Becoming a writer: three mini-essays

Today, I’m republishing three mini-essays which give glimpses into how I became a writer–a process that I was hardly aware of as a young person and which even now still seems mysterious, in the big picture sense anyway. It’s only in these little glimpses that you begin to get a feel for it–at least, that’s so for me. Hope you enjoy!

In Sydney, aged about 7 (in front, on the left, with long hair: sister Beatrice next to me and Dad behind us.)

Becoming a writer: three mini-essays by Sophie Masson

One: ‘Write about what you know’

As an eager scribbling kid, being given that classic bit of advice,  ‘write about what you know’,  I felt like this was one of those rules that adults invent to keep children in their place. I certainly didn’t want to write about school and squabbles with brothers and sisters and trying to avoid parents’ washing-up rosters. I didn’t even want to write about flying across the world to visit our family back in Europe; didn’t want to write about family secrets. Nobody else would be interested, I figured. Heck, I wasn’t interested myself. I wanted to write about princesses and curses, criminal masterminds and dashing young musketeers, magic wands and priceless jewels handed down through royal generations. I wanted to write about the world in my head, the enchanted, exciting world of my voracious reading,  that made dull routine disappear and the limitations of being a child vanish in a puff of fairy dust.

So I did just that. I ignored the advice, and my writing went at its own pace and my writing worlds passed through childhood fairyland and adventure to teenage love tragedy and myth, hoovering up every influence going, from Russian novels to Tintin, Celtic love poetry to Norse saga,. Shakespeare to Agatha Christie, Moomintroll to Bilbo Baggins, The Affair of the Diamond Necklace to Great Expectations, along with just about everything else I could pick up as I wrote reams of poetry, short stories, comics, songs, and embarked finally at the age of 17 on a major undertaking—a huge fantasy novel which would take in as many of the world’s mythologies as possible, and feature characters who came from the four corners of the world. I filled two exercise books and then ran dry unable to finish,but nothing daunted went on with many more, and at last finished one. And then two. And then three, and finally I was taking the plunge and sending my darlings out into the wild seas of publishing, trying to find safe harbour..which eventually appeared on the horizon.

But this is really about the gradual realisation over the years that ‘write about what you know’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean write about your everyday life. ‘What you know’ can mean what you know in terms of your family history, the rich freight of story and event, of comedy and tragedy, carries in the wake of its life down the generations. It can mean what you know in terms of your reading, just as I’d first instinctively deduced as a kid; it can mean ‘what you know’ from observation and plain old nosiness. But most of all it means ‘what you know’ from the inside. Your emotional life. The song of your heart. Of your soul. The emotions you share with every other human on the planet—and the ones you don’t. ‘Write about what you know’ was about that emotional heart without which every literary work, in whatever genre and however elegantly written, means nothing. It was about being true to the heart—because only then could you reach other people. Only then could your characters really live and breathe. It didn’t matter if you were writing about broken marriages or broken kingdoms; about office bullies or Dark Lords; that was merely a choice, an inclination. But the emotions had to ring true, whatever world your characters came from. You and your readers might never live the life of a young prince unexpectedly elevated to the throne; but all of us understand what it’s like to be suddenly thrust in a situation we weren’t expecting. All of us can sympathise with the nerves and doubts and excitement. All of us can feel what it’s like on the inside, even if we don’t all reach the same conclusions about it. Even if we feel differently about these things. It still feels real, and that’s what counts.

No, ‘write about what you know’ wasn’t a restriction; it wasn’t a hobbling, as I’d thought it had been as a rebellious child—but I still had to reach that conclusion in my own pace, at my own time, and the way I’d got there had been enriching in itself.

So that’s what I know now—that ‘write about what you know’ is indeed good advice. It is, indeed, true. But just as the best writing is understood with the heart as much as the head, then that’s how that classic little aphorism should be understood. Don’t restrict yourself—let your imagination soar. But write about what you know—from the inside.

 

Two:

A love song to libraries

I love libraries. Not only readers are nurtured there—but writers, too. This is a hymn of praise to those libraries, private and public, that have been instrumental in my own development.

The first library I remember was my father’s, in our beautiful old house deep in the countryside of south-western France. This was a hallowed place, a place of light and shadows, cool in summer, warm in winter. There was a fireplace and a large winged chair beside it, a desk made of fragrant Indonesian wood, quills and silver inkstand and leather-bound blotter at the ready; blue toile de Jouy curtains featuring scenes of 18th century country life; a Persian carpet decorated with birds alighting in trees; and of course, books. Books in large wide open shelves of beechwood, built by a local artisan; books in a large antique bookcase with doors that were like fretted screens, so that the books behind them looked as if they were in a kind of beautiful prison; books behind glass and in sandalwood chests. You weren’t allowed in on your own; but sometimes Dad would call you in, sit you on his knee and read from some old collection of Perrault’s stories, or the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, illustrated by Gustave Dore. Other times, he would take down the huge volume of reproductions of Hieronymus Bosch’s art, and point out to his quaking offspring the hellish consequences of misbehaving, or else, driven by another mood, pull out from the sandalwood chests bound copies of 19th century magazines and read out ancient faits divers, or human interest stories.

We children had our own ‘library’ of books elsewhere in the house, shelves crammed with the pink-backed children’s classic hardbacks of the Bibliothèque Rose, and the green backs of the more modern Bibliothèque Verte; dogeared paperback collections of traditional stories from all over the world, and magnificent illustrated editions of mythology; well-thumbed copies of Tintin and Asterix, and, later huge 19th century novels: by Balzac, Hugo, Feval, Gautier. On those shelves were journeys and escapes and spells; but they weren’t what we called the library. That word, spoken in rather overawed and excited tones, was reserved for Dad’s library. In that room was all the mystery and strangeness and ordered beauty of another world; a world you had to earn a place in, through patience and the gaining of wisdom, a world that beckoned, whose enchantment made time stand still. It is an image that stayed with me, and every time we went back to France as children – which was at last every two or three years – after having rushed around to rediscover toys and bedrooms, it was always the threshold of the library that drew me, to stand dreaming and hesitant looking in at the books, waiting for permission to be invited in.

In Australia, Dad had a room full of crowded bookcases, but it was not the same. The books were much less glamorous, there was no atmosphere in the room itself, and besides, I’d discovered another enchanted place. For the other world that drew me in Australia was our local public library. The children’s section was probably not very big, really, but in my memory it was huge, an enchanted kingdom, far away from the dull routine of school. At the rather modest Catholic parish primary school I went to, the only ‘library’ was a couple of sets of glass-fronted bookcases in the senior primary room. Insatiable reader that I was, I’d soon have dessicated from the need to imbibe stories if we had not discovered the local library. That was my real education in English, the library; left alone by Maman to make my own pathways through English-language children’s books, I made wonderful discoveries, but also missed out on some marvellous things. Magic and fairies and giants and trolls and other worlds and mysteries always attracted me; anything that smelt of mundane routine I cast aside, and thus it that was I met, and loved dearly, Tove Jannsson and CS Lewis and Alan Garner and Patricia Wrightson and Leon Garfield and James Thurber and a host of others; but missed out as a child on Laura Ingalls Wilder because I was sure a book with ‘house’ in the title must be about housework! (though I read the books as an adult, to my kids, and both they and I loved them).

I loved my high school library too. It was new, bright, sunny, airy, and the librarian was a very keen reader who did a lot to extend my reading range. Because in an earlier high school, I’d been severely bullied, I’d also taken to the library as a refuge from harshness and cruelty.  Libraries had always been associated with pleasure for me; now they also became islands of calm in the turbulent seas of

Aged about 16, in fantasy finery with my sister Camille, aged 14 (she is on the right, in the hat)

adolescence.

The first novel I ever wrote – for I had written lots of poetry, short stories, plays and illustrated tales before, but not novels, thinking I could never finish one – was started thus, at the age of 16, in the library. It was a vast fantasy novel – I’d discovered Tolkien and his ilk by then – in which I tried to incorporate as many of the mythologies of the world as I could manage! I never finished it, but I still have it, and I still remember those afternoons in the school library, bent over my notebook, lost in another world.

When I finished school, I left home after one too many arguments with my fiery father, and struggled in poverty for quite a while. I was trying both to meet the requirements of a tough university degree specialising in Middle Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, medieval romances, and Icelandic sagas, and to keep food in my mouth by doing all kinds of odd jobs, from folding clothes in a laundromat (where once a customer, seeing me read in a quiet moment, said to me, What! You work in a laundrette, and you read a book!) to delivering junk mail to looking after kids to trying to clean flats (me, the least domestically adept person ever!) to working in cafes and restaurants and in a candy factory. None of these jobs ever earnt more than a pitiful amount, and I was really quite poor. But I never felt poor in our local public library, which I had joined as soon as I could. There were many days when I felt very much like giving up the struggle and crawling back to Papa; but the library always put new heart into me. Not only was it free entertainment; but it also provided information on all kinds of literary possibilities. I entered many competitions advertised on its noticeboards, and spent many happy hours continuing on with my various enthusiasms. The library reminded me that there was a world beyond flat wallets and gritty pavements and people who thought laundry assistants must be illiterate. It gave me heart, too, by reminding me that somewhere, sometime, people had cared enough about literature and about their destinies as writers to struggle through even the most difficult periods of their lives. No way did I want to follow the safe and dull careers of routine that had been proposed for me; in the reckless way of youth, I wanted to do what I felt I was born to do – and the library, so quiet and demure in appearance, but with such a multi-chambered, raging heart of tumult and vision and destiny and heartbreak and magic and joy, gave me the courage to continue, and not to lose hope.

Since that time, libraries have continued to be amongst my favourite places. These days, I am a regular of the public library in our high cold university town in northern NSW, and I have a large and messy library scattered in all of the rooms in our house. I also love trawling through the vast virtual libraries that one may find on the Internet. I continue to follow overgrown, wild, exciting pathways through magical lands and undiscovered countries; many of my novels have started from something seen by chance in a library book. I have had a great deal of very pleasant interactions with librarians, and admire their great dedication, erudition and kindness to me who is often a rather disordered and awestruck traveller in their domains. Though I still love magic and mystery, I have come to understand, as I’ve grown up, fallen and stayed in love and had children; built a house of our own with my husband and cherished the garden we have made, that the world within the world incorporates all those things, that the flesh and the spirit are tightly woven together, and that the spell cast by the library, the spell that seems to stop time, is the spell not of old paper or old magical formulae, but of imagination, that greatest of all qualities, which makes us both fully human, fully mortal, yet immortal too. The library is the record, the garden, the house of souls; but it is also the place where the soul is helped to emerge from its chrysalis, to spread its wings and be truly free. And there is no price that can be put on that.

 Three: Other people’s books

Enjoying a good book in a perfect setting!

You sometimes hear writers say they never read the work of other authors, especially writing in the same genre as they are, and especially if they’re currently in the process of writing a book themselves. The reason given is usually that they are afraid of being influenced, whether consciously or unconsciously, by the other writer’s work. There’s a kind of fear that originality may be somehow diminished, and that your pristine work may be contaminated, as it were, by foreign authorial bacteria, or that a kind of helpless plagiarism may happen, which will then destroy your own literary integrity. Underlying this is a deeper fear: that you may discover that those other writers’ books are actually vastly better than yours, leading to a major paralysis in imagination and the feeling that as they’ve said it all anyway, why bother?

It’s a fear that is common in modern times—writers in Elizabethan times, for instance, rarely seemed to harbour such insecurities. And I understand those feelings—the writing life is quite often competitive, stressful, and prey to many fancies and fears–but I don’t share them. Partly, it’s because of the way I write: a process of complete and utter immersion. When I’m writing, I’m completely in the story, nothing else figures or intrudes, I’m away with the fairies. It quite blanks out anything going on around me–to the great frustration—and delight– of my children when they were growing up. My daughter says she could have asked for a huge rise in pocket money when I was in the middle of writing and I’d have said, Yes, dear, whatever you want, vaguely; and my youngest musician son loves to tell the story of the day he’d spent an entire morning practising drums loudly upstairs, and when he came down for lunch, and I emerged blinking from my work, I asked him brightly what he’d been doing all morning! Equally, though, it seems to blank out what I’ve been reading—perhaps because writing is such a different process to reading, perhaps because that’s the ‘safety switch’ that clicks on in my mind when I start to write.

But it’s only partly my experience of writing itself which makes me feel that those common writers’ fears are not only unfounded, but actually dangerous. Because how on earth can a writer not be a reader too? Though they are so different, the two things go together. Wide and frequent reading of other people’s work leads to the enrichment of a writer’s mental furniture, the deepening of their emotional range, the texturing of their intellectual potential. Whether that be classic authors or  modern ones, reading what other people have written, thinking about it, engaging with it, makes all the difference to the strength and power of your own writing. An author without ”influence”–if such a mythical beast can truly exist– would write merely hollow, navel-gazing books which would most likely fail to click with readers.

I can’t begin to estimate just how important other writers’ influence has been, and is, to me. From the very beginning, when as a non-English-speaking migrant child newly arrived in Australia, I was introduced to English-language children’s books, I was off and away on an extraordinary journey through the world of literature. I devoured books as fast as I could get them off the library shelves. I read in both English and in my native language, French, racing through CS Lewis, Hergé(Tintin books) ,Tove Jannsson, Leon Garfield, Alexandre Dumas, Roger Lancelyn Green, Jean de Brunhoff(Babar), Patricia Wrightson, Philippa Pearce, Louise May Alcott, Jules Verne, Enid Blyton, and lots lots lots more. From early on, I wanted to emulate my favourite writers, and wrote little comic strips a la Tintin, fairy stories, school stories, all sorts of bits and pieces, totally influenced by what I read. Later, when, as a teenager, I got into poetry and plays, I also tried my hand at writing in the styles and forms of those poets and playwrights I loved best: Shakespeare,  Yeats, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Tennessee Williams, William Blake, Robert Browning, and so on and on.  I counted sonnet lines and tried my hand at shoe-horning verse into ancient bardic forms, tried to write snappy dialogue and tragic scenes. I devoured Russian novels and Gothic novels and swashbuckling French novels and tried to create characters in their mould. And my writing was  highly influenced, highly coloured by what I’d read. But not only was I enriching my mental furniture by reading, I don’t think I could have found a better way of practising to become a writer. Challenging and extending myself, not staying within the narrow world of home-school-home that  I lived in as a kid but roaming the wide worlds of my, and other people’s imaginations.

And so, unconsciously, as I grew up, I came to understand a very important and liberating thing, which has stood me in good stead all my writing life. And it’s this. Voice, which is really where a writer’s originality lies, does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, like Nature, it abhors a vacuum. Instead, it comes straight out of that rich mix of individuality and influence.

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

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

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

by Sophie Masson

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The professional beauty will mince

and preen her feathers, and wince

At showing she favours a man,

unless it’s all for her gain.

But a worthy lady of wisdom and valour

will not be too proud to show her favour

and enjoy the love of her man

in every way that she can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2017 Book Discovery 7: Jean Kent’s pick

Jean Kent writes about her 2017 book discovery today.

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is my rediscovered gem for 2017.  For some time this book has been near the top of the tottering pile beside my bed, waiting for that mysterious moment that the best books have, when it would become just the right one for me to reach for.

I love the gentle wisdom and wit of this story of a pilot who has had to land his damaged plane in the desert and his encounter with a ‘little prince’ who has also fallen from the sky – from a very small asteroid, where he usually lives alone, with one rose for company and the possibility of watching forty-four sunsets in one day for consolation.

Although it has the lovely, simple clarity of a children’s story, there is so much poignant adult experience here as well.  I wasn’t very far into the book when I came across a friend whose wife had recently died, sitting beside Lake Macquarie, taking a photo of the sunset.  Every day, he said, he did this now.  I went home, read a little further and found the little prince saying: ‘You know, when a person is very, very sad, they like sunsets.’

This edition also has all the qualities that make a printed book more special to me than a digital version.  It is just slightly larger than my hand, which makes it a pleasure to hold.  The paper is silky and white, and the print and line drawings are so crisp it is as if the ink has just dried.  The cover, too, with its delicate painting of the wistful, golden-haired boy-prince, is irresistible.

I bought my copy at the Red Wheelbarrow bookshop in the Marais, Paris.  So even though this is an English translation, that connection immediately makes me feel as though I’m partly in France while I’m reading.  Which, of course, adds to the joy …

 

Jean Kent has published eight books of poetry.  Her most recent book is Paris in my Pocket (Pitt Street Poetry), a selection of poems written during a residency at the Literature Board’s Keesing Studio, Paris.  She lives at Lake Macquarie, NSW.  She also posts poems and occasional Jottings at http://jeankent.net/

2017 Book Discovery 6: Sandy Fussell’s pick

Sandy Fussell tells us about her 2017 book discovery today.

My 2017 Discovery Book is The Choke by Sofie Laguna, although to be honest, it’s more of a discovery trail that began in 2009 when I spotted the cover for One Foot Wrong in a bookstore. I read the blurb and was hooked.

A few years later, I read The Eye of the Sheep in August, and even though there were still four months of the year to go, I told everyone, even Facebook, that it was my favourite book for 2014. When it won the Miles Franklin the following year, I smiled a lot and said, “I told you so” whenever I thought I could get away with it.

Even though I write for children, I’d never read any of Sofie’s children’s books. So, I began to search backwards. There were lots of discoveries then. I was lucky to discover a copy of the out-of-print picture book Stephen’s Music, in a Canberra second-hand bookstore. It’s another favourite. Sofie has a magical way with words. For me words have always been a form of music. In Year 6, I asked for The Complete Works of Shakespeare for my birthday. Not because I was smart, in fact, I didn’t understand much of it at all. I just liked the music the words made when I read them aloud. That’s was Sofie does when she writes. She makes word music.

But back to 2017. As a reviewer, I received an advance copy of The Choke. It sat on my desk for a while because I wanted the luxury of reading it in one sitting. Most of my reading is very fractured, wedged into slivers of time in between things I’d rather not be doing.

For Book Week, I had a school visit that involved two-and-a-half hours train travel each way. I don’t mind that. It’s not travel time, it’s reading time. I read The Choke, all the way from the South Coast to Hawkesbury River Station.

The Choke is the story of ten-year-old Justine, who lives with her grandfather, a damaged veteran of the Burma Railway. The name of the book is a reference to a place on the Murray River where the banks narrow. Large chunks of my own childhood were spent on a narrow section of the Nepean River, with my sister and the girl next door. I would sit and read (no surprises there) and the others would fish, and we’d explore a little north and a little south. It was innocent fun. But for Justine, The Choke is place where good and evil happens.

Some parts of the story cut close to my bones. The isolation of being different and wanting different things with no-one to understand or help clear the obstacles. Recently, I read an interview where Sofie spoke about visiting the thin part of the Murray, how it always floods but the gums still grow under the water, like Justine does. Ultimately Justine’s issues were darker and more violent than my experience, and the story hurt on a level deeper than what I brought to it as the reader.

When I got to Hawkesbury River Station, I had one page to go. I’m always early for appointments so there was time to sit in the morning sun and read through to the end. And when I’d finished, I took a deep breath, and everything I’d read overwhelmed me. I was sobbing. Not crying. Sobbing.

So, here’s why The Choke is my 2017 favourite Book Discovery.  Adult books told through a child’s eyes always resonate with me, the language is beautiful, and the narrative is heartbreaking. Absolutely gut-wrenching.

 

 

 

Sandy Fussell is an internationally published children’s author who loves words, numbers and the Internet. Enthusiastic about school visits, cultural diversity in literature and ICT in education, she is often found in a school library waving her practice sword or teaching a Minecraft-based writing workshop. You can find her here www.sandyfussell.com

2017 Book Discovery 5: Yvonne Low’s pick

In the latest in this blog series, Yvonne Low is presenting her book discovery of the year.

Pirate Hunters, by Robert Kurson, is a gripping read about real-life modern day divers, who are passionate to the point of obsession, about undersea diving and searching for sunken treasure.  The pirates of the old swash-buckling days have always held an interest for me from childhood when I used to love reading comic-strip stories of the pirate Blackbeard and other buccaneers.
The action takes place in the Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean Sea and details the tireless search for a long-lost pirate ship from the 1680s, during the Golden Age of Piracy.  The book was a real eye-opener about the lengths people will go to, to find the ultimate treasure and the fascinating historical research which helped the divers in their quest.
I love to travel and enjoy reading travel memoirs from exotic locations, so Pirate Hunters was the perfect book to take away with me on a recent beach holiday.  I could gaze out to sea and imagine what sunken galleons and buried history might be waiting to be discovered…
Yvonne Low is a writer and illustrator, whose illustrations have appeared in Christmas Press books, most recently for A Christmas Menagerie.  Yvonne is currently working on illustrations for another Christmas Press middle-grade novel, set in space!

Mermaid’s treasure, by Yvonne Low

2017 Book Discovery 4: Catherine Wright’s pick

Today, Catherine Wright tells us about her book discovery of 2017.

Alf Laylah wa Laylah (Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights)

As someone admittedly susceptible to the allure of all things exotic and especially Middle Eastern by nature, this collection of stories has been in my sights for some years. When the librarian showed me the size of each of the three volumes, I nearly lost my nerve and retreated to something less exhausting to hold up. How glad I am that I didn’t!

The stories of Scheherazade in their full glory (beyond the Disney-fied ones of Sindbad and Aladdin) are as mysteriously compelling and evocative as the hype would have it (I am reading the wonderful 2008 Penguin translation by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons). Not only are there the expected sumptuous scenes laden with precious gems, beautiful men and languid-eyed women bedecked in gorgeous silks and scented with musk and ambergris (which do not disappoint), but the nature of the storytelling is entrancing and quite hypnotic in it’s own right.

The indefatigably inventive Scheherazade stays her execution by her vengeful lover-king night after night with tales of tricksy djinns and the very human peccadilloes of its protagonists, interspersed with Rumi-like swatches of poetry and philosophy. No story is completed by the break of dawn, thus delaying her death for another day.

Nothing is linear in the experience of reading this text, with even minor characters telling stories within the main stories, so readers find themselves slipping deliciously down a narrative rabbit-hole, with each twist and turn more fascinating and lush than the last one in what feels a little like the opening of a sequence of Russian dolls. Although the exact provenance of these stories is still contested, it certainly feels very different to the Occidental, somewhat more logic-oriented style of narrative, which can seem a bit peely-wally by comparison. And these stories are unapologetically sensuous, sometimes startling with the very direct sexiness of the action and language.

The only thing that can stick in the craw about this (allegedly) medieval string of tales, is the regular description of women as scheming and untrustworthy (while the poor men are simply at their mercy) but, of course, this spin is not confined to Muslim or Arab stories (cf. Eve, the stories of Lilith and beyond…).

If you can put this to one side, Alf Laylah wa Laylah is a wild and glorious ride which often makes me catch my breath with its wisdom, insight, storytelling virtuosity and sheer beauty. Build up your biceps and give it a shot!

Catherine Wright was born in New England to a pioneering pastoral family, recently returning to live there after many years away. Her prose and poetry have been published in literary journals, installations and anthologies, as well as winning or being shortlisted for several awards, and a picture book of hers was produced for BBC Television CBeebies(Australia). She has been awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship for 2018.

 

2017 Book Discovery, 3: Elizabeth Hale’s pick

Today, it’s the turn of Elizabeth Hale to write about her book discovery of 2017.

I’ve made a number of lovely rediscoveries this year, including Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone​, about three children who become enmeshed a chase to find Arthurian objects, while on a family holiday in Cornwall.   It’s full of fascinating characters (the seemingly benign housekeeper Mrs Palk is my favourite), and gorgeous scenery, and an allusion to the Helston Furry Dance, which I’d heard of many times but not really looked up.  I spent a happy evening watching youtube clips of the Helston Furry (eg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNdo6wT9Ers), and it brought back memories of reading all sorts of mid-century British fiction in which folk dances, mummers, and other mystical happenings feature.
Another rediscovery is Alan Garner’s wonderful The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which I found while tidying up bookshelves at my parents’ house.  I read it over and over as a child; I think it was the first fantasy novel I really read by myself.  It’s set in Alderley Edge, in Cheshire, and again, the natural features of the land connect with a very plausible set of old folk beliefs and old magic.  I don’t think I breathed, while reading the scene where the children go through the underground (and sometimes underwater) caves that feature in that landscape.
And last rediscovery is Norton Juster’s divine The Phantom Tollbooth, another of my fantasy favourites as a child.  Here, Milo, a bored child, finds a phantom tolbooth in his apartment, and, getting into a mechanical car, pays the toll, and drives into the allegorical kingdoms of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, where he works to bring back Rhyme and Reason to the warring kings.  I’ve always loved wordplay, and the wordplay in this is clever and keeps on coming.  A great book for literary kids.
Elizabeth Hale runs the Antipodean Odyssey: Explorations in Children’s Culture and Classical Antiquity​ blog as part of her role leading the Australasian Wing of the Our Mythical Childhood Project.  She teaches children’s and fantasy literature at the University of New England.