When my friend, Judith Barrow, and I – both published by Honno – realised we had been shortlisted, alongside one another, for the Literature Wales Book of the Year/Fiction Award, we immediately agreed on two things: we were chuffed to bits for one another & it was amazing to be recognised, slightly past the prime of our lives, for such a prestigious award. This led to a discussion about being published by a press that, amongst its many attributes, doesn’t see age. And I asked Judith if she would care to share her thoughts about being published by Honno. She agreed, and it’s my pleasure to hand over to her. Welcome, Judith!
Why I like being published by Honno I’ve been a creative writing tutor for many years and am always pleased when a student of mine has a story or an article published… somewhere! But last week I was especially delighted to receive an excited call from one of them to tell me her story has been accepted for a forthcoming anthology by Honno, my own publishers. And it brought back the memory, my own moment of the excitement I felt when, some fifteen years ago, Honno accepted one of my stories for their anthology, Coming up Roses: tinyurl.com/t56r6mbx
The acceptance of that story gave me confidence to submit the first of my books to Honno. Six books later I’m still with them. And happy to stay with them.
Honno is my kind of publisher; small, independent, and led by strong women who know what kind of books they want to publish and don’t accept anything but the best that an author can produce. So the editing is hard, but fair, and leads to many discussions – and a few compromises on both sides.
Because it is known to be a Welsh press it is sometimes assumed that all its authors will be Welsh as well. So, often, when I’ve appeared at events, people are surprised to hear my broad Northern English accent. The supposition is false; Honno’s aim as an inspiring, feminist Welsh press is to provide opportunities for women writers. The only proviso is that they are either Welsh, are living in Wales or have a connection to the country – which actually covers a great many writers.
I love their strapline: “Great Women, Great Writing, Great Stories.” So it always gives me a thrill when the manuscript I’ve been toiling over for months (or years!) is accepted by them.
I’ve had experience of having an agent, of being asked to conform to the commercial market; to fit in. And it wasn’t for me. As a creative writing tutor, I’ve spent the last couple of decades encouraging students to “write in their own voices”. So when the agent told me I needed to conform if I wanted to be published by one of the big publishing companies, I knew it wasn’t for me. This, after she’d placed me with a commercial editor who, not only wanted me to write in a different way, but also wanted me to write in a different genre. “The talent and skill as a writer is there but you need to be open to change,” was the advice.
I took it; I changed from being a client with an agent (who had, after all, accepted me on the strength of my first book) to seeking other outlets for my work.
I was lucky, I found Honno.
But it’s not only the professionalism of Honno, the specific care and attention they give to each element of producing a book, it’s the brilliant feeling of being part of a group of women who write diverse and brilliant novels. And who support one another and are generous enough to share and promote each another’s latest publication. In what we now call (and hopefully will again, to some extent before long) “normal times”, as many of us as are able meet up to talk about our writing, the current state of the writing world, new ideas for promotion – and just a general catch up on one another’s lives. And have a laugh. Oh, and lunch – and even, sometimes, a cheeky glass of wine.
This year, friend and fellow Honno author, Carol Lovekin, and I were honoured to be shortlisted for The Wales Book of the Year. Me for my novel, The Memory: bit.ly/3b2xRSn and Carol for Wild Spinning Girls: bit.ly/3gJx4dJ . It was an enjoyable and gratifying experience. We were delighted, not only for ourselves, but for Honno as well. A reward for all the hard work put in on both sides.
Thank you very much for your words, Judith. It goes with saying, I echo your sentiments about Honno – it’s wonderful to see our remarkable publisher acknowledged in this way. And well done us! It was an honour to be shortlisted with you. Here’s to more books by women of a certain age!
And before I go, dear reader, may I say how much I recommend Judith’s books.
Honno is a Welsh word meaning,‘that one (feminine) who is elsewhere.’
Last year, when Jill Doyle invited me to contribute to her Five on Friday, in answer to the question, ‘Tell us 5 things you’d like to do or achieve’, I said, ‘Win a book prize. An unlikely dream, but dreaming is part and parcel of being a writer.’ My tongue was very much in my cheek. The dreaming was what mattered; I carried on, dreaming & being a writer.
I didn’t cry or squeal or do much of anything to be honest. I simply stared at the email, read it again, in case I’d missed the bit about it not meaning me & it was just information. It did mean me though – me & my book & my publisher, Honno. Me & eleven other authors in four categories. (We were all sworn to secrecy for what felt like thirty-nine years, until the announcement on the radio.) And then it sank in: the fact that Literature Wales had chosen my book as one of the twelve.
Once I knew I was shortlisted alongside another Honno author, Judith Barrow, it became a double reason for celebration. We are both women of a certain age who are friends. We have been nurtured by our amazing publisher & we are as happy for them as we are for one another.
Honnodeserve this. They are the UK’s longest standing independent feminist press. They do amazing things, for their writers penning contemporary literature in a variety of genres; for the lost women’s voices from the past. And for their readers who look for quality books published to the highest standard.
When I was first published, that was the dream come true. I was so much older than most people who secure their first publishing deal & I thought it was enough. Box ticked, job done. Two more books later, to be shortlisted for this prestigious award is another layer of validation. It says, I’m good enough. It means I can, hopefully, finally shoo Imposter Syndrome out of the door & write more stories that count.
Or, perhaps not. Writing is a random business – writers are hostages to all kinds of fortune & there is something to be said for the maxim, we are only as good as our last book. In the moment, we take the brickbats (Oh look, dear reader, a 1* review!) & the bouquets (5*****s!) We write & write some more & hope to be published again.
And sometimes, we get shortlisted for an award.
This is my first time; it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to me in my five years as a published writer. But ultimately, it’s the recognition that counts – for me, for my sister author & above all, for our wonderful publisher.
As a girl, I quite enjoyed sport. I played hockey, I ran quite well & liked that. But I was never brilliant & I never won anything. My daddy said, don’t worry – it isn’t about winning or being the best; it’s about enjoying yourself & being part of something. My daddy was right – it really is the taking part that counts.
Exactly two months since I scribbled anything here. Largely because I haven’t had much to say. I’ve been busy though – scattering words onto the page for a fifth book & for the past month or so, editing my fourth, Only May, which is penciled in for publication next year.
Only May began life about two years ago, several months before the pandemic hit. I’ve mentioned before, the genesis of this story: how I was driving home from the dentist, dazzled by the glory that is the May blossom. It seemed to have a tinge of pink & felt magical to me. I imagined a girl, born on the first day of May & named for the blossom; wondered, for no reason I can now recall, what if she could tell when people lied to her? If, when they looked her directly in the eye & lied, she knew. And that was the small beginning.
As I was still editing my third novel, Wild Spinning Girls, progress was sporadic. I’m an inveterate note compiler however & write my stories erratically anyway, so I was getting something down. It wasn’t until after the launch of WSG just weeks before the first lockdown, that I settled in to write the book proper. It’s been a fabulous process. With no distractions, I listened for the word birds, cracked on & wrote it.
That said, it still took me almost eighteen months before I felt the manuscript was good enough to submit. I know writers who can create a book in a few months. This both impresses & amazes me. I am not one of them! I’m a plodder. And I don’t put in impressively long hours either; not on a regular basis. (When I’m editing mind, I nail myself to the PC & only emerge from my study to eat & sleep, but that’s another story.) I do show up pretty much every day though & for me, that is the secret. Show up & write. Even through a pandemic. Particularly through a pandemic? My work has kept me sane, kept me connected to what brings me joy. And I love this new story more than I can say.
Only May is a slight departure from my previous books – it’s more intimate, on a smaller scale & written mostly in first person present.
It’s my lockdown novel. And it has bees. Watch this space!
“I’m the girl who sees beyond the glint in your eye, around your over-confidence and through to the truth and I can hear the earth hum, the way the bees do. Ever since I was a tiny baby and they started talking to me, it’s seemed rude not to take notice. Bees don’t lie.”
Throughout the long months of lockdown I’ve noticed several writers saying they can no longer write. My heart goes out to anyone who has been so affected by the current situation they can’t write. For whatever related reason, they have lost what in Wales we call, their hwyl.
In simple terms this means ones “motivation” for a task or endeavour. Now & then, I lose mine – it disappears down the back of the sofa for a day or two but invariably I find it. Sometimes I even go looking for it because the idea of not writing is anathema to me.
I find myself pondering why I’m one of the people who haven’t stopped writing. Sure, I’ve slowed down a bit – there are days when I write for one or two hours rather than four or five. And yes, it’s probably part of the general malaise. I don’t know, that’s the honest answer. All I do know is most days I write & I thank my lucky stars I’m not inclined to depression; I haven’t been floored by long term debilitation or lost anyone.
My current work in progress (Book 5) is a work in chaos. A lovely mess in which I have resurrected one previously dead character. (Up you get, dear – you have a role after all!) Changed the gender of another. (Sorry mate, I liked you well enough but you were wet.) I’ve changed the ending too. (Much better.)
This is what I love best about writing – the process. (This blog isn’t called Making it up as I go along for nothing.) It is always about the process. Once the original spark becomes a potential story, the sky is my limit. Once the characters are envisioned, I am free to play with them; assign them quirks & motivations, move them around, kill them off or give them life.
All of this is in my power & I love it! I love the tangents, the vagaries of my characters behaviour; I’m in thrall to the way the story drifts and hesitates, how it wander and merges, how each time I show up to write a bit more of it, it emerges, better & more satisfying.
My hwyl for my craft is a constant. It stirs my heart & it sharpens my pencils, while I’m not looking.
The Welsh talk about ‘hwyl‘ – meaning motivation – & I confess, over the past months mine has disappeared down the back of the sofa a bit. Not least with regard to this blog. Mislaid is perhaps a better description. And ‘found’ is laying down an expectation so all in all, the title of this post is a total misnomer! Whatever, I miss it; three months is, I think, the longest I’ve left it so today I shall scribble.
In those three months I have finished my fourth book – Only May – submitted it & been told by my delightful editor/publisher that she ‘likes May very much’. As in lockdown, so in publishing & the wheels turn slowly. To be honest, the pace has always suited me. Waiting to be ‘liked’ notwithstanding, working with a small press does mean a slower turn round than with bigger, busier presses. Because it takes me ages to write my stories, I’m perfectly content to wait.
While I do, I write. My word birds have been busy & although me & my hwyl are in ongoing negotiations, I have been showing up. (Writing a book is at least 75% showing up in my view.) The last few months then have seen me working on Book 5. It’s another ghost story. Gothic as all get out, it features a lady undertaker, a creepy old house, twin girls, a ghost & lots of sparrows. The hedge below my window hasn’t been cut through lockdown & the resident sparrows are revelling in their enhanced living quarters. They are defiantly, gregariously glorious! Who needs crows? they cry. Who needs magpies & rooks when they can have sparrows? Look at us – are we not magnificent little birds?
Quite. Hard to resist & once I began to map out the story I realised I wanted to include them. There is a magical thread involving these charming birds too; a story within the story if you like. Watch this space? Quite.
Only May is set in the 50s. Reluctant to write a book set in the present day (I have no desire to write a pandemic novel) for this new one I decided to go even further back in time. Between the wars to be precise. 1923. It’s another challenge. In no way am I a historical novelist (or a historian!) but I do find the era fascinating. The ‘Roaring Twenties’ & ‘Bright Young Things’ notwithstanding, after WW1 women were beginning to feel more empowered & confident. In Book 5, the Representation of the People Act, giving women like Lydia – my central character – the vote is still five years away. It doesn’t mean she isn’t brave & feisty; prepared to fight for what is her birthright. Or, when her life takes an unexpected turn, test her courage when her innate pragmatism is confronted by a ghost.
Nothing is truly lost – we may have lost a year (it could be another – who knows?) but for the writers, our imaginations never completely stop offering story ideas. I know mine doesn’t. It may be some time before I write here again, mind. On the other hand, it could be tomorrow. In the meantime, I shall do my best. Show up, scribble, read & ponder. Listen for the birds. Thank you for reading. Stay safe, be kind, & if you haven’t got one, be your own Valentine*! xXx
In the interests of honesty, the following quotation isn’t one I ‘randomly’ came upon during my morning dip into Mrs Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary. I deliberately searched for it. I know the book well enough to roughly recall where to look for what I need when it’s specific.
Two chapters away from finishing my fourth novel, Only May, I’m acutely aware of how I need to take it slowly and get it right. This is the shortest book I’ve written, the most compact in terms of scale. It takes place over the course of the month of May. Four weeks to tell a story doesn’t afford a lot of leeway to create a viable plot. It’s easy to obsess over the minutiae, at the expense of moving the story on. And because it’s a little lighter, wordwise, the temptation to rush is ever present.
“I shall solve it somehow, I suppose. Then I must go on to the question of quality. I think I may run too fast and free and so be rather thin.“
What with one lockdown and another, I’ve found it easy to stick to a writing schedule. In fact, I’ve been up with birds these past few weeks, eager to see what my feathered friends have left for me. They haven’t disappointed.
The best thing about writing a novel is the way, in spite of the fear, there comes a point when you allow yourself to believe it might be working. For a while, when I hit the halfway mark I’d convinced myself I was kidding myself. And it was a character who saved me – one who I had initially introduced simply as a convenient hook to hang my central character’s dawning realisation on: her conviction that things were not as they seemed. She has developed into a crucial reality and a woman of solid substance.
The fear by the way is real. I’ve scribbled about it before. How sneaky it is, how insidious. And yet how necessary. Once we begin believing, because we’ve had three books (pick a number) published, we might be a legend in our own lunchtime, we’ve lost our way.
Which bring me neatly to ‘the question of quality‘ Mrs W refers to. She means editing. She means structure and shape and how the thing sits on the page. Wordcount notwithstanding, once I have these final chapters down, I shall have to mess it up. (Technical publishing term – honestly.)
May is my new favourite (sorry Other Characters) largely because she has challenged me. For a while I wasn’t sure where we were going. She did. I’m so pleased I trusted her.
Yet again, I write this largely for myself. Keeping this somewhat random record of my writing process does help keep me focused. And afloat.
A few weeks ago I went wild swimming in a beautiful lake with an island at its centre where swans breed & raise their young. It was both idyllic & therapeutic. I’ve missed swimming & it was a treat to be in the water. Good for my body & my psyche.
Swimming is like riding a bike – you really don’t forget how to stay afloat. And staying afloat as a writer is a similar experience. As I’ve mentioned before, owing to unexpected health issues, my hwyl for my craft has taken a few knocks recently but as not writing is only ever a short, temporary option for me, it does come back.
The plan I mentioned in my previous post worked well. New Moon. Show up. Crack on. I’ve even taken to word counting again, mostly to encourage myself. I’m now past the halfway stage – ‘over the hump’ as a sister writer calls it. Out of the shallows, I say, swimming not floundering.
And I’m ready to tell you what I’ve finally decided to call this new story: Only May, a tale of lies & liars, secrets & bees… There may be ghosts…
I love it very much & wish only to do my characters justice. And finish it! In particular, I want to do my best for May herself. A girl who charmed me from the moment I ‘met’ her, last May, driving home from the dentist when the hawthorn was in bloom. For the most part, May is telling the story. Her voice above everyone else’s leads it. So yes – show up, crack on, etc.
If I’ve done it three times, surely, I can do it again? This then is my world. These are my words; these are my books.
‘Hello Book 4 my old friend…’ are words I have uttered over the past month, on too many occasions to record. Each rekindling of the relationship with my newest story has been brief. The ups & downs of my personal hibernating life mean there have been too many days when my current story has languished. The result: too few reasons to write a blog post. I guess it’s a symptom of the current zeitgeist; like everyone else, writers are under pressure of one kind & another. Add unexpected drama into my particular mix & is it any wonder I’ve been tardy?
In précis: I’ve been hors de combat.
Unexpectedly & not without a little drama. The one is boring, the other – well, dear reader, who knew one small fall could result in so many bruises! Recovering well now, I finally find I need to chat, to myself if to no one else, about my newest foray into storytelling.
Had I been told, in 2016 when Ghostbird was published, that four & a half years later I’d be writing my fourth novel, I’d have imagined someone was kidding. And yet here I am, almost 40k into an odd little tale I’m growing extremely fond of. Considering I’ve been writing it since last year though, 40k is a meagre wordcount. Before lockdown, because I was sure of the story’s simplicity, I believed I would have a first draft done in a few months. Ha!
Another thing I’m learning about this writing lark is, when a story exists on a very small canvas, the intricacies become more crucial. Intimacy requires as much attention to detail as any sweeping saga. In addition, I’m being ‘told’ by my characters what they want to do (it was ever thus.) Plot tangents have flung themselves into the mix with gay abandon; new characters charm me & a far better version of the end lifts my heart. But even though I have all this – literally: a beginning, a middle & an end – I somehow find myself stuck on pause. I’m back & forth through what I have already written, faffing & rewriting, endlessly (unless I’m not – cos ‘drama’) playing with ‘perfection’ rather than moving the story on. I am continually haunted by the ghosts of words already written: ones sitting nicely on the page, thank you very much.
For goodness sake, woman, be brave! Write another, fresh, 40k!
Essentially, I’m elevating my ‘edit as I go’ inclination to new & ridiculous heights. Fear of failure is a factor for sure (sorry/not sorry: excessive alliteration.) Goes with the territory. Largely, I suspect it’s a case of ‘drama’ in a time of lockdown causing creatus interruptus. I may have to conjure a plan.
Checking my desk diary, I see the number “99” – circled. (I was never going to make a thing of an even number now was I?) Day ninety-nine then, in my personal cycle of hibernation & I also checked how long it’s been since I wrote anything here. Two guest posts notwithstanding, the last time I scribbled a word about my writing was 26 April!
Nine weeks then & I’m still avoiding words like ‘isolation’ & ‘lockdown’ simply because I feel neither isolated nor locked down. After however many weeks ninety-nine days add up to, some days I do feel alone. And much as I insist (truthfully) that being this way is second nature to me – I’m a writer, it’s what we do – ninety-nine days in, I’m missing certain people.
Mrs Woolf had a few perfect words for it. On the matter of ‘certain friends’ she wrote: I love them when they aren’t there – they leave beautiful spaces behind them.’
Family notwithstanding (when I finally get to hug my daughter, she will need to check her ribs) it’s my friends I miss. Not least the ones who write, those whose idea of heaven is hanging out, over tea & cake, nattering about writing.
With the plot of my newest endeavour flinging itself off on the inevitable tangents, I miss my writing group so much, Thursdays now feel like lost days. Not entirely – Janey (Eliza Jane Tulley) & I converse regularly. But it is never going to be the same as sitting opposite one another in our favourite cafe, notebooks on the side, ready to disseminate our latest offerings. That ‘beautiful space’ at our special table, is hers & mine.
And so I press on – by myself – occasionally startled by the moments my imagination conjures for this new story. It’s so off the wall quirky anyway, the digressions barely faze me. Being able to explain them (or ask Janey for her input) is still a true frustration.
Okay – this new one. I was going to say I thought long & hard about writing a story largely in First Person Present. It isn’t true. I thought about not doingit for as long as it took to rewrite the first chapter in Third Person & realise my instinct was right. FPP it is. And I love it. It’s challenging & even though the going is far, far slower than I first envisioned, I am making progress with my quirky story.
It too takes up a beautiful space, the writing space I have to fill because not writing isn’t an option. A space I know, were she around to see me loving this story, Janey would get.
When it comes to fictional female characters, I make no secret of my admiration for staunch women, not least those who look adversity in the eye & give as good as they get. As a feminist who writes them, I want to read them too. And in The Ferryman’s Daughter, by Juliet Greenwood – her first novel for Orion Books, published 14th May 2020 – I was delighted to encounter the redoubtable Hester Pearce.
I gave Juliet carte blanche to describe how both fictional and real life strong women inspired and influenced her wonderful heroine. Thank you & over to you, Juliet!
My inspiration for Hester, the heroine of my first book for Orion, The Ferryman’s Daughter, originated in a real-life woman I’ve been itching to weave into a story for years. The moment Hester appeared, with her passion for cooking and her determination to set up her own cafe against the odds, I knew she was the one.
Hester’s real life inspiration was Rosa Lewis, who was the basis for the popular TV series ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’, which first ran in the 1970s, but is still repeated here in the UK. Born in the Victorian era, when a woman was expected to be simply the shadow of a husband, with no legal existence of her own, Rosa Lewis was one of those who rebelled. Although she started life as a kitchen maid, she rose by means of skill and hard work to be a renowned chef, including for royalty, and eventually becoming the owner of her own hotel in London. Not to mention a possible affair with the Prince of Wales, but that’s another story …
From the moment I heard about her as a teenager, I loved Rosa Lewis for her determination and becoming a self-made woman. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, there were very few female role models. The expectation was still that women worked for a few years until they married, then retreated into domestic invisibility as housewives, or with low-paid part-time jobs to fit in around childcare. It’s sometimes hard to remember that it’s so recently that a woman couldn’t even get a credit card or a mortgage without a male signature.
Rosa Lewis pointed me the way towards the many astute and determined women in the Victorian and Edward period whose stories have been forgotten or brushed under the carpet, but are now finally being told. When I started to read more about her life and times, I found many more stubborn and fearless women (many of them happily married to husbands who adored and supported them) who ran businesses, refused to allow an entire establishment ranged against them to prevent them from becoming doctors, and ran daring campaigns as social reformers – despite being faced with insults and missiles and sometimes physical danger. Social reformer Josephine Butler even narrowly escaped gang rape and a building set alight around her as she campaigned to prevent thirteen-year-old young girls being registered as prostitutes, to be trafficked as sex workers all across Europe. Some of her descriptions of the victims of such abuse, some as young as five, are utterly heartbreaking. It might have taken time, but, with the support of Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the suffrage movement, her utter determination did eventually win.
So when Hester came sweeping into my life, she was also inspired by the many brave and astute women who lived around the same time as Rosa Lewis. Reading their memoirs and their diary entries, the hopes and dreams and frustrations of young women of that era from all social classes feel little different from those of women today. Like Hester, they have a deep longing to be loved, but also to have a life of their own. To follow a passion. To also be the one to walk in the sun.
I loved every moment of my time spent with Hester, as she battled through to keep her brother and sister safe and her dream of love and independence alive. In many ways, she was the role model my teenage self was looking for, and might have felt a little braver going for her own dreams and pursuing her own passion, knowing that (unlike all the messages around me) it could be done.
My first book for Orion is set on the Hayle Estuary, near St Ives in Cornwall, at the time of the Great War. It is the story of Hester, who is forced to take over the family business of rowing the ferry across the river to keep a roof over their heads. But Hester has a dream of one day becoming a professional cook and opening her own establishment in St Ives, so creating a better life for herself and her family. Even with everything against her, Hester remains determined to succeed …
The Ferryman’s Daughter
Can Hester help her family escape desperate poverty and fulfil her dreams?
1908: Hester always loved her mother best, her father had always been a hard man to like, spending more time (and money) in the local than with his family. After her mother’s sudden death, followed by an injury forcing her father to give up his job as the ferryman, Hester is placed in the position of care-giver for her young brother and sister.
As the years pass Hester must row the ferry night and day to keep them all from starvation, while her hopes of working in a kitchen and one day becoming a cook, slip further and further away.
But just how far is Hester willing to go to make her dream a reality? And as the threat of war comes ever closer to the Cornish coast, will it bring opportunities or despair for Hester and her family?
Juliet Greenwood has always been a bookworm and a storyteller, writing her first novel (a sweeping historical epic) at the age of ten. She is fascinated both by her Celtic heritage and the history of the women in her family, with her great-grandmother having supported her family by nail making in Lye, in the Black Country, near Birmingham in the UK, and her grandmother by working as a cook in a large country house.
Before being published by Orion, Juliet wrote three historical novels for Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press, reaching #4 and #5 in the UK kindle store.
Juliet lives in a traditional quarryman’s cottage between the mountains and the sea in beautiful Snowdonia, in Wales in the UK, and is to be found dog walking in all weathers, always with a camera to hand…
Early twentieth century fictional heroines, viewed through the reading lens of twenty-first century women, have a tendency to leave those of us of a feminist persuasion, sighing in frustration as the ‘poverty-stricken, uneducated, desperate’ heroine falters at the feet of some unscrupulous, conniving, controlling man. (I’ve lost count of the times I’ve yelled at the pages of a historical novel, ‘No! Don’t do that – you don’t have to do that!’)
It was ever thus. And tends to get predictable. Backbone, in my experience, is sadly lacking in the traditional, modern historical novel. The kind that stiffens the spine of the indomitable Hester Pearce, in The Ferryman’s Daughter is a joy to encounter. And were 21st century me able to time travel back and meet her, she’d soon have me nodding my approval.
The Ferryman’s Daughter explores realities for women in the early 1900s and shows how they don’t always capitulate to the accepted mores of the time. Hester is a new girl (woman) on the block and her presence is a breath of Cornish fresh air. After her mother dies and her father – the titular ferryman – has an accident, it is down to Hester to keep her family together. That she does this, literally, against every odd known to ‘desperate’ historical novel womankind is the essence of this book. And there is nothing contrived about Hester’s quiet heroism, her determination to be fearless, even when she scared half to death.
The deeply menacing presence of Jimmy Harkness, arrogant in his assumption that Hester will succumb to his advances because she has no choice, is a revealing portrait of the kind of man women have always had to deal with, and still do. These days however it’s acceptable for us to say ‘No’ and have that wish respected. In the early 1900s, with a war on the horizon, it was a brave young woman who stood her ground and resisted the terror tactics of a man bent on her subjugation and humiliation. Hester does this and we applaud her, because over a century apart, she is us. There is plenty of tension – the author knows her craft and paces the book perfectly – moments when we genuinely fear for Hester. But she isn’t raped or battered or left for dead. She fights back and fights hard. Hester Pearce is a fictional heroine for her time and ours.
There are other heroines in this book too – women with the privileges and education Hester is denied. And this is the other splendid aspect of The Ferryman’s Daughter. These women aren’t snobs, they don’t parade their birthright or advantages; they’re supportive of each other’s endeavours, embracing an equality which Hester gradually comes to appreciate and accept. The relationships between Hester and Clara Trewarren, the daughter of gentry, and later with the enigmatic Miss Chesterfield, are both beautifully rendered. And Hester’s mother, who tried to teach her she was as good as anyone, that no dream was too big to be realised, remains, long after her death the core of Hester’s courage.
The Ferryman’s Daughter is a tour de force – it turns the concept of the traditional historical novel on its head, showing us how, like women today, there have always been smart, audacious, feisty women prepared to defy convention. Women with backbone – women whose instinct shapes their view of themselves as gutsy and capable.
There isn’t a single simpering woman in the entire book, and it is a better, more authentic and satisfying reading experience for it.