Introducing my debut sci-fi novella: ‘All the Orphans in the Galaxy’!

Over the 2020 lockdown, a lot of people learned how to bake sourdough bread. Some took up knitting. Others got very into gardening, or puzzles, or reorganizing their closets. I, on the other hand, got very into 1990s’ sci-fi TV and, specifically, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. These far off worlds were my escape. My world had become so small. I really wanted to go BIG in my imagination. Space operas felt perfect.

I had started watching Star Trek during my PhD, a few years back, and it had become a comforting escape for me during stressful periods. But Deep Space Nine hit differently somehow. I’ve heard people say that it’s the ‘grittiest’ Star Trek series and, from what I’ve seen, that’s definitely true. During the lockdown, it particularly resonated with me because of its themes of grief, loss and people trying to pick up the pieces after dark and difficult things.

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Friday Finds: Ghost: 100 Stories to Read with the Lights On, edited by Louise Welsh

‘in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.’ – Tim O’Brien, in ‘The Lives of the Dead’

I love a good ghost story. While I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat when it comes to scary movies, I feel like ghost stories are perfect reading material for this time of year (or, really, every time of year). And I think books are the perfect place to encounter ghosts. As the quote above says, stories are a ‘kind of dreaming’. They are like the ghosts of either the writer, or the characters, or some combination of the two coming to life in our minds, even if that writer is long gone. We resurrect them.

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Madeira Mondays: The Dangerous Women Project

A few years ago, the University of Edinburgh ran a project online called The Dangerous Women Project, which posed the question: ‘what does it mean to be a dangerous woman’?

The project asked artists, writers, photographers, academics and more to explore what being ‘dangerous’ as a woman means (both historically and now). They ended up publishing over 365 responses between International Women’s Day 2016 and 2017. These responses were so vast and varied – with some artists reflecting on their own work, some original poems and tons of stories about fascinating women living at various points of history who, for one reason or another, were deemed ‘dangerous’. Maybe they were dangerous because they lived outside of gender norms, or they pursued ‘masculine’ professional careers, or because they fought for women’s rights, or simply refused to live by whatever the standard of feminine behavior was at the time.

When I first heard of this theme, I knew I had to write something for the project and one person immediately came to mind. A 19th century sculptor who (sadly!) isn’t very well known today. Her name was Elisabet Ney. Not Elizabeth, Elisabet (sans ‘h’)! And like her name, she was really quite unique.

She became known in her own time for sculpting statues of famous men in Europe and, later, Texas. These included the famous philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, Otto Von Bismark (the prime minister of Prussia), and (my Texas readers will know these last two!) Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin.

Elisabet Ney, portrait from 1860 by Friedrich Kaulbach, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to being a gifted sculptor, she was a really unconventional individual: she never took her husband’s last name (as an early feminist, she insisted on keeping her own name), wore trousers, and generally had very forward-thinking attitudes about gender.

I came to know about her because her former home in Austin is now The Elisabet Ney Museum and I was taken there on school field trips growing up. I don’t know how to say this without sounding hokey – and I don’t fully understand it myself – but even from a very young age I have felt, shall we say, connected to Elisabet Ney. She’s always really intrigued me as a person. I always thought she was world famous but when I moved away from Texas I learned that, like many female artists, even relatively successful ones, her work is largely unknown by the general public.

The Elisabet Ney Museum is also a calm, beautiful space – lovely stone walls and full of her statues, which were all enormous and snow-white. A really tranquil place. I should definitely do a blog post on it the next time I’m in Austin!

So I wrote a short story about her for the Dangerous Women Project and specifically about the last sculpture she made, which some believe to be somewhat autobiographical: a sculpture of Lady Macbeth. This story is absolutely historical fiction. I took a few of the details I knew about her life and character to inspire it, but much of it is invented or imagined too.

You can read my original story here on the DWP website.

I was also delighted when, a few years later, the Dangerous Women Project asked if they could include my story in a book which would feature articles, art and stories about female creativity and danger. I said absolutely yes! The book came out this spring (2021) and it’s truly an impressive volume which I’ve loved reading through. It’s called The Art of Being Dangerous: Exploring Women and Danger Through Creative Expression, published by Leuven University Press.

I’m glad that my story about Elisabet has found a place to sit alongside so many accounts (personal, historical, fictional, non-fictional etc.) about ‘dangerous’ female artists. I imagine she’d be happy to be amongst that company.

I’d absolutely love to work on a longer piece about Ney at some point because she really did live such an unusual life and rubbed elbows with so many influential figures in her day. Truly a fascinating character.

Let me know if you’d like to learn more about Elisabet Ney. And, if you read the story, let me know what you think!

Are there any historical artists, or historical figures generally, you wish were more widely known today? Anyone from your local area perhaps?

Recommended Further Reading:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!

PS Today’s featured image is Ney at her home in Texas in 1900, surrounded by her work, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Stay in and Read: Dracula

Most of us are looking ahead at a lot more time spent at home these next few weeks. So I thought I’d recommend a few excellent books that would make for perfect reading material during this time of ‘self-isolation.’ The wonderful thing about books is that, even if you are at home alone, they can provide a source of company and a means of imaginative escape. You can travel to distant lands (in the case of today’s read, 19th century Transylvania!), meet new people, and lose yourself in someone else’s adventure.

I’m going to try and recommend books which I think are especially ‘immersive’, that really plunge you into another place and time. These happen to be my favorite sorts of books anyway, so I’ve got lots of recommendations!

First up is a thrilling piece of gothic fiction! I read it for the first time last year and simply could not put it down and that is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

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My epic copy of Dracula that I found a few years ago on sale at a gift shop. I thought I’d just use it as Halloween decor, but eventually read the book itself.

You might be familiar with one of the many film versions of this book, but trust me – the original book itself is well worth a read! It’s atmospheric and suspenseful and, in my opinion, no film version has ever captured the true spirit of the book. For me, Dracula is the original Scooby Doo. At its heart, it’s about a group of people who are trying to solve a mystery and defeat a dastardly villain intent on destroying their society. Lots of films try to make this into a romantic story, but to me it’s a tale of friendship and camaraderie.

If you don’t know the story of Dracula, I actually don’t want to give too much away (because the less you know, the more exciting the story is!). But it’s about a count with supernatural powers who tries to invade Victorian England. We follow various characters who try to figure out how to stop him, starting with the young lawyer Jonathan Harker who is imprisoned in Dracula’s castle in Transylvania at the start of the book. We also meet his fiancée Mina, her close friend Lucy, a goofy Dutch doctor who is an expert in the occult (I pictured Christoph Waltz for some reason), a Texan cowboy, an English Lord and a whole bunch of other people. All these people have to come together and try to stop Dracula’s plan, which is to turn more people into vampires (See, I bet you didn’t know that there was a COWBOY in Dracula? He plays a pretty big role too…). So in many ways it’s an appropriate story to read right now: one where smart people all come together to stop a dangerous contagion.

One of the things that makes Dracula such an engaging read is its epistolary style. It’s told in a series of letters and the occasional newspaper report which gives it almost a ‘true crime’ feel. The reader is piecing together the story, just as our characters do.

Another things that makes Dracula exciting to read, if I’m perfectly honest, is that it’s sexy. There is also a genuine terror in it of sex, particularly female sexual power. You have to read this book in the context of its own time (it was first published in 1897) and don’t except what we would call now ‘well-rounded’ female characters. Women are either pure and virtuous, like Mina, or literal demons who have fallen under Dracula’s power and want only to seduce and destroy men. But the female vampires definitely ARE super sexy. Take this passage when Harker encounters a vampire lady in Dracula’s castle:

The fair girl went on her knees and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, til I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on her scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat.

When people think of ‘classic’ novels, I think they imagine that these books are dry or tedious. That’s often not the case and it’s definitely not the case with Dracula (see passage above). Dracula is a strange window into Victorian fears (fears of female sexuality, fears of foreign invasion, fears of animal desires and impulses) and a damn good read. It’s one of my favorite books and, coincidentally, I’ve actually been to Transylvania (which is a part of modern day Romania!). I went there before I had read Dracula – one of my partner’s good friends lives there. But, now that I have read Dracula, I can picture even more vividly the haunting settings of Bram Stoker’s book: the mist-shrouded Carpathian mountains, the crumbling ancient fortresses, the steep ravines. But you don’t need to go to Romania to experience the world of Dracula. Just curl up with this fabulous book and let yourself fall under its spell.

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Stay tuned for more reading recommendations, and don’t forget to check out my series Madeira Mondays, every Monday, where I talk about early American history and historical fiction!

Do you have any reading recommendations for me? What books should I sink my teeth into (okay, there had to be one Dracula joke!) during this period?

I hope you’re well, and thanks very much for reading!