HEART of CRUELTY: on ‘romances about brutal men’

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One of my Amazon.com reviewers has written that the ending of HEART of CRUELTY annoyed her so much that she ‘wanted to throw it across the room.’ Spoiler alert: my novel isn’t intended as a standard romance.

In the standard romance – think of a cover featuring large male muscles and a lady in satin – the alpha-male hero is in some kind of conflict situation with a vulnerable yet feisty heroine and the conflict is overtaken by their mutual attraction; they have a big showdown and separation four-fifths of the way through the book, but end up rapturously united.

I’m not doing that, sorry.

Those alpha-male heroes are hugely suspect individuals and if we met them in real life we might want to run a mile. Ruggedly handsome, brutally strong, devoid of self-criticism, they occupy positions of high social status: royalty; aristocrats; billionaires; warlords. It’s arguable that mostly they maintain their roles by exploiting other people. The elegant and leisured lives of Jane Austen’s heroes were dependent on someone else’s labour, whether that was down an English coal mine or on a Jamaican sugar plantation. And however blissful the marriage, a heroine would still have had to make sure that their husband’s socks were washed and their shirts were ironed, even if this was by the servants.

Have you stopped trusting them yet, ladies?

It makes me wonder if these romances are actually a way of trying to persuade women that these stereotypes are desirable. Does the romance fiction genre promote a patriarchal society?

And a further question: does the notion, widespread in fiction, that good must triumph over evil, promote negative judgments of the down-trodden? ‘Loser’ is a favourite Trumpian insult: what if the loser is in fact a victim?

Here’s an extract from HEART of CRUELTY in which I explore these ideas. Doughty is talking to Jane:

‘If you read a work of fiction, or see an opera, or a play at the theatre, is it the hero or the villain that triumphs?’

‘The hero, naturally. Good triumphs over evil. It is the natural order.’ 

‘But our prejudices of the natural order corrupt our view. What I have found at inquests is the difficulty in persuading the jury that the deceased are not villains, but victims. The woman who is cruelly violated and murdered is argued to have provoked her attacker. The abandoned infant is deemed illegitimate, unbaptised, it has no place in society. We withhold pity from the weak and the defeated, and instead we forgive their abusers. I blame the scribblers of novels for this pernicious state of affairs…’  

I wondered whether his mind had been running on what I had told him but could not ask. He was too caught up in his own argument: ‘…Why, some ladies are only content when reading romances about brutal men.’ 

HEART of CRUELTY: on the conflict at the core of the novel

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So my book is launched today. Initial reactions from my reviewers are: ‘gripping’… ‘a page turner’… ‘hard to put down’. It’s a dark novel and the evil at the heart of it is abuse that is unchallenged.

I’m influenced by my own experiences of working in child protection, as well as by modern day press reports of rape cases, by the #metoo movement, by the Jimmy Savile Inquiry and by the writing and work of Graham Wilmer, survivor of clerical abuse and founder of The Lantern Project.

My experience of prosecuting child abuse has been that every time, even when we know the abuse has happened, it’s a hard battle to prove it in court. To give evidence under cross examination one has to state a complex case in very simple terms, as the lawyers won’t admit to any medical knowledge, and keep stating it over and over again. The defence barrister will attempt to completely discredit the paediatrician, and deliberately twist their evidence or misinterpret facts out of context to try and disprove everything. I have had abuse cases where I had to attend the court for multiple hearings because (in my view) the lawyers did not choose to understand the medical evidence. I won in the end.

If it is stressful for me: an experienced medical witness, articulate, educated, and well-prepared, to appear in court, what is it like for a rape victim? For an underage girl? The adversarial nature of the English court works powerfully against victims who are vulnerable, made to feel ashamed and find it hard to describe what has happened to them. It is no accident that many of the words we use to describe sexual acts are taboo: embarrassing to utter to one’s friends or family, let alone in the austere setting of a courtroom.

In my novel the victims are silenced. My narrator, Jane, knows about the abuse, but lacks evidence and lacks a voice. As she gradually assembles the proofs she gains the courage to state her case and convince those who are reluctant to listen.

For more on HEART of CRUELTY (Link)

HEART of CRUELTY: introducing the characters

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I feel as if I’ve spent years with these two characters from my novel HEART of CRUELTY. Who are they?

Coroner William Doughty is a medical man, but not a successful one. He’s been promoted beyond his competence, yet cares about his work, and tries to develop it.

Doctors began an evidence-base for medicine in the 1800s by studying disease through postmortems, and pathology began to inform inquests. In the 1700s, the inquest verdict for a sudden death might well have been ‘Act of God’. A century later the inquest jury would ask why the death had occurred: if the deceased had obtained the right medical treatment, or if they had suffered neglect, or poisoning?

In 1840, Doughty is on the cusp of this change, and as a young and inexperienced Coroner he believes he will get his juries to trust the medical science. A Coroner – ‘the Friend to the Poor’ – was the last recourse for justice in state institutions, especially the workhouse, where the lock-up was unique in that an inmate could be held captive for an undefined length of time without a court order or any external scrutiny.

Doughty’s a romantic, capable of losing his heart and head over a woman, and of pursuing love into disaster. He knows he should act like a gentleman, but his physical instincts tell him otherwise.

Jane Verity abandoned the advantages of an affluent upbringing, seduced by an actor and the promise of a glamorous life in the theatre. She has been ruined by that love affair, has seen her newborn baby die, and is at rock bottom in the workhouse when Doughty encounters her.

Nothing any more can be worse than what she has already been through. From the depths of her despair she must find the courage to speak up for herself and others, to expose the truth about the evil she has witnessed, and to return to what she loves: playing the piano.

For more on Heart of Cruelty: (Link)

Haunted by Workhouses

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#HeartOfCruelty #Histwriter #Birmingham

Wherever I had a job in the NHS – in London or the West Midlands – there was almost always an old workhouse, often still in use as a part of the hospital. I was employed for years in Sandwell and West Birmingham: at City Hospital the office was in a converted workhouse school, while at Sandwell the office was in a former workhouse’s venereal diseases ward. Now I work in Wexford, Ireland, where, just down the hill from the modern district hospital, is… a former workhouse.

Peter Higginbotham’s amazing website workhouses.org.uk provides a complete catalogue and history of these darkly gothic buildings.  

My debut novel ‘Heart of Cruelty’ is set in the old Birmingham workhouse, which was on Steelhouse Lane, near the city centre. I have no evidence of any wrongdoings occurring in that workhouse and the events in my novel have been rehashed from other places and times. But in 1840 it would have been a harsh experience: the ‘Workhouse Test’ meant that life inside had to be harder than for the lowest paid worker on the outside. Paupers fared worse than convicted criminals, with less food and longer hours of forced labour.

Attempting to starve the poor into work caused huge suffering in the Victorian age, and failed to create the healthy and educated workforce which the labour movement achieved in the 20th century. In the 21st century, that hard-won advantage has been forgotten. Welfare cuts have caused severe hardship. For Anna Burns to acknowledge her local food bank in her prize-winning novel ’Milkman’ shows how far down we have sunk.

As I watch the Covid-19 pandemic rage around the world I become convinced that it cannot be eradicated unless poverty is eradicated. If people are homeless, or in overcrowded accommodation, how can they self-isolate?

For more about my debut novel ‘Heart of Cruelty’: (Link)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To subscribe to my free newsletter ‘The HistWriter’ and receive a free eBook of 20 historical short stories: (Link)

 

 

‘Heart of Cruelty’ released on 21st October 2020

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‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ I did a happy dance when David at Poolbeg Press sent me the cover for my debut novel. So here it is:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kindle version is now available to pre-order at:

Amazon UK: link

Amazon US: link

Amazon Australia: link

Amazon Canada: link

Amazon India: link

Amazon Netherlands: link

Amazon France: link

Amazon Spain: link

Amazon Germany; link

Amazon Italy: link

Amazon Japan: link

Shifting Currents – Joanna Orwin – Goodreads review

Shifting Currents by Joanna Orwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Joanna Orwin is a NZ author who is also a critique buddy of mine. I can personally vouch that every word in this novel has been weighed, considered and edited many times over.

Shifting Currents is a historical novel set amongst settlers in 19th century New Zealand: Lydia Boulcott has entered a marriage of convenience hoping to escape her past, but in a remote community meets the one woman who can uncover her secret.


The remote kauri forests and the flow of the river set the scene for this beautifully written novel evoking the hardships of the early settlers, the decline of the Maoris and the unforgiving ethos of that age. Lydia’s courageous journey is sympathetically told; the harder she works to hide her secret the greater becomes the gulf that divides her from her daughter.



View all my reviews

Let trans-women be women #TWAW

On the question of whether trans-women should be seen as women, and able to access female public toilets and changing rooms: YES.

It seems that a lot of the debate about this issue on the interweb takes the form of: 

Tweeter A: ‘I believe THIS!’

Tweeter B: ‘Why, how COULD you sink so LOW? When I believe THAT!’

We are getting the adversarial jousting of a law court rather than an attempt to understand people with gender dysphoria.

Although I am a cis-woman I speak with experience of meeting and talking to transgender people, as I supported my spouse through transition and have accompanied her to many social events run by the transgender community. ‘Outskirts’ in Birmingham, the English city where we used to live, was a huge source of support.

Stop for a moment, and inhabit your own body, like on those mindfulness courses. Now imagine that, like Gregor Samsa changing into an insect in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you have changed in the blink of an eye and been given a new body: that of the opposite sex. A whole new set of societal expectations rise up in front of you like a wall. People – maybe even people close to you, like your family and friends – reject you for not being what you said you were, what you were supposed to be.  

People with gender dysphoria express a sense that they have been born into the wrong body. They desperately try to conform to the gender norms set by society while feeling that these are the wrong ones. Eventually they affirm their innate sense of gender and in doing so are able to be content in their own skin. Transition does not happen overnight, nor is it an all-or-nothing process; it is achieved haltingly, fearfully, perhaps incompletely, and with much soul searching along the way. Some don’t make it through transition because it’s just too difficult. Tragically, some choose to end their own lives.

Gender dysphoria is unconnected with sexual orientation and trans people are no more likely to be sexual predators than anyone else. Probably less likely, in fact. Personally, I have always felt very safe around trans people and the LGBT+ community as a whole. In fact in Birmingham it was common to see groups of cis-women on Hurst Street in the gay quarter. Some were lesbians and others were straight women looking for a night out somewhere they felt safe.

The whole scenario that JK Rowling envisages, whereby a man dresses up as a woman in order to access women’s toilets or changing facilities and carry out sexual assault, probably belongs in one of her novels. In reality, it is an incredibly drastic step for a man to dress as a woman and go out in public. Running the gauntlet of the neighbours’ spying eyes as they go out means that they often make-up at home but take their outfits with them and get changed in a safe place. Most trans-women, especially on their first outings, are absolutely terrified that a member of the public will notice that they are of male birth gender, or even worse, that they will comment on it. Can you imagine how that would feel – and then how awful, how humiliating it would be, if forced to use the male toilets? Fortunately more and more public facilities are designed to be non-gendered.

So, dear Reader, give trans-women a break. Be grateful if it isn’t happening to you. And if you encounter a trans-woman, please remember to speak of ‘her’ and ‘she’, and be kind.

P.S.
Having ‘e-discussed’ this blog post with friends I just wanted to add that, yes, people can be unsympathetic, but my spouse and I have also experienced warmth and support from many sources: her workplace before we left the UK; her mom; our friends; a sympathetic article in the Irish Times and the supportive reaction from my colleagues here in Ireland after it was published; our neighbours here in Ireland; even the recruitment firm I dealt with when job hunting in Ireland. And when out and about in Ireland, the general public don’t make discourteous comments. If we’re in a bar or a cafe the staff will usually address us as ‘Ladies’ or even ‘Love’. That might be more to do with the high level of good manners here than with any strongly held progressive views!

Who really is Tussaud’s Sleeping Beauty? V 2.0 #histwriter

My earlier post on this topic is one of the most frequently visited on my blog. So I thought I would add some further comments.

To recap: The date given by Tussaud’s for the waxwork of 1765 is 3 years too early for the figure to be Madame Du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV. One of her biographers, Philip M Laski, in ‘The Trial and Execution of Madame Du Barry‘ (1969), states that Du Barry (then using the name Jeanne de Vaubernier) first met Louis XV in May 1768. Being a member of the aristocracy was essential for her to become the official royal mistress.and her marriage to Comte Guillaume du Barry took place on 1st September 1768.

Now I noticed that Rodama had some interesting theories on her blog including both Du Barry and Madame St Amaranthe, a beautiful young woman guillotined during the Terror for refusing Robespierre’s advances. Rodama also suggests that the image may be a doll-like figure and not based on a life model.

If the date of 1765 is accurate then Louisa O’Murphy, one of the ‘petites maitresses’ of Louis XV could have been the model. This young woman, born in Rouen of Irish (Traveller?) ancestry, had previously been the model for Francois Boucher, one of the foremost painters of the Rococo age, as seen in his painting of the ‘Blonde Odalisque’. Boucher’s paintings had drawn the king’s attention to her.

Image from Wikimedia Commons: François Boucher - Blond Odalisque (L'Odalisque Blonde) - WGA2906

O’Murphy would have been 29 at that time of the waxwork and although her relationship with Louis XV had waned, there had been rumours of her returning to the Court following the death of Madame de Pompadour in April 1764. If she had been the model I speculate that it could even have been an attempt at self-promotion.

O’Murphy (Morfi to the French) was also linked to the ‘Parc aux Cerfs’ (Stag Park), Louis XV’s private harem. An alternative suggestion is that one of the other girls from the Parc aux Cerfs might have provided the model. The Parc aux Cerfs was set up during Madame de Pompadour’s lifetime, after her sexual relationship with Louis XV ended. It was maintained after Pompadour’s death by Le Bel, the king’s valet, and closed when Du Barry became the mistress. There are interesting parallels with the modern day Epstein/Maxwell case: Madame de Pompadour was rumoured to recruit and ‘supervise’ the inmates.

For a fabulous fictionalised biography of Madame Tussaud, try Edward Carey’s ‘Little’: the voice, the vocabulary and the imagery make it a luxury to read; the text is full of quirky illustrations in the style of the ones on the cover:

To see the work of Boucher in a beautiful (but expensive) art catalogue, try: