“History is more or less bunk,” said Henry Ford famously, and so, quite often, did my father, a graduate in History from Bristol University. His actions typically belied his words—he would be pushing our eclectic collection of Edwardian silver napkin rings around on our Elizabethan oak dining table, attempting to explain the military tactics of a famous battle, his eyes gleaming.
What he meant was, “Don’t study History, study Physics.” This may stun readers who know me now, but I was an obedient girl back then, and so I did as I was told. I dropped History as soon as I could for the sciences, and went on to study for a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College, London. And everything else, as they say, is history.
Except it isn’t. I continued to be fascinated by history and to read history texts and historical novels—the well-written kind like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. My favorite period is, indeed, the Tudors and Elizabethan England, but I am also borderline obsessed with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and with the early years of the Colonies. I married a man who loves History—his obsession is with the Founding Fathers and Political History—and our bookshelves are full of history books. Then five years ago I became involved with the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline, founded by Dr. Kim Bridgford.
About half of the fifty-plus essays about women poets currently on the Timeline concern American or British late twentieth century or contemporary poets, whose cultural context requires little explanation. But the rest span a broad swathe of historical eras from the dark ages to the second world war, and come from cultures as diverse as T’ang Dynasty China and Fourteenth Century Paris. A historical background is essential to these poets’ biographies.
I am a housewife, of sorts, and something else began to be clear to me as I co-ordinated essays on poets such as Kassia, Hildegard of Bingen, and Veronica Franco (pictured above.) Before Anne Bradstreet, housewives really didn’t write poetry. They didn’t have time. Women’s poetry up until the 17th century is almost entirely represented by women who had chosen a religious vocation, were royal or extremely wealthy, or existed on the margins of polite society—entertainers, mistresses, and women who otherwise used their bodies as currency. The idea behind Sisters & Courtesans was born.
Why Write Female Historical Persona Poems as Sonnets?
As I explain in Female Historical Persona and Character Poems, it’s not enough to decide who you are going to write about, you also have to determine how you are going to write about them. For me the super-flexible sonnet was the obvious choice, partly because sonnets are sexy, and sex plays a huge role in Sisters & Courtesans (not always just in the Courtesan corner either!) To illustrate my thought process further, here’s “My Life as an Honest Courtesan in Venice” (loosely based around Franco and her contemporary Gaspara Stampa):
I must confess that I can barely walk
in these new shoes, the platforms are so high.
Advancing regally, I pause to talk
(and rest) when an acquaintance passes by.
These split brocaded sleeves force me to hold
my arms spread out as if I mean to fly.
My heavy pendant heart is solid gold.
I hope it’s the epitome of class—
for that’s the point of all this, so I’m told.
I may be nouveau riche, but I can pass.
Don’t ever dare to lump me in with whores
with their thin skirts and ornaments of brass.
And as for those new sumptuary laws
I am exempted by a special clause.
Female historical persona poems need to wear their history much more lightly than the courtesan wears her ridiculous fashion in the poem above, and the sonnet forces the writer to do this. In approximately 140 syllables there simply isn’t room to explain the role of the Honest Courtesan and how she differed from a street whore. But this is where the persona becomes helpful. Because the poem is in the voice of the courtesan, and she is reflecting on her position in society and what it takes to maintain it, we can get a sense of the full historical context from her insecurity and vanity. And if you want to know more about sumptuary laws, you can always google them!
I wanted to create a Timeline of my own with Sisters & Courtesans, not of women poets—very few of the personae claim to be poets themselves—but of the history of women having control over their decisions, whether those decisions primarily affect their lives or their bodies, and of the correlation between control and happiness.
Other people can be the judge of whether or not I succeeded, but my Dad loves the book, and that means a great deal.