In which I think about a whole lotta history

This Friday is release day for the brand new book from my alter ego, Juliet Bell. The Other Wife is out in ebook this week and paperback in January. And you can pre-order either (or indeed both) right here.

Outback Australia, 1981

After a terrible childhood, Jane comes to Thornfield as nanny to the adorable Adele, watched over by the handsome and enigmatic Edward. Plain and inexperienced, Jane would never dream of being more than his hired help. But swept up in the dramatic beauty of the Outback, she finds herself drawn to Edward. And, to her surprise, he seems to return her feelings.

But Jane is not the first woman Edward has pledged to make mistress of Thornfield.

As a child, Betty was taken from her English home and sent for adoption in Australia. At first, no-one wanted her, deeming her hair too curly, and her skin too dark. Until the scheming Mr Mason sees a chance to use Betty to cement a relationship with the rich and powerful Rochester dynasty…

When Jane discovers Betty’s fate, will she still want to be the next Mrs Rochester?

One of the most emotionally challenging parts of writing The Other Wife was researching how Betty ends up in Australia all alone after being born in England to parents who love her. Betty’s story echoes elements of the real stories of thousands of children who were sent to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other countries, by the British authorities who were supposed to be taking care of them. The fictional version of Betty’s childhood isn’t a particularly happy one  but it’s a lot happier than many of the children who were sent overseas. Betty is adopted. The majority of British children who were sent to Australia ended up in children’s homes or in work programmes that were unsafe for children of a young age. Many suffered physical or sexual abuse. Children were told that their parents had died, when this was often untrue. And this practice continued for centuries, well into the second half of the twentieth century.

I’m white. I’m British, specifically English. I’m sort of middle-classish. Historically people like me have not consistently been the good guys. I also have an MA in Modern History, so that means I’ve done five years of secondary school, two years of A-level and four years of university studying history, and from all that study a lot of the time you’d still think that the British have been universally enlightened and virtuous across time. When we learn about Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world what we learn about a lot is Britain as saviour, Britain as last bastion of freedom, Britain as driving force in ending evils like the slave trade. What we learn about less is what the British did to establish a global empire, about Britain as driving force in maintaining the Atlantic Slave Trade through the eighteenth century, and about Britain as a country that routinely deported children thousands of miles across the globe to an unknown fate.

And that matters because you can’t understand the world as it is now, and Britain’s place in that world, without understanding Britain’s history in that world. And that means understanding the good bits and the bad, because no person and no country is just one thing. I’m very definitely a British person. I can’t imagine living anywhere else – I’m really not sure my sense of humour would translate. I’m proud to have been born into the country that abolished slavery in 1833. I’m proud to be part of the country in which so many owe so much to so few. But if you embrace the idea of being culturally British, I think you have a responsibility to understand the darker parts of our shared history.

Because that history continues to colour our present. Why is there a common travel area encompassing Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? Why is English an official language in sixty seven sovereign states across the planet (including Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, the USA, Pakistan, Jamaica, Botswana, Kenya)? Why is the British monarch also head of state in fifteen other Commonwealth realms? All of those are questions that impact on how Britain interacts with the world right now – they colour things like why people choose to migrate to and from Britain, and why the British/Irish border remains such a massive issue if Britain wants to leave the EU – and all of them have long and complex answers that encompass some of the darkest parts of our history.

We live in a world that feels increasingly split down the middle politically. That’s dangerous. It reduces things to simple positions. Very few things about our history, our culture, and our nation are simple.

Child migration is just one example of the darker side of how the British have treated the vulnerable within our own country. We’ve also done great things – we invented the NHS and the national insurance scheme to protect the most vulnerable. We, as a country and a people, are not just one thing and we never have been. History, politics, culture – these are big complex amorphous things. If someone is selling you a simple version of any of them then they’re either lying or they’re an idiot. And you don’t want to be following a liar or an idiot.

So that blog post wandered a bit from the original topic. Sorry. Ah well, if you want to know more about child migration this is the place to look. 

And if you want to follow Betty’s journey to Australia you can order The Other Wife right here.

In which I get a bit reflective and contemplate the passage of time

Today is 6th June 2014, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy. 2014 also marks 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War.

Today is also 2 months, to the day, before my 37th birthday. Weirdly that fact seems to have had rather less media coverage, but it means that I’m part of a generation who are the children of the baby boomers, and the grandkids of  people who fought in World War 2, many of whom had memories of the 1914-18 war. My grandmother remembered sheltering, with her mother, behind gravestones during the bombardment of Scarborough from the sea in December, 1914. I believe my grandfather was in the RAF and flew over Italy during World War 2. At my other grandparents’ home a picture of my grandfather in service uniform sat above the television throughout his life. I don’t recall any of them talking in detail about their wartime experiences, in common with many of their generation, and, in common with many of mine, I don’t recall ever asking, but they were a tangible link to a point in the past that wasn’t yet history.

That link is fading. The generation who fought in both wars has gone, and those who were children in the first, and young men and women in the second, are fewer and fewer in number at every service of remembrance.  And that is the way of things. Time passes. New generations are born and grow, and each is one step further removed from the experience of any specific point in the past. Instinctively, I feel that we ought to be doing everything we can to ensure that the feeling a first hand connection with the twentieth century’s wars is maintain, but, at the same time, part of me knows that to be impossible.

Experience fades to memory which, in turn, fades to history. I feel, in my gut, that World War 2 must be remembered. It has an emotional immediacy for me that the Napoleonic Wars or the English Civil War don’t possess. They are simply history. Things that happened in the 1940s feel real, but inevitably, for the generations still to come those stories will fade and lose their sting, in just the same way as earlier conflicts have for the rest of us.

We can’t hold onto the past. We can’t force it to feel real beyond its own moment in time, and as memory shifts to history there is a danger that we forget not only the experience, but also the lessons that generations before us learnt through the sacrifice of their youth. So today we remember those who lived through horror to try to make their own, and our, futures safer and brighter, and offer our respects to those who never made it back.

When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrows we gave our today.