Poster girls, fairy tales, phantoms, and Pharaohs

Alison Lloyd's newsletter #2

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  • a free fairy story

  • poster girls for parliament

  • historical phantoms

  • another writing tip your teacher never told you

  • and a bit of Pharaonic pomp

Fairy Story

Do you like fairytales? In the 2021 NYC Midnight competition Round 1 (with 6000 entrants!), my challenge was to write an original fairytale about an animal lover and exhaustion, in a week. Yesterday I found out that I’m through to the second round! To celebrate, I’m putting up my story as a freebie on my website. You can download it via this link:

This weekend I’ll be madly scribbling another story on an unseen prompt, in three days this time. Wish me luck!

Parliamentary Portraits

Recently someone suggested hanging pictures of women in the halls of Australia’s parliament. They thought it would encourage a less male-dominated environment. Social change probably takes more than refurbishing the décor. But it got me thinking, which notable women would I pick for parliamentary portraits?

You may not realise that no women were elected here until WWII – that’s a whole century after men began to be enfranchised. So with a shortage of female MPs, I’m widening the criteria to women who represented the community’s interests in less formal ways. First up is Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877), mostly because she has a connection of sorts with Easter.

When Caroline Chisholm arrived in NSW in 1838, men outnumbered women in the colony by 5:2. To correct the gender imbalance, the British Government was sponsoring single women’s fares to the colony. But once they arrived, Sydney was desperately short of accommodation. Girls in their teens were arriving fresh off the boats with nowhere to go, except caves on the foreshore. Many were lured or forced into unsafe temporary liaisons with men, then abandoned into prostitution.  

Mrs Chisholm was ‘struck forcibly’ by the situation. As the wife of an officer, Mrs Chisholm was well-housed herself and part of the colonial elite. She decided something should be done for vulnerable arrivals.

‘I felt sure that God in his mercy would not allow so many poor creatures to be lost… On the Easter Sunday, at the altar of Our Lord, [I made] an offering of my talents to the God who gave them. I promised to know neither country nor creed, but to try to serve all, justly and impartially.’

She lobbied the colonial authorities in her social set to fix the homelessness. ‘All acknowledged the need,’ she commented later, ‘though thought the thing impossible.’ And some, particularly in the Anglican church, were less impartial than Mrs Chisholm herself, and were unwilling to cooperate with a Catholic woman.

Caroline Chisholm eventually persuaded Governor Gipps to let her have the use of an empty, rundown barracks in Bent Street. (There’s a skyscraper on the site now, up the top of the hill near the Domain, if you know Sydney.) Mrs Chisholm left her children in their genteel home, and set up an office in the barracks. The first night she was invaded by rats. The next night, undeterred, she fed the rodents milk laced with poison. Then she opened up Australia’s first women’s refuge and employment agency. Unexpectedly, she had trouble finding good positions for attractive girls. Single men liked pretty maids for the wrong reasons, in Mrs Chisholm’s opinion, and wives didn’t want them around their spouses either. Nevertheless, she managed to place 1400 women in work in a year. After her return to England in 1846 she continued to promote emigration by families, including the families of convicts.

You can argue that Caroline Chisholm contributed to the colonisation that displaced indigenous Australians from their lands. By her time, European settlement was a near-unstoppable tide – 40,000 free settlers arrived in Australia from 1838-1841.  

Mrs Chisholm did not focus on the welfare of Aboriginal people. But she did seek to stop the degradation of women, without discriminating as to their ethnicity, religion or class, and despite official prejudice and apathy. For that, I would make her a parliamentary poster girl.

Caroline Chisholm also has a cameo role in my Our Australian Girl: Meet Letty books, if you have a young reader in your life.

From my Bookshelf

Ghost Wall, by UK author Sarah Moss, is a rare thing: a short novel. I found it an unsettling, tense read — not what you'd expect in a story about a group of uni students and enthusiasts re-enacting Iron Age life over their summer holidays. Beyond that, it's about family, commuity and violence. The 'ghost wall' of the title refers to an Iron Age rite, but it also suggests the wall between the past and the present is not as solid as we think. I like the way teenage main character Silvie flips our usual conception of the past here:

That was the whole point of re-enactment, that we ourselves became the ghosts, learning to walk the land as they walked it two thousand years ago, to tend our fire as they tended theirs... To do it properly, I thought, we would almost have to be absent from ourselves, leaving our actions, our re-enactions, to those no longer there. Who are the ghosts again, us or our dead? Maybe they imagined us first. Maybe we were conjured out of the deep past by other minds. 1

I think this is some of the reason why I write historical fiction — we have an intimate connection with the past. It isn't so far away. It has shaped us and still does.

Writing Tips your Teacher didn’t tell you

Tip#2: Cut extra padding

Last time I said that good writing communicates what you need to say. Today’s tip is to write less words. Because

[I’m thinking that] [sometimes] we [quite often like to] stuff [our] sentences [full] with [a lot of] extra [little] words that [really help to] clog [up the] meaning [so much].

SEE? Versus:

We stuff sentences with extra words that clog meaning.

Or even:

Don’t clog sentences with extra words.

Isn’t that cleaner and clearer?

Watch out for qualifying words. Pervasive culprits include: just, really, very, actually, quite, seems, like, generally, mostly, especially, all, a lot… They’re weeds that I’m forever slashing from my lines. You can too. Be brave. Be ruthless! Set your message free of padding.

Just for Fun

Last week several dynasties worth of sarcophagi moved house when Egypt opened a new museum. The parade was less historically accurate than the average Hollywood epic, but I think the Pharaohs would have enjoyed the fuss and pomp. If you want to watch the 2 hour original it’s on Facebook. I liked this pic for its ancient-goes-modern irony:

Perhaps the selfie was for his mummy? (Antiquated pun, I know :( )

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Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss, Granta, 2018 p 34