The Historical Novels Review is a quarterly publication you receive when you subscribe to the Historical Novel Society. Since historical fiction is one of the genres I edit (and write), I decided it was time to sign up.
As a member, you have the ability to add your own directory entry. Even if you’re not published yet. You can also add an entry if you’re a blogger or reviewer, etc.
The society’s website features many book reviews and articles, as well as ‘What’s on’ news.
If you want to check out the reviews you can click here.
If you want to check out features and articles you can click here.
The August 2023 edition of the magazine has 62 pages, including the back cover. The cover is glossy, with smooth inner paper on the interior. The text of the articles and reviews inside might be a little small for some readers. However, articles are also available online.
Writing alternative history
One interesting article is All Possible Worlds: CJ Carey and the “What If” of Alternative History by Douglas Kemp. CJ Carey is the writing name of Jane Thynne. Her novels Queen High and Widowland are predicated on Germany winning WWII, with the UK under occupation. It’s now the 1950s and the main character, Rose Ransom, is working both for the occupiers and the resistance.
Through his article Douglas Kemp explores not just the world of Carey’s novels, but the differences between normal historical fiction and alternative history. While the former requires more attention to facts, the latter might create new timelines, yet there still needs to be internal consistency. The alternative world still needs to make sense and retain its own credibility.
Ageism against new older female authors
In another article, Kathleen Jones writes about the ageism women authors face from agents and editors, particularly in relation to debut novelists. The article was triggered by an event held during the recent Historical Novel Society Conference. A member of the audience asked a panel member if age was a barrier to an agent taking on an author over fifty. The literary agent on the panel admitted that editors will check out authors online, even if their age isn’t revealed by the agent, and that age can be a barrier.
This naturally outraged many older women present and the topic would come up among them over the course of the rest of the conference.
Of course women face particular barriers when it comes to an earlier debut. In addition to other careers, they are often carers to children, or elderly relatives.
The article goes on to point out the number of older women recently shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
As Kathleen Jones says in her article, there are advantages as well as disadvantages to being an older debuting author – such as more life experience. Jones believes things are looking up in the publishing industry. Certainly, when most of the reading market consists of women over 45, those same readers should be able to find more new voices from their own generation.
If you want to read the article you can click here.
Maeve Brennan was an expatriate Irish writer who spent most of her life in the United States. There she worked for Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion writer until 1949 when William Shawn invited her to move to The New Yorker.
Some of her short stories had already been published in the magazine before she started writing her ‘communications’ or vignettes of New York under the Talk of the Town column. Her by-line was the Long-Winded Lady. Her real name would not be revealed until William Morrow published forty-seven of her columns as The Long-Winded Lady in 1969. While two of her short story collections were published in the United States during her lifetime, she was largely unknown in Ireland.
To some extent, Maeve Brennan’s life has parallels with that of Vivian Maier, a nanny who lived a low-key life of anonymity, while taking thousands of photos. Vivian was an incredible street photographer, capturing ordinary people in fleeting moments. These photos would only be discovered after her death.
But Maeve was more glamorous than Vivian. Petite and barely over five feet tall, she wore her auburn hair back or in a pony tail and was always impeccably dressed for a good part of her life. Her fashion writing doubtless helped establish her personal style. She wore strong lipstick, drank, and swore like a longshoreman.
But while she had short stories published at Harper’s Bazaar and The New Yorker, like Maier she was never famous in her lifetime and was almost unknown in Ireland. And like Maier, Maeve captured ordinary fleeting moments in these vignettes. But her portraits of city life were captured in words, not film. In a letter to her editor and close friend William Maxwell, she said she wanted to write as though the camera had never been invented.
In her author’s note to The Long-Winded Lady collection, she writes:
The attention to detail shown in these vignettes also appears in her short stories and her novella, The Visitor.
Maeve was born in Dublin in January 1917 to Irish Republican parents. She was one of four children. She and her two sisters were all named after ancient Irish queens: Emer, Deirdre and Maeve.
Irish politics was at the centre of her parents’ life back then. Both participated in the Easter Rising in 1916. While Maeve’s mother Una was only imprisoned for a few days, her father Robert was condemned to death, though his sentence was commuted. He was in prison when Maeve was born.
Robert, a de Valera supporter, continued to clash with the authorities, including Michael Collins’ Irish Free Staters who raided Maeve’s childhood home, an event she revisits in one of her short stories The Day We Got Our Own Back.
The move to America
In 1934, da Valera appointed Robert to the Irish Legation in Washington. Robert’s wife and children moved with him, and so Maeve’s American life began. She attended a Catholic convent school and went on to study English at the American University, graduating in 1938. She was fiercely Irish in the United States, and a glamorous American when she visited her home country.
Her parents and brother returned to Ireland in the nineteen-forties, but she stayed behind, along with her two sisters. She had moved to New York and was soon writing fashion copy for Harper’s Bazaar.
Thanks to Harper’s Irish editor Carmel Snow, Maeve got to meet other Irish writers and was often to be found at Costello’s Bar on Third Avenue. There she would come into contact with future colleagues from The New Yorker. She had already started writing her short stories during this time as well as her novella, The Visitor.
Maeve was only seventeen when she left Ireland. But her childhood home, the street and the neighbourhood in Dublin would come to feature over and over again in the stories she penned while living in New York.
Interestingly, Maeve never wrote about the biggest disruption of her life – the move to Washington. Her writing looks back to her childhood in Dublin, or later to her life in New York or her observations about the wealthy and their servants in an exclusive Hudson River enclave.
The short stories
When you read Maeve Brennan’s stories set in Dublin, you sense that there’s a biographical truth in a character’s home, their street, or the furnishings of a room. She’s mining her past, her childhood, her family and heritage from thousands of miles away. And perhaps distance in space and time sharpened her memories.
The opening to The Morning after the Big Fire reads like someone reminiscing about their childhood – going into detail about the houses in the street and the common end wall, and the tennis court at the back. Nostalgia is a big part of Maeve’s writing. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl whose father reports a fire at the shop and garage next door.
The next day, the girl tells the neighbours, revelling in being the bearer of news. But she’s suddenly very annoyed when it seems one of the men might go round and check out the ruins and be a greater authority than her. She’s already been banned from going near the remains of the building.
This is exactly how a child might feel when there’s a moment of drama. Suddenly the centre of attention and authority, and aware that it could all be lost any moment when an adult steps in. When the other children go round to see the wreckage, she is no longer the authority and pretends to be disinterested.
When the new garage is built, she secretly hopes it will catch fire and watches to see if it does. But there is no other fire before her family leave the house years later. The story ends with her thinking that if some child went round there with a match, she wouldn’t blame them, as long as she got to tell the story first.
The Morning after the Big Fire is a very short story – about three pages long. It’s built on nostalgia, her childhood home, and wryly observes child psychology.
In another story, The Old Man of the Sea, the girl, her sister and mother are plagued by an old man who comes round to sell apples. Her mother always takes pity on beggars, so she buys two bags.
After that, he comes round every week with two bags prepared. The mother can’t get rid of him. She doesn’t want all those apples. The situation escalates from week to week, while the girl is reminded of the old man Sinbad carried on his back. An old man who seemed to get heavier and heavier as time goes on.
The story is simple and full of humour as the mother, a soft touch for anyone who comes to the door, eventually hides in the kitchen and then the back garden. The mother in the story has a lot in common with Maeve’s mother.
Religion comes up in some of the stories – the girl narrator in The Barrel of Rumours is sure the poor Clare nuns sleep in coffins, and that they have to be measured up for their coffin the first day they enter the convent. Her mother thinks this is nonsense and wishes she would shut up about it.
All these stories and more appear in The Springs of Affection. This was the first of Maeve’s collections to be published after her death.
In another collection, The Rose Garden, there are five stories set in Dublin, while the rest are set in the US, whether Manhattan or a wealthy community on the Hudson.
In real life, Maeve married The New Yorker’s managing editor, St Clair McKelway. The marriage shocked some of their friends and colleagues who did not expect a good outcome. McKelway was an alcoholic and indeed the marriage would only last five years.
But during that time they lived in the exclusive Hudson River retreat of Sneden’s Landing. A place that would offer Maeve more inspiration. She later recorded the snobbery of the wealthy in her satirical stories set in the fictional Herbert’s Retreat. The maids in these families are invariably Irish. In her biography of Maeve Brennan, Angela Bourke speculates that the stories may have been building to form a novel. Six were published in The New Yorker but most critics failed to interpret the coded messages about how the privileged appeared through the eyes of their Irish maids.
With her marriage coming to an end, Maeve and McKelway agreed to divorce. In late 1959 she moved back to Manhattan. She had a cat and kittens with her, but her other cats and her beloved black Labrador Bluebell had to wait until she found better accommodation.
Bluebell and the cats appear a few times in Maeve’s short stories, but perhaps one of the most poignant examples is the one that opens as the preface to the short story collection, The Rose Garden. One of her Long-Winded Lady vignettes, she’s lying on the beach at East Hampton, where she lived for several years. Bluebell and the cats are there, but it soon becomes clear it’s a dream. The beloved pets are long gone. The year is 1976. Maeve is almost sixty.
Maeve had already written her novella, The Visitor, before she went to work at The New Yorker. She was still in her twenties. The novella wasn’t discovered until 1997. It was first published in 2001, less than a decade after her death.
The story of The Visitor follows Anastasia King, a young woman who has been living in Paris with her mother. At the beginning of the novella, she is returning in a train to Dublin. Her mother is dead, so she is coming back to live with her grandmother. But Mrs King, who never liked Anastasia’s mother, is nursing a grievance. And while she is never rude to her granddaughter, it’s clear that the old woman has no intention of letting her stay for long.
It is tale of loneliness, and a thirst for love, undercut by a beautifully understated cruelty and revenge. A story where daughters and granddaughters suffer at the hands of their older female relatives. Not only Anastasia herself, but an older woman she befriends whose own mother stopped her marrying the love of her life. But even Anastasia’s friendship with this woman takes a darker and crueller turn when she deliberately fails to carry out the woman’s last wish. On a first read it seems almost unfathomable that the simple request isn’t carried out.
The manuscript of The Visitor was discovered in 1997 at the University of Notre Dame Library. It was among the papers of Maisie Ward from the Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward.
It’s not clear whether Maeve failed to keep her own carbon copy. No copy was found among her own papers. It’s believed that the novella was written between 1944 and 1945 while she was living in a sixth-floor apartment at East 10th Street. She was in her mid-twenties and still writing fashion copy for Harper’s. The bitter heart of the story would stand in contrast with the writing in her day job.
The Long-Winded Lady
Maeve moved to The New Yorker in 1949. And in 1954 the first of her Long-Winded Lady pieces was published there. While Maeve’s Dublin stories mined her memories of her childhood, her Talk of the Town vignettes were very much rooted in the present. It wasn’t that she didn’t reflect on the past in these prose pieces. In fact, she was very aware of the constantly changing nature of the city – of buildings always being torn down to make way for the new.
In one story she writes of a farmhouse which was moved to a different part of the city to preserve the building. But she also writes about people like herself who lived in hotels and dined in restaurants and wandered the streets.
She observed what was going on around her, and recorded fleeting moments that most other writers would probably ignore.
One particular 1969 vignette titled The Solitude of Their Expression has Maeve looking out her window. She is living in a Forty-ninth street hotel with two big rooms, high ceilings, and big windows on three sides. She can see the Empire State Building. But one memorable part of this piece has her observing an elderly woman in another hotel. The woman’s window has two red geraniums.
Maeve remembers recently watching this woman sitting at her window, two floors down from the roof, reading a letter. The thin and aging white net curtains were fastened back to let in all the light and air. It was a hot day.
‘Without turning her head she put her right hand with the sheet of paper in it out the window, stretched her arm to full length, and let the paper go. It fluttered down and away, and she went on reading.’
The woman reads the second sheet of paper, then stretches her arm out the window and lets it go. A third sheet of paper soon follows. Then she stands up and vanishes into the dimness of the room.
Everything from the geraniums in the window, the thin white net curtain of the hotel, the hot weather, the sheets floating down the outside of the hotel are transient. Both women are long gone. Brennan captures moments like these that would otherwise never be known. How could this elderly woman imagine people reading about her over half a century later?
Maeve lived in hotels like this, moving from one to another. She walked the streets, dined in cafes, and watched the people around her. The Long-Winded Lady is an observer recording the changing city and its inhabitants.
The Springs of Affection
After Maeve divorced McKelway she became something of a wanderer. She continued to write. Her masterpiece long story The Springs of Affection was published in The New Yorker in 1972. The story clearly mines her memories of Ireland, Dublin, Wexford, her parents, and her wider family.
The central character is Min Bagot. The Bagot family appear in a number of Maeve’s stories. But in this one Delia and Martin are dead. Min, who was Martin’s twin, reflects on her memories, including the day when everything changed – the day Martin married Delia. Nothing was ever the same again. Their mother never approved of Delia, and neither did Min. Min’s two sisters will also go on to marry, but she will remain with her mother. She wanted to be a teacher but instead becomes a dressmaker.
Her bitterness seeps through the story. Yet to her, the triumph is that she is the last one standing. Her sisters, her brother, her mother and father, and Delia are all dead. You can be jealous of those just starting out, but you can’t be jealous of the dead. She sits among the furnishings, books, and possessions she’s taken from her brother’s home. She returns in her mind to the day of her twin’s marriage and the in-laws’ farmhouse.
‘These families went a long way back in time, and they remembered marriages that had taken place a hundred years before. They didn’t talk, as Min understood talk. Here in the country they wove webs with names and dates and places. The dead were mentioned in the same voice with the living, so that fathers and sisters and cousinswho had been gone for decades could have trooped through the house and through the orchards and gardens and found themselves at home, the same as always, and they could even have counted on finding their own names and their own faces registered faithfully somewhere among the generations that had succeeded them.’
Maeve’s biographer, Angela Bourke, notes that ‘Almost every fact in ‘The Springs of Affection’ is true, and yet the story is not. The relationships in two families over three generations, the appearance of houses and countryside, the people in the story, the work they do and the room where they do it, all are precise in their details and historical fact.’
However, there were parts that were very much not true. Going by the biographical details, Min Bagot was clearly modelled on Nan Brennan, one of Maeve’s older relatives. Yet Nan was very far from the cold and spiteful central character of the story. She was well liked in her community, independent, visited daily by relatives, friends, and neighbours. She was also eighty-five years old at the time of publication and The New Yorker had a way of reaching all the way to Wexford in Ireland. So much so that Nan wrote on the back of an old photo of Maeve and Bluebell, ‘Greatly changed for the worse, 1972.’
Meanwhile, Maeve was becoming increasingly eccentric. Her beloved Bluebell had died, leaving her adrift. Her parents back in Ireland were dead. Maeve’s mental health began to decline and she became paranoid. Her appearance changed, her makeup sloppy. Homeless, she took up residence next to the women’s room on the nineteenth floor of The New Yorker. There she took in a sick pigeon, and gave money to people on the street.
Maeve claimed that her younger sister Derry, who had already moved back to Ireland, had stopped speaking to her after the publication of The Springs of Affection. Nevertheless, when Maeve visited Ireland in 1973, she spent some time at her sister’s house. She spent about a year in the country, not always living in the same place. Her appearance improved but she was again showing confusion even before she returned to America. There her mental health continued to decline. She was hospitalised more than once. She also vanished for periods of time, leaving her American friends worried.
Her daydream piece about Bluebell and the cats at East Hampton was published in The New Yorker column in 1976. Maeve’s biographer Angela Bourke speculates that Maeve may have written the piece from a hospital bed.
Maeve’s last Long-Winded Lady communication was published in 1981. She died in 1993 in a nursing home. She was seventy-six. The staff of the home were surprised to learn she had been a writer.
Although there was already a growing interest in her work before her death, it was with the publication of The Springs of Affection collection that Maeve Brennan began to achieve the fame she never saw in her lifetime. A second collection, The Rose Garden, followed, along with the rediscovered manuscript of The Visitor. Angela Bourke’s biography was published in 2004.
Lessons from Maeve’s writing
Maeve didn’t write on a huge canvas. Her fiction and her vignettes are focused on the small things. Incidents from childhood are mined, family members become inspiration (and not always in a flattering way).
Where bigger events enter the scene – the Republican struggle and the clash with the Free Staters – they are viewed through a child’s eyes. Maeve gives some context through the lens of someone looking back in time. But the story The Day We Got Our Own Back is very much a child’s view of what should be a frightening event.
Maeve is equally detailed in her vignettes recording Manhattan as the city changed around her. Her eye for detail picks out people and fleeting moments that other writers might overlook. It’s a lesson in attention to detail, something helped by her time writing fashion copy at Harper’s Bazaar.
Just as actors observe the people around them, so must writers. But writers should also view the world around them, fleeting moments, memories from the past.
Writers are told to write what they know. Maeve Brennan is a good example of someone who did just that. She wrote about a transitional time in Irish history. She didn’t write about the famous people. Instead she detailed the lives of the people she grew up with, the family, neighbours, children, nuns, priests, and others.
In New York she sat at her window, walked the streets, sat in cafes, and watched the world go by, noting the details and reporting them in her Talk of the Town column. She satirised the snobbery of the wealthy at Sneddon’s Landing on the Hudson, wrote stories about characters in Manhattan, and immortalised her beloved pets, like Bluebell.
Her writing is not only seeped in nostalgia, and homesickness at times, but there’s also spite, satire, warmth, and humour.
Maeve Brennan was revered by younger writers at The New Yorker, but her stories of Ireland failed to take off in her own country. Part of the reason was her mining of an increasingly distant past. But during her lifetime, Irish literature was dominated by men. It was only after her death that interest in her work grew, on both sides of the Atlantic.
In her short story A Free Choice, published in The New Yorker in 1964, Maeve wrote:
‘She began to believe that she had been remembered at some time far back, at some moment when she had thought herself down and out and forgotten and derided. It had all been only in her imagination, that she had been forgotten. She had not been forgotten at all.‘
Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.
Opening lines to Picnic at Hanging Rock
If you’ve ever wondered whether a writer needs to establish early success, or be condemned forever to failure or obscurity, take heart. Joan Lindsay was 71 years old when her classic novel Picnic at Hanging Rock was published. It went on to become one of the most famous novels in Australian literature and a haunting film.
Lindsay was born in 1896 and originally trained as an artist. Later, she switched to writing. Her first book was published pseudonymously in 1936 when she was 40.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) was still 31 years off.
Before that, in 1962, Lindsay had another novel published – Time Without Clocks. It covers her wedding and idyllic early marriage. The title also refers to a fascinating detail that links to her future novel, Picnic. According to Wikipedia:
The work takes its title from a strange ability which Joan described herself as having, of stopping clocks and machinery when she came close. The title also plays on the idea that this period in her life was unstructured and free.
Wikipedia entry on Joan Lindsay
Anyone who has read Picnic or watched the film adaptation will know that when the schoolmistresses and girls are picnicking on the ground below the Rock, their watches all stop. Later, at least two of those who go missing seem to be missing their corsets or restrictive clothing. Perhaps also linking back to the theme of a life free and unstructured.
Presented as a true story, Picnic at Hanging Rock begins with a brief note:
Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in the book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.
The novel opens on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, at Appleyard College for Young Ladies. The school is a hothouse of girlish crushes, presided over by the strict Mrs. Appleyard who doesn’t approve of St Valentine. The girls exchange cards and soon they are ready to set out on their picnic. Mrs Appleyard issues strict instructions about their dress and behaviour. For example, they may remove their gloves once their conveyance has passed Woodend.
The girls are also warned about the Rock which is extremely dangerous and they are not to engage in any tomboy foolishness ‘in the matter of exploration, even on the lower slopes‘.
Of course, some of the party choose to ignore this warning. And the repercussions ripple through the rest of the book, building to a horrifying crescendo long after the girls have vanished.
Although the novel is set in the sweltering heat of an Australian summer, it still falls within the gothic genre. Lindsay had long been fascinated by the Rock. And she compared her book to Henry James’s novel, The Turn of The Screw, ‘about the children in a haunted house with a governess‘.
The Rock, a former volcano, with its mysterious paths where the girls and their schoolmistress go missing, could easily be a stand-in for a haunted house. It towers above the landscape below, like a gothic castle sitting on a peak. But it is also an ancient place. A ‘geological marvel‘ according to Mrs. Appleyard, who expects the girls to write an essay on the subject. She doesn’t attend the picnic with them, and the essays are never written. Unexpected and unexplained events are about to overtake the girls, the teachers, and their school.
Miranda, one of the seniors, is the most memorable and popular of the schoolgirls. The French mistress sees her as a Botticelli angel. Meanwhile, Miranda’s much poorer roommate Sara adores her. Miranda also haunts the young Englishman picnicking with his family below the Rock. He sees her and her friends making their way towards it. It’s Miranda who leads the party upwards. When one of the other girls calls to her in warning, she doesn’t seem to hear. Later, the young Englishman and his family’s stablehand will search for the girls. And one of the girls is indeed found.
Picnic at Hanging Rock was written very fast – over two weeks (some sources say four) – at Lindsay’s home Mulberry Hill in Victoria. It was written in winter, after a series of dreams she’d had about the events. The dreams about a picnic at the Rock were so powerful and vivid that she awoke still feeling the heat of the summer day. Joan wrote down what she remembered, beginning to sketch out the plot. She had another dream the next night and then rushed to write down what she could remember. Night after night she had another dream.
Joan herself remembered that:
Picnic at Hanging Rock really was an experience to write, because I was just impossible when I was writing it. I just sort of thought about it all night and in the morning I would go straight up and sit on the floor, papers all around me, and just write like a demon!
Joan’s live-in housekeeper, Rae Clements, recalled that:
She would come down from her study each day and say she’d had the dream again. Then she’d discuss the characters and what they were up to. She loved Miranda and the French mistress. Miranda was her favourite character. She was also fond of Albert. She often said, ‘Poor Albert! Poor little Sara!’ She definitely had her favourites.
The title of the novel comes from a painting Joan remembered: At The Hanging Rock (1875) by William Ford. The novel was published on the 1st of November 1967. It has since become one of the most important and famous novels in Australian literature.
Many readers assume that the story must be based on fact, but there is no record of a vanished school party. The State Library conducted a search of the February 1900 editions of the Age, Argus, and Woodend Star and nothing was found. Nor does Valentine’s Day in 1900 take place on a Saturday.
But this hardly matters since the fictitious events have entered Australian mythology and folklore. The fame of the book and the later screen adaptation have ensured that the Rock draws plenty of tourists curious about the fate of the girls.
One article even mentions tourists taking pieces of the six million-year-old rock home with them, only to fall foul of weird or unhappy events. Then they sometimes post the fragments back to Australia, like the Irishman who included a map to show where his piece had come from.
Picnic at Hanging Rock ends at chapter 17 and a fictitious newspaper article from 1913. Apparently, chapter 18 was removed on the advice of the book’s editor. This missing chapter explained something of the girls’ fate. But it was felt that the ambiguous ending was better and Joan agreed.
The final chapter appeared in a later book The Secret of Hanging Rock. But the novel is better off without it.
In 1974, Joan said of her novel and its ambiguous end:
Well, it was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery. If you can draw your own conclusions, that’s fine, but I don’t think that it matters. I wrote that book as a sort of atmosphere of a place, and it was like dropping a stone into the water. I felt that story, if you call it a story—that the thing that happened on St. Valentine’s Day went on spreading, out and out and out, in circles.
It would spread out further with the Peter Weir adaptation which became a classic of Australian New Wave. The film’s hazy cinematography is partly down to putting bridal veils over the lens and shooting through. This technique was taken from the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and it gave Weir the impressionistic effect he was looking for.
Anne Louise Lambert plays the part of Miranda in Weir’s film. But in the early weeks of shooting, her confidence was undermined as she was constantly asked to do more takes and retakes. Then one day, when shooting paused for a break, she walked off in her costume, ready to cry. Then she noticed an older woman making her way towards her over some rocks.
It was Joan Lindsay. When Lambert held out her hand, Joan hugged her and said, ‘Oh Miranda, it’s been so long!’ Lambert tried to correct her, saying, “It’s me, Joan; it’s Anne.”
But Joan just brushed this away and called her Miranda again.
To her, I really was someone she had known, somewhere in time. Right then, I felt that if Joan Lindsay believed I was Miranda, I must be doing okay. I felt that if she believed in me, I would be okay.
Joan Lindsay passed away in 1984 at the age of 88. She had lived to not only see the success of Picnic at Hanging Rock but the success of the film adaptation. Through her dreams and her childhood fascination with the Rock, she conjured up a story that haunts the reader long after they have read the last page.
The novel, described by one critic as mythopoeic, has become part of Australia’s folklore and mythology.
She also returned to painting in her later years. Her final publication was a children’s book called Syd Sixpence.
Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon is such a long novel – around 860 pages – that I wrote this review in stages. When I started writing, I was 250-350 pages into the book. Now I’m closer to 675 pages and my opinions haven’t changed at all. But this is less a book review than a developmental editor’s first impressions of the book.
The Outlander series is massively successful and has been adapted for streaming TV. The screen version has doubtless brought the characters and story to an even bigger audience. And that, in turn, will have led to more book sales.
I’ve only seen the first two series and a bit of the third one – if I remember correctly. I’d once tried to read the book some years ago but bailed out around page 72. I don’t think I was really in the mood to read it then.
I am more in the mood now. And I couldn’t help but read it at least a bit through the filter of developmental editing.
Gabaldon fairly sets up Claire’s normal life with Frank during their second honeymoon in Inverness. She doesn’t enter the stones for quite a while. This makes sense since Frank and their marriage need to be set up first.
We need to see what Claire leaves behind when she passes through the stones.
And from that, we also get the contrast between post-war austerity and the eighteenth century.
Another thing the first 60 pages accomplish is to fill the reader in on Black Jack Randall, Frank’s redcoat ancestor.
When Claire meets him, she’s at least armed with a little information – and so is the reader.
We also learn about Claire’s nursing background and her newer interest in botany, the latter encouraged by Frank. Both will become vital in giving her a role and some status when she travels to the past. Healers are a big deal in the days before antibiotics and other modern medicines.
There are other little things set up too – including Roger, who is more important later in the series.
And both the reading of the tea leaves and the palm reading create some foreshadowing of Claire’s future. Add to that Frank seeing the ghost of the highlander that watched Claire through the hotel window.
The reader will know the ghost to be Jamie. But neither Claire nor Frank know that yet.
Moving at a leisurely pace
Because this book was published in 1991, it is a great deal meatier than most modern novels.
This was the time before social media. A time when the modern attention span was in a better state.
But there were times in the 1946 Inverness chapters when I wondered if things shouldn’t have been speeded up just a tad. But in 1991, I might have had a different opinion on this. And, of course, it doesn’t help when you’ve seen the television series first.
Nevertheless, it seemed important to build up the ‘modern’ world first, to show the contrast with the old world. And to understand Claire well, it helps to see her in her own time.
Where the plot stretches credulity
Funnily enough, passing through the stones into the past was not the part I found hard to believe. No, it was much of her thoughts and behaviour after she arrived there.
While it’s clear that she and Frank were trying to reconnect after their years apart in the war, their marriage didn’t seem so bad that she’d forget about him so easily.
Days and weeks go by with barely a reminder that he ever existed. There are times when she ought to be reminded – any reference to her as a widow, for example.
Your characters are impacted by their pasts
As a developmental editor, I’ve often seen manuscripts where a character forgets important bits of their past and no longer reacts to past trauma. Even when there are obvious trigger points, the character doesn’t remember or isn’t impacted.
If you want to create realistic and three-dimensional characters, then it’s worth thinking about how someone in the real world would react in the same situation.
In the real world, a woman separated from her husband would long to get back to him and would worry about him being frantic about her whereabouts. She would frequently think about him, and anything in her new vicinity that might remind her of him or her marriage would trigger a thought, an emotion, a memory.
Claire tells us that she thinks about Frank a lot. But she doesn’t show us the evidence. Not in her thoughts, memories, longings, or moods.
A missed opportunity for internal conflict
In reality, she’d be suffering from a massive internal conflict – stuck at the castle, in this strange world, and wondering if she’d ever see Frank again.
But in the book, she settles into life there a little too easily.
We’re told that she’s busy with healing and so on, but this would not stop her thinking about Frank or the world she’s left behind.
But this leads to other issues too. Claire ought to wonder more about how she comes to be here. She should miss modern amenities more. She ought to question her reality – even wondering if it’s all a dream.
A real person, transported to the past, would be thinking: this can’t be true. They’d likely be dazed for days or weeks. They might acclimatize over time, but every so often they’d be thrown back into a clash of past and present and the impossibility of their new reality.
I’m not sure how other readers feel about Claire largely not thinking of Frank. Since she means to try and escape the castle, thinking of him more, and showing how much he means to her, would heighten the emotional incentive. As it is, she seems oddly detached from him.
It’s as if Frank is no longer real.
Of course, he doesn’t exist in this period and she might ponder how he feels very distant and unreal now. But that doesn’t really happen in an obvious way.
Few memories, little conflict, reduced motivations
There’s a chain of events, goals, and desires that ought to propel her forward into risking escape. Frank should be one of the prime motivators. Not to mention her worrying that she might never escape this world.
She might also think of Black Jack Randall just a teensy bit more – he almost assaulted her. If the events of the book really happened, she’d also picture the day she gets to tell Frank how charming his ancestor really was. Though she’d also consider the likelihood of Frank believing her.
At the end of what would be described as act one, Claire has failed to escape back to the stone circle, but she has left the castle. She’s now on the road with Jamie, Dougal, and Callum’s lawyer. Claire hopes to make a getaway during the journey.
To the circle of standing stones. And with luck, back home.
Even here, Claire is not thinking about Frank, which I found rather jarring. Is it meant to reveal something about the true nature of their marriage? It doesn’t really come across that way.
When Claire’s forgetfulness creates an odd detachment
It seems more that the plot and the details of this old world have submerged Frank and her memories of him.
Yet, in reality, since she is not in a relationship with Jamie yet, she should feel that pull towards Frank. He should be in her thoughts more. There could have been a few little memories scattered about. Just to flesh out their relationship a bit more beyond the move to the past. And also to show that she does actually care about him.
Sometimes it seems she doesn’t. Her narrative voice is often oddly detached. There’s also a lack of reflection at times.
As I read further and further into the story, I started to wonder when she was going to give Frank any thought again. When would be the next occasion? And I started tearing strips off the paper I was using as a bookmark, and inserting these strips into any place where Claire gave thought to the past. There weren’t many strips of paper inserted.
On page 433, Claire asks herself what she’s doing here ‘for the thousandth time’. But I saw no evidence of her asking this over and over in earlier scenes. On the next page, she talks about ‘which husband?’ as she has a jolt of panic and remembers her halfway-successful attempt to escape. There’s some reflection on her situation, and then she’s immersed back into the eighteenth-century present again.
Sidelining the modern world helps immersion
Keeping her past at bay does allow for greater immersion in the Jamie storyline. It means that there are fewer points of friction and interruption in the historical world, but it’s precisely that clash between modern and historical, between the two lives, that could have created greater internal conflict.
In truth, she doesn’t really try hard enough to escape. When she finally has the opportunity to go through the stones, Frank has been largely absent for around 500 pages, so he’s distant to the reader and also to Claire. Which makes it conveniently easy for her to make her choice.
Another thing that doesn’t get dealt with much is the absence of modern conveniences. Claire’s time with Uncle Lamb comes in handy here because it means she grew up used to being without modern amenities. But that might also be a missed opportunity in terms of showing the clash between twentieth century and eighteenth century.
Weighing up narrative choices and outcomes
I think I understand why the author made her choice. Had Claire been constantly thinking of home, her attention would have been less on those around her and the immersion in the eighteenth century could have been less powerful.
Nevertheless, as I got to the halfway mark and beyond, I wondered what Frank’s absence was meant to signify. A weak marriage, a narrative choice to keep the plot rooted in the eighteenth century? Or maybe just addressing the basic problem of introducing Frank first, leading to the reader’s loyalty first going with him, and then running into a clash of loyalties later with Jamie. Sidelining Frank avoids this problem.
I do think it comes at a price. There are character and psychological credibility issues, not to mention missed opportunities for internal conflict and interesting contrasts.
Try putting yourself in her position. Ask yourself, how much will you miss your old life and the conveniences… not to mention your husband?
And the dangers of this old eighteenth-century world must be all too obvious to Claire. Should she really want to stay there long while there’s a chance of getting away?
Gabaldon went to the bother of setting up Frank and Claire at the beginning. He comes back in a later book, and maybe that was her real intention. To set him up because he won’t be around again for quite a while.
I’ve not yet finished the book. It feels like it’s taking forever to read and I have to tackle it in chunks. There are also quite a few controversial scenes that reviewers have pointed out elsewhere. Relating to sexual and domestic violence. However, I was more interested in developmental issues. And it was this issue of Claire’s detachment from her modern past and past events in the eighteenth century that particularly stood out.
I think the TV series makes a bit more effort with Claire’s past. Including a memorable scene of her picking plants to the tune of Run Rabbit Run. A great clash between two centuries that’s perhaps easier to achieve on screen.
Another advantage of a screen adaptation is all the little visual clues and details – like a wobbly line of sewing machine stitches in series three. Claire, discovering Jamie didn’t die at Culloden, decides to go back to the past and transforms some of her modern clothing into something that would pass in the seventeen hundreds. She’s perhaps a better surgeon than she is a seamstress. Though she still does a great job.
If you haven’t seen the series, the costumes, locations, and cinematography are fabulous. But whether I read any more books in the series remains to be seen.
In the meantime, another chunky historical novel worth reading is Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, also set in the eighteenth century. My review of the French Revolution epic is below.