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Posts Tagged ‘Women’s history’

Today I’m delighted to welcome fellow Honno Press author, Pembrokeshire-based Judith Barrow, to the blog. I’ve long been a fan of Judith’s brilliant historical family sagas, the ‘Patterns’ trilogy, which follows the story of the Howarth family. So it’s great to be part of the blog tour for Judith’s latest saga, ‘One Hundred Tiny threads’.

Hello Judith, and welcome to the blog.  ‘One Hundred Tiny Threads’ is a gripping prequel to your ‘Patterns’ trilogy that sets the scene for the stories that go down the generations. What drew you to write a prequel? Was it to delve further into the background of your characters, or was it the time in which ‘100 Tiny Threads’ is set?

I’ve said many times that these two characters wouldn’t leave me alone when I’d finished the trilogy; they wanted to explain themselves; to tell their stories. And I have to admit I didn’t resist too much; the era of the first decades in the twentieth century have fascinated me all my life.

It was the time of the most horrific devastating war; of loss of men and women; something that haunted me for a long time after the first time I saw images and read of it and since I studied the first World War poets.

And, socially, these were the years of dreadful hardships even through the weakening of class divisions that had been so rigid in the past.Then there was the political unrest between the UK and Ireland. My grandparents came from Ireland. My grandfather was a particularly angry man and I never knew why until I was older and I was told of his reluctance – and resistance – to moving to the UK until eventually being persuaded by my grandmother and the fact that he couldn’t get work to feed his ever growing family in the village where they lived. He hated it and, I think, always resented my grandmother. He loved the outdoors and spent much of his working life underground in the coalmines. And he was a strongly political man and a Union leader.

The story of the book is set against dramatic political upheavals. Was there a particular reason that you set part of the book against the background of conflict in Ireland?

I think I partially answered this in your previous question, Juliet but I would like to explain more. When I knew I was going to let Winifred and Bill tell me about their lives I knew I would have to do a lot of research about Ireland at the time that my grandad was a young man because I had the feeling that Bill had been there at the same time. Mind you, it’s no hardship to research; I love and spend hours (more than I should, by the way) researching for my books. Although, for some reason I didn’t have to do as much research for Living in the Shadows set in nineteen sixty-nine – ha-ha!! Sorry, I digress.

The research gave me a greater understanding of the reasons for the fight for Independence. I never knew that the Easter Rebellion had such little support from the rest of Ireland; that it was the execution of fifteen rebel leaders, ordered by General Sir John Maxwell, the Commander of the British troops in Ireland, that turned those leaders into heroes and established Sinn Fein so firmly in the hearts and minds of so many Irish people. Nor did I know an awful lot about the Black and Tans initially. There was violence on both sides but the Black and Tans became notorious for the killing and torturing of men and the burning and looting of property. For a man such as Bill with his unstable childhood, his mostly solitary life and experiences in the first World War, it felt inevitable that, coming out of the uniform of a soldier to unemployment and homelessness, he would succumb to the bribery of ten shillings a week and a familiar home of army barracks; he would join the Black and Tans

I know what you mean about research! That is fascinating. Can I also ask how  you went about your research into the actions of the Suffragettes? Was there a particular reason you were drawn to that side of the story?

I wanted to show that Winifred was a feistier woman when young, even if for such a short while. Growing up under her mother’s thumb she rebelled only in her thoughts. And it took the backing of her new friend, Honora to encourage her to break through the natural reticence and timidity that is shown in Pattern of Shadows. I think, with the loss of the people in her life that believed in the inner person (giving nothing away here!) it became easier for her to acquiesce and accept what she was given as she grew older.

You tell much of the story through the eyes of a complex male character. Did you find it more difficult to get inside his head that inside the head of your female characters? And did you find it difficult to balance the two sides of the story?

It’s never been difficult for me as a writer to get inside the heads of my male characters. I do ‘get on’ with men in real life… (Hmm, perhaps I should rephrase that?). In my working life I mixed mostly with men; I learned to stay quiet and listen to their conversations and how they felt about various subjects. That environment stood me in good stead in many circumstances and I’ve used those emotions to round out even the most difficult of my male characters. And, as I said, I also had a most vocal grandfather. And, by the way, a most difficult father so I had lots of memories to fall back on. As for the mellower, ‘nicer’ side of Bill I have my husband to study (but don’t tell him that). Oh dear it does sound as if I’ve studied men from an empirical slant doesn’t it.

For female characters I’ve used my imagination … well, I’m not going to say I’ve used my friends and their reactions to anything , am I? And, being a woman, it does help me to know how I generally feel about situations – and that can be turned on its head.

Keeping the balance in the story was quite difficult. I hope I succeeded… mostly.

I won’t mention a thing! (I’ve met Judith’s husband, and he’s lovely). I’m glad you’ve got such good research subjects. I liked the way your male characters were rounded human beings rather than heroes or villains, which can be the temptation! Can I also ask ifyou plot your novels in detail, or do you find they evolve as you write them?

Oh, I do try so hard to plot! But usually they evolve as the story continues; either because I realise a character wouldn’t do as I want them to or because a certain thread of the book isn’t working.

Do you have one thing you enjoy (and/or) hate about the editing process?

I enjoy, oh so much, the last draft of the book, when I know it’s the best I can do. Then I hate the editing when I realise it’s not the best I can do and I have to rework and alter until it really is finished.

That made me laugh – I totally agree. That’s the feelings I have too, and we have such really good editors at Honno, who don’t let us get away with a thing! So, I have to ask, what are you planning to write next? Will there be another story connected to the Howarth family?

Well, that’s a question! I have written eight short stories of the minor characters in the trilogy. Two of them are shouting out for me to write about them. But the book I have almost ready to go to the editor is different. It’s still about a family but it’s more contemporary and examines a different aspect of life. Still, I’m not sure I’ve completely left behind the Howarth family.

Thank you, Judith, and happy writing (and editing) – I’m already looking forward to the next book!

If you would like to meet Judith in person, she will be at the Narberth Book Fair on September 23rd.

A Hundred Tiny Threads

You can buy a copy of the novel from Honno Press HERE

And the Kindle edition from Amazon HERE 

You can learn more about Judith and follow her blog HERE

It takes more than just love to make a marriage… It’s 1911 and Winifred Duffy is a determined young woman eager for a life beyond the grocer’s shop counter. The Great War intervenes leaving her facing difficult choices in love and life.

Praise for previous novels in the Howarth family series:
“Not… an ordinary romance but a book that deals with important issues which are still relevant today” Historical Novels Review

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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 … 🙂

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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 …

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The range at the Squatters’ Cottage in Blists Hill

I loved the BBC’s ‘The Victorian Slum’. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a reality TV series in which a group of twenty-first century families and individuals were sent to live the lives of the inhabitants of a Victorian Slum, in the conditions of the 1860s to 1900.

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The Squatters’ Cottage

I was initially interested because of my research for ‘The White Camellia’, which included the campaigns to improve the lives and working conditions for women, which was part of the suffrage movement’s struggle for women to have the vote. I’ve also been researching the Victorian period for the book I’m working on at the moment. It’s all very well reading about conditions, and the struggle to pay the rent each week in a system stacked against you however skilled and hardworking you might be, but watching the struggles – and the anger – of people you get to know as they live the reality week by week really brought home what it must have been like.

A domestic cooking range from New York Cottages Museum, Penmaenmawr

A domestic cooking range from New York Cottages Museum, Penmaenmawr

 

It also reminded me of the inspiration for my own fascination with history, which came from stories of my Victorian great-grandmother, forced, like so many, from a rural life to the industrial heartland of Lye in the Black Country near Birmingham, and who rocked the cradle with her foot while hammering nails to keep the family afloat. This wasn’t a side of history I’d heard from anywhere else, and brought home vividly the realities of women’s complex lives and complex roles at the centre of a family’s survival. Ever since, I’ve loved visiting living history museums like Blists Hill in Ironbridge, and the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, where I stepped inside a nail-making workshop just like my great-grandmother’s, where women supplemented the family income, being paid half the rate men were paid for making exactly the same nails (unless you could say they were made by the men, of course). You can see the nail shop HERE

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The pantry of the Squatters’ Cottage

Like the inhabitants of the Victorian Slum, this wasn’t the unfair practice stacked against my ancestors, paid the lowest possible piece-rates, so that however skilled, and however hard you worked, you could never make any more than the rent and, if you were lucky, enough to eat. Even in the 1920s, when my father started work at 14, he wore his mother’s shoes, as there were no others.

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The bedroom of the Squatters’ Cottage

Like many such families, mine survived against the odds, and with the help of campaigners, libraries and adult education (not to mention the protection of the welfare state), broke free of the tyranny of the weekly rent. To be honest, I spent much of ‘The Victorian Slum’ in tears, at the unfairness and the total lack of understanding by many of the prosperous, made rich by perpetuating grinding poverty in one of the richest countries in the world. It also gave me added respect for social campaigners like Josephine Butler, who gathered the facts to prove that the true price of cheap hats was paid by the milliners who, even on a 70 hour week, could not make enough to survive, and were forced into part-time prostitution to keep a roof over their heads.

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Blists Hill

Most of all, ‘The Victorian Slum’ brought home the strength of family and community to overcome the odds. It reminded me of my mother’s family, the nail-making side, centred around my aunts, and the slightly eccentric great-aunts who lived in the house with the nail-making workshop at the bottom of the garden until they died.

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The garden of the Squatters’ Cottage

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The pigsty

Many of my memories as a child are sitting in a garden while the menfolk tinkered with their cars and their vegetable patches, and the women ‘gossiped’. What I only began to understand later was that this exchange of conversation between a group of closely-knit women was, as it had always been, the invisible and unheralded glue that held the centre together. And they were making sure that we, the next generation (even the girls), were part of the small percentage at that time who got to university, so we would never dread the rentman’s knock on the door.

 

The Victorian Slum can feel like ancient history, but it’s not. The grandmother who held me in her arms was the baby rocked in that cradle as her mother hammered nails to survive. That close.

I’m not sure I’d have had the stamina to live through the conditions of ‘The Victorian Slum’, and I have the greatest admiration for those who did. And I shall be keeping the DVD at hand in case I ever feel my life is uncertain or hard as a reminder – along with the Victorian nail found when my cottage was being repaired, and which still gives me goose-bumps.

Squatters cottage 2 small

 

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