Later this month and into next month, I am going to be having a very busy and very interesting literary time!
First up is the wonderful Historical Novel Society of Australasia Conference, which this year is being held at the University of Western Sydney in Parramatta, Sydney, from October 25 to 27. The biennial HNSA conference is one of my favourite literary events: there’s always really interesting speakers, a fabulous program, and a warm, collegial atmosphere. This year’s certainly no exception, and I’m privileged to be involved with the Conference in several ways: as a speaker, a workshop presenter, judge of the HNSA short story contest, and, a great honour, being the Conference Patron as well. Looking forward so much to it! Tickets are still available for this fantastic event, so check out the program here.
Next up is the Artstate Festival, to be held in Tamworth, October 31 to November 3. I’m involved in this in several ways, as an author, a small-press publisher, and a contributor to an anthology and an exhibition, both of which will be launched in Tamworth during that time. On October 31, wearing my Christmas Press hat, I’ll be participating, with my Christmas Press partners as well as fellow local publishing house Little Pink Dog Books, in the Creative Hot Spot Publisher Pitch Day, which will give children’s writers and illustrators an opportunity to pitch work to one or both publishing houses.
That evening, I’ll don my author hat again, as a contributor to the fabulous anthology Dark Sky Dreamings: An Inland Skywriters Anthology, which is themed around people’s relationship with the sky in all its aspects, and which will be launched at a great astronomy-themed event, in conjunction with the Tamworth Regional Astronomy Club, at Bicentennial Park in Tamworth at 8.30 pm: telescopes and stars will be a feature of this unusual launch!
Then on November 1, I’m speaking at an Artstate/Arts North West event called Authors’ Cafe, where authors chat with readers and other interested people about their work. That the evening, I’ll be attending the opening of an exhibition called Art Word Place, which is an Arts North West project, where New England-based writers were paired with New England-based visual artists to create joint works. I’m one of the writers, and I had the good fortune to be paired with the fantastic painter Angus Nivison. His visual response to my poem is just extraordinary! If you’re in the region, come check it and all the other works out, the opening is on at the Tamworth Regional Art Gallery at 5.15 pm on November 1, but the exhibition itself is on till December 8.
There will be other events later in November that I’m a part of, in Armidale, Sydney and Melbourne, but I will write about them later, in a separate blog post. It is certainly a very busy time!
Today I’m delighted to bring you a very interesting and thought-provoking interview with award-winning author and illustrator Martin Ed Chatterton, about an unusual project he’s been working on: Winter of the White Bear, an extraordinary picture book to be published by Dirt Lane Press this October. You can watch a compelling trailer for the book here.
Martin, I believe that Winter of the White Bear is a book that grew out of several inspirations: your PhD, your previous collaborations with Margrete Lamond, now publisher at Dirt Lane Press, and no doubt other things. Can you tell us something about how it came about?
The starting point for Winter Of The White Bear was my PhD which I completed at the end of 2017. That had, at it’s core, a polemical examination of the toxic legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade in my home town of Liverpool in the UK. I wrote my doctorate in part see if there was a way in which I could simultaneously access the slavery story in both a contemporary and historical way and the result was The Last Slave Ship, a novel with a dual storyline, one set aboard the Uriel, the final slaving voyage from Liverpool in 1809 and a narrative following a present day race hate crime which results in large scale rioting. The two storylines intersect at the end.
The PhD came about partly through curiosity about my family tree. On my wife’s side of the family, the maternal line is ‘black Liverpool’. The apparent ‘invisibility’ of ‘blackness’ in that side of the family got me asking questions and that led to (sadly) the growing realisation that I’d been raised in the most racist city in the UK and that my wife’s family had undoubtedly arrived in the city via Liverpool’s armpit-deep involvement in the genocidal Atlantic Slave Trade. In this case ‘we’ (white Liverpool) played the role of the Nazis, stocking, crewing and profiting hugely over 120 years by selling people. Over half of all the slave ships that sailed from Britain sailed from Liverpool. The city grew rich on the back of slavery. Present day Liverpool racism, both institutional and cultural is, I believe, directly traceable to residual guilt about the city’s blood-stained past, and denied thorough examination by an overpowering cultural ‘Scouse’ identity, described by American academic Jacqueline Nassy-Brown as ‘brutally localised, excruciatingly white.’ It’s not going too far to say that if the novel is published in the UK (as it is due to be), there could be trouble ahead. Liverpool does not take criticism well. If you’re interested, you can download the PhD exegesis here: https://epubs.scu.edu.au/theses/572/
Anyway…all that is by way of background. Winter Of The White Bear not only arrived because of my interest in slavery but because of the direct involvement of the very wonderful and most excellent, Margrete Lamond, my publisher (and editor) at Dirt Lane Press. Myself and Margrete go back a long way: to 2004 to be exact when I first moved to Australia. At the time she was working at Scholastic and commissioned me for my first Aussie book (I illustrated Ogre In A Toga by the lovely Geoffrey McSkimming). Margrete kept in touch when she moved to Little Hare books and she published The Brain Finds A Leg, a blackly comic surreal teen comedy set in a thinly disguised Byron Bay where I was living at that time. The book did decently, getting shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award (where we lost to the picture book of Mao’s Last Dancer…still bitter, although I do love Anne Spudvillas’ work). And then we did other books: a follow up to The Brain, a series about William Shakespeare as a ten year old boy, a novelty book about a nude Santa. All the usual stuff.
Then, about six or seven years ago I wrote a crime novel on spec and Margrete was kind enough to do a broad structural edit on it before my agent shopped it around. A Dark Place To Die was published by Random House here and in the UK and was then optioned as a TV series (still ‘in development’ with Escapade Media/Mam Tor). The book led to a series, all set partly in Liverpool (and Byron Bay, Berlin, California…) and, to close the circle, The Last Slave Ship is also set in the city. When I met Margrete last year she suggested doing an offshoot from my PhD for Dirt Lane Press and I jumped at it. I’d been seeing what they’d been doing for a year or two and loving the social commitment and aims of the company. I do a fair amount of what you might call ‘mass market/commercial’ writing and illustration. Probably the best example of this are the co-writing gigs I have with James Patterson, the US publishing behemoth. So Dirt Lane and Winter Of The White Bear are as far from this as it’s possible to be (note: I am by no means sneering at the idea of White Bear doing well commercially!). And it’s the best/most satisfying thing I’ve done (in books) in a while.
What has the story’s journey been like? Did you need to do many drafts? Did you work with Margrete from the start on it, or has the process been different to that?
I wrote the first draft very quickly. Having worked so much in the past with Margrete on so many disparate books we both have confidence in each other. That confidence gives me free reign to try things out, as I know Margrete will spot when it works and when it doesn’t. Perhaps the title (for Margrete) might be more accurately that of ‘producer’.
There were a couple of things I knew I wanted right from the outset. The first was no comedy. In my children’s fiction I’m primarily, and proudly, comedic. However, there’s no room for that here. So, no funnies. Secondly, I wanted this to be absolutely international. This wasn’t about Liverpool, or about the Atlantic slave trade. At least not in the specifics. This was about stripping back slavery to it’s evil essence: coercion for gain. Margrete and I had a couple of arm-wrestling moments, most pointedly on the issue of making this a white bear against a black bear. My view was that there needed to be a stark difference in the two bears as this introduces, in simple form, the idea of ‘the other’. Defining another group as ‘other’ is key to being able to enslave. And the clearest, most unequivocal example we have of that is white enslaving black. Of course there have been multiple (and ongoing) examples of slavery where that ‘otherness’ is less clearly defined but I felt strongly that the ‘not all slaves were black’ argument has been hijacked (erroneously) by the right. Besides, the genesis for this book lay in a specifically white/black arena. I didn’t want anyone to be in any doubt.
There were quite a few drafts but all following a principle I knew would be there. I started big and went small. The first draft came in around 2000 words; clearly too many for a book of this kind. But, as I knew that at the outset, and, as Margrete was the editor, I was confident we’d whittle down. Which is exactly what we did. The final word count is around about 700 words.
How would you characterise the visual narrative of the book?
Being a writer/illustrator often has it’s advantages, but nowhere more so than in a picture book. The visual narrative of this book emerged from two sources: the first are the paintings I do for pleasure. I don’t sell them or exhibit: they are for me and they are a long way from my ‘normal’ work. I began my professional life as an illustrator and that’s still very much an important part of what I do. Winter Of The White Bear is an opportunity for me to swing hard at the ball and make some of those gestural, free marks I make in the comfort of my own (secret) studio.
The second part of the visual thrust for the images is digital. Everything has been produced on screen. I’ve been drawing with the cursor, using collage, overlays, brushes, effects and photography to make the images. I forced myself not to draw anything and ‘import’ it as I would do normally. This has, I hope, resulted in a fresh approach, albeit using techniques honed over the years. I think this imagery will be seen as different for me…but it’s always been there.
With its fable/fairytale form and light touch, Winter of the White Bear can be read on many levels, and by readers of many ages: what do you hope people will take away from it?
I’m glad you think it has a light touch. It would have been easy to slip into a preachy tone so I think using fable helps prevent that. Allowing the reader to join the dots is something I try and do in all my writing. Using fable also helps blur the age lines. We’re so used to the fairytale form that it can become a Trojan horse in which we can smuggle in meaning. Another aspect of the fable/fairytale as form is that it allows darker themes and narrative. While Winter Of The White Bear deals with hard subjects it barely comes near to the horrors in, say, Hansel And Gretel.
I made the decision to echo the Atlantic Slave narrative in several key ways in the book. For example, when Little Bear reaches a point of desperation she chooses to allow herself to sink beneath the waves. ‘If she sank far enough she would no longer have to catch fish for White Bear.’ Slaves taken from West Africa frequently committed suicide as a means of escape. One of the first acts for the Liverpool slavers on arrival in Africa was the installation of suicide netting around the ships. Slaves were valuable and the more of them alive at the end of the voyage, the higher the profit. The hideous conditions aboard ship were finely calculated to ensure that as many slaves survived as possible at as low a cost as possible. Profit overruled morality at every turn. Slaves also saw suicide as an act of resistance so it was important for Little Bear to reach this point. Of course, I don’t make this explicit. This is a book for children so Little Bear’s ‘death’ is deliberately ambiguous. The appearance of her (murdered) father also speaks to the importance of ancestors in African belief systems. Little Bear’s subsequent ‘campaign’ and escape from her oppressor can be viewed as what happens to her in the afterlife, or as wish fulfilment, or simply as a magical reality.
I hope that young readers take one very simple message from this book. Namely that using force to enslave anyone is wrong and that we have to remain vigilant to prevent this happening.
Winter of the White Bear comes out in October, but you are already performing readings of it in schools. What other events are being planned in the lead-up to its release?
After starting work on Winter Of The White Bear I decided to make a ‘rough cut’ audio of it as a work in progress. I then showed that rough cut reading to schools I visited in Australia and China in late 2018. I always saw the book as something that would translate very well to the screen and I have made a full reading for the 2019 school visits.
I’m keen for Winter Of The White Bear to get ‘out there’ in as many forms as possible. I co-opted a French actor/producer friend of mine, Michel Duran, to do the reading for the video of the book. Michel is based in Vancouver and, I think, adds an extra flavour of ‘the international’ to the project. We have worked together on a number of film and TV projects (as Sugartown Media) and we are developing Winter Of The White Bear as a potential animated feature film. We’re also working with Angela Salt, another friend of mine in the UK who runs a creative children’s content company called Salt Content. Pat Davern, of Grinspoon, is also involved in writing a suite of songs for the project. He has provided the theme music for the project and we are at work on the ‘hero’ song, You Will Find A Way, right now. Pat and I have worked together on a number of projects beginning with Pat’s Alexander The Elephant picture/music book in 2015. We’ll be putting out a video for the song in the lead up to Winter Of The White Bear being published.
We have also partnered with The Freedom Hub (thefreedomhub.org) in Sydney for this book after meeting with Sally Irwin, The Freedom Hub’s founder. The Freedom Hub was formed specifically to combat modern day slavery in Australia. Using two cafes (one in Sydney, the other on the Gold Coast) as the ‘hub’ element around which programs of aid for people caught up in human trafficking are rolled out, the organisation is an important beacon of hope. It’s a real shock for many people to realise that there are an estimated 4,300 slaves in modern day Australia and The Freedom Hub are doing a fantastic job of raising awareness of this and giving practical help where possible. They are also committed to doing what they can to ensure slavery is eradicated around the globe. We are super proud to have them on board with Winter Of The White Bear and will be flagging them up at every opportunity. The book will be launched on October the 17th at The Freedom Hub by Benjamin Law who has kindly agreed to do the honours.
I understand that two other books came out of your PhD, including an adult novel and a graphic novel: can you tell us a little about them?
The Last Slave Ship, the novel I wrote for my PhD was due to be published last year but sadly the publisher went bust just prior. The nature of the novel (hard-hitting, experimental to a degree, polemical) meant that it wasn’t a good fit for my usual (commercial) publisher, Penguin Random House, so finding a good home for it has been a priority. My agent in London has been scrabbling around and we are pretty sure it will be out this year with Dead Ink in the UK who are another socially conscious independent publishing house. That’s by no means a given as yet but we think it will happen. I’m pretty keen on it being released as, along with Winter Of The White Bear and Archangel (the graphic novel I’ll discuss below), it would mean that three very different ‘slavery’ stories have emerged from the research, covering all age ranges.
The novel itself tells the story of the doomed final slaving voyage from Liverpool in 1809, sailed by a hard-bitten crew conscious that this is their last opportunity for a big payoff. Slavery has been outlawed in Britain so it is a risky, but potentially profitable, business. Running parallel to this story is one that revolves around the aftershocks following a vicious race hate killing in contemporary Liverpool. The central idea behind the book can be summed up by my ‘pitch line’: ‘The last slave ship didn’t leave Liverpool in 1809, Liverpool is the last slave ship’. And another: ‘What do you do when you’ve witnessed a crime committed by an entire city?’
In a spot of cross-pollination, I’ve mixed in characters from my three previous ‘Liverpool’ crime novels (A Dark Place To Die, Underland, Remission) and narrative themes of memory/amnesia, ‘saying the unsayable’, witness and guilt. There are intertwined sub-narratives in there too about Hillsborough, about Scouse identity and the importance of Antony Gormley’s Another Place as witness: a sculpture installation sited on a beach in north Liverpool which has been something of an obsession of mine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qw_WO8Y5a8s).
At the beginning of my doctorate, I was interested (and still am) in the notion of cross-media. Something that ‘fell out’ of that was me writing a piece of faux fan-fiction, imagining a fan response to The Last Slave Ship…which was, at that time, unwritten. That became a YA novel called Archangel which is a re-imagining of the slavery narrative, set in a future post-industrial north American hunter-gatherer settlement built on the remnants of a vast shopping mall centuries after Earth has been abandoned by the ruling elite. The climate is frozen for large parts of the year and the growing of harvesting of timber occupies much of the time for the ‘tribe’. This isn’t a dystopian vision: the population functions in harmony with their surroundings until the humans who had abandoned the planet return to ‘harvest’ labour. Dirt Lane Press asked me to develop Archangel as a graphic novel. As a first step I’ll be rewriting the story as a screenplay; the thinking being that will be a format more easily adaptable to the graphic novel format. I’ll let you know how we do!
Today I thought I’d republish an updated piece that I originally wrote for a presentation a couple of years ago, and which focusses on my love of folk and fairy tales, as a child reader, an adult writer, and a new small publisher!
Small but Beautiful: The Myriad Possibilities of Folk and Fairy Tale
By Sophie Masson
Three is a powerful number in fairy tale and folklore. And so in this piece I’m using it as a motif, to speak to you in three guises: as a young reader, an adult writer and a new publisher.
Once upon a time…
I dearly loved fairy and folk tales as a child. I was very lucky in that my very first literary mentors were oral, in fact, the very tradition fairy tale comes from: for I was told stories from a very early age. First by my paternal grandmother in Toulouse: as a baby, after I got very sick in Indonesia, where I was born and my parents were working, my parents took me back to France and left me with Mamizou(Marie-Louise), my glamorous, kind grandmother, and my two lovely, and lively, aunts, dark-haired Betty and blond Genevieve. In that fairytale setting of the ancient city of Toulouse, surrounded by stories held in its very stones, I was nurtured on tales of fairies and witches, monsters and heroes, tricksters and innocents. The tales of Perrault and those of Grimm jostled those from local folklore and those from far away: from the beginning, fairy and folk tales from around the world featured in my imagination. Then, after I’d left my grandmother’s home at five years old, with my parents and siblings and we arrived in Australia, the fairy tale tradition continued, for we had so many illustrated books based around tales from across the world, and my father used to make some up for us too, and give his own(sometimes scary!) retellings of famous ones. Our mother also took us to see Disney animations such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and I still love those Disney films–they are made with such delicate, sparkling artistry, they are little gems in themselves. But of course, given my deep background in the original fairy tale, they were never the be-all and end-all for me, just another way of entering into that enchanted world. And the very first book I read by myself in English, at the age of six or so, was a beautifully illustrated Little Golden Book called The Blue Book of Fairy Tales, which included Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, and Toads and Diamonds. I found a copy of that book in a garage sale a few years ago—and as soon as I clapped eyes on it, I was instantly transported back to that childhood reading experience! I knew the stories already, having heard them; but to decipher them for myself, in a language that wasn’t my native tongue, added an extra dimension of magic…Later still, I read more collections of fairy and folk tales from all over the world, both in English and French, in gorgeous illustrated editions. I couldn’t get enough of those sorts of stories. They were both consolation and escape; helped me to disappear into enchanted realms when frequent family melodramas made life difficult and painful; but also helped me to make sense of the world on my return. I loved myth and legend too, but in a different way.
Fairy and folk tales are less grand than myth, and less ‘serious’ than legend, but they are, in a way, more approachable. More human. And yet more magical. More geared towards not the great ones of this world, but the little people. They privilege the world of the village, the cottage, the everyday, transformed by luck, wit, kindness, courage…Most of all, they offer possibility: of escape, of justice, of hope. And of course of adventure. People say sometimes that it’s a pity fairy and folk tales are ‘only’ seen these days as suitable for children. While I understand what they mean, I think that it’s a patronising mistake to imply that something ‘only’ for children has no intrinsic value, in itself. Children understand folk and fairy tales, instinctively, without analysis. They understand without articulating it what it is that is so rich and nourishing in these ancient tales. Going from light to dark and all shades in between, managing all emotions from love to hatred, joy to sorrow, dread to excitement, laughter to grief, they are humble yet powerful, full of meaning yet full of adventure, and all in one concise and distilled package, for the tight framework of folk and fairy tale allows the imagination to run free. They also impart extraordinary and complex truths about human life and human nature in ways that are much more potent than if they were expressed baldly. You understand them with your subconscious, with your imagination, well before you are able to articulate them.
Turning the page, to adulthood…
I’ve never lost that love, that instinctive attraction to fairy tales–to me they are both intoxicating and refreshing, they lodge in your bones and your blood and in your dreams. And for a novelist, they are just a gift! As a writer, I love taking fairy tales and myths from around the world and playing around with them, re-inventing them to create fresh and lively new stories which whilst staying true to their essential core. I’ve explored quite a few fairy tales in my books: Aschenputtel(German form of Cinderella) in Moonlight and Ashes; The Scarlet Flower(Russian form of Beauty and the Beast) in Scarlet in the Snow; Rapunzel in The Crystal Heart; Snow White in Hunter’s Moon; Sleeping Beauty in Clementine; Puss in Boots in Carabas; (Tattercoats(English version of Cinderella) in Cold Iron; Breton fairy tales and the Arthurian fairytale of Dame Ragnell in In Hollow Lands; Celtic stories of underwater realms in The Green Prince; and the Russian story, the Tale of Prince Ivan and the firebird in my novel, The Firebird, as well as the Arabian Nights in my four-volume El Jisal series: Snow, Fire, Sword; The Curse of Zohreh; The Tyrant’s Nephew and The Maharajah’s Ghost. I chose each of those tales as inspiration because I felt they each had wonderful paths to explore, characters I could embroider on, magical backgrounds that were enticing…And so it proved to be!
What to me makes traditional fairytales particularly suitable as a basis for modern fantasy fiction is that in themselves they mix both enchantment and pragmatism, the world of the everyday and a realm of pure magic. And it’s all done in such a matter of fact yet also profound way. You can never get to the end of the meanings of fairytale; and the fairytales of a people reveal their essence, their soul, if you like, in a moving yet also funny and beautiful way.
And it’s not just the folk-based fairytales such as the Arabian Nights, Grimm’s collections and Perrault’s that are so inspirational. Original fairytales can also work this way: think of Hans Christian Andersen and Madame Leprince de Beaumont, who wrote Beauty and the Beast, a story which has inspired countless writers, including me with Scarlet in the Snow!
The biggest challenges of basing your original work on such well-known tales is that, of course, people have certain assumptions about the characters and the way the story goes. But though in my fairytale novels, I keep to the basic inspiration of the tale, it’s my story I’m creating and I make it very much my vision of the central character, the story arc etc. In fact the challenges are what makes I think the story so good to write as you are constantly open to the unexpected that will transform familiar territory into surprising discovery. In the classic fairytales of course, things just happen–because they do, and that’s the meaning of them in the tale if you like–but in a novel of course you do need to ask, why? who? what if? And so on. And that is exciting. It’s like following a detective trail, burrowing deeper into the heart of the tale, and finding your own new meanings within them.
My love for these traditional tales has led me recently into a wonderful new adventure.
In January 2013, working in partnership with two other creator friends in my home town of Armidale in northern NSW, illustrator David Allan and author/artist/designer/dollmaker Fiona McDonald, I became one of the founders of Christmas Press, a new children’s publishing house. Why did we do that? Well, we all love the gorgeous classic picture books that we grew up with, the kind which featured retold traditional stories and beautiful illustrations, opening children–and their families–to a wealth of wonderful tales from around the world, and we felt that such books were now difficult to find. But rather than complain about it, we decided to do something about it–and so Christmas Press was born! And why Christmas Press as a name? Well, we all remembered the special excitement of getting those beautiful books under the Christmas tree. But our founding motto, ‘Books to cherish every day’, also tells you that these books are certainly not just for special occasions!
Though our first title Two Trickster Tales from Russia featured my retelling of two fabulous Russian folktales, David’s illustrations and Fiona’s design, we only started with our own work as we knew we were taking a risk dipping a toe into the publishing water at all, and it was better to take that risk with our own work than gamble with someone else’s! The first book was certainly a lot of work and a very steep learning curve. But it was great to work through the process, first of concept, then layout, then design, over many lively working meetings. The printing costs for the first print run were partly funded by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which received fantastic support from fellow authors, illustrators, librarians, teachers, readers, booksellers—and even other publishers!
Since then, we have published seven other books in the ‘Two Tales’ series. The wonderful authors who have worked with us to create these retellings of classic stories include Ursula Dubosarsky, Kate Forsyth, Duncan Ball, John Heffernan, Adele Geras, Margrete Lamond, and Gabrielle Wang. We were thrilled that they enjoyed working with us, and that they didn’t mind that as a tiny press, our advances are very small—though we pay standard royalties. The opportunity to work in an area they really love but find difficult to interest big publishers in, was often mentioned as a great drawcard by authors. A big plus for us in attracting such talented and well-known creators!
Though most of our illustrations for the Two Tales series were done inhouse by David or Fiona, we also worked with other emerging illustrators: Kate Durack, whose powerful work illustrates John Heffernan’s magisterial retellings of Mesopotamian tales; and Ingrid Kallick, whose magical pictures illustrate Margrete Lamond’s engaging retellings of Norwegian tales.
In just five short years, Christmas Press has acquired a reputation for beauty, fun and high quality, with excellent reviews in national publications, shortlistings for awards, international sales, and even a mention for one of our titles, Kate Forsyth and Fiona McDonald’s beautiful Two Selkie Stories from Scotland, in the most recent edition of the very prestigious Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales.
Christmas Press also publishes anthologies of original Christmas-themed stories, poems and illustrations, and in 2016 we debuted two new imprints: Second Look, for republications in print on demand form of out of print titles by well-known Australian children’s author; and Eagle Books, which concentrates on adventure fiction for readers 11 and up, whose launch title, also in 2016, was the first translation in over a hundred years of Jules Verne’s great classic adventure novel, Mikhail Strogoff, and was followed by, to date, two other fabulous adventure novels by contemporary authors, with more to come.
But although, after eight titles published in the Two Tales series, we have decided to concentrate on other types of books, we are immensely proud to have helped to bring these small but beautiful tales to a new generation of readers. That is truly something to celebrate!
Today, I’m republishing a historical essay of mine about a real-life model for the legend of Robin Hood, back in the 11th century and the period of the Norman Conquest. It was inspired partly by research I conducted for the third volume of my big historical fantasy novel, Forest of Dreams, and partly by the fact my husband comes from Worcestershire, an area of England I’ve come to know quite well.
Wicked Sheriff and Outlaw Lord
by Sophie Masson
The legend of Robin Hood is the quintessential English myth. In it, we find all the elements that make up the English—as opposed to the Celtic British—character in the ancient land that the Celts called Logres. Combining ancient magical and symbolic aspects with the trauma of the Norman Conquest, Robin Hood’s legend still has many reverberations in modern England. It could be said, for instance, that the vicious class conflict which characterised English social life–and which still reverberates throughout it to this day–had its origins in the almost total destruction of the native English-speaking Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and its almost complete replacement by French-speaking Norman nobles. This produced a vast gulf of misunderstanding between the two peoples which became, in effect, class-based, for ‘ordinary people’ tended to be native English, whilst ‘the upper crust’ traced its origins to foreign despoilers!
As well as preserving the memory of the hideous physical and moral destruction wrought on Anglo-Saxon culture by the Conquest, the legend of the greenwood lord Robin Hood and his merry men is a perfect distillation of that light, lively and melancholy English spirit which had its most gifted and brilliant expression in the work of William Shakespeare. The slanting, ambiguous, mischievous light of the greenwood and its magic is more powerful, in the end, than the shadow of the castle stronghold in the stories of Robin Hood: an ancient light, that predates the Normans, the Anglo-Saxons, and even the Celts, and symbolises the enduring nature of the land.
It’s always a hard one, conquest. The attempt to brutally suppress a vanquished culture and replace it wholesale usually leads to it haunting the landscape, and the cultural psyche, in a way that eventually takes its toll on the confidence and identity of the conquerors themselves. It’s been the same story all over the world, including of course in Australia. In England, it happened to the Normans. . .
In the year of Our Lord, 1066, thousands of men came ashore at Pevensey under Duke William of Normandy’s lion flag. Attired for battle, William’s warhosts were attracted by the prospect of more loot and plunder than their Norse ancestors(the word ‘Norman’ comes from ‘Norse’ itself) could ever have dreamed was possible, and also by the joy of teaching their arrogant Anglo-Saxon rivals a lesson they
wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Lots of men there, twitching with excitement, the thrill of the hunt and of the fabulous rewards promised to them: landless sons, and illegitimate ones; adventurers and pirates and those who followed along just to see what would happen. Like the wolf in the fable, however, they must have a good reason for gobbling up their prey. And so they had it, not one, indeed, but several. Political reason: hadn’t Harold pledged support to William’s right of kingship in England, before Edward the Confessor had died? Religious reason: the Pope had given his blessing to the invasion, because the English Church was going its own way far too often. Cultural reason: the Norse thirst for gold and blood, only thinned a little by la douce France, was rising high. No doubt many of the French breathed a sigh of relief when the Norman army was gone. Personal reason: Duke William, driven by his illegitimacy, driven to conquer England and make it his own, though always his heart stayed in his green Norman fields.
That gathering of men, that roundup of reasons, was to have a far-reaching effect. Those warriors twitching to be gone to battle weren’t to know it: but this was to be the last conquest of England, because it was the most traumatic. And in its trauma would be born the greatest of the English legends: that of the outlaw Robin Hood, and his arch-enemy, the wicked Sheriff. Generations and generations into the future, the affrontement of Saxon and Norman would become metamorphosed into the age-old conflict of freedom and tyranny, of nature and authority, of summer and winter, of wild magic and castle law. And men who were once opponents would become reconciled within it. For the terrible crucible of history distils some potent brews, and the tale of the wicked sheriff and the outlaw lord was one of the most potent of all. And it is fascinating to peer into that crucible of time and watch the ingredients of legend being cooked up before your very eyes.
There, among those men on the English shore, are many who will leave the imprint of their characters and presence on legend. There are the powerful ones, first: greedy Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and William’s half-brother, notorious even amongst the Normans for his rapacity and lust, the epitome of a corrupt and oppressive Church; there is the honourable Ralph de Todeni, or Raoul de Conches,
magnanimous when it suited him; there is complex William the King himself, moneybags, tough warrior, harsh legaliser, driven bastard, nature-lover, faithful husband, cold in judgement, the man to whose bureaucratic instincts avant l’heure we owe the inestimably precious Domesday Chronicle, yet the man of whom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sadly wrote:
He had castles built
and wretched men oppressed. .
He was fallen into avarice,
and he loved greediness above all.
He forbade hunting the stags,so also the boars
he loved the stags so very much,
as if he were their father. .
Alas, woe! that any man should be so proud,
raise up and reckon himself above all men.
But it was not only the powerful who made that part of the legend, for if that was not so, the legend would not have become so ingrained. Oppression must be localised and personalised before it becomes more than just a distant story. And so, William’s followers, great and small, in all the corners of that green and pleasant land, all did their bit to help it along.
Urse d’Abetot, or d’Abitot(the medieval chroniclers are notoriously cavalier about names!)was just one of those petty followers. Urse hailed from a tiny place called Saint Jean d’Abetot, on the white cliffs of the Seine near Le Havre. From being a very minor lord in Normandy, a vassal of the powerful Tancarville family, who were chamberlains to William himself, and a mere mention in the invading fleet’s roll call, Urse went on to become Sheriff of the rich Western Midlands county of Worcestershire, and through the marriage of his daughrer Emmeline, allied to one of the greatest of Norman families, the Beauchamps, from whom past and present royal families are descended in one way or the other. Such were the rich rewards of conquest for the conquerors.
Urse bursts into history fully-fledged, as it were, as a perfect example of Norman rapacity, arrogance and violence. His name means Bear, and it is hard to avoid the image of him rampaging heavily through the older culture, looking neither to right nor left as he swipes this hive of honey, and that one, and that one, squashing all the bees in the process. Being no respecter of Anglo-Saxon persons, whether secular or ecclesiastical, he managed to grab one-sixth of the county of Worcestershire for his personal holdings: not only from banished and dispossessed English thanes, or lords, but also from the Church. Illiterate himself, he showed his contempt for the highly literate and cultured monks at Worcester(it was here that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was in part written) by building his castle in such a way that his latrines and drains overflowed onto the monastery cemetery. For this, Urse achieved the distinction of being cursed by the Saxon Archbishop of York, Ealdred, who was also the protector of the Worcester monks. Alas, poor Ealdred: the curse has ever been the last refuge of the powerless and vanquished! Ealdred’s words, as recorded by William of Malmesbury, can’t have made the Bear tremble too much:’Thou are called Urse. Have thou God’s curse!’
Sure it is, anyway, that Urse lived on for a good many more years of despoiling(he was Sheriff for 40 years!), whilst Ealdred died only a year after the Conquest. But later, maybe those words came back to haunt Urse, for his only son Roger, the inheritor of all his lands, was banished and disinherited by King Henry I, William’s son, for killing a servant of the King(and thus ensuring that Urse’s heir would now be his daughter Emmeline). The violence displayed by Urse and Roger seems to have lived on in the family: a d’Abitot was one of the four knights who rushed off to Canterbury to answer King Henry II’s exasperated question, ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’
Like thugs loyal to their gang leader, men like Urse took their vassalage seriously. An eager servant of William, the Sheriff of Worcester helped put down the 1067 rising of the Welsh and the English, as well as the later revolt of the Norman Earl of Hereford. And it was in that 1067 rebellion that we come to the other face of the Robin Hood legend, that of the outlaw lord. For one of the leaders of that rebellion in the West was Prince Eadric of the Magonsaeton tribe of that part of what had once been West Mercia: a famous figure who is known as Edric Silvaticus, or Edric of the Woods; and as Edric the Wild.
Even today, there are stories about Edric in the West Midlands, particularly in Shrosphire, where he had most of his lands; but he also held some in adjoining Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Edric is rumoured to have married a fairy wife, and to sleep under the ancient lead mines of the Stiperstones, waiting for the call that England is in danger again. What is known of Edric’s real history is just as extraordinary. A wild-tempered, darkhaired man who may well have been half-Welsh and half-English, he was the nephew of the infamous Edric Streona, who earlier on in that turbulent century had been instrumental in bringing England to the brink of ruin. Streona was a consummate politician who attempted to play off Saxons and Danes against each other, for his own gain. All these efforts came to naught in the end. For hated and reviled as a traitor by his own people, he was executed by orders of the ferocious English-born Viking ruler, King Canute. Edric the Wild’s own father, Aelfric, was not associated with this, however; and the family were undisturbed in their western lands.
All English thanes who had fought against William at Hastings were dispossessed of all their lands. In this way the new King sought to make an example to all who might try to rebel. Those who had fought against him to protect their lands were, in a neat bit of doublespeak, called traitors, and thus unworthy of holding land at all. In this way he hoped to break the backbone of resistance in England. Many of the dispossessed lords, witnessing the total collapse of their country, did in fact give up, and fled England: some of them ending up as far as Byzantium. Others made whatever accomodations they could with the invaders. Still others took to the woods and harassed the Normans. In the North of the country, this resistance was so strong that William determined to put a stop to it; the subsequent Harrowing of the North was a wound that bled for generations. But in the end, no matter what measures the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy took to protect and fight for their lands, all failed. By 1086, the time of the Domesday Book, there was only a tiny handful of landholders with Anglo-Saxon names left in the whole of England.
Edric the Wild, meanwhile, had not been at Hastings, for whatever reason. He was not dispossessed of his lands immediately. But he did not lie quietly under the Norman yoke and refused to submit to William. Almost immediately, in fact, he gathered support from two erstwhile enemies of his, the Welsh princelings Bleddyn and Rhiwallon, and descended on Herefordshire, harrying the Norman marcher lords in every direction. The historical record is silent on whether Urse the Sheriff met Edric of the Woods in armed combat; but one can certainly assume that their forces would have affronted each other. Edric and his allies were not successful in destroying Norman rule in the Borders; but they harried and harassed the thinly-stretched garrisons in the heavily wooded region to such an extent that William offered him peace.
In 1070 Edric was reconciled to William, but this was not a popular outcome amongst his people, and no doubt the name of the traitor Streona was much bandied about. Whether the old fox William and the lame wolf Edric really trusted each other is open to question: but as William had the reputation of keeping to his promises, and as his ‘protection’ was perhaps preferable to his agent, Urse’s naked rapacity, Edric agreed to keep quiet for the time being. In some ways, this part of the story is like the episode in Robin Hood when the outlaw is lured to the court and made soft with promises and protection by the King, who sees in this a better, more subtle way of keeping Robin under control than the Sheriff’s blunt, brutal approach, which has been a failure. Certainly ordinary people saw it that way, judging by the Shropshire legend of Edric—he is not allowed to die, but must be forever watchful against enemies, because he must expiate his crime of parleying with the invader instead of fighting him.
What happened after this is not entirely clear. But what is certain is that by the time of the Domesday Book, Edric was not a landowner any more. In fact Urse had some of the English thane’s former holdings. What happened to Edric? He must have been outlawed. Did he take part in the earl of Hereford’s rebellion in 1075, and was he punished for that by being deprived of his lands? It seems extraordinary that he might have joined up with a Norman, however rebellious; but those were extraordinary times, when ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ was the only constant. He had engaged in woodland guerilla warfare before; there is no doubt that his cognomen Silvaticus was given for good reasons. Whatever, though, he lost out, like all the other thanes: the outlaw lord brought low not by the wicked sheriff, but by the inexorability of authority, and the crushing of time itself.
And so, Urse prospered, whilst Edric vanished; yet it is not as simple, and saddening, as that. For though it seems as if in this story the wicked Sheriff won, in fact the outlaw lord did not lose. For Edric’s family did not disappear: and the Savages, as they were then called, intermarried in later times with some of the great aristocratic families of England—including the Beauchamps. And their descendants included the Kings of England.
But there was more: for Urse himself, and his deeds, and his glory, were forgotten, doomed to remain as footnotes in history; whilst Edric was immortalised in legend as the consort of an elf princess, leader of a ‘wild hunt’, and became a kind of spirit of the land. A wryly melancholic, truly English, ending worthy of Shakespeare himself.
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.
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,
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, 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.
(This essay was first published in Explorations, A Journal of French-Australian Connections, Number 50, June 2011, and subsequently republished at http://languageofastonishment.pressbooks.com/ )
Towards the end of Russian-French writer Andrei Makine’s hauntingly beautiful novel of childhood, memory and divided loyalties, Le testament français(1995), the narrator Alyosha, who all his young life has been shuttling between the visceral reality of his Russian Siberian childhood and his French grandmother’s poetic evocations of her past and her old country, has a sudden slip of the tongue which for a moment puts him in a disorienting position: that of being literally between two languages, between French and Russian, and understood by neither. But it is that very moment which transforms his life and his understanding of himself and his literary ambitions. The gap between the two languages which as a dreamy child he simply accepted and as a rebellious teenager he reacted against, is not what he once thought it was—a frustrating barrier to understanding or a comforting bulwark against reality, depending on his mood at the time. No, it is something far stranger and much more exhilerating: a prism through which everything can be seen and felt even more clearly, sensually and intensely, and not only because with two languages at your disposal, you have even more opportunity to ‘nail’ the world, as it were. It is because that between-two-languages phenomenon common to all bilingual people is actually a striking metaphor for the gap that exists between language per se and lived, sensual reality for all human beings. And it is in that gap that literature itself is born: literature, which in Makine’s beautiful words is un étonnement permanent devant cette coulée verbale dans laquelle fondait le monde: a never-ending astonishment in the face of the flow of words in which the world dissolved. (Le testament français, Mercure de France 1995, page 244.) And it is that very ‘in-between’ that universal ‘language of astonishment’ which will turn Alyosha into a writer, and by extension Makine himself, who included many autobiographical elements in the novel.
When I first read Le testament français, in the year in which it first appeared, and the language in which it was written—French–(the English translation, with the same title, appeared in 1997) I had already been published in Australia for five years, with several novels already in print. I was already aware subconsciously of many of the things Makine writes about. But I was immediately and viscerally struck by Le testament français. Makine had put his finger unerringly on the pulse of the bilingual writer; he had expressed perfectly something most of us knew and struggled with but I for one had never expressed quite so clearly, though I knew that my background and divided loyalties informed practically everything I had written, even those works which had nothing whatever to do with bilingualism in content, style or theme.
I write very differently to Makine, and in a very different field to his adult literary fiction. Though I have written three adult novels, the vast majority of my work is fiction for young people: children and adolescents. It is an area I much prefer, for all kinds of reasons, but principally because it is the area in which I can most express myself, in which I feel most free, whose very constraints in terms of what may or may not be permissible due to readers’ ages mysteriously allows my imagination a great deal more latitude, invention, freshness and subtlety than would be the case in adult fiction. Within young people’s fiction, I have written in all kinds of genres, from mystery novels to fantasy novels, family sagas to ghost stories, thrillers to love stories, historical novels to graphic novels. But the element of the fantastic, in one way or another, has been an abiding feature of my work. And now, after reading that book and thinking deeply about what it raised, I began to see that my own abiding interest in the fantastical, ever since my earliest childhood: in fairytales, legends, myth, as well as modern fantasy, was in itself not only a personal choice, because I was that way inclined and always had been. But also because the journey between worlds, the sojourn in strange places, and the sudden irruption of a different, disturbing reality into the everyday which is at the heart of fantasy was actually also at the heart of my own lived experience.
I was born into a long, tumultuous family history. A history which at least on my father’s side we knew very well, stretching back through the centuries, from the peasant villages of western France to emigration to Quebec as some of the first people to settle in ‘New France’, through centuries of Quebec life to the spectacular return to France in the early twentieth century as very rich and reckless dual nationals of the haute bourgeoisie. It was a history that was a mixture of grand tragedy, thrilling romance, Grand Guignol horror and high farce, and it was always more than a bit player in all of our lives. The dead jostled the living, in our understanding of the world; the mad, the bad, the sad, the brave, the good, the cruel, the powerful, the poor wore our features, and answered to our names. Passionate love and murder and suicide and treachery and madness and acts of courage and of cunning were all common currency in this history of ours, which crossed over often into the history of the countries my various ancestors lived in. And throughout the twentieth century (and beyond!)it has continued to unfold in instalments action-packed, terrifying, ridiculous, disturbing and exciting by turns.
We were always in the midst of drama, some a direct result of the past, others new episodes that would in turn generate their own echoes. People to whom I’ve told even a fraction of the extraordinary stories engendered by my family have said to me that one day, I must write them down. They’re thrilled by it all; they say, No wonder you became a writer! But what often people fail to understand is that , for a child, and especially a child who tends to be more of an observer, such as young writers en herbe tend to be, such tumult can be fatal to peace of mind and even to the growing of separate identity. It can actually paralyse your faculties of observation and clarity, which you need in order to transform powerful emotions into good writing. In order to escape, to protect yourself, you can only retreat, at the risk of being labelled a selfish dreamer, an emotionless blank, a weird changeling in the warm human world…
Perhaps I was just such a changeling. Perhaps my own destiny, as a child born to carry straight on with the quarrels and loves of a self-absorbed French family was irrevocably changed when first, I was born on the other side of the world, in Indonesia, where my parents were working; then, second, because of ill health, I was left as a baby with my paternal grandmother in France for four years, and did not see my parents or sisters in all that time. My grandmother, a great beauty with a turbulent past, was from a world that to me seems as mythically poetic as the past of Alyosha’s grandmother Charlotte Lemonnier seems to him. She had a fund of stories of that world, suitably glossed for a child’s ears, and one of my greatest delights was to listen to her or my aunts, her daughters, tell stories about the glamorous people in the elegant photo albums that filled one of the family heirloom cabinets in her bedroom. The Toulouse apartment where they lived, filled with the gracious and gorgeous relics of the past, its wardrobes crammed with evening dresses and furs and hat-boxes, was like a memory capsule of the vanished family fortune and long-ago histories of its more celebrated members, a place where a child could dream and dress up and imagine fairytale destinies. But it was also a space where I was the only and very cossetted and petted child in the house, the embodiment of the future, and with my grandmother, one of the twin centres of this very feminine world.
My grandfather was still on and off a part of my grandmother’s life; but their differences and a difficult history had made them drift apart so that he was away for long periods in his other world, one I never knew and still know of now only in very small hints. A world where he did not have to live up to the protocols and constraints of the gilded class into which he had been born, where his own troubled past could be forgotten, a world in which he felt more himself, though he was not the kind of man who would ever have put it like that. Elegant, impulsive and with a not-so-hidden streak of violence, he was not an analytical type, and was also no worshipper of the past; indeed, quite the contrary. On his infrequent visits back to the apartment, he brought a disturbing breath of masculine havoc with him, and a reminder that the past had also contained much darker things than the golden memories evoked by my grandmother in her stories. I was afraid of him; and also fascinated by him. I’d been so young when I left Indonesia that I didn’t remember my father at all, but I knew, from looking at photographs, that he looked very like his father, my grandfather, though I also knew that they didn’t get on.
All this vanished almost overnight when my parents came back from Indonesia, and the next stage of my border-crossing, changeling existence began. Suddenly I was no longer the only child, but the third of four children; suddenly I had to adapt to the rediscovery of my father and mother. We were not together long in France though; my father had been offered a new contract to work overseas again, this time in Australia. And this time, I would go along with them, with my second older sister Beatrice and my little sister Camille, while my oldest sister Dominique, who was on the cusp of high school, would take my place in my grandmother’s and aunts’ lives as the young centre of their lives.
I knew no English at all when we arrived in Sydney. I was five, ready to start school, and with Beatrice, who did know English, I dutifully trotted off. I don’t remember much at all about that first year in Australia. And I don’t think it’s because I was traumatised—from what my mother tells me, though she was worried I’d be upset, in fact I took to school very happily and babbled away in French and broken English to anyone who would listen, seemingly unconcerned with the strangeness of it all, and soon had several friends. Rather, I don’t remember that time because I didn’t have the words in which to ‘dissolve the world’ and fix my memories. Memory itself is dependent on language, and it is why we do not remember, as a general rule, our pre-verbal babyhood.
But I do very clearly remember that first English-language book I read by myself, as I mentioned; the Little Golden Book which recreated for me, in this new language, fairy stories I’d already heard and read, in my own mother tongue. For me, it was like a version of the feelings Alyosha has when he realises that the stories his grandmother tells him could be told in French, or in Russian, equally, because they are at the junction of the two, told in that ‘language of astonishment.’ And the fantastic is par excellence the discovery of astonishment, of surprise, of the strange, dislocating everyday reality in an unexpected way. Little wonder then that it was that element that spoke so deeply to me, why I took so to the whole idea of fairyland, of the otherworld in my reading. And the discovery of the extraordinary range of fantastical children’s fiction in English was one I made by myself; for as my parents had come to English as adults, they were not familiar with English-language children’s books. We had many books at home in French: rows of Tintin and Asterix and Babar and Bibliothèque Rose editions of the Comtesse de Ségur and Bibiliothèque Verte editions of Paul Berna and lots of 19th century adventure novels, like those of Dumas, Féval, Gautier, Hugo. I read them all, some of them many times over; but the English-language books I found for myself in the public library or the school library were very special to me because I came across them by myself. I was always attracted to titles that breathed of magical possibilities. The world beyond the wardrobe, in the cracks of the floor, through a river, across the sea, in the hollow tree, through the looking-glass: it beckoned me. It offered space and time. Possibility. More than that, it offered the chance of transformation, so that one could re-emerge into the everyday world re-invigorated, newly ready to cope, understand, and overcome.
My parents never intended to stay more than two or three years in Australia; Dad always had it in his mind to get a job back home. But that didn’t happen; the contracts kept being signed, and we settled into a shuttle of Australia for the two or three year period of each contract, with a stay of several months back in France at the end of each. It became our way of life, this moving between countries, continents, and languages; and though Beatrice soon rejoined Dominique back in France for high school, the rest of us(including the three youngest born in Australia, Louis-Xavier, Gabrielle and Bertrand)stayed here. English-speaking at school, we were not supposed to use it at home, and didn’t, with our parents; but soon evolved, between siblings, a kind of private language, a franglais, or rather frangarou, as I’ve coined it now to evoke Australian English: an in-between patois that twisted and melded and that no-one else would understand. That too now I see fed into my apprehension of the world as a multi-dimensional thing, a reality that could be disturbed, whose known layers could be peeled back to reveal something else, something unexpected, familiar and foreign all at once. The languages coined by fantasy writers are no more strange than the weird mixtures spoken between children who are growing up with more than one language deeply embedded in them..
I was soon writing as well as reading stories. Head down in a book, or nose up in the air, dreaming; or bottom up, scribbling interminably: for me, stories were literally indispensable, as absolutely necessary as breathing. Away with the fairies, I could hold and control and understand and know. Outside it, I was just a child, at the mercy of forces, both personal and impersonal, which swept me into constant, yet unpredictable turmoil. But right from the start, the stories weren’t just private, not just written for myself; I had an audience in mind, the audience of my siblings. We younger five especially were very close; our parents’ fears about the cultural difference of Australia, and their own difficult war childhoods, meant that they did not allow us to do the kinds of things our Australian school friends could do as a matter of course. I’ve often read in the reminiscences of fellow Australian writers that they had a freedom in their childhoods that children today lack, hovered over as they are by anxious ‘helicopter’ parents. Well, in our case, we had more that ‘hovered-over’ experience; not for us bike rides down the creek or jaunts by yourself into the city. During the week, we trod familiar paths to school and back again; after school and on weekends, we stayed generally within the—quite extensive–confines of the garden and the house. However, our parents did not attempt to program our days. We were thrown very much on our own resources, especially as there was no TV allowed in the house. And entertaining yourself often meant having to entertain the bored younger ones as well; you couldn’t just bookworm all day or you’d run the risk of armed revolt, both from siblings and parents. Telling stories—or rather writing them—was a good compromise. I’d be doing what I wanted, and still escape into other worlds; but also keep the family peace. More exciting, I could actually take other travellers into those strange and magical worlds of the imagination.
Sometimes, we children would sit under a big table in the living-room that we’d covered with a large dark pink velvet curtain that hung all the way down, making the space beneath like a kind of dimly-lit tent. In this space my younger brothers and sisters sat while I played Scheherazade, spinning as many stories as I could. Though I didn’t know it, I was learning not only the storyteller’s vocation, but also the craft of the writer, because there were times when my stories fell flat and I had to quickly change them, and build up suspense and a sense of style. I couldn’t just go, And then this happened and then this.. because the audience would rapidly get bored and one brother would start pinching one sister or vice versa and the resulting brawl would make our parents come running.
Sometimes, though, it wasn’t a shared experience. One of my ways of coping with boring or uncomfortable situations was to imagine myself elsewhere. I could look at a stone, or a piece of wood, or anything really, focus on it till I felt as if I could crack its essence, and emerge into that parallel reality I’d grown to love deeply. It was an actual physical reaction, this sensation of being in another world: a kind of dreamy dissolving of the limbs, a swimming of the head, and yet a great clarity of mind, and a delight that was piercingly sweet.
This was possible anywhere; but even more so when on holidays we were back at our house in the rural south-west of France, west of Toulouse. The house, that had been renamed by our father La Nouvelle Terrebonne, after the original Terrebonne, the long-lost family mansion in Montreal, was a centuries-old place that with its nooks and crannies and secret places seemed to me to hide many different passages to the otherworld. In that enchanted Narnia-like space, everything was extraordinary. It was a house my parents were happy in and relaxed, and from where we children could roam into the countryside, free of the anxious worrying which in Australia kept us to our immediate surroundings. It was a good-fairy kind of house, the sort that is deeply loved by all who live in it, but that nevertheless had many strange, mysterious and even frightening stories associated with it. Stories of the haunted red room, where a young man had hung himself, a hundred years before; of the well, where a witch had been thrown, centuries ago; of the enormous elm tree outside my parents’ bedroom window, planted by one of Louis XIV’s ministers. The stairs creaked, the attic was spooky, the cellar dim and creepy; there were storage antechambers to every room. Each of these storage rooms had its own strange cargo: a huge oak wardrobe full of old fur coats, including my great-grandmother’s Canadian wolf-skin coat; pottery jars full of goose and duck confit in the winter; an old wicker doll’s pram with my aunt’s doll in it, sporting a wig made of her own, blond childhood hair; and in another, the baskets brought back by my parents from Indonesia, full of red and gold and green and gold costumes, filigree jewellery, and two sinuous plaits of black hair, wigs made, so my mother told us in a thrillingly bloodcurdling tone, by cutting off the hair of corpses.
In Australia, I’d scribbled and told stories of fairies and knights and monsters. But in La Nouvelle Terrebonne, and the rural world beyond it, we discovered the actual homes of those fairies and knights and monsters. We headed out on our bikes to neighbouring villages, past deep rustling woods, fountains and castles and ancient churches; we went to school in the little village school across the road where they still had ink bottles and slates; we found eighteenth-century books on the rubbish tip and picked cherries and apricots and greengages and figs in our own parkland. Looking back on it, and now that the house has long been sold on, there is a golden Le Grand Meaulnes nostalgia about it, an enchanted space which stayed forever not only in my own heart, but those of all of my family. We sometimes visit the village just to look at the house; and my mother told me recently, that of all the many houses she’d lived in in her life, all over the world, La Nouvelle Terrebonne was the only one she ever had dreams about.
Of course, for a budding writer, an enchanted space like that is very important. Stories don’t need to be looked for; they are thick on the ground, in the air. But if that space is only chronologically a small part of your childhood, then you must also find stories wherever you are. And that’s how a writer’s mind works—you see stories everywhere. Back in Sydney, we might be more restricted than in the village, but there were still lots of magical stories to be found, even in our small radius. Coming home from school, we passed a house on the corner that was covered in vines and creepers, its garden full of roses. A couple of elderly sisters owned it, and often in the afternoons they were out in the garden in flowery flowing dresses and girlish hats. One had dyed her hair lilac, the other pale blue; to me they looked just like the good fairies in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty film, and we used to call their place the ‘Sleeping Beauty house’. Or there was the old lady who lived in the block of flats next to our house. Her late husband had been something important in India and her beautiful apartment was crammed with such things as a jewelled sword and a whole family of carved ivory elephants, arranged in a row from the large to the tiny. Once she took us for a ride in her ancient, magnificent Rolls Royce which scarcely ever poked its nose out of the garage. Though she was a tiny woman, she navigated the roads with great aplomb, sitting on a cushion at the wheel of the vast car that to me felt like a royal carriage in a picturebook.
I was always doing that as a child—transforming the world with the ‘language of astonishment.’ It didn’t even need to be as glamorous as a Rolls Royce or a fairytale garden to be turned into something magical. That technique I’d learned, about abstracting myself into imagination, came in very handy indeed-in maths lessons, long sermons, school assemblies, on unwilling bushwalks at the Blue Mountains block my parents bought; and just hanging around at home on a rainy day. My sister Camille said to me once that what she most remembers of her childhood is being bored; and that amazed me. Because boredom was something that I don’t associate in the least with my childhood; many other emotions, yes. But boredom, never. I was on journeys all the time, in my mind; whether in books written by other people, my own stories, or daydreams. Always escaping into other worlds…
As a child, though, the fact that even in reality I lived in two worlds—a French one at home, an Australian one at school—did not strike me as unusual, intriguing, or weird. It was just what life was like. I spoke in French to my parents, frangarou to my siblings and my diary, and English to my classmates and the exercise book I kept for my stories. I didn’t wonder at it, back then. I just switched effortlessly without thinking about it, just like the child Alyosha in Le testament francais. Yes, there were certain things I didn’t like, about times when the worlds collided, like the fact our sandwiches were different to our classmates’ or the truly cringe-making experience of the teacher picking me out of the class, saying to the rest of them, ‘Sophie’s native language isn’t even English and she writes it better than any of you!’ Yes, I might dream of having blond hair as well as magic powers(one of the characters I created as a child, Princess Alicia, had both!) But mostly, the differences didn’t worry me. I was simply hardly even aware I was different. Was I French? Was I Australian? I didn’t know and didn’t care. At home, my parents were always enjoining us never to forget we were French; at school we were always having it reinforced that this was Australia. At home, my parents sometimes talked about ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in disparaging terms; outside of home you sometimes heard disparaging—or conversely—adoring– remarks on the French, both of which surprised and confused me. But it didn’t really cause any conflict in me, as a child, it just seemed like one of those boring things that adults thought about but I didn’t. My mother would sometimes say, ‘Why are you always writing make-believe stuff? Why not write about what you know?’ but I had no interest at all in writing about my actual experiences, which to me were much too humdrum. Even if I was writing about the ‘real’ world it was always set in places I’d read about. Never places where I’d actually lived.
That all changed in my teens. I still loved fantasy but went from wanting to write dashing adventurous tales to dreamy meditations and mystical poetry which tried to express everything I felt about the mysteries of life. But I also became intensely self-conscious about the two worlds I lived in every day. Became aware that it wasn’t ‘usual’. I started questioning. Rebelling. And that meant challenging my parents, because it was the school culture—the cool Aussie teen culture I really wanted to belong to in those years. Like Alyosha in Le testament français, I really wanted to ‘expiate my marginality’ in the merciless ‘mini-society’ of adolescence. So I read mostly in English, at least where I could be seen, and my diary and my stories were always written in English, though I didn’t quite dare speak to my parents in anything other than French. When we went back to France on holidays, I took to calling myself ‘Australian’, to the sardonic jokes of my relatives who took all this teenage hoity-toitying much less seriously than my parents did.
And I laboured incessantly to keep my worlds strictly apart, impermeable to each other, an effort constantly frustrated by my father’s mischievous antics: for instance, I remember mortifying expeditions to the beach in the early morning—avoiding the very hot sun–and Dad, wearing on his head a clean but very shabby handkerchief knotted at the corners, speaking loudly to us in front of the surfies I’d hoped to impress, and who would then, I just knew, dismiss us as a bunch of ridiculous wogs. And neither of my parents always refused to bow to our pressures to hide, or reinvent themselves as Australians, New or otherwise. Stiff-necked in their pride, and determined to teach us a lesson in identity, they made us, instead, toe the line, and refused to change.
But at school it wasn’t always plain sailing either. Occasionally my wish to belong ran up smack bang against visceral feelings, such as in the mid-70’s when there was one of those periodic anti-French-nuclear-testing episodes which pepper the memories of many French Australians. Just as in the 90’s, the whole issue was personalised in a quite inappropriate way, with local French people targetted with things such as mail bans, and rude comments in the papers that appeared to make no distinction between an attack on French Government policy and the French themselves. My parents were up in arms: and though I shared my school friends’ anti-nuclear stand, it stuck sharply in my throat that we should be targetted in this way, and that even people I liked thought it OK to make sweeping generalisations about French people. But that was a rare if uncomfortable episode. Mostly, it wasn’t the fact of being French that caused me any angst; it was more a case of not being ‘mainstream’. Being a ‘frog’ was rather better than being a ‘wog’–there were many more romantic cliches attached to it–but most people outside those who knew us personally thought we were ‘wogs’ anyway, because of our olive skin and dark hair; so that made no difference.
But though I tried so hard to be a real Aussie, I began to see after a while that there were advantages in my unusual situation. Adolescence is often the time when budding writers, bilingual or not, first learn that the storyteller has a special place, even amongst the cool groups, even amongst the scary types. And the skills they learn in the jungle of adolescent society not only help them to survive it, but can be carried right through into adult life and the honing of the writer’s craft. And so I soon realised that quite a lot of my schoolmates were actually interested in France, and Frenchness. To them, it was a glamorous other world, and they never tired of hearing stories about it and our periodic disappearances there. I began by recounting fairly straightforward stories of our holidays, of people we knew, of the family; and then expanded, embroidered, taking in stories I’d read, and ‘remembering all kinds of things that hadn’t happened,’ as my husband calls it. I wrote a good deal of it down, too. And as it does for Alyosha, France became for me material for storytelling, and gave me an unexpected cachet amongst my peers, especially in the last two or three years of high school, when peer-group pressure is towards individualism and not melting into the mass as it is in early adolescence.
But it also led me on to write not only about France, but about my life in Australia too. And not only focussed on me, either. I started keeping voluminous notebooks of observations of people I knew or had briefly come across or seen from the windows of the train on my way to school. I imagined how their lives might proceed in the future. I wrote down columns of descriptions of places and objects, for the sensual world, which I’d observed so closely in childhood through a fantastical prism, became ever more sharply important to me as a teenager. Going on several holidays to northern NSW—my first real contact with rural Australia outside of the books I’d read set there—I was utterly fascinated by its village life. At sixteen, I wrote an impressionistic short story called ‘Sketches’, about the lives of people in one small timber-milling village. To me, that place was as exotic as something I’d read about in John Steinbeck’s novels or Chekhov’s plays; but it also had an odd familiarity, not only because it was Australia but also because of its occasional, unexpected similarities with rural France and the village we’d known. Yet there wasn’t a single mention of France in this story, and I didn’t bring in my own experience at all. It was rich material for the ‘language of astonishment’, and it’s one of the things I wrote at that age which still remains with me. Indeed, Sketches eventually morphed into my very first novel, The House in the Rainforest. (UQP 1990).
Was I French? Was I Australian? I still wasn’t entirely sure, despite my efforts to fit in. But I wouldn’t have answered at that point as I might have done in childhood, ‘Who cares?’ I did care. Part of me wanted to reject France, to pretend I could only speak English. But another part refused point-blank. It was all part of the painful chrysalis process of adolescence. Every teenager asks ‘who am I?’ In my case, like that of so many others, it was complicated by the fact of those two worlds, that’s all. And as I wrote my way through mystical Celtic-flavoured poetry and Steinbeckian realism and French fancies and Russian-inspired sagas, I was also making my way through those questions without even knowing it. When I left home soon after leaving school—the strains between my two worlds had become too much—I took the big step of becoming an Australian citizen, something that my parents, who never came as migrants but on work contracts, had never encouraged. It caused a stir in the family. I was deemed to have chosen, to have turned my back on France(though I still had my French citizenship.) I knew they’d see it that way, though consciously I’d never intended it. But unconsciously? I don’t know. It was confusing, and all mixed up with the fights I’d had with my parents, or more particularly, my father, over our very different expectations about my post-school life. But leaving home actually meant moving in with my eldest sister Dominique who had come to Australia after she’d finished university. And she was much more French than I was, because she had spent her entire adolescence and early adulthood in France. Living with her, I couldn’t have escaped from the French side of me even if I’d tried! Not only that but I’d become very interested in languages generally—not only did I enrol in French at university, but also a range of ‘English literature’ subjects which in fact weren’t English at all—Middle Welsh, Old Norse sagas, and Anglo-Saxon. All, as you note, fodder for the ‘fantasy’ side of me, the side that also sent me to weekly Irish classes at the Gaelic Club in Surry Hills. But also fodder for that ‘language of astonishment’–the writing voice I was groping towards.
So I went to uni, patchily, and to work, patchily too, and wrote and wrote, very assiduously. At school, I’d never really tried to send anything out. Now I began blizzarding magazines and newspapers with ideas, outlines, finished pieces. I pestered my sister and her friends to read my work and offer advice. I borrowed umpteen books on how to get published and sent my verse to poets whom I’d read at school and admired—AD Hope, Judith Wright, and later, Les Murray. I will always be grateful for the generosity with which they responded to the naïve young enthusiast with her palimpset poetry modelled on ancient forms. AD Hope in particular went way beyond the call of duty, critiquing lines and giving advice, not just once, but three times. That was an important experience—my first exposure to the idea of a community of writers, and of the continuity of literature, too, as older, more experienced and sophisticated writers pass on hints and encouragement to a new generation. It’s something I’ve been mindful of myself, passing on those things, as my status has changed over the decades from ’emerging’ to ‘established’, and I get letters—or rather, emails, these days!–from naïve newbies myself.
But it took years, many more years than I’d have cared to imagine, as an impatient eighteen year old, to go from the occasional short piece in a student newspaper or the occasional poem in a local magazine, through short stories accepted for magazines, newspapers and anthologies, and through many rejections of the first two novels I wrote, to that magic moment when I got the letter which told me that an editor actually wanted my book. Lightning struck twice for me that year; for only a few months after getting that letter, I got another, from a different publisher, accepting another novel of mine. Both were published the same year, in 1990.
The first was The House in the Rainforest, that very realistic Australian drama with not a skerrick of Frenchness in it; the other was Fire in the Sky, my first children’s novel which combined my love of the fantastic, of history, and which from the start melded France and Australia, past and present, as a modern French-Australian family is confronted through a time-slip with events in medieval south-west France. Domi and Tad in that novel have elements of myself at their respective ages—pre-pubertal, enthusiastic Domi, who doesn’t think or care about questions of belonging; and surly, frustrated teenage Tad, who’s uneasy in his own skin. But Kate in the first novel, though her background is nothing like mine, does carry elements of my life, especially that after leaving home. By the time I wrote those books, in my late 20’s, I had still not answered that abiding question: Was I French? Was I Australian? But it no longer preoccupied me as it had done in adolescence. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, as it had been the case back in childhood. It was just that I’d decided it was a lesser question than the ones that had become much more important to me: was I really a writer? Did I really have an original voice that people would want to listen to? Or was I just kidding myself and day-dreaming again?
Being published, especially with two such different books in the very first year, settled those questions very satisfactorily indeed! But some of the reaction to those first books also re-opened those old questions of identity. My background was mentioned in reviews, and as time went on and more of my books for young people were published, they started appearing on lists of multicultural children’s literature. I was asked to speak at conferences on ‘writing from another culture’ and asked questions about what it was like to write in a language that wasn’t your mother tongue. And I found myself both welcoming and resenting these things. Just as in those long-ago primary school classrooms, I hated to be hauled out in front of everyone as some kind of demonstrative specimen. I squirmed at awards ceremonies focussing on ‘multiculturalism’, feeling I was getting stuck in a ghetto. But equally I didn’t want to pretend that it didn’t matter at all, that I’d come to this country without any English. Meanwhile, going back to France periodically, as I continued to do as an adult, meant that I could not clothe that part of my identity in either a rosy glow or a black veil, but had to deal with its reality.
Slowly, I came to grips with the idea that I was simply a hybrid. The answer to the question, was I French, was I Australian? was: both. And neither. I was in an in-between stage, unlike my parents,or my children. And I probably always would be. My parents never thought of being Australian; my children were, naturally. Though they acknowledged their heritage, it did not trouble them at all. It still did trouble me, a little. I was glad of my acceptance in Australia—as time went on and my books grew ever more varied in scope and genre, the ‘multicultural’ tag was no longer automatically attached to them—but I longed for my books to be published in French, in France. But that did not happen for many, many years: it appeared that though French publishers were mildly interested in Australian fiction, it was only of the kind that was ‘exotic’, i.e recognisably Aussie. An author with a French name writing in English about frangarous like Domi and Tad, or even true blues like Kate in The House in the Rainforest, was clearly not high on the agenda. Perhaps it was confusing. Perhaps it was deemed not exotic enough. In any case it wasn’t until 2010 that a book of mine appeared in French. And even then it was one I’d written under the pseudonym of Isabelle Merlin! But by then things had changed for me, and instead of being troubled by this as I might once have been, I found it amusing, for the last trace of that self-consciousness has quite gone.
For it’s one thing to feel you’ve answered a question. It’s quite another to feel comfortable with the answer. When I first read Le testament français, back in 1995, I had already accepted the fact of my hybridity, but I still wanted somehow to pin it down, analyse it, worry at it. Makine’s novel, with its extraordinary evocation of the essence of bilingualism and how it affects a budding writer, struck deep echoes in me. Because it linked those questions—the bilingual identity, the writer’s identity—and answered them with great simplicity and yet great depth. At the very end of the novel, in a spine-tingling and pitch-perfect twist, Aloysha discovers something about his mother which will not only show the past in a new light, but also propel him into the real discovery and mastery of the ‘language of astonishment’ by exploring that past and making it live again. The novel ends with the words: Seuls me manquaient encore les mots qui pouvaient le dire (Le testament français, page 309): Only the words with which I could express it were missing… And as the young man, on the cusp of becoming a writer, walked out of the pages and into this reader’s memory, I knew that was precisely what had happened to me, as a young writer. I had gone looking for those words; and I had found them. And ever since then, that knowledge has been with me. I don’t need to labour those questions of identity any more. The language of astonishment has become my native tongue.