Asexual Fairy Tales

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Let’s Talk About Narnia

Authors generally have a way of talking about Narnia. I’ve noticed it at the various literature festivals I’ve been to and in articles I’ve read online. It goes something like this. “When I was a kid, I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and fell in love with it. Then, at the age of 13/18/32, I noticed all the Christian symbolism and felt betrayed. I’ve never enjoyed it in the same way since.”

Whenever I hear/read this, it’s like a stab to the heart. I want to get a word in. Because my experience of Narnia is the complete reverse.

I first heard the story of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as told over several school playtimes by my best friend, the son of a local nonconformist minister. I went on to become completely obsessed by the whole series, reading the books over and over again. Now, I don’t know if my friend or his parents told me, or I just worked it out because I was such a religiously precocious child (I was!) but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t see the Christian symbolism in Narnia. I loved it. I probably read more symbolism into it than the average university professor. Narnia was my handbook for life, second only to the Bible.

Of course, I knew even as a young teenager that this didn’t make Narnia a full-on allegory, in the style of Pilgrim’s Progress (which is basically an über sermon illustration). I remember feeling frustrated with my Mum during a theatre production of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when she asked me, “But if Aslan is God, why does he allow the Magician?” I knew that in Narnia, the story comes first.

But my moment of shock came as an undergraduate, reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses and realising that the creation of the animals in The Magician’s Nephew (animals erupting out of a bubbling earth) was taken from this pagan classic. “But I thought this was a Christian book!” was my inner cry of dismay. Temporarily, I felt the same sense of betrayal my colleagues did on discovering Narnia is Christian, by discovering Narnia is not Christian.

Looking back, I feel I should have figured this out. I mean, the fauns! The centaurs! The god Bacchus! CS Lewis’s influences come from a variety of religious backgrounds. Not just classical/Norse/Celtic paganism, but the Muslim and pre-Muslim world of 1001 Nights - and I’m not just talking about The Horse and His Boy. Think of the fact that the name Aslan is Turkish for “lion” or that Jadis the White Witch is half-jinn and descends from “your father Adam’s first wife, her they call Lilith.” (1)

Lewis was a medievalist, and what you get in Narnia is a medieval world, in which the Christian, Muslim and pagan mix together in the world of story, and everything is potentially symbolic. And yes, as Michael Ward points out in his book Planet Narnia, (2) Lewis was a secretive man who delighted in hidden meanings. (In that book, Ward argues convincingly that each of the Narnia books has a secret meaning based on one of the medieval “seven planets” - Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, Saturn).

When it came to the pagan creation myth, I got over it! As a writer, I now love Narnia more than I ever did. And yes, I sometimes quote it in sermons. But I know that it’s Christian imagery isn’t the be-all and end-all. Maybe it’s time for some non-Christian readers to get over it, too?

(1) LWW, “What happened after Dinner”
(2) Ward, Michael, Planet Narnia. Oxford; OUP, 2008.

Monday, 3 February 2020

A Weekend With the Brontës

I’ve just come back from a new adventure: co-leading HF Holidays’ first ever Brontë Book Club Weekend in the Yorkshire Dales. I was one of three leaders (the three sisters!) leading guests through two hours of book club style discussion of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I was in charge of the latter book, which could have been the short straw, as Anne has often been the overlooked Brontë sister. But this year is Anne’s 200th birthday, so it’s a great time to look at her work. It was encouraging to hear many of the guests say this was their favourite of the three books, due to its realistic handling of surprisingly modern topics: toxic masculinity, alcoholism, women’s lives etc.

Of course, I made sure that, when guests came to my session, they had maximum fun, so as well as deep discussion, we had games like “Which character am I?” and Pass the (Top) Hat. On Sunday afternoon we took our guests on a trip to Haworth Parsonage where, as predicted, there was a special exhibition devoted to Anne.

I must add that the venue - Newfield Hall in Malhamdale - is utterly beautiful. Spectacular setting, country house charm, roaring fires, amazing food. What more could you wish for? I even sold a few copies of my book.

Next stop, the South Downs for the Jane Austen Weekend at the end of September!

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

5 Friendly Deaths from the World of Books

It’s that time of year again, when people start posting “spooky” Hallowe’en blogs, pics and videos. I famously detest the modern Hallowe’en, but am all in favour of the more recent rediscovery of the season as a time to honour the dead, perhaps via the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Last night, I watched the classic Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal for the first time. (The one where the knight plays chess with Death.) Contrary to common belief, the film isn’t wall-to-wall bleakness, and Death actually has a sense of humour. I love his deadpan - excuse the pun - delivery when he is sawing down a tree in which a man who has just escaped death is hiding. 

Yep, I’m Death. I’m just sawing down this tree because your time is up. Nothing to see here. As you were. (I paraphrase).

Anyway, it got me thinking about literary portrayals of Death, and how Death in books is often anything but bleak. Or even final. Here are my top choices:

1. Discworld by Terry Pratchet

When most of us think of Death personified, this is surely the first one that springs to mind. The late Sir Terry’s Death always speaks IN CAPITAL LETTERS, has a horse called Binky, likes gardening and has some of the best lines in the books, like this one from Hogfather:

IT IS ... UNFAIR.‘That’s life, master.’BUT I’M NOT.

It is fitting that the last ever tweet from Sir Terry’s account depicted him and Death walking off together.

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.
The End.

2. The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak

This modern classic, set in the Second World War, begins with the voice of Death:

Here is a small fact.
You are going to die.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic.

This is a compassionate Death who, in the brutality of war, lifts sleeping children into his arms, even weeps for them. And who can forget the book’s last line?

I am haunted by humans.

3. The Princess Bride by William Goldman 

This book - along with its film adaptation introduced us to the concept of “mostly dead”, courtesy of Miracle Max:

You see... there’s different sorts of dead: there’s sort of dead, mostly dead and all dead.

Thanks to Max, Westley is able to move from one state of deadness to another. And then back again. And then forward again...

“I wish I could remember what it was like when I was dead,” the man in black said. “I’d write it all down. I could make a fortune...”

And then there’s the final line of the book:

I’m not trying to make this a downer, understand. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.

4. Through a Glass, Darkly by Jostein Gaarder

Most people know Jostein Gaarder from Sophie’s World, but in this much shorter book, terminally ill teenager Cecilia is visited by a bald, chatty angel called Ariel. Their chats about the big questions of life, death, God and the universe ease Cecilia into her own inevitable departure. Here Death is not only compassionate, but beautiful.

“Would you like to come out with me and fly?”
She laughed. “But I can’t fly.”
The angel Ariel sighed indulgently. “It’s time to finish with all that nonsense. Just come here.”

5. Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata

This popular graphic novel series explores the moral conundrum of crime and punishment when a Shinigami (death god) drops his notebook and it is found by a student called Light. Light decides to rid the world of murderers by writing their names in the book, thus causing their deaths. But by doing this, he becomes a wanted murderer himself...

Much of the books’ light relief is provided by the grotesque but humorous Shinigami, Ryuk. Bored by the Realm of Death but sardonically curious about the human world, Ryuk hangs around Light invisibly, making wisecracks and eating apples. 

But anyway, Shinagami these days don’t have feelings like “I don’t like this human” or “Let’s make the human world a better place” or “Let’s make it a worse place.” They just don’t want to die, so they get life from humans and then they go on with their empty lives... Nobody even knows what we’re here for any more. Talk about a meaningless existence...

Phew! What do you do when even Death is having an existential crisis?!

Anyway, those are my 5 top literary Deaths. What are yours?

Monday, 15 July 2019

Halifax Discoveries Part 2

Last week, I wrote about a historical discovery I made after a visit to Halifax Minster, final resting place of Anne Lister.

I mentioned that 
there was a lot of radical, grassroots religion going on in the West Riding in the 18th century, and I ended up going down quite a rabbit hole of research.
One of the places that research led me was to this monograph about the man I believe one of my brothers was named after:

He is sometimes called “The Wesley of the Baptists”, and indeed knew the Wesleys and Whitfield, but ultimately formed his own New Connection of Baptist and Independent Methodist congregations, which eventually became the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It was his inspiring preaching tours that led to the creation of a congregation at Queensbury (then named Queenshead after its local pub, popular on the pack horse route between Bradford and Halifax. This in turned spawned my own spiritual home at Clayton Baptist, now under a decade from celebrating its bicentenary.

Dan Taylor was a Calderdale man - from  Northowram - and began his spiritual life at Halifax Minster (aka Halifax Parish Church). Revd George Legh was his vicar, and in fact had Wesley to preach at the church. Taylor became involved in his local Methodist Society (Methodists were a society to begin with rather than a distinct denomination) and later abandoned the Anglican Church completely, throwing himself into the Evangelical Revival happening in the West Riding at the time.

This was a real grassroots religious movement among ordinary working people. (Taylor was a miner with no formal education). Preachers toured the countryside on horseback, preaching in the open air to crowds too big to be contained by a church. One key venue was the churchyard at Haworth, where the Brontë sisters would later live. (Although they and their father were no evangelicals!) They sang hymns to popular tunes that people knew. The sermons were in clear and simple language that everyone could understand. Those who wished to convert joined local societies and small groups, where they could learn together. It was very much part of the changing aspect of Britain in the Enlightenment era, changes that would lead to working class politics, self-improvement and the modern world.

“Evangelical” has become something of a dirty word these days. But what it meant in the 18th century was a religion that relied on the Bible for guidance rather than clerical authority (or tyranny, as some saw it), a belief that you really could be assured of eternal salvation, and that spreading this good news (evangel) was the job of all believers. It was religion for the common man.

Like Hoadley (see last week's blog), Dan Taylor also spoke to Royalty. On 11th June 1800, he addressed George III as spokesman for the General Body of Protestant Dissenting Ministers. Probably to appeal for an end to discrimination against dissenters from the state church, which did in fact happen. (Repeal of Corporation and Test Acts, 1828). All this from a miner from Calderdale. The West Riding certainly has produced some remarkable people!

Monday, 8 July 2019

Halifax Discoveries Part 1

Following on from last week’s literary adventure, this weekend I went to a marvellous Anne Lister event at the marvellous Halifax Minster. The event featured, Sally Wainwright who wrote the Gentleman Jack script, Anne Choma who wrote the tie-in book, and O’Hooley & Tidow who sang the Gentleman Jack song.

This is the church where Anne Lister was baptised, worshipped, and was buried. It’s a very old church, which started as a monastic mission. (Hence the title Minster).

As you can see from the picture above, by complete fluke (or Providence) I was sitting next to Anne Lister herself! Or rather, what is left of her memorial. (She is buried somewhere near the font). The memorial unfortunately got broken up for various reasons, so the Minster is hoping to raise money to create a new one. Something tells me they won’t be short of donors!

While I was in the queue for the loo (lol!) I read a plaque on the wall which I found very interesting.

Near this Place
in the same Vault, are deposited the remains of the Revd George Legh,
and his 2 beloved wives FRANCIS & ELIZABETH, to whose joint
Memory this monument is erected; he was the Vicar of this Parish of Halifax
above forty four years: during which Time he interested himself with
laudable Zeal in the cause of religious Liberty & Sincerity, being the
last Survivor of those worthy Men who distinguishd themselves by
their opposition to Ecclesiastical Tyranny. He defended the Rights of
Mankind, in that memorable Hoadlian Controversy.
The Bible he considerd as the only standard of Faith & practice, to the
poor & distressd & Public Charitys, he was a generous Benefactor, by his
Will orderd Bibles to be given for the benefit of the poor,
he did honor to his Profession as a Clergyman & christian,
esteemd when liveing, in death lamented,
he died composd on the 6th of Decembr, 1775,
in the 82d year of his age;
his wife FRANCIS died Decembr 9th, 1749,
ELIZABETH Febry 8th 1765

What an interesting sounding man! And secondly - what the heck is a Hoadlian Controversy?!

Turns out that in 1717, Bishop Benjamin Hoadley preached a sermon to George I, saying that since Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), there is no justification for the Church wielding worldly power and lording it over people, owning lands, raising taxes etc. This released the 18th century equivalent of a Twitter storm, with hundreds of pamphlets being written to argue both sides. 

I think we can safely conclude that Rev George Legh was on the side of Hoadley in this argument, and a general good egg. Actually, there was a lot of radical, grassroots religion going on in the West Riding in the 18th century, and I ended up going down quite a rabbit hole of research. But more of that another time! In the meantime, please enjoy this picture of me and Mick in our Jack the Lass T-shirts, which we bought on the night.

Monday, 1 July 2019

A Literary Weekend

It was a beautiful sunny day in Bradford on Saturday for Bradford Lit Fest 2019. And what a lovely, happy day it was for me. I started off by going to a panel on Mapping Fantasy Worlds. Who doesn’t love a fantasy map? Or indeed any map? I was pretty surprised, though, by the answer to my question: did any of the panel have imaginary worlds as a child? None! Adrian Tchaikovsky said he got into fantasy worlds through role playing games. Interesting, because I’m currently listening to the audio book of Ready Player One (narrated by Will Wheaton aka Wesley Crusher). Personally, I’ve never been that interested in RPG. I always preferred to create my own worlds. But there you go!

I then moved onto The History of Snow White, with one of my favourite BookTubers, Jen Campbell. Again, what could I not love about that? The nicest thing was that, when I asked her to sign my copy of The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, she remembered my name! What a lovely person!

After lunch (Jamaican street food) I met up with my husband, who had just been to The Lost Art of Scripture. He said he’d bought the book so he wouldn’t have to bother telling me about it! But there were a couple of other friends there, so we discussed it for a bit with them, anyway.

And finally for Saturday, I joined my daughter for Chris Riddell’s 10 Books That Changed My Life. Again, absolutely lovely. He was drawing all the way through. And was so encouraging to my daughter about her illustration career.

The next day, on Sunday afternoon, we visited Shibden Hall. The Hall and Park have been special to me all my life, but of course tourism has sky-rocketed in the past few week due to the "Gentleman Jack effect". I noticed quite a few Anne-focused changes in the presentation - and even in some of the decor! Anne's old room is now decked out just like in the TV series (rather than Edwardian Art Nouveau). But much is the same as ever, including my favourite goat-legged table and chair.

Unbeknown to me, the Estate Worker's Cottage (part of the attached folk museum) was used as a setting in the film Peterloo, which I was going to see that very evening as part of Bradford Lit Fest. Oh, the serendipity! Really enjoyed the film. I remember learning about Peterloo in history with Miss Robson (where are you now, Miss?) but this film brought the time alive so vividly, it was like being there. And it was gratifying to know that Rory Kinear was standing exactly where I had stood just a few hours previously.

And then, of course, I had to round off the day with the latest instalment of Gentleman Jack, testament to that great Shibden diarist. If you haven't seen episode 7, I won't give spoilers. Except for one word. Thermometer!!

What a great, literary weekend!

Monday, 20 May 2019

Jack the Lass

Last night Anne Lister of Shibden Hall seduced her latest victim - me! With the first episode of TV drama Gentleman Jack airing on BBC1, a whole new set of people were introduced to a character I have been aware of most of my life. And while I've had a lifelong love affair with her estate of Shibden Park and family seat of Shibden Hall, last night was the first time I was definitely on Team Anne for more than just her legacy of landscape gardening and home improvements.

Don't get me wrong, Anne has always been a character of interest, although I do feel her reputation rather overshadows her other relatives. Which is why, when I wanted to write a Shibden Hall story for Come into the House, I chose to write about the Listers of the early 18th century. So, what gratification to find them mentioned in the drama script, too! You may have missed it the first time, but listen out for the mention of two brothers who tried to import wood from America. That was part of the inspiration for my story, "The Yorkshire Defiance".

My early impression of Anne as someone rather dour and scary comes from having this as my main visual reference for many years, glowering from information boards around the estate:

This becomes scary on another account when you read things like this quote from Angela Steidele's book Gentleman Jack (London: Serpent's Tail, 2018):

The heart-shaped locket may have contained pubic hair.
Too. Much. Information.

Too much information could well be the subtitle of Anne Lister's diaries. That scene in episode one where she writes in the diary immediately after making love to Mariana Lawton? All too likely. Even to read Angela Steidele's book, which contains only extracts from the diaries, requires a strong stomach, especially for someone as ace as me.

I bought this book earlier in the year, to read ahead of  the TV series. And I have to say that Anne does not come across as a particularly nice person in it. As a member of the landed gentry, she was not at all keen on the change and reform of her day, and was pretty snobby about the manufacturing class. She was one of those indefatigable people who took mammoth walks every day and had no sympathy for other people's weakness. (When she was abroad, her companions were almost killing themselves to keep up with her). And she wasn't even that nice to her lovers. She would string several along at the same time, and always seemed to be falling out with them. Worse still, her first ever lover, a mixed-race girl called Eliza Raine who she met at boarding school in York, was unceremoniously dumped and ultimately put into an asylum, with Anne's full blessing. What I wondered - did her many lovers see in her?

There is an interesting side note to this. In 2013, I wrote a blog called Captain Keeldar and Gentleman Jack, asking whether it was possible the Brontes knew Anne Lister. Angela Steidele thinks it is. Emily Bronte taught at Law Hill School in Southawram from 1838. The school's headmistress, Elizabeth Patchett, knew Anne Lister personally, and Emily met numerous relatives of Ann Walker, Miss Lister's "wife".

However, I didn't really fall under the Lister spell until last night, watching the first episode of the show that Matt Baker described as "Downton Abbey meets Pirates of the Caribbean". Sally Wainwright has done a magnificent job with the source material, working an awful lot of historical and family background into a small format. Of course, what could excite me more than to see my beloved Shibden Hall as a working family home, complete with fires, chickens and drying candles? Then there's the casting, the costumes and of course the splendid theme song by O'Hooley & Tidow (already downloaded and playing on repeat).

And Suranne Jones has brought a magnificent swagger to the part of Anne Lister. The top hat, the reckless driving, the cheeky asides to camera. The drama hasn't shied away from Anne's conservative politics, her ruthlessness or her career of serial seduction. But it has brought us something you don't get from the cold page, yet which Anne Lister must have had in spadeloads to do what she did. 

Her charisma.

Hang onto your hats for episode two!