Tags: writing.

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.
Goth marquise

Fantasy names: a rant.

So, one of the charges often levelled at fantasy is that it's full of polysyllabic names and that that's totally unrealistic. Because, y'know, in the Real World (TM), everyone is called Bob or Sue. Just everyone.
This, with respect (okay, with minimal respect) is nonsense. The Real World is full of all sorts of names and naming customs. And, frankly, as a complaint, it's riddled with entitlement. I, the reader, want everything to be easy for me and familiar to me. I don't want to face difference. It's scary.
Bollocks to that. Language -- language in its widest sense, meaning all those wonderful, contradictory, baffling, eloquent, elegant, fluid, magical, changeable, ways in which we communicate and miscommunicate with one another -- is one of our greatest gifts and challenges and tools. Languages are rich and nuanced and redolent and textured. Language is one of our greatest adventures.
And I, for one, want to go on those adventures. I don't want to read about worlds that are exactly like mine, to see only my own practices and expectations and ideas mirrored. I want to be shocked and scared, challenged and surprised, baffled, frustrated, delighted, awakened, expanded. I want to learn.
And I don't learn in a landscape where everyone is limited by one set of rules, where it's only 'realistic' for characters to be called Boyon and Girla (or, for daring writing, Boyol and Girlie). That isn't the world I live in now, for heaven's sake.
Reality check. Not everyone has a name like Bob or Sue. Even within my own white British culture, I know or know of Elizabeths and Bartholemews, Susannahs and Benedicts, Annabels and Julians. Not all of them are Liz or Bart, Sue or Ben, Anne or Jules, either. And if we lift those cultural blinkers, the wider world has and uses proudly, happily, longer names every single day. Saraswati. Paradorn. Ssima Be-Ping. Hideyoshi. Hitomi. Bronislav. Go and look at Thai names, or Indian ones, or even Irish. Conchubhair. Mael-Sechlainn. Derbhorgaill. We are not all white and Germanic. We are not all uniform, nor should we be.
And I won't fit my characters with the strait-jacket of lazy (culturally privileged?) reader expectation. Most of the names I use derive from Old French, Middle English and Welsh. Some of those are short -- Aude, Jehan. Some of them aren't -- Thiercelin, Gracielis.
Name vary, people. Names and naming conventions differ with time, with culture. Some times and cultures allow for abbreviations or pet names -- Thierry, Sue, Pinky. Some add syllables to indicate intimacy or respect -- Ryouga-kun, Mo-Colum. My characters don't live in a world defined by my junior school, which was in a white-bread small village. They don't have to end with the suffixes that make my culture-mates feel comforted. They aren't me. They aren't Jane-from-Basingstoke or Jack-from-Poughkeepsie, either. If I want to read about Jane and Jack, Ill buy a book set in those sort of places. If I find Jane in Fantasyland, her writer needs to convince me that Jane is a natural fit in that place -- and that that place is real in itself and not just Basingstoke with dragons. (Actually, Basingstoke with dragons might be an improvement. But you know what I mean.)
When William Morris made his translations of Old Norse sagas, he adapted the female names he found in them so that they ended in -a, enforcing Latin grammatical practice and (in part) naming practices on 12th century Scandinavia. It looks and sounds wrong. Like 19th century contemporaries who, following the fashion for Anglo-Saxon revivals, gave their daughters Old English names (Ethelberta), he was blinkered by his own cultural expectations.
Fantasy needs to be bigger than that. So, don't go telling me I have to stick to Boyon and Girla. This world I write about is not the world right outside your door. The Real World is bigger than your street. And so should fantasy be.