Friday, 18 April 2014

In which I lust after fictional men...

and get a sneak preview of the BBC's new Jamaica Inn, which is aces; my piece for Intelligent Life.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Miss Temple: Jane Eyre's Womentor

Today's the launch of a brilliant idea from Kerry Hudson, whose novel Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma I hugely recommend.

Womentoring is for any women starting out in a literary career who want advice, support or just a conversation with a mentor. A female mentor. Which as fellow Womentor (Kerry's coined a whole new word!) Shelley Harris says, is a rare, rare thing. It's true that in fiction women often end up with male mentors (Buffy and Giles, Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightley), or mean mentors (Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada). But what about Jane Eyre's Miss Temple?

Miss Temple is the headmistress of Lowood School, and doing her best to make things better for the girls in her care. The very first thing we see her do is give the girls bread and cheese to make up for their revolting meagre breakfast of burnt porridge. When the girls have to walk back from church on winter Sundays, with the wind "flaying" their faces, Miss Temple is there
walking lightly and rapidly along our drooping line, her plaid cloak, which the frosty wind fluttered, gathered close about her, and encouraging us, by precept and example, to keep up our spirits, and march forward, as she said, “like stalwart soldiers.” 
When the school's cruel funder Mr Brocklehurst says Jane is a liar, Miss Temple doesn't listen. She feeds Jane tea and seed-cakes, finds out the truth and proclaims Jane's innocence to the whole school.

Later, Miss Temple inspires Jane to find her career; she becomes a teacher at Lowood too. And when Miss Temple gets married and leaves, it spurs Jane on to travel too...to Thornfield and the rest of her big, complicated, brilliant life. Miss Temple is a wonderful (wo)mentor.

I've been lucky to have lots of people to ask for advice and share drafts with, and it's exciting to be able to pay that forward. And Womentoring could be the start of something revolutionary; along with ReadWomen2014, this feels like a year for literary women to stop being sidelined, start roaring and support each other. There are some really fantastic literary women signed up to become Womentors (and, erm, me). It's all free. So please do apply for your very own Miss Temple here.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Books for prisoners

I'm sure you've read about how new rules have now banned anyone from sending books to prisoners. I read about it in this piece by Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Then I was one of the writers who signed this open letter to ask Chris Grayling to reconsider the ban; among the other authors were Salman Rushdie, Mark Haddon, Carol Ann Duffy, Laura Wade, Jack Thorne, David Eldridge, Moira Buffini, Jackie Kay, Maggie O'Farrell and Naomi Alderman.

Over the past two weeks I've found out a lot I didn't know about books in prisons. While all prisons must have a library, cuts have meant prisoners are locked in their cells for longer so can't get to the library, cuts have also reduced library opening hours and limited library stock. While prisoners can buy books, an employed prisoner earns around £8-£10 per week, and after buying phone credit, toiletries and food, that doesn't leave much money. There are shocking levels of literacy in prisons (an issue also really movingly highlighted in Clean Break's latest play Pests), so making sure prisoners can get books is partly just about making sure they are able to learn to read, which can only help when they get out and are trying to make better lives. It's also about giving them access to empathy, to understanding themselves and others, and to being able to imagine themselves into better futures.

So I very much hope the Government reconsiders the ban. The Howard League's website is updating regularly on the campaign.

I also tried to think of ways to get more books into prisons, and have been in touch with Prison Reading Groups, an amazing charity that runs reading groups in prisons. If you are a writer and would like to help get more books into prisons, they would love it if you could:

1. Donate a single copy of your book to PRG, so that they can take it into their reading groups and see if the prisoners would like it to be one of the books they read.

2. Offer to do an author visit to a prison.

And if you're not a writer, the PRG would, of course, love donations to help them carry on with their work.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Tipsy Chicken, the Blue Devil and the Green Dragon

are all gin recipes in the rather brilliant Bloomsbury Cookbook, which I wrote about for Intelligent Life magazine: read it here.
13th April 2014, update!: I had a Bloomsbury-inspired tea party and can report that the Chocolate Armistice Creams (kind of a Swiss Roll; supposedly serves two but it was enormous!) and Banana Tea Loaf are particularly delicious. We were going to attempt some of the gin cocktails but after frantic email exchanges we decided Sunday morning was far too early to be thinking about absinthe, and that Sunday afternoon was probably too early to be drinking it. Probably. So we went for sherry instead—Carrington's favourite drink.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Literary love letters, and a cure for romanticus literatus

I very much enjoyed Rebecca Mead's The Road to Middlemarch (my review, not online, is in this month's Literary Review). It's a very elegant and absorbing book, and made me feel much less guilty about not having any room to write about Middlemarch in my book. As Sam Baker writes in Harper's Bazaar's books blog, it feels like a very good year to be writing literary love letters.

Jenny Bhatt surveys biblio-memoirs (including Mead's and mine) in this massive, fascinating piece at Storyacious—who knew there were so many?

Jeanne Sutton also called How to be a Heroine "a delight" in Image Magazine.

And in The Upcoming, Georgia Mizen wrote
Laugh-out-loud, intensely observed...Nostalgic, warming and a stern lesson for life, How to Be a Heroine should be on everyone’s bookshelf
And in this very witty piece, Slightly Foxed prescribed my book as a cure for romanticus literatus.

I also really loved this piece in The Critical Flame about a stay-at-home father reading women, and writing about his heroines; as I've said before, men can and do have heroines! (And maybe also, just they should.)

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Happy Purim!

Yes, that's me, at four, dressed as Esther. Happy Purim! I love this piece in the Jerusalem Post by Jennifer Lipman, about the old Esther vs Vashti dilemma, (and a lovely mention of my book). She wonders why she never dressed up as Yael. At JW3 last week with Hephzibah Anderson and Naomi Alderman, some of the Jewish heroines we discussed were Marjorie Morningstar, Esther (obviously!), Franny Glass, Eve, Margaret (of Are You There God, It's Me Margaret) and the two heroines in Naomi's wonderful book Disobedience. This week I've also been thinking about the two heroines in one of my favourite plays, Scholem Asch's God of Vengeance, about Tevye's brave daughters in Fiddler on the Roof, about Yentl, and Isadora Wing. Purim is a great time to think about heroines, not just because it's Esther's festival, but because it's the festival of transformation, carnival and dressing up. (For dressing up inspiration, read this fantastic unofficial history of fancy dress by fashion historian Amber Butchart.) So, happy Purim! Dress up, drink till you forget the difference between good and evil, see you on the other side.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Ennis Book Club Festival

Last weekend was all about the Ennis Book Club Festival, in Ennis, in beautiful County Clare. It was set up by a book club, and after a night out with the clever, funny, kind and dynamic women who set it up (a night that involved dancing, drinking and hearing some truly fantastic stories), I was just wishing and hoping that my book group lasts as long as theirs, and that we become even half as fabulous. After a bracing walk in the Burren, I read from How to be a Heroine along with brilliant Kate Kerrigan—her Recipes for a Perfect Marriage is warm, romantic, wise, and full of excellent-sounding recipes that I can't wait to try. Kate also read a scene from her trilogy Ellis Island, where the heroine delivers a cow. I read about how much I (used to) fancy Heathcliff. Obviously.

And I got to hear Dervla Murphy and Evelyn Conlon in conversation. Murphy is 82 and still travelling, still storytelling, still trying to understand people different from herself; a really brave woman. And Conlon told the fascinating story of Violet Gibson, the Irish socialite who shot Mussolini, and should have been lauded as a heroine, but, horribly sadly, wasn't.

And I finished up International Women's Day by being on RTE's The Book Show, with St Vincent, Evie Wyld, Liam Geraghty on the mighty Tove Jansson and Regan Hutchins on Colette; you can listen again here if you'd like.