Wessex Wanderings

Max Gate (Hardy's house) from the back garden

Max Gate (Hardy’s house) from the back garden

In August I spent two weeks in the UK with my friend Jennifer, mainly doing research at the British Library in London and attending the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford. In the middle of the trip, I took off alone for what I’d originally planned as a day trip to Dorset, but it turned into a one-night, then a two-night stay because I couldn’t tear myself away.

I’ve always wanted to go to Dorset because it’s Thomas Hardy country. When I tell people I’m a Hardy fan, I tend to get either blank looks or a pained grimace. Quite a few people have had bad experiences with Hardy’s novels and either dislike his tragic, pessimistic outlook on life or his sometimes ponderous prose. One year when I taught Jude the Obscure, a student came to my office and told me I should have warned the class about the dead baby scene (don’t worry, I’ll say no more about that). She said she was on the bus when she read it, and she immediately started crying. She considered me personally responsible for her public embarrassment.

Why do I love Hardy’s novels so much? Because of his larger-than-life characters who are nevertheless deeply human and sympathetic, the landscape that functions as a character itself, the operatic quality of the scenes, and yes, the tragedy. I love tragedy and find it as cathartic as Aristotle argued it should be.

Back to Dorset (also known as Wessex, the name Hardy used for it in his novels). When I disembarked from the train at Dorchester, Dorset’s county town, and stood on the  platform smiling at all the possibilities in front of me, an older gentleman approached me and (no doubt noticing the enormous Canada stickers on my suitcase) asked me what brought me to Dorchester.

“Thomas Hardy,” I proclaimed proudly.

“I’ve written about Hardy in my book,” he replied, and we were instant friends. He showed me around for a bit, then we parted with a plan to get together the next morning for coffee.

Here's Dr. John with Thomas Hardy at The Horse with the Red Umbrella

Dr. John with Thomas Hardy

The next day I plunged into literary tourist mode. After meeting my new friend Dr. John at a delightful café called The Horse with the Red Umbrella, I walked to Max Gate, the house Hardy designed and lived in until his death. I plopped myself down on a sofa in the parlour and had a wonderful talk with Judy #1, museum guide and fellow Hardy fan, about Hardy’s life and work. If you can’t find a Hardy fan in Hardy’s own house, where can you find one? Eventually I went upstairs and met Judy #2, with whom I had another nice chat. Apparently you can’t work at Hardy’s house unless your name is Judy!

The house was fascinating in its own right, but what interested me most was the attic where Hardy’s first wife, Emma, decided to move about twenty years into their marriage. I knew Hardy had been married twice but I knew very little about his wives. At Max Gate, I became fascinated by Emma, who had literary ambitions of her own, loved animals, and in later life supported women’s suffrage. What had made her move out of the marital bedroom into the tiny two-room attic? Judy #1 assured me this was no “madwoman in the attic” scenario. It was Emma’s choice to move into the attic, and her faculties were intact.

The dark little attic seemed sad, even after Judy #2 explained that in Emma’s time it was painted white and was more cheerful-looking. Apparently Emma came downstairs sometimes, mainly when Hardy had literary friends over. She loved to talk to other writers. But what a disastrous marriage!

Judy #2 told me a story about the day Emma died. She was still living in the attic, and her maid ran down to Hardy’s study and begged him to come upstairs because her mistress was seriously ill. Before going upstairs, he ordered the maid to straighten her collar (clearly not one of his finer moments). When he went up and saw how sick Emma really was, he was guilt-stricken, and he stayed that way for some time after her death. Most of the better-known poems he wrote about Emma were written during this wave of guilt and grief after she died. Inconveniently, he continued to write these poems while married to his second wife, Florence.

Joyce and David, with whom I got lost

Joyce and David, with whom I got lost

Pondering Hardy’s marital problems, I left Max Gate and took a path that the tourist map promised would lead me on a pleasant 90-minute walk on a public path through meadows, woods, and fields to another Hardy landmark, the cottage where he was born. I proceeded to get thoroughly lost.

Fortunately, I soon came across a man and woman intently perusing a large map. It turned out that they, too, were trying to find Hardy’s cottage. I asked if I could tag along, and that’s how David, Joyce and I became friends while unknowingly walking in large circles in the Dorset countryside. Instead of a pleasant 90-minute walk, it became an arduous three-and-a-half-hour adventure. At the end of it, we calculated that we had walked at least 15 miles that day (including the walking we had done before we met).


This is typical of the few maps we saw. Nothing marked "You are Here" or any indication of what A, B, or C might represent

There is no label indicating “You are Here,” or any indication of what A, B, or C might represent

Why didn’t we ask for directions, you say? We did. Some people told us to take the right-hand path, others told us to take the left. We had 3 or 4 tourist/hiking maps among us, and all had different directions. The path was not marked. The few maps or signs we did see were like this one in the photo.

After we finally reached our destination and I had a chance to rest and think about everything I’d learned that day, I found myself pondering the problem of confusing an author’s writings with his life, as well as what’s called in literary studies the “intentional fallacy.” We English professors constantly tell our students not to speculate about an author’s intentions when they interpret a text. Part of the legacy of postmodernism is that the reader has become more important than the author, and the text means more than its author intended. Trying to figure out the author’s intentions takes the focus off the text and can lead to a narrow biographical focus. Not every character an author creates corresponds to real people in his life. But students often resist being directed away from the author’s intentions and life.

As a properly-trained English major, I have no trouble ignoring the author’s life and intentions when studying and interpreting a literary text. As a result of this training, I actually knew much less about Hardy’s life than I did about his work and was surprised by what I learned in Dorset. My view of his love poems, so many of which were written after Emma’s death, completely changed. I’m still not sure whether the change is for better or for worse (no marital pun intended!).

I’ve always suspected that of the many authors whose writing I enjoy, I wouldn’t like most of them as people. Enid Blyton comes to mind immediately, but she’s an extreme example. I probably couldn’t stay in the same room for ten minutes with most of the male Victorians. I almost certainly wouldn’t like Thomas Hardy. But does this matter? Can’t we enjoy authors’ work without liking their personal traits or preferences?

I’ve heard more than one person say that if someone is a good writer, they must surely be a good person, yet people never talk about whether a visual artist or musician is a good person. Why, then, the preoccupation with a writer’s morality? I don’t have an answer. Do you?


Summer Nightmares

It’s been a crazy busy summer so far, and it shows no signs of letting up. As exciting as it’s been to buy a new house and sell our old one, it’s also been stressful. And when I’m stressed out, I have more dreams. More nightmares, actually. I know that several of my readers love to interpret dreams as much as I do, so I’m going to share two of my recent ones here.

It’s a seller’s market in our city this summer, and bidding wars are common, with nice houses being snapped up within hours of being listed. We were told we’d have to act quickly with a firm offer and no conditions, but I didn’t believe it until I experienced it for myself (and lost the first house we bid on). I am bad at making quick decisions. I am especially bad at making quick decisions about major purchases. I almost never buy anything, even shoes, the first time I see them. I usually wait 24 hours to make sure I really want them. Thus, it was terrifying to make offers on houses after looking at them quickly and only once.

We were successful with the second house we bid on. The backyard is as lovely as the house, filled with lush, leafy green plants and a big patio. But a few weeks after the buyer accepted our offer, and before seeing the house for the second time, I had an ominous dream.

Dream #1

This isn't exactly how the garden looked in my dream, but you get the idea.

This isn’t exactly how the garden looked in my dream, but you get the idea.

It is moving day. We go into the backyard and see nothing but bare earth with a few patches of dry yellow grass and a folded-up landscape cloth. The beautiful landscaping we saw the first time was fake, staged to make it look good. I awake gasping for breath, spooked by the barren wasteland that was so vivid in my dream.

A few days later, I told a psychologist friend about the dream.

“What do you think it means?” I asked in a hushed voice, waiting for the profound dream analysis that was sure to ensue.

“It means that you’re afraid the owner took all the plants,” she replied dryly.

She was right. Sometimes a backyard is just a backyard.

In addition to the house stress, I’ve been feeling stressed out by summer in general. Summer is my least favourite season, for these reasons:

1. Heat
2. Noise
3. Groups of people

Put all three together (e.g. an outdoor picnic or pool party), and you have my worst nightmare. Actually, if it’s a pool party, there’s an additional reason to hate summer:

4. Having to wear a swimsuit in public

The second nightmare I had relates to all but the last of these reasons, and it’s more complex than the first one.

Dream #2

This looks like fun to some people.

This probably looks like fun to some people.

My brother drops by and asks if he can stay with me and my husband for a while. (In reality, my brother died three years ago. I used to dream about him regularly, but he hasn’t shown up in my dreams lately, so it was good to see him again.)

The only trouble is there’s no room in the house for my brother to stay. A friend is already staying in the spare bedroom, and the overheated house is packed full of noisy people who seem to be relatives but look like a large, amorphous mass.

I don’t want to turn my brother away, but I know I can’t deal with one more person in my house. I ask him to wait a minute while I talk to my husband.

I go into another room, where I’m again surrounded by people. I tell them the problem and say I’ve decided to tell my brother he can’t stay with us. “That’s the right thing to do,” someone replies, and I feel better. However, the same person adds, “but it’s not the loving thing to do.” Huh?

Returning to my brother, I tell him there is no room for him to stay with us. He accepts my decision but looks disappointed. I am consumed by guilt. I try to explain, “If you’d called first, or let us know in advance, we would have made sure we had room . . .” but it doesn’t help.

The meaning of some parts of this dream are obvious to me. All summer I’ve been surrounded by people, and as an introvert, I haven’t had the solitude I need to recharge. By the way, if I hear one more person explain that an introvert is someone who doesn’t like people, I will scream or slap them (yes, I realize this will prove their point). But seriously, introverts really do like people. I would argue that we actually like people more than many extroverts do because we tend to value deep, personal conversations and hate superficial small talk, which is often the only kind of conversation possible in groups. Where introverts shine is in one-on-one conversations in quiet spaces where they can really get to know the other person.

But I digress. In addition to feeling overwhelmed by too many people this summer, I’m also haunted by my husband’s fantasy of filling our new, bigger house with refugees (he’s only partly joking). I’m sure I also have some lingering guilt about not thinking about my brother often enough or feeling sad enough according to the Rules of Grieving.

The only part of the dream I haven’t been able to interpret is this. My brother wasn’t alone. With him was a young black woman wearing some sort of tribal costume. I tried to speak to her but she didn’t know any English. At first I assumed she and my brother were a couple, but there was no basis for this belief judging from the way they acted. I don’t want to resort to the cliche of the racialized, exoticized Wise Woman, but who was she supposed to be, symbolically? I don’t know. Any ideas?


Control, Perfectionism, and Being a Vulture

I freely admit to being a control freak. I’m not proud of this, and it certainly makes life difficult in some ways, but there are good sides to it, too. For example, I’m normally very productive and organized. I’m always on time and I always meet my deadlines.

But lately the universe has been telling me I need to let go of the illusion of control over things in my life. Because, really, what can we control? Therapists counseling people in relationship difficulties will tell them the only thing they can control is their reaction to other people. Yet even our own reactions are difficult to control when we’ve spent years forming habits of interacting with others in certain ways.

The first step in AA is well known: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Other 12-step programs modify this step to fit whatever the addiction or problem is, but the basic truth is this: “we are powerless.” While this statement may not be helpful to some people, it’s useful for me to remember when I’m on a control rampage.

Empty book mockup templateI’ve been reading a great book by Lauren Sapala called The INFJ Writer: Cracking the Creative Genius of the World’s Rarest Type. Being an INFJ (based on the Myers-Briggs personality typology) as well as a writer, I was naturally intrigued. I thought I knew myself really well, but Sapala helped me understand myself better. The passage that seems particularly relevant to my life lately is this one:

The best piece of advice for any INFJ who is in the grip of perfectionism is to Stop Thinking About It. Whatever “It” is for you. The book you want to write. The guy or girl you want to be your soulmate. Your dream house. The thinking only takes you so far, and honestly, it is our tertiary function. We like to flatter ourselves that we can hang with the Thinkers any time we want, but the truth is that it’s not our superpower. We get into damaging loops where we circle the topic like a vulture, our Introverted Intuition ready to pick the bones clean for any new information that we can join up with existing knowledge to complete the pattern. But sometimes, there’s just no new information to be had. The piece you’re looking for that will make everything fit—how to write the perfect book, how to be absolutely sure this is your soulmate—doesn’t exist. You’ve got to wing it. In fact, it seems the Universe is demanding that you wing it.

Now, winging it is not what control freaks do. But I know exactly what Sapala means when she talks about damaging loops. I am that vulture! My husband and I are currently house hunting, and I’ve been picking the bones clean, so to speak, from every real estate listing within a 40-km radius of my city in search of that dream house. It’s exhausting.

Being an academic doesn’t help. Not every academic is a control freak, but many of us are, and being a professor and researcher does nothing to teach me how to wing it. I work alone most of the time and don’t have to answer to anyone. Even when I’m working with students, I’m the boss, and unless there’s a serious problem that requires the intervention of my department head, I can organize my courses and set the rules the way I want to.

Isolated vulture, buzzard looking at youI’m taking Sapala’s advice as best I can, especially to Stop Thinking About the dream house. Interestingly, I’m seeing parallels between my difficulty relinquishing control to my agents, both my real estate agent and my literary agent. Having an agent of any kind involves letting that person have some control of the process. I’m so used to doing everything for myself and knowing all the details that it’s hard to trust someone else to research the details for a contract/deal that’s so important to me. The other day, as I swooped down to (virtually) feast on the latest house-for-sale carcass, my husband said,  “Just let [our agent] do his job.” He’s said the same thing in relation to my literary agent! (And if either agent is reading this, I apologize if I’m being annoying!)  Fortunately, I do back off and stop being a pest as soon as I realize I’m in the damaging loop.

My latest lesson in winging it came from the protagonist of my newest novel. I’ve been struggling with her for months now and feeling blocked because she’s less like me than any other character I’ve written (she’s an ESFP, in Myers-Briggs terms). She knows how to wing it. She’s not a control freak. But I’ve been frustrated with her the way I would be with a recalcitrant child. “Why won’t you talk to me?” I complain. “How can I possibly write your story if I don’t understand you?” And then a couple of days ago, she sashayed into my head, sat down and told me who she is and how she wants her story approached. It was like a gift from heaven, but I couldn’t help but wonder why it took her so long. I just had to wait until she was ready to tell me. I can’t even control my characters, so why do I think I can control anything or anyone else?

Lesson learned, hopefully. This vulture is going to try to wing it!


The Difference a Decade Makes

Not long ago I faced an unusual task: shifting my novel’s time period from 1897 to 1907. I won’t go into all the reasons for doing this, but it became clear that I needed to do it. Normally I wouldn’t be too concerned about a mere ten-year difference, historically speaking. If I had shifted the time period from 1887 to 1897, it would hardly have merited even a mention, much less a blog post. But moving from the nineteenth to the twentieth century seemed like a big deal.

My specialty is 19th-century England. It’s what I’ve studied as an academic and a historical novelist. I know it well, especially the Victorian period. And as long as details in a novel are recognizably Victorian, I suspect most readers wouldn’t notice the differences from one decade to the next, aside from the dramatic changes in women’s clothing. But the 20th century seems different. To many ears, 1907 sounds modern, whereas 1897 sounds almost ancient.

I plunged into an intense round of research on the Edwardian era (technically 1901-1910 but often extended a few years to the beginning of WWI). I do love research, and I followed some very interesting rabbit trails.The only major changes from the late-Victorian to the Edwardian period involved technology and transportation. In Britain, the telephone was well-established in workplaces and in wealthy people’s homes by the first decade of the 20th century. Motor cars were increasingly common, though even secondhand cars were still too expensive for the average middle-class family. At no other period in history was there more variety in modes of transportation: horse-drawn omnibuses, hansom cabs and other carriages competed for space on city streets with motor taxis, cars and motor buses.

To give you a visual sense of the situation, here’s a photo of a London street in 1910:

I also learned that Britain and North America were very different in terms of when they adopted these technologies: North Americans used both cars and telephones much earlier than the British did, likely because of greater distances to travel and more limited railway systems.

Even though my research was extensive, the actual changes I needed to make to my novel were few. Here’s an easy one:
All of this got me thinking about the trickiness of historical accuracy in a novel. It’s not enough to find out when a new technology was invented. Most technologies were slow to be adopted by the general public because of the expense or the resistance to trying new things. And a novelist must think of her characters too: are they the type of people who would be excited about or suspicious of the latest technology? Would they use it immediately or be slow to adopt it?

Personally, I’m old-fashioned when it comes to technology. I’ll never forget the day I finally broke down and bought a cell phone (I refuse to admit how recent that was!). It was long after most of my students had cell phones, and I remember telling a class how excited I was the first time I walked down the street while talking on the phone. As you might imagine, I was met with many shocked stares and some snickers!

Ultimately, what I learned from shifting my novel’s date forward a decade was that dates don’t matter. Events matter. Big, important national (or global) events. I had the feeling this might be the case. When I teach Victorian Literature, I give students the dates of Victoria’s reign, but I also mention events such as the 1832 Reform Bill and the 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which were more important influences on society.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, World War I changed everything. 1900-1914 wasn’t very different from the late-Victorian period, but after WWI, there was a definite shift in everything from technology to people’s mindsets. To offer just one statistic, in 1905 there were 32,000 motor vehicles in Britain, but by 1920 there were 363,000!

I also thought about historical differences between decades I’ve lived through, such as 1997 vs. 2007. When I look back, the differences primarily involve technology. In 1997, few people I knew had cell phones. In 2007, everyone had them. And I can usually tell from its shape whether a car was made in the 90’s or a decade later. Even moving into a new millennium wasn’t a big deal. On Dec 31, 1999, I was staying with a friend. We were concerned about being prepared for problems, though not to the extent of some others who seemed to be expecting Armageddon. We decided to fill up two glasses of water to brush our teeth with in the morning in case there was no water (Yes, we were a couple of wild and crazy girls!). We were a little worried that our computers wouldn’t work the next day, but we decided just to wait and see. And indeed, nothing changed. We had water. Our computers worked.

But consider September 11, 2001. That event changed everything, and not just for Americans. When I think of the history I have lived through, it will be marked by events like that.

What events were so important in history that you remember exactly where you were at the time? 9/11? The death of Princess Diana? The Vietnam war? The death of JFK or Martin Luther King? These are the events that shape history, not the beginning or end of a reign, a government, or a century.


Falling in Love with Revision

My editing cats

My editing cats

My blog has been quiet lately because I’ve been immersed in a major revision of my latest novel. When I start a major revision I always feel overwhelmed at first, especially when I see detailed comments from beta readers or my agent. This time was especially scary because I knew I had to delete at least 15,000 words as well as a major character (more on that below). But once I plunged in, it was the most rewarding (rewording?) and exciting revision process I’ve ever experienced.

It felt a lot like falling in love. I was consumed by my characters and could think of nothing else. I lost sleep because I couldn’t turn off my brain, which was whirring madly as it tried to stitch together the gaps that opened up as I deleted huge chunks of the story. Social interaction with real people was especially difficult. To be honest, the only time I could really focus when talking to other people was when I was talking about my novel (a thousand apologies to my very patient husband!). It was a roller-coaster of wild emotions and an aching back, neck, and shoulders from sitting in the same position with my laptop for many hours at a time. I forgot to reply to emails, forgot appointments and deadlines, and most shocking of all, sometimes even forgot to eat!

Just like falling in love, it was exciting, but I knew I couldn’t keep up the momentum and would eventually have to return to reality. I was looking forward to getting back to my normal life, but I also enjoyed the ride. It was a refreshing change from the writer’s block I sometimes experience.

When I was first starting out as a writer, I used to dislike revision. It felt like chipping away at a huge rock with a tiny knife. Part of my problem was that I spent too much time polishing my sentences and not enough time considering the overall story structure and pacing. It’s pretty hard to kill a sentence  that you’ve spent an hour polishing, even when you know it doesn’t fit the story.

It’s hard to admit this, but I also suffered from a lack of humility. I thought I was already a good writer. As an English professor who has spent my life reading and writing, as well as editing the writing of others, I thought I had all aspects of writing figured out. This prideful attitude cost me years of stubborn resistance to learning how to write a good story. I now understand that no matter how good a writer I (or others) think I am, I can always learn from others and my writing can always improve.

Another way I’ve changed is that I now want to communicate with others through my writing. I used to write only for myself and didn’t care if anyone else read what I wrote. I existed in a happy little fantasy world with my characters. Why would I need to revise when I knew what I was trying to say?

My prized Thomas Hardy mug, showing revisions he made to a draft of Tess of the d'Urburvilles

My prized Thomas Hardy mug, showing revisions he made to a draft of Tess of the d’Urbervilles

I’ve attended several writing workshops led by the amazing Kathleen Norris. She talks about self-expression being important only in the initial stages of writing, but if you want readers, revision is necessary. For Norris, readers complete our writing and constitute a community. Revision is both a spiritual discipline and a kind of hospitality, inviting the reader in. And it requires humility to put ourselves and our feelings aside when it’s time to communicate with readers.

As I’ve learned to love revision, I’ve also learned to appreciate critiques from thoughtful beta readers and critique partners (for an excellent explanation of the difference between critique partners and beta readers, see this article). I don’t believe any writer has the objectivity needed to properly critique her own work, not even after setting aside a manuscript for a period of time. Other eyes are needed.

I especially love my beta readers and am constantly amazed by their generosity. Everyone is busy and it’s asking a lot to expect someone to read an entire novel carefully and critically, then write down suggestions for revision in a way that is helpful instead of harsh. One beta reader in particular blew my mind with her incredibly balanced, specific comments throughout the manuscript. It was like having a friend sit beside me as I revised each chapter, pointing out what I did well and what I needed to improve.

One revision I was initially skeptical about was deleting a major character. My agent was the one who suggested this, but I could see how it would solve problems my beta readers mentioned too. Yet it was scary to think that a character I thought was important could be removed without hurting the story. Imagine my surprise when I deleted this character, only to find that the novel was better without her.

This deletion prompted an existential crisis in my life. I started to wonder, am I that person who could be deleted from the  overall story with no discernible effect? But as I thought more about this character, I realized that the novel wasn’t her story. If she (or I) can be deleted from someone else’s story, that’s ok. And when I’m faced with my own insignificance, I remind myself of this lovely line from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it for anyone else.”


The Top Five Historical Novels I Read in 2015

Inspired by a blog post written by my agent, Laura Crockett, I decided to put together a top five list of my own. On average, I read one historical novel per week because this is my favourite genre to read and write, and I also review novels for the Historical Novel Society. These five novels were easy to choose because they stayed in my mind long after I read them. I’m a stickler for historical accuracy, so it goes without saying that all of these authors have done impeccable research. Interestingly, four of my five favourites (all but Kate Morton) were new-to-me authors whom I found out about through the HNS or Twitter. Note: these are novels I read in 2015, not necessarily novels published in 2015.

TG135472621. Alison Atlee, The Typewriter Girl (2013)
This Victorian-era novel is set in the fictional English seaside resort town of Idensea. Betsey Dobson, who has been sacked from her typewriting position in London, is hired as a tour manager in Idensea by John Jones, a gruff Welshman. An unusual romance ensues.

This book was a surprise to me on many levels. To be honest, I nearly stopped reading after a couple of pages because of Betsey’s crude, vulgar language. Strong language doesn’t bother me if it suits the character and context, but I didn’t think a character who in every other way appears to be a respectable middle-class woman would even know such words, much less speak them. But I’m glad I persisted, because Betsey’s language is a crucial aspect of her character, and the apparent class problem was resolved to my satisfaction.

In short, I fell in love with this book. Betsey and John are fully fleshed-out, vivid characters whose flaws are as real as their strengths. Even now, months after I’ve read the novel, it’s hard to believe these characters never really existed. I don’t even care what era or setting I found them in: I’m just glad I found them. This book is pure storytelling magic, and if I had to pick only one favourite novel of 2015, this would be it!

GirlRunner222497122. Carrie Snyder, Girl Runner (2015)
Aganetha Smart is a fictional Canadian runner who wins the gold medal in the 800-metre race in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games. This book was assigned to me for review by the Historical Novel Society. I love to read books by fellow Canadians and to learn more about the history of my own country. This novel was a delight from start to finish. As one would expect from a literary novel, Snyder’s language is accomplished and her imagery vivid. I’ll never forget the lighthouse in the middle of a farmer’s field! But the story is just as compelling as the language. Aganetha is a fascinating, complex character who, like Betsey and John in The Typewriter Girl, seems too real to be a fictional character. See my HNS review for more of my thoughts on this wonderful book.

SOC157521523. Patricia Bracewell, Shadow on the Crown (2013)

The year is 1002 and young Emma of Normandy marries the much-older King Aethelred of England, whom she meets on their wedding day. It was fascinating to watch her learn how to adapt to the foreign court, deal with political and familial intrigue, and become a mature woman who makes wise decisions. Emma is a wonderful heroine, strong but still of her time, not anachronistically modern.

I know no other historical novelist who can balance historical details and storytelling like Bracewell does. Historical novelists tend to err on the side of too much historical detail: we set our novels in a particular era because we love it, and we tend to get so excited about the minutiae of our research that we forget our readers might not find it as interesting as we do. Thus, too many historical novels lose the thread of the story and become history textbooks, also losing their readers in the process. All historical novelists ought to emulate Bracewell’s delicate balancing act, as well as her impressive clarity of expression. She’s certainly an inspiration to me!

HAH135947194. Jennifer Delamere, An Heiress at Heart (2012)

I tend to approach inspirational romances with trepidation and very low expectations. I’ve read too many that are preachy, poorly-written, and/or insipid. I’m very glad my prejudice didn’t stop me from reading this gripping novel. Geoffrey, a minister-turned-peer, and Lizzie, a woman with secrets who is haunted by her past mistakes, were compelling characters whom I cared about from the start. I’m always a sucker for vicar heroes, though Geoffrey no longer practices as a minister. He has an Austen hero vibe too, Mr. Darcy with a dash of Mr. Knightley thrown in. What’s not to love about a hero with a stern, uncompromising attitude that turns out to be a facade hiding his warm, passionate nature? And I was there with Lizzie through every twist and turn of her predicament. The chemistry between Geoffrey and Lizzie was palpable: there was plenty of sexual tension without explicit sex scenes. And the the elements of faith were subtly present without being preachy  or contrived. A great read!

the-lake-house-9781451649321_hr5. Kate Morton, The Lake House (2015)

What can I say about Kate Morton that hasn’t already been said? Nobody can create a spooky, understated gothic atmosphere the way she can, or weave layers of secrets and mysteries that unravel deliciously chapter by chapter. I’ve read all her novels, and she never disappoints. This is a multi-period novel, which normally I don’t like. I’m that reader who is dragged reluctantly from one time period to another, grumbling about how I was just getting immersed in an era when I’m forced to leave it. Thus, I experienced a momentary disappointment when I was falling in love with Morton’s 1930’s world only to be yanked into 2003, but eventually I came to care about all the major characters in each time period. There were perhaps too many characters introduced at the beginning, but it’s worth reading the beginning carefully because they all turn out to be important. Reading this novel was like relaxing in a hot bath with a glass of wine and chocolate: an indulgent pleasure!

I’m grateful to all of these writers for creating my happiest reading moments of 2015 and I look forward to new reading pleasures in 2016!


Nine Things I Love About Suffragette (2015) and One Thing I Don’t

SuffragetteThe protagonist of my novel Impossible Saints is not only a suffragette but a leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), so I’ve done extensive research on this organisation and more generally on the women’s movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Naturally, I was very interested to see the new film Suffragette, which seemed to take forever to get to a theatre near me. When it finally did arrive, I walked into the cinema with low expectations, as I always do when a movie deals with a subject I know a lot about.

I watched the film twice, with about ten days between viewings. The first time, I watched it with a critical eye, looking for historical inaccuracies and comparing what I saw to my sources. I was impressed, but I had a few quibbles. It turned out that most of my quibbles were based on gaps in my knowledge. (No matter how much of an expert I might think I am, there are always new things to learn.) The second viewing was a more emotional experience for me.

Nine Things I Love:
1. The term “suffragette” is used properly to refer to the British militant wing of the women’s movement, specifically the WSPU. There were many other organisations and groups who wanted to extend the vote to women, but they were called suffragists, not suffragettes. An excellent, concise explanation of the complex history of the term “suffragette” can be found here.

2. The historical events in the film were accurately and authentically portrayed. Given the limitations of creating a narrative arc for a two-hour feature film, director Sarah Gavron did an excellent job. I was worried the film would over-play or twist events that were already dramatic enough, but instead it provided a sober, clear-eyed view of these events.

3. Carey Mulligan. ‘Nuff said.

4. The marital relationships. While I would have loved to see these developed further (I’m a sucker for love stories) and they were not the focus of the film, the three main marital relationships, each from a different socioeconomic class, were subtly and believably portrayed. The husbands were minor characters, yet one could sympathise with them even when they behaved badly (except for the upper-class husband—there was no excuse for him).

5. The film’s focus was a working-class group of suffragettes (laundry workers), a group rarely discussed or portrayed in the media. In fact, suffragettes in general are rarely portrayed in the media, and when they are, the portrayal is often ridiculous. I’ve thrown a few historical novels across the room lately because of their supposedly suffragette characters. It’s as if the author is thinking, I have a female character and my novel is set in 1912. I’d better call her a suffragette but I won’t actually do any research on this term or the history of women’s suffrage. (Sorry, my pet peeve is showing!)

6. The way in which Mulligan’s character slowly begins to see the connections between her powerlessness in her work and domestic life and what the suffragettes are fighting for. The realities of these working-class women’s lives are heart-wrenching: low-paid, physically-demanding work in the laundry, being at the mercy of a predatory, cruel employer, and having absolutely no rights whatsoever over their own children.

7. The juxtaposition between suffragettes’ mandate not to harm others and the astounding brutality perpetuated against them. Suffragettes set fires and broke windows, but they did their best not to hurt any living creature. This is more than can be said of the way police and prison officials treated the suffragettes: this violence, encompassing everything from beatings and sexual assaults in the streets to force-feedings in prison, was actually under-played in the film.

8. Helena Bonham Carter, who portrayed a middle-class WSPU organiser, pharmacist and would-be doctor, was amazing as always. Interestingly, Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of Herbert Asquith, who was Prime Minister of the UK during the events depicted in the film and famously opposed to women’s suffrage. Here’s an interview with Bonham Carter about her role and personal stakes in the film.

Olympic-suffragettes-0129. The group protagonist. Maud Watts (Mulligan’s character) has been criticized for being two-dimensional and passive, and it’s true that her personality is not as distinct or vivid as several of the other female characters. But this film isn’t a biopic about one person. It’s about a community of women (and some men) who pulled together to fight for equality. Many scenes show women supporting each other and even joking together during some of their darkest moments (Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff laughing on a broken bed at a cheap rooming house is my favourite). This is the main triumph of the movie for me, that it gives a clear sense of that community of women despite class differences, personality differences, and even differences of opinion about militant methods.

One Thing I Don’t Love
I didn’t love the film’s portrayal of Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep). This cameo role made Pankhurst seem like a flighty drama queen who runs away from danger and lets the working-class suffragettes do her dirty work for her (similar to what the police inspector tells Maud). Though the events surrounding Pankhurst’s appearance really happened and Streep’s speech draws from Pankhurst’s own words, the brief glimpse doesn’t do her justice. But this is a minor problem in a film that, again, wasn’t meant to be a biopic.

I feel grateful that this important slice of women’s history is on the big screen and hope many people will see it!


A Week at the Convent: My Type of Party

This little monk statue stands outside the refectory.

This little monk statue stands outside the refectory.

I recently returned from a week-long writers’ retreat and workshop led by one of my favourite poets and non-fiction authors, Kathleen Norris. The workshop was held at an Anglican convent I visit once a year, sometimes for an informal personal retreat, other times for organized workshops like this one. This was my third such workshop with Kathleen Norris and at least my fifth visit to the convent, so I knew what to expect. But each time I go, I learn something new.

People have odd ideas about monastic communities. Before my first visit, I knew nothing about nuns or convents aside from what I gleaned from The Sound of Music. Media stereotypes must be exasperating to real nuns: they’re represented as either nasty, cruel authority figures or insipid saints wearing beatific smiles. I’m no expert on nuns, but the Sisters I’ve met seem just like other people: they have good moods and bad moods, their own individual interests and skills, and they’re no easier or more difficult to get along with than anyone else.

Visitors stay in the guesthouse, a dormitory-style wing of the convent. Each small private room has a single bed, dresser, desk, comfy chair and sink. Anyone can stay there, no matter what their faith (or lack thereof) and guests are welcome to attend the four chapel services every day with the Sisters if they wish to. Most meals are eaten in silence with the other guests and the nuns in the refectory.

The woods behind the convent.

The woods behind the convent.

A common misconception about people who join monastic communities is that they are escaping from the world. If you go to a cabin in the woods and live there alone, you are indeed escaping. If you join a monastic community, you are more involved with and committed to people than most of us are. In fact, as Norris points out in Amazing Grace,

The polarization that characterizes so much of American life is . . . [especially] risky . . . in a monastic community. The person you’re quick to label and dismiss as a racist, a homophobe, a queer, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a bigoted conservative or bleeding-heart liberal is also a person you’re committed to live, work, pray, and dine with for the rest of your life.

Even families don’t spend this much time together, and we all know how quickly family members can get on each other’s nerves after only several hours in the same house!

So much of my life is spent alone and online that it was startling and refreshing to have so much face-to-face time with others at the convent. As I sat in chapel services and workshops or ate meals in the refectory, I noticed things that don’t exist in online communities. Smells, for example. Somebody wearing perfume despite the scent-free rules. Somebody who didn’t shower that morning and should have. Somebody who ate too much garlic or had gone out for a cigarette and was breathing too close to me.

And then there were the sounds. Rustling papers. Fidgeting. Coughing. Sometimes a hacking cough that made other people’s eyes widen and dart around the room in search of the nearest hand sanitizer (it is flu season, after all). Two people whispering together while someone else had the floor during a workshop session. The door handle of my room rattling in the middle of the night when someone mistook my room for her own. (I texted my husband to tell him about this scary sound in the middle of the otherwise quiet night, and he replied, “at least you’re not in a seedy motel!”)

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with parties. I mentioned that every time I’m at the convent I learn something new. This visit made me realize that I’m at a new stage in my life in which I am blessed to have all the quiet time I need to be alone and write. In contrast, being at the convent was very social—there were people everywhere. While other retreat participants were talking about ways they could carry the silence and peace of the convent into their noisy, stressful, busy lives, I was thinking I need to carry the engagement with people I experienced there into my quiet life.

A typical single room in the guesthouse.

A typical single room in the guesthouse.

I especially treasure the evenings spent in a sitting room at the guesthouse where several retreatants would gather to chat quietly before bedtime with our cups of tea. After a long day of workshop sessions and chapel services, we were tired and often didn’t say much, but the comfortable atmosphere reminded me of visits with my extended family. The last night I was at the convent I looked around that room and realized I was with my spiritual mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins. What a priceless gift that was, especially since my mother died long ago and I live far from my biological sisters, aunts, and cousins.

This family of strangers also gave me another gift. I had a birthday while at the retreat. I’ve never spent my birthday at a convent before and was a little worried. Normally I would talk on the phone with friends and family, and my husband would take me out for dinner. During a workshop session I mentioned it was my birthday, and the whole group proceeded to sing Happy Birthday to me! These strangers, my spiritual sisters, made me realize that I need to be open to people who are not in my closely-guarded inner circle. It didn’t hurt that Kathleen Norris was one of the people serenading me, either!

The lesson I have taken home with me is to be more in the world, not less. For many years I didn’t have the time, money, or understanding of myself to make enough space for the silence and time alone I needed. High-stress jobs made everything worse. I always felt I was with people too much and was constantly thinking, I must get away and be alone before all my energy is gone. But in this new phase of my life, I don’t have to guard against people or push them away. I’ve learned how to honour my introverted, highly-sensitive self and can be with people, especially strangers, a little more often than I’m comfortable with.

In short, my daily life is already so quiet and orderly that going to a convent seems like a party. And that really is my type of party!


Reconstructing the Victorians

Woman in victorian dressThis week there was an online furor over the Vox article by Sarah A. Chrisman entitled “I love the Victorian Era. So I decided to live in it.” For those who haven’t read the article and don’t intend to, Chrisman and her husband have re-created the late-Victorian period in their lives as much as possible, wearing period clothing and using products and household items from the era. Some of the criticisms levelled at Chrisman are valid: her tone is a bit smug and condescending, and she conveniently ignores the problematic aspects of nineteenth-century life in favour of what looks like a hazy nostalgic dream. Chrisman also appears to ignore the larger culture and values of the era, which has made her a target for those who assume she shares the racist and sexist beliefs of many Victorians.

I have no idea if Chrisman shares those beliefs, and it seems unfair of her critics to assume she does. But her focus on concrete details of Victorian life to the exclusion of the bigger picture makes her lifestyle look like a retreat from reality—Victorian reality as much as any other. I also find it ironic that this retreat is very much against the community values that actual Victorians espoused: the Victorian era was far more community-focussed than the individualistic eras that preceded and followed it (the Romantics and Modernists). It’s impossible to recreate an authentic Victorian lifestyle while isolating oneself from the rest of the world.

As a Victorian scholar—both a historical novelist and an academic—I am very interested in the way people try to reconstruct this historical period. On the one hand, people such as Chrisman make the common mistake of viewing the era as a slower-paced, simpler, gentler time than our own. On the other, people such as the writers of so-called “wallpaper” historicals consider the Victorians exactly like us, just wearing fussier clothing. As with most issues, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes.

In her complaints about modern technology, Chrisman is more Victorian than she realises. Writing in 1895, Max Nordau, one of the most bizarre but influential Victorians, made this astonishingly perceptive prediction about life at the end of the 20th century:

[People will] read a dozen square yards of newspapers daily, [will] be constantly called to the telephone, [will] be thinking simultaneously of the five continents of the world, [will] live half their time in a railway carriage or in a flying machine, and [will] satisfy the demands of a circle of ten thousand acquaintances, associates, and friends.

Add the internet, and Nordau is right on the nose. My point is that a Victorian could predict this because he lived in a time, like ours, filled with a dizzying array of new inventions and technologies that many people felt anxious about.

But Chrisman’s critics make the same mistake she does: they go to extremes. Whereas she ignores the negative aspects of her favourite era—not only medical and dental care but also the way in which non-white races and women were treated—her critics see the Victorians as wholly characterized by these negative things. People who laugh at Chrisman’s retreat into nostalgia don’t seem to realize that modern society is indeed worse than past ones in some ways. For example, a common misconception about women’s rights is that they’ve gradually improved over the centuries. In fact, there have been gains and losses, one step forward and two steps back. Aside from the vote, women in the 1890’s had more rights and freedoms than women in the 1950’s.

I do appreciate Chrisman’s point that “there is a universe of difference between a book or magazine article about the Victorian era and one actually written in the period.” Too many historical novelists seem to read secondary sources or, even worse, other historical novels as their only research, and they go on to perpetuate stereotypes and myths about the era. In a period such as the nineteenth century with a wealth of primary sources, why not read them to find out what actual Victorians thought? It is glaringly obvious to me when a writer has failed to do this crucial research.

Ultimately, the past can never be recreated, only reconstructed, and even then in a fragmentary, flawed way. The Victorians aside, think of your own life. Do you remember your own past accurately? If you think you do, consider the fact that any two people (siblings, for example) experiencing the same event in the same place will have completely different memories of it. Our memories are coloured by our emotions, our prejudices, and our personalities. Thus, what we are reconstructing is always ourselves, whether we are wearing period clothing or not.


Summer Brain and Mangled Language

Drawing of "SOS" on the beach sand at the sea.Ah, summertime. A time to turn off your brain, lie on the beach, read magazines with shiny, colourful photos, watch mindless television . . .

Well, maybe for some people. But for me and my students, it’s a time to go into overdrive with summer courses. I often think people taking (or teaching) a summer course must be insane. Why would anyone try to pack into 12 weeks what takes a reasonable person 24 weeks to complete?  There’s something about working even harder and faster during a season that most people associate with relaxation that just doesn’t make sense.

What’s my excuse? As a contract faculty member, I’m always assigned courses in the summer because that’s when tenured faculty don’t want to teach. But I have no excuse for taking on two summer courses instead of one, and I don’t intend to do it again.

Because these courses are online, most of my work involves marking essays. I inevitably find sentences in these essays that give me an instant headache. Here are a couple of examples:

As well, specific visual details, such as horizontal expanse and geo-political boundaries, also make Kendrick’s use of geographical imagery as a means to support his claim that an aesthetic reading of the text is a more distinct and encompassing model of reading the lyric poem seems faulty.

In a similar fashion, to “Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats, Alfred Tennyson’s “Tithonus” uses the analysis of young mortality in comparison to old age to justify the acceptance of Death as a true immortality through Tithonus’ analysis of himself when he was mortal.

Say what?

Not all headache-inducing sentences are long. Here are two more examples:

Bertha, a fatal woman who threatens predetermined gender standards and patriarchy, emasculates herself through violence in order to reach the same level of male influence.

The image evoked seeks to identify the “low” and “gurgled” quality of the laughter to the male gender.

Now imagine reading 8 pages of sentences like these. By the end of one such essay I am either reaching for a bottle of wine or sobbing into the nearest cat’s fur. Or both.

What makes these kinds of essays hardest to mark is that these students have good ideas but can’t express them clearly in writing. I feel like an archaeologist digging through the layers of dirt, suspecting there is something valuable underneath. When these students talk to me in person about their ideas, they are often surprisingly clear, even eloquent. I often tell them to use a voice recorder to get their ideas down before trying to write or have someone transcribe what they say directly. And when a student tells me a particularly great idea, I yell, “write that down now!” But in their writing I see that struggle for the right word in the right order, which must be as painful to write as it is to read.

Although I usually write more clearly than I speak, I can empathize with the struggle and the suffering involved in trying to express one’s thoughts in writing. As a writer, I know the frustration of missing the mark. Even the finished product is only a pale imitation of the perfect story in my head.

And now I have summer brain. As much as I’m longing to get back into revisions on my latest novel, my brain needs a holiday.

Just how much it needs a holiday was vividly revealed a couple of days ago as I returned to that novel, which I haven’t worked on for about a month. I kept seeing strange phrases that I didn’t remember writing such as “the shabby Martin coat” and “the Martin horsehair sofa.” Was “Martin” some brand of Victorian clothing and furniture that I’d forgotten about? I didn’t remember writing these phrases, and I really started to think I was losing my mind when I read, “He thought her eyes were Martin, but they were actually a very dark blue.”

Then I remembered what I’d done. The last time I worked on the novel I decided to change a character’s surname from—you guessed it—Brown to Martin. Then I used the “find and replace” function on my word processing program and blithely clicked “replace all” without thinking how the whole novel would be affected. My latest writing session consisted of hunting down each inappropriate “Martin” and changing it back to “brown.”

After this sobering experience, I have more sympathy for my students. We all make mistakes. We can only hope and pray those mistakes won’t show up in the final draft.

I also must apologise to two of my favourite Victorian poets, who—as God is my witness—will never again appear in my novel as Robert Martining and Elizabeth Barrett Martining.