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.
When I wrote Peace Walls in 2012 I did not foresee peace in Northern Ireland unravelling and hoped that time would bring healing.
Free to read on my website (link), it’s a time shift short story set in Northern Ireland about a fictional sectarian murder and the long term consequences for the people who knew the victim.
The research for this was painful at times, in particular reading ‘Bear in Mind These Dead’ by Susan McKay (link), which is a factual account of some of the victims of the Troubles. The Historical Enquiries Team video on YouTube (link) was also an inspiration, as was Alan M Wilson’s ‘Policing Ireland’s Twisted History’(link).
In 2021 we need more than ever to uphold the ideal of peace. Politicians must get to work. The current difficulties in implementing Brexit have to be solved by negotiation. Walls should not be needed. Let’s reconcile histories and old divisions and work on what we all have in common, for the sake of our young people and their future.
The April issue of The HistWriter newsletter comes to you from Wexford in Ireland.
This month I look at Wexford’s links to the first invasion of Ireland by the English, and review a trio of novels by Irish historical writers. Susan Lanigan, Patricia O’Reilly and Derville Murphy are all fellow members of the Irish branch of the Historical Novel Society, with whom I’ve ‘found my tribe’.
The FREE newsletter ‘The HistWriter’ is available to subscribers to my blog.
Book news and reviews; historical snippets from the 19th century, often with a medical theme.
To see back issues: https://wp.me/P2aHMc-1ix
To subscribe: https://wp.me/P2aHMc-1eu
All sign-ups get a FREE eBook download of ‘In Other Times’: 20 historical short stories selected from my website.
In times of COVID restrictions, it’s great to have something creative to do at home.
These ‘Learn Live’ online writing courses from the British Library (link) are reasonably priced and include journalism, memoir, and food writing. There are also two study afternoons coming up, one on historic ‘Hebrew Manuscripts’ and one on ‘Global Women’s Rights’.
Shifting Currents by Joanna Orwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Joanna Orwin is a NZ author who is also a critique buddy of mine. I can personally vouch that every word in this novel has been weighed, considered and edited many times over.
Shifting Currents is a historical novel set amongst settlers in 19th century New Zealand: Lydia Boulcott has entered a marriage of convenience hoping to escape her past, but in a remote community meets the one woman who can uncover her secret.
The remote kauri forests and the flow of the river set the scene for this beautifully written novel evoking the hardships of the early settlers, the decline of the Maoris and the unforgiving ethos of that age. Lydia’s courageous journey is sympathetically told; the harder she works to hide her secret the greater becomes the gulf that divides her from her daughter.
View all my reviews
On the question of whether trans-women should be seen as women, and able to access female public toilets and changing rooms: YES.
It seems that a lot of the debate about this issue on the interweb takes the form of:
Tweeter A: ‘I believe THIS!’
Tweeter B: ‘Why, how COULD you sink so LOW? When I believe THAT!’
We are getting the adversarial jousting of a law court rather than an attempt to understand people with gender dysphoria.
Although I am a cis-woman I speak with experience of meeting and talking to transgender people, as I supported my spouse through transition and have accompanied her to many social events run by the transgender community. ‘Outskirts’ in Birmingham, the English city where we used to live, was a huge source of support.
Stop for a moment, and inhabit your own body, like on those mindfulness courses. Now imagine that, like Gregor Samsa changing into an insect in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you have changed in the blink of an eye and been given a new body: that of the opposite sex. A whole new set of societal expectations rise up in front of you like a wall. People – maybe even people close to you, like your family and friends – reject you for not being what you said you were, what you were supposed to be.
People with gender dysphoria express a sense that they have been born into the wrong body. They desperately try to conform to the gender norms set by society while feeling that these are the wrong ones. Eventually they affirm their innate sense of gender and in doing so are able to be content in their own skin. Transition does not happen overnight, nor is it an all-or-nothing process; it is achieved haltingly, fearfully, perhaps incompletely, and with much soul searching along the way. Some don’t make it through transition because it’s just too difficult. Tragically, some choose to end their own lives.
Gender dysphoria is unconnected with sexual orientation and trans people are no more likely to be sexual predators than anyone else. Probably less likely, in fact. Personally, I have always felt very safe around trans people and the LGBT+ community as a whole. In fact in Birmingham it was common to see groups of cis-women on Hurst Street in the gay quarter. Some were lesbians and others were straight women looking for a night out somewhere they felt safe.
The whole scenario that JK Rowling envisages, whereby a man dresses up as a woman in order to access women’s toilets or changing facilities and carry out sexual assault, probably belongs in one of her novels. In reality, it is an incredibly drastic step for a man to dress as a woman and go out in public. Running the gauntlet of the neighbours’ spying eyes as they go out means that they often make-up at home but take their outfits with them and get changed in a safe place. Most trans-women, especially on their first outings, are absolutely terrified that a member of the public will notice that they are of male birth gender, or even worse, that they will comment on it. Can you imagine how that would feel – and then how awful, how humiliating it would be, if forced to use the male toilets? Fortunately more and more public facilities are designed to be non-gendered.
So, dear Reader, give trans-women a break. Be grateful if it isn’t happening to you. And if you encounter a trans-woman, please remember to speak of ‘her’ and ‘she’, and be kind.
Having ‘e-discussed’ this blog post with friends I just wanted to add that, yes, people can be unsympathetic, but my spouse and I have also experienced warmth and support from many sources: her workplace before we left the UK; her mom; our friends; a sympathetic article in the Irish Times and the supportive reaction from my colleagues here in Ireland after it was published; our neighbours here in Ireland; even the recruitment firm I dealt with when job hunting in Ireland. And when out and about in Ireland, the general public don’t make discourteous comments. If we’re in a bar or a cafe the staff will usually address us as ‘Ladies’ or even ‘Love’. That might be more to do with the high level of good manners here than with any strongly held progressive views!
My earlier post on this topic is one of the most frequently visited on my blog. So I thought I would add some further comments.
To recap: The date given by Tussaud’s for the waxwork of 1765 is 3 years too early for the figure to be Madame Du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV. One of her biographers, Philip M Laski, in ‘The Trial and Execution of Madame Du Barry‘ (1969), states that Du Barry (then using the name Jeanne de Vaubernier) first met Louis XV in May 1768. Being a member of the aristocracy was essential for her to become the official royal mistress.and her marriage to Comte Guillaume du Barry took place on 1st September 1768.
Now I noticed that Rodama had some interesting theories on her blog including both Du Barry and Madame St Amaranthe, a beautiful young woman guillotined during the Terror for refusing Robespierre’s advances. Rodama also suggests that the image may be a doll-like figure and not based on a life model.
If the date of 1765 is accurate then Louisa O’Murphy, one of the ‘petites maitresses’ of Louis XV could have been the model. This young woman, born in Rouen of Irish (Traveller?) ancestry, had previously been the model for Francois Boucher, one of the foremost painters of the Rococo age, as seen in his painting of the ‘Blonde Odalisque’. Boucher’s paintings had drawn the king’s attention to her.
O’Murphy would have been 29 at that time of the waxwork and although her relationship with Louis XV had waned, there had been rumours of her returning to the Court following the death of Madame de Pompadour in April 1764. If she had been the model I speculate that it could even have been an attempt at self-promotion.
O’Murphy (Morfi to the French) was also linked to the ‘Parc aux Cerfs’ (Stag Park), Louis XV’s private harem. An alternative suggestion is that one of the other girls from the Parc aux Cerfs might have provided the model. The Parc aux Cerfs was set up during Madame de Pompadour’s lifetime, after her sexual relationship with Louis XV ended. It was maintained after Pompadour’s death by Le Bel, the king’s valet, and closed when Du Barry became the mistress. There are interesting parallels with the modern day Epstein/Maxwell case: Madame de Pompadour was rumoured to recruit and ‘supervise’ the inmates.
For a fabulous fictionalised biography of Madame Tussaud, try Edward Carey’s ‘Little’: the voice, the vocabulary and the imagery make it a luxury to read; the text is full of quirky illustrations in the style of the ones on the cover:
To see the work of Boucher in a beautiful (but expensive) art catalogue, try:
My friend Jutta emailed me the letter below, having received it via his father from a Prof Shane Quinn, a professor of English Literature. She assured me it was genuine and not a pastiche. Alas a more informed friend has since debunked it:
This is parody written by American author Nick Farriella for the humor site McSweeney’s earlier this month. The text is clearly identified as such at the bottom of the original online publication and now at the top: “NOTE: This is a work of parody and is not an actual letter written by Fitzgerald.”
I still really like it though…
A LETTER FROM F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, QUARANTINED IN 1920 IN THE SOUTH OF FRANCE DURING THE SPANISH INFLUENZA OUTBREAK.
It was a limpid dreary day, hung as in a basket from a single dull star. I thank you for your letter. Outside, I perceive what may be a collection of fallen leaves tussling against a trash can. It rings like jazz to my ears. The streets are that empty. It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources.
The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.
You should see the square, oh, it is terrible. I weep for the damned eventualities this future brings. The long afternoons rolling forward slowly on the ever-slick bottomless highball. Z. says it’s no excuse to drink, but I just can’t seem to steady my hand. In the distance, from my brooding perch, the shoreline is cloaked in a dull haze where I can discern an unremitting penance that has been heading this way for a long, long while. And yet, amongst the cracked cloudline of an evening’s cast, I focus on a single strain of light, calling me forth to believe in a better morrow.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
W. Somerset Maugham apparently once said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
After 7 years of intensive research I can now announce their discovery:
1. Get up before you are fully awake and don’t worry about your brain. It will be fine in about 20 minutes.
2. It is OK to write your novel whilst doing your day job, as long as no one is actually asking you to do anything.
3. Time spent watching TV with your partner still counts as ‘together time’, even if you are asleep.
Or you could try this: