Last weekend Jackie French mesmerised and intrigued Booklinks members and the public by speaking about the women history hides to raise money for an upcoming Symposium on literature and writing centres. This is my account of listening to her talk.
It was a shocking morning, hearing all about stabbings in London. I could scarcely keep the tears from rolling down my face. Oh what are we doing – humanity? I wasn’t sure if I could leave the house, and if just a day of meditation and prayers, or a solitary walk in nature, might be the way to go. That’s my sensitive poet’s heart; I am sure a lot of other’s people’s hearts were breaking too.
But I gave myself a stern talking to, Jackie French one of my all time favourite authors was in town, and was going to give a talk. ‘Get on that bus June and go be with your friends who love writing.’
On June 4th, a Sunday afternoon, over 40 people of the book, many of them Book Links/Write Links members, gathered at the Queensland State Library to hear renowned Australian author and patron of Book Links, Jackie speak about the women history hides. The talk, hosted by Book Links, was a fundraiser for the upcoming symposium on literature and writing centers for young people which will be on June 17th. Marking that one in the diary now!
As we entered the room, a suitcase full of Jackie’s books, and a wombat! was there showcasing the travelling suitcase program. This suitcase brings the author (via video interview and their books) to visit schools all throughout Queensland. It is special as the author can’t always make it to all the schools who want to see them, and not all schools can afford to pay them a visiting fee (which is so important to authors.) Luckily for us though, Jackie was right next to her suitcase, and was even signing a few books for people before the talk began. She was excited to see the suitcase too, as she hadn’t seen it in person before.
Jackie began her talk in a most original way. By showing a piece of patchwork quilt and asking the audience what they thought it was. It turned out to be some of Queen Victoria’s underpants which her maid had stitched. She then spoke about the importance of underpants which the Queen wore and popularized. The widespread use of underpants meant women could protect their ‘dignity’ whilst doing active things like dancing and riding horses, things Queen Victoria herself loved to do.
She added another that the invention of the bicycle gave more mobility to more women. (I think also more women could own bicycles than horses!)
She told us the fascinating story of how Queen Victoria’s chief surgeon was a woman, but this was only discovered on the surgeon’s death! This surgeon made such a huge difference to Queen Victoria, curing her of cystitis and ensuring her child-birth experiences were less painful through the use of chloroform. (I am still trying to find a reference for the surgeon and am uncovering a lot of other stories on the way.) Sadly many women in Queen Victoria’s time had to hide that they were female to have access to some professions.
Jackie then took us through many hidden stories of women which we ourselves will find if we go looking for them. She told us the tale of the French Peasant girl, Jeanne Baret, who discovered bougainvillea and was for a time her country’s most decorated scientist but not many knew.
She told us some of the stories of the women who are not in the regimental and official histories of World War One and Two. Many of them ran unofficial hospitals, or were stretcher bearers, ambulance drivers and more. Some women ran refugee camps. Jackie said she just can’t watch the television documentaries of these times very often as she sees so many untold stories missing and they frustrate her no end.
Jackie asked us what we knew of the French resistance, and then told us the story of the Dame Blanche, The White Ladies, of the French resistance movement. The most common spies of this movement were young granddaughters and their grandmothers, because they were the people who would be least suspicious. They seldom even fled the scene of where they undertook sabotage operations because nobody thought them capable of such things. The image of grannies with handbags full of bombs is a much more likely scenario than any other at the time, even though films and stories tend to depict men doing this.
I found it interesting how Jackie punctuated her talk with questions. This seemed to be a way of checking what we knew, and engaging us.
Jackie reminded us that women at various points in history have been told their greatest power is that which they can have through their marriages, or being muses. They even trained to do this and could go to special schools to learn the steps of charming! It has taken some time for women to have their own influence. She then told us about her latest book Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies.
Miss Lily runs a school for teaching the six steps to influence a man, steps which Jackie jokingly said she would never be able to follow herself. Mostly aristocratic girls would go to this school; it was rumoured that Mrs. Simpson who later married Edward (who abdicated from the throne to marry her) went there, but in her novel she focuses on Sophie Hicks, a daughter of a Corn Beef King, with unusual intelligence, goes to Miss Lily’s, due to her father’s acquired wealth.
Jackie described her book as a mix of Downton Abbey with Espionage thriller, which appealed greatly to the gathered audience. She said even her publishers and editors had not predicted the ending of the novel. There are many more books in this series to come, which just thrilled the audience. Jackie was really happy with her plotting in this novel. She felt it is her best plotted book so far.
At a few points in her talk Jackie spoke about her own experiences like being Australian of the year, and sharing the stage with exceptional women who acted like women not men, but contrasted this with being afraid to say she was married when a teacher, because she had a mortgage, just in case she was then made unemployed if the law was changed back again. She reminded particularly the younger women in the audience, that the time when women could not stay working for the public service when married was not that far past in our history.
Jackie then told us more about some her other books, focusing mostly on her series about Hitler. She spoke specifically about Hitler’s Daughter, and Pennies for Hitler. She told us a fascinating story about Nun’s rescuing children as they were begin marched away to camps, by ducking into the crowd to pray for people, and then rescuing young children under their habits and with the consent of the doomed parents rescuing them.
Due to the terrible events of the day the next few words of Jackie’s were particularly moving to me. She shared with us that the message of Pennies for Hitler is to be ‘wary of anyone who makes us angry, because anger can lead to hate. Anger can be harnessed by others to give them power. ‘ This lesson cannot be forgotten.
Jackie told us how the Polish intellectuals were decimated by the Nazi regime, and in fact over 44 million people were killed by Nazi Germany as many more than the Jews were also killed, including the polish intellectuals, and Catholic nuns.
Jackie then read from the opening and closing of Pennies for Hitler. She reiterated the power of the ‘people of the book,’ those who write, especially those who write for children can create understanding within the world.
I am sure many of us will keep searching for those women that history hides and do our best to draw on the power of love, story and words as we continue our life journeys in a world being challenged to find peace. Maybe we will even write about them too!
June Perkins is a Book Links and Write Links member and has long been a big fan of Jackie French’s books. This month she will be giving workshops on writing and illustrating poetry for children with Helene Magisson, Kenmore Library June 27th and June 28th at Ashgrove Library. These are free to the public but you need to book care of the library.
June is also appearing at Mary Ryan’s, Milton, on the 24th of June to sign copies of Magic Fish Dreaming (and has had Helene pre-sign some books so the books will be signed by both author and illustrator.)