Monthly Archives: September 2013

My chat with author Alison Jameson

little-beauty-alison-jameson

Recently I met with author Alison Jameson to chat about writing and about ‘Little Beauty’, her wonderful third novel. Our interview can be found here.

Last month I met with Irish author Alison Jameson in the lovely, bustling surroundings of Cinnamon cafe in Ranelagh, Dublin 6. We were there to discuss her third novel, Little Beauty, and her very successful writing life. Recently returned from Portland, Oregon, where she spent a year with her husband and young son, Alison is incredibly busy responding to the warm and well deserved reception that her new book has provoked. Little Beauty is set, for the most part, in 1970s rural Ireland and tells the story of Laura, the unconventional island-dwelling central character who, after a horrendous start in life, is left to deal with the consequences of going her own way in defiance of the stifling, judgemental community amongst which she lives.

As we settle down with a couple of coffees I admit that I’m absolutely intrigued by Laura, a fantastic character and a free spirit who suffers the consequences of being different. As the story progresses, Laura is orphaned early, betrayed by her neighbours and besotted with her child, the delightful product of an unsanctioned liaison of the type not tolerated in the Ireland of that time. I ask Alison if she deliberately set her novel in 1970s Ireland, a time when women were still judged harshly yet were on the cusp of making great progress. Surely a ‘Laura’ would fare better today? She agrees that this is largely the case, but expresses reservations that we may not have come as far as we think; she is convinced that even in these more tolerant times a woman who behaved as Laura did would, at very least, be considered slightly eccentric and perhaps be treated with suspicion.

Although Alison tells me that she was comfortable writing about the 1970s because, ‘I really like that era, and it’s a very interesting time in Ireland’, she admits that this is in some ways a fortuitous coincidence as she, ‘wanted to end the novel in a contemporary sense’, therefore for technical reasons, the bulk of her story needed to be set then. This thought process gives me some insight into how carefully Alison structures a story and the meticulous planning that goes into crafting each novel. She elaborates: ‘I slightly wrote the book back to front. People generally think of books as being made up of chapter one, two, three and so on but I tend to think and write in a circle, and then fit all the elements into that circle. With this book I wrote the last part first and that’s the part I really wanted to write about’. When I tell her that it works brilliantly, she smiles modestly in response.

Some of the themes in Little Beauty, like motherhood and death, are huge, emotional topics and Alison confirms that, in keeping with many accomplished authors, she taps into her own personal experiences in order to get the tone right. Life threw plenty of material her way. While she was writing Little Beauty Alison became a mother and lost her father. So profoundly did the experience of having a child affect her thinking that she abandoned the book as it was and began to rewrite it from scratch; not something to be undertaken lightly. I wonder if that level of authenticity is important to her. ‘Definitely’, she says emphatically, adding, ‘as a writer it’s important to write about things you have insight into’. As motherhood is a central theme in her story, she believed that it was particularly important to get this right and readily acknowledges that having a baby, ‘just brought out this whole other rainbow of emotions’.

Fortunately Alison’s agent, Faith O’Grady was completely supportive and agreed that what mattered was that this book simply had to be the best book she could write at that time and no less than that; if that involved a rewrite then so be it. Alison is very appreciative of this support as it allowed her to change her book dramatically and turn it into something extraordinary. It was a brave move but one that she regards as unavoidable as well as ultimately very rewarding.

Along with motherhood and death, superstition is a strong theme running throughout the novel. The book’s island setting, a place where people are confined by the elements and have a great respect for the sea, facilitates this and Alison succeeds in exploiting the theme very effectively. The claustrophobia of Irish society and the suspicion directed towards deviant people, particularly women, is perfectly encapsulated. We discuss this and both agree that the pressure to conform and to join in with the condemnation of any individual who refuses to fit in is strong.

This really is an essential element in her plot and once again her life experience fed into this aspect of the story. Growing up in rural Ireland during the 1970s, Alison believes that, although she was very young, she was, ‘obviously absorbing things I saw’. This understanding, she feels, explains why she found it relatively easy to imagine the life of an unmarried mother living on an isolated island; the complex character of Laura came to her first. The intricate relationships Laura forms with her neighbours took a lot of work to construct and I tell Alison that she captures the multifaceted interdependence of an island community brilliantly. It certainly helps that she, ‘finds great richness’ in communities such as those she discovered when she visited the West coast of Ireland at a time when she was immersed in the writing process. Little Beauty’s ‘Inis Miol Mor’ is fictitious but familiar at the same time.

‘Settings are so important for me as a writer’, she says, ‘where you locate your book really matters, the weather, the scenery, the atmosphere, the type of people and what they do are all really, really important’. She places great emphasis on the unique ‘Irishness’ of her books and believes that our national psyche is a rich and rewarding thing for Irish writers to tap into.

Little Beauty is a nuanced book and readers are allowed to decide on the appropriateness of the dramatic and often potentially damaging acts perpetrated by its characters. Alison is very clear on her decision not to set it all out in black and white, ‘I try not to tie up every little loose end’, she says, ‘real life is about questions and you don’t have the answer to everything’. There’s great wisdom and skill involved in not seizing control and spelling everything out and I tell her that I admire her ability to allow the uncertainties to remain.

At times the story that Alison tells is deeply troubling and desperately sad, yet it is punctuated with flashes of truly uplifting humour. ‘I’m very pleased to hear that’, she laughs, adding, ‘I believe in life that even when things are really diabolical there is invariably something that somebody will say that is actually, genuinely funny’. Her characters are so authentic that, as I sit back to listen to her discuss them and explain their motivation so lucidly and with great passion, I find it almost impossible to remember that they are her creations rather than real, living, breathing people. My neglected coffee turns cold. This is a master class in characterisation.

I tell Alison that she writes brilliantly about old age and the vulnerability that it can bring. ‘Thank you’ she says before explaining that she believes we as a society engage in a lot of denial about the realities of aging. In fact one of the reasons she juxtaposes descriptions of young, vibrant characters with their older selves is to remind us that life is a continuum and that, as her late father once remarked, every old person, ‘was the apple of someone’s eye once’ – in their own mind they often are still.

I had heard Alison admit to an earlier interviewer that she would feel, ‘almost ashamed’ if she hadn’t pursued her drive to write. I find that very interesting and ask her to explain how she became a successful writer in such a difficult industry where talent alone, no matter how great, is no guarantee of success. ‘It’s getting harder by the day’, she laughs, adding, ‘the difference between when my first book (This Man and Me) was published in 2005 and now is vast. The whole industry has changed so much. Everything is taking so much longer people are so much more reluctant. It used to be an editor going, “Oh, I love that, great”. Now it’s, “I’ll have to check with 25 other people”.

‘Editors used to be much more willing to follow their gut, to fall in love with something’, she says wearily, adding, ‘everybody worries about their jobs now and there’s a much higher fear factor’. Yet she is adamant that she wouldn’t criticise anyone in the publishing industry and that it’s ‘a very brave decision to take on a novel’.

Alison Jameson wasn’t always a full-time writer. When she started writing in earnest, she was a director at advertising agency BBDO and struggled to fit her writing around this demanding role, but she always believed that it was where her true passion lay. Initially it was her short stories that attracted the attention of her highly respected agent, Faith O’Grady. After that there was really no stopping her. She admits that early, positive feedback was hugely important and became a key factor in deciding to write full-time, a decision she has never regretted as she plans to write for the foreseeable future. I assure her that I, for one am delighted to hear this.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our chat and I’ve gained some wonderful insights into the writing process. Alison’s third novel, Little Beauty is a thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read, and, all going well, we can look forward to reading many more gems from the pen of Alison Jameson. In fact she confirms that she has, ‘the idea, the setting and a fair bit of the work’ done for the next one already. Alison’s humility does her credit and she finishes by telling me that what excites her most is to see her style developing and changing as she learns her craft.

(c) Eleanor Fitzsimmons

Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer, journalist and occasional broadcaster. Her work has been published in the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Irish Times and a number of other publications, and she is a contributor to the http://www.theantiroom.com podcast and blog. More recently she worked as the researcher on a number of prime time television programmes for RTE, including ‘What Have The Brits Ever Done For Us’ and the IFTA-winning ‘Bullyproof’. In 2012 she returned to UCD, graduating with an MA (first class honours) in Women Gender and Society. She realised that uncovering women’s hidden history is her true passion and at present is writing a biography of Harriet Shelley, first wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her agent is Andrew Lownie and further details can be found at http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/authors/eleanor-fitzsimons/books/a-want-of-honour-the-short-life-and-tragic-death-of-harriet-shelley

She lives in Dublin with her husband and two children.

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Deadly Sensationalism: Female Suicide by Drowning in the Victorian Era

I feel very proud to have an article in the September/October issue of History Ireland. It’s a wonderful and fascinating magazine, and well worth spending €7 on. Here’s a version of my article on female suicide in the nineteenth century – admittedly not the most uplifting topic.

Millais' Ophelia

The words of medical doctor and coroner, William Wynn Westcott, articulated in 1885, still hold true today:

‘In every age of the world, and in the history of every country, we find instances more or less numerous of men and women who, preferring the dim uncertainty of the future to the painful realities of the present, have sought relief from all their troubles by suddenly terminating their own existence.’

Although we fall far short of adequately tackling that scourge of despair which persuades vulnerable people to doubt their worth to the extent that they chose to end their lives, we can take consolation from the fact that in our time we have developed a more sympathetic approach to mental illness than was demonstrated by our predecessors. Our contemporary attitude to the tragedy of suicide is characterised by compassion and it seems barely credible that such an anguished flight from torment was decriminalised in Ireland as recently as 1993.

For many centuries we in Ireland were subject to English common law and our legal system retains to this day strong echoes of a code that once deemed ‘self-murder’ a grave felony. In England the act of suicide was declared illegal as early as the thirteenth century and although the ‘perpetrator’ had moved beyond the reach of the law, any property destined for their family could be seized by the state right up until the passing of the Forfeiture Act of 1870.

A ‘felo de se’, translated as ‘felon of himself’, was considered to have committed a shameful crime, an affront to God and the crown. As a result both they and the family they left behind were denied the posthumous consolation of a decent Christian burial. Until 1823 it was customary to bury suicides at the crossroads closest to the site of their ‘crime’ and as an extra precaution, the body might be interred in quicklime with a stake driven through the heart to prevent the restless spirit from rising.

The only recognised defence against ‘felo de se’ was acceptable proof of insanity, a state of mind that was difficult to establish. This was not an attractive prospect for a respectable family unwilling to accept the taint of mental illness, a poorly-understood affliction that would damage the marriage prospects of generations to come. As censorious court officials took no account of the anguish that must have hijacked the thoughts of those driven to end their lives, a family’s best hope was to conceal the details of their loved one’s death; a sympathetic coroner might be prevailed upon to suppress evidence of suicide and opt for misadventure instead.

This was the case during the inquest into the death of Harriet Westbrook of Chapel Street in London when her family persuaded John Henry Gell Esq., coroner for the City of Westminster, to declare that she had been, ‘found dead in the Serpentine River’, with no explanation as to how or indeed why. As the details of Harriet’s tragic death were largely kept from the papers the public learned little more than what was published in a short but intriguing report carried on page two of The London Times on Thursday 12 December, 1816:

‘On Tuesday a respectable female, far advanced in pregnancy, was taken out of the Serpentine River and brought to her residence in Queen Street, Brompton, having been missed for nearly six weeks. She had a valuable ring on her finger. A want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe, her husband being abroad’.

Few realised that the young woman, who was buried as ‘Harriet Smith’, was in fact Harriet Shelley, twenty-one year old wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and mother to their two children. She had been estranged from her husband for more than two years at the time of her death, but not by her choice, and the child she carried was not his.

Harriet Shelley was not the only literary wife to succumb to deathly despair. For much of her married life, poor, troubled Isabella Thackeray remained hidden from curious eyes, a situation that caused great embarrassment to Charlotte Brontë who was unaware of this when she dedicated Jane Eyre to William Makepeace Thackeray. In letters to his mother, Thackeray describes the repeated attempts that Isabella made to end her life. On one occasion, while travelling to Ireland by steamship:

‘The poor thing flung herself into the water (from the water-closet) & was twenty minutes floating in the sea, before the ship’s boat even saw her. O my God what a dream it is! I hardly believe it now I write. She was found floating on her back, paddling with her hands, and had never sunk at all.’

To thwart further attempts Thackeray tied, ‘a riband round her waist, and to my waist, and this always woke me if she moved’.

Had the lurid details of Isabella’s distress or Harriet’s lonely death been widely known, there were many who would have revelled in their tragedy. Although then as now many more men than woman took their lives, female suicide by drowning was a phenomenon that preoccupied the chattering classes throughout the nineteenth century.

Such tragedies were sensationally reported on by the popular press and read vicariously by thousands. In fact so pervasive was this unhealthy obsession that English physician George Man Burrows, a man who dedicated much of his career to the understanding and treatment of insanity, grew increasingly exasperated and accused the ‘Cheap Press’ of directly contributing to an increase in suicides. In a lengthy treatise entitled Commentaries on the Causes, Forms, Symptoms, and Treatment, Moral and Medical, of Insanity, published in 1828, Borrows observed that:

‘Nothing is found so attractive as tales of wonder and horror, and every coroner’s inquest on an unhappy being who has destroyed himself is read with extraordinary avidity’.

Specifically linking the reporting of suicide with the act itself, he wrote:

‘No sooner is the mind disturbed by any moral causes, than the thoughts are at once directed, through these channels [newspaper reports], to mediate an act, which otherwise neither predisposition, despair, nor the nature of their insanity, would have suggested’.

Certainly by the mid-nineteenth century there was an appetite to develop an understanding of the effect that becoming obsessed with the details of a suicide might have on vulnerable people. An article entitled ‘Suicide: Its Motives and Mysteries’, published in the Irish Quarterly Review of 1857, outlined how the ‘excited curiosity’ that resulted from exposure to the details of a well publicised suicide might prompt people to visit the sites of these deaths. Once there the danger was that ‘empathetic imagination’ would lead these voyeurs to attempt to understand the ‘motives and sensations’ of the victim, and in extreme cases, ‘visionary power’ might cause someone preoccupied with a case to emulate the actions of the earlier victim.

Popular artists and writers of the day responded to this public appetite for the maudlin and graphic depictions of fallen women plunging out of windows or off bridges into the murky depths below were regularly featured in popular one-shilling novels, paintings and prints. William Shakespeare may have started the trend more than two centuries earlier with his description of sad Ophelia drowning amidst garlands of flowers; certainly performances of Hamlet were hugely popular at the time and John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia (above) was publicly exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852. Others, amongst them Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and the illustrator, George Cruickshank, enthusiastically took up the theme.

In Hardy’s Jude the Obscure the infant Jude is abandoned by his mother when she forsakes her violent, unhappy marriage and later drowns herself. Dickens, the most popular author of the day, revisited this theme several times. In The Chimes, published in 1844 as one of a series of instructive Christmas stories, he recounts the tale of Meg, an impoverished young widow driven to contemplate drowning both herself and her child but saved by the timely chiming of church bells. Dickens based Meg’s story on the real life case of Mary Furley who, in a desperate bid to avoid the workhouse, jumped off a bridge holding her infant child. Mary was rescued but her baby died and she was convicted of infanticide in April 1844.

The lure of a watery death seemed irresistible to fictionalised ‘fallen women’. In Oliver Twist Dickens has Nancy point to the Thames as it flows under London Bridge and say:

‘Look at that dark water. How many times do you read of such as I who spring into the tide, and leave no living thing to care for or bewail them? It may be years hence or it may be only months, but I shall come to that at last’.

Dickens showed genuine concern for London’s prostitutes and other ‘fallen women’. In 1847, along with his good friend, the philanthropist Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, he established Urania Cottage as a place of refuge and rehabilitation for these unfortunates. Here the regime was at variance with traditional houses of reform where harsh conditions were enforced in order to punish women. In Urania Cottage a woman was taught domestic skills, could learn to read and write and was offered a genuine opportunity to improve her lot.

History Ireland - Deadly Sensationalism Female Suicide by Drowning in the Victorian Era - The Drunkard’s Children by George Cruckshank

Cruickshank, a reformed alcoholic and Dickens’ first illustrator, produced a cautionary series of prints entitled The Drunkard’s Children. The last of these depicts a distraught young woman leaping to her death from a bridge and is colourfully captioned ‘…The poor girl, homeless, friendless, deserted, destitute, and gin-mad, commits self-murder’.

Several Irish writers embraced the theme. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1890, Oscar Wilde allows Lord Henry to tease Dorian thus:

‘Besides, how do you know that Hetty [Merton] isn’t floating at the present moment in some starlit mill-pond, with lovely water-lilies round her, like Ophelia?’

In Mrs. Warren’s Profession, published in 1894, George Bernard Shaw writes:

‘Liz [Mrs. Warren’s sister] went out one night and never came back. I know the schoolmistress thought I’d soon follow her example; for the clergyman was always warning me that Lizzie’d end by jumping off Waterloo Bridge.’

Such literary drowning was not confined to the Victorian era; John B. Keane set Sive in nineteen-fifties Ireland and took as his theme the vulnerability of an illegitimate young woman who drowns herself rather than enter into a forced marriage with an elderly farmer.

Had Sive survived she would have received scant sympathy. Attempting suicide was a crime punishable by imprisonment and young Irish women were often fished out of rivers and lakes only to be incarcerated as a result. Many ended up in Grangegorman Female Penitentiary, established in 1836 as the first prison for female inmates anywhere in the British Isles. In August 1841 twenty-five-year-old Catherine Booth, who worked as a servant in Ship Street in Dublin, received a sentence of thirty days in Grangegorman for attempting to drown herself. One month later fellow Dubliner, twenty-seven-year-old Hannah Walsh from Britain Street was sentenced to fourteen days for the same ‘crime’. In October 1841 seventeen-year-old Mary Walsh from Angelsea Street received identical treatment. Both she and Hannah Walsh were unemployed and destitute at the time.

Among the most tragic cases was that of Mary O’Flaherty, a thirty-four-year-old married woman who had lost five children in infanthood; all died of natural causes. In 1892, when her sixth infant fell ill, the distraught woman attempted to drown herself and her baby. The baby died but O’Flaherty survived and was acquitted of manslaughter on the grounds of insanity. Diagnosed as ‘melancholic’, she was admitted to the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum where she remained for the rest of her life.

Those most vulnerable to despair included the many thousands of Irish prostitutes who endured lives of unimaginable misery. A spate of suicide attempts among prostitutes in Galway followed the death of Mary Kate Costelloe, who drowned herself on September 20, 1888. Two days later Mary Reilly jumped into the same river shouting Costelloe’s name. She was rescued and jailed for thirty days. Later that same week Kate Dolan jumped in, declaring that she ‘would not put up with all the warrants and imprisonments’. As this was not her first attempt she received a sentence of six months. The matter did not end there. On 30 October Anne Owens declared she would, ‘follow her comrade Mary Costelloe and drown herself rather than go to jail’. She too was rescued and got thirty days.

In each case no attempt was made by the authorities to improve the lives of these desperate women. Instead they were simply rounded up, incarcerated in awful conditions and sent back onto the streets with even less chance of survival. For many this marked the start of a steady decline. Nowadays, although resources are stretched or sometimes simply not available, our approach is surely more enlightened and the notion of jailing someone in this way is unconscionable. We have some way to go yet but can take consolation in the fact that the Victorian romanticising of women driven by despair to drown or attempt to drown themselves coupled with the harsh, judgemental treatment meted out to them is no longer a feature of modern life.

Further Reading:

Broad, Richard, ‘Water and the Fallen Woman in Victorian Literature and Art’, 2010, University of London, Available from http://www.academia.edu

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, 1817-1840, ed. Gordon N. Ray, 4 vols., 1945, Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Hartley, Jenny. Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, 2009, York: Methuen

Luddy, Maria Prostitution and Irish Society: 1800-1940, 2008 Cambridge University Press

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September 3, 2013 · 8:48 am