This month in ‘The HistWriter Newsletter’: my ‘Neighbours from the Bronze Age’ and ‘The Irish Bookshop Show’ produced by writers and readers in Wexford. I also feature the first in a series of historical novels by the Irish-Italian writer Katie Hutton.
Now that Britain has severed ties with Europe, I reflect on the origin of their geographical separation, the inspiration for my short story: Doggerland (link).
Doggerland is a submerged area stretching from the east coast of England across to Jutland and the Netherlands. A long time ago this was above sea level and it is thought that around 6500 BC there may have been a tsunami which led to it being inundated and cutting Britain off from the continent of Europe.
We know very little about the Dogger folk but every now and again North Sea trawlers have dredged up an old implement, ancient bones, or some other remnant of that lost Mesolithic civilisation. What else might lie buried under the shifting sands of the seabed?
I wanted to write about a distant people who have left virtually no trace of their existence. Perhaps some of their language lives on in the accents of East Anglia and of the Netherlands and Jutland.
I imagined the Dogger people as fisherfolk, living amongst wide waterways like the Norfolk Broads. I thought of a man with a dog and a home and a family, but threatened by inundation. Not knowing whether to move, or whether to remain in place and accept whatever fate might bring.
This is even now a universal dilemma: it belongs to the émigré, to the refugee. It is exactly how my partner and I felt in the UK as we watched the approach of Brexit, so universal that across thousands of years I sense a commonality with that lost people. Eve and I chose to move, and settled in Ireland; we now look back with sorrow, but forward with hope.
In November 1793, Philibert Aspairt went missing. He was the doorkeeper of the Val-de-Grâce hospital during the French Revolution.
His body was not discovered until 1804, 11 years later, in the catacombs of Paris, and was buried where it was found. He must have entered the catacombs via a staircase located in the hospital courtyard. His motives are unknown and the cause of his death was never determined. Aspairt might have been identified by the hospital key ring hanging from his belt.
The above information is from Wikipedia.
My short fiction, ‘The Scarlet Thread’ (link), is an imagination of the events that led to his death.
It’s included with 19 other historical short stories in my free eBook ‘In Other Times, an anthology of 20 historical fiction short stories.
To download your copy and subscribe to the free monthly newsletter ‘The HistWriter’, subscribe below:
We shall remember them.
‘Hinky-Dinky Parlay-Voo’ is a free to read short story about the call-up, the media frenzy, and the popular songs of the day – and about the dark reality that lay beyond in the mud of Flanders.
‘Tree of Knowledge‘ is about the Eastern front – in Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq.
These stories are included in my free eBook ‘In Other Times’, an anthology of 20 historical fiction short stories.
To download your copy and the free monthly newsletter ‘The HistWriter’, subscribe here:
I also highly recommend Susan Lanigan’s war novels, available via Amazon:
And short fiction:
One of my Amazon.com reviewers has written that the ending of HEART of CRUELTY annoyed her so much that she ‘wanted to throw it across the room.’ Spoiler alert: my novel isn’t intended as a standard romance.
In the standard romance – think of a cover featuring large male muscles and a lady in satin – the alpha-male hero is in some kind of conflict situation with a vulnerable yet feisty heroine and the conflict is overtaken by their mutual attraction; they have a big showdown and separation four-fifths of the way through the book, but end up rapturously united.
I’m not doing that, sorry.
Those alpha-male heroes are hugely suspect individuals and if we met them in real life we might want to run a mile. Ruggedly handsome, brutally strong, devoid of self-criticism, they occupy positions of high social status: royalty; aristocrats; billionaires; warlords. It’s arguable that mostly they maintain their roles by exploiting other people. The elegant and leisured lives of Jane Austen’s heroes were dependent on someone else’s labour, whether that was down an English coal mine or on a Jamaican sugar plantation. And however blissful the marriage, a heroine would still have had to make sure that their husband’s socks were washed and their shirts were ironed, even if this was by the servants.
Have you stopped trusting them yet, ladies?
It makes me wonder if these romances are actually a way of trying to persuade women that these stereotypes are desirable. Does the romance fiction genre promote a patriarchal society?
And a further question: does the notion, widespread in fiction, that good must triumph over evil, promote negative judgments of the down-trodden? ‘Loser’ is a favourite Trumpian insult: what if the loser is in fact a victim?
Here’s an extract from HEART of CRUELTY in which I explore these ideas. Doughty is talking to Jane:
‘If you read a work of fiction, or see an opera, or a play at the theatre, is it the hero or the villain that triumphs?’
‘The hero, naturally. Good triumphs over evil. It is the natural order.’
‘But our prejudices of the natural order corrupt our view. What I have found at inquests is the difficulty in persuading the jury that the deceased are not villains, but victims. The woman who is cruelly violated and murdered is argued to have provoked her attacker. The abandoned infant is deemed illegitimate, unbaptised, it has no place in society. We withhold pity from the weak and the defeated, and instead we forgive their abusers. I blame the scribblers of novels for this pernicious state of affairs…’
I wondered whether his mind had been running on what I had told him but could not ask. He was too caught up in his own argument: ‘…Why, some ladies are only content when reading romances about brutal men.’
So my book is launched today. Initial reactions from my reviewers are: ‘gripping’… ‘a page turner’… ‘hard to put down’. It’s a dark novel and the evil at the heart of it is abuse that is unchallenged.
I’m influenced by my own experiences of working in child protection, as well as by modern day press reports of rape cases, by the #metoo movement, by the Jimmy Savile Inquiry and by the writing and work of Graham Wilmer, survivor of clerical abuse and founder of The Lantern Project.
My experience of prosecuting child abuse has been that every time, even when we know the abuse has happened, it’s a hard battle to prove it in court. To give evidence under cross examination one has to state a complex case in very simple terms, as the lawyers won’t admit to any medical knowledge, and keep stating it over and over again. The defence barrister will attempt to completely discredit the paediatrician, and deliberately twist their evidence or misinterpret facts out of context to try and disprove everything. I have had abuse cases where I had to attend the court for multiple hearings because (in my view) the lawyers did not choose to understand the medical evidence. I won in the end.
If it is stressful for me: an experienced medical witness, articulate, educated, and well-prepared, to appear in court, what is it like for a rape victim? For an underage girl? The adversarial nature of the English court works powerfully against victims who are vulnerable, made to feel ashamed and find it hard to describe what has happened to them. It is no accident that many of the words we use to describe sexual acts are taboo: embarrassing to utter to one’s friends or family, let alone in the austere setting of a courtroom.
In my novel the victims are silenced. My narrator, Jane, knows about the abuse, but lacks evidence and lacks a voice. As she gradually assembles the proofs she gains the courage to state her case and convince those who are reluctant to listen.
Coroner William Doughty is a medical man, but not a successful one. He’s been promoted beyond his competence, yet cares about his work, and tries to develop it.
Doctors began an evidence-base for medicine in the 1800s by studying disease through postmortems, and pathology began to inform inquests. In the 1700s, the inquest verdict for a sudden death might well have been ‘Act of God’. A century later the inquest jury would ask why the death had occurred: if the deceased had obtained the right medical treatment, or if they had suffered neglect, or poisoning?
In 1840, Doughty is on the cusp of this change, and as a young and inexperienced Coroner he believes he will get his juries to trust the medical science. A Coroner – ‘the Friend to the Poor’ – was the last recourse for justice in state institutions, especially the workhouse, where the lock-up was unique in that an inmate could be held captive for an undefined length of time without a court order or any external scrutiny.
Doughty’s a romantic, capable of losing his heart and head over a woman, and of pursuing love into disaster. He knows he should act like a gentleman, but his physical instincts tell him otherwise.
Jane Verity abandoned the advantages of an affluent upbringing, seduced by an actor and the promise of a glamorous life in the theatre. She has been ruined by that love affair, has seen her newborn baby die, and is at rock bottom in the workhouse when Doughty encounters her.
Nothing any more can be worse than what she has already been through. From the depths of her despair she must find the courage to speak up for herself and others, to expose the truth about the evil she has witnessed, and to return to what she loves: playing the piano.
#HeartOfCruelty #Histwriter #Birmingham
Wherever I had a job in the NHS – in London or the West Midlands – there was almost always an old workhouse, often still in use as a part of the hospital. I was employed for years in Sandwell and West Birmingham: at City Hospital the office was in a converted workhouse school, while at Sandwell the office was in a former workhouse’s venereal diseases ward. Now I work in Wexford, Ireland, where, just down the hill from the modern district hospital, is… a former workhouse.
Peter Higginbotham’s amazing website workhouses.org.uk provides a complete catalogue and history of these darkly gothic buildings.
My debut novel ‘Heart of Cruelty’ is set in the old Birmingham workhouse, which was on Steelhouse Lane, near the city centre. I have no evidence of any wrongdoings occurring in that workhouse and the events in my novel have been rehashed from other places and times. But in 1840 it would have been a harsh experience: the ‘Workhouse Test’ meant that life inside had to be harder than for the lowest paid worker on the outside. Paupers fared worse than convicted criminals, with less food and longer hours of forced labour.
Attempting to starve the poor into work caused huge suffering in the Victorian age, and failed to create the healthy and educated workforce which the labour movement achieved in the 20th century. In the 21st century, that hard-won advantage has been forgotten. Welfare cuts have caused severe hardship. For Anna Burns to acknowledge her local food bank in her prize-winning novel ’Milkman’ shows how far down we have sunk.
As I watch the Covid-19 pandemic rage around the world I become convinced that it cannot be eradicated unless poverty is eradicated. If people are homeless, or in overcrowded accommodation, how can they self-isolate?
For more about my debut novel ‘Heart of Cruelty’: (Link)
To subscribe to my free newsletter ‘The HistWriter’ and receive a free eBook of 20 historical short stories: (Link)
‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ I did a happy dance when David at Poolbeg Press sent me the cover for my debut novel. So here it is:
The Kindle version is now available to pre-order at:
Amazon UK: link
Amazon US: link
Amazon Australia: link
Amazon Canada: link
Amazon India: link
Amazon Netherlands: link
Amazon France: link
Amazon Spain: link
Amazon Germany; link
Amazon Italy: link
Amazon Japan: link