Friday, 29 October 2010

The Queen of Last Hopes


Susan Higginbotham

A Review by Judith Arnopp

In 1445, aged fifteen, Margaret of Anjou was married to King Henry VI of England, a marriage intended to restore peace between France and England. When Henry declined into madness eight years later, the heavily pregnant Margaret was drawn to the forefront of English politics. In stepping from her prescribed feminine role to oppose the claims of the Yorkist faction she became a target for enemy propaganda. Her fierce protection of her son, Edward of Lancaster, and her refusal to admit defeat did not attract acclaim, as would have been the case had she been a man, instead she was accused of a variety transgressions.
Since the Wars of the Roses Margaret of Anjou has been seen as a vengeful, violent figure. Shakespeare presented her as an adulterous bitch whose natural female instinct for nurture was corrupted to homicide. Later historians and novelists have taken this opinion of Margaret and run with it and in numerous works she appears as a virulent, unnatural woman, a ‘she wolf’ meddling in the affairs of men. Recently, however, there have been revisions of Margaret’s character, a reassessment of her actions and a more balanced, detached view of her is emerging.
Susan Higginbotham’s novel, The Queen of Last Hopes, is spawned of this revisionist opinion. The tale is told from a Lancastrian perspective, multi-narrated by Margaret herself and various members of her retinue.
Although meticulously researched Higginbotham’s Margaret is, for me, unconvincing. In trying to negate the slander I feel the character emerges as ‘too nice for words,’ as my mum would say. Recorded instance of brutality are glossed over or excused and so she emerges almost as saintly as her husband, King Henry.
I also found that, in many areas, Higginbotham’s research gets in the way of a good story. I wanted to feel blades slicing through flesh, the horror of cousin fighting cousin, the raw, tearing grief of losing a child. Instead the trauma of Margaret’s experiences seem twice, even thrice removed. I did not hear her voice and received instead an anaesthetised account.
On the whole I found the male characters more convincing. The Duke of Somerset, Henry Beaufort, slightly rakish, foolhardy, is likeable because of his flaws and a far more comfortable read than Margaret. King Henry’s complex mix of confusion, religious dedication and loyalty makes him a likeable king, touchingly naive. And Margaret’s son, Edward of Lancaster’s honest narration and unfortunate end is just as well rounded and his death painfully poignant.
I appreciate the amount of research that Susan Higginbotham has put into this novel. Most novelists have approached the Wars of the Roses from a Yorkist point of view, I believe and I like the refreshing Lancastrian perspective. I admire the way Higginbotham dispenses with the propaganda against Margaret but, for me, she shines just a bit too brightly to be real. Also in ignoring the vilification against Margaret it would have been good if she could have done the same with the slanders that the Tudors levelled against the Yorkists but instead, many of the old defamations of Richard of Gloucester and Edward IV remain.
On the whole it is a solid, entertaining read, a little less historical detail and a little more blood and sweat would have improved it for me but, there, I am a bloodthirsty girl. The Queen of Last Hopes is a winner and will please Higginbotham’s fans and attract new readers from the adherents of the Lancastrian faction.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Interview with poet, Sue Moules

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing resident Welsh poet, Sue Moules.

Hi Sue, Thank you for agreeing to be guest poet on my blog. Whenever I pick up a volume of poetry I am always wary of what it will contain. Poetry can be wonderful or it can be very, very dreadful. I was so thrilled when I first read yours, it absolutely sings. You present a unique view of the world and take the reader beyond the obvious and turn the mundane into something special. What was it that made you realise you had this ability and what first prompted you to write?

I started writing poetry when I was about eight. I always enjoyed reading and loved the poem, Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. My grandfather, Frank Longfellow, said we were related to the American poet, but I don’t think we are. I wrote poetry because I found stories difficult. However, I did win the Brooke Bond prize at school for a story, with my friend, Sheena, coming second. The headmaster had expected her to win and had read her story out to the school. Sheena and I used to write poems together - one line each - in small red Memo books.

Ooh, you may be surprised; you should trace your family tree and find out if you are related to Longfellow, maybe that is where you get your talent. So, you have written from childhood, how long was it before you were first published and how did it feel?

My first poem to be published was in the local paper w hen I was a child, back in the 1960’s. The poem was called Trees and it rhymed. I was very excited to see my poem in print. I got a 2/6d postal order which seemed like a fortune. My first literary publication was in 1982 in Poetry Wales. It felt good to be in the company of published poets, and knowing that my work had made the standard. I had been trying since I graduated from University in 1979, so it had cost a lot in postage and rejections.

What about your main influences, tell us about them.

I like to say that I am influenced by no one and everyone but obviously everything read is an influence. I studied English Literature at University and read a lot of dead male poets. I wrote my dissertation on Sylvia Plath. Since then I have discovered many women poets such as Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Oliver and many male poets.

I know you have several books published, can you tell us about the latest ones and perhaps which are your favourites?

My favourite book is always the most recent, so The Earth Singing (Lapwing) published in August 2010. Although getting a box of The Copyright of Land (National Poetry Foundation), my first book after three pamphlets, back in 2000 was exciting.

Your poems are very evocative, you seem to see the world in quite a unique way, or at least to be able to describe it in a more colourful manner than most people. Is this something that came naturally or did you have to learn to do it?

I think that going on courses helps define one’s work and encourages it to be more outgoing. My themes tend to be introspective, although I would see myself as a nature poet. My poems are full of colour because I would have liked to have been good at art. I think a poet never stops learning and that comes from hearing other poets and reading other poets.

And each new experience presumably alters the way we see the world and learn from it. What keeps you motivated and where do you look for support?

I go through phases when I’m not motivated, when I think I’m wasting my time, but then, when I manage to craft a piece that works and isn’t “chopped up prose” I feel I’ve achieved something.
I think a form can help to achieve this. As a child I loved those square puzzles which had a picture broken down into smaller squares. You had to move the squares around to make the picture complete. Another of my favourite games was a small hand held solitaire game, with small blue plastic markers. The aim being to achieve one marker in the centre of the game. Years later I enjoyed précis at school, reducing words down to their basics. All good grounding for a poet. I find it hard to write a long piece. A poem that goes over the page is an achievement for me. I find it hard to write prose, as I want to get to the kernel of the story.
At primary school we read ballads, The Highwayman, The Ballad of Patrick Spens, The Ancient Mariner, Hiawatha etc. I do like to have story in my poems, and it probably comes from this early grounding.
I was lucky to have excellent English teachers at the three secondary schools I attended. At ‘O ‘level we studied Six Modern Poets, living poets, and my favourite poem was Relic by Ted Hughes. I hadn’t come across Hughes before, or Philip Larkin - his “blackbird /astonishing the brickwork“ was just a fantastic observation that I remember often.
I also studied Elizabeth Jennings. I knew that Christina Rossetti and Emily Bronte had been poets, but Elizabeth Jennings was a living female poet. It was good to see that women could be poets too.
At University English Literature ended with W.H. Auden but my knowledge of contemporary poetry has come from subscribing to magazines and reading. I first went to poetry readings at University and started to buy poetry books then. Unfortunately, back in the 1970s there weren’t creative writing degrees.

Are you a member of any writing groups?

I belong to so many groups I never have time to write! I seem to be a real groupie. It is hard to be a writer in isolation and, by meeting up with other like-minded people, you are able to talk shop, which of course keeps you motivated. I attend workshops and try to go on a writing course every year if I can afford to. Being with other writers can be inspiring and having the space to write is important. Often I write and think it’s “a so what piece” and often it is, but occasionally I write something I’m really pleased with.

If you don’t mind, I would like to include an example of your poetry in this blog, can you suggest one that means a great deal to you and explain why?

The following poem is from The Earth Singing, it is a mirror poem, and took some crafting.

On The Night of A Full Moon

This is a spell to make things right:
plant when the moon is waxing,
harvest when the moon is waning.
The eyes of the cat are copper circles,
its feline body sussurates along the cold pavement.
As I name the stars and planets,
call on their wisdom,
the continuity of sky,
crunch of autumn leaves on grass,
short days and dark nights.

Short days and dark nights.
crunch of autumn leaves on grass,
the continuity of sky.
Call on their wisdom,
as I name the stars and planets.
Along the cold pavement.
its feline body sussurates,
the eyes of the cat are copper circles.
Harvest when the moon is waning.
plant when the moon is waxing,
This is the spell to make things right.

In the past 10 years Ceredigion, where I live, has started to celebrate the fact that Dylan Thomas lived in the area by putting up plaques to show where he lived. One day driving into Aberaeron there was a cut out model of the poet standing outside the bookshop. As well as being surprised and shocked, I thought it quite surreal, especially as Dylan Thomas had not been given such acclaim when he was alive and so I wrote the poem “I Labour by Singing Light” taken from his ‘In my Craft and Sullen Art.’

‘I Labour by Singing Light’ From ‘In my Craft and Sullen Art’ by Dylan Thomas.

Outside Bookworm in Aberaeron
Dylan Thomas stands
life size in his sepia photo,
dead before he was forty.

‘Yes, I remember the boyo
left a tax bill,
and at the Seahorse in New Quay
he never paid his tab.’

We are all keen to claim him now,
put up blue porcelain plaques
on the places he visited,
the houses he rented.

‘Drunkard, womaniser, waster’
they called him then.

All summer this cut out
has done the rounds,
famous not for poetry
but for drink and a film
that has taken truth and made fiction.

In his singing light
he might have laughed
to be standing on Alban Square
stopping traffic.

Lovely, Sue, thank you so much for sharing them with us. If any of my readers wish to purchase a volume of your work, can you tell me where they are available?

My poetry books are available from Amazon or direct from me: I prefer to sell them myself as there is little money in poetry and I’d prefer it went to me or my publishers rather than Amazon. Amazon is quick, easy and efficient and I enjoy using it myself, but I always try and buy friends’ books direct from them.

Copyright Sue Moules 2010

Friday, 22 October 2010

Coming Soon - author interview with Sue Moules.

The fabulous poet, Sue Moules, author of, among others, The Green Seascape, The Copyright of Land and The Earth Singing has promised to be a guest on my blog next week. I look forward to chatting with her. If anyone has any specific questions they would like me to ask on their behalf please contact me on

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Medieval Women – history, historiography and literature.

The Old Testament is full of heroic women; Judith, Deborah and Esther to name but a few but the pages of the New Testament are relatively free of them. As most of you will have heard, medieval society was divided into sections – those who fought, those who worked and those who prayed. The women, omitted from these divisions were subdivided into three categories of their own: Nun, Wife or Whore.

The Anglo Saxon and Medieval Chronicles provide just fleeting glimpses of the women who were so divided. Women had no place in the monastic world and the chroniclers, perpetuating the beliefs of St Paul and Jerome, believed women to be sprung from the loins of Eve, the first perpetrator of human sin. Eve’s temptation had caused the downfall of mankind and as a consequence women were flawed, an evil temptation to lure the otherwise pious menfolk from prayer. Every woman was therefore likely to reform to type and needed to be kept firmly in her place and watched.

Female sexuality was branded as sinful, the only feminine roles acceptable to the church were religious devotion or marriage and the reason they approved the state of marriage was to ensure procreation and to prevent fornication. To avoid the latter the legal age for marriage began at puberty; girls could marry at twelve and boys at fourteen, although betrothal often took place much younger, sometimes while still in the cradle. To prevent women from escaping male supervision those who did not marry were sent into ‘service’ working and earning a living under the jurisdiction of a master.

The Virgin Mary has little to say in the bible, her role is to give life to Christ, nurture him in infancy and attend his death. But, in the medieval period a Marian cult emerged, inflating Christ’s mother to prominence and sanctity. She was promoted by the church, as an aspiration for all females. She was perfect, an untouched mother, fruitful, pure, silent and passive. An unobtainable condition that, quite unsurprisingly, women failed to achieve.

As a result, women in both history and literature appear as either a Mary or an Eve, a saint or a sinner. The chroniclers, unable to justify female accomplishments occurring outside these parameters, either ignored them or gave them only the briefest of notice.

My favourite example of this is Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great. When her husband, Aethelred of Mercia, became ill she ruled the kingdom alone and continued to do so after his death yet, in the chronicles, she is dealt with in just a few lines.

Consequently, one has to dig deep to discover the potent dynastic role that she played. A few modern historians have dealt with her and she is the subject of a handful of, rather bad, novels portrayed as a tragic, saintly figure with over much emphasis placed upon her womanhood. Her reluctance to resume sexual relations with her husband is usually interpreted as a striving for spiritual and bodily purity, it is never once considered that maybe Aetheldred was ugly, smelly or simply no good in bed. I do think the most obvious answer should be considered first.
It is more likely that her abstinence stemmed from a desire to unite the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia after her death. In addition to declining sexual relations with her husband she also made sure her only daughter did not marry and provide Mercia with an heir. Kathleen Herbert in her study ‘Peace weavers and Shield maidens’ says, ‘Æthelflæd made sure it happened, putting the strength of her will on the side of her own family, perhaps even using her own body to bar an independent Mercian dynasty and prepared to sacrifice her own daughter in the same cause. To use the Old English metaphore, Æthelflæd’s peaceweaving, her diplomatic marriage, was ‘of breathtaking brilliance’ but it had a lining of tough, hard-wearing ruthlessness.’[1]

There are just a very few genuine female voices still audible from the Middle Ages. Christine de Pizan, a notable writer and scholar of her day, participated in debates against misogyny and in writing The Treasure of the City of Ladies she presented a strategy that allowed all women, regardless of status, to undermine the dominant patriarchal discourse. Of course, it should be noted that she did not embark upon this crusade until she had the fortune to be widowed and enjoy the relative freedom that the widowed state allowed.

If we look to the surviving letters and personal papers from the medieval age we can obtain a clearer picture of real women, and they are not all pleasant. The Paston letters, a collection of papers from a wealthy Norfolk family reveal the turmoil of family politics in the 15th century. Agnes Paston emerges as a hard nosed, controlling woman whose family, even her sons, trod lightly in her presence. When her daughter, Elizabeth, refused to marry the man her family selected for her, Dame Agnes beat her several times a week, and even twice in a day, forbidding her to speak to anyone.

The prospective groom was Stephen Scrope, a man of fifty who confessed to having ‘suffered a sickness that kept me a thirteen or fourteen years en-suing, whereby I am disfigured in my person and shall be whilst I live'.
I am not surprised that Elizabeth wasn't keen but, after several weeks of seclusion and beatings, she consented, although in the end the marriage did not take place and the beatings she suffered were for nothing. There is no record of whether her eventual marriage was happy or not.
Another Paston, Margery, betrothed herself without permission, to the family steward and, although the Pastons went to great lengths to free her from it, they could find no legal impediment. As a consequence her mother turned her out of the house and refused to have anything to do with her again. Interestingly, her husband, Richard Calle, continued in the family’s employ; good stewards obviously being harder to replace than daughters.

The few records we have looked at here, largely recorded by men, the medieval women are so imbibed with the social ethos of the day that they do not provide a glimpse of how women were but only of how they were supposed to be. And it is little different in the literature.
Medieval literary females emerge either as unlikely saintly figures, peace weavers or mothers, women who obey. Women like Wealhtheow in Beowulf who “went her rounds / queenly and dignified, decked out in rings / offering the goblet to all ranks, / treating the household and the assembled troop” (Beowulf 620-624).
The poet shows Wealhtheow fulfilling her prescribed role as queen but we do not get to know her.. She remains an object, valued maybe, and beautiful to look on but her thoughts and feelings are irrelevant.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the evil women of literature. Shakespeare’s Queen Marguerite wife to Henry vi, the ‘she-wolf’ who had the temerity to step outside her prescribed role to fight for her son’s crown. Lady Macbeth who subverted the ideal of feminine nurture to tempt her husband to regicide, taking life instead of giving it. The beautiful lady at Bertilak’s castle in Sir Gawain and the Green knight who enters Gawain’s chamber to tempt him with her sexual charm. Queen Guinevere who, although possessing all the attributes expected in a medieval queen, commits adultery, betrays Arthur and brings down the kingdom. Ultimately, of course, in Beowulf we have Grendel’s mother, a grotesque parody of maternity, fighting for her offspring with loathsome determination, revealing quite graphically the depths to which women can stoop, given the provocation.

It is not until the 18th century that literary female figures begin to emerge as properly rounded, intelligent, forward thinking people. This new portrayal of women coincides with both the advent of the narrative novel and female writers.

Initially women were depicted from a male perspective, the literary tradition of either saint or sinner remaining largely unchanged. The virtuous Pamela Andrews in Samuel Richardson’s Virtue Rewarded, a Mary figure who refuses the violent overtures of her employer until he offers her marriage, contrasts very nicely with the Eve-like erotic adventures of Mrs Fanny Hill.
Amongst others, Jane Austen depicted the life and social niceties of the 18th -19th centuries from a female perspective, revealing that there was really very little else, other than marriage, to occupy the female mind. Her satirical descriptions of the society in which she lived reveal her conscious realisation, and proof, that there should be more to women than previously thought.
Even Dickens, one of my favourites, had his stereotypes, silly women, helpless angels and evil harridans and it is not until one of his last novels, Our Mutual Friend that Lizzie Hexham provides a more credible figure who takes control but even she, I find, is quite unconvincingly ‘nice.’
It is not until the Bronte’s that we find complex female characters, in control of their own destinies, self-motivated, strong women with whom we can still identify.

History, historiography and literature has done much to obscure what medieval women were really like, they only show us what they were supposed to be. We can see from the Paston Papers that there were rebels, just as there will always be and they demonstrate quite graphically what punishment these women could expect.

The real question is whether human nature has changed very much. I don’t think it has. Social expectations may have tried to force a woman down a particular path but that doesn’t mean that they all went easily or willingly. It is perfectly possible that, in many instances, she skipped over the fence and took the back path to discover her own desires.

When I am writing fiction I remove my historian’s cap and put on my fiction one. My novels are to entertain, I want them to appeal to modern day female readers and so I step away a little from the records and largely ignore the masculine precepts within them and consider how I would have reacted in the circumstances. Would I willingly share the bed of an obnoxious bully, bear his children, accept his authority even though he be a fool? I can think of nothing more likely to drive me to infidelity and we have proof that women did ignore the inevitable consequences and jump in with both feet.

Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife’s personal creed was, ‘No other will than his’ but that didn’t stop her from creeping from the decrepit old king’s bed and into the arms of Thomas Culpepper. It is a shame she wasn’t clever enough to get away with it.

Everyone alive today knows that sexual attraction is an extremely powerful thing. When the blood is hot, the right man (or woman’s) arms can negate even the threat of eternal damnation. It does so now and it did then. So, if we are to believe that medieval women were never tempted, never gave in to sexual desire or broke free of the patriarchal restrictions placed upon them to get what they wanted, then we are talking about a species apart.

[1] Herbert, Kathleen, Peace-weavers and Shield-Maidens (Swaffham: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006)

Monday, 11 October 2010

Do I enjoy being a writer?

Over the weekend somebody asked me if I enjoyed being a writer. It isn't something I've given much thought to, it is rather like being asked if I enjoy being a woman. It is just something I am.

Of course there have been days when I've said, 'I wish I were a man,' but I think it was a case of the grass being greener over there :) There are also days when I think,' Blow this for a game of soldiers, I shall become a politician or an environmentalist or a gardener,' but I wouldn't really. A writer is what I am and even if I gave up the struggle for publication, I would still be a writer, my stories and characters just wouldn't leave me alone, they demand to be written. I am their servant.

My favourite writing days are rainy ones, which is fortunate for someone living in West Wales. I love being snug indoors while the rain lashes the windows, the dogs snore at my feet and the clock ticks loudly on the mantle piece. It is the only time I am ever 'Just Judy.' I can lose myself in another world. A goodly supply of coffee and a few biscuits and I am happy as Larry - have you ever wondered who Larry is and why he is happy?

I lay awake at night sometimes, worrying about my characters and how I will manoeuvre them through their journey. Or I suddenly realise that I have made a horrible error of some kind and have to get up to fix it or scribble a message to myself in my bedside notebook to fix it first thing. I even enjoy the editing, its like smoothing the rough edges from a carving, shaving unneccessary words and punctuation; honing the manuscript until it is as perfect as I can make it.

When I self published Peaceweaver I enjoyed that too. Reformatting the document to suit the printer, deciding on the cover, (big mistake as it turned out but I live and learn), interacting with other self publishers, stealing their tips and learning from their mistakes, supporting them as they supported me.

I enjoy on-line self-promotion too, like this blog, chatting about my experiences, creating my webpage, making friends on Facebook. If I hadn't formed any exterior contacts I would never have learned how to find an agent, how to make my work stand out. Other writers are immensley supportive and I hope that I return that in some measure. I always try to review and comment constructively and share any tiny snippet of information that may prove valuable to others.

The only aspect of being a writer that I do not enjoy is marketing. I don't like selling myself, it feels like boasting and I dearly wish that people would just stumble across my work and love it.

Being intensely shy is very difficult and it is easy for people to read a lack of self confidence as a lack of belief in my writing, but that assumption is inaccurate. I love my work, I know what I am trying to say and try to say it as concisely and with as much impact as possible. I can do this easily via a keyboard but have recently learned that I am going to have to stand up in a hall full of people and promote my work, read from it and answer their questions.

I have spoken to large audiences before on exterior matters but that is so different to speaking about my writing. My work and the reasons for writing it are intensely personal. In the words of Mick Jagger I am going to have to 'stick my pen in my heart and spill it all over the stage.'
The prospect has me trembling in my boots and I am seriously considering running for the next elections instead :)