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The Gossip’s Choice, an interview with Sara Read #midwifery #17thCentury

Welcome to Sara Read, whose new book The Gossip’s Choice is out next week. As a fellow enthusiast for the Seventeenth Century, I was particularly keen to Gossip SR Beeston Photointerview her and discover more about her new novel.

The Blurb:

“Call The Midwife for the 17th Century”

Lucie Smith is a respected midwife who is married to Jasper, the town apothecary. They live happily together at the shop with the sign of the Three Doves. But sixteen-sixty-five proves a troublesome year for the couple. Lucie is called to a birth at the local Manor House and Jasper objects to her involvement with their former opponents in the English Civil Wars. Their only-surviving son Simon flees plague-ridden London for his country hometown, only to argue with his father. Lucie also has to manage her husband’s fury at the news of their loyal housemaid’s unplanned pregnancy and its repercussions. The year draws to a close with the first-ever accusation of malpractice against Lucie, which could see her lose her midwifery licence, or even face ex-communication…

What made you want to write a novel, and what was the most difficult moment in the process?

This novel grew out of my day job which is as an academic who researches aspects seventeenth-century women’s lives. I have wanted to write a historical fiction based on the lives of women I have read about over the years but it took me a long time and a few false starts to get it done. On my laptop there are several abandoned versions of the opening chapters going back a decade. Funnily enough, I found that it was not until the title The Gossips’ Choice came to me that the story would come. So the hardest part was getting started. Once I had the title it came together very speedily.

Who is your favourite minor character in the book and why?

This is such a good question, it really made me think about the novel in a different way. The answer has to be Ned the apothecary’s apprentice. He is nineteen and gets into a rowdy crowd of fellow apprentices. He has a lot to put up with since he gets teased when he has to carry the heavy birthing chair around town for his mistress, Lucie Smith. But he still finds ways around the discipline of his puritanical master and sneaks to the tavern in the evening when the rest of the household has gone to bed.

Tell me about an object or place that is important in the novel, and what it signifies.

The novel has a very strong sense of place in that it is all set in and around the Three Doves which is the name of the apothecary shop in which Lucie and her family live. Lucie has lived there all her married life and all the episodes and events which happen in the course of the novel, see her safely back at the Three Doves.  The shop is marked by a hanging sign of the Three Doves which is illustrated on the reverse of the cover of the novel, and Lucie gets a notion that the tatty and worn sign should be revamped as a surprise for her husband as they approach the 30th anniversary of their marriage. The name is taken from an historical apothecary shop in Bucklersbury Street in sixteenth-century London.

What fascinates you about 17th Century midwifery, and can you share some of your sources that helped in the creation of The Gossip’s Choice?

Gossip stool 2I first encountered a seventeenth-century midwife as an undergraduate on a module all about seventeenth-century women’s writing. Jane Sharp is the first named Englishwoman to have written and published a midwifery textbook, The Midwives Book (1671) and although she takes lot of her material from other printed sources, such as Nicholas Culpeper’s books, you can still hear her own voice loud and clear. The ideas about best practice and the recipes for remedies used in the novel are largely taken from Jane Sharp’s book. The second main source was the case notes of a midwife called Sarah Stone who published a set of around forty cases in 1737. Each case is the story of a difficult birth in which she was typically called in to help after others had failed. These cases provided me with a base for a good number of the birth tales in the novel.

Gossip seems to play a part in the novel. What form does this take? If you could have a good old gossip with anyone from the 17th Century, who would it be?

A gossip was a woman who supported another in labour. This female support circle was a major part of the birth experience of women at this time and it was reciprocal, so you would act as a gossip for a friend who would then be a gossip for you in your hour of need. Lucie Smith is the gossips’ choice because she is the midwife of best repute for miles around. However, when events take a dark turn she finds herself the topic on everyone’s lips and is the gossips’ choice for all the wrong reasons. If I could have a good old gossip with anyone from the seventeenth century I would love to do so with a woman called Mary Trye. Trye published a book in 1675 called Medicatrix, or the Female Physician in which she launches into an angry and spirited defence of her late father. This woman knew a lot of gossip, had connections to friends in high places, and was also incredibly witty. You could not want to get on the wrong side of her, but I bet she would be excellent company for a gossipy afternoon!

Huge thanks to Sara for sharing the process of birthing her novel with us!

Dr Sara Read is a lecturer at Loughborough University. She lives in Staffordshire and when not writing or teaching spends much of her time running round after her two-year-old granddaughter. The Gossips’ Choice is her debut novel.
Dr Read has also written many excellent non-fiction books about women in the Early Modern Period – find them all HERE
You can also find her at her website or on Twitter @saralread
Categories
Blog Seventeenth Century Life

Lady Anne Clifford – travelling 17thC style, with 40 carts

You can’t live in the Westmorland area and not know anything about Lady Anne Clifford. In the 17th century she travelled William_Larkin_Anne_Clifford,_Countess_of_Dorset (2)around her vast Northern estates accompanied by more than forty carts which contained everything she needed to make herself comfortable at her great castles, which were in ill-repair. What she took with her included her large oak bed, and a pane of glass (very expensive in those days) for her bedroom window.

As well as restoring her ruined estates, from 1649 to 1662 she was a patron of the arts, including architecture, sculpture and painting. She also had a keen interest in books, including manuscript illumination and calligraphy. These were passions gained from her mother, Margaret Clifford, from whom she inherited not only her staunch Anglican faith, but also a love of literature and the classics. However, her early life was far from easy, as she spent much of her life in a long and complex battle to regain her inheritance.

800px-George_Clifford_3rd_Earl_of_Cumberland_after_Nicholas_Hilliard
George Clifford (after Hilliard)

She was born at Skipton Castle, the daughter of George Clifford, who had been a favourite at Queen Elizabeth’s court as a skilled jouster, and by now had been given extensive lands in the North, including no less than four castles. When Anne was only 15, her father died, and as her two brothers both died young, that left Anne as the only surviving heir.

Her father, fearing she was still too young to manage all his lands, left his entire estate and all his titles to his brother Francis Clifford, leaving Anne £15,000 in compensation. Anne was outraged, for she knew this to be in breach of a legal entail, one which stated that the Clifford lands were to be left to the eldest heir, whether male or female. This law dated back to the time of King Edward II. The lands included Skipton, Pendragon, Appleby, Brough and Brougham Castles.

brough-castle
Brough Castle – owned by the Cliffords. Now a ruin, it was one of the castles she restored, now with English Heritage

But Anne was stubborn and determined. She began legal proceedings, and in 1607, the judges decided that the Skipton properties were rightfully Anne’s. Her uncle, however, was not prepared to give up without a fight, and refused to give up the estates.

Skipton
Skipton Castle Yorkshire

Two years later Anne married Richard Sackville, the third earl of Dorset, who tried to take charge of her affairs. In 1617, despite the advice of her husband, and amid growing pressure from King James I himself, she refused to accept a settlement of the dispute. Hardly surprising, considering it proposed all the estates were to be given to Francis, her uncle, and his male heirs, and only £17,000 was to be given in compensation to Anne. Nevertheless, the settlement went through, and to Anne’s frustration, her husband quickly took control of the money.

Anne had to wait for the death of her cousin in 1643, before finally getting back her inheritance, but there is a happy ending to this tale. After the English Civil Wars had ended, Anne moved back to the North. An old woman by now, she spent the next 26 years of her life lovingly restoring her ruined family castles along with the churches on her lands.

Lady Anne Clifford died in 1676 at Brougham Castle, in her family home. Read more about her in her own diary, surprisingly available on kindle a mere three hundred and fifty years later. Told in a sparse matter-of-fact way, it details the comings and goings of this remarkable woman, who was never in one place for long, and seemed to have inexhaustible reserves of energy.

Appleby Castle
Appleby Castle, one of Lady Anne Clifford’s estates
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Almshouses built for poor widows by Lady Anne Clifford, in Appleby

 

 

Categories
Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – deadly sin no 6 – the Aura of an Era

Frans_Hals_-_Portrait_d'Isabella_Coymans
Frans Hals Portrait of Isabella Coymans (wikipedia)

One of the things that attracts writers of historical fiction, is the lure of the past – its costumes, its pageantry, its beautiful buildings and architecture, many imbued with a craftsmanship mostly lost to us today. Often great love and attention is devoted to describing these scenes in detail. In fact it is essential, to let the reader know from the outset whether we are in 1530 or 1830.

The trouble is, it is not these things that make a reader feel as if he or she is immersed in the past. The aura of an era is not conjured through describing its artifacts, although this does add atmosphere. The thing that really makes us understand we are in a different place and time is the attitudes of the characters.

If a character thinks that slavery is a welcome thing, then that sets our character firmly in another era. Writers are squeamish about this, thinking that readers will think these values from the past are their views. But surprise, surprise – the reader is perfectly able to distinguish between your fictional world and you. Writers also fear that the character will be unlikable, and that these views will alienate the reader. Actually, if handled sensitively, they will fascinate the reader. It gives the reader a glimpse of where we have come from – how far we have come in our thinking in the last few hundred years.

The aura of an era is portrayed mainly through the mindset of its people. By reflecting their concerns (‘Will the Dutch invade?’ ‘Will Henry’s men pull down our monastery?’ ‘Is the plague in the next town?’) we give a unique insight into a different society. So the society where men were encouraged to beat their wives was also the society which was passionate about defending ‘the weaker sex’, and the society where every man had to, by law, practice shooting arrows into a possible enemy, was also the society which feared literal brimstone and fire as the reward for taking another’s life. These contradictions within society form the inner struggle of your characters.

Adhering closely to the customs of the time lends reality, but can also lead to some difficulties in fiction. In earlier centuries women were not supposed to speak first, and had to defer to their ‘betters’. This can lead to female characters appearing passive and dull, as the society did not allow them to take the initiative. The solution is to give the reader the sense of that restriction – ‘She knew she should not speak, and yet she could not restrain herself. Her words burst forth in an angry torrent.’

The same sort of difficulties apply to the servant classes, and to anyone of perceived low status. But the answer to the problem is nearly always to use the restriction to give resistance and then show the character’s strength by having them break through those societal and cultural norms. It does not have to be open resistance – a secret rebellion can be just as effective. ‘She placed the mistress’s shoes side by side, left shoe to the right, and right shoe to the left. This small act of sabotage amused her.’

There is also a great article and discussion by Dave King on Writer Unboxed on making sure you take account of class, the structure of society which formed the bedrock of English history.

Others in this series:

Deadly Sin 1 – Melodrama

Deadly Sin 2  – Purple Prose

Deadly Sin 3 – Stuck in the Past

Deadly Sin 4 – Lost or Glossary?

Deadly Sin 5 – The Length of Time