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When I first read Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, many years ago, it scared me witless. Watching the recent adaption for TV through my fingers, I’ve found it even more unnerving. After researching the conditions for women in Victorian and Edwardian England the world of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ feels all too recent and too real, and the rights women have won all too precarious.

But I’ve also learnt about an amazing heroine, and a courageous group of women who, although powerless, without even a legal existence of their own, fought the many injustices of such a system, and won.

 

If you’d asked me a few years ago about Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the suffrage movement in the UK, and now the first woman to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square in 2018, I wouldn’t have had a clue. I’d vaguely heard the name, but until I began researching for ‘The White Camellia’ I’d never (to my shame) thought to find out more about her, or even the difference between the suffrage movement and the suffragettes. Although main story of ‘The White Camellia’ centres on a crumbling mansion in Cornwall, and a feud that has torn two families apart, one of the characters becomes an early female photojournalist who finds herself inadvertently drawn into the transition point between the suffragists and the suffragettes.

It was when I began researching the background for Bea’s story that this new and riveting story of the suffragists had me transfixed. It’s a history that’s barely noted, but it is one of women (many proudly supported by the men in their lives) successfully outwitting, out-arguing, and out-manoeuvring politicians to establish so many of the rights we take for granted today.

What is even more remarkable is that when they began their campaign, around the 1860s, these women had no legal existence whatsoever. They were the property of fathers, then husbands. Even the richest woman lost any rights over her money and property once married, and even after a divorce, all her earnings still went to her husband, whose only obligation was to keep her out of the poorhouse (as in, the responsibility of the state).

 

It’s a long and fascinating story, of working-class girls risking everything to fight for a living wage for their work, for education and training. Of middle class women fighting for the right to take a degree and follow a profession, and proving such things didn’t send them mad or shrink their wombs to nothingness. Of the right for a woman to keep her children after a divorce, instead of being forced to flee abroad or lose contact with them forever. Of a recognition that prostitution was not a means of idly living in luxury, but rather a result of desperation and abuse, and of pitiful pay that forced even fully employed and skilled women to resort to the most desperate of measures to survive.

The suffragists were supported by many leading figures of the day, including Florence Nightingale (whose pioneering use of statistics to prove a point was adopted by many of the suffragist campaigns), Josephine Butler, and pioneering doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

And then there was the question of the vote, as underlying the position of women as rational human beings, rather than as being childlike, in need of guidance and protection. Again, I had no idea that, until the 1860s, very few men had the vote, or that the battle was such a long-fought one for both sexes, with the argument only finally won in 1928, when all men and all women achieved the vote. That’s a long time ago – but still within living memory, which, in the context of all of human history, is no time at all.

Single women (the only women subject to paying tax) braved the bailiffs being sent in, under the banner ‘No Taxation without Representation’, and the campaign gradually moved the idea of women voting from being laughable to MPs (all male, voted in by men) voting twice for women to have the vote, the first being passed by 100 votes, and the second private member’s bill in 1911 by 255 for to 88 against. Okay, so both times the democratic process was overturned, but that also puts quite a different slant on the direct action of the suffragettes. Women didn’t start their campaign for the vote by throwing stones and chaining themselves to railings, but such actions (along with the destruction of property) were the furious response to the democratic process being denied. Whether you agree with direct action or not, men have been known to have a similar reaction, too – and no one ever called them a bunch of raving hormonal hysterics whose real motive rested in being too ugly/old/clever to find love!

So hurrah for Millicent Fawcett, and the many and varied battles of the suffrage campaign battling to be the ones to walk in the sun, rather than as mere handmaids to their overlords. As a woman with a degree, who can vote and earn her own living, take part in sport, walk down the street unchaperoned, and live a fulfilled and independent life, I shall be cheering as loud as can be when that statue to my heroine, Millicent Fawcett, goes up in Parliament Square next year.

A woman Doctor. Now there’s a thought … 🙂

It has been a cold spring this year, here in Snowdonia. I’ve been keeping my head down, getting on with the next book. Okay, wrestling with the dratted tome. It’s got to that point, just before it all falls into place, when it feels like nothing will ever make sense, and why did I start the thing in the first place, why did I ever think it was a good idea, but it’s too late to back out now. ARG!  Having been through this before, I should know this always happens, and you just keep plodding on until it works, but somehow, this point in the process  never seems to get easier!

Then, over the last few days, spring has burst into flower. It’s been so sudden and unexpected (I think we’d all given up), it’s been a magical experience. A real reminder of just what a miracle it is. The green of leaves has grown brighter and fresher, changing day by day, and my garden is growing more colourful every time I look. Finally, my baby beetroot and the broccoli, the peas, beans and salad leaves have been set out on their journey in my veg patch and the polytunnel, and the vine is showing signs of life.

Just before I did my back in with too much enthusiastic digging and weeding (okay, mega-procrastination), I snuck away from the computer and the dratted tome and went up to the coast with friends to visit one of my favourite places, Bondant Garden.

The last time I was there, it was autumn, when there were red and crimson maples and the final glory of the year. This time, it was all about the vibrant, wonderfully clashing colours of azaleas and camellias  – including some beautiful white camellias, to celebrate my rebellious Edwardian ladies’ tearooms of ‘The White Camellia’ , with Millicent Fawcett’s suffrage movement battling for equal pay for equal work, women’s right to education and financial independence, along the dignity of all men and women having the vote.

We were lucky, it was a clear day, with bright sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. In the end, we walked for miles, between the azaleas, and down to the dell, following the river and around the pond to the wilder part of the gardens, with banks of wild garlic, and then back past bluebells.

Finally, there was the trip to the garden centre, where I did my best to be restrained. (ahem)

My plan to spend the evening deep in wrestling my characters into submission didn’t quite work, I was far too relaxed to get the brain back into gear. But the next morning, I was fired up and raring to go. I hadn’t thought I’d been thinking about the tome while I was in Bodnant, I’d been too busy enjoying the sights and the scents and time relaxing with friends. But strangely, the bits that had been bothering me began to fall into place. The possible became possible. And that ginormous hole in the plot that had snuck up on me without me noticing (as they do) had a perfectly sensible solution, the facepalm, why didn’t I think of that before, kind of solution.

The trouble with wrestling, as I should know by now, is that the characters always win (it’s their story, after all), and you just end up going around in circles getting crosser and crosser until you can’t see a way out.

There’s nothing like a bit of perspective to make the impossible work, and beautiful gardens in springtime are the best way.

Well, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it. And those rebellious characters of mine had better agree, or else …

 

Well, that was a week! Instead of walking my dog over Welsh hillsides, I was pounding the streets of London and attending a book launch in Daunt’s of Marylebone for Trisha Ashley’s ‘The Little Teashop of Lost and Found‘.

Trisha with author Elizabeth Heery and her husband Peter Davison

 

 

Trisha with writing tutor and Choc Lit author, Margaret James

I loved the launch, and meeting up again with old friends (more of which later, as it deserves a blog post all of its own). Having lived for nearly ten years in London, it was also a real buzz to sneak off on a dog-free adventure as a proper tourist.

My first stop was Piccadilly Circus, and a location of one of the tearooms my characters in ‘The White Camellia’ pass by on their way to the less grand Alan’s Tearooms in Oxford Street. Alan’s Tearooms no longer exist, but the Criterion is still there at Piccadilly, looking as magnificent as I remember it. Sadly, I did not venture inside for afternoon tea – maybe one day!

Seeing the Criterion reminded me again of the restrictions placed on young Victorian and Edwardian women, like my heroine Bea, which meant that it could be scandalous just to walk alone on the streets in broad daylight without a male or family member in charge. It made me even more thankful for the brave women of the suffrage movement who, long before the suffragettes (and even before such women had any legal existence of their own), met in tearooms to battle the government of the day for the freedoms I have taken so much for granted all of my life.

It gave an added zest to a sunny day visiting old haunts, and being a proper tourist, complete with boat ride up the river from Tower Bridge to Westminster, free to do as I wished, before meeting up with friends in the evening.

I loved being back in London on a sunny spring day, with the parks bursting with flowers and tourists enjoying the sights. Much as I love my little cottage tucked away on a hillside in Snowdonia, it was good to get back to the rush and bustle of the city. It gave me perspective on the book I’m writing (relax, don’t try so hard, you can do this!), and reminded me that it’s possible to be equally in love with dark-sky nights filled with stars and the bright lights of the city, with the peace of the countryside and a small, close-knit community, and with city life.

No wonder London always creeps its way into my books somewhere! I’m now once again in my little cottage, pounding the keys, with my dog impatient for the morning walk over the hillsides.

But London is not so very far away, just a few hours by train. I shall be back!

Loving this interview with fellow historical author, Pam Lecky!

Vintage Treasures

Today I am delighted to have Juliet Greenwood in the library for a chat. Juliet’s beautiful cover for The White Camellia was my very first monthly historical fiction cover winner. (See: Historical Fiction Cover Competition January 2017)

juliet-and-hat-small-versionYou are very welcome, Juliet, please introduce yourself:

After living in London and near Birmingham, I now live in a small traditional cottage halfway up a mountain in Snowdonia, in North Wales. I write stories and serials for magazines as ‘Heather Pardoe’, as well as novels under my own name. My books have reached #4 and #5 in the UK Amazon Kindle store, while ‘Eden’s Garden’ was a finalist for ‘The People’s Book Prize’ and ‘We That are Left’ was completed with a Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary. I have a passion for gardening and walking, as well as for history – and my camera goes with me everywhere!

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Thank you to Pam Lecky for choosing the cover of The White Camellia as Historical Fiction Cover winner for January 2017!

Vintage Treasures

Do you love historical fiction? What makes you choose one book over another? For most of us, the cover is the first thing that attracts our attention. For me, the cover has to look professional and must convey genre and a hint of what the story is about.

Each month I will be taking a look at historical fiction covers and choosing my ‘Pam’s Pick’ for the month. Hopefully, you will be intrigued enough to look beyond the covers I feature and find your next favourite author. If a cover interests you just click on the image to learn more about the book and buy if you wish.

My first winner is The White Camellia, by Juliet Greenwood. When this cover landed in my inbox, I knew immediately it would be one of my top picks. The image is beautiful, romantic and delicate. If I saw this in a shop I would…

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Loving this review of ‘The White Camellia’ by Jill’s Book Café – I love it when a reader ‘gets’ my books!

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From the back cover 1909. Cornwall. Her family ruined, Bea is forced to leave Tressillion House, and self-made businesswoman Sybil moves in. Owning Tressillion is Sybil’s triumph ̵…

Source: The White Camellia by Juliet Greenwood – 4.5*s #bookreview @julietgreenwood

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When creating characters, they need to be built from their past experiences, from their back-story. Like all of us, it’s those experiences, and the way each individual deals with them, that forms their motivation, grabs (or even repels) the reader’s sympathies, and forms their character. It’s that funny thing with writing, it’s only when the characters start to take on their back-story that they really come to life. It’s also the point where they tend to take on a life of their own. As a writer, you can no longer direct them. You can give them a nudge in the right direction, but if they don’t want to take it, if it goes against their motivation and their character, then it rings false – just as it does in life. Of course characters in books, as in life, also change, and it’s the emotional journey that the main characters follow that forms the heart of any story.

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Feuding families are always effective means of creating emotionally rich back-stories – think Romeo and Juliet and the Forsyth Saga for starters – and where would Eastenders be without a good feud? The central tension is there, danger is there, and there are endless possibilities and machinations to keep the plot zinging. Plus, let’s face it, there aren’t many families where there aren’t any tensions between acquaintances or different branches of the family.

Two feuding families always lay at the heart of my latest historical novel for Honno Press, The White Camellia. When I was first working on the book, I didn’t want to take the route of star-crossed lovers, but the story of two very difference women across the divide who – like so many women do – are the
ones who have to pick up the pieces as the unforeseen consequences rumble down the generations.

White camellia with dewSo while in Cornwall Sybil has fought her way out of destitution with nothing more than her wits, and is determined she and her family will never again face the horror of being out the streets, Bea loses her materially comfortable life, and is faced with trying to support her mother and little sister in Edwardian London, with few opportunities for women to work, let alone support a family.

Of course, at some point they have to meet, when the past catches up with them, and the two women have to decide whether to continue as enemies or make their peace. Strangely enough, it was that part of the story that was both most challenging and most intriguing, and where the back-story really came into its own.

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The White Camellia began as a very simple idea, but in writing the book, the characters of Bea and Sybil, and the obstacles the past puts in their way by their interlinked back-stories, took on a life of their own, so in the end I just followed, and was taken to emotional places I could not have found as a simple puppet master directing the action according to my original plan. What I had not foreseen was that, for both my heroines, the background of the family feud was also one that set them on a path to self-knowledge, to forgiveness, and (hardest of them all) to self-forgiveness. It’s a journey we all take through life, but it’s the intensity of events and emotions surrounding something as extreme as a family feud that really gives them an edge.

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The book I’m working on now does not have a family feud at the centre. In some ways it’s a relief not having the emotional complexities to resolve, but I also miss it as a structure. I have a feeling it’s a back-story I’ll be returning to again in the future – and send a new cast of characters on their own emotional rollercoaster ride!

 

 The White Camellia

UK edition

US Edition

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