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SPOTLIGHT: My List of Best Feminist Reads

Friday, March 10, 2017



I recently asked what people would like to see me blogging about on Facebook, and among some great suggestions was one asking me to list my favourite feminist literature.


So I spent some time quietly thinking about this and slowly began to put together a list of books which I felt had helped shape me as a feminist. 

After I posted my list, Stephanie Dowrick suggested that I should add a definition of what I mean by 'feminist literature' - and also quite rightly pointed out how many gaps there are in my reading. I agreed most humbly. My aim for this list was always that it would be an ongoing project, with me adding books as I read or remember them, and taking suggestions to widen my knowledge. I have already got compiled a long list of books I must read, and am hoping to add a new book or two every month. So please feel free to leave a suggestion for me in the comments section below. 

So what do I mean by 'feminist fiction'?

I was brought up by my mother - a brilliant, strong-willed and wise woman - to believe that women are entitled to the same rights and liberties as men, and have the same potential for intellectual and moral strength. I have always passionately believed in fighting to ensure the political, social, and economic quality of all humans, regardless of gender, race, spiritual beliefs or sexual orientation.   

I am proud that my books have been identified by many readers as being feminist. Most recently, Jack Zipes - the world's foremost fairy tale scholar - wrote of my work: "Kate Forsyth is one of the leading feminist writers of fairy tales in Australia. In recent years she has published a notable series of historical fairy-tale novels based on ‘Rapunzel’, ‘All-Fur’, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. They include Bitter Greens (2012), The Wild Girl (2013), and The Beast’s Garden (2015). All of them are complex feminist adaptations that shed light on intrepid women in historical events that test their compassion and fortitude."

I love this endorsement so much because I feel it recognises something of what I am trying to do in my fiction. That is to celebrate and illuminate the lives of women, both in the past and today, to help my readers understand some of the costs and consequences of gender inequality, and to inspire them to strive harder for such basic rights as creative freedom, economic independence, political power, and universal respect. 



So - for me - this is a list of books which I feel have been important to me in my personal struggle for women's rights and liberties; and which I hope will help and inspire others. My intention is for the list to be - with your help - an ever-growing and evolving thing of beauty.

Most of these books are fiction, simply because that is my own great love, but I have decided to widen the scope of my list to include essays, poems, and non-fiction works as well. So please, help me! What should I be reading?


Five Go to Treasure Island – Enid Blyton
When I was a kid growing up, my sister and I wanted to be just like George – strong, fearless, truthful and just as good as a boy. There were not that many heroines like George all the way back then.



Emily of New Moon – L.M. Montgomery
My favourite L.M. Montgomery book, I loved it because the heroine wanted to be a writer. She was clever and determined and did not want to marry if it was going to stand in the way of her ambition.

I also love Anne of Green Gables, of course, and one of her lesser-known books, The Blue Castle, also has to be included on my list


Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
I loved the character of Jo so much. She seemed just like me – untidy, dreamy, and always scribbling away at a story. I also love Eight Cousins!




The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
This was the first fantasy book I ever read where it was the woman’s tale that was the focus. A touchstone book for me. 



The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
A powerful novel about domestic abuse in 19th century England, with a heartbreaking denouement. 


Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte 
Still one of my all-time favourite books – I try and re-read it every few years. 


The Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
The story of ‘Jane Eyre’ retold from the point of view of the mad wife in the attic. So clever! 


Persuasion – Jane Austen
My favourite Jane Austen novel – the story of a young woman learning to speak out for herself. I would also include all of Jane Austen's other books, including - of course - Pride & Prejudice.




The Awakening - Kate Chopin
I read this in my first degree, and have never forgotten the effect it had on me. A landmark work of early feminism (published in 1899).

The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A 6,000 word short story published in 1892 that describes a woman's slow descent into madness after being confined to a room on a 'rest cure',  a common prescription for women in the 19th century. Unsettling and powerful. 

Precious Bane - Mary Webb
This is one of my all-time favourite books & am always pressing it upon my friends, insisting they read it. 

A Room of Her Own – Virginia Woolf
I carry this book in my heart. It had a profound influence on me and my determination to shape my own life.




The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
The only novel written by the American poet, and published under a pseudonym in 1963. Sylvia Plath committed suicide a month after its UK publication. I also love her poetry, particularly Ariel.

Transformations - Anne Sexton
A dark and powerful collection of poems inspired by fairy tales. I also really love 'Her Kind':




The Color Purple - Alice Walker 
Another all-time favourite book! It never fails to dazzle and move me.




I Know Why A Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
A heart-rending memoir of the poet’s life.



Stravinsky’s Lunch – Drusilla Modjeska

A fascinating book on the lives of women’s artists. 



Women Who Run with the Wolves - Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Myths and Stories of the Archetypal Woman - a book I have dipped into again many times. 


The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th Century Literary Imagination - Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar  
Hugely influential book of feminist re-readings of writers such as Charlotte Bronte, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson. Fuelled my fascination with the Victorian era.  


Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood
My favourite book by Margaret Atwood, this tells the story of a young woman accused of murder.


Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver
Such a beautiful and wise book.




Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier

The story of Mary Anning, the young woman who discovered dinosaur fossils at Lyme Regis.


Possession – A.S. Byatt
The story of a love affair between Victorian poets.




Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

The contrasting lives of two young women in Victorian Britain - a tour-de-force!


The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

A tour de force! Tells the story of a brilliant, unconventional woman in the 19th century who studies lichen in order to understand the world.



There are, of course, many thousands more ... and as I read them or remember them, I will add them to my list!

Please feel free to make suggestions below!

SPOTLIGHT: Women of the German underground resistance

Wednesday, March 08, 2017


To celebrate International Women's Day, I thought I would spotlight the real (and unjustly forgotten) historical women whose lives I have drawn upon in my fiction.

Today I am focusing on the heroines of the German underground resistance, whose stories I told in my novel The Beast's Garden . 




My novel THE BEAST'S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm brothers' version of 'Beauty & the Beast' set in the Berlin underground resistance to Hitler in Nazi Germany. 

Many of my characters in the novel are based on real people who showed extraordinary courage, compassion and strength of spirit - ordinary people who did their best to fight against the evil of the Third Reich. 

I was particularly interested in the women of the German underground resistance - perhaps because when we think of Adolf Hitler and the women of Germany, we are used to is all those images of star-struck blonde Frauleins with their hands stretched high in the Nazi salute. 


Some German women were even said to eat the gravel upon which Hitler trod.

There were some German women who feared and hated the Nazi leader, however, and who risked their lives to resist his brutal dictatorship.

Sophie Scholl is probably the most famous. A university student in Munich, she and her brother and some friends set up the White Rose group in the summer of 1942. Together Hans Scholl and his friends Willi Graf and Christoph Probst spread anti-Nazi graffiti and wrote six political leaflets, which Sophie helped distribute in letter-boxes and through the mail. 

On 18 February 1943, Sophie and her brother took the sixth leaflet to the university to spread around the campus. A janitor grew suspicious and followed them, and so Sophie threw all the leaflets over a balcony. The siblings were caught and turned over to the Gestapo. Christoph was soon arrested too. After a mock-trial, they were all beheaded. Hans was 24, Christoph was 22, and Sophie was only 21. 


Hans & Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst

In Berlin, another resistance group was secretly meeting to make plans to overthrow Hitler. Like the White Rose, they tried to express their horror and outrage at the Nazi regime through graffiti and leaflets. They also smuggled Jews and other political prisoners out of the country, gave food and clothing to those who were suffering, and collected evidence of atrocities. 

This group was called The Red Orchestra by the Gestapo, who suspected them of selling State secrets to the Soviets and harbouring Russian spies. The group – who simply called themselves the Zirkel (meaning circle) – certainly did try to warn Stalin about Germany’s imminent invasion, though they received no payment for the risks they took. 

They also warned the US and Great Britain, only to have their approaches mistrusted and ignored.

The Zirkel was led by two couples - Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen and Arvid and Mildred Harnack - and so contemporary scholars often now call them the Schulze-Boysen/Harnack Group. 


Harro & Libertas Schulze-Boysen 

Harro was an officer in the Luftwaffe, and – after the war broke out - worked for Goring’s Reich Aviation Ministry in Berlin. Libertas was the daughter of one of Berlin’s most famous couturiers, Otto Ludwig Haas-Heye, and the granddaughter of Prince Philip of Eulenburg and Hertefeld, once an influential courtier at the imperial court of Kaiser Wilhelm II. She had worked for the MGM office in Berlin, but quit her job and went to work for Goebbels’ propaganda office in the hope of getting access to confidential information.  

Arvid was a lawyer and economist who took up a position in the Reich Economic Ministry, while his American-born wife Mildred – previously a university lecturer and author – did translation work for various German publishers and newspapers.

The group’s primary aim was to gather and pass on military intelligence to the Allies, and so they lived double lives, working inside the Nazi death machine whilst trying to sabotage it from within.

Mildred Fish Harnack, the only American woman executed by the Nazis


Eventually the Gestapo broke the covert operation, and Harro, Libertas, Arvid, Mildred and many more were arrested and executed. Mildred holds the unhappy distinction of being the only American woman executed by the Third Reich.

There were many other women in the Zirkel, such as the half-Jewish artist and photographer Elizabeth Schumacher, and Greta Kuckhoff, who was married to the playwright and dramaturge Adam Kuchoff. Cato Bontjes van Beek (aged 22) and Liane Berkowitz (aged 19) were the youngest of the group, both being executed by guillotine in 1943. (All these women feature as characters in my novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN.)

Also working in Berlin at the same time was a Jewish circle of friends generally known as the Baum Group, named for its leaders, Herbert and Marianne Baum. Most people in the group were young – aged in their twenties – and working as forced labour in Berlin’s armament factories. 

Other members included Sala and Martin Kochmann, Heinz Birnbaum, Heinz and Marianne Joachim, Edith and Harry Cohan, Gerd and Hanni Meyer, and the sisters Hella and Alice Hirsch.


 

Hella Hirsch


The group worked to help the plight of the Berlin Jews, and sabotaged the weapons they were helping to build. They undertook bold graffiti campaigns, and then – in September 1942 - they attempted to blow up Goebbels’ anti-Soviet propaganda exhibit in Berlin, using materials stolen from the factories in which they worked. Only a small fire resulted, but the event was an embarrassment to the Propaganda Minister. 

The defiant saboteurs were soon rounded up, tried and executed. Herbert Baum died in prison, with an official report of suicide. Sala Kochmann tried to fling herself from the windows of the Gestapo headquarters and broke her back. She was carried to her execution on a stretcher. Three of the young women – including Alice Hirsch who was only 19 – were spared the guillotine but were then sent to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. (The Baum Group also features in THE BEAST’S GARDEN). 

Another interesting woman who did her best to resist Hitler was the Countess So'oa'emalelagi von Ballestrem-Solf, known as ‘Lagi’ to her friends. Her name is Samoan, given to her when she was born by her father, who was the Governor of Samoa in the 1920s and early 1930s. Lagi and her mother Johanna Solf hid fugitive Jews in their house and helped them escape across the border into Switzerland. They also helped prisoners-of-war and smuggled letters and information out of Germany. A Gestapo spy infiltrated their circle and betrayed them. 


Most of their friends were executed, but Lagi and her mother remained in prison. After a bombing raid destroyed all the evidence, they were both released, but were so damaged in their health from their time in prison that both died a few years after the war.

Johanna Solf


Finally, no discussion of the resistance of German women would be complete without including the famous Rosenstrasse protest, one of the largest public displays against Hitler. 

The event happened in early 1943. The Nazis were quickening their round-ups of Berlin Jews, with thousands being deported in horrific conditions to concentration camps.  

Up until this point, Jewish men who had married a non-Jewish woman before the passing of the Nuremburg laws had been protected from the worst of the atrocities. However, Nazi authorities had decided to ignore earlier protestations of protection, and had arrested a large number of these men. They were locked inside a Jewish welfare office on Rosenstrasse. 

Their wives went to protest their arrests, surrounding the building and refusing to leave even when soldiers threatened to fire into the crowd. For over a week, the women picketed the building, making it impossible to transfer the prisoners to the train station. Many threats were made, but the women did not back down and eventually the prisoners were released, including those that had already been sent to Auschwitz. 

A moving set of sculptures in rose-coloured stone now marks the spot where German women faced up to machine-guns to try and save their loved ones. 

You may also be interested in my blogs:

THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war and resistance 

BEST BOOKS ON THE GERMAN RESISTANCE 

BEST BOOKS ON BERLIN AT WAR

Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think!

SPOTLIGHT: Dortchen Wild, fairy tale teller

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

To celebrate International Women's Day, I thought I would spotlight the real (and unjustly forgotten) historical women whose lives I have drawn upon in my fiction.

Today I am re-posting a blog about Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told the Grimm brothers many of their most famous tales and - after a long and difficult courtship - married Wilhelm Grimm. I drew upon the true events of their forbidden romance to write my novel The Wild Girl

       
      

Sometimes an idea hits you like a sizzling bolt of lightning, and you know that you have to write it.

That’s how the first idea for my novel THE WILD GIRL came to me.

I was reading a scholarly book about the Grimm Brothers’ when I discovered that one of the primary oral sources for their fairy tales was a young woman who had grown up next door to the Grimm family. Her name was Dortchen Wild, and she was only eighteen when she began to tell Wilhelm some of the world’s most beloved stories. 

I was fascinated by this, having always imagined the sources of the tales being hunchbacked old peasant women. Then I discovered that Dortchen and Wilhelm had fallen in love and - many years later – married. I knew at once that I had to tell her story! It was absolutely electrifying. I could hardly sleep that night for excitement.



Discovering Dortchen’s story was not at all easy. Very little of her life was known – only her birth, marriage and death dates (and people even argued about those). Of her own writing, there remained only a few letters and a brief autobiographical sketch that she dictated to her daughter on her death-bed. All I had to give me a sense of her inner life was the stories she told – and when she told them. 

Dortchen grew up next door to the Grimm brothers in the small kingdom of Hessen-Kassel. When she was in her teens and Wilhelm was twenty, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army invaded and the Hessian people were forced to live under French occupation for many years. Hessen-Kassel was mashed together with a number of other small countries to become the Kingdom of Westphalia. Napoleon put his dissolute young brother, Jerome, on the throne. He was only 22, and marked his ascension to the throne by playing leapfrog through the empty palace in his underwear. 

It was a dark and difficult time. Unable to find work, the two eldest boys in the Grimm family decided to collect and study the old wonder tales they had always loved so much. They were too poor to travel about and so asked friends and neighbours to tell them any old stories they knew. That was when they discovered - right next door - an absolute treasure-house of tales, all stuffed inside one young woman’s head.

Dortchen told Wilhelm almost one-quarter of all the stories in the first edition of the Grimm brothers’ ‘Children’s and Household Tales’, published in 1812. She told him ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’. 

On one extraordinary day – 10 January 1812 – she told Wilhelm three stories back-to-back, while huddling about the stove in her sister’s summerhouse so her father would not know.



On 9 October 1812 – the day before the fairy tale collection was sent to the printers – Dortchen told Wilhelm another two tales.  The first was about a good sister who is given the gift of spitting gold coins, while her evil sister who is cursed to spit out snakes and toads. The second was ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a dark and haunting tale about a king who falls in love with his own daughter. 

Dortchen’s own father disapproved mightily of Wilhelm Grimm, and prohibited them from seeing each other. She had to tell Wilhelm her tales in secret. Kept apart by war, poverty, and patriarchal domination, the story of their forbidden romance is as full of drama, heartbreak and triumph as any fairy tale she told. 

I do hope that you will all find her story as fascinating as I did. 








Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think.

SPOTLIGHT: Enid Blyton, Shoddy Noddy & the Infamous Five

Monday, May 30, 2016



Enid Blyton, Shoddy Noddy and the Infamous Five 

(an article published in BLACK & WHITE in 2001)


There could be few people left on the face of this planet who have not heard of Harry Potter. You know, the one that has had kids camping outside bookshops all night. The one that has made sardine-flavoured jelly beans fashionable.

Maybe, if you’d been in a contemplation retreat for the past four years, you might have missed the commotion. Or lost in the Amazon jungle without a radio. Otherwise I can confidently say you know all about the Harry Potter Phenomenon. 

What you may have missed is the growing backlash against Pottermania. At the moment it is still low-key. Mutterings of middle-class bias. Fuming by feminists that Harry is not Harriet. Banning of the book by Bible-bashers. One critic described the hype ahead of the release of the fourth book as being “worthy of a Wonderbra.” Another has described them as ‘marginally less testing than watching Neighbours.’ That critic, Whitbread book judge Anthony Holden, went on to call Rowlings’ books “essentially patronising, very conservative, highly derivative (and) dispiritingly nostalgic.” 

I would have said exuberantly nostalgic. For therein lies the secret of Rowling’s success. It should be no surprise that her books have proved as hugely popular with adults as they have with children. For decades the literary establishment has been blaming TV, video games, the Internet, MTV and Macdonald’s for the demise of reading in the young and not-so-young. Few have wondered whether the reason reading has gone out of fashion is because the books published have simply not been what anyone wants to read. 

To me, the Harry Potter books have all the verve and wit and excitement of the books I loved to read as a child – and still read today when I’m tired or sick or studying for exams, when I feel in need of sinking myself in the guilty, sensuous pleasure of reading for the pure joy of reading. And though Rowling has been compared with C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl and Edith Nesbit, the author she reminds me of most is the author I loved most passionately as an eight year old. Enid Blyton.



The first story I ever wrote was about a brother and sister who fell down a hole into Fairyland. It was unashamedly influenced by Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. I was six years old. A year or so later I attempted my first novel. It was entitled Runaway and was about a brother and sister who run away from their cruel aunt and uncle, at last finding a happy home with their nice auntie after enduring all sorts of adventures. Coincidentally, the plot synopsis sounds remarkably like that of Blyton’s first book, The Secret Island (1938). 



For quite a few years, nothing gave me such a thrill as being given a new Famous Five book to read. Since there were 21 in the Famous Five series, my family found buying me Christmas and birthday presents very easy. I daydreamed about exploring secret passages, thwarting smugglers, discovering buried treasure and having a dog called Timmy. My sister and I used to fight over who would get to be George, the girl-who-was-as-good-as-a-boy, in our never-ending Famous Five games. Since she was bigger than me, my sister always won. I had to be timid Anne who liked to play with dolls.

When I imagined my life as a grown-up, I modelled my daydreams on Blyton’s The Story Of My Life, which had belonged to my mother when she was a child. Blyton described her life in idyllic terms. She lived in a big old house in the country with a huge garden filled with flowers and lots of animals and two sweet-faced children of her own and a vague sort of husband floating around. 



She never mentioned her bitter divorce,  perennial problems with the plumbing or the time her house was invaded by hundreds of rats – just like Julian never got a pimple or George never experienced her first menstrual cramp. I wanted desperately to be a writer living in a big old house in the country too – and I have to admit my ambitions have not changed much since I was eight.

Confessing to all this is actually very hard. Enid Blyton has been sneered at for so many years. One critic described her as “slow poison”; another said her language was “colourless, dead and totally undemanding.”

The first shot in the anti-Blyton campaign was fired by Geoffrey Trease in 1949 with the comment “The Blyton school stories entertain but … can hardly be said to go far in depicting reality, stimulating the imagination or educating the emotions. Their style (is) drained of all difficulty until it achieves a kind of aesthetic anaemia.” In other words, “marginally less testing than watching Neighbours.”

Geoffrey Trease’s 1949 book, Tales Out of School, was the first ever critical analysis of British children’s literature and it was to prove highly influential over the next half a century. In this seminal work, he placed great emphasis on the need for children’s books to “represent reality.” 

This was to become the rallying cry for critics, librarians, and literary academics everywhere – and not just in relation to children’s books. This was the age when ‘angry young men’ dominated the world stage. There was no room for whimsy and wonder, frivolity or fancy. No room for illicit midnight feasts in the dormitory or hunting for treasure in secret passages. No room for a world where gangs of children outwitted gangs of baddies without the unwelcome interference of bumbling grown-ups. No room for wishing-chairs or flying broomsticks or animals that could speak or wardrobes that led into magical lands.



In December 1975, the Times Literary Supplement wrote “the past fifteen years has seen a turgid wave of problem books, bombarding children with facts on abortion, menstruation, racism, mental and physical handicaps, divorce, adolescent hang-ups, violence, religion and so forth. No area has remained sacred; but style, imagination and storytelling have too often been sacrificed to the golden calf of truth.”

Twenty-five years after that review and fifty years after Geoffrey Trease first cast Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, Edith Nesbit and other popular children’s writers out into the arctic circle of academic scorn, Harry Potter has taken over the world. J.K. Rowling had the good luck to sit down and write her fantastical, whimsical adventure stories at a time when the world was hungry for kiddies’ books like you used to get. Of course, she had some trouble convincing the literary establishment of that. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the series, was rejected by every single publisher in the UK before at last being picked up by Bloomsbury. It now accounts for more than 20 per cent of that publisher’s turnover and all the other publishers in the world are now clamouring for books about boy wizards, grumpy owls, chambers of secrets and boarding school capers. 

What is most interesting is that this enthusiastic embracing of the unrealistic comes at a time when the almost universal derision towards Enid Blyton is being replaced with a new degree of critical and popular interest. 

Hugh Grant recently named The Naughtiest Girl In the School as his favourite book of all time, and it was widely reported that Liz Hurley sought refuge in her own Blyton collection after his infamous encounter with a black prostitute. Writers who have unashamedly acknowledged their early love of Blyton include Melvyn Bragg, Beryl Bainbridge, Ken Follett, Hanif Kureishi, and Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme (who, much like me, wrote a Enid Blyton rip-off called 
‘The Cave of Adventure’ at the age of seven). 



Blyton’s own life has been a source of continual fascination, perhaps because she so unfailingly represented it as bathed in perpetual sunshine. The Channel Four series Secret Lives recently probed the dark, secret shadows of her life with great relish - Blyton’s frigid relations with her own family, her affairs and bitter divorce, her intense friendship with Dorothy Richards (Bi Women On the Web, a resource page for bisexual women, lists Enid Blyton as one of its heroines, along with Josephine Baker, Simone de Beauvoir and Sandra Bernhard).

Most tellingly, Blyton has finally been the subject of an in-depth critical analysis, published last month in the UK as Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children’s Literature. David Rudd, a senior lecturer at Bolton Institute, has examined the life and work of Blyton, with particular emphasis on the fact that, despite the storm of adult negativity, Blyton remains the most popular children’s author ever.  To date, her books have sold over 300 million copies and are still selling strongly. They have been made into TV series, feature films, radio plays, stage plays, fun parks, animated cartoons, and puppet shows. They have never gone out of print and 32 years after her death, Enid Blyton is still chosen by children as one of their all-time favourite authors.

“Why does a writer accused of being … middle-class, snobbish, sexist, racist … continue to fascinate in our multicultural world? To fascinate not only in France, Germany and Australia, but also in Malaysia, Russia and Japan, and in languages such as Catalan and Tamil?’ Rudd asks.

To begin with, Rudd examines the primary criticisms of Blyton’s work and concludes that many “are based on glaring misreadings, sometimes not even drawing on Blyton’s own original texts.”

The accusation of sexism, for example, is one that has always troubled me. Of all the thousands of books I read as a child, it is George of the Famous Five that remains most vivid in my memory - the tomboy who refused to let the boys push her around, the girl who could out-swim, out-climb and out-wit anyone. The critic Bob Dixon has described George as “a very bad case of … penis-envy’, yet she was a powerful role-model for literally millions of young girls. 



Enid Blyton said that the character of George was inspired by herself as a child


Blyton’s books are filled with passionate, independent girls who fight desperately against being straitjacketed in normal gender roles. Even Anne, normally dismissed as the typical domesticated female, has her own power, which often takes her brothers by surprise. And as Rudd points out, without the contrast of Anne, George’s behaviour would not appear half so subversive.

Noddy, once Blyton’s most popular and celebrated creation, was singled out for the most venom. One critic of the early ‘60s called him “the most egocentric, joyless, snivelling and pious anti-hero in the history of British fiction.” Noddy books were banned for many years, primarily because of the racial implications of their naughty golliwogs. Blyton herself protested that she depicted more bad teddies than golliwogs and statistically she was right. A close examination of the Noddy books shows that the poor maligned golliwogs were wicked in only one story, out of 24 books in total, with the real villains more likely to be monkeys or goblins.




In the sanitised, homogenised versions of the books on sale now, the golliwogs have been replaced by slit-eyed goblins. Noddy and Big Ears, who once liked to share a bed, now live in separate establishments and Noddy no longer feels himself “coming over all queer.” The BBC, producer of the hugely popular animated TV series, has introduced a number of new characters, among them Dinah Doll, who it describes as a “black, assertive, ethnic minority female.” 
In spite of the controversy, Noddy has continued to be hugely popular with the very young. In the 50 years since he sprang to life in Enid Blyton’s fertile imagination, the Noddy books have sold more than 200 million copies in 27 different languages, with spinoffs including toys, clothing and CD-ROMs generating annual sales of more than $80 million in Britain alone. In the US, the Noddy series is now more popular than Sesame Street. No wonder he was asked to ring the bell to launch the day’s trading at the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year!

Most interestingly, Rudd places Blyton strongly within the Homeric tradition of oral storytelling, where the audience is spellbound by the visual, sensual aspects of the tales, their sense of immediacy, their affinity with the natural daydreams of the powerless, who long to be heroes. What is most interesting about Rudd’s analysis is his comparison of this oral tradition with the literary tradition, and how contempt for the more intuitive, spontaneous and simplistic oral tradition reaches as far back as Plato.

In The Republic, Plato criticises Homer’s work for being, at best, frivolous and at worst, dangerous. He sees it as a ‘crippling of the mind’, a ‘species of mental poison and an enemy of the truth.’ Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? 
One of the primary causes for concern for many critics was the sheer volume of Blyton’s work. She was the most prolific author of all time, writing 700 books, 10,000 short stories and hundreds of magazine article and columns. She could write up to 10,000 words in a day. This meant she could write a Famous Five adventure in a week. 

Many worried that once a child became addicted to Blyton, he or she would read nothing else until they progressed - “if ever, on such a spoon-fed diet” as one critic despaired - to adult literature. However, all the evidence goes to show that children who are given the gift of reading for pleasure read voraciously. They read everything they can lay their grubby little mitts on. They read all their lives. 



The fact is Blyton was a wonderful storyteller, with a wonderful knack of knowing just what it is children like in books. Her first ever review, for the book of poems Child Whispers (published in 1922 when she was just twenty-five and working as a nursery governess) celebrated her ability “to move into the child’s world of fancy”. 

The psychologist Michael Woods wrote “she was a child, she thought as a child and she wrote as a child.” He did not mean it as a compliment. Nonetheless, it is a statement of profound truth and the greatest tribute any critic could give a writer for children.  



(This article was written and published quite some time ago, but I think is as relevant as ever. Just to be fair, I have to say I love Geoffrey Trease's books too!) 

SPOTLIGHT: Geoffrey Trease, who began my passion for historical fiction

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Today is the birthday of Geoffrey Trease, one of my all-time favourite writers for children. He was born in Nottingham on 11 August 1909, and died in January 1998. 

In all, he wrote 100 books for children. I’ve been collecting his books since I was a teenager, but I’ve managed to find less than half of them. I hope to find them all in time. 


My love for him began when I was about eleven, and I read his book Cue for Treason (first published in 1940).

It’s a wonderful adventure story set in Elizabethan England. A boy named Peter has to flee after throwing a rock at Sir Philip Morton, the local tyrant, in protest at his theft of the village’s common ground. He sees a troupe of travelling actors and pauses to watch, but then sees Sir Philip in the audience. 

In desperation, Peter hides in a prop coffin and finds himself loaded on to the actors’ wagon. Desmond, the kind-hearted leader of the troupe, takes him on as a child actor, and he travels the roads with them.  Another boy called Kit joins the troupe, and is given all the best female roles (which, of course, could only be played by boys). 

Philip is jealous and fights him, only to discover Kit is really a girl in disguise. She is fleeing a forced marriage to the evil Sir Philip. 

The troupe ends up in London, and Peter and Kit are accepted as actors by a young playwright named Shakespeare. They act in several of his plays, and then accidentally stumble upon a plot to murder the queen. A wild, fast-paced adventure follows as they race to unravel the plot and stop the assassin. All ends well, with the queen grateful to the young adventurers and Sir Philip unmasked as a traitor.  

I loved Cue for Treason. It was one of the books that ignited my passion for historical fiction. The late 16th century world was so adeptly brought to life, and the characters seemed so real. Kit and Peter were both so brave and determined, and the developing romance between them was so deftly handed. 

I began trying to find more books by him. Our library had a few, which I devoured hungrily, and every now and again I found one in a second-hand book stall. 

What I loved about his books was how effortlessly the historical background was woven into the story. The pace never lags, the story never stumbles, the characters never sound awkward or anachronistic, and yet I finished each book feeling as if I had knew exactly how people of that time spoke and dressed and ate and fought. 

He wrote books set in a number of different historical periods. My favourites include Cloak for a Spy (also set in Elizabethan times); The Popinjay Stairs, set in Restoration Times with Samuel Pepys as a character; Thunder of Valmy, set during the French revolution; and The White Nights of St Petersburg, set during the Russian revolution. 

He began writing stories in an old desk diary as a child, and earned his first half-guinea as a writer at the age of 13 with an article on ‘Amateur Journalism’. He won a scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford - but dropped out, determined to be a writer. He worked to help the plight of slum children in the East End of London, and his books reflect his passionately held socialist beliefs. 

In Bows Against the Barons (1934), his very first book, Robin Hood cries out: ‘There are only two classes, masters and men, haves and have-nots.’

Such beliefs were radical in children’s literature at the time, and contributed greatly to his international success. He was particularly beloved in Russia, where his first book sold 100,000 copies. At the time, royalties could not be taken out of the Soviet Union. Geoffrey and his wife, Marian, subsequently lives in Russia for a while, enjoying the fruits of his success. What he saw there may have tempered his beliefs, as his later books – including White Nights of St Petersburg (1967) - were more moderate in their politics. 

From the beginning, Geoffrey set out to overthrow the heavy-handed archaism of historical fiction at the time. “Some of the merriment should be taken out of Merrie England,’ he wrote. 

He did away with what he called ‘gadzookery’, with people saying ‘Zounds’ or ‘Prithee’ at every breath. His characters all talk as ordinary human beings. 

Geoffrey was also determined to have the girls in his stories being as strong-willed and fully-rounded as the boys, something most unusual for the time in which he was writing. 

My love for his books led me to discover other great children’s HF writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff, Leon Garfied, and Elizabeth George Speare. Eventually I read Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and the Baroness d’Orczy … and have been an avid reader of anything historical ever since.  

It's always a pleasure to re-read old favourites (and endeavouring to do so is part of The 50/50 Project - in which I am trying to re-read the books of my Fifty Favourite Authors)  

SPOTLIGHT: The story behind how I first got published

Monday, June 01, 2015

Today (1 June 2015) marks eighteen years since my first novel was published!

The book was called DRAGONCLAW, and it was the first in the series of heroic fantasy novels called THE WITCHES OF EILEANAN.  

To celebrate my 18 Year Anniversary, Random House Australia have re-launched the whole series with a bold and fresh new look, and we are offering one lucky reader the chance to win the whole set, signed by me.


  

Here is the story of how THE WITCHES OF EILEANAN came to be published:


I’ve always wanted to be a writer – it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be.

A novel I wrote when I was 15

All through my childhood I wrote many poems and novels, and sent out my first manuscript when I was sixteen – it was handwritten, in my very childish handwriting, on loose foolscap pages. I didn’t know any better! Well, I didn’t have a typewriter and computers were barely invented. It was rejected, of course, but came back with a lovely letter saying that I clearly had talent and must keep writing.

So I did. I laboured over a magic realism novel all though my early 20s, while working as a journalist, and began to have poems and stories published. I sent out my novel a few times, and it was almost published three times, but fell through every time, much to my despair.

Me in my 20s

At the age of 25 I had a quarter-life crisis. I decided to give myself five years, to pour all my energy into getting a book published, but that I’d have to reassess my life if I couldn’t get published by the age of 30.

I quit my job as a journalist and began freelancing to support myself, and I applied to do my Masters of Arts in Writing, using the magic realism novel I had been working on as my thesis.

I began writing the first draft of Dragonclaw while I was studying for my first year exams, probably in reaction to the “fictive discourses” we were told to construct in our writing classes. About 50,000 words into the first draft, I sent off a few sample chapters to Gaby Naher at Hickson Associates.


She came back the next day, saying she loved it, and when could I get her a complete manuscript? I wrote madly for the next few months (practically ignoring my studies and work commitments).

I finished the first draft, she put it up for auction, and I signed with Random House by the end of the month. This made me particularly happy, since it was two days before my 30th birthday.  

I made my deadline by a whisker!

Dragonclaw has gone on to be sold in the US, Germany, Russia, and Japan, and I have been a full-time writer ever since.

 

 Dragonclaw changed my life forever!

SPOTLIGHT: Diana Wynne Jones

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Yesterday would have been the 80th birthday of the great children's writer, Diana Wynne Jones, if she had lived to see it. 



When I heard - three years and five months ago - that Diana Wynne Jones had died, I grieved as deeply as if I had known her. Part of my sorrow came from the thought that there would be no more Diana Wynne Jones books ... no more funny, wise, magical stories that never fail to enchant and surprise.

I was 11 years old when I read Charmed Life, which has remained my favourite book of hers ever since. It was published in 1977, and was commended for a Carnegie Award and won both the Guardian Award and the Preis der Leseratten in Germany.

The hero of Charmed Life is a boy called Cat Chant. Her and his sister Gwendolen are sent to stay at Chrestomanci Castle after their parents are drowned in a steamboat accident. The castle is the home of the Chrestomanci, a powerful enchanter with nine lives whose job is to manage and control the use of magic in all the many worlds. 



Cat thinks he is a very ordinary sort of boy, but his sister Gwendolen is a talented witch. However, as the story progresses we learn that Cat is indeed a very special boy, with strong magical powers of his own which his sister has been using for her own gain.   

Diana Wynne Jones has gone on to write a number of other books about Cat, the Chrestomanci and the castle, all of them with her own particular brand of warmth, charm, wit and unpredictability. 


Diana Wynne Jones wrote: ‘Why do I write for children? There is one good reason. I would hope to encourage some part of one generation at least to use their minds as minds are supposed to be used. A book for children, like the myths and folktales that tend to slide into it, is really a blueprint for dealing with life. For that reason, it might have a happy ending, because nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless. It might put the aims and the solution unrealistically high – in the same way that folktales tend to be about kings and queens – but this is because it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs. The blueprint should, I think, be an experience in all the meanings of that word, and the better to make it so, I would want it to draw on the deeper resonances we all ought to have in the other side of our minds.’


(I originally wrote this blog post for Michael Pryor's wonderful blog Narrative Transport - check it out there, or read this brief review of one of my favourite SWJ's books Cart & Cwidder)

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

SPOTLIGHT: Lynn Cullen on what makes a reader

Wednesday, January 08, 2014


Today on the blog, I'm very pleased to host Lynn Cullen, the author of the brilliant novel MRS POE which I enjoyed immensely. Here she talks about what makes a reader: 




You are What You Read

Most authors will tell you that they grew up with a lot of books in their house, but I can’t.  

We had two bookcases in our house, one mostly devoted to a set of encyclopedias, the other full of novels my sisters had read decades earlier, books which had been popular in the 40’s, but had fallen out of favor—but not out of our bookshelves—by the 60’s.  

Other hoary tomes sat next to the Booth Tarkington and Ayn Rand novels.  In particular I was fond of a venerable medical dictionary from the turn of the century, illustrated in full color for at-home instruction.  I spent many a fascinated hour looking at the picture of the full-term baby shown in a cross section of a pregnant woman’s body.   I fervently loved that pink baby, huddling there in her magenta womb, sucking her thumb and holding the viscous purple rope of her umbilical cord like a plaything.  

There, too, was an ancient cookbook from which, at thirteen years of age, I taught myself how to prepare a turkey for Thanksgiving, once my mother, worn out from cooking for nine, threatened to heat up a pre-made frozen turkey roll for our feast.   I became a whiz at creamed peas-- I could whip up a white sauce faster than Betty Crocker.  Everything I learned about the basis of cooking came from that volume used by homemakers in the Great Depression.

Another shelf favorite was the row of Reader’s Digests, back issues which had at last found their final resting place after serving time in the bathroom and the glove box of the family car.  (It was from my dad that I developed the habit of keeping reading material on hand at all times.)  While each of these various reading sources played a critical part in my development, it was the gift set of books given one Christmas that put me on the road to who I am today.

They were meant for the whole family: eight volumes collecting literature from around the world for young people.  There was a volume on Folktales, one on Children’s Stories, another on Legends and Myths, one on Adventures, and so on.   I read them all, as I read the whole set of encyclopedias—this is what you do when the selection at home is limited and you’ve already read every fictionalized biography and novel in the children’s section in your local library.   I don’t recall my siblings ever touching the set.  They felt like a personal gift.   

It was the myths and legends that spoke most clearly, introducing me to the way people thought back in time and in faraway places.  I developed a taste for history not seen in textbooks, history that had little to do with wars and dates, but about how people have thought through the centuries.   I loved how the Greek gods were just like us—jealous, petty, desirous, yet noble, wise, and sometimes kind.   Same for the myths and legends of Native Americans, the ancient Romans, the Egyptians:  the actions of their gods and heroes ran the gamut of the best and worst in human compulsions.   They were character studies writ large.


The Illustrated Guide to Mythical Creatures

I didn’t realize it then, but through these books, I was learning everything that I needed to know as a novelist.   These “children’s tales” contained explorations of every native weakness and glory inherent to our kind.  They fed my unconscious with sympathy, horror, and love, mostly love, for our perplexing species.  They gave me the empathy for our complicated tribe that is crucial for any novelist who cares about examining how we tick.

It can be said that books have made me what I am.   Perhaps, in our individual ways, this is true of us all.

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SPOTLIGHT: Fie on the Feisty Heroine!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Fie on the Feisty Heroine! I say.


I’m been a little troubled recently by the plethora of ‘feisty heroines’ in the historical fiction I’ve been reading.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a strong woman!

Yet the truth is that the way that many of these heroines speak and act is utterly anachronistic. It rings untrue, and that breaks the spell of enchantment the book should be casting over me. 

In truth, strong women in the past were, more often than not, broken by their society. They were beaten, locked in scold-bridles, burnt to death for petty treason, stoned or imprisoned or locked away in towers or convents. Most learned very early on to do as they were told. 

Of course there were exceptions. Women who ran away to war, dressed as a boy, and were not discovered for years, for example (Wikipedia has a fascinating list of them


Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake

And history is full of women who were rebellious and rowdy, passionate and powerful – Cleopatra (killed herself with an asp). Boadicea (committed suicide rather than be taken captive by her enemies). Joan of Arc (burnt at the stake). Eleanor of Aquitaine (kept locked up by her husband for years). Emmeline Pankhurst (imprisoned and force-fed) … 


Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested

Of course I’m being selective here to make a point. There are many amazing women in history that lived mostly happy lives and achieved astonishing things. Empress Theodora. Elizabeth I. Marie Curie. Florence Nightingale. Mary Wollstonecraft. 



Marie Curie, a woman alone in a world of men

However, these are the exceptions, not the rule. 

This poses a difficult problem for historical novelists. On the one hand, we want to write books with strong, interesting, clever heroines. On the other hand, we need to be true to the times in which our heroines live.

It can help if we write about heroines outside the cultural norm. In my historical children’s series The Chain of Charms, which is set in the last few weeks of Oliver Cromwell’s life, my heroine is a Rom. This means she is free to gallop about the countryside and have adventures instead of sit quietly and sew her sampler as girls in the mid-1600s were expected to do. 



I recently read Act of Faith by Kelly Gardiner, which is set in the 1640s. Her heroine, Isabella Hawkwood, is the daughter of an Oxford don and philosopher and has been taught to read Latin, Greek and many other languages, as well as to think deeply and clearly. She is headstrong and impetuous and does many things that would be considered utterly scandalous in that period of time. However, she is constantly having to hide her intelligence and her learning, and she is also afraid and unsure, giving her character greater depth. (Here's my review of Act of Faith)

I ran up against this problem all the time in my novel The Wild Girl, which is inspired by the true untold love story between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most famous fairy tales. How I wanted Dortchen to be feistier! But she was the product of her time and her culture – the strict, puritanical and patriarchal world of Germany in the early 19th century. I could make her long for a world in which women were free to make their own choices, but I could not give her that world. 


Dortchen could not marry without her father’s permission.

She could not go to school past the age of 14, let alone go on to university.

She could not get a job. 

She could not even choose what to wear.

And, to tell you the truth, I think that my Dortchen shows greater strength and resilience in finding her way forward in the life she was given than if I had made her dress up as a boy and run away to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Because the life I have created for her is as true as I could make it. It doesn’t turn history into a fantasyland where women dress in tight leather corsets and can kickbox (though, mind you, I do love a good, kick-ass, leather-clad heroine too! Just not in a historical novel).

In The Wild Girl, I have tried to show how difficult life was for women in the past, so that we can make sure that we don’t forget all that has been won for us. 

This is why I say: Fie on the feisty heroine! 

Give me women who are vulnerable as well as strong, conflicted as well as determined, kind-hearted as well as quick-witted, and who have to truly struggle to make their way in a world that does not pretend to make life easy for women.

One last final note: did you know the word ‘feisty’ comes from the German word feist, a derogatory term for a lapdog? 

What about you? Do you love a feisty heroine, or do also you think they are perhaps becoming a little cliched? 

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment - I always love to know what you think.

SPOTLIGHT: Frances Hodgson Burnett author of The Secret Garden

Monday, November 25, 2013


“Everything's a story. You are a story - I am a story.” 
Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess


Today (24 November) is both my mother’s birthday and the birthday of one of my all-time favourite children’s authors - Frances Hodgson Burnett.



She was born on this day in 1849, in Cheetham, near Manchester in the UK. Her father died when she was only three and after struggling along for some time, her poverty-stricken mother emigrated to the US when Frances was 16, settling in Tennessee. Frances began writing and publishing stories at the age of 19 to help earn money for her family. 

She became friends with a lame boy called Swan Burnett who lived across the street and introduced him to all the books she most loved. Soon she was earning enough money from her writing to move her family into a bigger house and to travel to Europe.  She returned to the US to marry her childhood sweetheart, Swan Burnett, and then they lived in Paris for a few years (lucky thing!) She had two sons, Lionel and Vivian. 

Her first novel ‘That Lass o' Lowries’ was published in the UK and UK in 1877 and she went on to write several more novels for adults. After meeting Louis May Alcott, she decided to try her hand at writing for children and ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ was published in 1886 (people mock her for this book today, but it was hugely popular at the time and prompted a fashion for little boys to wear velvet suits with lace collars and long hair, which is how she liked to dress her own sons).



The character of Little Lord Fauntleroy is thought to be modelled on her younger son Vivian, pictured left

Life was not all sweet, however. Frances’s marriage was in trouble, and then her eldest son contracted tuberculosis. His death plunged her into depression, but she continued to write, publishing numerous books for adults with titles like A Lady of Quality (1896) and The Making of a Marchioness (1901). Her eventual divorce from her husband caused a scandal. 

At this time she turned away from her traditional faith in the Church of England to embrace Spiritualism. She lived separately from her husband and became involved with a handsome younger man who had ambitions as an actor. 




In 1905 she published ‘A Little Princess’, which I absolutely adored as a child and read many times. A few of my favourite quotes:

“Whatever comes," she said, "cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.” 

“How it is that animals understand things I do not know, but it is certain that they do understand. Perhaps there is a language which is not made of words and everything in the world understands it. Perhaps there is a soul hidden in everything and it can always speak, without even making a sound, to another soul.” 

“If nature has made you for a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full, and you can give things out of that--warm things, kind things, sweet things--help and comfort and laughter--and sometimes gay, kind laughter is the best help of all.” 



From 1898 to 1907, Frances lived in England at Great Maytham, an old country house which had been damaged by fire and let half in ruins  . One day, aided by a robin, she found the old walled garden dating from 1721 sadly overgrown and neglected. She had the garden restored, planting hundreds of roses, set up a table and chair in the gazebo, and - dressed always in a white dress and large hat - wrote a number of books in her secret garden’s peace and tranquillity.  



Her younger lover Stephen Townsend came to live with her there, scandalising the vicar, and so in February 1900 she married him. The marriage was very unhappy and Frances suffered depression and illness. Two years later, she divorced him.

Frances was inspired to write her most famous book ‘The Secret Garden’ by her own discovery of the forgotten garden at Great Maytham, though much of it as written at another grand country manor house, Buile Hill Park.

The book’s working title was ‘Mistress Mary’, referring to the English nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. It was first serialised in The American Magazine from autumn 1910, then published in the summer of 1911 by Frederick A. Stokes in New York, and by Heinemann in London. The 1911 edition was illustrated by M.B.Kork. 




It is one of my own all-time favourite books. I have read it many hundreds of times, including to my own children. I think my own love of flower, plants and gardens (especially secret gardens) was inspired by this book. I particularly love the sense of joyousness in the book, and the feeling that magic and miracles can happen if you just believe hard enough. 

Some favourite quotes: 

“One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands out and throws one's head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one's heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun--which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with the millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone's eyes.” 
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden


“I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us” 
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden



MY OWN SECRET GARDEN

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