Harlots, Housewives & Heroines

Taking the stage! Engaging in international espionage! Women in England experienced an unprecedented flourishing of freedoms during the years of the Restoration. It was an exciting, fascinating time. The brilliant Dr Lucy Worsley takes viewers through this history in a BBC series I enjoyed last year: Harlots, Housewives & Heroines.

Lucy does not host the whole show from the tub.

Lucy does not host the whole show from the tub.

King Charles I had been deposed and executed. Oliver Cromwell ruled England for a time during the so-called Interregnum, while the heir to the throne, Charles II, lived in exile on the continent. When Cromwell died and Charles II was able to return to England and take the throne, the now relatively liberal and worldly young king ushered in a period starting in 1660 known as the Restoration, wherein England began to shake free of many of its older, more conservatively medieval attitudes.

Dr Worsley chooses to focus on this time and the way it impacted the lives of women—largely for the better, it would seem. She trains her historian’s eye on many of the roles women were playing at the time, and shows how radical their transformations could be. It’s three hour-long episodes, and it appears that you can watch most, if not all of it, on Youtube. Here’s a link to the first segment of the first episode.

Smart women often inspire crushes. Sigh.

Smart women often inspire crushes. Sigh.

One of the things that fascinates me is the way that people explore, adapt to, and lash back against great social changes. Occasionally in history—and the Restoration is such a time—there is a build-up of stagnant, oppressive tradition that is suddenly swept away. Floodgates of freedom are flung open, and people long held-back leap through the breach into the undiscovered country. In those early times, the people are often the *most* free that they will be, for the new rules have yet to be established. The backlash has yet to take hold.

For instance, ending the Taliban rule in Afghanistan led to a state of wide-open press freedoms, where journalists were suddenly able to report on anyone doing anything—speaking truth to power—and grew culturally powerful as a result. This week’s On the Media radio show and  podcast talks about this situation in Egypt, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The sad and terrible thing is that—depressingly, predictably—the leaders in those newly-free nations often quickly find those radical journalistic freedoms to be as inconvenient as their totalitarian predecessors did. These new leaders (see: Mohammed Morsi today, John Adams in 1798) then start turning the screws of censorship and intimidation.

In Harlots, Housewives & Heroines, we see something similar. We see many of the status-quo restrictions on English women suddenly loosened, inspired perhaps by what Charles II learned in his rich decade of European exile. Women suddenly enjoy far more liberties than they previously had, but also more liberties than they *soon would have*. For the backlash, as always, is just around the corner. It would take decades or centuries for them to get back what they had briefly experienced.

This series is another invaluable resource for a fantasy author, or any storyteller working in the medieval or renaissance time frame. It’s especially valuable as a counterpoint to the knee-jerk, uninformed sexism or misogyny present in the minds of many people thinking about this period. Yes, of course the people of that day were much more prejudiced about sex and gender than we are today. But there are critiques that rise up whenever a female character does something extraordinary in medieval-flavored narratives that declare her to be “unrealistic”, by virtue of a conventional wisdom of universal sexism. Critiques that say that the suspension of disbelief is violated by any storyline that gives women more to do than our medieval stereotypes would allow.

Point One is that, in a fantasy world, history is free to deviate from the sexist norms of feudal Europe. In a world where magic is real, there are likely to be good reasons for those sexist norms to *not* obtain, so to speak. But let’s set that aside. Point Two is the myriad examples down through history of actual extraordinary women doing amazing things that were beyond the expectations of their culture. Point Three is the fact that, as storytellers, we’re explicitly concerned with the exceptional, the unusual, the extraordinary—since those are the interesting things. But let’s set those aside as well.

This BBC series is an illustration of Point Four: there are real examples of whole periods of history where the extraordinary became commonplace. Whole civilizations, whole eras, or just whole monarchical reigns where the long march of misogyny was turned around. It happened then. It’s happening now. And it can make for a good story.

Nell Gwyn  -- "the most famous Restoration actress of all time, possessed of an extraordinary comic talent" ...and also the mistress of King Charles II.

Nell Gwyn -- "the most famous Restoration actress of all time, possessed of an extraordinary comic talent" ...and also the mistress of King Charles II.

Working Iron and Forging Steel

It would be thrilling to go to a real, working smithy—to see how metalwork was done and perhaps take up the hammer myself. Naturally, such an experience would be great research for a fantasy author. The next best thing, for those short on time or cash, is watching these two fascinating episodes of television.

The mysterious Ulfberht sword. Oooh. Aaah.

The mysterious Ulfberht sword. Oooh. Aaah.

From PBS Nova comes “The Secrets of the Viking Sword.” The seed idea is that, though all sword-swinging Vikings were to be feared, a select few of them carried a special blade that made them even more dangerous. This sword, called the Ulfberht, was stronger, more flexible, and more durable than other weapons of similar appearance. Modern metallurgical analysis has shown that the quality of steel used in forging the Ulfberht far surpassed that of any steel used in Europe for hundreds of years afterwards. How did they do it? Why was it so rare? Watch the program on the PBS site to see modern scientists and smiths try to re-create the process and forge the Ulfberht anew. If you look closely, you can see Aragorn in the background, taking notes.

Put the eye-yurn in the fie-yur

Put the eye-yurn in the fie-yur

The BBC created a great show called Mastercrafts, about five medieval skills that are considered essential to the historical identity of Britain, but which are now threatened with obscurity due to the advance of more efficient modern techniques. All of the episodes are great, especially the ones on working greenwood and stone masonry, but it’s the blacksmithing show I’m highlighting here. The format of the show involves taking several interested amateurs and apprenticing them with a master craftsman so that they can learn to perform the skill as it was done a thousand years before. Along the way, there are lots of little informative side-jaunts to fill in details about the period and the process. Luckily, the normally-stingy BBC has thus far ignored the fact that you can watch the entire episode on YouTube.


Vikings According to the History Channel

I remember when the History Channel was just endless clips of black-and-white WW II newsreel footage. That was a while ago. Though I've not watched it more than a minute or two since the 1990s, I'm given to understand that, these days, the channel is much more about the history of Bigfoot and aliens than it is about Hitler.

"Good luck storming the monastery."

"Good luck storming the monastery."

So it was when I came across comments on Facebook by someone who had just watched a show called "Vikings" and wanted to complain: it had no story, nothing to connect the violence, sex, and blood. The History Channel had chosen to jump from documentaries into narrative historical fiction. Naturally, I decided to check it out.

As a writer of medieval-style fantasy, involving swords and sailing ships and ancient myths, I feel I must keep abreast of developments like this. And going into episode one with my expectations about as low as they could go, my take is...Hey! Not bad. It's no Game of Thrones, but it's also no Spartacus: Sticky, Steamy Sand. Facebook opinions aside, it's getting generally positive reviews, and I'd recommend it for anyone who's into medieval drama or history. And while the writers may have gotten a few of the details wrong for the sake of convenient story beats, as this article points out, there's still a lot of good feel and flavor to be enjoyed.

Best of all, it has a bad-ass fighting female character, played by a beautiful actress, based on a real historical figure.

Drawings, a Gallery

Although it's a novel I'm writing, and not a picture book, I'd always enjoyed those novels I'd read as a kid that included interesting little illustrations at the front of each chapter. In the early chapters of The Calligraphy of Demons, I was just finding suitable images and tweaking them a little before sticking them in there.

As more chapters were finished and posted, I started to want images that were more specific, a better fit, and more artistically satisfying. So I decided to take little breaks from the writing to do some drawing. I've posted the results on the Drawings page on my site.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the drawing is much like the writing: the more you do, the better you get. I was really rusty at first, and each illustration I complete is now more competent than the last. I'm going to do another blog post soon that explains my process.

I make no claims as to how professional the images are, or if they're worthy of being compared to the art of real, working illustrators. For me, as long as they are getting the job done, and look better than the stuff I did with crayons when I was seven, I'm happy.

Getting Home from School

I remember walking home from the bus stop. It’s summer. I’m living with my dad in an apartment in a complex of stunningly boring two-story buildings nestled amongst low, blatantly artificial mounds—which the developers suggest you consider as green hills. The fact that the mounds were formed by bulldozer and backhoe is as obvious as the origin of pail-shaped sandcastles at the beach. Sidewalk-free and pointlessly winding are the roads that snake through the grassy mounds. You’re not meant to set foot on them—you’re not meant to tread upon most roads in suburban Detroit—but there are convenient concrete paths slicing across the yards between buildings. It’s better than nothing.

The bus doesn’t deign to enter the vast apartment acreage. It stays up on 9-mile road and lets out a crowd of kids, dispersing us like a drop of food coloring diffusing in beaker of water. As far as my room is from the the bus stop (a perilous 15-minute run-walk for a teen prone to cluelessly snooze-slapping his alarm), it’s crazy for me to do what I will come to do, which is get off the bus at its previous stop, a mile further from home.

I don’t like the other kids at my stop. It not really bullying at this point, making me avoid them. Most of that treatment was years before, in junior high, in Massachusetts. But I don’t want the uncomfortable silence that comes of walking close enough to make the lack of social interaction into something awkward. I’m already anxious about such things, and I’m most often deep in my own head, wrapped up in my naïve and geeky thoughts.

I still have to get home. So I start down the gravel shoulder of 9-mile, on course to make it to my proper bus stop some 15 minutes after the other kids. I’m alone with my thoughts, allowing my imagination to run and run as I wander home. I now remember the walks as warm, glowing, halcyon times.

A house sits back on a broad lot, about half-way between the one bus stop and the other. Google maps shows the house still sitting there, as it was in the late 1980s.

From the street, a low drainage ditch and row of hedges make a barrier. I walk on up the driveway, cautiously, sure that I’m trespassing. Between the road barrier and the house is a field of grasses and flowers. It’s not utterly wild, but it’s been allowed to grow long and lush. A lithe stream sparkles in the afternoon sun, slipping over the field, and little trees pop up here and there.

The house itself is small and old, built in a time of mid-century construction, long before the ubiquitous yuppie-friendly apartment complexes spread out like so many squat, beige mushrooms. The little house is on a slight rise, guarded by tall trees and framed in a woodsy hillside backdrop. I don’t get close to the house. I never learn who lives there.

I’m only a daydreamer, wandering, observing, and the last thing I want is to encounter anyone, or be shooed away and then be afraid to return. For, in the humid summer afternoon, the golden sunlight is like a liquid thing flowing over that little field, blessing it with brilliance. The dragonflies ride above the grass-tops, and the spicy green aromas of thriving leaves mix with the sweet fragrance of blossoms. There is a fierce vitality, a beauty of isolated serenity that makes the whole yard feel like a precious oasis.

I stand. I stroll. I breathe deep and feel my heart jump—jump the way it used to in autumn in New England when my lungs would fill with the glorious pungency of turning leaves. I close my eyes and feel the sunlight wash over me. Insects drone their cyclical tittering. Birds sing.

I lose time, but I don’t lose myself. I’m fully present, in love with the world and the senses bringing it to me. As bad as I might sometimes feel, as lonely, as depressed, as despairing, I do have, for a moment at least, a perfect sunlit garden refuge. That it’s not really mine, that I soon have to leave it, only makes it more special. And though it now exists only as a fresco on the back wall of my high school memories, it can still make me happy.