Monday, 30 May 2011

A woman's place?

Women in the Victorian period suffered a number of legal disabilities. They could not vote in Parliamentary elections. They were excluded from some professions. Until 1870 married women could not own property, and they were unfavourably treated under the divorce laws.

However, it would be wrong to assume that Victorian women were passive creatures who meekly submitted to their fathers and husbands, limiting their concerns to their homes and families.

The campaign for women's suffrage began in 1867, before all men had the vote. From 1869 women could vote in local elections, and women could stand for election to local authorities such as Boards of Guardians and School Boards.

Women campaigned on a range of issues. Josephine Butler and Annie Besant worked on behalf of some of the most disadvantaged women.

Frances Buss and Emily Davies were among those who raised standards of education for girls. Barbara Bodichon demonstrated that illegitimacy did not prevent a woman from taking part in public life.

Gertrude Bell and Marianne North travelled independently in remote parts of the world and were acknowledged by men and women as experts in their fields.

These women were financially independent and had the time and money to pursue their interests. Women who had to work also found opportunities increasing in the Victorian period. Domestic service was the most common employment for women, but many more types of work were available by the end of the century.

A large proportion of the workers in cotton mills were women and girls. The new department stores employed many young women. After 1870 compulsory, state funded education brought an increasing demand for school teachers, many of whom were women.

Women also ran businesses. In one town in 1855 women were running schools, lodging houses, public houses, hotels, dining rooms, beershops and shrimp warehouses.

They were shopkeepers, bakers, grocers, greengrocers, milliners, straw hat makers, dressmakers, staymakers, haberdashers, booksellers and printers, boot and shoemakers, pawnbrokers, basket makers, dealers in eggs and fruit, stationers, whitesmiths, dealers in marine stores, furniture dealers, market gardeners, barge owners, ironmongers, leather sellers, wax modellers and glass and earthenware dealers.

There were some things that women did not do. They did not go to sea in the fishing industry, although they were often part-owners of fishing boats and in many fishing ports they were involved in handling the catch on shore. They were excluded by law from some occupations. From 1842, for example, women could not work underground in mines, although they could and did work at the surface.

However, there was a wide range of occupations that women could undertake in the Victorian period. A writer setting a novel during this period could make her heroine something other than a governess or a servant, without her necessarily appearing unusual or encountering opposition. Giving a heroine a different occupation allows the writer to explore different aspects of Victorian life and of the heroine’s own character, which can only make the story stronger.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Middling, trading and industrious people…

… was how Daniel Defoe referred to what we would call the middle classes. The merchants, tradesmen, farmers, lawyers, doctors, who were in comfortable circumstances and perhaps on the fringes of the gentry, but not part of ‘Society’.

The middle classes are sometimes unkindly presented in historical fiction, sometimes overlooked entirely.

In the ‘clog and shawl’ genre the middle classes are often represented by the cruel mill owner, oppressing and exploiting his workers. Or the uncaring landlord, evicting his tenants from their cottages.

No doubt such men existed, but not every mill owner or landlord was like that. Many were philanthropists, who sought to improve the lives of their workers or tenants.

In historical romance, set in the assembly rooms of London and Bath and the ballrooms of great houses, the middle classes are sometimes presented as dull and socially awkward figures of fun. The middle class heroine, often a clergyman’s daughter, perhaps a governess, falls in love with a nobleman.

Yes, middle class young women did and do marry dukes (and even princes!) But why are there rarely any young men of the ’middling sort’ playing the role of romantic hero?

There were increasing numbers of the middle classes in England from the sixteenth century onwards, enjoying rising standards of living.

They employed large numbers of people, on their farms, in their shops, mills and counting houses and in their homes.

They played a vital role in their communities, doing time consuming and unpaid work as parish officers and later as elected members of the many new local government bodies set up in the nineteenth century.

Their daughters benefited from the increasing opportunities for women in education and employment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their sons served in the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force and in the merchant navy.

Then, as now, most of them probably passed their whole lives without meeting a member of the aristocracy, or caring about their activities.

So can we have more historical fiction written from the point of view of the ’middling sort’, in which they do not merely play a supporting role in someone else’s story, but where their ambitions, their conflicts, their griefs are central to the plot?

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

'Our white hawthorn tree'

The title is from a poem by Siegfried Sassoon.

‘The hawthorn is the oldest of the English hedgerow trees, for it gets its name from the Old English word haga, ‘a hedge’ or ‘an enclosure‘, and it was used from Saxon times onwards to make impenetrable fences…. For a brief spell in early summer it is the most beautiful of all the Midland trees, with its continuous miles of white may-blossom glimmering as far as the eye can see….

'In the Midland fields on [May the eighteenth] these miles of snowy hedges reach perfection, so dense and far reaching that the entire atmosphere is saturated with the bitter-sweet smell whichever way the summer wind is blowing. From the hedgerow trees near and far come the calls of countless cuckoos, and the lesser sound of an infinite number of small birds.’

So wrote W. G. Hoskins in his seminal book, The Making of the English Landscape.

Hedgerows have always been part of the English countryside. Some are over a thousand years old, marking boundaries that were determined in the Anglo Saxon period. Today, some of those same hedgerows mark the limits of a parish or county, instead of the bounds of a thegn's estate.

Some hedgerows are recorded in charters of the eighth, ninth or tenth centuries. For others, there is no written evidence of their origin, but there are techniques that can be used to estimate their age.

Sometimes narrow strips of woodland between fields or alongside roads are all that is left of a much larger tract of woodland which was cleared at some time in the past to meet increasing demand for agricultural land.

In the Midlands, many hedgerows date from the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, planted when the landscape was redrawn as a result of Parliamentary Enclosure.

In the past century, many hedgerows were removed, in order to make fields larger and farming more efficient. Now, the importance of hedgerows is recognised and they are being recorded, protected and maintained.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Saints, students and spin

Hagiography, or the lives of saints, was a popular literary genre in the Anglo Saxon and mediaeval periods. The life of a saint might be written to educate readers about the facts of his or her life, to present an example of spirituality for people to follow, or to promote the cult of a particular saint to encourage visitors to his or her shrine.

Saints’ lives were normally written in Latin, and only later translated into English. This is an English translation of the life of St Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), who is believed to have studied at Oxford:

‘Such was his love of learning that he cared little or nothing for food or raiment. For, as he was wont to relate, he and two companions who lodged in the same chamber had only their tunics, and one gown between them, and each of them had a miserable pallet. When one, therefore, went out with the gown to hear a lecture,, the others sat in their room, and so they went forth alternately. Bread and a little wine and pottage sufficed for their food. Their poverty never allowed them to eat meat or fish except on a Sunday or some solemn holy day, or else in the presence of companions or friends. Yet he has often told me how he never afterwards, in all his days, led such a pleasant and enjoyable life.’

Take out the first sentence and this could be a description of student life at any time. ‘Such was his love of learning…’ suggests to the reader that there was something exceptional about this particular student, that the poverty of this stage of his life foreshadows his later saintliness.

Newspaper articles use words and phrases in a similar way to set up expectations in the reader about the person they are reading about. We are told that someone is ‘unemployed’ or ‘public school educated’, regardless of whether this information is actually relevant to the story.

Queen Elizabeth I, who knew a thing or two about spin, took the technique one step further, setting up expectations:

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman -

Then taking her audience by surprise:

But I have the heart and stomach of a king.

Novelists can use similar techniques to set up, and then confound, readers’ expectations.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

And after April, when May follows...

The first of May is International Workers' Day, and a holiday in many countries for that reason.

In England, it is a day when folk customs and traditions are observed and celebrated. The custom of young men and women going out from the towns to the countryside early in the morning to gather flowers and greenery dates back at least to Chaucer‘s time. It was observed by Henry VIII and his court in the early sixteenth century.

A young girl would often be chosen and crowned as May Queen. There would be dancing around the Maypole. The church of St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London is so called because of the great Maypole that used to stand nearby.

May Day is one of the occasions when traditional Morris dancing may be seen. Morris dancing was referred to in the mid fifteenth century. Every region of England has its own Morris tradition, with particular dances and costumes.

Morris dance and music, folk songs and other traditions were in danger of dying out by the end of the nineteenth century. They were collected and recorded by Cecil Sharp and others, so that they may still be performed today.