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New book due out soon

 

I have a new book coming out soon. Growing Up Fae is the first volume of a series, Living Fae, which follows the life and loves (and lusts) of a bisexual male fairy who can pass as human if he hides his wings. He and his extended family live on Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England. It’s a fantasy, a personal journey for the narrator, an m/m romance, and a family saga, told in journal form.

I started the story over ten years ago but it always seemed too complicated to sort it out for publication. Diary style. Cross-genre. Very (very) British. I certainly didn’t want to let unknown editors mangle either the format or the language. Nor, for that matter, did I want to give them the chance to reject it. Since then, I’ve started self publishing and have yielded to persuasion (and help) from friends. The first volume is finished. It’s back from the editor and proof reader, and the cover is done but needs resizing for the different platforms. (Some of my friends here beta read parts of it to death.) All it needs now is the front matter and a sensible table of contents. I wanted to get it out for Easter but life intervened.

I seem to be insanely busy: I am in the middle of volume 4 of my Skilled Investigators series; I have committed myself to a fandom big bang story (co-authored); I am posting chapters of a fandom work in progress on AO3; I have been writing non-fiction including stuff about autism, writing, a new AO3 collection, and about politics (national, international, and social media). And then there’s real life and a part time (unpaid) job. Yes, I know all this is totally my own fault. No complaints! I’m just explaining.

Also, every time I think about Living Fae I remember there are at least two more volumes to whip into shape (written but totally disorganised) so then I very deliberately stop thinking, which is horribly counterproductive. Posting about it might force me to get on with what will be at most a day’s work!

I really am on the very last lap and hope the book will go live later this month. Cross your fingers for me!

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Posted by on April 15, 2017 in personal, publishing, writing

 

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Autism Awareness Month

Autism Awareness Month is of passing interest to people who are not involved with autism on a daily basis. For those of us who have a close family member with the condition, we don’t have ‘autism month’ – we have autism day after day after day, month after month, year after year.

However, autism month does at least give us the chance to share our thoughts with the hope that people might be slightly more willing to listen – not just to sympathise but really understand.

Autism is a spectrum and people diagnosed as autistic can be almost anywhere on it. They can be highly skilled, or unable to function in nerotypical surroundings. They can be apparently easy to deal with, simply seeming to be reserved or cold, or they can have all the social problems of a toddler with uncontrollable tantrums. They can be anywhere between all these, or different again. The media don’t understand and just lump them all together. People with physical conditions such as blindness, deafness or paraplegia are not lumped together in quite the same way. (Governments manage it, but only in terms of costs and benefits.) Most people, even journalists, can see the different problems and needs when it comes to physical problems.

My grandson is autistic. He also has ADHD and high anxiety levels. He is, into the bargain, gifted across all subjects other than personal and social education, and team games. He is nine years old. He has the academic skills of a teenager (and some of the knowledge) and the social skills of a four year old. He was diagnosed at the age of five, when it became obvious that his progress in mainstream school was causing difficulties for everybody, he has an EHCP (these replaced the old ‘statements of special educational need’ and cover health as well as education) and he has medication, prescribed and monitored by a psychiatrist, to calm his anxiety and help him concentrate.

He is gorgeous. Really interesting to talk to, charming most of the time, imaginative and caring. He finds it hard to understand sarcasm, satire, and hidden agendas. He is truthful, and expects the same of others. He loves animals, sport, computers and books. He has friends and enjoys outings to the park or the swimming pool. He is easily upset and has occasional panic attacks and meltdowns, more often at school than at home. He is aware of his condition, approves of his medication, and finds his psychiatrists ‘interesting’.

For the last twelve months he has been receiving only part time education. When he has a meltdown he is taken out of the classroom by his teaching assistant (full time funded by the EHCP) and kept in a ‘calm room’ where he is given a choice of educational activities on an iPad. He is allowed to choose whether or not he goes back to class. (Guess what he chooses!) In any case, he does not attend school in the afternoons, he is not permitted to join the class for things like swimming, and until recently he often missed playtime (until his meds were increased). The school have tried really hard to cope but nobody on the staff has specialist training or knowledge, and the only advice they have comes from a special school for autistic children with low academic ability. (They told them to reduce pressure at all costs.) Parents and grandparents are, of course, not regarded as experts.

The local authority have been trying to find a placement. We, as a family, rejected the offer of a place at the school for low ability children. He would be just as isolated there, and with even less chance of studying to higher levels with anything resembling a peer group or adequate science facilities.

Now, at last, there is good news. A school run by a private trust, for children with challenging behaviour, has opened just a few miles away and he has been offered a place (after two interviews and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of files). It sounds ideal – its sister schools in other parts of the country are good – and it will take him right through to GCSE in the core subjects so he will be able to avoid the trauma of transfer to a secondary school that would almost certainly be even less able to cater for his needs than his primary school.

For him, for us, and for the primary teachers who tried and failed, this is excellent news but it makes me think hard about the way we provide for children like him.

The local authorities in UK have had to close many special schools. This has been basically a cost cutting exercise although there is an attempt to pass it off as ‘inclusivity’, good for both children with special needs who will feel included, and ‘normal’ children who will mix with children with different needs. Frankly, I don’t think my grandson was ‘included’ at any stage and I’m fairly sure this is the case for a lot of children with his problems. The cost cutting has not resulted in extra money going into classroom provision for children like him or into extra staffing and staff training. It has merely allowed local authorities to keep up with rising costs. It has done nothing to educate either the teaching force or the media.

It all strikes me as very similar to the much vaunted ‘care in the community’ for adults with mental health problems. People with widely differing needs are abandoned to social services that are already stretched to capacity.

It is possible to extrapolate wildly from the arguments for inclusivity or community care. We could suggest that intensive care patients could be nursed at home or that patients from e.g. Broadmoor could live in locally managed sheltered housing. These are extreme examples, of course, but nobody would dream of suggesting they should be tried. But there are many people who fall between these extremes and the commonly held image of ‘special need’. The problem is that until someone is in really dire physical or mental straits it is considered reasonable to try to accommodate them in facilities that are designed for the average person, child or adult. When this doesn’t work, there is panic as officialdom tries to find placements that do not exist within public provision.

So what happens? Private companies move into the gap in the market. Some of them, including the trust that runs the schools I have already mentioned, do an extremely good job and we can only be grateful to them. The same applies to private medical facilities that help the NHS to cope. But the fact remains that they are private, that they make a profit, and that that profit comes from the taxpayer. The local authority are funding my grandson’s place at the special school and are paying fees similar to those paid to private schools, from our tax.

I am grateful to them. I am grateful to the school, simply for existing, for providing something that is not available in ‘mainstream’ provision.

I still think the philosophy and policies that have brought about this state of affairs are morally wrong.

My grandson looks ‘normal’. Until you watch his behaviour or listen to him, you have no idea there is anything unusual about him. He is extremely intelligent, articulate, nice looking and physically graceful so he doesn’t quite fit the usual ‘special needs’ definition. He is also in extreme need – need of somewhere that can deal with his challenging behaviour at the same time as stretching his mental skills, and somewhere that does not simply put him in an isolation room with an iPad, reducing his wish to learn and his will to succeed.

Research is still ongoing and expert opinions and knowledge about autism are in flux. There are some brilliant psychiatrists doing their best to find out more, and to explain their findings, but the knowledge trickles down very slowly to the grass roots of teachers or even educational psychologists. It takes even longer to reach the media, the general public and the politicians. Fifty years ago, my grandson would either have been punished into some kind of submission for his expressions of his anxiety, or would have ended up alienated from the school system and possibly from society. We can only be glad that this is no longer the case.

He, and others like him, have a great deal to contribute. I can foresee him in some kind of IT work, helping to shape and maintain the future for all of us. I know of similar children who excel at the arts – music, in one case, drama in another. These are by no means the ‘idiot savants’ so beloved of media stories. They are highly intelligent young people who simply cannot function in a class of thirty mixed ability pupils with just one teacher but who can be helped to interact with society, given patient tutors and calm surroundings.

As I said, autistic people are as different from each other as they are from neurotypicals, but there are a lot of them, all with very special needs, and it seems only the private-for-profit sector is prepared to meet these.

If a month devoted to autism helps to educate people about these needs, then it will be welcome. But at the end of the month, children like my grandson will still be with us, needing to learn, needing to socialise, and most of all needing to be understood and loved.

Autism is a spectrum. Yes, I’m repeating myself but it bears repetition. People with the condition can be almost anywhere on the spectrum. We need to get this across to the public at large. Now.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2017 in personal, protest

 

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Five stars or none: my review ratings explained.

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I thought I’d better post this before it’s time for my March reviews (coming soon, of course).

Whilst sharing my monthly reviews with you I’ve been wondering what makes me really love some books. I often read books, even those written by friends, which are fine – no criticism – but which don’t attract my five star rating. Not because they’re badly written. Not because there’s anything wrong with them. Because they aren’t exactly right for me. So what is?

To begin with, my five star book has to have impeccable grammar. If the writer uses things like fragmented sentences they have to know what they’re doing and break the rules carefully, showing quite clearly that they know the rules in the first place and are breaking them for special effects. I can easily be ‘thrown’ by dangling participles for example, though I usually have no objection to prepositions at the ends of sentences.

Then there’s the structure of the writing. (I’ll come to plot later.) Repetition annoys me, whether it’s repeated adjectives or repeated information. It’s acceptable in dialogue where it might relate to a character’s speech patterns, but not elsewhere. Too much use of flashbacks annoys me. Flashbacks can be interesting but for me, they need to be used very sparingly and I need very clear signals that the section is not in the same ‘timeline’ as the main story. The same applies to recounts, where you find out what is going on through a letter, a phone call or a character spending time bringing everybody up to date. Changes of point of view have to be shown quite clearly, preferably by an extra line break or a new chapter. I recently mentioned Joanna Trollope, who switches point of view in the middle of paragraphs. Ugh! Information dumps are occasionally necessary but should be punctuated with action. Even in a long serious lecture real people move, cough, look out of the window etc. Characters should do this too. It’s almost unbearable when characters ‘tell’ other characters what they should know already, presumably so that the reader will be better informed. There are other ways to educate the reader. I like plenty of dialogue but find it hard to cope with the way some authors try to use a different way of saying ‘he/she said’ with every line. The word ‘said’ doesn’t shout at the reader and provided it’s occasionally changed to ‘asked’ or similar, the dialogue flows smoothly. There are better ways to tell us the character was shouting or laughing than to use these verbs instead of ‘said’.

I can accept typos as long as they aren’t frequent. There are some mainstream publishers who seem to expect their authors to do all their own proof reading and even writers like Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb are not immune. But provided the typos are few and far between, I’m just sympathetic. Sympathy takes a nose dive when it comes to an inability to recognise homonyms and an obvious reliance on a spell checker to catch them, which it can’t. Similarly, I object when writers use long words and choose the wrong ones. Again, spell checkers are not the best judges of this. You need to know what you’re doing before you use a spell checker in much the same way that it’s better to have some kind of grounding in arithmetic before using a calculator.

I personally dislike books that can’t make their minds up about style. Some highly respected writers (e.g. Hilary Mantel) move from first to third person, from plain narrative to a kind of screenplay, etc. in an effort to retain the attention of the reader. It doesn’t do anything for me other than irritate me although I know some critics regard the practice with awe. I am less concerned about the type of admonitions given in books such as the Chicago Manual. To begin with, novels are not journalism, which is what the Manual was always intended for. Also, if you look at almost any page in any of the classics or modern classics (e.g. Lord of the Rings)the Chicago Manual and its advice (or the equivalent when the book was written) has been, thankfully, ignored. The past tense, formed using ‘was’, is sometimes essential. Adverbs have an important part to play in description. Etc. I do not want my fiction (or serious non-fiction) written in journalese.

I also find it almost impossible to read long stories in present tense. There is a growing tendency to use it. I think it’s some kind of effort to make text resemble the way films give us an immediate look at what is happening. I can read it when the writing is a very short story but anything longer and I get quite stressed at the immediacy and would truly rather keep it for films! Short passages in e.g. a crime story can be effective, provided they really are short and the writer reverts to past or narrative tense as soon as possible. When people are talking about something that happened to them, even recently, they usually use the past narrative tense. Present tense tends to be used only by people who have a poorer command of language and this is another reason I think the practice annoys me when used for characters who are clearly reasonably well educated within their ‘world’.

I also find it quite difficult to read sustained passages in italics. Sometimes authors use italics for e.g. letters but I always hope they won’t be long. I find italics visually disturbing (perhaps the very reason we use them for emphasis) and always wish I could easily change the font of the text as well as the size.

The formatting has to be reasonable. I abandoned a book in March because it had line breaks after every two lines and I simply couldn’t concentrate.

So – impeccable grammar and excellent style, with my own personal quirks attended to. I need these, and quite often I can tell within a page or so whether I’m going to get them. If one is missing, the book can still hold my attention because of the content or something else I appreciate. (With Trollope it’s her descriptions and her witty ways of expressing characters’ opinions.) Having got those or most of those, there’s the question of content.

I like well developed characters who appeal to me from the start. I’m never attracted to characters I would not like to meet in real life and don’t much enjoy reading a story told from the point of view of a villain or even someone I just disapprove of. I accept that such writing might be clever and interesting – admirable, even. All I’m saying is that it isn’t to my taste. So if, for example, a crime story starts with a look at the crime from the point of view of the criminal, I’m quite likely to abandon it without caring whether they are caught or not. I want to know the feelings of the victim or of the investigator from the beginning. This is not quite as much of a problem in fantasy or romance, of course, though there may well be e.g. romantic detective stories I have not read because of this type of introduction.

Sometimes, characters just bore me, and if after a few pages I couldn’t care less what happens to them, that’s also a signal to give up. I’m sure there are other readers who would follow their adventures with eagerness and it isn’t a criticism, just an observation that is more about me than about the writer. I find it very hard (though not impossible) to get interested in vampires, ancient Egypt, medical and technical research, or high school and college students so books about any of those have to try harder to ‘hook’ me.

My favourite characters live on in my head long after their ‘story’ has finished and I admire the writers who can create these new fictional friends for me. Sometimes I will turn to fanfiction, my own or that of other writers, to explore the further adventures of characters I love.

Once we have characters who have ‘hooked’ me we reach plot. I hate plot holes with a really fierce hatred. I have read crime stories published by the big mainstream publishers where questions are raised and never answered or where I can see the flaws in the information given. I have read fantasy or sci-fi where the basic premise of the story or world is never properly explained. I have read romances where the ‘chemistry’ between the main characters is not obvious, or not obvious enough to explain their apparent passion. In all genres there are stories where events clearly couldn’t happen the way they’re described. I know I once wrote a story where a minor character could not possibly have been where I said they were at the time stated. I caught the error and if I hadn’t my editor would have done, I hope. It’s easily enough done, but it certainly throws me out of the story and I find it hard to get back in. The same applies to other types of incorrect information. I remember reading a historical romance set in the time of the Borgias and based on some real characters. As soon as the writer had chocolates served at a party I lost all trust in her and never regained it. (Whilst chocolate arrived from South America at the end of the Middle Ages, chocolates, in the form of sweets as opposed to the drink, were not created till much later). This need for correct information is just as strong in fantasy and sci-fi. Good writers build a fictional world and must stick to the ‘rules’ they themselves lay down, whether those refer to our reality or another. And of course their editors must be aware of the pitfalls. I personally gave up on writing about a world with two moons because I couldn’t get my head round the difference this would make to things like tides and seasons.

So my favourite writers have a grasp of language and style that appeals to me. They introduce characters I can’t bear to leave. Their plots are handled deftly and I can trust their information.

Finally, they need an underlying message I can relate to though I don’t want to be preached at and I don’t enjoy fiction that is just a vehicle for pushing an agenda – I’d rather read non-fiction for that, and I probably read as much non-fiction as fiction, if not more. Non-fiction also needs good language and style as well as trustworthy information. Info dumps are slightly more acceptable but there are still ways of splitting text into manageable portions.

I want to read things that agree with my world view. I am aggressively anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, etc. I accept that other people will have different religious and political views but don’t want their beliefs pushed at me. I believe in human rights for everyone. I don’t expect all the characters to agree with me but the overall tenor of the book should be acceptable. I know that horrific acts take place in our world and am interested (though not happy) to read about them in non-fiction but would prefer my fiction to have less of a focus on the gory, the depressing, etc. unless I can be assured of a happy ending. Escapist? Up to a point – the point where my fiction and non-fiction reading diverge.

For example, a pair of books I read about a year ago one after the other were The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston and Too Many Fairy Princes by Alex Beecroft. The Preston book dealt in horrendous detail with the Spanish Civil War and I was mesmerised, distressed and interested enough to seek out more books on the subject. Alex Beecroft’s fantasy, whilst it did deal with a kind of civil war in a fae kingdom, gave me romance, beauty and hope, a sort of counterpoint to the realities of Franco’s regime.

I rarely read books in the same genre without a hiatus to read something else. When I give something five stars I really really mean it! Any flaws at all lead to a four star rating. Books that are good enough in their way, possible even excellent for other readers, and quite often technically good get three. Then there are those with two (lots and lots of flaws but I carried on reading) and one (dire). An abandoned book might not mean any flaws at all, just that the book wasn’t to my taste. I abandon books that don’t interest me after a very short trial. I give five start rating to books I would absolutely recommend and those vary enormously.

To sum up:

Five stars: I adored it and would recommend it highly
Four stars: I liked it and would recommend it but there are criticisms
Three stars: fine but not really my ‘thing’ – neutral about recommendations and suggest readers look at the blurb.
Two stars: fascinating enough to finish but exasperating because of all its flaws; not really recommended
One star: dire. (I rarely finish a one star book but some short stories fall into this category)
Abandoned: abandoned (!) and that could be either content or style. As with three stars, read the blurb.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2017 in personal, reviews

 

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Brexit

I haven’t said much about Brexit, on any of my social media platforms, though I’ve reposted things on FB. However, today made me feel I should make my feelings very clear, if only for the sake of showing solidarity with others I know who feel likewise.

I am personally distressed by the idea of leaving Europe. I have always felt European first, Brit second and English trailing last. My family were proud of their connections with Scotland, Ireland and France. My husband’s mother was German. We own a house in Portugal. We have close friends (and some family) in Germany, France, Spain and Portugal. Needless to say I voted to join the EU in the first place and thought that the membership would be forever.

As well as my personal feelings I believe that a strong EU is our best defence against the threats of political movements such as neo-fascism and the safest way for our industries (such as they still are) to prosper. There are other important considerations like pan-European research projects which affect industry, universities and medical advances. The EU has helped us to make huge strides in areas like the environment, protection for women, for workers, etc. Whilst there is some vague reassurance that laws will simply be re-enacted so that they are Brit laws instead of EU ones, there has to be some doubt, too. Even though Britain helped to develop the European Human Rights Act it had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the courts to keep some of the provisions.

Brexit made me cry, on and off, for about a month. I am personally afraid for more than just my feelings of being European. I am worried about our second home, about the stuff we invariably cart to and fro ranging from wine and oranges from Portugal to marmite and cheddar cheese from UK. I am worried about our Portuguese bank account. I am worried about our Portuguese car, about the rates on our house, about the cost of travel to and fro, of insurance, and about medical reciprocity between here and there. I can’t make any plans or decisions because it will take two years (at least) before we know the details of the break-up.

But this is pure selfishness compared with the situation facing some of my friends. Some examples:

*how will this affect someone with a UK passport living in Germany with a German partner, children and grandchildren? And the woman in The Netherlands who is divorced but works there full time and has two children in higher education?

*how will this affect people with businesses in Europe – things they invested in in good faith whilst retaining their UK passports? One lot are both Brit, another is half Brit and half Maltese. How can they plan their businesses sensibly?

*what happens to couples of mixed nationality – a Brit guy with a Belgian partner living in Portugal and working in both Portugal and Belgium?

*how does someone involved in research at a UK uni seek either European co-operation or funding, or for that matter offers of career advancement if they aren’t UK passport holders?

*what happens to the European guy brought over here to work by his firm – in good faith on everyone’s part – who uprooted his family and settled here – when he is asked to leave, or when his firm gives up and leaves, uprooting him again?

They aren’t all retirees sunning themselves on the Costa del Sol, but even if they were, they went there in good faith (one such couple I know are retired after a lifetime of service in the RAF) and now their pensions, their healthcare, their property rights etc. are all at risk.

All the above are very real people and are my friends – people who really matter to me.

Then there are the Leave voters who tell us it will all be all right in the end. And accuse us of being Remoaners. Even, in once case, telling us we should remove ourselves to Portugal and not return. Goodness knows what they’re saying to my friends who are not UK passport holders.

Today saw two last straws.

First of all, there was a campaign leaflet through the door for the Greater Manchester mayoral election. Not related to Brexit? Bear with me.

We were asked, some time ago, to vote on whether the ‘satellite’ boroughs around Manchester should be more closely connected with Manchester city, with a mayor. The consultation and vote were expensive (paid for by our local taxes). All the boroughs, Trafford, Stockport, Wigan, Oldham, Bury, Tameside, etc. etc. with a variety of political leaders heading their councils and some wildly varying styles, campaigned and the vote was overwhelmingly against the whole idea. A resounding NO. We celebrated, right and left alike. Nobody wanted closer contact with Manchester city which has very little in common with the outlying towns. We did not want the expense of another tier of government, especially one so diluted and so difficult to tailor to fit all. The government shrugged and said that our expensive vote was not binding and they would go ahead anyway. After a democratic vote the ‘will of the people’ was completely discounted and we are now having an expensive campaign (paid for by our local taxes) for a mayor nobody wants at all. The front runners appear to be a right wing councillor who might, for all I know, be fine in his borough but has no connection with ours, and a left wing politician who is ambitious but not particularly connected with Manchester at all.

So I am pretty cynical about anything that involves ‘the will of the people’. Politicians of every hue will carry on with their own agenda regardless. It’s very nice for them and for their supportive media, if a popular vote happens to coincide with that.

Which brings me to the media. I have been shocked by the politics of hate promulgated by some of our press and have joined the Stop Funding Hate campaign. I am quite certain the constant diatribes of some newspapers contributed to a great deal of hate crime and the death of Jo Cox. I have just been shopping and looked at the headlines on display as I left the supermarket.

I think the Daily Fail surpassed itself and its headline encapsulated a great deal of what is wrong.

In response to Ms Sturgeon’s application to hold a second Scottish referendum the Fail says:

Keep your hands off our Brexit, Nicola.

You mean we aren’t dragging Scotland along with us into this mess?? And Ireland? And the rest of Europe? And people who couldn’t vote because they didn’t have UK passports or had lived outside UK too long?

Our Brexit? Not mine. I am ashamed of my country.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2017 in personal, protest

 

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Walking in the footsteps of the ‘greats’.

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Last weekend I finally managed to watch Sally Wainwright’s ‘To Walk Invisible’ which I had saved on iPlayer and which was about to be withdrawn even from there. I had put off watching, thinking I knew the story backwards, forwards and upside down and would be bored by two hours of it. However, from the first few moments I was absolutely hooked and really on edge at the exciting parts, even when I knew what would happen. It was brilliantly scripted, produced and acted. It also made me think of my own history.

The reason I am so familiar with the Brontë story is that I went to Casterton Boarding School for Girls which is the school (albeit in different buildings) Charlotte and Emily attended, together with their sisters Maria and Elizabeth who died of typhoid and whose graves are in the churchyard at Casterton.

To say the Brontë sisters and their works were shoved down our throats is the understatement of the decade, never mind the year.

You can see a brief history of the school if you Google the Wikipedia entry. It’s in a village of the same name on the edge of the Lake District, just outside Kirby Lonsdale. The sisters attended the school at Cowan Bridge in a building that is still there. Later, the clergy daughters’ school merged with a school for servants (housekeepers?) at Lowood, and together the schools moved into new buildings in the village of Casterton. (The three villages are not far apart.) Recently, the school merged with Sedbergh – a boys’ school – and so far as I can tell from my own visits and from those of friends/former classmates, the school we attended effectively no longer exists.

I am in touch with all my class with the sad exception of four who died (suicide, cancer, car crash and heart attack) so I have just over 30 ‘old girls’ to keep in touch with. It’s a bit like having 30 sisters who unfortunately don’t live in the same town. Because it was a boarding school, we were very much thrown into each others’ company, evenings and weekends, during term time, without any input from siblings or parents. There were house mistresses and matrons, and prefects, but we relied on each other. I was there from the age of 9 to 17. Think about it…There were in fact a few ‘day’ girls: the vicar’s daughters, and the doctor’s daughter spring to mind. But they were the exception.

We slept in dormitories, changing dorm from time to time. The largest I was ever in had 16 beds, and the smallest, 3. By the time we reached sixth form status we had 2-bed cubicles but these were separated by low walls and we could still talk to everyone. When we visited (as a class) for the millennium Founder’s Day celebrations we found that most girls were in 2 bed rooms and that a cluster of separated rooms was still known as a dorm.

We were divided into houses. The junior department was in a building called Brontë House and the houses within it were Lowood and Cowan – fierce rivals. The photograph at the head of this post is of Brontë House a few years ago before it was sold off for conversion to flats.

I was 9, as I said, and didn’t really understand all the fuss about the famous writers or the school’s history. We were taught to be proud of the connection and shown the graves. The senior school had portraits lining the walls of the main corridor and when we went there for assemblies etc. some portraits were specially singled out. There was the ‘founder’, William Carus Wilson, who was, we were told, the template for Mr Brocklehurst, and Miss Beale, who was very pretty (and very Victorian) during her time at Casterton and was the presumed model for Miss Temple. She later left and became the first headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies’ College. The school song, in those days, was ‘Jerusalem’ and not the many-versed history that is sung today (I have no idea whether that has survived the merger but I wouldn’t weep for it).

We were taken to the senior school when I was nearly 11 to watch Wuthering Heights – it was in episodes so clearly was on television (there was a projector with a big screen in the hall) but I have not been able to trace it. It might have been a repeat of an earlier series. Or perhaps BBC showed a film in weekly parts? I had no idea what was going on but developed a deep and abiding dislike not only of Heathcliff but of all the characters and indeed of the entire story. I honestly think we were exposed to it too young…

We read it of course, which simply served to increase my dislike. We also read Jane Eyre and at the time I liked it. I was a little older, I think.

Our route to school (and back at the end of term) was by train over the Pennines so we had a close relationship with the moors and fells where the sisters grew up and wrote. The same fells surrounded the school and we went on enforced walks at weekends and runs during the week. I was never sure whether to blame William Carus Wilson, the fictional Mr Brocklehurst, Charlotte, or Jane Eyre. I didn’t feel I could ascribe hockey or lacrosse to any of them but the games fields were in full view of the fells so there was still a feeling of connection with the history and the fiction.

There were occasional parallels between our universe and that of the sisters. I vividly recall a flu epidemic when we were all just bundled into the first available bed as they filled dorm after dorm and designated them as sick bays, so that denizens of different houses (the senior houses were called after ex-headmistresses) were all mixed in together. It was impossible not to think of Jane’s typhoid epidemic, which of course was based on Charlotte’s real experience.

We were encouraged to see ourselves as potential wives and mothers, preferably of good Christian men with whom we could spread the gospel and perform charitable works. If we were intelligent we could try for university but once graduated, there would be the same expectations.

There were, in my day, 250 girls in the school aged between 8 and 18, and there were 50 special places for the daughters of clergymen, with much lower fees than the norm. I was one of these recipients of a ‘clergy place’ and we were very aware of our status, and of the fact that our fathers got to know each other (and the vicar, who was the school chaplain) over the years. We were, we were told, the spiritual ‘descendants’ of Charlotte, Emily, Maria and Elizabeth. Anne was never mentioned; of course, she never attended the school. Branwell was never mentioned or if he was it was in hushed tones and I think we possibly conflated him with Heathcliff.

My home experiences in the school holidays involved living in a country parsonage rather like the one at Haworth though we had a washing machine – and an Aga. It was something else that made the Brontës’ life seem very close and personal.

I gradually read not only Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre but also The Professor, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I think I like Anne’s style best of the three writers although I can see the literary merit in all of them. They were all surprisingly feminist for their time, especially since they were living in a country parsonage with very little contact with the wider world. Their characters were feminists of a kind, though I was amused when my daughter, reading Jane Eyre for GCSE, threw it down and declared that Jane was a wimp, always just reacting to events and never making things happen.

I have, of course, visited Haworth. A close friend lives near there. I have also visited the house on Dominica that was the original for the house where Mrs Rochester was supposed to have grown up in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. I am familiar with all the countryside that provided the locations for the more recent TV series.

I feel as though perhaps I ‘own’ Jane Eyre (or perhaps it owns me?) in a way that doesn’t occur to me with other books. It is by no means my favourite ‘classic’ – I would struggle to choose between Austen’s entire oeuvre and some of Trollope’s Barchester novels for that, and might even come down on Trollope’s side, with Ayala’s Angel in top place – not Barchester but wonderful. However, Charlotte ‘speaks’ to me, as a pupil at Casterton, as a student of literature, and as a writer. I don’t necessarily answer.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2017 in personal, reviews

 

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