The Common Dish: a short story of Arthurian times

Today I’m republishing a short story of mine, The Common Dish, which is inspired by that great medieval body of stories, the Arthurian legend–and the Grail Quest as seen by those who were left behind.

Knights departing on Grail Quest, by Edward Burne-Jones

The Common Dish

by Sophie Masson

May had come in, lusty May, that makes us forget the rigours of winter and think of warmer pleasures than those of the fire. May, bedecked in garlands and blossom, sweeping down the country lanes like a bride, showering all with gladness. Usually, we welcomed her with equal gladness; we danced for her honour, we donned our bright clothes again, drawing them out of chests where they had slept all autumn and winter, under lavender and rosemary, to keep the moths away.  Usually, at this time, the lady of this place, Laurel, my sister, gave orders for sweet pastries to be made, and honeycombs to be brought, and last year’s mead brought out of the cellar, new cheeses to be laid fragrant on well-scrubbed tables, the common dish filled with fine and tasty things for all.  The fields were bright with poppies and meadow-sweet and cowslip; the riverbanks bright with flowering parsley, the skies bright with larks and thrushes and other sweet-voiced birds, the roads bright with knights bound for tourneys and shepherds herding their flocks and ladies going a-maying and children singing new songs.  Everyone was happy, in May-time; everyone, from the lowest to the highest, the King to the lowliest kitchen scullion, the most ancient crone to the handsomest knight, saint and sinner.  Even the ill-favoured and ill-tempered might be happy, at such a time. For blue, bright May was God’s gift to the whole of creation.

But this year was different, for Camelot.  Of course, there was the joy that the Quest had ended, the knights returned.  But so many had not, and so the joy was subdued, blue May less welcomed, and mourning amongst the happiness, like thorns amongst the roses. . . .

We had thought, we who had been left behind, that the great Quest for the Grail would bring an ease, a healing, a return to things as they once had been, before Camelot lost its first bloom.  But it seemed that even such second-hand bliss was not to be found.  The returning knights had each sought a private audience with the King; and no doubt he knew just what it was that had happened, in those magical, distant realms of the otherworld.  He must know just which of his knights had reached the Grail.  But he remained silent about it, too.

There was a great deal of talk, of course, amongst those of us who had not gone, those of us not mentioned in the chronicles, whom it was not thought fitting to inform of such weighty and important things; lots of rumours, passed from mouth to mouth, hand to hand.  We looked at the knights, noting here a new serenity, there a strange fixity of regard, here a gentleness, there a wildness of mien, and judged accordingly as to whether the wonderful vision had been given.  But was that truly a good way to judge? If anything, the Quest seemed to have emphasised each man’s character; accentuating his qualities, and also, alas, his faults.

It was so with my lord Agravain.  Aware that he, as one of the Orkney clan, might be seen as unrefined in the sophisticated court of Camelot, surrounded by such knights as Lancelot du Lac, he was overly anxious about his station, and thus never had been one of the King’s favourite knights.  Yet he had always found his place in the court, before.  In the past, despite his faults, he could at times be an entertaining companion, with a dry sense of humour, and a bright manner of speaking.  Yet even then, he had seemed, to me, like the odd man out, beside his brothers: huge, rumbustious Gawain, gentle Gareth, kind Gaheris—a man of uncertain, perhaps even cruel temper under the jokes, with a jealous discontent under the dryness.  I had felt the sharp edge of his tongue more than once: he was proud to be allied to our house, but not so proud to have a plain sister-in-law whom no man seemed to want.

Unlike his brothers, too, he hated Lancelot, though in front of them, he pretended a manly indifference to the French knight.  But Agravain’s true feelings for Lancelot were even more complicated than this: he hated the Lake Knight, yet he often copied him, the way he walked, the way he held his sword, his slow, grave, sweet smile, his natural grace and courteous French manners.  Except that Agravain, poor soul, could do no more than ape Lancelot: never could he have a fraction of his charm, but only be a pale copy, like a cheap facsimile made by an indifferent scribe.  And knowing this, did he hate the oblivious Lancelot all the more?

Ladies of Camelot tapestry by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones

Always, before the Quest, Agravain’s faults had been kept in check, by his brothers’ careful kindness, by my sister’s loyal love, by the gentle management of the King and Queen, who found space for all manner of people in their realm.  In those days, he was careful, at least; he did not approach Mordred, who had come to Court just before the Quest began and was already a disturbing influence in Arthur’s once-serene kingdom.  Agravain knew well on which side his bread was buttered.  He went with his brothers questing not because he wished, like them, innocently to gain, if not knowledge and wisdom, at least adventure and mystery, but because all the knights who mattered were going.  And Agravain would certainly not be left behind in that race.

While he was away, Laurel and I spent our days as we had when we were children, and it was plain to see that she relaxed into it, as if she were freed from a burden.  We gave up the dull Frenchified rituals Agravain insisted on, we ate plain meals out of common dishes with the retainers and the servants; we swam in the river and walked in the woods; we read to each other from illustrated books and we spent many hours in pleasant gossip.  Sometimes, Lynete and Lionors, Gaheris’ and Gareth’s wives, would come over to spend time with us, and then, all together, we spoke longingly of the absent ones, and wondered how the Questers were managing; and sighed, that we should be women, and not be able to go with them.  Or at least, Laurel, Lynete and Lionors  did; I reminded them that Dindraine, Perceval’s sister, had gone with them, and Laurel pouted and said that did not count, as everyone knew Dindraine was practically a nun.  Frankly, I had no desire to go on the Quest; there was in me an unease from the very beginning, an unease I could not explain to anyone, not even Laurel.  Perhaps especially not Laurel, who like most of the others in Camelot, was dazzled by the Quest, by the beauty of it, and coincidentally or not, by the unearthly, untouchable beauty of Galahad.  It was a companionable time, that time without men, and soothing to my own troubled spirit, for it is not easy, being an old maid, when you have no intention of becoming a nun. .

Yet on one day, the very day that the Questers came back, my kinswomen destroyed that peace for me, quite innocently.  We had been sitting in the solar, calmly embroidering, and they had been talking, as usual, about their favourite subject, whilst I listened indulgently.

‘What do you think?’ said Lionors, turning to me suddenly.  ‘You are silent.  Could it be. . ‘ and here she twinkled at me—‘that you do not share our admiration for the greatest knight of them all? ‘

‘I do not consider him the greatest knight,’ I said, stiffly.  ‘He has not proven himself.  ‘

‘Unlike his father,’ said Lynete, with that sharp glance that had so flayed poor Gareth when she had first met him.

I coloured, but said nothing.  Laurel sighed.  ‘My poor sister,’ she said, softly.  ‘Lancelot’s heart was taken long ago.  He cannot give it to you, though indeed you are more worthy of it, my dear one, than she who holds it now.  Beauty is not only in the eye, but the soul: true ugliness is never in the features of a loving face. ‘

It was a great shock to me, this thing she said, for it showed me something I had long known, yet hidden from myself, and something which I certainly thought had been hidden from everyone else.

I pushed away my embroidery and stood up.  I could feel a hot denseness in my chest, a tight pain in my throat.  Yet I managed to speak.  ‘You are being foolish and frivolous,’ I snapped.  ‘I am tired of idle talk.  There is work to do.  My lord Agravain will not thank us if we allow the manor to go to ruin in his absence. ‘

They stared at me.  I stared back proudly, and stalked away. I truthfully did not know where I was going, only that I must go.  I walked briskly, blindly away and towards the stream, feeling their eyes on my back, and the hot dense pain in my whole being.

There was a girl, one of the servants, washing the dishes by the stream.  She was a young girl, and uncertain: when she saw me advancing on her like a fury, she gave a little squeak and hurried away, leaving her work.  I smiled harshly to myself: so, in my despairing, angry ugliness, I had frightened her! All the better.  I looked down at the dishes scattered by the stream: the cups, the plates, and the common dish, a huge blue pottery tureen, encrusted with the remains of all too many meals.  My widowed father had had it made, in a pattern that Laurel and I would recognise, for it was just like the dishes we had had at home.  Agravain had never liked it; it was too thick and homely for his tastes, and so it had mostly languished unused, except when he was away, and then, by common consent, Laurel and I would call for it to be put on the table.

I cannot remember doing it: but the next second, the dish was in the stream, broken in several irrepairable pieces.  And I was kneeling by the stream, weeping as if my heart would break too, trying to gather the pieces of the broken dish, yet trying, too, to smash it even more, my hands bleeding from the sharp shards, but uncaring, for my head was filled with a painful, joyful vision, a thing of such bright clarity that for a moment it seemed to have a tangible reality.

I heard running footsteps.  Laurel had found me.  She touched my arm, timidly.

‘Sister,’ she whispered, ‘forgive me, if I have hurt you, unknowingly, I did not mean to.  ‘

I looked at her with love. ‘Laurel,’ I said gently, ‘do not be afraid.  You saw something I had hidden from myself, and I was angry.  But I am not angry any longer, only a little sorry that I.. ‘ I looked down at my hands.  ‘I am sorry, for I broke our father’s gift to you and Agravain. .‘

My sister’s eyes filled with tears, then, and she leant towards me.  But what she was about to say never got said, for I turned my face away from her, towards the woods—and saw a figure come limping out from their lee, a figure leading a skeletal horse, and I knew at once, with a hot, wild, joyful, despairing leap of the heart, that it was Lancelot, back from the Quest.

The parting of Lancelot and Guinevere, by Gustave Dore

Laurel turned her head and saw him too; then she gathered up her skirts and went running, crying out joyfully as she went.  She was followed by Lynete and Lionors, and then by all the people on the manor, the workers in the fields, the servants, the grooms, the kennel-men, the dairymaids.  From all over the manor, people were hurrying, to give their beloved living legend, the Knight of the Lake, a welcome they would never have thought to give their own lord.  And so it was that only I saw Agravain coming in his turn, not from the forest but the opposite direction, from the direction of Camelot, splendidly attired, and riding a magnificent Arab mare.  He rode with a swagger and a certainty that he would be noticed; and I felt almost a pity for him, then, a kind of shameful wound, as our eyes met across the distance, and I saw he knew who the other man was.  But he never checked in his stride, I’ll give him that; indeed, he quickened his pace, and soon drew level with me.

‘Well, my lady,’ he said, his eyes not on me but on that touching little scene by the forest, ‘as you see, I am back from the Quest. ‘

‘So I see,’ I said.  ‘Welcome home, my lord Agravain. ‘ Some strange levity was bubbling in me.  I could not help it.

He smiled thinly.  ‘But I see I am not the only one.  I must welcome my companion home too. He looks ill.  Perhaps the Quest was not a success for him. ‘

His eyes dared me to ask questions.  Obligingly, I said nothing.  What was there to say? I was not a Quester.  My vision had not been of the Grail; but only of the common dish.

The involuntary mockery of my thoughts must have shown in my face, however, for his lips tightened, and he said, ‘Sister-in-law, it is not fitting you are down on your knees, washing dishes like a common scullion.  ‘

‘No,’ I said, ‘I suppose not.  I must remember my station as sister-in-law of a returned Quester knight. ‘

‘Indeed,’ he said, in his vanity misinterpreting my humble face and lowered eyes.  ‘I am glad you understand.  ‘ He paused for a tiny second.   ‘The other– my brother knight Sir Lancelot,’ Agravain went on, ‘has he been here long? Has he seen the King yet? Is there.. . ‘

‘No, my lord,’ I answered, as steadily as I could.  ‘He has not.  ‘

‘Ha,’ said Agravain.  He looked down the slope at the cheering, whooping party, at his own wife, his brothers’ wives, his retainers making merry around the weary, but obviously delighted, Lancelot, ‘In any case,’ he said, slyly, ‘I do not suppose that it is the King he would go rushing off to straight away, do you, sister-in-law? ‘

I looked at him; at the jealousy distorting his face, at the cruelty fully imprinted there now, at the discontent of his bearing, and I felt a tiny pang of fear, for I knew in that instant that Agravain had not come even close to the Grail, and that Lancelot had.  I knew that if Agravain had hated the French knight before, it was as nothing to what he felt now.  My heart ached—with love for Lancelot, with a kind of tender sorrow that he would never know it, with unease for what might follow.  But I gazed steadily into Agravain’s angry eyes and said, quite quietly, ‘I am sure I do not know what you mean, my lord. ‘

‘Pah,’ he said, ‘you’ve always been a fool, blind like all the others, like the King himself.  Prince Mordred was quite right. ‘ And with that, he touched his horse’s flanks, and was off, galloping down the slope towards Lancelot and the others.

But I stood there quietly for a moment, before moving down the slope in my turn. And the wild, hot, despairing feeling grew again in me, and grew, like a vine twining its way around my heart, a thorn bush of wild blooms protecting the vision I had seen.  The vision of the common dish, that is the lot of common humanity, the ones of us left behind, forgotten, our names and histories lost to the chronicles and the legends, but whose breath and liveness, anonymous, can be found in all of the most ancient stories, the oldest songs: the knowledge of love brought to the light of day, the welcome of spring returning, as it always does.  No, it is not the Grail: but it is given to more of us, and may, in the end, prove as wonderful as that holy vessel.  And perhaps, if a person look only for the Grail, and forget the common dish—is that not a forgetting of God’s magnificence, of His love that remembers even the smallest sparrow?  In my heart, I thanked God for His gift, his gift of this blue May morning, of the unremarked, the common miracle, in the midst of the sorrow and the glory and the gathering tragedy of the great ones of this world.

June, from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

 

 

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The Mirror of Honour and Love: a woman’s view of chivalry

I’ve always been interested in the Middle Ages, especially the chivalric period between the 12th and 15th centuries, and wrote this essay some years ago, after the publication of my historical fantasy trilogy, The Lay Lines Trilogy,  released in an omnibus edition as Forest of Dreams. The trilogy was inspired by the shadowy life and extraordinary work of 12th century writer Marie de France, one of the writers mentioned in this essay. I’m republishing the essay today and hope readers find it interesting–and with some relevance to our times as well!

THE MIRROR OF HONOUR AND LOVE:
a woman’s view of chivalry

by Sophie Masson

 

Chivalry. Isn’t that a bloke’s thing? Isn’t it do with being a man-at-arms, with strapping on armour, and sallying forth into the wildwood on your horse, your lady’s token on your arm, to right wrongs and do great deeds? Isn’t the only role of the woman in chivalry to be the inspirer, the Muse of a paragon of the knightly virtues? Well, yes–and no. Chivalry was much more than that. And its ideals encompassed both sexes, actively.

As the French-derived term chivalry indicates–it is originally from chevalerie, meaning horsemanship, literally–it came about as a means of codifying and disciplining a mounted order of military types. Mounted men-at-arms–knights, in the English word, which by the way derives from the same root as knife, referring to weapons–could be a damn nuisance in the early and later Middle Ages. The way they were regarded by many people is perhaps best summed up in the German proverb, Er will Ritter an mir werden; ie, he wants to play the knight over me, ride roughshod over me. That is, these mounted men were regarded as tyrannical bullies, delinquents and pests. That they were more often than not is indisputable; a combination of young man’s energy, a lack of efficiently centralised civic or moral teaching(the State did not really exist, and the Church struggled mightily to tame the warriors for centuries), and the fact that on a horse you could quickly get away from the scene of your crimes, mixed with a kind of carte blanche, a blind eye turned to your hi-jinks by the man–or woman–who paid your wages when you were at war with their rivals or enemies(but cut you loose when they didn’t need you, leaving you to fend for yourself), made for quite a potent little cocktail of public nuisance. The Middle Ages was a young person’s period; though many people did live on into old age, the average age of death for a woman was thirty-three; for a man, especially a knight, it was under thirty. The often wild energy, idealism and exaltation that characterises medieval culture comes from that demographic fact. This was real youth culture.

But as time went on, and the disorder of the post-Roman period, the invasions, and the Norman adventures receded, and prosperity and peace descended in Europe, due to some kind of balance being precariously achieved, more attention was being paid to the fact that the youth had not only to be kept in line, but also to be given a channel for their energies which would make them both more productive, and more disciplined. Added to that was the change in peacetime culture, particularly in England and France, with women becoming more prominent again, able to provide a guiding hand. Modern people all too often view the Middle Ages through distorting mirrors; and one of the most distorting is the idea of medieval women’s position. In fact, it is probably true to say that women in the Middle Ages, especially after about the eleventh and up to the fifteenth centuries, enjoyed a level of relative freedom not equalled until the twentieth. The fall of Rome had also made many of her laws recede into the distance, slowly; Roman statute law was notably more misogynist than the customary law of the tribal groups the Empire had conquered. Celtic and Germanic women enjoyed a degree of freedom that scandalised the Romans: perhaps the greatest and most serious of the rebellions against Rome in Britain occurred when an arrogant Roman governor flouted the realpolitik of his masters and cut across British customary law by refusing to ratify the awarding of the chieftainship of the Iceni to the widowed Queen Boudicca, or Boadicea.

Now as the Middle Ages advanced and people forgot about Roman law, or cheerfully ignored it, opting instead for a mixture of old and new in their customary law, so the position of women improved. Please don’t think I’m talking modern feminism here. Medieval society, like pre-Roman society, was one of kinship and hierarchy(which is NOT the same as class, by the way). If you were related to the right people, if you were part of the clan, you had a right to exercise the rights given to you on that basis, no matter what your sex. So women in the Middle Ages, as in the Celtic and Germanic worlds, could openly be chiefs, could command armies, run huge estates and businesses, inherit and so forth, in a way that women in Roman times and women in the Renaissance–which rediscovered Roman law and reinstated many of the old ways, including the institutionalised repression of women–could not, or only do through subterfuge. The thing was that medieval people recognised custom, and its pre-eminence; kinship, and its inextricable centrality; hierarchy which meant that everyone had a place but that people could move between them, in case of great personal merit (eg there were quite a number of serfs who became knights).

What we now think of as chivalry came out of that world. It began, as a codified idea, in the twelfth century, in the courts of two famous and talented and powerful women of the time: the extraordinary Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her daughter, Marie of Champagne. Eleanor was a force of nature, a brilliant figure whose true stature is only now being rediscovered. Sole heir to the vast lands of Aquitaine, the teenaged Eleanor married the pious, shy Louis VII of France, who was no match for her wilfulness and talents. She went along with him on Crusade, as an important person in her own right, had several children with him, including Marie, then tiring of him and his font-frog ways, and infatuated with the younger, sexy Henri Plantagenet d’Anjou, a.k.a. Henry II of England, she concocted an excuse to get rid of Louis. She even managed to persuade the Pope to grant her a annulment on the basis of too-close kinship to her former husband, and so, despite having had several children with Louis, was able to enter into legal marriage with Henry.

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine on her tomb in Fontrevaud Abbey in France.

She and Henry were a match for each other, but too much so in many ways; though they had six more children, and for a long time had a strong relationship, Henry’s roving eye and bad temper, and Eleanor’s sometimes arrogant pride proved the undoing of a partnership that had had all Europe enthralled. During the happy times, she ran her own court separately in Poitiers, and was the patron of artists, poets, musicians and philosophers. It was at this court, and at her daughter Marie’s in Champagne that the codes of chivalry and of courtly love were established, in close contact with the great ladies, and a flourishing literary and social culture was born. Eleanor and Marie were aware not only of the delinquent tendencies of knights, but also of the boredom of ladies–and of the many sexual adventures that went on. They would encourage the concept of a new form of chivalry, which would not only emphasise prowess in arms and great deeds, as had been the case in the past, but also the great adventure of love, the way that it helped in the journey to self-knowledge and integration. It would mean that women would have a central part in the culture, as muses and inspirers certainly, but also as honourable beings in their own right.

Secular Woman in Romance, and Sacred Woman, the Madonna, dominated medieval culture from the twelfth century, in the process turning a rather rough and ready culture to a most beautiful, subtle and richly patterned one. As well, contact with the East meant that philosophy, astrology and astronomy, and the natural sciences in general, flourished.

So, what were the distinguishing elements of chivalry? I have devised a list of the Seven Qualities of Honour, gleaned from various medieval books, qualities which were firmly to be sought after by both men and women. These are:

Franchise, or frankness(ie openness of mind and honesty); Pitié, or Compassion; Courage; Courtoisie, or Courtesy; Sagesse, or Wisdom; Largesse, or Generosity; and Temperance, or Moderation. As is obvious, these were not sex-limited characteristics. Within those seven qualities, we can get a sense of the characteristics admired by twelfth century medieval culture. Hotheadedness was to be restrained; greed and avarice, always pet hates of the times(and major problems)cast into the darkness; ignorant yobbo behaviour firmly rejected. Respect for the other, and for oneself as a growing soul is iabsolutely ntrinsic to the chivalric tradition. It is intended to carry through into all aspects of one’s life; at its best it is truly impressive. It is pointless to keep saying, as some modern writers do, that the ideal wasn’t always lived up to; what ideal ever is? The fact is that this ideal genuinely changed a whole society, and laid the groundwork for many other social developments in the future.

Writers like Chrétien de Troyes and André le Chapelain–or Andreas Capellanus, as he’s often known–wrote books demonstrating and portraying the new ways of being and relating between the sexes: incidentally also changing the face of literature(the romance being the true ancestor not only of the novel in general but of fantasy!) As time went on, more and more writers, inspired by the beauty and depth of the ideas embodied within the notions of chivalry, explored it in ever greater depth. Many of these (in the main) male writers saw Woman as Muse: whether spiritually as well as romantically, like Ramon Llull, for instance, or practically and realistically, like Godefroi de Charny (both men wrote books on chivalry which are still in print today). Of course, there were also those who fought hard against the new works and their implicit validation of women as real human beings, worthy of respect,

a manuscript of Le Roman de Renart, held in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

true love, and even adoration. Such a one was Jean de Meung, writer of Le Roman de la Rose, or Romance of the Rose, which especially in its second part is an anti-woman diatribe, and the mostly anonymous authors of the cynical, savagely amusing and often obscene Roman de Renart, or The Romance of Reynard the Fox, an extraordinary anthromorphic ‘novel ‘ in many episodes, which in many ways could be seen as the anti-romance. (Mind you the Roman de Renart is something of an equal-opportunity offender, satirising both men and women)

Between idealism and misogyny, though, there were also those who saw women as equal partners in the great journey of life, and of the quest for honour, and the development of the soul that chivalry represented. At least two of those writers were women: the twelfth century writer Marie de France (not the same person as Marie de Champagne, incidentally!)and the early fifteenth century Christine de Pisan. Marie wrote fiction: lais, or lays, narrative poems, romances based on Celtic motifs, full of love, magic, humour and adventure. But Christine was a non-fiction writer, who wrote hugely popular and influential books on the achievements and behaviour of women. Some of these were intended as self-help guides; others as witty and fierce ripostes to anti-woman propagandists. Two of her books, La Cité des dames, or City of Ladies, and its sequel, The Treasury of the City of Ladies, examine at length about the ways in which women achieve honour and respect, and the ways in which the chivalric code can be applied to everyday life.

Let’s have a look at some of the things these women writers said. Marie, who has a rather salty tongue and sardonic eye and ear for the way people behave, is particularly preoccupied with love and the different ways in which lovers act. She firmly tells her audience that chivalry and courtliness are about real things, including sexual things, and that hypocrites and coy flittergibbets are without honour:

The professional beauty will mince

and preen her feathers, and wince

At showing she favours a man,

unless it’s all for her gain.

But a worthy lady of wisdom and valour

will not be too proud to show her favour

and enjoy the love of her man

in every way that she can.

(this quote is from Marie’s poem Guigemar–the translation is my own, you can find it in Forest of Dreams).

Marie’s outlook is that of an upper-class medieval woman, fluent in several languages, moving easily around Europe, sure of her place and independent within it. She roundly chastises those snooty critics from her time who say that what she writes about is not serious literature, or that it is immodest, or ‘untrue’, because it has magic in it. (Such wet blanket critics still exist in our time of course!) She is very concerned with female honour, and makes it quite clear that women must show as much courage, courtesy, generosity, etc, as men. She has several examples of female characters who run a love affair from beginning to end, fight, travel, and so on; just as she has a female character, werewolf knight Bisclavret’s merciless wife, who is punished severely–not for being a woman but for being faithless. This savage justice is equally meted out to men who transgress the code.

Women really did live by this code; there are numerous examples of women left in charge of large estates who faithfully and bravely mounted the defence of those estates against the enemies of their house, and were praised for it by chroniclers of the time. Medieval people had a horror of treachery and cowardice; the two were often felt to go hand in hand. The fact you were a woman did not absolve you from keeping to the ideals of chivalry, in times of crisis and in your ordinary life. And in her fiction, Marie demonstrates clearly both the complex realities of medieval life, and what was considered honourable for both sexes.

From the twelfth to the early fifteenth is quite a jump. We come here to the tail-end of the code of chivalry–we have been through the culture-shaking hideousness of the Black Death, and are close to the shift in thinking represented by humanism and the Reformation. In this climate, propaganda against women was growing, though some of the old chivalric spirit remained and indeed never went away altogether. Women of all backgrounds were still very much in evidence in ordinary life, in all kinds of ways; the cruel Roman-derived statutes, which wiped out many customary rights of inheritance and divorce and so on, had not yet been applied.

Christine de Pisan presenting her work, from a painting of the time

Christine de Pisan, a prolific and indefatigable writer who proselytised tirelessly for the recognition of the talents, achievements and potential of women, gave her advice and insights in the form of allegory and exposition. She was enormously influential and popular; her own life story is an inspiration. Left a widow at a young age, with small children to support, Italian-born Christine launched into a professional career as a writer in early fifteenth-century Paris. She was not one to bite her tongue, but took part vigorously in many of the intellectual debates of the day, her sharp intelligence, comprehensive education and refusal to be beaten thrilling her fans and infuriating her enemies. She launched into a lively denunciation of the anti-woman Romance of the Rose, pointing out tartly the many faults in its logic and its humanity, and La Cité des dames was conceived as a direct riposte to Jean de Meung’s jeremiads(The Romance of the Rose still being popular in her time. ) In the book, she used the device of three allegorical figures: Dame Reason, with her mirror of self-knowledge, the ‘mirror held up to nature’, as she called it; Dame Rectitude, with her rod of peace; and Dame Justice, with her cup from whence she pours out stability and equilibrium, to frame a discourse in which a ‘City of Ladies’ can be constructed, which allows women to fully develop their talents and potential. In so doing, she refuted many of the criticisms of women made by contemporary writers, and highlighted the achievements of women in many areas. The sequel, The Treasury of the City of Ladies (republished a few years ago, in English, as The Medieval Woman’s Mirror of Honour), was more of a self-help and advice book, tailored not only to aristocratic women but to women of all social backgrounds, from rich merchants to poor cottage women. The thrust of her argument is that, in order to act honourably, women do not need to fight against nature, but to follow selectively and intelligently the dictates of their truest selves. Real self-knowledge and respect for others, so central to chivalry, is also the centre of Christine’s words to her readers, the armour she advises them to put on to sally forth into the great adventure of life. From it grow all those qualities of honour, from courage and generosity to openness of mind and temperance, compassion and courtesy–and the result is true wisdom. For that was the aim of chivalry:  a way of reaching one’s own fullest potential as a human being, but always tied in to the presence, the needs, and the worth of other people too. Chivalry, both male and female, recognised that each of us is, indeed, our brother’s or sister’s keeper–but also courageously responsible for our own actions. It is an ideal which is of increasing and urgent relevance in the world we live in today.

 

Fairy tales, history and collaboration: an interview with Kate Forsyth

Today I am delighted to bring readers an interview with Kate Forsyth, centred on two great new books which are wonderfully rich collaborations between herself and other creators: Vasilisa the Wise and other Tales of Brave Young Women, illustrated by Lorena Carrington(Serenity Press) and The Silver Well, a collection of interlinked short stories written by Kate and her friend and fellow author Kim Wilkins, illustrated by Kathleen Jennings(Ticonderoga Publications). Both are truly special books, beautiful in concept, words, pictures and production values, and after enjoying them both very much, I wanted to know more about how the books came about.

Kate, you’ve always been a lover of fairy-tales and used them a lot in your work–and of course now you also have a doctorate in them! How did you and Lorena come to work together on Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women? How did you choose what stories to retell?

I’ve loved fairy-tales and fairy-tale retellings since I was a child, and first studied them in my undergraduate degree. Eventually I undertook a Doctorate of Creative Arts, focusing on the history and meaning of ‘Rapunzel’ for my theoretical work and writing a retelling of the tale as my creative component (my novel Bitter Greens).

When I had finished my doctorate, I wanted to buy myself a piece of fairy-tale inspired art as a present to myself. So I began to look around but most of the art I saw was quite childish. Then a writer friend of mine, Allison Tait, asked me on twitter if I’d seen Lorena’s work (Allison did not know I was actively looking for fairy-tale inspired artwork, she just thought I’d be interested.)

I went and looked at Lorena’s website and just fell in love with her dark, eerie & sophisticated creations. I bought one of her pieces and we began to email each other, talking about our shared interest in fairy-tales and gardens and books and art. We essentially became pen-pals.

Lorena told me that she was working on a series of artworks inspired by little-known stories which featured brave clever heroines. How wonderful, I said. I’ve always wanted to write a collection of tales like that. So we came up with the crazy idea of working together. We had no idea if anyone would be interested in publishing it, we just did it for the pleasure of making something beautiful with a kindred spirit.

Lorena had already created images for three tales – ‘Vasilisa the Wise’, ‘A Bride For Me Before A Bride for You’ and ‘The Stolen Child’ (I had bought one of the images from the latter as my present to myself). We decided we would work on seven tales, as it is such a fairy-tale number, and then I made a few suggestions for tales that I thought would work well. ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ is one of my favourite stories to perform as an oral storyteller and so that was my first choice. ‘Katie Crackernuts’ was a tale I had already retold for the online story platform The Pigeonhole and so we decided to include that one too. I also suggested ‘The Toy Princess’, a literary tale written by the Pre-Raphaelite writer Mary de Morgan. The last tale took us a little longer to find. We both suggested a few different possibilities, but they were too similar in theme, motif or plot to stories we already had. In the end, we settled on ‘The Rainbow Prince, a story I had loved as a child.

At the end of each story, there are notes by Lorena and yourself, giving an insight into the background of the story but also why it speaks to you. Why did you choose to include this background information?

 I wanted readers to know where the tales came from, and who first told or recorded them. I find the history and meaning of fairy-tales so fascinating. And both Lorena and I felt giving a little insight into our creative purposes and processes would enrich the reading experience too.

What was it like working so closely with each other on this project?

 It was just wonderful. We never had a disagreement or problem. I love Lorena’s art and she loves my writing, and so we worked with a great deal of trust in each other’s ability to create something beautiful.

Would you think of doing another collection like this?
Oh yes, we are working on another collection right now. It will be called Molly Whuppie & Other Tales of Clever Young Women, and will be published in 2019.

Turning now to The Silver Well, can you tell us a bit about how it came about?

Kim Wilkins is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We first met 20 years ago when both of our first novels were shortlisted for the Aurealis Award (Kim won!) We then read each other’s books and just loved them. We live in different cities but always catch-up when in each other’s towns, or when we are overseas at the same time.

A year or so ago we did a ‘In Conversation’ event together at the Brisbane Writers Festival. As we walked towards the auditorium, our student minder asked us how we knew each other. We told her about having our first books published at the same time, and then I said, ‘next year is actually our 20th anniversary.  Twenty years since we were first published! And I’ll have had 39 books published. Such a shame I can’t write one extra to make it 40 books in 20 years.’

Kim Wilkins

Then Kim said, ‘How funny. I’ll have had 29 books published in the same time period. If I wrote an extra one, it’d be 30 books in 20 years.’

‘We should write a book together,’ I said.

‘Great idea!’ she said.

And that’s how it all came about.

It’s a great concept–a series of stories about the same place throughout history, where the silver well is a recurring motif. I really like the ways in which you and Kim have linked the stories without it at all feeling obtrusive–the links are subtle and satisfying. Did you and Kim sit down and sketch out the general shape first? How did you choose which periods in history to set stories in?

After our session at the Brisbane Writers Festival, we went back to my hotel room and had dinner and drank a bottle of Veuve champagne (our favourite), and began to throw ideas around. The concept of seven stories set in the same place at different times was our very first idea.

Within seconds we decided to set it in Cerne Abbas, because Kim and I had spent the loveliest week there the previous year (along with our friend Lisa Hartnett). Because we are both so interested in history and folklore, we had actually bought a few books about the village from one of the local stores and so already knew quite a bit about its past.

We decided to write three stories each, plus a frame story set in contemporary times. Then we simply had to decide which historical periods each story should be set in. Again, we decided straightaway. Kim said, ‘Bags early medieval time,’ and I said, ‘Bags the Second World War’, because these were both periods we loved and knew a lot about. We both love the Victorian era, but Kim bagged it first and so I chose to set a story during the English Civil War, which I had studied intensively for my series of historical children’s novels which begins with The Gypsy Crown. I also wanted to set one of the stories around the dissolution of the abbey in Tudor times, another favourite period of mine. Then we thought we should have a story set during the period when the abbey was absolutely pivotal to the village’s life. So Kim took that era.

By the time we had finished our bottle of champagne, we had the whole book plotted out.

Though it’s the work of two writers, the book feels like an organic whole, stories seamlessly flowing into each other. How did you and Kim pull it off so well? Tell us about the actual process. How did you organise your writing–did you write at the same time or in sequence? Did you decide on characters together, or individually? 

We each worked on our own stories independently, and only showed it to the other when we had a polished first draft. The idea of having connected characters grew organically, and needed just a slight tweak here and there to make it work. I wrote the frame story, set in contemporary times, and Kim wove in some extra details. Otherwise, we did not touch each other’s stories.

What were the challenges?

For both of us, the difficulty was making time in our hectic schedules to write the stories. We both had punishing deadlines for novels, plus the usual teaching and touring commitments. We made a promise to each other that we would drop the project if either of us found it too hard, or if our friendship came under strain, but somehow we managed to find enough time in the cracks of our days to get the work done.

Kathleen Jennings’ lovely line drawings are also very much part of the appeal of this lovely book. When did she become involved in the process?

On the day that Kim and I first decided we were going to write a book together! We sat in my hotel room scribbling down ideas, and thought how lovely it would be to produce a book with exquisite line drawings in it. We both thought of Kathleen at once, and we texted her and asked her if she’d be willing. She said yes at once. We also texted Russell Farr at Ticonderoga Publications to see if he’d be interested in publishing it (Russ has known us both for 20 years too) and he also said yes without hesitation. So that very first evening was very productive indeed!

What have you learned from the process of collaboration? 

The most important thing is, I think, trusting your partner, and allowing them complete creative freedom. We might not have worked so easily and joyously together if we had been constantly criticising each other’s work. Both Kim and I love each other’s writing style and so we just focused on making our own stories the best they could be, and then read each other’s stories with a great deal of anticipation and pleasure.

 Both The Silver Well and Vasilisa the Wise were published by small presses–in The Silver Well‘s case, Ticonderoga Publications, in Vasilisa’s, Serenity Press. And your earlier non-fiction work, The Rebirth of Rapunzel, was also published by a small press, Fablecroft Publishing. All of course are gorgeous books, flawlessly and elegantly produced, and showcasing just what wonderful work small press publishers do in this country. For you, as an author, what are the pleasures–and challenges!–of working with small press?

It was utter joy to work with all three of these small press publishers! They were all so passionate about the projects, and so willing to work with us to get exactly the look we wanted. I didn’t have any problems or challenges, really. We are all professionals, and we understand how the market works. And the books are finding readers, despite the smaller publicity and marketing budgets. The first print run of Vasilisa the Wise sold out in pre-orders!

Interview with Jana Hunter, author of Sleepy Meadows

 Today, I’m very pleased to bring you an interview with new author Jana Hunter, whose first novel, Sleepy Meadows, has just been released as a Kindle ebook. Sleepy Meadows is an unusual fantasy/mystery novel, centred on young necromancer Kylie McGovern, who is working in her late father’s funeral home, Sleepy Meadows, in an Australian country town. As the blurb describes, her life is simple and quiet which is just how she likes it, but all that changes when her boss, the seemingly respectable Uncle Bob, goes missing and a murder victim is found in the crematorium. Drawn into a web of inter-generational revenge and family secrets, Kylie’s own life begins to unravel as she works desperately to find out where Uncle Bob is and clear her own name. Though she has been raised to believe her power is an evil to be suppressed, as the bodies begin to mount up, it seems that only her skill as a necromancer will save Kylie from taking the fall….
First of all, Jana, congratulations on the release of Sleepy Meadows! Exciting times for you! Tell us about how the idea came to you.  
Thank you so much, I’m very proud of the way it turned out. I’ve always loved reading Urban Fantasy, it’s such an underrated genre, but most of what I read was set in the US or Britain, so I thought there was room for an Australian take on it. Also, I think country towns are rich with the potential for uncanny happenings; there are so many odd stories that you hear and it just seems to have more magical potential. In fact, the idea for Sleepy Meadows came to me while I was staying with my grandma on her farm. There was a catalogue on her table for a local funeral parlour featuring two creepy looking middle-aged men smiling woodenly in black suits, and it got me wondering about that profession, and why there seem to be so few young, female undertakers. And it made total sense to me that a funeral home would be the perfect place for a closet Necromancer to work.
Sleepy Meadows has a most unusual setting, in a funeral home( though it’s an inspired choice for a necromancer like your main character Kylie McGovern!) Was it based on a real place and did you have to research much?
Sleepy Meadows is not based on any particular funeral home, that is pure fantasy, but I did do a fair bit of research into rural funeral homes and the embalming process etc. That said, I have to admit that I took poetic licence in a few spots.
How did you go about creating Kylie and the other characters in your book? Which were your favourites, and which most challenging, in terms of creative process?
The characters evolved organically, which is something I love about writing – they surprise you, they take on a life of their own. Funnily enough, the murderer was not who I originally planned, and I had some trouble abandoning my intended villain for someone who was supposed to just be a sideline character, but I’m glad it worked out the way it did. I also had some feedback from early readers that my protagonist Kylie was too morally-grey and she needed to be sweetened-up a bit. But I’m glad I left her as she is: “Creepy and quiet, and a little morally-challenged”.
What’s been the reaction from readers so far?
So far the response has been really positive, which is a relief.
What’s next? Are you planning any more books featuring Kylie? Or will you be writing something completely different next time? 
Sleepy Meadows is the first in a series, so I am working on the sequel now, as well as a different, more traditional portal-fantasy novel.
What are your top tips for new and aspiring writers?
My top tips for any aspiring writer is to read widely and to be consistent with your writing practice. Little by little becomes a lot.
Jana Hunter lives in Armidale NSW, where she can usually be found in a coffee shop, writing. You can find her on instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/janahunterauthor/
You can buy the book here.

Fiction, prediction and diversity: an interview with Hazel Edwards

Today I’m very pleased to interview popular author Hazel Edwards about her new book for adult readers, Celebrant Sleuth, set in a country town and centred around the character of Quinn, an unusual woman who lives in a romantic but non-sexual relationship with her partner Art, and who as well as being a celebrant in great demand at weddings, funerals and other life rituals, also has a knack for solving mysteries of all sorts.

Hazel, how did the idea for ‘Celebrant Sleuth’ first come about? 

I’d observed celebrants in action at Australian weddings, name-days and funerals. Most are very personable.

They are problem-solvers. They have to handle dramatic situations with difficult people and heightened tension. Apt words in emotive ceremonies are their business.

The role seemed versatile enough for a sleuth character who needed to move into different settings and cultures to solve mysteries. For diverse age groups too.

Like many others, our family is spread across generations and cultures and friends are re-committing, divorcing or blending.

So I’d been to a few celebrations, commitments and an increasing number of funerals.

That seemed like a good starting point to research the role of celebrant. As a believer in participant-observation, I considered qualifying as a celebrant by doing the course, but then decided it was more effective to interview the experts.

In early 2016, well before the Same Sex Marriage law debates, I moved into serious interviewing.  More than twenty-five celebrants on phone or Skype or in person. But it wasn’t all serious, most celebrants had a sense of humour, which was vital because I was collecting anecdotes for my mystery plots.  I needed the absurd inbetween the tragic and the romantic.

Most fictional detectives have a ‘backstory’ but Quinn, the celebrant/detective in Celebrant Sleuth, has a most unusual one. Can you tell us how you came to create her, including any research you had to do? 

 Usually I create a detailed dossier for each of my characters. Quinn required a bit more research because I needed to get the gender vocabulary right as well as find out about the job of celebrant.

Earlier, I’d been invited to various literary festivals in connection with our co-written trans YA novel ‘f2m;the boy within’ (2010).

On a panel, I met an extremely articulate and thoughtful asexual in her early thirties, who challenged me to write about her gender circumstances. She was NOT a celebrant.  She was a park ranger. But the idea of juxtaposing a romantic personality in a longterm relationship within the character of a celebrant who had a job involving romance interested me.  ‘I prefer icecream to sex’ was one of her very quotable comments to me, as she explained the differences between being asexual  (feeling no sexual attraction to any gender) and being a ‘romantic’ desiring and giving affection which is different from being aromantic.

She became one of my ‘expert’ readers.  Along with the celebrants, actors, caterers, lawyers, mothers-in-law, actors and photographers I interviewed. And the multiple florists in fabulously perfumed shops.  The only problem was fictional time. Everything needed to happen in under an hour, just like in a wedding or funeral.

But it’s taken about 2 years to write in ‘real time’, between 6 am and 8 am daily. My brain was clear then and could cope with plotting clues. The mysteries are episodic, with celebrant Quinn solving problems in settings including the football hall of fame, retirement village chapel and a few inter-relationships of florist, caterer and media in the country township during an economic downturn. Millionaire retirement village owner, eighty-something Flora is feisty and falls for a younger man. I had to create a whole ‘fictitious’ township of intersecting roles. And get the street geography right.

There are several stories in Celebrant Sleuth: cases ranging from murder to theft to missing wills. Did you write them in sequence or not?

 No. I didn’t write in sequence.

The tight opening, Introducing Quinn, was written last as the viewpoint was always a challenge.  Initially I imagined a kind of voice- over which could adapt for television, but also the issue of asexual gender had to be explained indirectly for a mainstream audience but was not the central theme of the book. First person enabled less use of pronouns

I wrote each chapter as a separate ceremony with a problem or crime solved by Quinn the sleuth. But I didn’t want a murder per chapter. That seemed Agatha-Christie-ish, depopulating one small country town. The settings were a challenge because I needed to create a country town, small enough for the characters to bump into each other via their other roles like caterer or florist.

I tried to vary the mood and pace of the chapters and the type of ceremony, not all were weddings. And I had to check the facts about types of death… and set up the circumstances and motives. After trialling them with my test readers.

‘Celebrant’ is an Australian term and often confused with ‘celibate’ or ‘psyche’ or ‘Celebrity’ so I had qualms using it for the title.

Amused that my publisher BookPOD has used the meta tag Clean crime to describe ‘Celebrant Sleuth’.

‘I do…or die’…was the last minute subtitle to include all circumstances.

What has been the reaction of readers?

Really positive.  Celebrants are thrilled with their job being featured.  Diverse gender groups are delighted to have an asexual hero. Others like the small town mystery.

My expert test readers picked me up on a few technicalities. ACE as the name of Quinn’s partner was inappropriate as it is a term used by asexual groups. Pure coincidence I used that name as I was trying to give alphabetical and simple names to characters.  Ace became Art. Coronial and forensic pathology procedures.  Legal stuff.  Uniformity of retirement village streetfronts and use of ramps.  Youngest legal age of bride.

But the greatest legal challenge has been the Same Sex Marriage laws changing the terminology in my commitment chapter. Last minute updates.  So far I haven’t been accused of being politically opportunistic in using such a topical gender situation. The reality is I started writing two years ago. It was serendipitous topicality which had the law being changed on the day I was checking the galleys and had to change clues since wedding services differ from commitment in the legal wording and papers, but there will still be people who choose to commit rather than marry.

The cover has ambiguous and symbolic silhouettes and that was deliberate. Designer Lee Burgemeestre is multi talented and is also a celebrant so she brought an experienced eye.

My favourite anecdote relates to lost rings and metal detectors on the beach. Closely followed by dogs as Best Man.  And the professional afternoon- tea eaters who turn up as rent-a-crowd for the scones, raspberry jam and clotted cream provided by one funeral parlour, even if they didn’t know the deceased.

Some readers are intrigued by the blurb.

‘I buried my father, married my sister and sorted the missing will.’

Quinn, a celebrant with style and a few obsessions but a good heart, solves quirky problems, mysteries and the occasional murder at weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies in her country town.

Ex-actor with a great voice who writes eulogies to die for! Not forgetting a few quotable ‘Quinn’s Laws of Relativity’. A romantic, but asexual, Quinn lives with her long term partner Art who runs community Channel Zero.

The workstyle of a celebrant is never routine. Fake I.D. Fraud. Fights, even to the death, over wills and inheritance … Mislaid rings. Lost bride. Food poisoning.   Clients of varied ages and cultures are well looked after. Even vintage millionairess Flora with the much younger lover who might be a con-artist.

Quinn solves most problems but not always in the expected way

Why have you included Quinn’s Theories of Relativity at the end?

To characterize Quinn as many celebrants do write their original material.

Most people only know Albert Einstein from t-shirt quotes, but …

I admit I occasionally adapt his ‘Theory of….’quotes for funerals or weddings. Not really plagiarism because I always mention Einstein, just an updated tribute to the most significant science philosopher (in my opinion). One of my heroes and gives a bit of gravitas to a service.

Quinn’s Theory of Relativity

The likelihood of the relationship ending in divorce is directly related to the number of arguments during rehearsals, obsessive preparation and the bride’s budget on self.

My favourite is: Quinn’s Theory of Funeral Secrets

‘At a funeral, we acknowledge the life of the person and maybe the many identities, actions and secret lives of which the family and friends were unaware. For some a shock, for others a relief.’

 Are you planning any more ‘Celebrant Sleuth’ stories?

Yes.  But only if optioned for television. I’m realistic about the number of options which are never made.

Currently there is a great demand for celebrants to perform weddings for same-sex couples who previously had commitment services or who had married under the laws of elsewhere.  But the demand for commitments, re-commitments, funerals and naming ceremonies will continue.

 

Celebrant Sleuth by Hazel Edwards is published by Bookpod and is available through all good bookstores. Formats: paperback and ebook.

 

2017 Book Discovery 8: Elisabeth Storrs’ pick

In the latest of the book discovery posts, Elisabeth Storrs writes about her pick.

The Summons, by David Whish-Wilson, is far from light summer reading but my 2017 discovery of this dark and compelling tale provided me with a potent insight into the Nazis’ obsession into the occult. Set in 1934 Berlin, the story traces the impact on WW1 veteran, Dr Paul Mobius, when he is summoned by the SS to join Himmler’s Special Witch Work Unit. At the same time he becomes embroiled in another Nazi scheme which threatens the safety of his charge, the young simple-minded Carl.

Mobius is a fragile character, tormented by the horrors of the Great War, who nevertheless shows nerve enough to defy ‘the summons’ and escape with Carl to the country. Here, with his newly found love, Monika, the historian finds the promise of happiness. However, the tentacles of Nazi eugenic philosophy have already infiltrated the psyche of the rural community. Mobius must stay true to his own beliefs, and muster both physical and moral courage, as he is inexorably drawn to Wewelsburg Castle, the headquarters of bizarre and brutal SS experiments.

Whish-Wilson’s writing is superb, relaying both gentle humour, deep pathos and increasing menace. Ordinary Germans are depicted in the early stages of the sinister spread of Nazi doctrine and yet their lives are also portrayed as mundane and relatable.

I was drawn to the novel because I am researching the distortion of history by another of Himmler’s think-tanks to justify Lebensraum. The plight of a museum curator faced with making a Faustian Bargain is central to my own WIP set in WW2 Berlin and Russia. Whish-Wilson’s book sets a high bar. It is simultaneously touching and disturbing; an exploration of a troubled soul, growing doom, and an unexpected love for an unconventional woman and a threatened child-like youth. Pitched to prescient readers, the power of the novel is in us knowing the fate awaiting each.

 

Elisabeth Storrs has long had a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. Her curiosity piqued by an Etruscan sarcophagus depicting a couple embracing for eternity, she discovered the little known story of the struggle between Etruscan Veii and Republican Rome and the inspiration to write the Tales of Ancient Rome Saga. She is also the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. She is now hurtling centuries forward to write Treasured, a novel which tells the story of stolen loot, crazy Nazi archaeology, and the lost Trojan gold.