The Illumination of Ursula Flight – Anna-Marie Crowhurst

Sometimes what you need is a bawdy, picaresque set in the 17th century.  Anna-Marie Crowhurst‘s The Illumination of Ursula Flight (review copy from Corvus) gives just that.

This is the story of the titular Ursula Flight.  An intelligent young woman, she grows up with a father who indulges her interest in history, literature and astronomy.  She yearns to be a playwright, but finds herself married off to a much older man in the expectation she will bear his children.  Shut away in his country house with a domineering mother and a dull sister in law, Ursula sinks into depression.  Eventually her husband takes her to court, where she embarks on a tempestuous affair and leaves her husband.

There is a wonderful light humour to this novel that makes it a very easy read.  It is populated with wonderful caricatures of Ursula’s friends, family and the people she encounters.  Ursula herself is a quixotic mix.  On the surface she has a superficial obsession with with dresses and hairstyles, and a naivety that comes from her rural upbringing.  But that conceals a bright and deep intelligence, and a love of literature.  In telling her story to the reader, Ursula distances herself from the most difficult and shocking parts of her life by presenting them as the scripts for little vignettes.  This adds real poignancy to the story, while showcasing Ursula’s wit and resilience in the face of adversity.

The focus on Ursula as a writer is also welcome.  The happy ending for her is not love and marriage or wealth, but success as a writer and recognition for her talents.  That makes this a remarkably uplifting, feminist work.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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The Queens of Innis Lear – Tessa Gratton

The world needs more books like Tessa Gratton‘s The Queens of Innis Lear (review copy from Harper Voyager).  It’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic play, King Lear, but updated with a very 21st Century take on the story.

All the elements you would expect are here – the mad king (in this case, suffering from dementia as he grows older), three very different daughters competing to inherit the crown, treachery and true love.  You know the basic plot, right down to the test of which daughter loves the old king best.  But Tessa Gratton takes it in some very interesting directions.

The thing I loved most about this book was its treatment of the three daughters.  They are mixed-race.  It is heavily implied that one of them is actually a transgender man (Gaela styles herself ‘King’, dresses in a masculine fashion and suffers extreme gender dysphoria).  The book is sex-positive.  But crucially, the book places a strong emphasis on the agency of the daughters.  Elia (the youngest daughter) goes on a journey that is about becoming an independent woman of power in her own right.  She rejects the easy and safe options when they are presented to her.  Exiled from Innis Lear, she is offered marriage by the King of Aremoria, but turns him down because of the power imbalance between them and because she knows it would be used as an excuse to invade her homeland.

There is also a strong theme about the relationship between parents and children.  Whether it is the central relationship between Lear and his three daughters, or Ban the Fox’s feeling of rejection by his father for being illegitimate and the way he has found acceptance and a place overseas by his own deeds rather than his heredity.  The novel shows how easy it is for family relationships to be soured, and how the professions of love and affection can sometimes be only so much lip service.

And the novel also places great weight on the need for balance in all things.  Only in Elia does that come together, and only when she learns to balance the astronomy of her father with the Earth-magic of Innis Lear.  And Innis Lear will not thrive without both being in balance in their ruler – under Lear himself the land has been slowly fading.  Gaela rejects all forms of magic and prophecy, focusing only on the power that military prowess gives her.  Regan focuses on Earth-magic, but hers is a selfish focus, and she is in too  co-dependent a relationship with her husband to survive.

All of this is wrapped up in lush prose from Gratton that provides a strong sense of place, whether it is the wind-swept cliffs or deep forest of Innis Lear.

Goodreads rating: 4*

FO: Ella Funt

There’s another outbreak of babies in the office.  And I have a rule, as you, know, that anyone who works for me gets a baby cardigan knitted for their new arrival.

This is Ella Funt.  Because colourwork elephants are awesome.  The pattern is by Pamela Wynne, and I used Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino from stash.  Apart from the teal and the grey for the elephants, the remaining colours came from bits of leftovers from other projects.  The buttons were in stash, and probably from Textile Garden.

What’s interesting about this year’s crop of new fathers is that both of them have chosen to take Shared Parental Leave, as it’s the right thing for their families.  And I cannot be more excited to have two such trailblazing men working for me.

They’ve both been really thoughtful about their reasons for taking Shared Parental Leave, and the impact it has had on them personally.  The recipient of this cardigan has been open about how hard he has found it to do in the face of gendered social expectations and anxieties about the impact on his future career.  He hasn’t even felt able to tell his parents yet that he’s taking 5 months off to look after his son.  He explicitly mentioned that it isn’t lost on him that these are the choices and consequences that have historically faced women in the workplace.  The other expectant father in my team has said that one of the reasons he is taking Shared Parental Leave is to challenge assumptions about fatherhood, for the sake of his daughters.  He is frustrated by the teasing he gets for the time he already spends looking after his daughters, which devalues his role, and that of his wife.

I firmly believe one of the best ways we can smash the patriarchy is by changing these assumptions that damage people of all genders.  It brought a tear to my angry feminist eye talking to them both, but I feel more optimistic about the future.

Of Women – Shami Chakrabarti

I suppose it was inevitable that at some point renowned human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti would want to say her piece on gender issues.  Of Women (review copy from Penguin) is that book: a take on modern, intersectional feminism, grounded in the language of human rights.  

Of Women is a classic articulation of the principles of third-wave feminism, allowing for and embracing the ideals of diversity and individuality, in a way that accommodates differences of emphasis and culture.  As you would expect, this is a book that is very strong on the interaction between gender issues and other protected characteristics, and with a strong global focus.  The whole is backed up with a strong evidence base and good argument.  Although each chapter is focused on a particular theme (home, work etc), Chakrabarti draws out the inter-connections between these issues well.  

Where Of Women is weaker, though, is in its solution to many of these issues.  Chakrabarti identifies the way gender issues harm men as much as they do women, but offers little in the way of solution.  And apart from some brief reflections about her own family history of migration and her mother, there is little here that is personal.  And at times Chakrabarti descends into the party political in a way that serves to undermine the arguments that she is making.  

This is a book that articulates the arguments and evidence for third-wave feminism well, but adds little that is new to the public discourse.  

Goodreads rating: 3*

FO: Thirteen

I hadn’t expected to be as moved as I was by the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor.  I thought it would be just another announcement when it happened.  We’d all debate it furiously for a few days, speculate wildly, and then move on to the next thing.  

But all around me I saw legions of women profoundly affected by a simple casting choice.  Finally we would get to be the heroes of our own stories, rather than just the Companion along for the ride.  We could save the world, be brave and courageous, kind and clever too.  In a year where our childhood princesses had become Generals, all those playground games where we’d centred ourselves, all that female-led fan-fiction, was finally validated.  
Representation matters.

Over the summer there was a glorious flurry of cosplay, from the TARDIS full of bras to people urgently trying to find grey hoodies to replicate that first, precious sight of the 13th Doctor.  But the moment that hit me was in early November when the first image of Whittaker’s Doctor in her new costume were released to the press.

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I saw that and my knitterly heart skipped a beat.  Cosplay and craft has always been one of my favourite ways of engaging with story, and all of a sudden I wanted that sweater and to be wearing it in a way I haven’t felt for a long time.  I needed to be putting my own mark on the 13th Doctor, and this was my way of doing it.

I immediately started searching on Ravelry for top down sweater patterns I could adapt.  And I found myself near a branch of John Lewis with time to kill the following day.  I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be cool to have a sweater finished in time to wear for the Christmas special?  I’ve done NaKniSweMo before, so this should be possible, especially as most of it is plain.  

Cue 6 and a half weeks of furious knitting.  I finally finished this afternoon, just in time for the Christmas special.  

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The pattern is Take It Easy by Annamaria Otvos, which is a simple seamless top-down sweater with set-in sleeves.  I used Rowan Felted Tweed DK.  It’s lovely to work with, has a good range of colours and the stripes mostly came out of leftovers from other projects.  You can find the details fo the colours I used and in what order on my project page on Ravelry.  Suffice to say, it took a degree of angsting over that single, very over-processed picture, and quite a bit of swatching to get colours and a sequence I was happy with.  

If it turns out the sleeves are striped as well I’ll scream.

On the lived experience of being a woman

Every year in October my employer does a survey of all staff to do a healthcheck of the team’s experience.  Every year I pause over two questions: in the last year have you personally experienced discrimination/bullying or harrassment?  I pause not because I’m trying to decide whether to click yes, but because I ask myself how many instances of discrimination and harrassment I would report if I had the chance.  And each year my employer clutches its pearls in horror when it sees the survey resuls on these two questions, without ever doing anything to address the underlying causes.

My dilemma is particularly acute this year, as the survey rolls out against the backdrop of the allegations and revelations about Harvey Weinstein.  It’s sadly still all too common that so many of us are experiencing discrimination and harassment.  But what is truly shocking is that it has become so normalised for so many of us that we often just treat it as part of the background noise of life that we have to deal with, while the rest seem genuinely surprised that it’s still an issue.  After all, we have equality now, don’t we?

To give you just one example of something that happened to me within the last year –

I was attending a work event with some key stakeholders.  There was an evening dinner.  I found myself sat next to a senior person in that organisation that I’d not met before that day.  He tried to get me drunk, asked intrusively personal questions, ‘admired my necklace’ (code for staring at my breasts) and then propositioned me.  I made my excuses and left.

Some will no doubt suggest I should be flattered by the attention.  That I’ve ‘still got it’, whatever that means.  Others will laugh if off as just one of those things that happens.  Or, worse, deny it ever happened.  Surely I must be imagining it or making too much of a fuss about it?

But this is a failure of basic, respectful treatment of others.  I have to have a working relationship with this person, but they’ve added an uncomfortable sexual dimension to it.  I’m now left having to manage that dynamic, trying to keep things professional and make sure to avoid circumstances where I could find myself facing the same situation again.  I now have a whole plan to make sure I never have to sit next to him at dinner again.  And instead of focusing all my energy on work, when we are in the same place I will need to expend a good proportion of it managing the interpersonal dynamic, shutting down further overtures from him (yes, there have been some).

It also exposes the shocking sense of entitlement that some people feel.  They see nothing wrong in behaving this way.  In part that is because it is so rarely challenged.  We let it play out as if there’s nothing wrong with it.  Or else it takes place away from the public gaze, so that those in a position to act never see what is really happening.

[I’m not saying it’s never possible to make an intimate connection with someone you meet professionally.  But it’s tricky territory and I’d urge you to get to know the person first and be damn sure there’s mutual attraction before raising the prospect of anything else.  If you make a habit of propositioning people you’ve just met  or who are patently not interested, you’re a creeper, and it’s not my job to educate you about how not to be one.]

In many ways, this kind of obvious and overt harassment is easy to deal with because it’s so obviously beyond the pale.  What is much harder to deal with is the insidious kind of discrimination.  The differential treatment. The mansplaining.  The being talked over, marginalised and ignored.  The unconscious bias that creates a culture of Great Men doing Great Things, while the women do the office housework that will never make their careers.

In all those cases there’s plausible deniability.  You are left wondering whether you are imagining that you’re being treated differently or whether there’s some other cause, like that you’re just not good enough.  And while each incident may be a mix of complex cause and consequence, it’s highly likely that there’s something gendered going on under the surface, whether those responsible realise it or not.  But the net result is that you are left doubting yourself or fighting a system stacked against you.

Of course, I’m relatively lucky.  I’m a woman, but I’m also white, heterosexual and without disabilities.  So I don’t have the multiple, intersecting areas of difference that enable a much more multi-faceted experience of harassment and discrimination.

I hope that if some good is to come out of the current debate it is a greater awareness of the need for respectful and inclusive spaces that are free of this kind of harassment and discrimination, and the need to tackle the power structures and institutions that have enabled permissive environments to thrive.

Miranda and Caliban – Jacqueline Carey

In Miranda and Caliban (review copy from Tor, through NetGalley), Jacqueline Carey gives us a thoughtful exploration of the backstory to one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, The Tempest.  It’s a short book, but one packed with thoughtful insight and commentary on the source material.

Miranda and Caliban focuses on Miranda’s childhood, with the events of the play only covered briefly towards the end of the book.  For all that it’s a close rendering of the play it gives a radically different and fresh perspective on the story.  Carey’s retelling draws out the toxic impact of Prospero’s desire for revenge and the abusive relationship that has created with his daughter.  Miranda is a tool for his revenge, a person he controls and exploits to enable that revenge and return to power.  She is infantilised and denied information, but expected to perform services in pursuit of her father’s revenge agenda.  This is a Prospero who cares little of her wishes or feelings, playing his daughter as a card to engage the interest of those shipwrecked on the island.

Carey’s Caliban is a misunderstood creature.  Judged for his physical appearance and isolated upbringing he is seen by Prospero as ignorant and fit only for menial labour.  It is under Miranda’s help and care that he grows and blossoms and learns.  Caliban is as exploited by Prospero as Miranda, his potential and skills overlooked except where they can be used to advance Prospero’s agenda.  But unlike Miranda, Caliban isn’t family.  And his status as the child of a witch means he will never be able to transcend the strict class boundaries of that society.

Goodreads rating: 3*