him back to the path of righteousness with a strap.

Thirty years later, and they’re still locked in the same pattern.

Hollie wanting his father to finally acknowledge that his son is not a vile sinner, wanting Lije to say that actually, Hollie hasn’t turned out so badly, has made something worthwhile of himself after all. That the mother he never knew might be proud of him. That Lije was wrong.

That he was sorry.

And Lije is still wanting to correct, to make his son better – only now he’s trying to make Hollie a better father, and a better husband, as well as a better Christian. But he can’t leave well alone. It’s his way or no way: he can’t relinquish that control, and let Hollie make his own mistakes.

And, you know, it’s an odd thing. The child of an over-zealous evangelist. Or the child of an addict. Or of a girl with too much on her shoulders too young, forced into responsibility for a child that’s stolen her youth and her freedom. They grow up, for the most part, wondering what they did wrong. How they failed, because the person who was supposed to love them did not, and that must be a failing in them, surely, they must have deserved to be hurt, have done something bad.

(Hollie at seventeen, with his shirt over his head, explaining to the woman he was going to marry that he must have done something to merit the scars his father put on his back with a belt.)

That the person who should love them is really a good person, and they make that person angry and sad, and so it’s their own fault. That they cannot mend the person who hurts them, and ask they spend their days trying to be things they are not. Tiptoeing, saying the “right” things, in fear.

(Thankful Russell, at six, promising to be a good boy if his sister would only love him, and not hurt him any more.)

And then they grow up with a dreadful sense of responsibility, wanting everyone to be pleased with them, all the time. Afraid of conflict, because if you make people angry they might hurt you. Trying to manage situations so that everybody’s always friends, like some kind of bright game show where the prize is normality.

You can’t, of course. Taking responsibility for someone else’s behaviour is a fool’s errand: you can’t cure it, and you can’t control it. So you withdraw, because you have to, and you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t because other people only see the shiny side.

Love is not enough, is never enough: you can give everything, like pouring water into a hole in the sand, and it will drain away leaving exactly the same emptiness as before. And there’s a point at which you stop with the water. And then you feel bad because maybe this last bucket will be enough – maybe just this one last few drops that you were going to use to water the flowers but the hole is more important, and so you have to try again…

Until you don’t. You water your flowers. People don’t like your taste in flowers, bugger ‘em.

Walk away. Leave the goddamn hole to empty.

Which is exactly what me and Hollie are going to do.

 

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Gray, new books, ponderations, writing

Fifty Shades Of Darker Gray – when characters fight back

 

Marston Moor really is going to be a grim book.

(With much humour in it, but I very much fear that it will be a sort of grisly, Babbitty battlefield humour.)

Today I have been much thinking about Gray. It’s no spoiler that Gray is a woman; we’d call her genderqueer now, but in the 1640s cross-dressing women were sufficient of a menace that King Charles went public about his disapproval of such wenches in the Army, issuing a proclamation in 1643 to prevent the horror of it all.

There will be probably one day be a Gray story, because she intrigues me, too, but I’m not always sure I like her, never mind understand her.

This all comes from a remark about Tom Hiddleston – an actor who’s doubtless a mighty fine actor, but who doesn’t float my boat – one of those daft little memes that goes “Tonight, darling, all your neighbours will know my name.”

And I thought that was too funny not to use. Now, you know, Hollie – staid old married man whose idea of naked is leaving his sword on the table downstairs and whose definition of ecstasy is ember tart and Het in the same place at the same time – it’s not something he’d ever say. And Luce would probably be too busy kissing his way up the inside of the lady’s wrist and trying to look poetic and yearning whilst wrestling with her laces. Venning – nah, Alice would kill him. And the chances of Russell going to bed with anybody for another… well… a while, are remote: he’s too scared, after the last time.

So it’s going to be Gray, isn’t it? It’s going to be Gray, trying to demonstrate to a troop full of testosterone that she has bigger balls than they do.

The thing is, though, I was thinking about that young lady. I just can’t work her out at all. She is a woman, who dresses, fights, and behaves like a man. Does she want to be a man? I’m not sure she does. (I’m not sure it would cross her mind to, either.)

Does she want to be a woman, though – I’m not sure she does that, either, and given that she is going to have a relationship with one and possibly two members of the rebel rabble, that’s what I find intriguing.

And that’s where I start to flounder a bit. Because imagine this: there’s Gray. Young, not exactly what you’d call pretty, but in possession of all the necessary female anatomy, kicking around one of the rowdier sorts of knocking-shop with some disreputable sorts. There she is, swaggering about making slightly tipsy remarks of the nature attributed to Mr Hiddleston. This is the point at which she’s going to fall into the arms of some young man who’s going to make her a real woman… right?

And the answer is – no. I wish to goodness it was, but she’s resisting it every step of the way. She just is not going to let me write it that way. And she’s going to have her fling with one of the whores, and … so she’s going to be gay, right, and that’s why she dresses as a boy, because she’s some sort of butch drag queen?

And – nope, she won’t let me do that, either. (She’s currently glowering at me with her bottom lip sticking out like a baggage-mule’s, and her eyes narrowed. Definite no, then. )

Gray’s mother was raped by a soldier at the siege of La Rochelle, but I don’t think that’s it, I don’t think she’s frightened of men, I don’t think she has any trauma in her past from which the right man will free her. (Don’t think she’s frightened of very much, actually.) And when it comes to it – so to speak – she does like sex. Though she is, very definitely, the dominant one. So to speak. And then again, possibly not.

Which leaves me with an unpalatable fact.

She’s a woman, who is not motivated by “feminine” things. She’s not moved by relationships, or sex, or love. She’s not gay, and she’s not straight either. She enjoys the physical aspects, but she enjoys them just as much with a woman as a man, and she’s quite open about that.

Now I could decide that I’m going to write her differently. That I’m going to make her change, when she meets the right man: that really, she’s got a heart of gold – because that’ll make her nice and accessible, it’ll be a nice comfortable read.

But she’s not like that.
And yes, the man she marries – and she will, and if you’ve read all the books you know who she marries – she will break his heart. He’s one of the more likeable lads of the rebel rabble and there is a strong argument that he deserves better. But does he? Or is he marrying her because he thinks, in typical cork-brained romantic style, that love will change her into someone he likes much better…?

If you work on the assumption that people in books should be real people – should be themselves, should be believable, even if that means they’re not always nice, or kind, or comfortable – she’s good.

But by heck, she’s hard work to write as herself. 
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conspiracy, Cornwall, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, new books, ponderations, Skellum Grenville, South West campaign

The Mystery of the Miniature on the Mount – St Michael’s Mount and the Grenville Miniature

And it’s not one that I have an answer to, I fear…. yet.
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Fairfax, heroes, ponderations, present

Whispers of Immortality

It must have been a long, hard couple of weeks for the Grim Reaper – first Lemmy, then Bowie, and now Alan Rickman.
(I am imagining the poor bony sod with Lemmy’s gravelly sweariness down one ear, Alan Rickman being sinister and growly down the other, and trying to work out which David Bowie he’s got hold of – but there we go.)

It is an odd thing, but I have been much possessed by throughts of mortality of late – not my own, I’m not that old, but in general.
I think I have a fairly solid attitude to death. When it’s your time, you go, and that’s all there is to it. Sometimes it’s fair, and sometimes it’s not fair, but there is no raging against the dying of the light. We have not that choice.

We do have a choice about how those of us who remain, go on. Whether we love, and remember the good things, or whether we try and stop ourselves at the moment when we lost part of our lives. And I think, I hope, I will choose the first.
I remember very clearly speaking at the Wascally Woyalist’s memorial service, at Veryan church on a bright and breezy spring day with the rooks thrown like rags over the high trees. (Bloody cold in that church it was, as well.) I remember the sunlight being behind me, though there wasn’t much warmth in it, and I remember being very passionate that we should not forget Ensign Crowhurst of the 32nd Cornwall Regiment of Foot, but nor should we make him into a thing he was not. He was who he was – he was kind, and funny, and intelligent. He was also useless with a paintbrush, fiercely conservative, and prone to farting in the freezer department of the supermarket and running away.

There will always be someone left behind. That is the nature of mortality; it’s probably the one thing you will do, absolutely alone. No one else can go with you, no one can prepare you for it or do it for you.

I was saying last night to someone that in my fantasy-Hollywood casting of “Red Horse”, Alan Rickman would have been my choice for the Earl of Essex. And I’m not sure any more that’s true.
By all accounts decent, poetry-reading, a man to whom no breath of scandal was ever attached: a good man, with a reputation of honour and decency and kindness. He’d have had to be Fairfax, wouldn’t he?

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history, politics, ponderations, present, society, writing

The (Public) Rights of Man. And Woman

I got my log-in details for my Public Lending Rights registration today.

Now, unless you’re an author, that probably means very little to you, and if you are an author, you’re probably thinking “PLR? oh crikey yes!”

Basically, I’m now recognised as an author whose work is available in libraries, and I get paid royalties for same. Which is kind of exciting, and makes me kind of sad at the same time, because there should be something more to it than an email saying that I’m now registered. I don’t know, a fanfare? A raspberry? It’s sort of the stamp of recognition that I am a Real Author, and holding my own against people with epic publicity budgets and dedicated PR teams. And there’s me, writing like stink in the back bedroom on a laptop with most of the keys missing.

But more than that, it made me think about libraries, and other institutions that we take for granted – education, that we take for granted, and the ability to read books. I live in Cornwall, and I can’t walk much more than a mile from my house in any direction without coming across one of the Passmore Edwards Institutes.
John Passmore Edwards was born in Blackwater, within walking distance from me, in 1823. He was the son of a carpenter, and like the children of many of the Cornish working poor of the 19th century, pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He became a journalist, and then a media magnate, as well as a delegate to peace processes in Europe between 1848 and 1850. However, and most significantly for me, he was also a passionate believer in the working man’s right to an education; he was a generous donor to the Workers’ Educational Association, and gifted libraries, schools, and art galleries for men and women whose hard working-life meant that they – or their children – did not have the luxury of access to full-time education.

I wonder sometimes if perhaps we turn full circle; if perhaps having been given the right to education, people no longer see it as a hard-won privilege, a thing that men and women fought to achieve. That to many of us now it’s devalued currency, as taken for granted as our air and clean water. Two hundred years ago, my little boy would only have been going to school tomorrow if we could afford it, or if he could be spared from wage-earning labour that put food on the family table. (Yes, two hundred years ago, children were still working in mills, their nimble little fingers, speed, and small stature being valuable, and their poor little bodies being cheap to feed and dispensable.) Schooling until the age of ten was only made compulsory in 1857, and the age at which a child could leave school was only set at sixteen, in 1972.
We – people my age – we have never been part of a society in which we want to learn but are deprived by circumstance of the ability to do so. Have never, thank God, lived in a world where books are “for your betters” – not beyond the reach of poor people, or working people, or children, but are for everyone.
And, you know, maybe we need to think about that. That maybe education and literacy are still a prize, an achievement to be proud of, rather than a casual box to be ticked. That there are still places in this country where adult literacy is not universal, before we even consider that there are countries in the developing world where parents are still fighting for their children’s opportunities to be educated out of poverty. We don’t hold any moral high ground on literacy at all. When you think that Passmore Edwards and his like made it possible for every adult in England to access literacy and learning, the idea that there are grown men and women who have the physical and mental capacity to gain an education, and make a conscious choice to remain ignorant is rather obscene.

Books are not our friends. Books are as necessary as breathing. Not just mine, but science books – romance books – books about keeping fish, or driving test theory.

If you’re reading this, it’s because someone fought for your right to an education. Don’t ever take it for granted.

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history, new books, politics, ponderations, present, religious ponderations, romance, women

The Tudors are SO 2015. This? Is Where It’s All Happening

But the Tudor era is a period of lust, of intrigue and sexy debauchery and passion and jealousy and desire and excellent dresses…. so why don’t I write about the Tudors?

It’s a funny one. I mean, it’d be easier if I did. I’d be riding on the coat tails of Philippa Gregory and Anya Seton and Hilary Mantel – and everybody knows about Henry VIII and his convoluted love-life, and Elizabeth (and Essex….maybe) and her even more convoluted and intriguing passions. The fashions are gorgeous, the TV producers and the film producers are crying out for bodices to rip open and breeches to undo: why, in the name of creation, am I writing about a period mostly known for its unflattering fashions and spawning the man who coined the term “warts and all”?

And I guess the answer is – because I find principle sexier than unprinciple.

I’m fascinated, intrigued, and ultimately repelled by the English Civil Wars – a war without an enemy, as the Parliamentarian commander William Waller wrote in 1643 to his friend the Royalist commander Ralph Hopton. “We are both upon the stage and must act such parts as are assigned us in this tragedy, let us do it in a way of honour and without personal animosities“.
I think it’s interesting that many people’s perception of the protagonists now is that the King’s supporters were fun-loving, free-spirited party animals who loved wine, women and song – 17th century rock stars, in effect – whilst Parliament’s were dour, short-haired, joyless and worthy.
It’s cobblers, of course – both sides had men of fire and honour, as committed to their cause as each other.
And to me, that’s considerably more appealing than a fat old guy with a bad temper and a gammy leg, a sexual predator who abused his power to bribe, flatter and coerce women into his bed and whose politics were – allegedly – based in his codpiece.

I think we love the idea of the Tudors because they’re so marvellously larger than life, an almost Machiavellian world of political treachery and intrigue apparently centred on a thing we all understand – sex. We “get” desire, and jealousy, and love-conquers-all; we understand, we sympathise with, a world where a man-monster is a figure of terror as well as desire – almost the ultimate Christian Grey, the sexy uber-CEO who manipulates as well as seduces.
And maybe the idea of a quieter passion isn’t so flamboyant. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms don’t inflame the public imagination the same way because there is, simply, no sex involved. Oliver Cromwell looked like a potato. (Elizabeth must have seen something worth the having in him, because they had a long and happy marriage and a number of children.) Thomas Fairfax was married to the somewhat volatile Anne for twenty-seven years, and praised her lack of beauty as a virtue in his – somewhat dodgy – poetry. Charles and Henrietta Maria were uxorious enough that she went over to Europe, sold her jewellery, and raised troops for him. Rupert – well, Rupert never married, so let’s not mention Rupert’s love life. (Suffice it to say it was varied and active.)

It’s not that women were not strong, involved, characters in their own right. Why should Brilliana Harley, sending the family plate to safety in boxes marked up as “Cake” to avoid detection by Royalist troops, be any less appealing that poor hapless Anne Boleyn?
Or if your taste runs towards tragic romantic heroines, Bridget Cromwell, travelling across a war-torn country to marry her scarred hero Henry Ireton under siege in Oxford, only to be widowed so short a time later?
Or the King’s spymistress, Jane Horwood, intelligencing for him and loving him at one and the same time? (Oh, I hope she had some happiness with him, even if his letters to her portray their liaison as more pragmatic than romantic. Her husband was such a vile, abusive, violent piece of work, I do hope that Jane found love, after a fashion, with Charles – someone who was decent, and honourable, and treated her with courtesy. Not my type, but then what do I know? I’m a Fairfax girl…)

So many stories, and so much passion – but for the spirit, not for the body. For a cause, for a thing which people – both Royalist and Parliamentarian – believed in with, literally, the last drop of their heart’s blood.

And as for the fashions? Quite like the Elizabeth of Bohemia look, myself.

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politics, ponderations, present, society, women, writing

Fifty Shades Of….. Gender Bias and Sexuality in Historical Fiction

Isn’t it reassuring to know that all those heroines of historical fiction, who found that they just weren’t maternal, or meek, or submissive enough – that they identified themselves more strongly as masculine, that they cut their hair, or wore breeches, or climbed trees – they were all sweet, frilly girlies, really: because with the right man, you can get better!

Five hundred years ago – three hundred, two hundred years ago – women weren’t allowed to identify with masculine gender stereotypes. We conformed, to the Gospel according to St Paul; we learned in all subjection, we were respectful, we covered our hair and our bodies as we were taught, or we paid the price of social ostracism.

You know the old chestnut of the girl who dresses as a boy to follow her soldier lover to war and bring him home safe? Don’t get many of them in the 17th century. In fact, I don’t think I know of a single example of a woman who enlists as a soldier during the English Civil Wars – maybe that’s because women were following the drum anyway, in the guise of camp followers, or maybe it’s because until the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 no one was looking, or maybe it’s because 17th century women were more than capable of fighting the good fight in skirts, viz. Lady Derby, Brilliana Harley, Elizabeth Lilburne, I’ll stop now but I could keep going all night. The 17th century highwaywoman Moll Frith lived and dressed as a woman – as attested by her nickname, Cutpurse Moll – and anecdote reports that at one point she robbed Thomas Fairfax, shot him in the arm and killed two of his horses. Which must have pleased him no end…
But it’s not really till the 18th century that we start to see the “mannish” woman appear – Kit Ross, who followed her man into Marlborough’s Army and then decided that she quite liked the Army life and lived as a soldier for the better part of ten years, serving in two different units undiscovered; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, that pair of unglamorous pirate captains, who were as fierce and merciless as any of their masculine counterparts – what’s interesting is that most of the 18th century women who disguised themselves as men disguised themselves successfully, and lived within close male communities undiscovered for long periods, but that they also were considered as equals of their male counterparts. Kit Ross was officially pensioned off, despite the discovery of her gender; Anne Bonney and Mary Read were sentenced to an equal punishment to their male counterpart, Calico Jack Rackham.
So, you know, there are hundreds of years of history of women living successfully as men, competing with men, existing forcefully in a male-dominated society. Succeeding, on their own terms, against men. (If piracy is your thing, obviously.) Being acknowledged as comrades and peers, by men. Women in Restoration England were running their own businesses, their own coffee-shops, although they weren’t permitting female customers in those hotbeds of political discourse and dissent. Women in 1649 were presenting petitions to Parliament saying…”Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?”
And now, four hundred years later, we’re denying this again in mainstream historical fiction.
The tomboyish heroine, that old favourite of romantic fiction, who’s not satisfied by a life of conventionally girlish pleasures, and who finds freedom and self-expression as an equal in masculine company – she changes, of course, when she meets the right man. (He “makes” her a woman, as often as not. *shudders*)
All those strong women, who lived and worked and loved as women in their own right, who ran businesses and ships and companies of soldiers in their own right – they just needed a man, to make them want to give up their independence and be hobbled by skirts again?
Seriously?
I was talking to Kim Wright from the arts programme Art2Art on Swindon 105.5 FM earlier on (just thought I’d drop that one right there, me on the radio, not swearing, not once. Hardly. Much. At all) – he had the idea that this sudden gender conventionality in fiction was a reaction against women’s freedoms in World War 2, where women were suddenly doing men’s work, men’s equals, threatening established masculine domains, and the womenfolk had to be groomed a little into getting back into their boxes after the war. And, you know, perhaps the reason for the popularity of that aggressively masculine, Chandleresque stuff was that a lot of women were comfortable within those boxes, too. 
And that’s fine, if that’s what works for you, but it’s not right for everyone. We’re still promoting the idea of binary genders – of girlie girls and butch men – and pushing the myth that if you are not a pink princess, or a brave hero, you can’t have romance, you can’t have adventure, you can’t be successful. That to be atypical, in fiction, makes a character a curio, a freakshow. There was a Paul Verhoeven film called “Flesh + Blood” in which Rutger Hauer’s mercenary band contained, amongst others, two sniggering and not always very kind best mates, who were rough and tough, who always had each other’s backs, who were a pair of loutish young gentlemen always spoiling for a fight.
At the end of the film one of them is killed and you realise, by the response of the other, that these two testosterone-fuelled hooligans were a deeply loving and long-established couple.

And it’s not relevant to the plot, it’s just a throwaway scene where actually, these two brawling roughs are seen to have a capacity for deep emotion – but it’s two men who are in love with each other. 

Does that matter? Yes. They’re a pair of aggressive street bravos who’ve systematically gone through life as their own two-person gang, and now all of a sudden one of them is alone, and we see a vulnerable, frightened side to him. 
Does it matter that it’s two men? No. Or it shouldn’t. As Het Babbitt points out to Hapless Russell in “A Wilderness of Sin”, “There is, in my opinion, an insufficiency of people loving each other in this world, dear. As if it were something to be ashamed of.”

Takes all sorts to make a world, as they say in Lancashire, but if youre going to write, the world is at your fingertips. Women, and men, in history fought hard to live outside convention, knowing they faced exposure, ridicule, social ostracism, even death, for disclosing themselves. And they still do, we have not yet come so far. We owe it to readers to write those men and women back into historical fiction, not as plaster saints or  wayward sinners, but as real, rounded human beings. Just lke us.

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