Still Dreaming of the Middle Ages

I spent much of last week in the Middle Ages, as you know. I emerged about lunch time yesterday. The thing about an academic conference is that it doesn’t present a picture of the whole subject. It’s a bit here and a bit there from what the scholars are currently researching. The subject specialisation is wonderful (such interesting research!), but fitting it all together can be problematic.

This week I’m back into my own contemporary research. The first thought I had when I picked up a book about contemporary Irish folklore was that I have contexts for it. In fact, I went to Ireland before the world went awry and I worked very hard to develop those contexts. Do I have contexts for the Middle Ages?

The answer is, of course I do. I spent many years of my life developing them. I started when I was eighteen and learned Old French in second year university and have never quite stopped. I learned new things then found out that I didn’t understand where those new things came from nor what their companions were, culturally and historically speaking. One of my big dreams has always been to understand. This includes understanding what I know and how I know it, and continuing to learn and to frame my knowledge so that I can learn more about subjects that I think I might be beginning to understand. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do this full-on for the Middle Ages. By ‘a while’ I mean since The Middle Ages Unlocked was released. Since then, I keep it all together by going to conferences and reading books and teaching and talking and by using it in my fiction. To maintain the complex reality of a subject this rich is wonderful place to be, intellectually. I’ll never know everything or understand everything, but it’s so fulfilling to continue learning.

In my library I have a selection of books that I recommend to people as doorways into the Middle Ages I know. The period is so much more interesting than the popular Middle Ages, so it would be very churlish of me to keep it to myself. Also, there are a lot of trashy books out there. I like to introduce people to good books.

I walked past my shelf. The question I asked as I let my brain wander was what subject didn’t I encounter last week that I want to introduce people to? Medicine. Medicine is so important. The way the wider public talks about medicine in the Middle Ages mostly bears little relationship to actual medicine in the Middle Ages. This popular view creeps into some of the best fantasy novels.

I thought about medicine last week. Monica Green was in the audience at a panel I was also in the audience for. I didn’t talk to her. I was shy. Her work is utterly amazing. It’s also seldom a 101 guide for the topic.

There are two books I send people to, first, and, when they say “I need more” I nod sagely and tell them to look for the work of Monica Green. Here’s the book by Green that I need to add to my library sometime, just so that you have a Green title to look for . There are also two lovely volumes by Tony Hunt on Anglo-Norman medicine check here and here , but they’re for after you’ve read a lot of Green and feel up to looking at an edition of medical texts (it also really helps to read Old French). And that’s just the beginning. Medieval European medicine is a big subject, and the European Middle Ages is just a small part of what was happening in the wider world at that time. That’s why I try to find one or two books to suggest to get people started. If you begin with the whole world, then the subject is too big. Since I am, by training and knowledge a European Medievalist, the countries I know best (France and England) tend to dominate my recommendations.

The two books that I suggest starting with (especially to historical fiction and fantasy writers) are Nancy Siraisi’s Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine  and Carole Rawcliffe’s Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England.  Because I haven’t looked at new introductions to medieval medicine for a few years, there might be something else that has emerged that I know not yet of. Medieval Studies is a vast field and there is often something new and exciting and intellectually vibrant to look for.

Now my mind has wandered to Montpellier. A year or two after I had sorted out the underlying patterns and structures and just how things happened in the various worlds of Medieval medicine, I was in Montpeller. Montpellier was my research base for my novel Langue[dot]doc 1305. I had to go to hospital, just for two hours, my first day there. It amused me no end that the hospital I went to was one I knew about from my forays into the Middle Ages. It was a university hospital and the only one that didn’t limit its teaching of medicine to Christians in the very Christian part of the Middle Ages. One day I’d like to go to Salerno, and visit the campus there, the one that was famous for teaching women how to be doctors in the Middle Ages.

And now it’s so close to my Tuesday morning that I think I might sleep. If any of you are interested in me turning this into a series “Books you can read about the Middle Ages” (to appear on this blog on Mondays, when I feel like it) then please let me know, because it would be fun to write.

Roe, Russ, and The Baby on the Fire Escape

I have never been pregnant. I have no children. I do not regret either of these things, but both of them are things that could have happened.

They didn’t happen because I came of age not only when birth control pills were available, but also at the time when it became easier for single women to get prescriptions for the pill or other forms of contraception.

Since I’ve never been pregnant, I’ve never had an abortion. However, I know that I would not have hesitated to have an abortion if I had become pregnant at many times in my life.

I can imagine more possible regrets to having a child than I can to having an abortion. Is that shocking? Perhaps it is. But I have watched the struggle of single mothers.

On the basic biological level, the purpose of our existence may well be to reproduce, but despite the many failures of human beings, I do think our current purpose is far beyond the biological. People have dreams and goals, things they want to accomplish in their short period of time on Earth. I object to people sacrificing what matters to them for their children or their partner or their parents or even the good of the world.

I was in law school when Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States. It was certainly something to celebrate.

I think the biggest mistake we made back then was to be queasy about supporting abortion. These days we say it is health care, but in the past all too often people said it should be “rare.”

We tiptoed around it. We should have claimed abortion a long time ago.

No one should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term. Period. (No one should be forced to end one, either, but that’s part of the point.)

That brings me to two books. Continue reading Roe, Russ, and The Baby on the Fire Escape

Russ and the Russians

I have a week with more deadlines than capacity to fill them. A tried and true way to meet these deadlines is to make them just a little easier. When I came across a short piece I wrote 11 years ago (30 April 2011) I re-read it for memory’s sake and then I thought, “This is perfect for the Treehouse series on books.” I also thought, “Next Monday is impossible. Will it help?” And it does and it’s very appropriate for this year. We all need more tools to help us deal with this dangerously-developing world, after all. Not all books we read at this time need to be comforting.

I originally posted this to Even in a Little Thing, my blog at LiveJournal.

“This morning I can’t stop thinking about Joanna Russ. I am one of the many who was deeply influenced by her without actually really enjoying her fiction.

It’s funny, but I had been reading Russian writers for several years before I discovered Russ. This doesn’t mean I was at all old when I discovered Russ’ writing. What it means is that Dostoievsky and Chekhov were easier reading for a fourteen year old than Russ was for a nineteen year old. Dostoievsky and Chekhov matched my assumptions of person and of narrative and of who benefited by what behaviour far more closely. They still do. Chekhov writes about my family, I think.

I didn’t have any guidance in reading any feminist writer. Some don’t need it, but Russ is really not one of those. Her works stand alone, but, in standing alone, they’re not easy. I discovered her by chance and have never had a proper conversation about her writing with anyone. They made me angry and edgy and I wanted to talk about this and find out why. No-one around me was reading her. No-one was interested in a conversation. In my late teens, my friends’ idea of intellectual freedom was Isaac Asimov and Gene Wolfe and Ursula le Guin. This was the Le Guin of the late seventies and early eighties, before she realised that women could be wizards.

It was hard for Russ to deliver her message in that environment, and it was hard for me to see what she was saying. This is why I didn’t enjoy her writing, even as I read every word. It pushed me far beyond places I knew and showed me that the world didn’t have to look that way. It’s easier for feminist readers these days, I think, but that challenge and the wonder when I realised what she was doing and that it was possible to change paradigms when writing fiction, and the loneliness when there was no-one I could talk to about it – all that was the good fortune of my growing years.

Since then, I’ve always put the challenges Joanna Russ taught me into my fiction, my non-fiction, my teaching, my life. I’m not her, however, and I try to make them unobtrusive. I believe that it’s possible to change paradigms without it hurting so much.

I must be very naive, because I also believe (thanks to Russ) that it’s possible to change paradigms without forever going back to the simple: feminism #101, cross-cultural understanding #101, crowing about being clever for getting something that should be understood rather than saying “Right, I know that – time for the next step”. I don’t expect rewards for it because of that silence in my late teens – that emptiness alerted me to the effects of writing change. The presentation of the simple and the crowing of how clever one is attracts more notice, but it doesn’t do the job.

Joanna Russ didn’t present me with the lure of material rewards. She taught me about living in a world which is different.

Her writing made me uncomfortable because it touched so closely on what hurts.

I’m not at the stage yet where that discomfort can leave me. We still accept the gender bias in novels and in the book industry almost unthinkingly. Some of our assumptions have been eroded or have crumbled or have been torn down, but our Berlin Wall is still standing, for the most part. Russ carefully cut a door in that wall, however, and it’s possible to walk through that door and see the universe differently.

I really have to revisit Russ, as an adult. The world is a lesser place without her.”

 

Children’s books can play mind games

I’m writing late today, because it’s my birthday. In fact, I’m writing so late that my birthday is already finished in Australia. My birthday is on a public holiday. In a normal year, I’d probably introduce you to a book that tells the history of that public holiday, but the history of that public holiday is very military and there is enough of that in our everyday right now. If you’re curious, the day is ANZAC Day and the history is the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

‘ANZAC’ stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, so I’ll give you one of my favourite Australian novels written by a New Zealand writer, as a compromise. Ruth Park moved to Sydney in 1942, where she married another writer of classic Australian books, D’Arcy Niland. I’ll introduce his The Shiralee one day.

I have several favourite books by Park: The Harp in the South, Poor Man’s Orange, and, of course all the stories of the Muddle-Headed Wombat. I suspect The Muddle-Headed Wombat was one of the first books I read outside school textbooks, in fact. I obtained my own copy of it in my teens and have never let anyone borrow it. My copy of The Muddle-Headed Wombat is pristine, however, compared to my copy of Playing Beatie Bow. I have maybe half a dozen books read so often that they cannot hold together, and this is one of them.

It’s set in Sydney, and is a time slip novel and… it’s almost impossible for me to describe. It’s been filmed and the film is charming but slight and the book is far more haunting and simply one of the best time slip novels out there.

Some books I read and re-read because they remind me of things I ought never forget. Playing Beatie Bow came out when I was an undergraduate, studying history. It became an instant reminder to me that history can happen as a narrative, as a spiral, as layers in time and more: history is not a simple thing.

I had only been to Sydney very briefly when I first read the novel. It suggested a society that was very different to the one I knew. More poor and urban and complex than the suburban I knew. Park’s two Sydneys brought the place to life in a way that made me rethink my own Melbourne. I wasn’t specialising in Australian history, but I attended every public lecture about Marvellous Melbourne by John Lack and I started to shape the stories of the streets I knew and I began to see the relationship between the stories we tell, the stories we lead.

When I myself moved to Sydney, in 1983, I walked down George Street and ventured down to The Rocks and found that the district was nothing like the novel. I had to learn another kind of history, or maybe another layer. Since then, The Rocks has been rebuilt and a museum established and it’s easier to see how the different moments of the past link, but then, I studied a street corner and tried to work out how it fitted and failed. I stopped trying and instead learned about the influenza pandemic and how it changed that tiny corner of Australia.

I suspect that this is the other reason I’m thinking of Playing Beatie Bow. The Rocks are indelibly linked in my mind with that pandemic, and, of course, now we are living through our own pandemic.

I can’t review Playing Beatie Bow. I can’t even analyse its history. This is unlike me. There is another timeslip novel whose history I analyse perfectly well, and that has an even more battered cover, Allison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. I suspect that Park’s novel is too linked to that big change in my life, becoming an historian and, in order to do so, moving from Melbourne to Sydney. I may never be able to pull it to pieces in the same I way I pull most novels to pieces. All I can suggest, then, is that you read it for yourself.

The Joy of a New Book

SpearThere are lots of ways to pick a book to read. Subject matter. Genre and sub-genre. A great cover. Reviews. Blurbs. Reading the first page and getting hooked.

But one of the best ways to choose a book is because you’ve read other work by the author that knocked your socks off. This works with both fiction and non-fiction.

It also doesn’t matter if the story is about something you didn’t think you were particularly interested in, because in the hands of a master writer, you will find yourself entranced.

Case in point: Spear, by Nicola Griffith.

It happens that Nicola is one of those writers whose books I always read. I have read all of her novels and a lot of her short fiction. She brings something unique in everything she writes, regardless of the genre.

For example, I don’t read a lot historical fiction, but Hild is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I recently re-read it in anticipation of the sequel, Menewood, which will be out a year from now.

So all I needed to know to pre-order Spear was that Nicola wrote it. Other than that, all I knew was that it was fantasy set in early medieval Britain and that the main character was a woman. Continue reading “The Joy of a New Book”

Memories and Ruth M Arthur

Yesterday my new book was launched in the UK. There won’t be any launches elsewhere I suspect, because our lives are still vastly influenced by this interesting world we live in, but Story Matrices is out and I will talk about it whenever I have the chance. Except right now. I could spend an hour writing about my new book, but tonight I feel a little haunted, so I want to talk about the book that helped me find words for such things when I was still in primary school.

Ruth M Arthur was one of my favourite authors when I was under ten. I managed to find several of her books when libraries replaced old books with new ones in the 1990s. This means I have on my desk, reminding me of my childhood, the same edition I borrowed from the Hawthorn City Library time after time. The book is A Candle in Her Room, which was my return-to-over-and-over of Arthur’s mainly because it creeped me out, every time I read it. The illustrator was Margery Gill, and her pictures are definitely part of my memories. From the moment I could read, I read the illustrations along with the story and they were part of a whole. They still are, and I still have favourite artists. If they illustrate the internal pages of a book, then I will try to find a copy of that book for my bookshelf. When one of those artists, Kathleen Jennings, illustrated one of my own books I melted into a puddle of sparkling joy.

A Candle in Her Room is a children’s book, from the days before there were Young Adult books. I’m not sure it would be published today. It’s too dark for a children’s book these days. This is a loss for any child who sees that life has dark places and needs words to identify those feelings. A Candle in Her Room and a story about a ghost that lured children away with the promise of happiness (I don’t remember the author, which is probably a good thing – and I’ve never been able to find the book it was in – all I remember is that it was a Penguin paperback from the sixties, with a blue cover) helped me more than I can say when I discovered that the Shoah was not that far removed from me. Two of the characters join the Polish Resistance. This was the link between the book and the Shoah survivors I knew as a child. I never articulated that link, but the book was there for me, nonetheless. I want to say that it taught me that there was a way out of darkness, but it did no such thing. It let me know that other people experienced that feeling I had when I saw the picture from the day a death camp was liberated. When I knew, age 6, that not everyone survives and that the adults who knew all the answers were the ones I could not ask about the picture. When folks talk about children asking the damnedest questions they ignore the fact that some need fiction to fill the emotional holes for the questions that the child cannot ask.

A Candle in Her Room didn’t help at all with my next door neighbour, Doris. I played with her until she was eight. I was the only other child in the street that she was happy to play with. One day she had tonsillitis and went to hospital for it and never came back. I still miss her. It also didn’t help with Charles, who lived across the road and went to school with me, died in a car accident in Tasmania. Nor when… I will become a very different kind of puddle if I remember these friends.

The simple fact is that stories helped me find words to start handling the death of strangers who might be relatives and whose bodies I saw in a big pile in a picture when I was six. This was only step one in learning words and stories that helped me with the other losses and let me eventually reach the stage where I could find my own words and tell my own stories.

I tell people that I’m a sarcastic Pollyanna and the amount of loss in the first twenty years of my very ordinary suburban existence is what triggered the sarcasm. Ruth M. Arthur’s was important to me, then, and probably always will be.

I never want to own a doll called ‘Dido’. Reading Joan Aiken’s books at the same time meant that the name ‘Dido’ was totally fine. When my Pre-Classical Antiquity lecturer tried to explain what he termed a rare name when we learned about Carthage, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books that had anyone or anything called ‘Dido’ – I didn’t tell him I had disproved his ‘rare name’ theory, but I thought it, forcibly. His few thoughtless words couldn’t obliterate my childhood while I had access to books.

A Candle in Her Room now provokes nightmares, even without me reading it. This is odd, because it’s not really horrific. It’s spiced with darkness. For me it carries all that baggage and is more than the sum of its parts.

I wanted to know if anyone knew of it. It’s not, after all, a new novel. I looked it up just now online and it’s still being read and still provoking emotions. I’ve known this book since it was first released in Australia. The edition I read and now own was the London one, from 1968, which tells you a lot about my early reading habits. And I’m devolving into dullness because I just realise that I’m writing this at bedtime. I need to find something to refresh my mind, otherwise I will have nightmares about malevolent dolls. I know this for a fact, because I have nightmares about Dido whenever I think about A Candle in Her Room late at night.

The books we read as children are important. And I shall defeat those nightmares by finding another book with that musty scent and this book shall be one that brings me good dreams.

Story Matrices – the story behind Gillian Polack’s research

Today I’m wildly busy, but also celebrating. The research I’ve talked about at science fiction conventions for years is finally in print. Thanks to Luna Press, a Scottish SF publisher with an academic branch. The book is Story matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The reason I’m so tired and so very delighted is because this book was almost lost to the world because Canberra had bushfires and the bushfires made me ill. I had a week of doing normal everyday things before COVD hit Canberra and since then I’ve not been able to go to libraries, to attend face to face meetings and so much more. I’m not entirely a well person and so I’m one of those who have spent most of COVID seeing people only online. Occasionally I get out and pretend life is normal, but I’m always wearing a mask and it’s always risky.

Despite all this, my little study of how science fiction and fantasy is important in cultural transfer and explanation is officially available. It’s not the mega-study that I had intended, but, as someone earnestly said to me a couple of months ago “it’s much easier to read than it would have been if you’d written it the way you told me you would.”

There are so many things I want to tell you about this book.

I want to talk about how hard it is to write any book through brainfog and with lungs that don’t fully work. I want to explain that air should be breathable, not riddled with particles.

I also want to talk about how difficult it was to avoid the usual explanations of writers we no longer trust. Aided by the brainfog, my first draft kept falling into bad explanations of the changing relationships between Marion Zimmer Bradley, JK Rowling and their readers. I then looked at what I wrote and realised that I was doing exactly what my book explains: I was telling stories about them that explained who they were and their life choices. But my book isn’t about their life choices nor how we react to them. That I dislike a whole bunch of things about MZB’s private life and get angry about JK Rowling’s opinions about my friends is, to be honest, not useful. These are my emotions and my ethics and my personal opinions.

I need to get past the ethical questions and the personal. My research explains that how we tell stories is damned important. I needed to understand how we include our ethics and our thoughts about others into our work, often without knowing we’re doing this. I needed to write it out clearly. That was surprisingly difficult. Now that the book is out and people can read it, I’ll find out if I’ve succeeded.

It’s urgent that we understand why harmful stereotypes keep being updated and complex understanding of human beings is only appropriate for certain kinds of novels. This is why, instead of describing my own personal reactions of this author or the other, I needed to explain how novels give us tools that support one interpretation or another. I had to explore what some of those tools are and explain how they work.

My original plan was for a comprehensive explanation that changed the world. Life reduced this to an introduction, with lots of different entry points for readers and writers, so that they can explore for themselves the bits of the world they want to change. I looked at unique culture and shared culture, at what story space is for a reader and what it is for a writer, at how we build worlds for fiction and to play in. Understanding how Rowling and MZB’s work fits into this, helps us understand how their life choices creep into their fiction and gives us the capacity to understand which parts of that fiction are good and which are worrying. It takes us past stereotyping and into how that stereotyping plays out in novels.

This book is the next step after my History and Fiction work. It’s the precursor of a deeper exploration. Right now, I’m looking at how fairy tale retellings and fantasy world building operate in certain novels. Now that Story Matrices is out, I need to deepen my understanding of how we do what we do and what that means for our writing. I especially need to understand how the nicest people can use racist and bigoted cultural elements in their work, and how the most terrible people can write immensely popular and well-written novels. I need to do this non-judgmentally, because I am also capable, as a writer, of doing all these things. Instead of saying “What a terrible thing this writer has done”, I want to look at works and say “These are the techniques the writer has used.” Readers can make their own decisions about ethics and are perfectly capable of judging for themselves, but it really helps to have useful tools.

How culture is encoded into fiction and the cultural baggage fiction carries is not a simple matter. It’s a mosaic sparkling with colour and with outlines that move and perspectives that change. It’s easier to give simple descriptions and to announce, “I understand this.” It’s so simple to hate a book without understanding what the writer has actually done, what we’re reacting to with such force. There is a price for choosing the easy route. Our everyday lives become riddled with material we read in our fiction or watch on TV or in movies, or in comics or… in any narrative.

With the best intentions in the world, we can spread prejudice and support hate. That’s the extreme case, the one that’s right now playing out in a war in Eastern Europe, in the collapse of politics in Pakistan, in the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, in Myanmar and in may other places. I can see those stories in the convoy folk who descended on Canberra in February and have been giving us a hard time ever since.

So much of the things we do in our lives is influenced by the stories we love. Story Matrices is one step on my journey to understanding this. In a perfect world, it will help readers and writers see what we put into novels and what we take out of them. It will give us back choices about the aspects of culture we want to accept.

Memories again

Last year, I read Liz Williams’ lovely novel, Comet Weather. It reminded me of one of my favourite books from my childhood, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk. It had that same sense of a rural life where history can emerge unexpectedly and where life is not predictable. A little sharp, a little edgy, but very comforting. The Midnight Folk and Comet Weather both fit this description.

Then there’s another book by John Masefield that I love to hate. A Book of Discoveries. I adored everything by him at that point. I went to my favourite secondhand bookshop with Masefield’s work in my mind. The shop was just down the road from where my grandfather’s offices had been in my early childhood. Every time I visited the bookshop, I carefully walked past the old office and waved a little ‘hello.’ This little walk was my favourite form of history emerging (my life experience related to the books I read): I could call on the emotions and remember a decade before whenever I wanted. I could leave out all the sharp edges. My childhood had more sharp edges than I enjoyed, and I had decided that books were the best place to encounter them.

In Berry’s I found my dream copy of Sheridan’s plays. I may introduce you to them one day, along with their erstwhile owner. I also found A Book of Discoveries. I don’t know anything about previous owners of A Book of Discoveries, except that one of them was called Mathieson. Given the date of the volume and the style of the handwriting, Mathieson might have owned the novel when it was new, but they didn’t give a first name, or a date. There were only sixty years between my purchase and the edition (it was from 1910) and it’s a gilded illustrated hardback edition. The book even has the protective paper on its frontispiece and I’ve owned it for about forty-five years: I don’t think it’s had many owners. I nearly gave it away, decades ago, when I felt impossibly guilty about it.

I loved the book when I first read it. It was a prized possession. It feels substantial and adventurous and contained safe adventures for young boys. It wasn’t anything like The Midnight Folk, but it had a certain feel in common with Rudyard Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies. In my mind, I classified it alongside Puck of Pook’s Hill. (That all these books were favourites, and that I read every work of Arthur Ransome I could find over and over again says a lot about my childhood, I suspect.) I spent every cent I had on buying the book, because it fitted so well into my deep desires of what books should be at that point.

A few years later, I studied first year archaeology at university. That was when I discovered the horrid truth: these adventures consisted of private destruction of landscapes. Landscapes and I have a very long association. I myself contributed to the destruction of a tiny bit of 1920s market garden when I did a test archaeological dig in my backyard. When I was eleven, you see, I wanted to be a museum curator, and for that, I needed to understand archaeology. I found some china and a child’s shoe. I was the only member of my family who was excited.

This was just before I read A Book of Discoveries. With that first reading, Masefield validated my personal exploration. I was worried about what the characters did in the novel (my mother taught geology when I was a child and rocks and where they came from coloured so much of my childhood – I was very surprised when none of the other children at school could read landscapes and when only my BFF wanted to) but it wasn’t until I was given concepts to describe how ownership works that I began to worry about the stories I read.

One day I’ll find a new home for The Book of Discoveries. It deserves an owner who covets it as much as I covet my 1967 paperback of The Midnight Folk. I bought The Midnight Folk for 60c, probably in 1969 or 1970. Since my pocket money back then was my age plus 2c, it was quite a big buy. I have never regretted owning it and it’s surprisingly untattered considering how many times I’ve read it. Just looking at the cover takes me into the world. I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t hints of The Midnight Folk in my own writing, just as there are in Williams’. My suspicion is that these hints are in Ms Cellophane or The Art of Effective Dreaming, but that they are half-memories, nothing more.

Some writers should introduce themselves…

Today I’m short of time. Always, when I’m short of time I make excuses or take shortcuts. Today, I looked in my e-library (I have a marvellously huge e-library) and wondered if I could find something there that would explain itself. Since I love the work of one Hannah Woolley, who wrote recipe books and other handy guides to everyday life in the seventeenth century, I wondered if I could find something by her and give you extracts, to show you that her work is worth chasing… without arguing or explaining. The book is The Gentlewoman’s Companion: or, A Guide to the Female Sex, from 1675. Her Epistle dedicatory explains all:

I have formerly sent forth amongst you two little books; the first called, The Ladies Directory the other, The Cooks Guide both which have found very good acceptance. It is near seven years since I began to write this book, at the desire of the Bookseller, and earnest intreaties of very many worth friends; unto whom I owe more than I can do for them. And when I considered the great need of such a book as might be a Universal Companion and Guide to the Female Sex, in all relations, Companies, Conditions, and states of Life even from Childhood down to Old age; and from the Lady at the Court, to the Cook-maid in the Country: I was at length prevailed upon to do it, and the rather because I knew not of any Book in any Language that hath done the like. Indeed many excellent Authors there be who have wrote excellent well of some particular Subjects herein treated of. But as there is not one of them hath written upon all of them; so there are some things treated of in this Book, that I have not met with in any Language, but are the Product of my Thirty years Observations and Experience.

I will not deny but I have made some use of that Excellent Book, The Queens Closet; May’s Cookery; The Ladies Companion; my own Directory and Guide; Also, the second part of Youth’s Behaviour, and what other Books I thought pertinent and proper to make up a Compleat Book, that might have an Universal Usefulness; and to that end I did not only make use of them, but also of all others, especially those that have been lately writ in the French and Italian Languages. For as the things treated of are many and various, so were my Helps.”

My favourite paragraph is one where Mrs Woolley explains herself so carefully that I wonder just how many times in her life she was mansplained.

I know I may be censured by many for undertaking this great Design, in presenting to all of our Sex a compleat Directory, and that which contains several Sciences: deeming it a Work for a Solomon, who could give an account from the Cedar to the Hysop. I have therefore in my Apology to the Bookseller, declared ho I came to be of Ability to do it, reciting to him the grounds of my knowledg in all those Sciences I profess and also what practice and experience I have had in the World, left any should think I speak more than I am able to perform. I doubt not but judicious persons will esteem this Essay of mine, when they have read the Book, and weighed it well; and if so, I shall the less trouble my self what the ignorant do or say.

I have now done my Task, & shall leave it to your candid Judgments and Improvement; your Acceptation will much encourage Your Most humble Servant, Hannah Woolly.”

And my job here is done. She has convinced you herself that her writing should be read… or not. To be honest, I like her cookbook and use it a lot. This particular book is more educational and full of moral instruction. It’s like eating a meal with a great deal of fibre. It may be tremendously good for one’s digestion but it’s not nearly as much fun as eating unhealthily. Except that she encourages reading, one would think to make the preposterous suspitions of some to vanish, who vainly imagine that Books are Womens Academies, wherein they learn to do evil with greater subtilry and cunning; whereas the helps of Learning, which are attained from thence, not only fortifies the best inclinations, but enlargeth a mean capacity to a great perfection.” While her preference is for educative and religious tomes, I hold hope that if she travelled in time, Mrs Woolley might read some of the same books I enjoy.

Some may imagine, that to read Romances after such practical Books of Divinity, will not only be a vain thing, but will absolutely overthrow that fabrick I endeavoured to erect: I am of a contrary opinion, and do believe such Romaces which treat of Generosity, Gallantry, and Virtue, as Cassandra, Clelia, Grand Cyrus, Cleopatra, Parthenissa, not omitting Sir Philip Sydney’s Arcadia, are Books altogether worthy of their Observation. There are few Ladies mention’d therein, but are character’s what they ought to be the magnanimity, virtue, gallantry, patience, constancy, and curage of the men, might intitle them worthy Husbands to the most deserving of the female sex.”

Her writing style is infectious. That’s the real reason I am full of quotes. It’s either be full of quotes or start to write short fiction as if I were a seventeenth century gentlewoman. Quite simply, there is so much of the culture of England at that time in this book, that every paragraph evokes a reaction. And now I’m arguing you should read the book instead of leaving the argument to the author of the book… I shall end here.

Prophets and their Gifts

Right now, a lot of my research is about food. Not recipes, nor food history, but how food and foodways creep into fiction. It’ll be a long time before I have research results that I’m willing to share. Right now, I change my mind from day to day as I discover new things. Still, it’s not at all fair to leave you out of my foodways entirely, so I’m going to share with you an old favourite of mine.

In 1552, two little books appeared in the French marketplace. In my perfect world, I would own an original copy of each, but they’re rare and the author is so famous that any copies that appeared would be snapped up for an impossible sum. I own a translation of the books, into English. I could read the original (historians have some handy language tools) but haven’t ever found a modern edition. I was in France in 1995 and found the English translation there. It’s not a big book, even though it rudely fits two old books into one.

Who is this well-known author? Michel Nostradamus, who is more known as a prophet and as a physician than as a cook. Whenever I’ve encountered people who get excited when they hear his name it’s because they want to argue about prophecy. Right now, though, his background as a plague doctor is more appropriate. He was one of the best known and possibly one of the most competent plague doctors in sixteenth century France.

I considered this when I was in the emergency department of the medical side of the university at Montpellier, for he studied there and I had a mysterious disease. I didn’t have plague. But I dreamed of my favourite recipe from Nostradamus’ cookbook as I rested after the appointment and slowly recovered from what turned out to be the side effects of being bitten by a tick. The doctor laughed merrily with his assistant, when they worked out I was Australian and yet had been infected by something in England. They looked up Australia on the computer and noted all the dangerous spiders here and all the snakes and then said “And she went to England for this. York, in the rain.” The actual diagnosis took maybe a minute, and they wrote out prescriptions and descriptions for treatment when they’d finished laughing. At that precise moment I wished I had less French because I could understand every joke they made at my expense.

Nostradamus’ quince recipe was my safe hiding place, I think.

I was in Montpellier researching Langue[dot]doc 1305, but I didn’t call on that incident at all for it. The illness meant I only had a few hours of research a day, because I really wasn’t that well.

I managed to complete all my work thanks to the kind help of people at desks. Two were the senior curators of museums, masquerading as sellers-of-tickets. I asked each of them where I could go in their museum to answer a couple of questions I had. We chatted a minute and they decided to talk me through everything I needed. Two hours, in each case, with people who knew more about the precise material I needed than were in any book. One also sold me a hard-to-find book I desperately needed, so I read that during my many hours of enforced rest.

Hearing the medical jokes at my expense was the downside of having enough French, but being able to talk the Middle Ages with experts was definitely the upside. It might also have helped that I knew a fair amount already: I was asking as an SF writer, but had a PhD in Medieval History backing it.

The third desk person was at the tourist office in the town I was setting the novel in. She had copies of unusual material hiding behind the desk and brought them out for me. In return, I told her how to make Nostradamus’ version of quince jelly.

I wish I had been able to go back one more time after I had digested all that material, because there are some questions I really wanted more answers to. I live on the other side of the world, and a return visit wasn’t possible. Still, Nostradamus and his recipes have an indelible link with Langue[dot]doc 1305.

I didn’t put even a single recipe for quince jelly in the novel. I regard this as neglectful, but I can tell you now, even my mother thinks that he had a very fine recipe. She tested it, some years back.