What a glorious book this is.
Published in 2014, this beautiful, engrossing novel by American author Sue Monk Kidd (author of the best selling ‘Secret Life of Bees’) tells the story of the Grimke sisters. Sarah and Angelina were born into South Carolina’s ‘aristocracy’ – the slave owning, wealthy, pious and cultured families of Charleston in the early 1800’s. Yes, before the Civil War. But not, as I learnt from this book, before some people in both Northern and Southern states began speaking out against the evils of slavery.
I also learned that the Grimke sisters were among the most reviled women in America during their long campaign for abolition – and also among the earliest feminists in that country. They campaigned, not just for the abolition of slavery, but against racism in all its forms, and also for the right of women to have a voice and a vocation.
Why had I not heard of them before now? I felt better on learning that the author herself – Southern raised and living in Charleston – had also not known about them until she went to an exhibition commemorating historical women of note. There, she read about Sarah and Angelina and a little seed of an idea she’d had for a novel (‘I want to write about sisters’) grew to encompass their extraordinary story.
Another woman’s story is told alongside the sisters’. Monk Kidd learned that Sarah had been ‘given’ a slave named Hetty, a girl of the same age as herself – for her eleventh birthday. The real Hetty’s life was not a long one- she died young- but in the novel, she becomes the girl called ‘Handful’ by her mother Charlotte, also a slave. Handful and Sarah grow up together across a seemingly insurmountable divide – the free and the enslaved. The two women’s stories weave around each other throughout the book, with chapters alternating between the voices of Sarah and Handful.
I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, which gave me the added pleasure of hearing it narrated by two different women – one with the cultured Charleston accents of Sarah, and the other the ‘slave voice’ of Handful.
This book did for me what good historical fiction should do. It made me wonder, imagine – and seek out more information on the real Grimke sisters, their lives and the society in which they lived and tried to change. Monk Kidd does not shy away from the brutal realities of the laws and practices of slavery as they were then, nor does she romanticise the relationship between Sarah and Handful. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the book is ultimately about hope.
Here’s a quote from the novel which absolutely sums up how I feel about historical fiction and, really,
history in general:
If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you came from.
This is Handful’s mother Charlotte speaking to her daughter as she relates the stories of ‘Granny Mama’, her African grandmother, about their history and culture before enslavement.
If you are looking for a novel to inform, inspire, educate and entrance, I’d suggest ‘The Invention of Wings’.
For those who haven’t come across her work yet, Sulari Gentill is the Australian author of the Rowland Sinclair series. Beginning with the first title, A Few Right Thinking Men, published in 2011, the (to date) nine books relate the adventures of Rowland Sinclair, “an artist and a gentleman…with a talent for scandal”. (from the cover blurb)
Along with his friends Edna (a talented sculptress and Rowland’s model for his many nude portraits as well as a possible love interest), Clyde (Communist Party of Australia member) and Milton (wannabe poet) Rowland travels Australia and further afield, stumbling into crimes that need solving.
The books are all set in the 1930’s, the time of the Great Depression, battles between the Far Right (The New Guard and Antipodean Nazi sympathisers) and Communists; seances and spiritualism; stockmen, gangsters, and bitter politics. Gentill immerses the reader in the thinking, politics, places, fashions and fads of these turbulent times.
The settings of the novels are wonderful: from the leafy Sydney suburb of Woollhara to the grimy streets of Sydney’s slums; from the new national capital of Canberra to the heart of the ‘squattocracy’ at Yass; from the opulence of the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath ( my fellow Blue Mountains readers will know this one) to sailing on the Aquitania; Shanghai; London; even to Munich as Hitler rises to power.
Gentill has the knack of weaving compelling crime stories with spot- on historical detail and wry humour, all told through the eyes of her very likeable character and his chums.
I greatly enjoyed this series and can’t wait to hear the author talk about her newest title, All the Tea in China, published January 2019.
I might see some other Blue Mountains readers at the Author Talk on 9th March at 2pm. Let me know in the comments below if you are planning to come.
The ‘Monsarrat series’ comprises three books (at time of this post):
The Soldier’s Curse, The Unmourned, The Power Game
No surprise that I was drawn to this series – they are, to date, three novels of historical fiction, set in several different locations in convict era Australia. Another draw card was the fact that they were co-written. I’ve always been a little fascinated by how the co-authoring process works, and this is an intriguing father and daughter team: well loved Australian author Tom Keneally and his daughter Meg. If I had the chance, I’d love to sit down with the authors and find out more. Who writes which bits? Which of them comes up with the initial ideas? Do they meet physically to discuss, plan and plot their stories, or is it an online or Skype process?
The stories centre around Hugh Monsarrat, who we first meet at Port Macquarie penal colony in NSW, while he is serving out his sentence for fraud, in the early part of nineteenth century NSW. Hugh is an educated man whose intelligence and aspirations outstripped his means, tempting him to pass himself off as a lawyer in England. His deception is discovered and he is shipped off to NSW on a convict transport.
The books take the form of classic “whodunnits”, as for one reason or another, Hugh is tasked with solving murders that occur where he happens to be: Port Macquarie in book one, the Parramatta Female Factory in book two, and Maria Island (off Tasmania’s coast) in book three. There are plenty of opportunities for guesswork by the reader, with red herrings planted throughout, and various characters having their own reasons to commit a murder.
A truly delightful character who appears in each book is Mrs Mulroony, a forthright Irish woman who has already served her sentence and becomes Hugh’s offsider. Mrs Mulroony is a woman of many talents, including skillful tea making and shortbread baking, to which she adds a fierce intelligence and the ability to accurately read people and situations – usually much more astutely than Hugh himself.
The books have a droll humorous tone, with believable characters and intriguing story lines. What I also enjoyed is their examination of the social, economic and political forces at play in colonial times, and the way in which these impact on the various characters.
If you are looking for well written historical fiction set in early Australia, peopled by characters you can fall in love with, you won’t be disappointed in these stories.I read that the books have been optioned for a TV series and very much hope that will eventuate.
I’ve been joining Facebook groups over the past few months. Not social ones – though I have several of those in my profile as well. No, these are groups that help me with getting into information, photos, old maps, and other images relevant to my genre and areas of writing interest. I’ve been amazed at the plethora of interest groups and the energy of their members to learn, discover, and share. There are some treasures to be found in the posts.
So I thought I’d share some that I’m finding especially useful. You can search for the group title in Facebook, and some require you to request to join the group, which is easy and painless.
These are ones relevant to my area of Australian colonial and convict history:
Pioneer, Convicts Families Research Group
Third Fleet 1791 Researchers
Second Fleet 1790 Researchers
(I’m sure there is a First Fleet Researchers group as well, though this is not relevant to my research right now)
Vintage Sydney (Australia) Heritage History & Memories
Australian Family History – Online Records and Resources
The Convict Stockade
Parramatta Female Factory Friends
Historical Novel Society (Australasia)
Hawkesbury Pioneer Families
Richmond History Group NSW
If these represent areas of interest or research to you, check them out. Let me know what you find in the comments below.
I could not resist this one: I saw the explanation of the expression ’slapstick’ (as in ‘slapstick comedy’ or ‘slapstick humour’) on a British TV doco on Regency English towns. The Cheltenham Theatre in this era was known for its pantomime productions, in particular those featuring the character Harlequin who originated in Italian comedy theatre. He is recognisable in his diamond chequered costume and magic sword, which he used to create new scenes, conjure a particular atmosphere on stage, or perform tricks.
In the documentary, the theatre historian showed the way the ‘magic sword’ was often made from two long pieces of wood, joined together at one end but loose on the other. When slapped against a leg, the wood made a sharp slapping sound, loud enough to be heard by audience members, and was the signal for the lights to dim, or a new prop or action to appear – hence the ‘magic’, but also how we get the term ‘slapstick’.
For me, reading (and now writing) historical fiction is a portal into the past. Good fiction has the ability to bring a time and place alive in a way that reading history texts can’t, with some notable exceptions. I’ve always been a history tragic, though not of the ‘dates, battles and great men’ variety. I’m much more interested in the lives of people: where they lived, what they ate, wore, read; who and why they loved; how they worked, travelled…
I’ve probably learnt more about history through my fiction reading, because I usually find myself looking up certain times and places to see ‘if that really happened then’. Of course that’s so much easier now, with the tools available on the internet.
I love finding out the history of places I go to. Walking down a street named after a figure from the past, or visiting an historical site, is always more interesting to me if I know the background beforehand. I love the fact that we are, all of us, walking over and around our history every day – even if we are not aware of it much of the time.
This debut novel by Sydney writer Lauren Chater is historical fiction at its best. The story plunged me into the snowy depths of winter in Russia and Estonia during WWII. Like some other novels I have read, the settings against which the drama unfolds become characters in themselves – and in this, I include the time setting along with the places.
There are two main protagonists: two young women who at the novel’s opening live on either side of the Russia – Estonia border, but whose stories eventually entwine so that the climax and resolution of the novel involve them both. Katarina is the lace weaver of the title: a young woman determined to carry on the traditions of her Estonian language and culture, including knitting beautiful woollen lace shawls. Lydia is Russian, but her mother was Estonian and she was raised to love and respect Estonian traditions even as the country of her birth, Russia, spread its oppressive tentacles over all aspects of Estonian life. Both women suffer because of the actions and policies of Soviet Russia under Stalin’s rule until they are faced with yet another enemy: Nazi Germany.
I love historical fiction when it spurs me to think more about the time and place in which it is set. This novel did that, opening up a chapter of European history that I’d previously not given much attention to. It also offered an insight into the dilemma of the Baltic peoples at this time: whether to embrace the Nazi invaders as liberators from Soviet rule or to resist the hateful Nazi race laws and ideology. Reading this book made me realise that for many Estonians at that time, the choice would not have been a clear-cut one, and in the end, the result was oppression and brutality whichever way they went.
The motif of the lace shawls is woven beautifully throughout and highlights the themes of traditions, culture, family and love.
I enjoyed this book very much and will look forward to reading this author’s future novels.
Where does the English word ‘hobby’ originate?
The etymonline website tells me that hobi or hobyn originated from Anglo-Latin in the 14th or 15th century.
It meant ‘horse’. No surprises there!
Our two more modern versions are from the early 19th century. Probably referring to a wooden or wickerwork toy figure, or a costume in a dance (such as Morris dances).
Today, ‘hobby’ can mean either:
1) a child’s hobbyhorse (stick with horse’s head, or a rocking horse). I can remember happy times galloping on my hobbyhorse when I was a very little girl. Then there’s the shortened version of this word resulting in ‘hobby’, meaning:
2) a spare time activity or past time, for pleasure and recreation, (From Macquarie Compact Dictionary 2017)
This book was a welcome addition to my little reference library for research on colonial Australian history. Grace Karskens is a distinguished Australian historian and author. She has the ability to ‘write history’ in a sympathetic and engaging way, bringing to life events, people and places from our past. I’m thrilled to be attending an author talk with Grace at Hawkesbury Regional Museum, Windsor, on 27th October. She will be talking about People of the River, her forthcoming book about early contacts between indigenous people and settlers along the Hawkesbury -Nepean rivers. I can’t wait to read this book and look forward to hearing Grace speak about it.
Here’s the link to the event: I’d love to see you there.
Here’s one for today:
Canvass (with the double ‘s’) means to solicit votes or opinions, engage in a political campaign or to examine carefully’. (Macquarie Compact Dictionary, 2017.)
So why does it look and sound so close to ‘canvas’, with the single ‘s’, which of course refers to a heavy, finely woven cloth – such as tent fabric or sails?
The answer seems to lie in the fact that both words come from the Latin cannabis (hemp), from which sheets and flags were often made. To canvass once referred to a game, which sometimes doubled as a form of light punishment. It involved a person lying in the centre of a large sheet, and others tossing them around on the stretched out sheet – a bit like modern day games played in a park with parachute silk. From this origin, canvass came to mean ‘to stir up or punish’. Later, that meaning included ‘evaluation by a crowd’ – like ‘running an idea up a flagpole’. Because flags, of course, were also made of canvas- like material.
So these convoluted shifts in meaning lead us from canvas to canvass. A fun example of the way language weaves its way through time, changing and mutating as it goes.
Here’s a great website I referred to :