Two Women Telling Women’s Stories
We can all learn from the roles of women in the past, as exposed by women writers.
I’m writing today about two authors I admire, both of whom write historical fiction, placing women at the centre of the action.
Emma Donoghue’s historical novels and short stories include Slammerkin, The Wonder, The Sealed Letter, Frog Music, Life Mask, The Pull of the Stars and Astray
I have not yet read all of the books listed, indeed, one is not yet available as you will discover at the end of this article.
I acquired The Wonder at an event during Listowel Writers’ Week in early June 2017. Donoghue was speaking about her process, and the filming of Room, before signing copies of The Wonder.
Later I read Slammerkin and The Sealed Letter. Within the past few weeks I have read Frog Music and the short story collection, Astray.
Like the other author I’m featuring here, Donoghue has two gifts that are essential to the writer of historical novels: persistence in research and an understanding of what makes people tick. She will take contemporaneous accounts of a real event, some of them little more than a paragraph or two, and try to imagine what might lie behind the public version of the story. Some, as in the case of The Sealed Letter, documenting in considerable detail the evidence provided by both parties to a notorious legal case.
What brought the participants to this pass? What was it in their background that turned a relationship sour? These question can be applied equally to sibling rivalries, parent-child interactions and sexual partnerships.
Another feature that these writers share is that many of there protagonists are women with a strong sexual urge, an urge that inevitably brings them into conflict with the societies in which they live.
In Slammerkin, a prostitute murders her own mother in a most brutal fashion. In Frog Music a woman with an insatiable appetite for straight sex is befriended by a cross-dressing, free-spirited woman who is murdered by a gunshot the straight woman believes was intended for her. The real events upon which it is based took place in a time and a place, late nineteenth century San Fransisco, when dressing as a man could land a woman in gaol.
Astray, is a collection of stories originally published at various times between 1998 and 2011. Each concerns a real event, each features a character driven to seek escape from a life of hardship.
The Pull of the Stars concerns the post World War I flu epidemic. Written apropos of the centenary of that event, it has gained unexpected relevance as a consequence of the current pandemic.
But it is not the first time that Donoghue has written about plagues. A particularly moving tale in Astray concerns a couple emigrating from Ireland to Canada. The husband is already there and has hopes for a future together with his wife and child. They are en-route and harbour the same hopes. Days before their arrival the husband becomes sick with Cholera and is dead by the time his wife and child disembark. Frog Music takes place during a smallpox epidemic.
But Donoghue is not alone in her ability to delight the reader with accounts of the lives of our ancestors. The other writer who shares the same skill in revealing the lives and endurance of women in our recent past is Rebecca Bryn. Her latest book concerns the 1910 strike by the women chain makers of the West Midlands. The harrowing conditions of life and work for these women is described in heart rending detail. Long before health and safety at work legislation, men and women worked long hours for little pay and even less protection from the heat and other dangers of a forge.
Women who had no access to child care had no option but to take their children to work. This was no annual treat for kids, being given the chance to see what mummy or daddy does in the daytime. Infants were bound to their mothers wielding a hammer on hot metal. Children as young as four operated the bellows to supply oxygen to the furnace.
Bryn’s main character, Rosie, is 10 at the start of the book, in 1901. By the end, in 1910, she is a young woman with a husband and 3 children, still making chains for a pittance, but now also a political activist, organising her colleagues in opposition to the wealthy industrialist who controls every aspect of their lives.
To her credit, Bryn gives due weight to the boss’s side of the debate as well as that of small traders who rely on the chain makers for their business. And the boss develops a soft spot for Rosie’s husband Jack. I’ll say no more on that score for fear of spoiling the story. Suffice to say that, if the opening chapter makes you seethe with anger, the ending will have you weeping tears of a different kind.
What makes this book so devastating is the realisation that this is how some of our female ancestors lived little more than a century ago. If you thought the Dagenham women of fifty years ago were pioneers of equal pay, think again. Sixty years before them, the women chain makers of the West Midlands, encouraged and led by Mary Macarthur, paved the way with their strike for better pay and conditions. And yet, even now at the start of the third decade of the twenty first century, women in certain professions are paid less than men.
Several of Bryn’s previous novels have drawn on the history of her native county, in the English East Midlands, as well as her own family history. Whilst much of the action in Touching the Wire takes place in Auschwitz, it is interwoven with events in late 20th century Northampton.
The trilogy, For Their Country’s Good, also begins in Northamptonshire, although the story progresses to the antipodes when the female protagonist follows her lover after he is punished by transportation to Van Dieman’s Land.
Kindred and Affinity deals with love between two people for whom marriage is forbidden by the Church’s rules. In The Dandelion Clock, the female protagonist is left dealing with life at home, again in Northampton, during the first world war, whilst her fiance is serving in the army. Here the action moves between the various Middle Eastern theatres of war and the “home front”.
Like Donoghue, Bryn is not afraid to depict women with strong sexual urges or to show how those urges, when exploited by men, can lead to unwelcome consequences.
I am left wondering why Donoghue is a best selling author whose books have won prestigious awards and been turned into successful movies, whilst Bryn (not her real name, by the way) remains largely unheard of outside the community of self-published and independently published writers.
One answer could be that Donoghue had the perfect start for a successful writing career. Born in Dublin, the daughter of a literary critic, she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin. She moved to England, and in 1997 received her PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. She has lived in London, Ontario, with her French Canadian life partner, Christine Roulstone, and their children, since 1998.
Bryn, on the other hand, is from a solidly working class background as revealed by those of her books that are based on family history. The Dandelion Clock is based on her grand parents’ lives. In an interview she said of them: “He’d promised my grandmother that if he survived the war, they’d get married. When he came home, he’d changed — he wanted different things — something many of the men returning from war discovered. But he’d made her a promise, so they married. It wasn’t a bad marriage, they stuck it for fifty-odd years, but I don’t remember any displays of affection, and I don’t think they taught their children how to love.”
She began writing only after retiring from years of working long hours to support her family after her first husband deserted her.
To demonstrate why I believe Bryn is worthy of a much larger readership, here are the first 5 paragraphs of her latest novel:
Rosie Wallace threw aside childhood as lightly as she threw aside her thin blanket. She sat up eager to begin, for once she’d done the chores, she would work alongside her mother in her chain workshop. She pressed her fingers against her stomach to stop the rumbling; her hunger to help Mom earn a better wage by forging more chain was only exceeded by the emptiness in her belly.
The ever-present crash of iron on iron sounded again, slowly at first, as if the arm that wielded the hammer was too tired for the task. It fell into a regular, familiar, determined rhythm soon taken up by other hands in the chain-shop brew houses across the cinder yard, and together they composed a discordant melody.
She peered into the half-light; the iron-framed bed where her parents slept was empty, and a rosy light crept beneath the urden, the hessian sack that served for a curtain. Not the cool fingers of an early dawn but the fiery glow of the forges spilling through the open doors of the workshops.
Half rolling from her bed on the floor, so she didn’t disturb her sisters, she lifted the urden sacking and peered out. It was still half-dark, the hipped roofs of the cluster of hovels silhouetted black against a pre-dawn sky, but already, three hearths were glowing. Smoke from their chimneys, and the chimneys of the blast furnaces beyond, devoured the paling stars.
The clock downstairs chimed three; she was proud of the timepiece, few families had one, but it was relentless in its daily insistence for her to get out of bed. It was passed time she was up and out. Mom had let her sleep in on her first morning after leaving school and had gone alone to light the hearth and begin the day’s work.
There is so much information conveyed here, in language that tears at the heart strings. This is a ten year old child, “eager” to “throw aside childhood” and join her mother making chain. It is 3am and she has been permitted to lie-in! Her mother is already lighting the forge which, with others, is glowing, its smoke “devouring the paling stars.” Such evocative language surely deserves recognition from the gate-keepers of mainstream publishing.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue is published by HarperAvenue on July 21st. 2020
The Chainmaker’s Daughter by Rebecca Bryn is available now to pre-order at Amazon and will be published on June 28th 2020.