The Reader’s Gazetteer: V

Red-bound hardback copy of 'Villette' by Charlotte Bronte in two volumes, on an inlaid table

This isn’t quite the oldest work I’ve referred to in this series: The Annals of the Parish has thirty-two years on it. Villette the book was published in 1853; Villette the city has the sense of a long history. ‘The great capital of the great kingdom of Labassecour,’ it’s famously based on Brussels, and Charlotte Brontë’s experiences as a teacher there. At the time of publication, this was only twenty-three years on from the revolution that established Belgium as a nation. This seems to have happened, if rather longer ago, and not in quite the same way, in Villette too:

In past days there had been, said history, an awful crisis in the fate of Labassecour, involving I know not what peril to the rights and liberties of her gallant citizens. Rumours of wars there had been, if not wars themselves; a kind of struggling in the streets – a bustle – a running to and fro, some rearing of barricades, some burgher-rioting, some calling out of troops, much interchange of brickbats, and even a little of shot. Tradition held that patriots had fallen: in the old Basse-Ville was shown an enclosure, solemnly built and set apart, holding, it was said, the sacred bones of martyrs.

Labassecour seems to have been existing uneventfully – dare one say, dully? – for rather longer than Belgium had. All the same, there’s plenty going on beyond the walls of the school where Brontë’s heroine Lucy Snowe teaches. For example:

a concert… a grand affair to be held in the large sall, or hall, of the principal musical society. The most advanced of the pupils of the Conservatoire were to perform: it was to be followed by a lottery “au benefice des pauvre;” and to crown all, the King, Queen and Prince of Labassecour were to be present.

And the place itself seems impressive enough. On her arrival, Lucy passes:

a magnificent street and square, with the grandest houses round, and amidst them the huge outline of more than one over-bearing pile; which might be palace or church…

Unlike Brussels, it seems to be entirely French-speaking: Lucy Snowe has only one new language to learn, and never encounters the ‘should I in fact be attempting Dutch?’ uncertainty that I usually feel in the historically Dutch-speaking, more recently French-speaking, officially bilingual, capital.

There’s a lot of French in Villette, so much so that even this copy, printed in 1900, includes an apologetic appendix with all the translations. It’s effective, though: we never, ever, forget that we’re in a foreign country. Making it a language that we might be expected to know, or at least to be able to learn if we chose, makes it a country that we could plausibly visit. (Although even a little French reveals Villette to be ‘a little town’, and a little more makes Labassecour ‘the farmyard’. Which undermines things rather.)

And religion, my goodness. We are left in no danger of forgetting that Labassecour is a Roman Catholic country, and differences in religion are a major driver of the action in the second half of the book. Nor are we in danger of forgetting that this is something foreign to Lucy Snowe. I often found it uncomfortable reading, and I’m not even Catholic.

Which is all very well, but how do you get there? On impulse, from London. Lucy learns from a waiter that she can take a ship to the Continent landing at Boue-Marine, and boards one a few hours later. Landing in ‘the foreign seaport town’, she spends the rest of the night at a hotel, and then travels forty miles by road to Villette:

Somewhat bare, flat and treeless was the route along which our journey lay; and slimy canals crept, like half-torpid green snakes, beside the road; and formal pollard willows edged level fields, tilled like kitchen-garden beds.

Making allowances for Lucy’s pessimistic worldview, that’s a landscape I can recognise – from the Low Countries through which I was travelling last weekend, as much as from the Fens outside my back door.

And then she arrives in the dark, loses her trunk, and gets very lost: very easy to do in a new town, even if, pre-railways, she doesn’t share my propensity for exiting the wrong side of a station. Which has been one of the interesting things about reading this particular book. But I shouldn’t be surprised if the Eurostar stops in Villette these days.

Books mentioned in this post

Villette, Charlotte Brontë

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The limits of capacity: post-Covid and writing chronic illness

A fluffy black and white cat on a blanket on a sofa
The view from the sofa

On Easter Monday I reread A Spoke In The Wheel. ASITW, as I shall refer to it henceforth, was my second novel, which dealt with the coming to terms of a disgraced cyclist and a disabled cycling fan. Easter Monday was day 18 of my convalescence, if we’re counting from the first day I tested negative for Covid, and was, like many of the previous 25 days, spent mostly lying on the sofa.

While my main reason for rereading was being in a mood for more cycling after watching both Paris-Roubaix races in the afternoon of Easter Day, and also to see if there was any mileage in a spin-off story for the B couple, it was quite an interesting experience. This is, if not the most ill I’ve been in years, certainly the longest duration of illness I’ve had, and I couldn’t help looking out to see what I’d got wrong.

Of course I’d done my homework at the time, getting two ME sufferers of my acquaintance to check and double-check for errors and faux pas, but this is as close as I’d want to get to experiencing chronic illness for myself. I’m very thankful indeed that I do seem to be getting steadily better. I’m noticing tangible improvements from week to week, if not necessarily from day to day. On Monday I went into the office for the first time since the middle of March. Yesterday I had to have a lie-down as soon as I’d shut down my laptop. Tomorrow I’ll try riding my bike to the station.

So what did I find? Actually, not all that much that spoke directly to my comparatively short experience of illness. The whole point of ASITW was that it was talking about long-term conditions. I was writing about two people who spent most of their lives at the limits of their physical capacity, who were intimately familiar with that territory. It’s new ground for me. Anything I might have added from my current experience would be part of a prequel, or, just about conceivably, a flashback.

My limits are changing all the time. Not, perhaps, so fast as I’d like, certainly not so fast as the Protestant work ethic thinks they should be, but they’re changing. I know about as much about chronic illness from a month of post-Covid as the person who does a one-night fundraising sleepout knows about what it’s like to live on the streets. Which is to say, not much at all. If I were writing ASITW now I’d still need my specialist editors. Maybe even more so than I did before, lest I think I know it all now. (A little learning is a dangerous thing…)

And the other thing is that it came from the point of view of someone who had been disabled and now wasn’t, with all the assumptions that implies. Ben’s experience of disability is far in the past even if his experience of not being able to do everything he wants to do is very recent. He was always going to start out as a clueless git, and being a clueless git is, I would argue, not something that one needs personal experience to write. (I have often been clueless. I have tried not to be a git.) If I’d had this month of fatigue when I was writing ASITW I wouldn’t really have had anywhere to put it. Or, if I had, it would have been a very different book. And, you know, rereading the one I actually wrote, I’m pretty happy with the way it ended up.

Some links

Autistic on Wheels – Katherine’s advice and comments were immensely helpful to me when I was writing ASITW. She’s doing important advocacy work.

The rise of sensitivity readers – an article from Independent.ie quoting the formidable Susan Lanigan

A Spoke in the Wheel

Sapphic Book Bingo 2022

Join the Sapphic Book Bingo
[Bingo card with boxes arranged in 5x5 grid, each with a heading summarising a particular trope or aspect often found in sapphic books]

I’m about six weeks late with this, but there’s plenty of 2022 still to come, which means that there’s plenty of time still to read books. Plenty of time to take a look at Jae’s Sapphic Book Bingo and mark out a line you might like to fill. There’s still time to fill the whole card, if you’re feeling ambitious.

As ever with Jae’s challenges, there’s a refreshingly wide choice of themes, and my stories fit into quite a few of them. Such as:

  • Speak Its Name is, above all, Lydia’s coming-out story. (It takes her a while to come out even to herself, which was a bit of a challenge when I realised that the whole thing needed to be rewritten and put into her point of view.)
  • It’s also an award-winning book. In fact, it was the first self-published book ever shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. Getting shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize means you automatically win a Betty Trask Award. Will I be forever thrilled to have been shortlisted for the same award as Sarah Waters? Oh yes.
  • I have a few short stories available for free. Find The Mermaid at The Lesbian Historic Motif podcast or Prima Donna at A Story Most Queer (both historical fiction, both podcasts). Or sign up for my newsletter to download Yay or Nay (historical fiction again) or In Little Space (a Christmassy short set between Speak Its Name and The Real World).
  • And you can find Daisy’s Yarn in the new IReadIndies anthology Anything But Romance, free until the end of the month. As you might guess, it’s Not a romance as well as being a free book.
  • Are student politics (Speak Its Name) or the intersection between sexual identity and faith (both Speak Its Name and The Real World) out of your comfort zone? There’s another square for you.
  • As for different sexual orientation or gender identity, Lydia is a lesbian (Speak Its Name is her book) and Colette is bisexual (The Real World is hers, and it’s very, very bi). They’re both cis.
  • They’re an established couple by the time we get to The Real World.
  • I think The Real World is probably my author’s pick. I was flicking through it this morning and thinking that it was worth all the anguish after all.

And if you’re going for the trickier Book Unicorn card, either Speak Its Name or The Real World will of course count for Faith. (You might find some other possibilities on my LGBTQ Christian fiction recommendations post, too.)

There are some that I can’t help you with. I’m too young to have written a sapphic classic, though I’ve read plenty (most recently enjoyed Katherine V. Forrest’s Murder At The Nightwood Bar). I am not a POC author (try Sara Collins, The Confessions of Frannie Langton). Nor am I a newbie (going to have to do some research there). And so forth.

And there are some that are a bit borderline. I’m not sure that I’d count ‘both being rostered to cook baked potatoes’ as a meet-cute, but you might feel differently. (Sadly, my cutest sapphic meet-cute happens in A Spoke in the Wheel, which is not a sapphic book, what with it being narrated by a man and all. But I’ll always have a soft spot for Vicki and Gianna and their background cycling app rivalry meet-cute. Gianna, the silversmith, would be my best shot at an unusual job, too. Oh well.)

If you think one of my books might help you fill a square on your card, you’ll find them, among other places, on Smashwords, where I’m giving a 50% discount to readers playing Sapphic Bingo. Use voucher code TF79U to get the discount.

So that’s it. Have fun. Eyes down.

Daily Decoration: iridescent plastic hummingbird

Iridescent plastic ornament representing a hummingbird, hanging from an evergreen tree

I bought this one from the British Library. I think it was in 2019, but it might have been a year or so earlier. There were four or five others like it which went to various family households, as is tradition.

I bought it because I liked it. (I do sometimes feel a bit odd about imposing my own very specific taste on my nearest and dearest, but I tell myself that they don’t have to display these things if they don’t want to. Usually they seem to.) I bought it because there was something about the depth of the colours and the gleam of the surface and the grace of the shape that appealed to me. There wasn’t any particular meaning; as far as I’m aware, none of us have any particular feelings about hummingbirds. I just liked it.

I think it’s now fair to say that my last book hasn’t done as well as I’d hoped. Sales haven’t been great; it has yet to be shortlisted for anything; reviews have been favourable but very sparse. One might use the word flop. There are various reasons for this. One big one was the SNAFU that was getting the damn thing out in ebook format, which eventually resulted in my pulling all my paperbacks from Amazon. Another, probably equally big, was the timing. Eight months into a pandemic, people were not terribly interested in reading about institutional inertia and a slow slide into depression. And much of the core, queer Christian, audience was distracted by Living in Love and Faith.

I still think it’s good. I still think it’s the best one so far. I think I managed to say something important. And most of the time I manage not to care what anyone else thinks. But it was a lot of hard work. It was very personal – more personal than I’d thought, going in – and it meant spending time in depressing places.

But it’s done. And it’s been something of a relief this year to find myself writing things just because I want to. Silly things. Frivolous things. Next door to fanfic, really. Yes, fine, in one I find myself gently making the same marriage: maybe won’t fix everything? point, and in the other I find myself looking at the inadequacies of yet another political system, so it’s business as usual. And next door to fanfic they might be, but since I’m still having to fill in characters, history, and geography on a blank sheet, they aren’t any less work.

I’m putting that work in. These are going to be good. They may or may not end up saying anything important. I’m alternating between having a huge amount of fun and tearing my hair out – over the thriller plot, over how to resolve the other one, over how clever is too clever and how many Easter eggs is too many. And once you’re this far into a book it doesn’t really matter why you started it: finishing it is going to be hard work. It’s going to be a lovely thing once it’s finished, though.

If you want to give The Real World a go regardless, it’s currently half price at Smashwords.

We interrupt this blog series to bring you a small Christmassy treat

Christmas tree decoration representing a shooting star

There’s a little Stancester snippet in the IReadIndies A Very Sapphic Christmas anthology. If you were wondering how things went between Speak Its Name and The Real World, this fills in a little bit of the gap. It also addresses the perennial question: why do we do Christingles, anyway? It’s one of nineteen stories and excerpts by authors from the IReadIndies collective, and you can download the whole thing here.

I’ll also be making it available to newsletter subscribers as a standalone in the new year (read: when I’ve had a chance to find a nice photo to make a cover). If you’re not already subscribing to my newsletter, you can sign up here.

Meanwhile, the books themselves are both in the Smashwords End of Year sale. Speak Its Name is free and The Real World is half price. Find them here.

I’ll be back later with today’s decoration, whatever that ends up being. In the meantime – enjoy!

Daily Decoration: Alice

A textile Christmas tree decoration representing Lewis Carroll's Alice

Alice came, appropriately enough, from the British Library. So did quite a few of the permanent inhabitants of Wonderland. I picked them up week by week: the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire Cat, the flamingo, the Knave of Hearts…

I looked at her just now and the part of my brain that’s always quoting something said, ‘Very Tenniel.’ I first came across Alice in Ballet Shoes, in the excruciatingly embarrassing sequence where Pauline gets the part instead of a friend who’s really better qualified and probably needs the money more, and then gets a severe case of swelled head… I didn’t read Alice in Wonderland until a few years later.

Actually, I’m not sure that this Alice is very Tenniel; she seems rather calm and unruffled, as if she’s never fallen down a rabbithole in her life. I’m very fond of book!Alice, largely because of how logical and observant she is, and the way she approaches confusing and frightening situations: wanders around and asks questions. And occasionally cries. It’s as good a philosophy as any.

In This Small Spot, Caren J. Werlinger

I read this in Truro, where we were staying above a pub. I started it in bed, and finished it in the beer garden, with the gentle sound of a little river running past, and the cathedral towering up above the trees, just the other side.

And I was thinking what a pity it is that Susan Howatch, who when she was writing wrote about unconventional clergy relationships like nobody else, never got round to the Bensons.

There are a few plausible reasons why not, of course. Firstly, I’m not sure that anybody would believe in the Bensons if they appeared in a novel. They’re really quite incredible in real life. (Edward White Benson was the first Bishop of Truro – this was why they were on my mind – and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He proposed to his wife when she was twelve. After his death she set up home with the daughter of a different Archbishop of Canterbury. All the children were as queer as their mother, in every sense. No need to bolt invented polyamory onto the facts here. But even Susan Howatch might not have got away with the Bensons.) Secondly, she writes very heterosexual books. So she was probably never going to take on the Bensons.

Anyway, I was in the mood for something that took a queer, religious, character, that took both the queerness and the religion seriously, and was prepared to delve deep into the psyche of that character.

In This Small Spot hit that, er, spot about eighty per cent of the time.

This isn’t anything like a Howatch. It doesn’t have the snobbery, the psychics, or the daddy issues. And it isn’t so tediously straight. It does have the ‘can’t do anything, got to finish this book’ thing that Howatch manages to do over and over again; which is why I had to finish it in a pub beer garden before we could see any more of Truro. And it was almost but not quite exactly what I wanted.

“Here, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.”

Abbess Theodora

In a world increasingly connected to computers and machines but disconnected to self and others, Dr. Michele Stewart finds herself drowning in a life that no longer holds meaning. Searching for a deeper connection after losing her partner, Alice, she enters a contemplative monastery, living a life dedicated to prayer, to faith in things unseen. Though most of her family and friends are convinced that she has become a nun to run away from her life, she finds herself more attuned to life than she has been in years. Stripped of the things that define most people in the outside world – career, clothing, possessions – she rediscovers a long forgotten part of herself. But sooner than she expects, the outside world intrudes, forcing her to confront doubts and demons she thought she had left behind. The ultimate test of her vocation comes from the unlikeliest source when she finds herself falling in love again. As she struggles to discern where she belongs, she discovers the terrifying truth of Abbess Theodora’s warning. For better or for worse.

I don’t think I’d argue with anything in that blurb. I bought the book on the strength of it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It wouldn’t be getting its own post if I hadn’t enjoyed it. The calm rhythm of the religious life, the complex relationships between the novices, the developing tension between Sister Michele and another nun, made for an absorbing read. It wasn’t perfect, though, and there were a couple of things that left me wanting to argue.

Firstly, the pacing was a bit off, or the plot. An overuse of ‘Later, Mickey would…’ built up a suspense that was never quite delivered on. Things developed sequentially, one event leading to another, and tending to evolve from characters’ desires and personalities. This suited the setting, but there sometimes seemed to be a reluctance to commit at key points. I said above that I was looking for something that would delve deeply into a character’s psyche. I think that often it didn’t delve deeply enough.

At one point Mickey reflects that the enclosed nature of the abbey makes trivial events take on an inflated importance. Actually, I found the opposite to be true: there would have been space to take much more time to explore the personality clashes and emerging trauma that grew from and drove events.

And then it takes an unexpected turn into melodrama.

Major spoilers follow the picture of Truro cathedral.

A pointy Victorian Gothic cathedral in grey stone, shot from below.

Mickey sustains serious injuries rescuing her love interest from a fire, a combination of events which results in both of them asking to be released from their vows. Mickey returns to medical life. Having both taken time to reflect, the two of them set up house together.

And very shortly afterwards Mickey dies.

Yeah.

In fairness, it didn’t strike me as a stereotypical ‘bury your gays’. There was too much of a sense of the bigger picture for that. The happy ending had already been earned and obtained; in fact, I’d have been perfectly contented had the book ended just a few chapters earlier. What we got, however, was an ambitious ending, and one that I don’t think the author managed to pull off. She didn’t quite earn Anselma/Lauren’s revelation that ‘The tragedy would have been never to have known her at all’. It might have worked, given some more space; as it was, it felt glib.

It was intensely readable, however, and I’ll be buying the sequel. I want to know more.

SOLD BY NOBODY: an unintentional affirmation from a tiny book

Two tiny books: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and Church Seasons in Verse by Christina Rossetti, with a penny for scale

In my lunch hour today I went to the British Library and looked at an exhibition of tiny books. (These are not from there; the British Library frowns on people taking photographs in their galleries of precious books. These are the tiniest books that I have in the house.)

Two of the tiny books were by the Brontë children. There was an issue of the Blackwoods Young Men’s Magazine by Charlotte and Branwell. And there was The Search After Happiness by Charlotte, with the following magnificent title page:

THE SEARCH AFTER HAPINESS

A TALE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTE

PRINTED BY HERSELF

AND SOLD BY

NOBODY

Now, that is an attitude I aspire to. Never mind fretting about taking one’s books off Amazon; this is SOLD BY NOBODY and proud of it.

Charlotte Brontë was thirteen when she wrote this. Jane Eyre was several years in the future. Even if she could have foreseen the millions of cheap paperback copies of that, I don’t think she could have dreamt that after a couple of centuries the stories of Angria and Gondal and Gaaldine would have prompted scads of scholarship, books, fanfic, and a small moral panic. And going by this, I’m not sure she’d have cared.

Thank you, tiny book, for a new perspective.

Lint rollers: or why you can’t find my paperbacks on Amazon any more

A model of planet Earth hangs in the nave of a cathedral

I went to my local homes and gardens shop the other day, looking for a lint roller. The man on the till explained that they did not stock them, as the peel-off sticky bits can’t be recycled. He offered me a clothes brush instead. I said that so long as it would get cat hair off the sofa that was fine with me.

I publish my paperbacks through Lulu. It can be a massively frustrating process, but I have yet to hear of any other print-on-demand service being noticeably better. There are two ways to get your books out there. Or one and a half, really, I suppose. You can sell them through the Lulu bookstore. You can also choose ‘global distribution’, which makes it available through all the big retailers.

The snag – and this has become much more of a snag in the five years since I started doing this – is that the big retailers also wish to take their cut along the way. Which is fair enough. But printing costs have gone up, and so, I think, has the cut, and the gap is getting wider and wider.

Take The Real World. The minimum I can sell it for on Lulu is £6.90. If, however, I want to put it in for global distribution I have to whack the price all the way up to £13.72. Which is a silly price, so I put it as £13.99.

So I was in the slightly ridiculous situation of having to charge four pounds more than I considered reasonable for a paperback in order to sell the item on a platform that made me feel skeevy (because it was almost always Amazon) to make a few pennies on the sale.

And then nobody was buying them. Quite reasonably. I wouldn’t spend fourteen quid on a paperback. (OK, I do spend thirteen quid on the Girls Gone By reprints of the Marlows series: but have you seen how much they go for second-hand?)

One solution would have been to dump Lulu and go with KindleDirect Publishing. Or go with both. I couldn’t face wrangling a third platform, so ‘both’ was out. And going exclusively with Amazon would have made me feel very skeevy indeed, and probably also have lost me a few sales.

(I don’t avoid Amazon entirely, but if I can get a book somewhere else, I will. For various reasons. And it does make a difference as to whether I get it in the first place. There are a couple of authors who’d be instabuy for me if only they weren’t Amazon exclusive. As it is, I only buy the books that really, really, really appeal to me.)

Anyway, I was fretting about this for months. Then Lulu emailed to say they were putting their prices up. And I realised: I could pull my books from everything except Lulu.

I know, I know. It doesn’t seem fair to react to ‘Lulu putting their prices up’ by ‘removing my books from everything except Lulu’. But see above. Lulu drive me up the wall, but they don’t make me feel skeevy. And actually, a company being honest about the true costs of something was surprisingly refreshing. Stuff does cost money, and if we’re not paying for it, chances are someone else is.

So. The best place to get paperback copies of my books is now Lulu. It’s worth waiting until they run a 10% or 15% sale, which they do quite frequently; this ought to go some way towards covering the cost of postage. (Alternatively, my mother has six copies of The Real World which I got sent to her address and then forgot to sell when I was there, and then forgot to take away with me. Sorry, Ma. Do you want to post them?)

The ebooks of the two Stancester novels are on Smashwords, from which you can download them in every format I’ve heard of and some I hadn’t. I have made my peace with their not being on Kindle: when these ones sell, it’s usually because someone’s enthused about them on Weird Anglican Twitter, and the denizens of WAT tend to be sufficiently net-savvy to track them down. A Spoke In The Wheel is still on Kindle. I have no idea why the others broke and this one didn’t, but for the moment I’m going to let well alone.

But what of my principled local homes and gardens shop? Well, I didn’t buy a lint roller. I didn’t buy a clothes brush, either, but only because I phoned home and discovered there was one on order. I did buy a garlic press, a potato brush, and an ash bucket in which to keep the dried cat food. The cat meanwhile, has decided that she prefers sitting on the windowsill, which is much easier to sweep.

Fluffy black and white cat curled up on a cushion

C.A.T.S.: Cycling Across Time and Space – Kickstarter live now

Fluffy black and white cat seated on top of a bookcase, in front of a model bus

This is Port. As of last Monday, she lives with us. She has spent most of the intervening week sleeping, eating, mewing for attention, being generally gorgeous, and climbing up to high places. It is very good to have a cat around the house; previously we have had to make do with talking to other people’s cats. Which is not the same thing at all.

In other exciting cat-related news, the Kickstarter for the latest Bikes In Space anthology is now live, and the theme of this edition is CATS, and I have a story in there. In Miss Tomkins Takes A Holiday it’s some time in the 1930s and a union organiser sets out on a well-deserved cycling break, accompanied by her cat Aster. Trouble follows them, but the two of them are very well-equipped to deal with it.

There are ten other sci-fi/fantasy stories in there, all featuring cats and bicycles, and all looking like they’re going to be a fun read. The Kickstarter offers all sorts of combinations of formats and rewards, depending on whether you prefer paperback or ebook or fancy getting a T-shirt or sticker as well. Have a look.

A kid on a BMX bike flies across the moon with a cat in the basket shooting lasers out of their eyes