March 30th, 2014

Women's History Month - guest post by Jenny Blackford

Their Cold Eyes Pierced My Skin


Jenny Blackford

Two years ago, my reputation was as clean as yours.
It wasn't safe—
a woman's name's not safe until she's dead,
sometimes not even then—
but it was safe enough. The young men of the village
and their tender peach-like buttocks
never moved me, nor did the girls,
however soft their hair or bright their eyes,
nor the worn-out husks of older folk,
tired from scrabbling out their lives
on our unforgiving stony mountainside
far from Mycenae.

But the two centaurs who hunted in the valley,
the year I turned eighteen—
oh, they were different,
alive and free.

Their hair curled down their backs like wild black waterfalls;
their cold eyes pierced my skin.
My fingers ached to comb their tails,
to smooth their strongly-muscled flanks.

I told no one, of course. Who could I tell?
My virtuous ever-weaving aunt? No.
I could not even whisper at my mother's grave,
sorrowing her ghost.

Two years ago, as I have said, my name was clean. These days,
the gossips in the street need only point
at the spring grass under the trees,
and the boy child who frolics there: my son.
But they don't know the half of it.

I succumbed, not to a local man or youth,
but to the lure of shining hooves
and glossy hides. Of course, there's more:
for any mountain girl who's ever milked a ewe or two, perhaps a goat,
has seen the ram or he-goat led to her in spring,
his huge balls heavy in their leather sack.
My centaurs were the same: formidable.
I loved them both, inseparably, as they loved me
And one another.

So, for a time, I truly lived.
My centaurs hunted hare and deer; I tickled fish;
I learned their summer songs, and danced with them, and drank their wine,
lolling on soft sweet grass far from my father and his farm—
but autumn came.
I saw the two I loved watching the birds make arrows in the sky
as they flew south;
soon my horse-men must go,
wild things that they were.
They stroked my hair and kissed the rounding mound
low on my abdomen: our child.
I cried and sulked, and was a fool.
They sang me songs of long-ruined palaces,
of stars fallen to earth,
of queens who wept gold tears.
I would not go with them;
they could not stay.

My lovers galloped south. I lingered for a month,
sure they would return for me—their love—
but I was wrong.

When winter came, I had no choice.
I walked the bitter path, stony and steep, back to my father's house.
Despite his threats, I would not name the man who took my honor.
How could I have?

The priestess shook her head, when in my fear
I asked what to expect: a foal,
to turn my father's world completely upside down? A boy?
The goddess could not be second-guessed, she said;
children bring joy and pain.
I had not hoped for much;
her own mind has been hazed with sorrow,
since the night her daughter went to the naiads' spring,
and did not return.

After my longest day and night of pain, my aunt held up my baby boy:
ten tiny fingers, ten tiny toes.
No curling mane, no swishing tail.
Life would be easier for him that way, I knew.
But when I closed my eyes
and touched his feet,
I felt not baby flesh but tiny hooves.
I smiled a secret smile.
My boy. Our boy.

I weave and spin, as women must, and look out from the door
as my son scampers on the grass
under the oaks.
Is that a tail flicking in the sun?
I blink and it's not there.
I blink again, and smile to see
his shining hooves.

First published in The Pedestal Magazine Issue 70

Women's History Month - guest post by Laura Goodin

Laura E. Goodin's stories have appeared in publications including Michael Moorcock's New Worlds, Daily Science Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, The Lifted Brow, Wet Ink, and Adbusters, and several anthologies. Her plays and poetry have been performed internationally. She attended the 2007 Clarion South workshop, and is working toward a Ph.D. from the University of Western Australia. She lives on the South Coast of New South Wales with her composer husband (her actor daughter has flown the nest), and she spends what little spare time she has trying to be as much like Xena, Warrior Princess, as possible. She's online at and

I'm haunted by a ghost. She wanders in that way you wander at a party when you can't leave but don't want to talk to anyone. She sways to avoid the ghost of Hamlet's father, of Banquo, of bulky, jovial Sir John. She pauses, though, to reach an insubstantial and wistful hand to two little princes, who may remind her of her own dead son.

Like all ghosts, she has a strange and troubling story. A grown woman, capable and at least relatively prosperous, she married – for reasons unclear – a brilliant, restless teenager, who left her before too many years to go to London and do, of all things, theatre. I see her roll her eyes, even now. Even though his success kept her and the girls well, she saw him seldom, bore the grief for a dead child essentially alone. She outlived her husband by seven years, famously given the "second-best bed" in the will. There's not much more to say, really. But questions – no shortage of them.

Why did she marry the just-beyond-boy William Shakespeare? The glib answer – because she was knocked up – merely begs the question. Why was she intimate with him? What did she see in him? Was she the only one to see it in him, or did he turn heads across Warwickshire? (Later portraits are less than flattering; his appeal was likely more charisma and wit than hottitude.) Did she, seeing his genius, encourage him to go to London? Was theirs, perhaps, a true partnership?

I find it easy to imagine her appeal for him: his jones for strong, smart, capable women is obvious in his plays, and there's no reason to doubt he'd been any different back in Stratford. She and her stepmother had successfully been managing her family's property and raising her younger siblings for quite some time after the death of her father. She knew what was what – she was clearly not one to take any crap, not one to naively let herself be beguiled, impregnated, and abandoned.

Did she resent her husband's absence? Or did she push him out the door? Was it a disgusted dismissal of this man, this disappointment, or a falsely cheerful push, designed to hearten both of them against crying as he turned is face toward London?

I've been to Stratford. You can walk across the town of Shakespeare's day in a blink. That was the size of illiterate, family-bound Anne Hathaway's world. Yet her husband had all London at his feet, words that that would shake heaven and earth ringing in his brain, and the very reaches of time and space at his fingertips. But – what if he had stayed in Stratford?

Do we have Anne Hathaway to thank for William Shakespeare? Was her desperate loneliness and grief the price paid to ensure his genius?

And yo, what's with the second-best bed thing?

The Anne Hathaway who haunts me is not forthcoming with her answers. But from what glimpses I get of her, I'm not happy with the Anne-as-victim story, left alone with three impossibly small children (including twins, no less) to weep after a wastrel husband. I'd rather think of her as part of a team, and not the weaker part, either. I like to think that together, Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare made sure these words, this poetry, these characters and plots and jaw-dropping revelations about what it is to be human – that these things were set loose for all time to come.

I wish I could thank my ghost for what I suspect she did.

(no subject)

Two of my favourite people took me out to see the new Muppet movie this morning. We had popcorn and I was given a pool noodle (I had to get one, to sort the hip, and they came in packs of three). I count this a morning well-spent, no matter how much work I have to cram into the rest of the day.

Also, My hot and sour soup is becoming portable soup, because I realised that I could make it using some of the same ingredients and it seemed a great shame not to sort out the technique while I'm so fresh from reading a dozen different recipes. It's not a complex series of techniques for anyone who has made bone-based soup or any kind of strained jelly, but it wouldn't have been as straightforward without that background. None of the 18th and 19th century recipes have all the steps, though one comes closer than the others and looks as if it would give the finest end result.

Mine is going to be at the nice-tasting end (and there are some recipes that are useful, but terrifyingly bland) but not the fine and beautiful end, for my hand slipped when I was straining and I can't be bothered straining again, for I am out of cloth and besides, really need a finer cloth for the second straining. The straining would be very entertaining to do in class, for it would result (there is no way round this) in bad jokes, often obscene. This is why it's a great pity that my teaching does not allow of cookery any more.

Anyway, I have the technique sorted and my portable soup is looking good. It's not clear, but it's only one more shrinking from being ready. I had the right sort of bone with the right sort of meat, and three kilos of bones are going to make about 10 walnut sized soup cubes, each which is supposed to dilute into a pint of delicious soup. This means I have heaps for sharing, should anyone greatly crave the experience. And if no-one does, I might take sections of cubes with me to class, to fortify me this coming week. In any case, today is the day of the week when I'm allowed a bit more carb (otherwise I get vitamin deficiency), so dinner will include coriander rice seethed in one of these walnuts of gluebroth* with much coriander and Tabasco and possibly a touch of artichoke and lemon. This recipe is not 19th century. I invented it originally because I really don't like beef broth and learned to flavour it when I discovered I love making the stuff.

Because we're nearing the end of the month, today you will get three posts for WHM. You've had the morning postal delivery, now you just need afternoon and evening. What a fine way to spend a Sunday!

*When my whole process is done - which will be in less than an hour - I will finally know what 19th century glue feels like, for the soup is named after that texture, one source said.

(no subject)

I thought I was being terribly clever yesterday and today by reading a book that I could use in the work I was editing at all those odd times when I was just too tired to work. I'm not going to name the book, for right now it's totally annoying me.

About the only thing I can use it for is as an example of research so distracting that it throws me out of the story twice a page. Accents that should not exist, diminutives that are wildly improbable, historical errors that are so egregious that it would be much better if they were intentional. I already have an example of this sort of novel, and that's Michael Crichton's Timeline. This novel is really it crossed with The Da Vinci Code. I bet it's doing well in the airport shops - it would be good travel reading for someone other than me.

The errors may not be as bad as they look. For instance, there may be a twist that explains them and makes it a convincing alternate reality. I'm reading it to the end in the hope that this is so. If it isn't so, I shall weep at wasted opportunity, for most of the things that bug me are easily fixed. Not all, but most. I could have been thrown out of the story less often and not been tempted to throw my head back and wail. That would have been a desirable outcome.

The trouble is, if the book's not useful to my research, it's just recreational reading and I don't really have time for that today, and also, recreational reading that makes one wince is recreational reading for the masochistic. This means I shall check my portable soup (which is cooling) and make some nice coffee, then get back to real work.

ETA: I decided to finish it. Now I'm seething. There are apparently only three major religions in the world. One of them has money as the source of power and buys the politicians it needs. There were Arabs in the Middle East 2000 years ago. And none of these or other errors played a major part in the narrative, which would at least have given them a reason for being there.

That tag for Friday "TGIF' - I shall apply it to some books from here on in - Thank God It's Finished.

And now I shall go back to working on how writers use history in novels, which, by odd circumstance, actually explains writers like this one. There is no need to write a novel with this level of problematic research, and, in fact, it reduces one's readership these days, but at least I can explain their existence. Technically (since I'm pretty sure some of you want to know) they're time travel novels, but in reality they're action thrillers. For action thrillers pacing and tension and plot twists are far more important to credibility than accuracy of setting. As in Crichton's Timeline, though, the science gets a major focus, so SF readers are likely to be lured in.

It's not a bad book (though the non-science research is shocking) but it really needs a genre tag to keep some of us out. I guess this means I have another example to balance Crichton's in my book, so reading it wasn't time wasted - it wasn't time spent happily, though.

Women's History Month - guest post by Satima Flavell

Satima Flavell is a Perth-based writer, editor and reviewer. Her first novel, The Dagger of Dresnia, book one of The Talismans trilogy, is due for release shortly from Satalyte Publishing. When she’s not writing, Satima is generally mucking around on Facebook or lurching about in a dance class as either teacher or student. You can find out more at

Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by genealogy, and as soon as the internet became generally available, I took advantage of its potential for family history research. For five years, I spent my days doing little else but researching the lives of my British forebears. When I wasn’t at the computer, I was at the State Library, hunting down records. I managed to trace all my family lines back to the mid-1700s, and there were several that I was able to track back to medieval times.

In most cases, I know little of the people behind the names. I know when they were baptised, married and buried, but only in a few cases have I learnt enough about them to piece together some kind of biography. Sometimes, by looking at the social and political history of the times, it is possible to imagine what kind of lives our ancestors must have had, and all too often, it is obvious that they were not the favoured children of fortune.

Like everyone else, I have eight great-great grandmothers, and I name them here in love and reverence: Mary Gledhill, Edna Hemingway, Rebecca Mason, Eliza Wittington, Mary Ann Woodnorth, Mary Hartill, Susannah Jane Brookes and Raylee Bradley. That last name is something of a surprise – somehow, we don’t expect women born in 1815 to be called Raylee!

All these women were homemakers for much of their lives, but some did their home-making in more comfort than others. None of them was what you’d call well-off: their husbands all worked at semi-skilled trades or as manual labourers. On my father’s side (his forebears came from the Black Country of Staffordshire) the men were, without exception, coal miners, and some of their wives made nails at home, under contract to an iron-master. On my mother’s side, the men were employed in the woollen industry in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and their wives did not work outside the home. Mary and her Yorkshire-bred sisters would have enjoyed slightly better conditions than my Black Country foremothers, some of whom lived in two-roomed cottages with earthen floors.

Given that Mary Gledhill married at sixteen and had eleven children, including one mentally disabled daughter, and that she also brought up one of her grandchildren, it is saddening to know that when her husband, William Kilburn, died in 1854, she was obliged to go back to work as a labourer in a mill – at the age of sixty! No Widows Pension in those days, my friends, and very little charity. Even my mother, Mary’s great-granddaughter, spoke of ‘the workhouse’ in shuddering tones as being a fate worse than death.

Mary died in 1866 at the age of seventy-one. She would have lived her entire lived in cramped, possibly unsanitary conditions – flush toilets had existed before she was born in 1795, but only the very wealthy could afford them. She would have seen several outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever and no doubt seen neighbours die of those and other infectious diseases.

She lived in interesting times. As a child, she would have heard of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow occurred in the same year she was married. She was a young married woman when the first steam trains came into service. In middle age, she would have been amazed by reports of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and perhaps saddened by news of the war in Crimea. No doubt she would have heard of the work of Florence Nightingale, and praised her for it.

In the span of Mary’s lifetime, the lives of working people improved considerably. Her children were able to better themselves, thanks to the laws that forced mill owners to give their under-aged employees two hours of education a day. And of course, Mary’s grandchildren would have benefited from compulsory schooling and child labour laws that were passed in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

So ‘I dips me lid’ to Mary and the countless other women of that generation who spent their lives with few comforts, hardly any entertainment, and constant worry about money and health. I only wish they could have had the happy and comfortable old age that I’m enjoying now!

Women's History Month - guest post by Shana Worthen

Dr. Shana Worthen is a historian of medieval technology. She's published articles on the iconography of windmills, and on Lynn White, jr.; and teaches for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, although she lives in the UK. Eating tasty and thought-provoking food is a favorite hobby. She's helping to organize Loncon 3, this year's Worldcon, which you should all come to.

The first published English novel by a woman was written by Lady Mary Wroth. She also is the first Englishwoman known to have written a complete sonnet sequence. And she wrote at least one five-act play. Her accomplishments are impressive!

I first consciously heard of her when I moved near to where she had once lived, and started reading up on locals. How could I not be interested in fantastical literature written by a seventeenth-century woman?

Niece of Sir Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney, Wroth is usually referred to by the surname gained through her unhappy marriage rather than her maiden name, which was the same as her famous aunt's married name. She was well connected on all sides of her family. Her mother, Glamorganshire heiress Barbara Gamage, was Sir Walter Raleigh's first cousin. Her father, Governor of Flushing as a result of his service in the war against Spain, was made Earl of Leicester in 1618. She hung out in Queen Anne's court. Ben Johnson dedicated The Alchemist to her, and praised her writing.

I almost bought some of her writings at the Medieval Congress at Leeds a few years ago, but Gillian beat me to the one copy they had. Despite being foiled by her promptness, she's also why I've finally read large swathes of The Countess of Montgomeries Urania. Committing to write this post ensured I finally got my own copy.

And so I've been reading the convoluted tales within tales of the relationships among the sprawling cast of the novel. Of Urania's crush, and then her first real love, which is erased by being thrown from a magical rock into the ocean, so she can be reused in a new romance. Of Pamphilia, "loyallest lady" to her often-unrequited object of affection, Amphilanthus, as she carves poems - but never his name - in trees. Of faked deaths. Giants. Lots of fallen royalty living sadly in caves. Travel by magical little boats. Travel by shipwrecks. One despairing lover mistaken by an unrelated despairing lover for a goddess. New friends promising to put each other back on their rightful thrones. Almost everyone is royalty of some sort or other. Of the nearby Mediterranean and eastern Europe as a surreally fictional places, despite being written about in a time when English knowledge of the rest of the planet was increasing so rapidly. Lots of people compose poetry. One woman is cured of her bad poetry by water immersion.

I haven't even mentioned yet the periodic magical enchantments which capture various combinations of lovers in their toils. The frontispiece illustrates one of them, the Throne of Love in Cyprus, whose captive lovers must await the arrival of the "valiantest knight, with the loyallest lady".

The affordable abridged version which I'm reading also has wonderful summaries of the excised sections. My favorite thus far, and indicative of the narrative's convolutions: "The group gets on Parselius's ship bound for Italy, only to find it occupied by pirates. The courteous pirate captain Sandrigal knells to Urania, whom he mistakes for Antissia, the lost princess of Romania, committed to his care ten years earlier for a sea voyage to Achaya....". (p. 57) [Parselius is Pamphilia's brother. Antissia, who shows up elsewhere in the narrative, is also in love with Amphilanthus; she's also the one later cured of her bad poetry. Sandrigal is killed shortly after telling his story.]

This edition also has a family tree. And a map. (The characters collectively visit most of the places on the map.)

Pamphilia is an authorial stand-in, of sorts, as Amphilanthus is of William Herbert, Wroth's lover, and brother of Mary Sidney. Urania, erstwhile shepherdess and eventual Queen of Naples, is a stand-in for Mary Sidney. Many of the numerous relationships in the text echo and rework aspects of Mary Wroth's own life: her unhappy marriage to Sir Robert Wroth, a Verderer of Epping Forest, in west Essex; her ongoing passion for her aunt's brother, who fathered the two children she had after her husband's death.

I have managed to write of her thus far with scarcely a word which she herself wrote. She wrote in eager phrases, lengthy series of them joined together into sentences; and in tightly-edited poetic verses, which occasionally appear, as written by one of the characters.

Here, then, is a brief example of travel by shipwreck:

"At last they were quite carried out of the gulf and, being in the Adriatic Sea, the ship was tossed as pleased destiny, till at last she was cast upon a rock and split, the brave ladies saved while she awhile lay tumbling and beating herself, as hoping to make way into the hard stone, for those who could pierce the stoniest heart with the least of their looks." (p. 126)

The shipwreck has brought them to another enchantment, the enchantment of the Theater, where they rapidly end up lured in by glorious music and trapped. It's just another day in the extremely eventful lives of four of the main characters.

Urania was published in 1621, a roman-à-clef that scandalized many of her contemporaries, both because she was a woman and because of some peoples' suspicion that particular fictionalized episodes were libelous representations of themselves. While Wroth formally distanced herself its publication, the book had her name all over the title page (relatively speaking) and she wrote a sequel, albeit one which was not published until the twentieth century.

Much less is known about her life after the Urania controversy. That, plus debt, plus alienation from court life, perhaps thanks to her affair, led to greater obscurity. She left fewer traces in the surviving paperwork as she aged; but at least she kept her lifelong passion for writing.

Urania, Book 2, ends mid-sentence, breathlessly looking forward.