Coffee break

I have written a fairy story suitable for our times. Aussies who want to buy themselves a coffee break, simply put some money in my paypal & send me your address. I’ll post you the story and one of my special recipes for something delectable to have with your coffee.

If you’d rather receive your coffee break material by email, then just pay me a suitable amount using the paypal button. Emailed coffee breaks can go to anyone in the world who has an email address. The only thing is… I set up the paypal button to deal with local postage, so you may want to allow for that when you decide how much your coffee break is worth.

If readers like this, I may do it again, after all, COVID-19 should not interfere with coffee breaks!

Not Being Alone

My site is going to move, so this is the last post for a little. I’ve decided to keep the blog active, because it’s been so much fun this month, so as soon as the move is complete, I’ll add to this series if there’s still a need for it. You need lots of good reading to keep you occupied in the meantime. Here it is:

In the realm of hide and seek… there is something by me and something about my work hidden in links. These pieces might take some searching…

Women’s History Month guest, Zena Shapter

Women’s History Month is nearly at an end. It’s an appropriate time to have another reflective piece, this time from Australian writer Zena Shapter. When we’re alive, we’re making history. Whether that history gets remembered is based on some complex factors. Awards matter, the amount of time and money spent by the publisher on publicity matters (that time and money is a vote of faith in the book, so readers are guided by it) whether prestigious journals review a work matters because that’s the name of a writer seen in a place that people use to assess quality – this and so much more. The discrepancies are real and the cultural context is critical. Each and every writer who hs thoughts on this sees them from a slightly different perspective. Our thoughts add up, when expressed, and change teh nature of how we discuss impact and influence. They might even change sales, eventually. Women are part of making history – let Zena show you how she does her part. Gillian

Women’s History Month – but why?

I don’t often blog about the parts of my day I spend being a mum (wait, don’t leave! This isn’t a blog about motherhood!)… but today I’m going to share this much with you – it’s a bit of an invisible job. The meals I cook are eaten, the clothes I wash are soon dirty, nobody sees the dirt I’ve already cleaned away, and the homework and assignments I help my 12yr-old and 14yr-old with is all absorbed… invisibly. So there’s often nothing to show for a day’s work.

Why am I sharing this with you?

Well, Women’s History Month has reminded me of the time I went to Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt to listen to crime writer Lenny Bartulin (De Luxe, The Black Russian), author/editor Jane Gleeson-White (Australian Classics, Double Entry and fiction editor of Overland Magazine), novelist/critic Emily Maguire (Smoke in the Room), and literary agent Sophie Hamley talk about the differences between men and women writers.

Author and Stella Prize co-founder Kirsten Tranter, our host for the evening, started off by presenting some fairly devastating statistics (compiled by VIDA) for women writers. We don’t get reviewed as much as men, we don’t get nominated for as many prizes, and we certainly don’t win as many awards.

So then, the question was out there – is this disparity due to the differences in the way men and women write?

In fact, are there any differences; or is it more the way we, as readers, judge men and women writers?

After joking about the sentimentality with which women are purported to write, the panellists each spoke about the complicated story that the statistics tell.

Sophie Hamley could honestly say that she reads submissions to her agency in a gender vacuum. Lenny Bartulin was a case in point. Having used his wife’s email address to submit his work to her, Sophie couldn’t be sure whether his ‘Lenny’ sign-off was a pseudonym or a real name.

Lenny himself noted that, as a bookseller, he’d never had a customer ask “where is the men’s/women’s writing”, whereas they often asked about subject matter and surely there’s nothing wrong with being interested in different things? For example, a 60yr-old man coming into his bookshop would never buy a book written by a woman, but that wouldn’t be a conscious decision – it would be because they enjoy reading things women don’t write about.

Jane Gleeson-White, herself the author of an accounting book with a mostly male audience, said that her Sudanese taxi driver earlier that night had given her a vehement answer to the question – of course, men and women write differently! He said:

“Women write with the most courage… women have the strength. Whereas men – they are always hiding!”

This led Emily Maguire to speak about the different life experiences men and women have around the world and how those experiences must of course inform their writing.

Which in turn spurred the audience to then question whether the subject matter women and men chose to write about actually stemmed from the culture influencing them, as they grow up.

Most likely so.

But if that’s the case, there are bigger forces underpinning the disparity that Kirsten’s statistics highlight.

Lenny concluded by reminding us that statistics only tell part of the story, whereas a bookshop tells you everything – because no one is ashamed of their preferences in a bookshop. Reviews and awards don’t influence sales much, he said, because when choosing books readers tend to only consider two things – what they like and what they perceive as quality (which they generally determine through in-shop recommendations and word-of-mouth).

So then, if women are selling books irrespective of gender, why be discontent about the imbalance when it comes to reviews and awards?

After listening to everyone talk last night, I think it comes down to one thing – recognition. When I cook a nice meal, I want my family to say thank you; when I give them clean clothes, I don’t just want the clothes shoved in a drawer – I don’t want my work to be invisible.

At the back of one of my all-time favourite books, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, there are fifteen pages entitled ‘Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale’. They are not real historical notes, but a fictional creation by Atwood, designed to highlight this exact point.

I know I’m a good mum, and I know the work I do for my family is important – hell, as a mum, I’m creating and building life. It’s just… (and this is why I understand where Kirsten and other supporters of The Stella Prize are coming from), the lack of recognition can sometimes get to you. Without it, we disappear from history.

Zena Shapter writes from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud. Author of ‘Towards White’ (IFWG 2017) and co-author of ‘Into Tordon’ (MidnightSun 2016 / Scholastic Distribution), she’s won over a dozen national writing competitions – including a Ditmar Award, the Glen Miles Short Story Prize and the Australasian Horror Writers’ Association Award for Short Fiction. Her short work has appeared in the Hugo-nominated ‘Sci Phi 
Journal’, ‘Midnight Echo’ (as well as their Australian Shadows Awarded ‘best of’ anthology), ‘Antipodean SF’ and Award-Winning Australian Writing (twice). Reviewer for Tangent Online Lillian Csernica has referred to her as a writer who “deserves your attention”. She’s a movie buff, keen traveller, story nerd, and inclusive creativity advocate, who’s founded community creativity projects for writers such as the ‘Art & Words Project’ and the award-winning Northern Beaches Writers’ Group. She’s also a writing mentor, editor, book creator, HSC English tutor, Service NSW Creative Kids Provider, and short story judge. Find her online via every major social media platform and

Not Being Alone

The wonderful thing about printed books is they go back hundreds of years. While in a perfect world we can all buy new boks (and I could make a living from my own) in the real world not everyone has that kind of income. For lovers of SF, here is some out of copyright literature for you to enjoy when you want to be taken away from it all.

Women’s History Month guest, Louise Zedda Sampson

One of the themes emerging this month is that we have to research aspects of women’s lives that are overlooked and that we should talk about them and that we should research and read, and then research and read some more. Louise Zedda Sampson looks at this from the perspective of cricket. It’s very reassuring. Gillian

Writing hidden histories: why I chose women’s cricket

By Louise Zedda-Sampson

People often ask me why I, someone not interested in sport, writes about cricket history. If you’d asked me if that’s what I’d be writing five years ago, I would have laughed. But all writers understand that once you see a glimmer of a story, you have to chase it down. This is exactly what happened with the cricket –not once, but twice.

When I was studying writing and editing at Melbourne Polytechnic, I was asked if I’d be interested in helping with a research project for a local cricket club: the Parkville Youlden Cricket club. Hungry for experience – and a new range of experiences – I accepted.

So, down the research rabbit hole I went. I visited local libraries to confirm residential addresses and requested records at the Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV). If PROV was closer to where I lived, I think I’d spend more time there just for fun. Looking in those boxes at handwritten records was satisfying on so many levels – especially when I found something that was relevant to my query. My main source of information, however, was Trove. It was easy to get lost in the last 100 years of news; lost in the words of the long dead; lost in words that were used differently somehow back then. It was such a joy and I was often absent for many hours on end.  

When I finally surfaced from the research rabbit hole, I’d collected quite a lot of information. I’d uncovered a few surprising facts for the cricket club – such as one of their founders, Harry Youlden, had owned the pub in the small country town of one of the team’s longstanding players, and that the cricket club had several competitive women’s teams in the years preceding WWII – they had what they needed to continue without me. But in my research, I’d found another story or ten that hadn’t been told.

Have I said yet how wonderful a source of information Trove is?

One story I’d uncovered was about a chap called David Scott. He was a Victorian sporting identity who’d had an enormous influence in the late 1800s. But, when I tried to validate certain news items, I found Scott appeared to be missing from the history books, other than as a passing mention here or there. David Scott was the co-founder of the sports emporium Boyle and Scott – an institution that had a lot to do with managing junior and local cricket clubs as well as selling sports supplies. Boyle and Scott were also instrumental in organising international and intercontinental cricket teams to play in Victoria, and promoting Australian cricket in general. Scott was a man of some influence, but because his partner Boyle was the well-known cricketer – a player of national standard on the Australian team against England – Scott was always in his shadow and did not find his proper place in the history books. I was able to pay Scott tribute by telling his story in 2015, 93 years after his death.

After this I put the cricket aside for several years. But, I was haunted by another uncaptured story: the beginning of women’s cricket in Australia. Over several years I purchased every book I could find that mentioned Australian women’s cricket, but nothing told the story I was looking for. Nothing captured the spirit of those first games: what it meant to be playing women’s sport in a climate that was not supportive. I then set out to honour the women’s story, as I did for David Scott and tell the world of their achievements.

There are plenty of untold stories about both men and women in history. What’s recorded and carried forward, however, depends on the societal view at the time. For example, my article provides ancestral links from one of the women cricketers to a prominent football family of today. However, the family hadn’t acknowledged, or were unaware of this connection. Was it shame? Was it fear of ridicule? Was the achievement of the lady cricketers deemed unimportant and therefore not talked about? The thing about history is we can never really know because it’s always coloured with the present. We try to recreate the past from our limited view in the future. But at least we can capture somethings that have previously been lost.

It is great to see, however, that the tide is turning, and although I still have no interest in women’s or men’s sport, I’m pleased beyond measure that in 2020 women play competitive contact sports without the same societal condemnation as the 1800s. Sure, there’s a bit of a way to go with changing attitudes in some areas, but when you see an almost sold-out crowd of 86,000 at the MCG for the women’s T-20 final in March 2020, it is a fine parallel for what the brave ladies were trying to accomplish in 1874.
My article ‘Bowl the Maidens over’ was published in The Yorker: Issue 70 Summer 19/20 , by the Melbourne Cricket Club and talks about the first women’s cricket game in Australia, as seen through the media’s lens.

The MCC Library have made The Yorker, issue 70, featuring ‘Bowl the maidens over’ and other articles about women’s cricket history available to read online, should anyone like a look.

Not Being Alone

Another historical site. Here you can explore some of the legacies of the slave trade.

Women’s History Month guest, Janeen Webb

Have you noticed that this year quite a few historians are sharing stories about their work and their work relates to their forthcoming or new novels? More and more historians are writing fiction. Or, to look at it from the other direction, more and more published authors are also historians. Janeen Webb is not a newcomer to this crossover, however. She wrote a story for me to use in Baggage (which is still the best anthology I shall ever edit) and that story delved into nineteenth century thought and the fiction interpreted it for readers. ‘Manifest destiny’ as a term has made sense to many people from this story. Today she talks about women she encountered during her research as an historian… and as a writer. Her novel will be out soon. Gillian.

No Place for a Lady

By Janeen Webb

The Victorian goldfields of the mid-1850s were frontier settlements: a rough and tumble mix of danger, excitement, greed, skullduggery, petty officialdom, and sheer backbreaking hard toil. They were working communities, their members drawn from all around the world: some escaping oppression, most looking for a better future, all lured by the prospect of gold. And there were plenty of enterprising women who tried their luck, seeking – and making – their fortunes. Three women stood out from the crowd: Lola Montez, Céleste de Chabrillan, and Clara Seekamp. All were successful, all achieved notoriety, and all made their mark in what was ostensibly a man’s world. These are their stories.

Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, aka Lola Montez, Countess of Landsfeld, (1821- 1861) was the original femme fatale. She was, quite literally, a self-made woman who invented and re-invented herself – an exotic creature  of her own imagining – over the course of her short but amazingly eventful life. Nothing about Lola’s  biography is straightforward. She claimed to have been born in Ireland in 1824; her gravestone said 1818; her baptismal certificate recorded 1821. But then, as she  remarked in her autobiography,  The Lectures of Lola Montez, Including Her Autobiography(Blackwoods, London, 1858), “Lola Montez has had a more difficult time to get born… for she has had to be born over and over again of the separate brain of every man who has attempted to write her biography.”

Even as a child, Eliza Gilbert was regarded as a troublemaker. She came from an Irish establishment family. Her father – a British army officer – died of cholera shortly after being posted to India, and her mother quickly remarried another officer. Eliza’s intelligence, independence and fiery temper were seen as major social handicaps, so at the age of six she was shipped back to Britain to be tamed. She  survived the ministrations of various relatives and schools, and when she turned sixteen her mother turned up, having arranged to marry her off to a well-connected but much older (60-year-old!) man. Eliza would have none of it: she eloped back to India with the army officer who had escorted her mother – a man she later described as ‘a brainless shell’. They separated when Eliza was twenty one.

By 1843 she was back in London, where she reinvented herself completely, becoming Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer. But she was recognized, and her act denounced as a fraud. London society was scandalised that a woman of her social status should appear on stage, and she quickly became persona non grata in fashionable circles. So Lola headed to Europe, where she was an immediate hit in Dresden, Berlin and Warsaw. In Paris, she became part of the literary scene led by George Sand. She had affairs with several famous men, including the composer Franz Liszt and the novelist Alexandre Dumas (who would later befriend Céleste de Chabrillan). She then became the lover of a radical journalist, Alexandre Dujarier, embracing his enthusiasm for political change. When he was killed in a duel in 1846, Lola moved to Munich, where she became the mistress of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and was named Countess von Landsfeld. She used her favour with the king to bring liberal political reform to a system dominated by entrenched aristocratic influence and privilege. But her interference was deeply unpopular – especially because she was a foreigner, and particularly because she was a woman. In 1848 an Austrian-backed coup brought down the new ministry. Ludwig abdicated, and Lola fled.

She returned to London once more, and (following in her mother’s footsteps) married another young army officer. Unsurprisingly, this marriage didn’t work out either. Her previous divorce contained a proviso that neither spouse should remarry, so Lola and her latest husband were forced to move to Europe to avoid a bigamy action. She left him in 1851, and decided to advance her career by moving to America. In 1853 she settled in California, where she married – and separated – yet again. (This husband later died in mysterious circumstances, but, despite the inevitable gossip, there is no evidence that Lola was involved).

In 1855-6 Lola toured Australia with her erotic ‘spider dance’, a sensual version of the Tarantella, in which she mimed having a spider caught in her skirts, spinning faster and faster to dislodge it until all was revealed – and the audience could see that she wore no underclothing at all. In Europe and America the dance was seen as perfectly acceptable entertainment, but in Australia it received a mixed reception. After her performance at The Theatre Royal in Melbourne, The Argus newspaper, echoing the London establishment’s disapproval of ten years earlier, condemned her show as “…utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality.” The theatre lost money, and the show closed. Lola fared better, at first, on the Victorian goldfields: in Castlemaine, she danced to rapturous applause and was showered with gold nuggets by 400 enthusiastic miners. But her performance at The Adelphi Theatre on the Ballarat diggings produced prurient censure in line with Melbourne’s response. One of the most strident critics (oddly, of Lola’s character, not of her spider dance) was Henry Seekamp, the editor of the Ballarat Times.  Seekamp published a no-holds-barred critique. Never one to take such personal attacks lightly, Lola retaliated by marching into his office armed with a horsewhip: the pair set about each other in the main street, scandalising the good citizens of Ballarat. The incident resulted in suits and counter-suits for libel and assault, and although they came to nothing, public sympathy appears to have been firmly with Lola.

Back in America, Lola retired from dancing and settled in New York, which became her base for a successful tour on the lecture circuit. In 1858, as well as her Autobiography, Lola published The Arts of Beauty, or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet. With hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating (Dick & Fitzgerald, New York). Ostensibly a treatise on female beauty and the arts of attaining it, it contains deportment hints, recipes for beauty preparations, personal observations and advice on how to make the most of the female form. There are chapters on how to achieve beautiful physicality in bosoms, eyes, lips, ankles and so on; advice on deportment and voice modulation; and fashion hints on dress and ornaments – all interlaced with poetical quotes, ranging from Juvenal to Milton to Pope. The book also satirizes fashionable society, revealing Lola’s classical education, lively wit, and cosmopolitan experience. Her Introduction skips nimbly between classical  references to Aristotle, Socrates,Theophrastus, Juvenal, Martial and so on. And she remarks, in passing, that she has herself translated many of the recipes into English from their original French, Spanish, German, and Italian languages.

Lola was nobody’s fool. And she had no illusions about the monetary value of female beauty, remarking that: “All women know that it is beauty, rather than genius, which all generations of men have worshipped in our sex.” “It is part of our natural sagacity to perceive all this…” (p.xv). She is absolutely clear that, for the women of her time, beauty had a higher capital value than intelligence, noting that:”The Baroness de Stael “(the famous Franco-Swiss woman of letters, political theorist, and novelist – exiled by Napoleon for her 1802 novel, Delphine)  “confessed she would exchange half her knowledge for personal charms, and there is not much doubt that women of genius, to whom nature has denied the talismanic power of beauty, would consider it cheaply bought at that price.” (p.xiv) So, with the attainment of financial security as the obvious goal, Lola set about about imparting to her female readers certain tried-and-true strategies – drawn from her own considerable experience in the female art of captivating any chosen man – on how to become “…goddesses of (male) adoration.”(p.xv) 

A hundred and sixty odd years later, the book is great fun to read. On the much-vexed topic of makeup, for example, Lola observes that: “If Satan has ever had any direct agency in inducing woman to spoil or deform her own beauty, it must have been in tempting her to use paints and enamelling. Nothing so effectually writes memento mori! on the cheek of beauty….”(p.47).  She notes that “… Martial… tells us that Fabula was afraid of the rain, of account of the chalk on her face; and Lobella of the sun, because of the ceruse with which her face was painted; and the famous Poppaea, the first mistress, and afterwards the wife of Nero, made use of an unctuous paint, which hardened upon her face, and entirely changed her original features.” (p.xi-xii).

Then she promptly goes on to provide recipes for more “reliable” cosmetics – promising that: “The recipes which I shall give for the various cosmetics, washes, pastes, creams, powders, etc., are such as are in use among fashionable belles of the various capitols of the Old World. (and)…. If… a lady wishes to use such helps to beauty, I must advise her, by all means, to become her own manufacturer – not only as a matter of economy, but of safety – as many of the patent cosmetics have ruined the finest complexions…” ( p. xii). Having pointed out that the producers of a particular fashionable London lotion had recently been sued for fraud over their profit margin of seventeen hundred percent (the cost was 5d. per quart; the sale price seven shillings and sixpence per pint!), Lola also slams the popular Lignum’s Lotion as “nothing more than a solution of sal-ammoniac in water… completely useless, except to delude the vanity of my sex…” (p.xiv). The self-deprecating tone is arch, but there can be no doubting the acid wit behind this literary performance.

The book concludes with 50 Hints to Fashionable Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating, a series of amusing pointers to would-be suitors on becoming proficient in their quest for female admiration. Here is one of the shorter examples:

“RULE THE NINETEENTH: You ought to know that there are four things which always possess more or less interest to a lady – a parrot, a peacock, a monkey, and a man; and the nearer you can come to uniting all these about equally in your own character, the more you will be loved. This is also a cheap and excellent recipe for making a dandy – a creature which is always an object of admiration and esteem to the ladies.” (p.113)

It seems a pity that Lola did not live to write more such entertaining books. In1860 she suffered a stroke. She died of pneumonia about six months later, shortly before her fortieth birthday. And even in death, the public propensity to censure her life remains – several reference texts still give the cause of her death as syphilis. On her simple gravestone is the name: ‘Mrs. Eliza Gilbert.’ Her portrait hangs in the Australian National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

Céleste de Chabrillan, Countess of Chabrillan, nee Vénard, aka Céleste Mogador, (1824-1909)

For Céleste Vénard, life began very differently. She was an illegitimate child: her natural father died when she was 6 years old, and she was abused by her stepfather. By her early teens, Céleste was living rough on the streets of Paris. At sixteen she became a registered prostitute – a step up in the social hierarchy – then reinvented herself as Céleste Mogador, a dancer and star horse-rider in the  Hippodrome.

Like Lola, Céleste used her considerable beauty and performance skills to access the upper levels of the social hierarchy. She danced – and quickly became a star performer – at the Bal Mabille – a fashionable open air performance space, usually described as an enchanted garden, lit by gas lights and hung with gilded chandeliers. Céleste is credited with introducing the Can-Can to the stage there, as well as the Quadrille, and she was certainly the first to the dance the schottische. (All of which makes Lola’s ‘spider dance’ seem rather less scandalous). The entry price to Bal Mabille was very high, and its stars mingled freely with the well-to-do patrons, affording useful introductions for Céleste. The pleasure garden also had the reputation of being a place for gentlemen to meet prostitutes: Puccini referenced it in La Boheme, set in Paris in the 1840’s, when his character  Marcello tells his landlord that he has seen him at “the Mabil”, engaged in “the sin of love”. Many major writers, such as Balzac, made use of the pleasure gardens in their works, and even Hans Christian Andersen referenced the famous venue in “The Wood Nymph: A Tale of the 1867 Paris Exposition,” where the protagonist joins in the wild dancing at the “Mabile” garden.

Céleste was also a successful singer, performing in cabarets and much in demand for  premiering new songs by popular writers. There is some evidence that Bizet used her as the model for the character of Carmen, in his opera of the same name.

In 1851 Céleste met – and promptly became the lover of – Comte Gabriel-Paul-Josselin-Lionel de Moreton de Chabrillan (Lionel to his friends). Strangely enough, under the circumstances, this appears to have been a genuine love story. Céleste was soon Lionel’s  favourite, and he caused a scandal by running through his inheritance on entertainments, then marrying the former courtesan – thus making Céleste the Countess of Chabrillan.  The sequence of their romance was messy: in 1852, Lionel travelled to Australia to try his luck as a miner on the Victorian goldfields, hoping to repair his fortunes. He returned home to Paris, and was offered the post of honorary French consul in Melbourne – a position arranged by his furious family in an attempt to separate the pair. On his first leave, in 1853, Lionel and Céleste were married, and in 1854 she joined him on the other side of the globe – both saw it as a chance to start again.

But, to add to the scandal already swirling about them at the time, Céleste had just published her life story: Adieu au monde, Memoires de Celeste Mogador (1854). The book furnished candid details of the ways in which she had worked her way out of poverty and risen to the top of the demimonde. By the time her ship, The Croesus, docked in Melbourne, her memoir was circulating ahead of her, and  Céleste found that she was already persona non grata with local society women. When Lola Montez toured in 1855/6, she became one of  Céleste’s few real friends in the colony.  Céleste’s short stay in Melbourne was not easy, and she welcomed a return to France in 1856 to sort out their financial affairs. Lionel joined her on leave for a few months before he was obliged to return to Melbourne. He died there, of dysentery, in 1858,  leaving Céleste widowed, heartbroken and alone. Unlike Lola, she never remarried, but continued alone for the next fifty years.

Céleste always had a strong sense of social justice, and she tried to help where she could: when the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870, she turned her home at Le Vésinet into a hospital and orphanage. She also established Les Sœurs de France to look after wounded soldiers, later earning a public tribute from the women who volunteered with her.

 And she continued to write, producing twelve novels (several of them set in Australia), thirty plays (including seven operettas), a dozen poems and some patriotic lyrics. She was part of the Paris literary scene, where the two Alexandre Dumas, the famous French father and son novelists, became her firm friends and supporters. Even so, she still encountered opposition – the society reviews were harsh, prompting her to reply that: “If my numerous works are not outstanding through their literary brilliance… I have never imitated anyone and never borrowed from other writers. Maybe I was wrong, but what I wrote is truly mine.” She was, at least, accepted as a writer by her peers. To complicate her life even further, the still-outraged de Chabrillan family tried to prevent her from publishing her books or producing her plays at all, and, despite Lionel’s position as Consul, she was denied a government pension. Her literary output never provided her with much income, and she struggled until her friendship with the Comte de Naurois left her financially secure. She died in Montmartre, France, at the age of 84 on February 18, 1909.

Clara Maria Du Val / Seekamp, née Lodge, (1819-1908)

Clara Lodge was born in Limerick, Ireland. At a young age, she eloped with her dancing teacher, George William Du Val (brother of the portrait artist, Charles Allen Du Val). They had three children, and after what might best be described as a chequered few years, in which they more than once came to the attention of the law, they moved to Australia. Their two sons, Oliver (9) and Francis (1), accompanied them, but their daughter, Francis’s twin (also named Clara) was left behind in Ireland. A glimpse of Clara’s spirit was recorded when she arrived in Melbourne in May 1853 and gave her age as 20 (she was 34).

Clara moved to the gold mining town of Ballarat, where she set up as a teacher of languages. She also started (and acted in) a theatre company in a large tent located in an area known as the Gravel Pits, near Bakery Hill, catering to the entertainment-hungry young colony. There she met Henry Seekamp, ten years her junior – a young digger with radical views, a fiery temper and a taste for drink. By early 1854 she was living with Seekamp, and, following Du Val’s death, Clara and Henry claimed to have married. They used Clara’s money to establish Ballarat’s first newspaper, The Ballarat Times. Henry was its editor, though it appears likely that Clara wrote some of the articles.

 The Times became a passionate voice for political reform, and hailed the miners’ Reform League declaration as the beginning of Australian Independence. The day after the battle at the Stockade, authorities raided the newspaper offices, confiscated all copies of the paper, and arrested Henry on charges of seditious libel. Clara took over as editor, thus becoming the first female editor of an Australian newspaper. In a clear declaration of her intentions she renamed the paper The Ballarat Times and Southern Cross – atribute to the flag the miners had died under.

An example of her forthright editorial style can be seen when, on New Year’s Day, 1855, she responded to Governor Hotham’s accusation that “foreigners” had stirred up the Eureka Rebellion  as follows:

“What is it that constitutes a foreigner?…Could you not have found some other and more truthful excuse for all the illegal and even murderous excesses committed by your soldiery and butchers? Could you not admit that the whole affair was brought about by acts of our tyrannical, corrupt, and unjust local government?… What is this country else than Australia? Is it any more England than it is Ireland or Scotland, France or America, Italy or Germany? Is the population, wealth, intelligence, enterprise and learning wholly and solely English?… No, the population of Australia is not English but Australian, and sui generis. Any one who immigrates into this country, no matter from what clime or of what people, and contributes towards the development of its resources and its wealth, is no longer a foreigner…The latest immigrant is the youngest Australian.” (rpt. The Age, 5 January,1855). It’s a sentiment that still resonates today.

In the end, the arrested miners were acquitted, and only Henry Seekamp served time as a result of Eureka – in January 1855 he was sentenced to six months imprisonment. Clara campaigned for his release, and he served only three months, though even that took a heavy toll on his fragile health. Henry and Clara dissolved their personal and business partnership in 1856. They sold the paper, and Henry headed North. His drinking grew worse, and – still digging for gold and for news – he died at the age of 35, in Queensland. Clara moved to Melbourne and, despite a government grant of £500 in 1861, struggled to support her three children (her daughter, Clara Du Val, had earlier travelled to join her mother). In 1868 her daughter died – at the age of 18 – and her older son was jailed for stealing to buy food. He, too, died young, in 1884. Though Clara never again took part in public life, her death at her son Francis W. Du Val’s residence, Pascoe Vale, on 22nd January, drew obituaries that recalled her championship of reform, and praised her for her strength of character and intellect.

The Melbourne Leader (1st Februrary, 1908) wrote: “Mrs. Seekamp was the widow of the late Mr. Harry Seekamp, who at the time of the Eureka Stockade riots was editor of the Ballarat “Times,” and an outspoken advocate of the diggers’ cause. Mrs. Seekamp was of forcible character, high educational attainments and much determination. She… was a brilliant conversationalist, and up to the end had a wonderful memory of all that led up to and accompanied the sensational times which centred in the Eureka Stockade event above referred to.”

The Ballarat Courier added that: “Links in the chain binding the past with the present history of Ballarat are being too rapidly rendered by the hand of death. The demise has to be recorded of another pioneer of this city in the person of Mrs Clara Maria Seekamp. The deceased was relict of Mr Henry Seekamp, proprietor of the defunct Ballarat Times, the first newspaper published here at the time of the roaring fifties.”

Clara was buried in the Melbourne Cemetery beside her son, Oliver.


This article is derived from research by Janeen Webb and Andrew Enstice for their forthcoming alternate history series, The City of the Sun. You can meet Lola, Celeste and Clara in Book 1, The Five Star Republic, where women’s rights is a major theme. Here is the link to the Publisher’s  announcement.

Women’s History Month guest, Madeleine Robins

Something writers see in each other behind the scenes a lot, things that we confess when we are maudlin drunk or beyond tired, include deep personal reflections on critical subjects. This stuff is part of story, but not obvious in story. Madeleine Robins’ writing is easier to read because her thinking is so sophisticated, but the craft of telling the story renders a lot of this thought invisible. It’s like all the thousands of people working on a feature film and all we see at the end is a glorious story on screen: all the tens of thousands thousands of thoughts a good writer has for each novel are really only visible when they talk about them directly. Writers talk to other writers about these things (one of the great benefits of being a fiction writer in fact, is hearing the thoughts of other writers) and today, for Women’s History Month, a writer much respected because she does the thinking and she does the creation and the results are every word worth reading, shows you some of the inner workings. My strong recommendation is, after reading this, find a novel by Madeleine Robins and see what she creates. Gillian

I have been known to whinge about my annoyance with characters in historical fiction who fight against the mores and customs of their times because they’re today people in a yesterday world.*  This is not the same thing as characters who are at odds with their place in life and the expectations of the people around them.  Of such things are heroes (and heroines) made.  What I object to is the lazy writing that inserts a character with modern values into the past (outside of time travel) because the writer assumes that that’s what the reader wants to see: a version of themselves in a fancy-dress era.

It’s much harder to write a convincing character who is of her time, informed by the prejudices and ideas of her time—and still at odds with it. Harder to write, but so much more fun to read.   You could do a lot worse than study the history of Mary Ann Todd Lincoln, the wife and widow of Abraham Lincoln.

I was raised on Lincolniana; I have a dim memory of watching a very sweet musical when I was a kid, all about Lincoln’s early years (and his supposed romance with Ann Rutledge, who died young and broke his heart, so that he settled for the shrewish Mary Todd and was never happy again…**).  I remember reading a picture book with wonderful ’30s illustrations of the tall, lanky Abe helping his younger half-brother leave footprints across his step-mother’s whitewashed ceiling.  And, at some point in my teens, I read an article in American Heritage*** about Mary Todd Lincoln that gave full credit to the notion that she was a millstone around Lincoln’s neck, his shrewish partner in a loveless marriage, la-di-di-da-da-da-da.

Sometime in the ’80s I found Mary Todd Lincoln, a biography by Jean Baker.  It took me almost twenty years to get around to reading it, but it’s fascinating.  Baker is clearly a sympathetic biographer, but she’s not blind to Mary Todd Lincoln’s faults or the extent to which she was the author of her own miseries.  And for someone interested in a character whose nature makes her contend against her own time, it’s a gold mine.  Mary was a middle child, bright, energetic, hot-tempered and temperamentally needy, whose father had too many kids to be engaged with any of them, and whose mother died when she was small.  Her stepmother (with whom none of the Todd children had anything like a decent relationship) had another huge number of kids–in all, I believe Mary had something like 14 siblings and step-sibs.  And she’s a girl of the Antebellum South—with all that implies given the period and class into which she was born. A young woman was supposed to be shy, retiring, unassertive—maybe a steel magnolia, but with that core of steel assiduously hidden. And poor Mary Todd was incapable of keeping anything hidden.

This was a girl whose nature was to crave attention, lost in a sea of family–and a well-to-do, educated family which was important in the town where she grew up. She became fascinated with politics (in part because her father was).  Talented, clever, ambitious, more educated than most of the young women around her (she went to boarding school longer than she might otherwise have done, in order to get out of her step-mother’s household), and…needy, she was totally at war with her culture.  Mary Todd, with no scope for her own energies, accepted wholesale the idea that her worth and her work would be in support of her husband. She put her energy into her husband’s career, and to great effect–but she could not rein in her need for acknowledgment.

Abandonment was a huge theme in her life: her mother died early and abandoned her.  Her father abandoned her to marry her step-mother.  Three of her four sons died early (Eddie, as a child, of tuberculosis; Willie, graceful, bright, and hands-down her most beloved son, of typhus; and Tad as a teenager of pleurisy).  Her husband was murdered at her side.  And Robert, her eldest and only surviving son, had her committed as insane.  Through all of this, because of her nature, Mary Lincoln could not be what her society expected of her: silent, patient, private.  As a widow she mourned loudly; she was self-aggrandizing.  Today she’d probably be diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder: then she was simply “unwomanly” and, ultimately, judged insane.

Mary Todd Lincoln was as incapable of being what her society demanded of her as she was of flying–partly because of nature, partly because of nurture.  Reading this biography I see her doing things that I know are going to blow up in her face–lobbying Congress fiercely for a widow’s pension, attempting to sell her used wardrobe (the Queens of Europe did it–why couldn’t she?) to raise money—and I want to take her aside and say “no, honey, no.  This can’t end well.”  Because in a war between community and personality–unless the personality in question is significantly better able to finesse the culture than Mary Todd Lincoln was–the community is going to win.

Poor Mary. Her story is heartbreaking and enraging and a totally fascinating text for anyone writing about people in another time and place.

*Honest to God: a friend pointed me to an historical romance in which the main character was concerned with “actualizing her personhood.” There is not enough head-shaking in the world.

**The musical was The Young Abe Lincoln, and it’s very sweet—and the story is completely bogus  The Ann Rutledge story was a kernel of something that was exaggerated after Lincoln’s death by Mary Todd Lincoln’s enemies (of whom she had a budget) in order to discredit her as a grieving widow, deny her legitimacy, and ultimately shut her down.

*** American Heritage was a lavishly illustrated hardcover magazine to which my parents had a subscription. I read and loved it and learned a lot, but I have to admit, with hindsight, that their discussion of women in American history was often, to put it kindly, condescending and misogynistic.

Not Being Alone

This site is an archive – it’s not being updates. It’s still a wonderful place to explore. It’s a nice approach to seeing how people are part of history, I tink.

Women’s History Month guest, P.G. Nagle

Pati Nagle is an enviably talented writer. She crosses genre boundaries with ease, a writing superpower. It didn’t surprise me at all that she chose to write this month about a woman who also crossed boundaries. Far more difficult and quite dangerous boundaries. It’s so much easier to stay in one place and be someone clearly identifiable with only one label. It’s so much more interesting to be someone who isn’t quite as definable. Writers can step in and help us understand just how hard it can be to be oneself. Gillian

As the world adjusts to chaos and, at best, a new lifestyle of isolation and restricted movement, I’m reminded of how Emma Edmonds must have felt in the unusual life she crafted for herself, living as a man in 19th century America. Born and raised on a farm in Canada, she learned skills such as hunting, shooting, and fishing, that would serve her well later on. As a young woman, she assumed a male persona and became very successful selling Bibles and other high-quality books door-to-door. She reveled in the freedom from societal restrictions that she enjoyed as a male, but the price was risk. If she had been discovered, she would have faced imprisonment, and likely abuse as well. She dared not tell even her closest friends; certainly not her family. Hers was at its core a life of isolation, and she chose to accept this along with the risk.

Moving to America and eventually settling in Flint, Michigan, Edmonds (in her persona of Franklin Thompson) continued to enjoy prosperity, an active social life, and community including her church, of which her landlord was the pastor. Perhaps she was comfortable, having lived as a man for several years by then. Yet her comfort was soon challenged by the outbreak of secession and war.

Edmonds loved her adopted country so well that she felt compelled to offer her service, and so Frank Thompson enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry. Her risk accelerated; now she was living in close quarters with a hundred men, at first in barracks, and later in camps. No doubt her ingenuity was tested. The emotional strain of being constantly on guard against detection—constantly aware of everyone around her and alert to what they might be thinking—must have been something like what we face today.

I find this new awareness to be a kind of enforced mindfulness. We have no choice but to be vigilant, if we want ourselves and our loved ones—some of whom may be more at risk than ourselves—to survive this pandemic. We are aware of the consequences of each movement—the risk of touching doors, objects, things that other people have touched. The risk, even, of breathing the air that another has breathed.

Edmonds must also have been acutely aware of her every movement, knowing that she might be watched with suspicion at any time. Such vigilance forces one to live in the moment. Distractions bring a heavy cost; we must keep our focus. It is a new way of being.

Ultimately, Edmonds fell victim to sickness and faced a painful choice. Unable to care for herself in her illness, she had to flee in order to escape certain discovery. This cost her not only her reputation (Frank Thompson was proclaimed a deserter), but her very persona itself. Never again did she live in masculine freedom. She had to build a new life.

We, too, are building a new life. In a few years, the stress and tragedy of the time we are now entering will be softened in memory, and eventually this time will become an interesting paragraph of history. Yet now, as we prepare for what we know will be, at best, some level of devastation, the present feels stark. The near future looms with pending grief. We know it will be hard. Our only choice is how vigilant each of us will be.

A Call to Arms by P. G. Nagle

The Civil War Adventures of Sarah Emma Edmonds, alias Private Frank Thompson