RoM/Mantic Reads is a new zine edited by my friend Fiona Glass. I was involved years ago when she ran Forbidden Fruit, a similar venture, and I know she expects high standards so if any of you enjoy m/m flash fiction (usually less than 1000 words) and articles I can recommend this! It’s on WordPress so you can ‘follow’ it and get notifications about updates. These will be irregular but reasonably frequent. I’m hoping to contribute myself. Here’s the link, and the first story is published!
Boring thrillers: a contradiction in terms? It’s something I’ve been promising to write about for a while now.
I like crime stories but I’m quite fussy about them. To begin with, I want to be in the position of the detective, amateur or professional, and I don’t appreciate being given the criminal’s pov, or some prologue that gives the solution away. I like being asked by the author to investigate alongside the detective and draw sensible conclusions then check them against the eventual ending. I like it when the author plays fair – no deus ex machina at the last minute and preferably no ‘well they were insane and nobody knew’. ( I read a couple like that recently.) I don’t like things that are too gruesome as we ‘watch’ though I don’t mind the investigation of gory crimes. Nor am I keen on really cosy mysteries, partly because I don’t often find them realistic; most investigation is done by professionals, either police or private detectives, not by amateurs.
Having said all that, I’m fairly careful about what I buy or borrow, and always read the blurb. I don’t read many reviews, in case of spoilers. I look at the first couple of pages and if an entire novel is clearly going to be in present tense I tend to turn away. Not a criticism because it’s clever and I know there are people who enjoy it – I’m just not one of them. It’s also a literary ‘trend’ and that’s something I don’t want in my genre reading.
However, recently I have read a number of thrillers that passed all those initial tests and then turned out to be totally uninspiring.
There are the police procedurals that are more about the procedure than the crime. I really think we can skip too much time explaining how a police station works. Even differences between different countries can be covered very briefly. Forensic science labs likewise. I want results and then the detective’s reactions to them.
Some stories have so many characters and so many threads introduced very early that my brain switches off. I have no objection to a cast of hundreds if they’re brought in gradually!
Then there are crime stories that are more about the detective than the crime. Yes, I want an interesting detective so that they come alive on the page and engage my sympathy, but I really don’t want chapter after chapter about their family or their problems till it detracts from the main plot.
That brings me to another kind of boring – boring detectives. I don’t necessarily want a superhero (in fact I don’t much like superheroes) or someone with so many quirks they aren’t real, but I do want them to stand out from the crowd. The same goes for their partner or sidekick. I’m happy with them finding romance – with each other or elsewhere – but again, it shouldn’t overwhelm the plot.
I love most Scandi-Noir on TV but have tried some Scandinavian novels and found them lacking. I think the actors and directors must bring extra life to the characters when books are used for series.
So when I give four or five stars to a crime story you’ll know it has passed all my tests. I’ll mention a few writers I love: Charlie Cochrane and RJ Scott both write mm romantic crime mysteries. KJ Charles does the same and includes magic. Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series is wonderful, as is Ian Rankin’s Rebus. My comfort reading includes Lindsey Davis’ Roman detective Falco. There are others but this isn’t a critique or review post. It’s just to explain why sometimes in my reviews I talk about thrillers being boring.
And you know, when I invest time (and money) in a thriller, the last thing I want is for it to be boring!
Smashwords’ Read an E-book week.
Every year, Smashwords have a special Read an E-book week and authors are encouraged to offer their books at a discount.
Last year I participated in the Smashwords Read an E-book Week sale. I was startled by the number of downloads of my ‘freebies’ and hoped that might translate into ‘fans’ who’d actually buy some. It didn’t seem to. There were a few sales but not enough to make the whole exercise worthwhile so this year I haven’t bothered.
However, this year’s sale reminded me of something else. Last year, I wanted to show support for other authors – and for Smashwords, for that matter (I find them a great deal easier to deal with than the ‘other’ place) – so I trawled through a few of the sale categories and ended up with far too many free or incredibly cheap books which I have currently left in their own special file on my hard drive, so that I don’t get distracted from my already overloaded tbr list.
While I was going through, I found a fair number of books where the reader was invited to set their own price.
I found I wasn’t willing to do that and after a while I just stopped looking at the info on anything in that category. I didn’t feel able to download them for free as that might have felt insulting to the author. As I knew nothing whatsoever about them I didn’t feel able to ascribe any kind of sensible price. If they were wonderful and I’d paid very little I’d feel guilty – something that wouldn’t happen if the author themselves had set a low price. If they were awful I would feel cheated at having paid anything at all. I would rather an author gave me something free in the hopes that I’d continue with a series (as I did last year) or charged a low price for the first in a series as a lure. So I felt uncomfortable with this set-your-own-price thing.
Has anyone else felt that, or is it just me?
Meanwhile, the sale starts tomorrow and there are plenty of books at very low prices so go and have a look!
Vlarian Oath: a free original ff story by MistressKat a.k.a. kat_lair
Image by A Owen from Pixabay
A friend of mine wrote a gorgeous story for this year’s Femdom Challenge. The challenge takes both fanfic and original fic. This writer went for original and has produced a fabulous romance about humans interacting with aliens, with lots of different cultures, some wings of a kind, and a happy-for-now ending. It’s on AO3 in the challenge collection, on DW in the writer’s own journal, and I think should be more widely distributed. So I’m reccing it to anyone who likes sci fi, ff romance, and seriously good writing. It’s a novella and because it’s on AO3 it’s free. I did the beta so I got a privileged preview and then could hardly bear the suspense of waiting for the author ‘reveal’ before being able to comment! There is meant to be art, and if the artist had posted yet I could use it here as my post illustration – *sigh* – however…
Read the story at:
and be sure to leave the author some love.
Why read mm romance?
I was recently asked about the preponderance of mm romance in my fiction reading. I thought I’d covered this before but apparently not. Maybe on one of my locked social media blogs way back a decade ago! It seemed a good idea to revisit the subject, anyway.
I enjoy romantic fiction, but although I love e.g. Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope, I have found that modern romance with the conventional hero and heroine tends towards tired tropes and stock characters. This is not to say I don’t read and enjoy it. A recent ‘find’ was The Cracked Slipper, and one of my all time favourites is A Suitable Boy. However, I have been looking for different approaches and am certainly interested in extending the concept of romance to the entire human race instead of just part of it.
Romance that features a same gender couple often fills this demand but I have tried lesbian (or ff) fiction and with a few exceptions this often seems to me to follow the path of the more conventional (het) stories.
Where both protagonists are male, (mm romance) there is a definite difference. There is, to begin with, a new power dynamic to explore, where there is the tension of not knowing how the couple will or can adjust to each other’s needs, especially given the social context within which they are operating. There is, if the story is set in the past, the added frisson of the dangers encountered by people who dared to love in an age where their preferences were illegal or taboo. There is, if the story is set in the future, the possibility of exploring different cultural and social attitudes towards what we currently think of as minorities. Finally, present day stories simply expand our horizons in terms of romance.
A further tension in mm romance is the knowledge that if the protagonists fail to meet each other’s needs, there isn’t necessarily someone else just waiting for them. There are fewer LGBTQ people around and in any particular locality they could be quite scarce, or not compatible. So in a sense, there’s more reason to hope desperately that the romance will succeed, sometimes against huge odds.
Of course, there is a lot of mm romance that, like its ff or mf counterparts simply doesn’t live up to its potential, but that’s true of every genre. In reading mm novels I seem to stand a better chance of finding something new and interesting to think about.
Having said that, I really do prefer novels in any of these gender combinations to have what I think of as ‘added value’. That means, for me, that they need to have an extra dimension so that I prefer them to be books about history, about crime (and police work), about fantasy, about science fiction, etc. with romance in the mix but not necessarily taking centre stage. This accords with all my fiction reading. I read a great deal of non-fiction (yes, a very great deal both in book and magazine form) and then turn to fiction to relax, and to be honest, the content of the average modern lit!fic novel is simply not either engaging or relaxing for me.
I also get easily bored by explicit sexual depiction, regardless of the participants, unless it furthers the plot or character development. There is, for me, too much sex-for-the-sake-of-it in a lot of modern ‘romance’ writing and whilst I have no desire for the ‘normal’ approach (to revert to ‘fade-to-black’) of the past, I find I just skim sex scenes in most cases. I’m aware, as a writer, that the authors have spent time trying to create something exciting, but for me as a reader it doesn’t often work. I prefer the UST (unresolved sexual tension) of a growing relationship, or the space to exercise my imagination, and an emphasis on feelings rather than physical detail.
To find books that meet my criteria I somehow find myself reading a lot, though as you will know from my reviews, I abandon some quite quickly. I have been following a few ‘trusted’ authors whose mm stories are intelligent and gripping. You can get a feel for whose work I mean from my reviews. I read almost anything by Charlie Cochrane, RJ Scott, Rhys Ford, Keira Andrews, Alexa Milne, Alex Beecroft, Jordan Castillo Price, JL Merrow and one or two others. Some good writers (e.g. Clare London) tend to deal mainly in short stories and novellas, which are less to my taste than long novels in which I can lose myself.
I could add a list of writers of conventional (mf or sometimes known as het) romance or of books that have no particular romance focus. One problem I encounter there is that my favourites tend to write very long books and only publish at random intervals. In between, I am in need of entertainment and I certainly find it in mm romance!
I probably haven’t covered even half my reasons for reading in this genre, but if you have any questions, that’s what the comment box is for!
Recommending a selling site: Clare London’s blogshop.
It’s not often you get so many posts in a row from me, but I can recommend Clare’s summer blogshop which showcases and gives links to a variety of summer themed lgbtq romances including my own Flying Free. Go and visit!
Guest Blog by Alex Beecroft
I was excited at the idea of welcoming Alex to my blog. I really love the Trowchester series and am looking forward to reading this latest installment. A highly recommended author, whether the books are set in historical periods or are contemporary romance.
Hello from Alex Beecroft I write gay romance that is on the sweeter side of the spectrum. I am asexual and agender myself, so that probably has something to do with the slow decline of my heat level over the years.
I made my name with books set in the 18th Century Age of Sail, but there’s only so much you can write about the navy in one go.
Now my settings range all the way from Bronze Age Crete to the modern day UK.
My latest book, Seeing Red, is a contemporary romance set in my own fictional town of Trowchester.
Let me tell you some more about that…
When I started writing novels I had no idea how people wrote contemporaries. What was there to write about in real life?
I don’t like biography, or autobiography. I don’t like paying bills and having to clean the bathroom. I go to books to escape all that.
It took Trowchester to free me from that mindset.
At some point after I began contemplating how to write in the present day without writing a story about cleaning toilets, it finally occurred to me that I had been confusing contemporary novels with non-fiction.
But contemporary fiction is still fiction.
I could create my own world every bit as much as I would have done in a historical or a fantasy. I could write about a town that was everything I liked about towns and nothing that I didn’t. If I wanted tea-shops and hanging baskets full of flowers I could have them.
I could mix them with morris dancing and pagan wells, Bronze Age burial mounds, murder mystery, found families and a basket full of puppies, if I so wished.
And so Trowchester became my playground.
If you like sleepy English towns with some quaint customs, a gay book-club who look out for one another through arson and escape attempts, more than a hint of peril behind the scenes, and a promise that love will save the day, it might be yours too.
Bad boys don’t tame easy.
Victor is a bad man. Is there anything he won’t do for power and money?
Destroy a local business so he can buy it cheap? Kick out its owners and turn it into a cash cow? He relishes the chance.
Idris is a good man in possession of a renowned tea-house. He’s put his heart and soul into the place. It’s everything he has and wants…
Except for Victor.
He wants Victor too.
Can the love of a compassionate man restore a predator’s withered soul? Or is Idris doomed to lose his life’s work, and his heart with it?
A contemporary mm romance, Seeing Red is a long-awaited new installment of the critically acclaimed Trowchester Series.
Each book in the series is a standalone, and can be read in any order.
Feel free to start here and work back!
Get Seeing Red today and visit the town where love conquers all.
The suit had given Victor a certain untouchable air, like something on which the stray hand would cut itself. But now he wore a soft, turquoise silk button down and black skinny jeans, grayed and soft with age and wear. Idris hadn’t noticed a bin smell, but he did notice the scent of soap and shampoo—an almost continental fragrance of blended coffee and whiskey. Victor was a vision, dressed as though he was about to go clubbing, and Idris’s infatuation—somewhat dashed by the house—flared up again like a tongue of flame.
“Wow,” he said. “You are so beautiful.”
“Don’t!” Victor flinched, his mouth turning down. He poured himself a drink with curt movements as though he’d been insulted. “I know I don’t look like much, but don’t make fun.”
“No, I meant it!” Idris exclaimed. “How can you not see? You’re—”
“I look like them,” Victor dropped to his knees beside the dogs, which put him dangerously close to Idris’s side. He brought a blast of warm, humid air with him, his hair still damp from the shower. Even watered, it was still bright, a bronze rather than the red-gold it was when dry. Idris reached up for it without thinking, touched the ends that curved over his ear, and then swept his fingertips over the soft arch of his ear down to the lobe as if he was petting another dog.
“Hm?” he asked.
“Scrawny, half-starved, feral. Like I’ll bite you as soon as look at you.”
Idris smiled, because although there was an element of truth in that, it didn’t sound like such a bad thing. “Would you?” he teased, “Bite me? That sounds like a promise.”
Victor took in a breath as if prepared to snap. Then he seemed to realize that he was being flirted with and laughed, awkwardly. “Not on a first date.”
FIND ME ONLINE
Healing Glass: A Gifted Guilds Novel by Jackie Keswick. An in-depth review.
I received an advance review copy of this book but I can assure you that if I hadn’t liked it I wouldn’t have reviewed it at all here!
I loved the story of Minel and Falcon and their strong bond. I enjoy fantasy novels, not least for their fascinating world-building, and this was no exception. The floating city of glass, with its possible sentience, is a wonderful concept and the author helps the reader to see it clearly, along with a thrilling awareness of the ‘invisible’ steps that lead to the shore.
At the beginning of the story, Minel, a glass master-craftsman, is suffering from a severe and probably fatal disease, one which we gradually learn was contracted by more than an unlucky chance. We are also given a glimpse, or clue, in the prologue, of the fact that all is not well with the city, its craft-masters and its council.
Falcon, a warrior captain, is desperately anxious for Minel to live. I enjoyed their growing relationship and the way their society was depicted so that same-sex love is never presented as anything unusual, and the culture clash that always appeals to me in stories is between craftsmen, warriors, commercial experts and councilmen or administrators.
There is sufficient angst and mystery to grip the reader, the descriptions of both locations and characters are detailed and excellent, and even the most minor characters come alive in the hands of a competent writer. There is magic, but it never overwhelms the plot or becomes unrealistic. The two main protagonists and their friends are highly gifted but at all times there is stress on how much hard work has led them to the flowering of their abilities.
I was, towards the end, slightly disappointed that we didn’t learn more about the wider context of the world in which the story is set, but it appears there will be sequels, or at least books set in the same world, so hopefully this will be remedied. Meanwhile, there were other pleasures, such as the details of glass making, and other ways of life.
I would highly recommend this book and look forward to the next volume.
Things I dislike in books, films, etc.
I thought it was time, as a reviewer, that I posted about the things I dislike in books and films (including TV); the things that throw me out of a story, the things that make me abandon a book or a series and the things that stop me buying. Some of the following might result in a bad review. Some might prevent purchase. Some are just a warning sign and I might like a book despite their inclusion. Some are very personal dislikes and don’t say anything about the book or film. But you deserve to know where I am coming from! In alphabetical order:
* Bad language in the sense of curses and similar.
I know it might be realistic, but when it’s constant, I can’t read or listen to it. Recent examples include The Wolf of Wall Street who used f…g as every other word, and Dominus, a novel about ancient Rome that had so many curses and uses of ‘s..t’ that I just couldn’t carry on. We all use expletives from time to time but most people, particularly people with even a modicum of education, reserve them for important issues (like hammering your thumb…) and I think constant usage diminishes their impact in real life and is bordering on unlikely in scripts and novels. At any rate, I thoroughly dislike it.
*Bad language in the sense of poor grammar, spelling, etc.
I don’t mean typos though those annoy me when they come thick and fast.
I do mean the misuse of vocabulary where either the author either hasn’t a clue what the right word is, or cravenly believes their wordchecker’s correction.
I also mean the dizzying switching of tenses or points of view within one section of text.
I mean, too, the frequent use of poor punctuation (which a wordchecker would soon put right). (Punctuation should make a text easier to read.)
I mean, in addition, the frequent use of things like ‘er’, meant, I think, to add verisimilitude to speech but actually just making it hard to read. (When we listen to someone who hesitates we ignore the hesitations, but that’s harder when they’re written down and we are forced to process them.)
I certainly mean poor grammar – not what Word’s spag checker regards as bad grammar but what the average English teacher means. As an ex-English teacher, I am always annoyed by it and it almost always throws me out of the story and ensures I won’t return to the author. I’m aware that grammar isn’t every writer’s strength, but that’s what editors are for.
I hate comedy that seems to be telling me I must laugh. I am highly amused at some jokes, cartoons and situations but I rarely enjoy stand-up comedians or comedy shows, I often have to switch off if there’s canned laughter, and I don’t enjoy books that employ similar techniques. I realise I’m in a minority here! My sense of humour tends more towards irony than banana skin slips. I say ‘tends’ because there are exceptions but they’re few and far between.
It should go without saying that I don’t appreciate any attempt to ‘sell’ me racism, sexism, or fundamentalist religion of any kind in the guise of fiction. I actually binned a couple of children’s books given to my daughter with these themes, because I wouldn’t let her read them till she was old enough to ‘see through’ the message (by which time she wouldn’t enjoy the stories) and I didn’t want to be responsible for unleashing them on others via a charity shop. Not quite book burning, but yes, a kind of censorship. I would, of course, defend the right of the writers and publishers to produce these, but at the same time defend my own right to decide not to have anything to do with them and to discourage others.
*Insistence on using experimental prose.
I appreciate that some people think this is clever, and certainly it isn’t something that is actually wrong. It just strikes me as pretentious and annoying, whether it’s done by a Booker prize winner or a fanfic writer. For example, Hilary Mantel does it in A Place of Greater Safety – the whole style changes from chapter to chapter, with some of it reading like a TV script, and some like a history book. Irritating.
*Plot devices that are almost guaranteed to make me abandon the book or film.
I personally dislike stories that are told from the point of view of the villain or criminal. I feel cheated, because I enjoy crime stories where I try to work out ‘whodunnit’ or how they did it alongside the detectives.
I dislike ambiguous endings unless there’s a sequel in the pipeline, though obviously I won’t know till I reach the ending and just end up feeling furious.
The same goes for endings that are not consistent with the story and seem to be a kind of ‘how on earth can I end this’ attitude on the part of the author. As a teacher I used to dislike children’s stories that ended ‘and then I woke up’ or ‘and then I died’ and I find adults have similar tendencies at times… I think the worst book I read was one that was a crime story which ended abruptly. Apparently the author died and friends got the book published as a kind of memorial. The reader could be pretty sure who the criminal was, but there were so many unanswered questions I wanted to throw the book in the trash – some memorial!
I know some of these are probably not even noticed by the writer till after the book or film has gone public. They should have been noticed by beta readers, editors, etc. Oddly, I have seen more of these in books published by mainstream ‘big’ publishing houses than in genre fiction or fanfic. Maybe a lack of beta readers and discussion groups?
*Serious anachronisms and cultural errors.
I’m not talking about using modern language when the story is about e.g. ancient Rome. That makes the writing more accessible to the modern reader and unless the writer is going to write in Latin (and even then, Latin changed, as all languages do) it’s not something that worries me. Linguistic anachronisms do ‘throw’ me; the use of slang terms should be always be carefully researched. It’s no good using modern language for a book about e.g. mediaeval society and including slang that is obviously twenty-first century in origin. Yes, the mediaeval people would have used slang, but unless it is very carefully done, the text shouldn’t really include it. It’s easy to say something like, ‘he cursed roundly’ rather than have him saying ‘Shit’. So should the correct usage of period phrases be researched – like ‘methinks’ or ‘prithee’ though I really wish writers wouldn’t use them at all. Film makers can just about get away with it if they’re staging Shakespeare…
One type of anachronism that infuriated me was in a book that purported to be about the mediaeval popes and their families. A party was described and the meal ended with chocolates with exotic fillings. I instantly distrusted all the other historical research the writer had done.
Similarly, books by e.g. American writers who clearly have a foggy grasp of Brit geography, customs, or conversational norms annoy me, as do Brit books that play fast and loose with American (or any other) culture. Whilst I don’t think the exhortation to ‘write what you know’ holds water, I do think a writer should ‘know what they write’ which is a different thing and assumes writers do their research meticulously. I don’t think a writer who sets their work in the past or in a foreign country needs to be an expert, but they should make sure they don’t make glaringly obvious errors. Also, I am more likely to be annoyed if the blurb or the notes about the author try to suggest expertise.
Even fantasy or sci fi needs to be grounded in some kind of reality. I once abandoned the notion of having two moons on a world when I realised I would need to alter all references to tides, seasons, etc. Fairies and aliens work best when they follow ‘laws’ made clear in the story and not random ideas that have appealed to the author as pretty or interesting. If it’s a truly alien or alternate world, it needs internal consistency and sensible natural rules.
*Things I am less keen on but will try.
I am a lover of fantasy but I am not at all keen on books where the main character ends up crossing into another world or reality. I have read a few where it worked, but it’s not my favourite genre.
The same goes for time travel where I find it hard to suspend disbelief.
Mpreg is only acceptable for me if there’s a sensible scientific explanation e.g. an alien race with fluid gender roles, an experiment on humans, an alternative universe where this is the norm.
I am less than fond of vampires (I have read some good ones but hate Anne Rice…), the invasion of earth by monstrous aliens (they need to stay on other planets where the likes of SG1 or SGA can deal with them), and most m/m/f menage tropes. I am also reluctant to read about either zombies or superheroes. I think I like my protagonists to be flawed and human or ‘normal’ within their non-human community.
*Too much explicit sex.
I have no desire for a return to the ‘fade to black’ fashion of writing, whether the romance/marriage/hook-up/whatever is m/m, m/f, f/f or any permutation. However, I want the sex scenes to further either the plot or the character development. If they appear to be merely there for titillation, I skim them, and if they appear too often or are too long, I usually abandon the story. I don’t find the ‘tab A into slot B’ approach to sex scenes hot, in the least, just boring. I am much more interested in the emotions engendered by the sex (or lack of it). Some of my favourite romances don’t get the protagonists into bed until near the end of the story.
*Too much explicit violence.
Although I enjoy crime books and thrillers, I don’t particularly want battle or gore dwelled on lovingly by the writer or the film maker. I tend to skim or look away if any kind of violence lasts too long, and complex battle scenes pass me by in a blur. This probably explains my own difficulties in writing such scenes, even short ones, and I do realise they are sometimes needed to further the plot, but that doesn’t stop me hating them!
Also, while I will read some BDSM, I personally can’t cope with kinks involving things like blood, enemas, excreta, etc. The sex doesn’t have to be vanilla but I have personal limits though I understand that they really are personal and that violence and gore may appeal to some readers and can be well written. Also, I will read about darker things if they are essential to a crime investigation but still don’t like them described in too much detail. For instance, I can read about a detective seeing the aftermath of violence or even a pathologist finding out what happened, but don’t want a blow-by-blow account of the killer’s actions as they happen.
*Too much purple prose and too much description.
Descriptions are all the better for being sparse. Adjectives are overused by a lot of writers just starting out – maybe a hangover from their schooldays when they were encouraged to use too many, presumably to increase their vocabulary and add at least some interest to whatever they were producing.
In a novel, over-description jars the reader. Even world building, which is essential, is better done in very small increments with a lot left to the imagination. We do not need to know every detail of what every character (even minor ones) is wearing, and nor do we need an estate agent’s description of a building or its surroundings. Too many modern writers seem to think that descriptions of clothing will introduce characters to their readers. Actually, for me, it doesn’t work. I am so hung up on trying to visualise the dress, shoes, etc. that it’s hard to get back to what is being said or done. When I meet someone in real life I rarely notice every detail of their outfit though I might focus on a particularly attractive tie or scarf and on a general colour scheme. So I don’t expect to be forced to concentrate on itemised clothing when I meet a character in text, either. (I really don’t need to know what a detective is wearing at the scene of a crime, though it might be more relevant if he has to work under cover.)
Film makers are better in this respect. They get someone to make sure the costumes and location are perfect then just let them speak for themselves to the viewer. Basically, we would notice if things clashed or were not true to the period (which might actually be important if the character liked them that way). Otherwise, we can just leave them in their proper place, the background.
It might seem surprising, in view of the above list, that I find so many books and films to love! That just means there are some seriously good writers and directors out there and they make me very happy indeed.
International Women’s Day
(First, a confession. The photo is taken from Tripadvisor. Yesterday was incredibly wet and I couldn’t take a decent photograph.)
My daughter and I and a couple of friends went to a talk on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Heroines at Elizabeth Gaskell House in Manchester on Thursday. The talk, given in honour of International Women’s Day, was given by Dr Diane Duffy and was well worth attending.
Dr. Duffy clearly knew a great deal about the Victorian novelist and her life and works, but also gave us plenty of food for thought. I had read a couple of Gaskell’s works and had watched the BBC costume dramas but too long ago to recall the details or the names of all the characters but our speaker soon made sure we all knew the outline of the stories.
She started by unpacking the word ‘heroine’, pointing out the recent de-gendering of the term so that we now have female heroes, and gave a slide presentation showing aspects of the way heroines had been depicted in Britain in the past in both text and art. Some of her listeners felt she paid too little attention to attitudes in other countries, and other literatures, but so far as Britain was concerned I think her points were valid, even if somewhat ‘parochial’.
We were asked to consider the attributes we expected to be assigned to male or female heroes, and to look at the true nature of heroism. This was interesting and thought-provoking, especially given the preponderance of ‘hero’ movies today. Even in an atmosphere of ‘liberation’ for women we are capable of automatic stereotyping and a failure to notice or admire characters who do not conform to those stereotypes.
It was clear that Gaskell tried to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to Victorian readers, just as other novelists did, particularly Charlotte Bronte, who was a friend of Gaskell’s. Some of the characterisation they developed might seem very slight to us but was really subversive in Victorian times. Women, then, were advised that if they were intelligent or well-informed, they should hide the fact, and in most publications it was thought obvious that a blonde beauty would not only be the main character but would also be ‘innocent’ and would ‘get her man’ whereas anyone with dark hair would inevitably turn out to be a villain. So a dark-haired heroine was a really new departure for the audience of the time. Some listeners made the point that Disney was in fact one of the first to go against the trend, and although their depiction of Snow White with dark hair was in keeping with Grimm’s text, it was also in direct opposition to the prevailing norms.
Gaskell had publishers to contend with, too; you can’t get a message across if you can’t get your book printed and sold. She was perhaps more subtle in her attempts to subvert the ‘normal’ way of thinking, and did not meet the same kinds of publisher outrage and panic experienced by Charlotte, or by Wilkie Collins. I know today’s publishers are driven by the profit motive just as much as their forebears were, and I wonder how far the current development of self-publishing and small indie publishers/co-operatives will allow more widespread questioning of the social order.
The talk was certainly relevant to anyone who writes female heroes and perhaps to all writers, given the way that prejudices and stereotypes were questioned.
The Elizabeth Gaskell House is a beautifully presented small museum just outside central Manchester. The building has been renovated by Manchester University and lovingly restored to its nineteenth century incarnation as a Unitarian minister’s house – and that of his wife who gave us some enjoyable and provocative novels. I would recommend a visit if you’re in the area!