June 9th, 2011

Living With Ghosts

Women and Fantasy: tell me why 2. Clemence Housman, Claudia J Edwards and Sheila Gilluly

When I put together my first (shortish) list of names, most of them were people I was sure other people than me knew and loved, like Tanith Lee and Judith Tarr and Hope Mirrlees. But there were one or two names that went on simply and solely because they matter so much to me. The women, if you like, of my private writing pantheon. One of these is Clemence Housman, feminist, philosopher and writer. No-one seems to know much about her, and I only came across her by accident, years ago, when I was noodling about in the obscurer parts of Arthurian bibliography. Her The History of Sir Aglovale de Galis may well be the oddest Arthurian novel I've ever read, as well as being a serious reflection on the nature of faith and betrayal. I've yet to read any of her other books. They are on my 'dig this out of the Cambridge university library' list, though. I have high expectations. She could write.

Then there's Claudia J Edwards, author -- as far as I know -- of four short, gem-like novels in the later 80s. She started a series with her fourth novel which seems never to have been published after that first book. I don't know why. The first of hers I read was A Horsewoman in Godsland, which I bought because of that quirky title and loved. A strong heroine -- not one of those faux-feisty child-women who infest our genre these day, but a real adult with sense and experience and toughness of the spirit. A great plot. A strange, convincing society. All within the bounds of under 200 densely printed pages. She reminded me of one of my very favourite writers, the late, wonderful Thomas Burnett Swann. I'd come across Swann in my mid-teens and been blown away by his ability to tell a complete, complex story with real characters in about 70k words or less. Edwards does this and more. Swann riffed off familiar stories and places -- the Italy of the Aeneid, the Crete of Theseus and the Minotaur, England in the 17th century -- and he did it superbly. But he could rely on the reader knowing about Rome and Dartmoor, centaurs and dryads. Edwards created complete secondary worlds in her concise, precise prose. I loved it and admired it and have tried ever since to learn her precision. Someone told me that her career took a turn away from writing. If so, I hope one day she'll come back and tell us more of her sharp, knowing, clever tales.

Sheila Gilluly is something else again. I know two or three Edwards fans. Nobody but me (and the marquis, who gets no choice) seems to remember her. Nobody seems to know anything about her. She published six novels between 1989 and 1993 and then no more. And she was a wonderful, wonderful writer.
It's hard to explain why I love her books, because I love them so much. Like Judith Tarr's The Hound and the Falcon series, these are books of my heart. They exist right in the centre of that space of things I love, things that resonate, things that make me shiver and smile and cry. She writes about power and its cost, about immanence, about loss and expediency, about determination and ambiguity and compromise. She writes about adults. She takes a classic fantasy trope -- the missing heir, the prophecy -- and makes it harsh and real and difficult. There are no happy endings, no sentiment, no slushiness. Her characters age and make hard choices and live with it. Like Judith Tarr, she taught me that there was space for me. She taught me that it was okay to write about women who don't always win, who have to do the painful thing, the needful thing, rather than the romantic one. I wish she'd published more books. I live in hope that one day I will meet someone who knows her, who can tell her 'thank you' from me, because I really, really want to say that.


So I've red-penned the first fifteen chapters of Grass King. I think it'll do. I hope so. I think I like it.
The first 50 pages in ms (single spaced) include an earth tremor, a magical bargain, a riot, a zonbie, and a dust-storm. Is that exciting enough, do you think?

Very ded now.

Skirt of the day: long blue cotton.