This coming Sunday, 30th March, 2.00 pm, I'm heading for the Oxford Literary Festival to join my fellow authors Mary Hoffman, Penny Dolan, Leslie Wilson and Celia Rees who will be talking about this book, 'Daughters of Time'. We're all founding members of The History Girls blog, created by Mary Hoffman to celebrate historical writing, fiction and non-fiction, from a female perspective. We were thrilled when she suggested that some of us might get together to write a series of children’s stories centred around significant women in British history. In the end, thirteen of us took up the challenge: too many to fit on one panel! So I've got the easy job of sitting in the audience - but I'll be there to help sign books at the end.
Why did we feel this book was important? Growing up in the 1960’s, the history taught to me at school was mostly about men. I heard of few women role models. When sibling rivalry between me and my younger brother descended a level or two, we might wrangle about whether ‘girls are as good as boys’ or ‘boys are better than girls’, but if he challenged me with ‘Why are there more famous men than women, then?’ my arsenal was small. Queen Elizabeth the First. Grace Darling. Joan of Arc (though being burned at the stake was hardly something to aim for). Um. Queen Victoria? – a dull old lady who wore black and was not amused? Not very inspiring to a child. I knew of only one woman scientist, Marie Curie (culled from the pages of my Grandma’s ‘Reader’s Digest Book of Famous Lives’, I was a child who read everything). Famous authors? – well, I knew about the Brontes. And that was about it.
True, I devoured the historical books of Geoffrey Trease who usually had a brave, cross-dressing heroine adventuring alongside the young hero. But that wasn’t real. Rather gloomily I supposed that women didn’t have adventures.
How wrong I was. And ‘Daughters of Time’ amply demonstrates it. When we came to decide who we should pick, we were spoiled for choice: we had heated discussions about which women to include: we could have written three anthologies, never mind one! (Some of the names which had, inevitably, to be left out are listed at the back of the book). Among us, we wrote about queens, visionaries, reformers, political thinkers, dramatists, scientists, pilots and activists. And I knew immediately who I wanted to write about: Lady Julian of Norwich.
Lady Julian, a medieval visionary and anchorite who spent perhaps thirty years of her life walled up in a small stone room or ‘cell’ at the back of St Julian’s Church in Norwich, may seem a strange character to offer to readers of nine plus. But she was an amazing person, strong, sane and compassionate. She is the author of the very first book known to have been written in English by a woman – ‘Showings of God’s Love’, in which she vividly recounts her visions. It’s a very good book, too – full of imagery drawn from everyday life, as when she describes how God showed her ‘a little thing, the size of a hazelnut’ on the palm of her hand, and when she asked what it was, told her, ‘It is all that is made’. And she has a wonderfully feminist take on religion, describing God as a Mother who tenderly cares for us: ‘for when a child is in trouble or scared, it runs to its mother for help as fast as it can’.
Julian’s message down the centuries is one of hope. ‘All shall be well,’ God promised her. We still need to hear that message, and that was why I chose it as the title of my story in which twelve year-old Sarah, Lady Julian’s new little maidservant, battles with homesickness and grief.