The obvious answer is it’s a book in which sex is the central focus and is described graphically. In other words it is aimed at the reader who likes to read about people having sex.
But what is the difference between an erotic novel and novel that’s about sex?
It’s a question that comes up again and again in my case. My first novel in The Roaring Twenties seriesis about a fifty-something woman and mother of three who discovers the joys of sex for the first time.
Claudia is a typical product of her time: born in straitlaced Victorian Britain and brought up to consider sex as a duty rather than a pleasure (like homework), and for the purpose of pro-creation only. So the discovery, partly thanks to Marie Stopes, that it can be indulged in for its own sake, and be immensely pleasurable, comes as an overwhelming surprise to Claudia in her middle age.
So the book concerns the effect this discovery has on what has become a pretty humdrum life for Claudia; three daughters all married and left home; archaeologist husband almost permanently absent oversees; living alone in a house that’s too big for her with nothing to do. Claudia’s life has effectively ground to a halt.
The discovery – her ‘awakening’ – opens her eyes to a world that is in the process of going through massive change: in fashion, ideas, morality and above all, in expectation. Women have the vote (some of them). They are even winning seats in the Parliament. Corsets are passé, skirts are getting shorter, night clubs are filled to the brim with bright young things dancing the Charleston. Claudia has a lot of catching up to do.
It’s an important topic (I think). But it’s not Fifty Shades of Grey. And Amazon won’t let me publicise Claudia, nor will many other outlets. And any other attempts to market the book tend to attract the wrong audience.
Perhaps it’s time for a rethink? Or a new category?
The first few scenes in my book The Worst Country in the World are set in a cottage in the village of Fiddleford, in Dorset, where my ancestress Mary Pitt was living, with her five children, when she made the momentous decision to emigrate to New South Wales in 1801.
May Cottage is a Grade II listed building and it still exists. However when I tried to visit it back in 2008 the current owners would not allow me past the back gate. All I had to go on, apart from official records, was the testimony, and some photos and floor plans, from a previous owner, the lovely – and now late – Olive Hall.
I knew May Cottage as a picture-postcard, two-storey thatched cottage with pink-washed walls. Two living rooms and a kitchen down, two bedrooms up. Not a lot of space for a family of six.
Then a few weeks ago the current owner, Phil Leahy-Harland, contacted me through the Pitt family history website to say he was restoring the property to its original glory and I was welcome to visit any time. For the first time since I set out on my family history adventure I was able to actually set foot inside my ancestral home – which, incidentally, my family never owned – and patch together some kind of biography of May Cottage, thus:
The house was originally built in 1684 and was known as the ‘Trout Alehouse’. It was leased to Mary’s husband Robert Pitt in 1766, and it was licensed up until 1770, the year he married Mary and when, presumably, it changed its name to May Cottage. The cottage was owned by the local squire, Lord Pitt Rivers, and at the time of Mary’s emigration she and her five children were living there ‘rent-free’ – presumably because the family was on hard times; hence their emigration to make their home in a penal colony.
Up until 1968 the house was unmodernised. The elderly couple who owned it did not use the upper floor; they turned the smaller of the two rooms downstairs into a bedroom and showered – with cold water – in the kitchen. Their toilet was an ‘elsan’ outside the back door. Olive and her husband added a bathroom on the upper level, and at some point the two downstairs rooms became one. An extension was added in 1992.
May Cottage might look immaculate from the outside but according to Phil it was almost falling down when he and his wife Sam bought it in 2015. The garden was a jungle and none of the previous restorations had been done properly. Gaps had been filled with Blu-tak, beams that had split had not been replaced, the walls and ceiling had moved several inches and were bulging in places. Fortunately for anyone who cares about these things, and especially for the Pitt family, Phil is now spending every spare moment restoring the place, with huge and painstaking care.
So was it what I expected?
Well the first thing that struck me was its size, and how Mary and her five children fitted into two bedrooms. The ceiling beams on which her cousin and patron George Matcham hit his head (in my book) isn’t quite as low as I had claimed, but the stairs leading to the upper floor were every bit as steep and uneven as I had been led to believe. Like all old cottages the windows are small (see below), so the place is dark, as I had correctly imagined.
Thrillingly, Phil discovered, carved into the brickwork, the initials ‘W P’ – not once, but three times. Who was ‘WP’? Well he could be anyone, but I like to imagine he was Mary’s eldest son William Pitt (who vanished to America and subsequent oblivion).
They have also discovered, in the hedgerows and in the skirting board, various items such as a fragment of an 18th century coffee cup and a one penny coin dated 1797, both of which may have belonged to Mary.
We are lucky, the Pitt family, that so many of the places our ancestors lived in – both in England and Australia – not only still exist but have been or are in the process of being properly restored. It warms the cockles of my heart to think that Mary and her descendants still exist in the fabric of the houses they lived in and the cups they may have drank out of.
Writing about droving and farming in 19th century Australia from a flat in north London?
… is quite a challenge, believe me, especially when the writer barely knows a heifer from a ewe.
I first blogged on this topic a year ago; I was about to embark on my latest oeuvre about my great great grandfather, who was a pioneer farmer and stock and station agent in remote 19th cenury New South Wales. I’d been putting it off thinking this is completely beyond me, but then I was reminded that that is precisely what I said about my first book The Worst Country in the World, about my original Australian ancestress.
I am not saying I have cracked it, but there are positive advantages to writing about unfamiliar topics, and the most obvious one is:
If you can take an unfamiliar subject about which you know nothing and find it interesting, then it should be possible to make it interesting to your readers.
We’ve all picked up a newspaper or maybe glanced at someone’s blog and found ourselves drawn in to a topic we didn’t think we had any interest in. It’s called good writing of course.
There’s another advantage: whatever I’m writing about there is no pretence. I am looking at things like cattle droving for instance with the fascinated and sometimes bemused eye of the outsider. Do cattle really behave like that? What do you mean all sheep are not the same?
To see what I mean take a look at my chapter on The Drover.I’d be interested in your comments.
As any family historian knows, we live for these breakthrough moments, but they come along very rarely.
My three times great grandmother was a convict called Mary Moore, transported to New South Wales in 1808 for 7 years for stealing items valued at £1.15s.6d. A few years after her first husband – my three times great grandfather – died she married again, another convict, Irish this time, called Robert Aull, and took her four children to live with him and his five children in Richmond, where he bought the license for a pub on what they called the “Yellow Munday’s” (Yarramundi) Lagoon, which he named the General Darling.
As tended to happen in those days once she married Mary disappeared from the records. She had appeared in a previous census as a shopkeeper, but from the date of her marriage in 1829 she vanished off the apparent face of the earth. Two niggles stopped me from thinking she lived happily ever after with her new hubby: the 1841 census – where she did not appear to be living with him – and the fact that she was buried in the name of Mary Johnson, after her first marriage.
I was searching for Robert Aull in Trove – the Australian digitised newspaper website – and had got to the stage where all that was cropping up were the odd Robert and ‘aull’ in place of ‘all’ when Eureka: I came upon the notice, inserted in The Colonist three times and The Sydney Morning Herald once by her hubby, announcing her sudden and obviously unwelcome departure from the family home. I’ve no idea where she went, but the tone of the ‘advertisement’, as that is what it was, makes it very clear Robert was not pleased; worse, he makes her sound like a runaway convict, or even a stolen cow, threatening anyone found ‘harbouring’ her.
The moral of the tale is keep looking: even when you think you’ve exhausted the records there may just be a nugget of gold awaiting you.
I realise this is of minority interest, but for the record – even if it’s only my record – here is how to find your way through the 1828 New South Wales census.
Online resources are wonderful, but they aren’t always complete, as I’ve recently discovered.
As an example the New South Wales census of 1828, which was the first comprehensive census of all the inhabitants of the new colony, convict and free, is available online in its original form – ie, handwritten – through ancestry. So far so good.
I was looking for my three times great grandmother Mary Johnson, nee Moore (GM Pitt’s mother in law). Searching through ancestry I came upon a one-page facsimile of the census (above) listing her as ‘Mary Johnston’, her age (40), status (FS – Free by Servitude), the ship she arrived on (Eolus), sentence (7 yrs), occupation (shopkeeper) and place of residence (George Street, Sydney), and her children. Yet my genealogical aunt Barbara seemed to find evidence of two servants who were working for her, who I could find no trace of online. So I went in search of the book.
The book, painstakingly edited by Malcolm R Sainty & Keith A Johnson (Public Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1980) and available in the British Library contains copious instructions and forewords and introductions, and no fewer than three indexes. It also spells out exactly what the 1828 census set out to discover, viz:
What are the respective names, ages and conditions of the persons residing with you in your dwelling-house?
What are the respective names, ages, conditions and residences of all such other persons, as may be in your service and employment?
Specify the respective years and ships in, and by which, all of such aforesaid persons as originally came to the Colony Prisoners of the Crown, arrived?
What are the respective numbers of horses, horned cattle, and sheep, of which you are the owner; and in whose possession, and in what district are the same respectively?
What is the number of acres of land of which you are the proprietor, in what district is the same, how much thereof is cleared, and how much cultivated, and in whose possession is the same?
So if you think your ancestor may have had anyone working for him or her, here is what you do:
Look up their surname in the main index. This will give you the page number where you find out their basic details (name, age, status etc, as illustrated above).
Look up their surname in the cross reference index. Against their name you will find other references, such as – in Mary’s case – R381 and R1480.
Look back through the main index for, in this case, R381 and R1480, and you should find the names and details of people working for Mary (or whoever): viz ‘Thomas Rowland, 40, GS (Govt servant), arrived Tottenham, 1818, L (life), P protestant, occupation Pipemaker, employed at Mary Johnston, George St Sydney’.
That’s it. Easy when you know how.
NB: Names are often spelt differently – in this case Mary appears as both Johnson and Johnston; two of her convict servants appear under Johnson, one under Johnston, and one has no employer specified. So yes, we could be talking about two Mary Johnson/Johnstons here, both living in George Street. But that is a conundrum I have yet to solve…