22 January 2019

Tuesday Talk: a tribute to my Dad, Frederick Richard Turner M.M.

born : West Ham, London, 22nd September 1917 
died  : 19th January 1992

Fred 'Toby' Turner
My Dad. To most people, their Dad is a hero, occasionally for undertaking a public heroic deed, more often because, well, he's Dad, so of course he is a hero. My Dad really was a hero of WWII, although unrecognised for it, and also a hero to me personally because he saved my life (or at least potential serious injury.)

Like many thousands of other young men Dad was captured as a prisoner of war. He joined up with the 1st Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps (the Rangers) in 1939. In 1941, as Corporal, he was the only officer who survived an air attack by the Germans on the island of Crete - and took it upon himself to lead the rest of the men to safety - unfortunately they were captured and interred as POWs. Based originally at a prison camp in Austria, many of the men were moved elsewhere, and during the transfer volunteers were sought to change their identity. Dad went into the transport train as Corp., F.R. Turner and left it as Flt. Lt. Rex Reynolds, a fighter pilot, an identity he kept until the Russians freed the prison on April 22nd 1945. (The switches were needed because officers did not go outside the camp on the labour rosters - the ordinary men did, so as Fred Turner, the real Rex Reynolds had a chance to attempt escape - which he did on many occasions.)

Dad could not risk writing to his parents at their home address in London, so wrote to his fiancee - Iris, (my Mum) instead, saying he had lost his address book and would she pass the letter on, and signed it as 'Rex'.

Mum took a while to cotton on, but eventually went to the War Office, where the change of identity was authenticated and explained. 

Meanwhile, Dad, as Rex Reynolds, had been transferred to Stalag Luft 3 near the Polish border, where he became involved with the famous 'Wooden Horse' escape attempt... the one where they concealed the entrance to tunnels beneath wooden vaulting horses and scattered the earth that was removed by drawstring bags hidden down their trouser legs ... except prior to this they hid bags full of earth in the rafters of their accommodation huts ... with the result being one of my Dad's sketched drawings that he had in his diary...

Christmas Day 1943

A water colour painting, by Dad,  of the US airforce
bombing the area around the prison camp
prior to the release of prisoners.
Dad rarely mentioned his wartime experiences, all I recall as a child is being puzzled about why he would never eat brown bread. (I later discovered that it reminded him of the coarse stuff they had in the camp).

Of course, it goes without saying that had Dad been found out he would have been shot.

* * *

For myself and that 'saving my life' episode, after the war Dad joined the Royal Marines Voluntary Reserve and I vaguely remember him in his uniform. We moved to Chingford, which was, then, in Essex, (now a part of the London Borough of Waltham Forest) in the summer of 1956 and our house was at the top of a steep hill overlooking the Lee Valley. It was a very hot afternoon, I was about five years old. We must have been going to a Royal Marine 'do', perhaps a summer fete, or party or something, for Dad was wearing full uniform. He was getting ready indoors, I was waiting in the car - a green Morris Minor. I was on the back seat playing with either a plastic telescope or recorder (I think the former,) when suddenly the car started rolling. Down the hill. I remember being terrified and leaning out the window and screaming while bashing the plastic toy on the door. The car got faster - Dad was indoors upstairs, saw what was happening and raced down, vaulted the gate and ran... the car had those old fashioned running boards on the outside, he managed to jump on, lean through the window and steer the car into the kerb.

What happened after that I have no idea - except Dad had severely sprained his ankle. Had he not been able to stop the car... well, like I said, it was a steep hill with several parked cars lower down  the road and a busy main road at the bottom. If Dad hadn't stopped the car I very much doubt that I would be sitting here now writing this.

There is a lot more information here:
https://www.helenhollick.co.uk/h2uitem24.html on my website, including an audio interview that Dad made for the Imperial War Museum, London, archives. I have never listened beyond the first few sentences as, well, I can't, it's too upsetting for me.

There are also page copies of his diary and other memorabilia ... you are more than welcome to browse or to use the information for research purposes, but please mention 
www.helenhollick.net WWII F.R.Turner M.M

The last time I saw my Dad alive was on January 18th 1992 in A & E at Whipps Cross Hospital, NE London, where he had been taken by ambulance with a suspected heart attack. I was waiting outside (what I assume was the triage room?) the door opened, he saw me and we smiled and waved to each other. I never saw him alive again.

He passed away in the early hours of the 19th.

I miss you, Dad.

19 January 2019

This Day in 2013

I heard from a few lovely people today who live in Canada, apparently the original Escape To The Country episode where we found our wonderful home here in Devon was aired there again yesterday.  Thank you so much to those people for emailing me, it is always exciting to hear from new friends around the world after 'our' episode has been broadcast.

'Windfall Farm' January 2013

And today (19th January) is especially significant because we moved into the first house we were shown on 18th January 2013 - in the snow! (Our removal men were fantastic!) That first night we went back to the hotel because we didn't have our beds or any bedding (still on the removal lorry) so Saturday 19th was our official 'here to stay' day... I remember half way through Saturday morning thinking that the house was cold, but with removal men tramping in and out and the doors open, didn't think much of it - until I realised that the radiators were stone cold. That sinking feeling of 'Oh heck the heating doesn't work'... We fiddled with the thermostat, pressed buttons on the boiler (all part of the aga in the kitchen)... nothing. Then one of the removal men said 'is there a switch somewhere to control the electrics, only nothing on the aga seems to be on?'

'If there is, no idea where it is' I answered. 
Then, a lightbulb moment! When I had plugged the 'fridge in I'd noticed that a second plug was switched on, so I'd switched it off. With fingers crossed I switched it on again - and the aga roared into life, the radiators gurgled and we've been warm and cosy ever since, except for when we have a power cut, but who cares, we have candles and that lovely log burner in the sitting room!

By contrast I am sitting here today, typing this, with birds singing outside, an almost perfect clear blue sky - my office and kitchen doors are wide open. I even saw a bumblebee out in the front garden! I reiterate... it is the 19th January!!!

Late November 2018
The house, by the way, was built circa 1769, and we added a self-contained annex extension for Kathy and her husband - she married in 2014, Adam followed us down from London. We now have three horses and four Exmoor ponies and a donkey. Two dogs, two cats, several hens,two geese, two ferrets and quite a few ducks (which Kathy breeds and sells as ideal garden pets - ducks are super for getting rid of slugs etc).

The front door and garden in summer
We absolutely love it here!

The same spot the day after we moved in!
Our first walk up the lane
with our dear old dog, Rum,
alas no longer with us.

My daughter and the two horses we had then (and the cats and my husband Ron's racing pigeons) however, did not join us until a week later: Kathy was supposed to have come down on the Saturday but was snowed in in London! 

There is a follow-up show to watch out for which was filmed on the last day of February 2018 and aired here in the UK in November: 'I Escaped To The Country' - watch out for a tag line of something like:  'Mother and daughter move to Devon'. This one was hosted by Alistair (who is lovely!) and when it's aired look out for the donkey who was shy and didn't want to be filmed!

Donk appeared as Alistair
walked away!

The ponies, on the other hand,
were most interested
'Cameraman ! Have you got my best side?'

I've a sort-of diary, although it isn't very up-to-date :   http://leaningonthegate.blogspot.co.uk/ 

The house and front garden summer 2013

January 19th has other, not so happy memories, as it is the day my Dad passed away in 1992. I'll be writing about him next Tuesday.

18 January 2019

Novel Conversations with Eileen Stephenson's character Anna Dalassena

 In conjunction with Indie BRAG
every Friday

To be a little different from the usual 'meet the author' 
let's meet a character...
Anna Dalassena
Image result for Image Anna Dalassena

Cover of Imperial Passions

Q: Hello, I’m Helen the host of Novel Conversations, please do make yourself comfortable. Would you like a drink? Tea, coffee, wine – something stronger? You’ll find a box of chocolates and a bowl of fruit on the table next to you, please do help yourself. I believe you are a character in Eileen Stephenson’s novel Imperial Passions – The Porta Aurea. Would you like to introduce yourself? Are you a lead character or a supporting role?  
A: I’ll take a glass of that lovely wine, if I may, and a delicious chocolate or two. You know we didn’t have chocolates in my day and I can’t get enough of them when I’m visiting your time. Thank you so much.
I am the lead character of Eileen’s novel, Anna Dalassena. I come from a Byzantine family known for great soldiers and I married a soldier, John Comnenus, the younger brother of the Byzantine emperor, Isaac I Comnenus, and the mother of eight children.

Q: What genre is the novel and what is it about?
A:  Imperial Passions – The Porta Aurea is a biographical historical novel about me. It starts when I am fifteen-years old, an orphan living with my grandparents among the most powerful men and women in the great city Constantinople. But the cutthroat imperial politics of the Great Palace sends my family into exile in a distant corner of the empire. My bleak situation finally turns promising after meeting the handsome young soldier, John Comnenus, and his brother Isaac, before we are all permitted to return home.
The vicious power struggles, uprisings, and betrayals at the highest levels of the empire push John and me unwillingly into its centre as we struggle to deal with our own tragedies. When rebellion puts my life and those of everyone I love at risk, is the reward – a throne for my family – too big a gamble?

Q: It certainly is not Anna, you sound very brave! No spoilers, but are you a ‘goody’ or a ‘baddie’ though? (Or maybe you are both!)
A: I am a good Byzantine wife and mother, of course, but no pushover.

Q:  Tell me about another character in the novel – maybe your best friend, lover or partner … or maybe your arch enemy!
A: Ooh, that would be my archenemy, that awful Constantine Ducas. He was my cousin Xene’s husband and he was absolutely terrible to her – horrible, greedy, selfish, and evil. I can tell you everyone knows how much I loathe that nasty man.

Q: Is this the only novel you have appeared in, or are there others in a series?
A: It is the first so far. But my life’s story is barely half told. The best part is coming in the next book.

Q: What is one of your least favourite scenes you appear in?
A: I need a handkerchief to hold back my tears, thinking about it. That scene would be the violent death of my cousin Xene. I will always blame that nasty Constantine Ducas for it. Have I mentioned how much I hate that man? I think I need another glass of wine.

Q: [Helen hastily pours more wine, offers the chocolates and a handkerchief] Let's change to your favourite scene shall we?
A: It was a risky thing for me to do, but it was when I offered John’s brother, Isaac, my inheritance to use to pay the soldiers he needed to support his bid for the throne. It was either that or there was a real chance that Ducas would win it. I would do anything to stop that awful man from becoming emperor.

Q: [nods] Again, very brave of you. Tell me a little about your author. Has she/he written any other books?
A: My author, Eileen Stephenson, has written another book, Tales of Byzantium, which contains short stories about Byzantines. One of them is about my husband John’s father, and another one is about my brilliant granddaughter, Europe’s first female historian, Anna Comnena. Eileen lives and breathes Byzantine history, an interest sparked when she picked up a book at the library one Saturday, John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium. She only recalled brief references to the Byzantines in world history classes, but after reading Norwich, she only wants to write books about them since it appears that few others have the same passionate interest in them as she has developed. I certainly don’t blame her for that; there are too many great Byzantine stories out there waiting to be told.

Eileen Stephenson
Q: Is your author working on anything else at the moment?
A: Yes, she is working on two other books. Unfortunately, it appears that few people in your time know much about us Byzantines, and even fewer know much about what happened in the 11th century when I lived. So one of her books will be a brief introduction to all the excitement that went on in that century in Constantinople, the Queen of Cities.
Her other book is a novel about the next 25 years in my life, which were even more exciting than the years she wrote about in her first book.

Q: How do you think indie authors, such as your author, can be helped or supported by readers or groups? What does your author think is the most useful for him/her personally?
A: I think reviews on your favourite book websites – Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, BookBub – are the best way to support indie writers and get the word out about some of the truly good books that are out there. Readers and book clubs should also be open to reading books that aren’t traditionally published. The traditional publishing industry seems to be having a difficult time adjusting to your new digital age (so much more complicated that parchment books!) and won’t take a chance on books out of their comfort zone, such as ones taking place in the Byzantine era.
All those book websites have helped my author, but the best way she’s found to get the word out about her books is in the Byzantine history Facebook groups she participates in. Those group members love our history and often buy her books, and leave great reviews. They are really happy to see books written about their favourite characters in history. Her Twitter followers have also been enthusiastic supporters of Byzantine novels. True story – her favourite Facebook group, Roman & Byzantine History, was started by a then 17-year old boy in western England. Thank you Scott Rowland!

Q: Finally, before we bid adieu, the novel you appear in has been awarded a prestigious IndieBRAG Medallion, does your author find this helpful, and is there anything else he/she would like IndieBRAG to do to help indie authors receive the recognition they deserve?
A: Yes, she does. The IndieBRAG Medallion validates all the hard work an author puts into writing a book. Readers who see that review on Goodreads or Amazon can know that it has passed a rigorous review by discerning readers. As for anything else Indie/BRAG could do, I’m not sure but any new marketing ideas are always welcome.

Helen: Thank you Anna Dalassena, it was a pleasure talking to you. Would your author like to add a short excerpt below? While she does so would you like more wine? And another chocolate ... oh, please. do have the last one, I believe it is a coffee cream...Salute! Here’s to being a successful Brag Medallion Honouree!
Anna: Thank you, Helen, for inviting me and for this lovely wine and the chocolates. She does have an excerpt about the bad end of an emperor. Before you read it, let me just say that Byzantine history is not for the faint of heart!  
 Imperial Passions – The Porta Aurea, Chapter 7

  The mob poked and taunted Michael and his uncle, making ribald jokes about the old eunuch, nicking them with their swords, spinning them until they fell. Damp spots on their robes showed the fear they felt. Suddenly a beefy man appeared carrying a brazier with several pokers sticking out of it. 
  “Phillip, welcome, we have been waiting for you so this party can begin,” Cabasilas said with sick humor.
  It seemed Michael’s uncle recognized the man before Michael did, and let out a horrified moan before falling into an unnatural silence, resigned to his fate. Michael took a few more seconds before he, too, realized the inevitable. Yet he, instead of accepting the punishment as his uncle did, he fought frantically, if unsuccessfully, against it. Several men took pleasure in restraining him with the occasional fist.
  Phillip came up to the men with his instruments at the ready, the crowd closing in on them. The view from our vantage point was crystal clear.
  Suddenly I heard the eunuch speak, “You there,” to Cabasilas, “make the people stand back, so all can see how bravely I bear my punishment?”
  Cabasilas looked over the crowd before nodding and people spread back in anticipation of the gory show. The old uncle looked in vain for mercy, before lying down on the cold stones, ready for Phillip’s hot irons. Phillip started to bind his victim’s arms but Constantine stopped him.
  “If you see me flinch, then nail me down. Until then, leave me as I am.”
  With a shrug, Phillip took up the first of his hot pokers, touching close to first one eye of the man, and then the other. Constantine took his punishment bravely, not moving or screaming at all, despite the agony he must have felt. Michael, seeing his uncle’s now blind face, began wailing and struggling more. The grinning soldiers forced him to the ground and bound him more tightly. Still he writhed, trying to escape punishment, forcing more men to grab and hold him down. It was not long, though, before he shrieked like a wounded animal from the first touch.
  Voices in the crowd muttered. Most approved what happened, but a few of the women fell back in shock.
  Still they were not finished. Another anguished scream rose from the man who had been emperor, as the poker pierced his other eye.

Cover of Imperial Passions

Twitter: @ByzyEileen

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16 January 2019


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January 22nd : Tuesday Talk - A tribute to my Dad - a real hero

January 19th : On this day in history (well, 2013!) we moved into our new house ere in Devon (and yes, it was thick snow!)

January 17th : I have an ongoing problem. I didn’t always have this problem. Back in the days when I only had my Arthurian Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy it wasn’t a problem... find out what the problem is... I am a guest today on Richard Dee's Indie Showcase.

January 15th :  Tuesday Talk: that little matter of 'vacant-eyed women' and over-egged schoolboy innuendo in historical fiction. Is it time to make a stand against unnecessary sexism? (including short articles on the role of women in history by Annie Whitehead, Alison Morton, Lucienne Boyce. Main article by Kristen McQuinn

January 1st :
26th December : last of our Discovering Diamonds 'A Story Inspired By A Song'... we're at a wedding reception today - but what's the song that inspired the story? Thank you to everyone who followed our stories (especially those who left comments!) and thank you to the authors who took part:

* * *
A story inspired by a song!

Novel Conversations : a conversation with a character from a novel
In conjunction with IndieBRAG

Every Tuesday: Tuesday Talk on my main blog: Let Us Talk of Many Things:
An occasional look at life here in Devon : Down 'Ere In Devon 
My (also occasional) Devon DiaryLeaning On The Gate Diary
The Chittlehamholt Community ShopBrowse the shelves
Taw River Show Jumping (Devon) Facebook Group  (apply to join the group)

15 January 2019

Tuesday Talk : A Little Matter of Sexism In Fiction?

Recently for Discovering Diamonds, we received a traditionally published novel written by a very high-profile (male) author for review that did not go down well with one of our reviewers because of that 'little' matter of sexism - a topic which is of great importance, and of heated debate. Women are starting to speak out about it, certain men continue to dismiss/deny it. But does sexism matter when it comes to fiction? Particularly historical Fiction? 

Were we right on #DDRevs to reject the book? Perhaps we should have posted our thoughts rather than keep schtum... which rather defeats the object of women finding the courage to speak out against sexism... but the review team at DDRevs are not in the business of trashing author's novels - a fair 2 or 3* review of a traditionally published author's poor attempt at writing historical fiction, highlighting incorrect historical facts etc., for instance and suggesting he/she sticks with their more familiar genre, is different to outright pulling a novel to pieces and awarding 1*. 

I was still uncertain; should I have allowed the review to be posted? On the other hand Discovering Diamonds is perhaps not the place to 'make a point'... my own blog is another matter entirely, however. Here I write what I want to say (or what my friends/members of the DDRevs team want to say.)

So... Read On...

and, for those interested, I have added some extra, short, articles about women in history by Alison Morton, Annie Whitehead and Lucienne Boyce - women who know what they are talking about (alas, it seems, unlike some of the chaps!)

Vacant-eyed women, mattress-pounding, and Politics: Sexism in Historical Fiction? Do we mention it or keep quiet?
             by Kristen McQuinn

What reader of historical fiction isn’t at least passingly familiar with the statement, “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too… ?” Queen Elizabeth’s 1588 speech to her troops at Tilbury is one of the most famous and recognizable of the Renaissance. It would be hard to imagine a modern female politician making a similar speech, though, and any man saying something about a feeble woman’s body would be (and should be) immediately excoriated. Reading historical fiction requires authors and readers alike to set aside modern mores and read with the understanding that times have changed, and be sensitive to the fact that none of us can judge another time period or culture by our own standards. But what happens when those standards get distorted? How do we tell the difference between historical accuracy and outright sexism? Does it even matter? 

In a nutshell, yes. It matters a great deal because authors should avoid bias, while keeping authenticity in mind, avoiding unnecessary sexism, and bringing historical fiction into the global discussion of sexual abuse in a meaningful way. 

Authors have to be careful to check their own biases at the door when writing for a variety of reasons. Naturally, their readers will include at least a few who want as accurate a depiction of the time period as possible. That can be difficult to maintain if modern sensibilities are strongly present in a book set in, for example, Victorian England. It must be difficult for authors, products themselves of more enlightened times - see my own bias coming through - to write about women as second class citizens who are not as intelligent as, or even as human as, their male counterparts. How difficult must it be to write about women as the Angel in the House if she is good, or hysterical and subhuman if she is not good. This raises the question of what makes her good? Is the character a murderer? Or does she simply have a mind of her own and isn’t afraid to voice her opinion? Is the period Ancient Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian? How would women, feisty or otherwise, typically behave in these time periods? It may be tempting to write a woman who flagrantly tells men off, disregards the dictates of her social class, or makes her own choices rather than obeying her father, but she likely wouldn’t have really done that. It probably never occurred to her that she even could do something like that in the first place, and her capacity for actually carrying it out would depend on a variety of issues.

On the flip side, writing male characters has to come with a balance as well. Women may not have had the same rights modern women arguably have now. They may have been considered second-class citizens. Plenty of men throughout history (and now, too, tragically) were misogynists. Aristotle thought women should be “obedient as a slave,” proving that just because he was a philosopher doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a pig; Martin Luther thought women could either be wives or whores, so take your pick; Shakespeare seemed pretty disgusted by the female sex, based on his rants against them in King Lear; and even the enlightened Gautama Buddha apparently thought women were too stupid to understand Buddhism (Saṃyutta Nikāya 4). But there is evidence that many men still loved and respected the women in their lives. Refer to the real life love stories of couples like John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Abelard and Heloise, or even Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer for examples. Writing men as misogynistic blowhards is a dangerous game for authors. If there is evidence to support the misogyny of an historical character, that’s one thing. But to write a character as such simply because he lived in a time when women were not seen as equal poses a number of risks.

There is also a question of authenticity. How accurate is a character’s attitude toward women if he proves himself to be sexist? Is he truly reflecting the attitudes of the time in which the book is set? How is the author determining this? Or is it really a reflection of the author’s own sexism, which is far more disturbing?

Recently, I read a traditionally published book by a well known author that was set in the 14th century. Naturally, I didn’t expect that women would be given the same rights as the men in the story. In keeping with medieval society, I anticipated that women would expect generally to be submissive to their fathers or husbands, stay home and tend to children and the house, and so forth, even if they are salty ladies who feel free to speak their minds. I did not, however, expect the rampant sexism that I found in the book. In just the first few pages, this particular novel made multiple references to women’s vacant eyes being a big turn-on. To whom? To the protagonist? Or to the author? Similarly, there were multiple juvenile references to sex, such as mattress pounding or hide-the-sausage, which seemed like something that would appeal to young boys rather than experienced, adult readers. The sheer volume of remarks in this vein makes it sound as though the author himself finds vapid, vacant-eyed women ready for some mattress galloping a turn-on rather than his revolting protagonist. Is this a fair evaluation of the author? Perhaps not. I’ve never met him. He may be a perfectly lovely man, but his writing, in this novel, makes me automatically wonder. This, in turn, makes me not want to know him, or his books, in the first place.

Another risk historically inaccurate sexism (what a strange thought!) in historical fiction poses to authors is already posed above: the loss of readers. This is the 21st century. As stated previously, experienced readers of historical fiction know how to leave modern customs and social mores behind when reading books set in different time periods. But we do still live in a time when women generally are treated as humans and movements such as #MeToo exist solely to amplify women’s voices. Of course, feminism didn’t exist in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, or in the Victorian Era. However, it exists now, and although readers today want authors to operate within the parameters of historical accuracy, they also expect authors to hold fast to acceptable attitudes towards women as much as possible. 

Do readers have a responsibility anywhere in this? Of course. We, as readers, have to be willing to adjust our expectations appropriately. If I’m reading a medieval fiction and it’s not listed as historical fantasy, I expect the characters to behave within a certain set of parameters and for the major events of the period to be accurate. If I’m reading a book, for example, in a series called Lady Sherlock, I’m definitely not going to expect rigid adherence to Victorian social customs for each and every one of the characters. Though I must say, the novels in that series are more rigorously researched and accurate than the novels in some other series I’ve read which are touted as straight historical fiction. My expectations as a reader were confounded, as were just about every gender role known to humankind, which is a good thing. Using literature to address social issues and gender relations is one thing; using it as a way to be sexist and gross is an abuse of readers’ trust and, in the 21st century, simply unacceptable.

Sexism is an issue that needs to be addressed, and literature is an ideal place for the discussion. Making accurate historical fiction part of that discussion can play an important role in the larger, modern conversation taking place globally in places such as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Don’t use your writing platform to amplify sexism. With well-researched and sensitive characters, historical fiction can provide meaningful, relevant contributions to a powerful topic. Be more than an author - use your voice to be an advocate and ally. 

It is a difficult subject, but one that is starting to cause concern for many (female) readers who are beginning to voice that if it is not necessary for the plot, or to further develop a character or situation - then why is a scene of a derogatory or disturbing sexual nature there?

© Kristen McQuinn


It might seem that traditionally, the Church didn’t have a tremendously modern-thinking attitude to women, but in the early days of Christianity in England, many abbeys were run by women, some of whom notably educated men who then went on to become bishops.

Later on in the period, priests began to play more prominent roles, but the rights of women were enshrined in the law codes, which survive from the seventh century to the eleventh and clearly provide for widows and their children. Widows were not to be forced into nunneries, or to remarry against their will. There were strong penalties imposed for the crime of rape. True, there would be no need for these laws unless the crimes were actually being committed, but the women had rights, recognised by the law codes and perhaps in defiance of modern assumptions about the role and status of ‘Dark Ages’ women. A man seeking to marry a maiden had to make gifts - not to her father, but to the woman herself. She would decide whether or not to accept his suit. And these gifts were not mere trinkets, but gifts of land, which then belonged to her in her own right.

One of the most famous Anglo-Saxon women was Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great. Apart from a few exceptions about whom we know very little, she was the only ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. She was not called queen, but she behaved like one, leading her country in a time of strife, at the peak of the Viking incursions, and making strategic decisions normally left to noblemen and kings. Her countrymen were happy to follow her and it is often lamented that the chronicles hardly mention her or her activities. But I’ve long argued that this is largely due to the fact that her rule was not considered worthy of remark and that there may have been an element of gender-blindness. She was a ruler, a leader, and she played a prominent role in halting the Viking advances. It does seem that her sex was largely irrelevant to those living alongside her, and writing about her afterwards.

Queens frequently acted as regents for their infant sons, tending only to retire from political life when those sons married. Mothers of kings were highly revered and respected. True, some stories abounded in which high-ranking women were accused of murder and witchcraft, but scratch below the surface and you’ll find that inevitably these women are being accused by the Church chroniclers who have a vested interest in besmirching their reputations.

The law codes - promulgated by kings - and the charter witness lists tell us that women played prominent roles in politics, were powerful individuals, had rights enshrined by law, and were not considered in any way to be ‘second-class citizens’.

© Annie Whitehead

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Inscriptions and epitaphs give us the names of women throughout the Roman Empire, but often tell us little else.  However, vivid snapshots of daily life, especially  of elite women, are preserved in letters, plays and poetry, particularly by Cicero, Catullus and Ovid; we see women in dining rooms and boudoirs, at sporting and theatrical events, shopping, putting on makeup, worrying about pregnancy, but of course through male eyes.

Roman women were full Roman citizens but lived in the private sphere. Legally under the guardianship of their father or husband, they were excluded from public office except as Vestal Virgins.

Everybody living in the domus, the family home, was subject to, and the responsibility of, the pater familias, the father of the family. In law, his authority did not extend to wives who were under their father’s guardianship, but in practice husbands ruled. But women often exerted very strong personal and political influence. Indeed, Livia was Augustus’s constant councillor, Antonia Minor ran the ruling Julio-Claudian family on her wealth and personality.

Unlike in other ancient cultures, Roman women retained the right to manage and dispose of the property they brought into their marriages; they enjoyed full inheritance rights on a par with their brothers. Husbands were expected to be the public face for their wives in legal cases, but women had the right to act on their own if they chose. Hortensia, for example, successfully led a protest in 42 BC against laws designed to tax Roman women, using that well-known argument of ‘no taxation without representation.’
Under emperor Augustus, the Leges Juliae of 18–17 BC attempted to elevate both morals and numbers of the upper classes in Rome through financial inducements encouraging them to marry and have children. Women who produced three children were no longer obliged to have a male guardian.
Marrying-age celibates and young widows who wouldn't remarry were prohibited from receiving inheritances and from attending public games, and adultery was established as a private and public crime. You can imagine how well that worked, especially with the traditionally open Roman divorce law. But it was only by the late fourth century that all widows (not divorcees) could be the legal guardians of their children.
Marriage for most of the Roman period was mostly an economic arrangement for the pragmatic Romans with the participants often having little say in parents’ decisions. The double standard of sexual behaviour ran throughout Roman times; divorce and remarriage were common and relatively easy. Later Christian emperors were obliged to tighten the law in order to reflect Christian ideals of the time. However, that must have been tricky, given the traditional attitude to divorce.

Christianity also challenged aristocratic marriage practice by forbidding marriages between relatives and by making celibacy an acceptable option. This gave women the opportunity for the single life which, apart from becoming a Vestal, hadn’t been available before.

Women were expected to dress modestly, but were neither veiled nor secluded. Chris Wickham in The Inheritance of Rome says there is plenty of evidence for female literacy and literary engagement not only among the aristocracy. In Egypt, women have been recorded as buying and selling property, renting out property, money-lending, operating as independent artisans and shop-owners as well as practising medicine as midwives and more broadly.

In recent fiction, Lindsey Davis and Ruth Downie’s heroines live within the social frameworks of their time, but they are not downtrodden or submissive. Both authors are meticulous in their research but vivid in their characterisation. But personally, I wouldn’t care to cross Helena Justina, Flavia Albia or Tilla the Briton. Carina and Aurelia from Roma Nova are, of course, Romans of a different age…

by Lucienne Boyce


It’s hard to imagine any attempt to portray the suffragettes as down-trodden, weak and feeble women getting very far. The women who marched up to the House of Commons to assert their right to political inclusion hardly lacked self-respect. The women who delivered their message from hot air balloons, boats, cars and bicycles hardly lacked ingenuity. The women who posted themselves to the Prime Minister, or who hid for hours under platforms to bob up shouting “Votes for Women” in the middle of some pompous politician’s speech, or who spent Census Night 1911 in a cupboard in the House of Commons hardly lacked wit.

As for courage, no one can deny their bravery in the face of police brutality; of stonings, beatings and mobbings; of the dreadful terms of their imprisonment with its hunger strikes and forcible feedings. The suffragettes were bold, determined and daring.

You could say that from this point of view historical fiction serves them well, albeit often with a huge helping of cliché, with its procession of doughty window breakers, arsonettes and hunger strikers. These women are subjects not objects, they are active not passive. They make choices – sometimes wrong choices it is true, but choices all the same.

But much of this fiction also perpetuates stereotypes about women. In novel after novel, women’s activism is placed in a narrow, domestic context. A woman turns to the suffragette movement because she’s been let down by a man – seduced, divorced, abandoned. Or she is about to lose her children, or she’s sexually harassed at work, or she can’t provide for her family. It usually follows that her involvement in the suffrage campaign has a deleterious effect on her love life, for of course her male lover cannot understand what’s got into her.

This is not to say that these issues are not important. The personal is political, and it is important to understand how social and economic conditions affect us as individuals. This is often the sphere in which political awareness is born – and fertile ground for a novelist of course. Fiction is rooted in character, and so it is inevitable that its focus should be on the personal. But women are rarely seen taking a wider interest in national or international politics. Their grievances are depicted in purely personal and domestic terms. It was this assumption that drove politics after women got the vote, with politicians appealing to the new female electorate by focusing on issues like the cost of food or child care provision. Women were – and still are – expected to be interested in social and welfare issues, less so in defence, foreign policy or taxation.

Perhaps that’s because it would be impossible to make such an exciting story out of what appear to be more mundane issues. After all, who could imagine being gripped by a novel about the 1902 Education Act, the 1909 Budget, or the Welsh Church Act 1914? (As a matter of fact, I could – but that’s another matter…) But a story involving female characters who are not wholly preoccupied by domesticity and romantic relationships would at least disrupt the stereotype that confines women to heart and hearth. So perhaps the next person who writes a historical novel about the suffragettes might consider moving away from the tired old tropes and broadening the scope of their female characters’ horizons a little!

© Lucienne Boyce
January 2019


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