A misogynist belief in the 16thcentury was that reading caused infertility in young women. Or put another way, people believed that using the mind was detrimental to a woman’s core function: child-bearing. No wonder so few young women were educated in 1592, the time of Black Snow Falling.
Sexism was blatant in early modern Britain. Women were virtually invisible. So little is written about – or by – them, making research harder. But the gaps speak volumes. A Brief History of the Kings of England, written in 1652, omits Elizabeth I, who held onto the crown for 45 years despite assassination attempts and marriage proposals. The author dismissed her, simply stating, “I have nothing to do with women.”
To unmask the misogynist sexism of the time, I made my main character, Ruth, one of those few young women who gained an education. That’s why she had to be privileged.
As backstory, her merchant father had married into nobility as part of the new socially mobile ‘middling class’ in early modern Britain. So Ruth enjoys a small degree of freedom and grew up playing with local children. All this, coupled with the late Renaissance atmosphere, sets up her feeling that she has a degree of choice in her life – her father has always permitted this.
Her freedom is swept away in a heartbeat. While Ruth’s father is away trading on the Silk Road, her new stepbrother and stepmother confine, silence and crush her. As well as forcing Ruth into a cruel marriage at the age of 15, they will stop her reading her treasured books. Of the two characters, the Countess is the cruellest; it’s often women who are the hardest on other women. She relishes the prospect of trapping Ruth as a jewel to be dangled, a womb on legs. Ruth’s struggle to find agency is the story of the novel. In this sense, it’s every girl’s story.
I had always hoped that by the time my daughter grew up, gender equality would be less of an issue for her as it was for me, as a single mum working full time in a male-dominated creative industry. Yet, somehow, a man who boasts he can “grab” women “by the pussy” is elected President. Then there were the revelations about Weinstein. And the backlash against #MeToo.
In April, 24 hours apart, I met two young women at two different book events, one from Liverpool at the Waterstones there, another living in Switzerland at a London book launch. Both sadly told me that they were being called “feminazis”by others at school and university. It’s a truly misogynist term of abuse.
Ruth is fighting monstrous sexism – and monsters. But I didn’t give her superpowers to fight back. She’s not a heroine who acts like a bloke in a dress – a trope we see all too often in the superhero genre. Instead, Ruth is a feminine feminist. She learns that she’s intuitive and learns how to use it. Feminine qualities are valued less in our society and so I wanted to demonstrate the power of intuition that drives action. Although, I admit, this wasn’t a conscious choice in the development of her personality; it was intuitive.
Ruth doesn’t have to think and act like a man to take action. And without giving away any spoilers, her education helps her connect seemingly random things. She’s also proud and impetuous, sometimes rushing into danger. Other times she’s overwhelmed by fear, but that’s when her courage comes through – courage being not the opposite of fear or the absence of it. All this makes her very human, not some remote hyper-femme-hyper-masculine superhero, but a young woman you can relate to. Intuition is her greatest weapon.
In Black Snow Falling, the problem with sexism isn’t men, per se. I didn’t want to be simplistic. The deeper problem is the fear of ‘the other’, fear of difference. It’s prejudice, which manifests as every type of suppression and cruelty towards the other, and this is shown in the story of Jude. In fact, the novel subverts the archetypal journeys for young women and men – this could fill another blog. There’s even one character, The Guardian of Dreams, who is without gender. And a really important aspect of the story is using a subplot that, on the face of it, has little to do with feminism – early science as heresy. Even this connects to fear of the ‘other’.
The novel’s central idea is the dream thieves who steal people’s hopes and dreams for the future. One interpretation of the dream thieves could be that they are a metaphor for all systemic injustice. Another could be that they represent the shadow self, or personify evil.
Ruth and a (nameless – to avoid a plot-spoiler!) male friend together fight this ‘system’ that tries to stifle and suppress them both.
This balance of young men and women working together to tackle systemic injustice looks like hope for feminism. It’s #HeForShe.