Book Review - An Unreasonable Woman by Ivy May Stuart
Pretoria News - 18 May 2015
Review by: Dianne Low
Victorian heroine escapes to Natal
This book is a tribute to all the Victorians, both soldiers and ordinary men and women, who fought, lived and loved so far away from home.
The story starts in England in 1879, when the heroine Judith Armstrong is introduced. The illegitimate daughter of a Lord, she lives like a lady but is not accepted as one, or as a suitable friend or possible wife. She does not accept the restrictions placed on women by society and joins the Ladies National Association when it speaks out about The Contagious Disease Act which was used to control prostitution for the convenience of the men in the Armed Forces.
At an engagement party at the house next door, she meets Ralph Gilchrist, who is attending his sister's engagement, but she knows nothing can ever come of it. He is on leave from the army where he an officer in Her Majesty's 1st Dragoon Guards. After much thought, she decides the only way to escape a life full of Victorian rules, and find the freedom to live her life, is to join her friends at their mission station in Natal.
And so begins her journey to South Africa, just when the Zulu war is about to begin at Isandlwana. If you enjoy an historical novel, then you will enjoy this book. I was surprised by her final decision. I did not expect it from her after everything she had done to change her life. But did she find the freedom and the man she had been looking for?
Ivy May Stuart: 'There is no single truth'
Mail & Guardian - Friday, 24 April 2015
Ivy May Stuart answers our questions about her debut historical novel '? An Unreasonable Woman', which foregrounds the women's rights movement.
Describe yourself in a sentence.
I am always ridiculously enthusiastic and idealistic, no matter what life throws at me.
What was the originating idea for the book?
I began it shortly after my mother passed away. She was the last of her generation and, when I look back now, I wonder if part of the motivation wasn't the fact that our entire family history in this country disappeared with her.
Originally, I began writing random observations in a notebook, hoping to create something meaningful for my daughter; then the writing took on a life of its own. I don't remember exactly when my heroine, Judith Armstrong, appeared, but suddenly there she was: a forthright, rebellious young woman with a giant chip on her shoulder.
The Ladies' National Association to which she belongs in the novel was a Victorian women's group which fought for the rights of prostitutes servicing the British Army between 1869 and 1886. They were the first protest group composed entirely of women and - despite some violence and heavy opposition - they managed to get the abusive Contagious Diseases Act repealed.
Having created Judith, I wanted to see what would happen to her if she was taken from the rigidity of Victorian England and placed in a new world as my own grandmother had been. At the time the Anglo-Zulu war would have been on the go in Natal. To me this was a "happy" coincidence, as I had always been fascinated by the politics of that period and more particularly the Battle of Isandlwana.
Were the years you spent teaching significant?
As preparation for writing a historical novel (always my favorite genre) it didn't hurt that I taught both English and history.
At the time, my pupils were of school-leaving age and I was alerted to the absolute lack of interest in the women's rights movement among young girls. A typical reaction when the topic is raised is a sort of mild embarrassment. Very few girls are aware of, or interested in, the long history of the women's movement and just how difficult the struggle has been. It frightened me to think that our hard-won rights and freedoms could be eroded if women are not vigilant. From time to time we need to be reminded of just how tough life has been and can be for women.
Describe the process of writing the work. How long did it take?
I wrote for three years, at random times of the day or night. After the initial idea, I began to research to get a sense of time and place. Even then it still took a while for the novel to take shape in my head. The truth shifts and changes as you research. When I write I need to grasp on to and hold the different facets that I have glimpsed and beat them all into submission in my brain - every facet must interlock with and enrich the whole. Only then can I say that I have what I believe to be a final, truthful product.
Name some writers who have inspired you and tell us briefly why or how.
I love writers who allow me to see nature through the eyes of someone else. Here I am referring to authors like Sebastian Faulks and Barbara Kingsolver and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wordsworth. They share a sort of wonder at the universe that I often feel but find so hard to express.
Then, too, I enjoy writers who can weave a clever plot like John le Carré. His Cold War thrillers are masterfully written.
For characters that jump out of the page and inhabit your world, Jane Austen is an inspiration. I love her sly sense of humor and dedication to telling it like it is.
Do you write by hand, or use a typewriter or computer?
I sometimes take photographs as an aid to memory, but basically I have a notebook in which I jot down all sorts of observations, ideas and sometimes little sketches of things that are relevant to me. Otherwise, I view the advent of the computer as a minor miracle. I write and rewrite sentences and paragraphs, fiddling endlessly with structure and vocabulary, so writing by hand or typewriter would be out of the question for me.
What is the purpose of historical fiction?
They say that history is written by the victors but ultimately - just as there is no one single point of view in history - there is also no one single truth. For the people in the midst of making history, there is a strong temptation to shape their account to serve their needs. For that reason I believe that no interpretation of an important historical event or period should stand unchallenged. One purpose of historical fiction is to achieve balance, to give voice to the voiceless through an imaginary process of inhabiting a dissenting person of the period.
And then, of course, historical fiction is the ultimate in escapist reading. You move out of the world that you inhabit into another place and time, leaving the modern world behind. It's fun and educational at the same time. You learn about another reality; a less comfortable but perhaps richer world. If I am ever spirited out of this era into another by time machine, I am well-equipped to milk a cow, churn butter or even survive a Viking invasion.