A Sudden Change in the Weather

Dear friends, I am moving to a new webspace. I understand this is a bad idea, I will lose about half my audience, and few bloggers can afford such a risk these days. If I was to explain myself I would say I can't go on with something that makes me unhappy just because of the risk in change. However, I can't explain myself. I had no intention of change at this moment in time. I was too busy being sick with the flu. However, it appears change had intentions of its own.

You can now find me here. 

The fact that for the first time in many years a name I wanted was actually available, not only with blogger but also everywhere else I tried, seemed to encourage the endeavour.  I am now also here at twitter, and here at instagram. I remain simply Sarah Elwell at Facebook.

Thank you for following me, I hope so very much to see you in my new space.


Books As Refreshment

I have had the flu for the past week and have been able to do nothing more than watch dull Netflix movies and scroll through instagram. This is not to say that's all I've been doing - infact, never mind able, I've been kept fairly busy for the sake of other people. Which is probably why I still have the flu.




One thing I haven't been able to do at all is read, which is uncommon for me when sick. At the very beginning of the illness I went through Dragonsong one evening, as is my sickness habit. Otherwise, even the very thought of a book has been exhausting. I was forced to the library yesterday by the looming overdue status of about ten books, and stood swaying miserably infront of the Recent Releases shelf, trying to choose one, ultimately failing. When I can once again delve into the rich loveliness of imagination, I will select something calm, familiar, amusing, from my own shelves at home. Something to refresh the mind.

Books as refreshment. I've been needing that a lot lately. Seldom over the past couple of years have I read for beauty or inspiration. I no longer am drawn to sumptuous language. Infact, I generally find it cumbersome to read and a distraction from the story. I think I got utterly put off by one book I read that I felt was too much, too overblown, and it spoiled me for others of a similar style in the same way too much rich fresh crayfish can put you off seafood for a while. (Yes, it's possible! Take it from a fisherman's daughter!)

This is inconvenient as I spent years developing my own style of writing to be rather sumptuous, or at least lyrical and dreamlike (I hope), and it wasn't so long ago that I wrote a few pages which I consider my best ever. They sit languishing in a computer file. I read them the other day and loved them, but did not add to them. I fear I never will - genuinely fear it. I'm still unsure if easing my style, shaking the words until everything falls away except their calm bare names, is wisdom or collapse. Refreshment or failure. Discovering my true writer self or surrendering.

These are thoughts that have pestered me for a while now, and that have been interrupted by the flu - leading me to be grateful for illness and least in this one regard! I watch quietly to see where my heart will go when I recover.


What do you like best to read for refreshment?




The Trauma of Anne With An E

Apologies for the long post but this is important to me

Life is not always easy. I myself was a lonely, hurting child tucked away alone in the school library, reading for magic, reading for hope; or sitting halfway up a tree, listening to the world sing to me. I read the books supposedly written for children like me - the dark, powerful stories which embraced trauma. They didn't make me feel less alone as they were apparently motivated to do: they added to my shadows, lowered my mood, and kept me from other people by portraying the world as a horrible place in which adults and other children could not be trusted, and even heroes had their dark side.




The stories I loved best were those in which a vulnerable character found joy, dignity, and love within a community that uplifted them and connected them to the wider world. This gave me such hope. It says something that the book I always read when I'm sick is Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, which about a sad, hurting girl who runs away to make a life for herself, gains tiny dragon friends, then is rescued by benevolent adults and gathered lovingly into a place where she finds true belonging and is valued not only for what she can do but who she is as a person.

When I was in my early twenties, I came across Anne of Green Gables and became instantly enchanted by this tale of a traumatised orphan who did not let her past rot through her present, but who was determined to see the world as beautiful, magical, good. It encouraged me. It showed me how I could rescue myself from my gloomy perspective and that it was acceptable to be a dreamer - infact, more than acceptable: healthful, wholesome. My culture does not embrace quiet, magic-hearted dreamers, but Anne of Green Gables showed me that there was fulfillment to be found in being your true self, regardless of the prevailing culture, and that by doing so you'd be a safe haven for other dreamers. Besides, the people surrounding Anne, with sorrows of their own, learned from her example that they could open themselves to magic also.

It wasn't that the story was relentlessly cheerful, but that while it acknowledged the dark it always gave power to the light. I think if I'd read it as a child I'd have been braver than the grim "realistic" stories ever made me. And I think I would have held my heart more warmly and softly within myself so that as an adult I didn't have to strive to regain its trust.




When the Netflix version of Anne of Green Gables first came out, I looked at its trailers and read its reviews and refused to watch it. I felt it was a betrayal of the spirit of the original story. But this week I had the opportunity to watch and curiosity won out. I went through series one in a couple of days and embarked on series two.

My first thoughts were that it was extraordinarily beautiful in terms of the visual experience, the acting was excellent, especially Marilla and Gilbert. I could even relate quite well to this version of Anne, at least in terms of her vulnerability and grief, although I found her far too rowdy, obnoxious, and self-absorbed. I was aghast at how dour and cheerless Green Gables was, but generally admired the sets and costumes. In short, I was willing to accept the series as a rather tacky "re-imagined version" and let it be.




And then I moved on to series two. (Albeit skipping the scenes of Gilbert on his travels.) Increasingly I rolled my eyes at the storytelling which had no richness, subtlety, or wisdom. I noticed the cinematography had gone downhill. I tolerated through gritted teeth the changes to Marilla's personality only because they were so well acted. And then I reached the part about Matthew's romance.

I stopped watching there and cleansed my mind with the BBC production of Emma.




Anne-With-An-E is a programme which devalues gentleness, softness, kindness, soul strength. In the most explicit example, it takes away the deeply inspiring heroism of a shy Matthew learning to care for a girl in exchange for a Matthew riding furiously to her rescue, putting out fires, and struggling with romance. This hurts me on so many levels, primarily because it is a big part of what's wrong with the world these days. So many tv shows and movies have told us that heroism is not something which happens within our hearts but on horseback, or with a gun, surrounded by noise and smoke. We are being drawn out of ourselves and taught that courage is something we do, a boldness, a power act, not something we grow within and that may involve such tenderness that it goes unseen by all but the most intimate friends. If you look at the ancient stories of knights and heroes, they are action-packed but the heroes develop their bravery and strength in their hearts and in relationship with Life, not just by hacking at monsters.

I did appreciate that Anne-With-An-E showed some of Anne's early trauma and how it would have lingered in her memory and affected her ability to make friends. But it soon became clear this was just done for show, for entertainment. And the fact that in the book Avonlea as a whole taught Anne about real community - with its strengths, flaws, goodness, shadows - was lost in this production so that certain ostentatious values could be presented simply, plainly, for the idiots in the back row. When characters were introduced solely to embody certain issues like homosexuality, I gave up on the writing altogether.




But what gets me the most about Anne-With-An-E is that we're told it is for today's youth - as if young people these days are a tougher breed than those in the past, with more traumatic experiences and a darker view of the world. I have to wonder how much reading people with this perspective have done. Do they not know about youths' experiences growing up during the world wars, in the Depression, in the Middle Ages, and so on? Infact, generally speaking, almost every other era that's come before has been grimmer for young people than this one.

But in any case why should we only confirm for our young people that life is as hard, bleak, unhappy, as we believe they experience it? Don't we as adults have a responsibility to acknowledge their pain and misery but also offer them a vision of hope, comfort, and wholesome goodness? Shouldn't we be assuring them that for the most part people are safe and community is a good thing? That if they find themselves having to run from a monster, there are those who will help them and not send them back to the monster? If you really want to write stories that help troubled children and teens, this message is so important. All too often children's literature leaves it up to the child protagonist himself to fight alone, or with a couple of friends, while the adults surrounding him are remote or unkind. (For example, Harry Potter.) Truly traumatised children want to be encouraged to find their inner strength, for sure, but they also need to know there are good, safe adults in the world who will help and protect them. LM Montgomery gives this to Anne not only with the Cuthberts but many other adults in the Avonlea community. The Netflix series takes all that away.

It is fashionable these days to be cynical, but look at where that's getting us. Erosion of community, resurgence of hate groups, increasing rates of depression, loneliness, and a growing international political maelstrom that may lead to war.




Anne-With-An-E doesn't just betray the spirit of the original story, it betrays us all with its argument that unkindess and peril are the norm. The producers had an opportunity to bring something truly beautiful to audiences - not just visually sumptuous but soulfully wise and healthful. They had a chance to do good. And all we got were pretty images and cheap storytelling for the sake of entertainment. That's bad enough. Worse that they did it in the name of a book which really was encouraging, wise, healthful, hope-giving, and very much beloved all around the world for those reasons.


A Few of My Favourite Scenes

Last thing last night, I drifted off to sleep thinking of my favourite moments from the stories I've written over the years. Just to be obnoxious this morning, I thought I'd share them here.




From Deep in the Far Away: Emma stepping beyond the woodland boundary ... Richard trying to convince her to get up out of her chair ... in their attic bedroom before going to bed ... Emma waking from nightmares.

From stories in Driftways: Gareth singing through the door to the troll ... May meeting Nettle in his house at the end of the story ... Carrie's confrontation with her neighbour ... Hannah's husband telling her about the fox ... the bear coming through the door.

From stories in The Coracle Sky ... Fiann watching Igrane across the dinner table ... Fiann and Igrane talking to peasants in Erland ... Isolda and Aedan meeting for the first time ... Isolda and Aedan's fight ... Lily with the old women in the cave ... Rosamunde inspecting the doctor's invention ... Gawane listening to Eluned cry in her sleep ... the queen's question to Gawane at the end of their tale ... any scene with Fetch.

From my current work in progress ... the hero and heroine meeting for the first time ... the bingo scene ... the argument about Persuasion ... the (first) fire ... the (second) fire ... the discussion about orchestra conducting.


The Unreliable Woman

Writing my current manuscript has been different from the others as I'm not using my usual organic style but engaging my consciousness more. As a consequence, I go back repeatedly to make all manner of changes to the language, characters, settings (although the plot hasn't changed, which also is unusual for me - typically I only know how a story is going to end when I write the ending.) And yet, more often than not, I revert all my changes, which means I have about three drafts at any one time, and get confused about which is the most recent.




One of the changes I wrestle with is the narrative perspective. I originally set the story in first person, but about three times now have tried to rewrite it using third person. (I am getting very sick of my first chapter, I can tell you!) I keep giving up because most of the characters are women and all those shes and hers become confusing. I do wonder if the narrative style would be better served by third person, but right now it's beyond my patience.

As a reader, I prefer third person. Oddly enough, it helps me get closer to characters. As a writer, though, I love writing in first person. So much can be done with it. I especially love how it allows dramatic irony. I'm using a lot of dramatic irony in my current manuscript, so will probably end up staying with first person for all that the prose reads better in third.




When I began writing Deep in the Far Away, I chose first person organically - in other words, it's just what the story told me to do. As it turned out, that was indeed the best choice, because Emma had no idea what had happened to her, and hopefully the reader could see more clearly than she the mystery and darkness in her situation (especially in the second edition, which is altered slightly for novel rather than serial form.) Third person is better when you want to keep the reader's view obscured, but I've always liked the advice that you should show the reader as much information as you can, because it creates more tension than keeping them in the dark. As a reader, I prefer to have that information made just visible enough that I can guess at it and so be delighted when I'm proven right (or fascinated when I realise I've been fooled by red herrings).




In Emma's situation, dramatic irony emphasised her vulnerability. In my current manuscript, I'm using it for nicer reasons. My heroine is much put-upon, but she isn't in as perilous and lonely a situation as Emma (although if she doesn't get things right it will be the end of the world - either literally or figuratively, which is where the dramatic irony comes in. The reader will think they know which of these it is, and will be proven right or wrong at the end.) This of course is the difference between writing drama and comedy. And I think I have now, thanks to this post, convinced myself I'm following the correct course by using first person. See, this is why blogging is great!





Dragons in the Southern Sky

I went for a beach walk today. But I do not love the sea, so my head was in the clouds as I strolled first one way then back again. And up there was a realm as familiar to me as any old neighbourhood, for it has remained the same since I was young.




Southward, dragonlords stand with their faces to the white wind and their shadows elongated by the vast, elegant wings of wild-hearted, wise-eyed dragons. Their domain is a harbour full of trade ships, students ambling across the lawns of a great university, the beautiful white house of the duke. Where ever I am in the world, whatever lies south in reality, that is the world I see.

North-west are old stone towers amongst briar roses, dreaming roads, enchanted old oak forests in which live creatures so shy we have never learned their names. The women of this realm wear richly embroidered gowns and have an ornate, secret, embroidered language; the men carry swords but are ruled by an ancient ideal of gentleness. The king's house overlooks a different harbour from that southward: older, smaller, with ships whose trade is more wondrous. I grew up inside this realm, although at a layer where only whispers and glimpses of it could be seen.

Sometimes I've tried to write stories in these sky worlds, but they are too real.



art john bauer

In the Old Winter Garden

A golden veil lies gently on the glade.  I love this afternoon hour when the earth seems for a while like a luminous bride come to her wedding bed. I especially love the winter tenderness of it, the delicacy of light and the quiet, more than the fervour of summer's golden hour. Most people don't understand that, they prefer the rich and the fabulous. Only a small group of us are watercoloured spirits, wanting the hushed.




The sky is spring-coloured but still evening rises early, winter-cold and starry. No matter how bright the days, it still takes two of them to get a lineful of laundry dry. It still requires a cardigan for going out, and slippers indoors.

There's such a loveliness in that need to unexpectedly take care, despite the sun. Just as I think late winter flowers are the most beautiful because of their unexpectedness as well as their courage.

* * *

I have been reading through the Anne of Green Gables series, as I often do. I fell into it by randomly, hurriedly. taking one of the books for my bag book (you also always have a bag book - a novel in your purse for reading whenever reading is possible, yes?) and couldn't quite stop when that one was done. But I'm onto Rilla now and have read it too recently. I can recite the sentences before reading them. So I'm looking about me for another source of gentle beauty. I have a few similar books, although for me there's nothing quite like Anne. I wish there were more web resources that shared such beauty. Imagine! Havens of loveliness; hedged gardens where we could sit awhile to drink in peace and a poetic view of life. Instagram doesn't quite do it for me. Pinterest is a little better, but even so - the pictures are lovely, but in the end there's really nothing more evocative than words. They can draw from your own mind an image more luscious and inspiring than any photograph.





Gentle, But With Dragons

My sitting room curtains are luminous with soft winter magic this morning. A deep peace lays on this little part of the world. I can hear glints of birdsong but the cottage is tucked up in on itself,  holding its warmth, keeping its softness. Soon I'll open windows, start making noise - dishes in water, furniture hauled about the room. But I do love this gentle hour when it seems nothing must be done, only being, only loving.




I have been quietly contemplating changes to my online spaces in the months to come, hoping to focus better on what I think I most naturally offer, and finding the right name or title to encompass it all, in the anticipation of perhaps being able to settle in a proper nice webspace with better design than little old blogspot. I've started gathering colour samples and key words which mostly come back to gentle and wild-hearted. I recognise that, for all I may bemoan the dwindling blog culture, responsibility for developing an audience also lies with me and the effort I make.

(Unfortunately, photography won't be a large part of my future, as my new computer is just a very cheap one - its colour settings are appalling, and can't be fixed. Everything looks yellow and overexposed, making photo processing impossible.)

This morning I happened upon a website which is done beautifully: Gentle Lilacs. The moment it comes onto the screen, one feels its softness and kind-heartedness. I would like to express that same mood myself, but with a tang of the storm, and of the witch lifting her skirts and words to the storm, and with a shadow that may be a dragon.

In other words, I suppose, gentle and wild-hearted. 



Art by Dugald Stewart Walker

Stories Unfurling

I haven't posted much in my usual dreamy style for a long while, have I? There are three reasons, first being that the dwindling away of non-commercial blogging has got to the point where I find it hard to keep alot of momentum for my own blogpost writing, and second, that life is intricate right now. I actually find it hard remembering what I have written here; everything feels like I'm repeating myself, because to be honest my brain doesn't do well with intricacy.

The third reason is that I'm currently working on two novels which take most of my currently rare free time. I'm uncertain of my plans for these novels, but really at the moment am just writing because that's what I do. I write. Always. The universe will respond as it sees fit.




The first manuscript, which is three-quarters complete, is a romantic comedy about the grand-daughter of a witch. I haven't any excerpt to share from it, as pretty much all of the book is spoilery, but I can tell you that it includes, amongst other things, old ladies, pretty countryside, crows, a savage vagina, line dancing, poetry discussions, an effigy of Carl Jung, unwarranted Bingo, a very large sword, wild Scottish drumming, tea, and vast quantities of pink crochet. Writing it is a more traditional writery process than I usually follow, and sometimes a little tedious, but I find myself laughing when I read back over it, so that's got to be good, right?

The second manuscript is about a girl in a small, artistic, dream circus. I'm working on it because I don't want to lose my lyrical style altogether while writing comedy; I need the loveliness of words, the feel of broken poetry against my mouth; I need to write something not just that I can write, but that is true to my private heart and the cadences of its wishing. This manuscript is going a great deal more slowly than the other, because I'm using my habitual process: listening, then writing down what I hear the story tell me, or trying to translate into words how it shifts through the air, over my skin, behind my heart. It is the moon to the other novel's sun, it is a bit of magic I am pulling out of my sleeve.

Everyone considered Vera their grandmother. Sure, she would hand you a chocolate with one hand and with the other slap your face, but that was just the old circus way, steeped in wild rain, spiced with campfire smoke and road dust. There was no softness without hard. No magic without knocking steel pegs into the earth until it could take them no further. Vera had walked, tumbled, danced out of wild Eastern landscapes most of them could never imagine, and her vowels still spoke of the long distant time when a circus was, just maybe, a magic knocked out of the earth instead of in.

My beta readers are very enthusiastic about the romantic comedy, but I haven't showed them the circus story, feeling too tender about it at this stage. We'll see what happens. In the meanwhile, I'll try to sit aside a few more dreams for this old online space and anyone kind enough to still be reading here.


painting by Albert Anker Junge

Romanov Fiction

Have you ever read a book which affects you so strongly, you have to tell someone? I just read I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhorn - or at least, read the first couple of chapters then dipped in to others - and honestly I can not rest until I've spoken about it.




I have researched the family of the last Russian tsar since I was a teenager. There are many reasons why, but mainly something in the eyes of the three eldest daughters speaks to me. They seem to have a gentleness and depth of soul that calls out for friendship and recognition even so long after their deaths (one hundred years ago on July 17th). For years, I read everything I could about them. This was in the days before the internet, and even before interloans, so I took many trips to small, obscure libraries in order to find Romanov biographies and watched old film footage on microfiche in basements. I studied Russian history and literature at university. When the internet revealed hundreds of private photographs, letters, diaries, films, and information, I absorbed it all. I tell you this (and some of you may remember I've written about it before) so you understand my opinion of I Was Anastasia, is an informed one.

The book is beautifully written. The structure is clever, alternating between Anastasia Romanov impersonator Anna Anderson's plotline, which moves back in time, and Anastasia's own plotline covering the imperial family's last months of life. Lawhorn has skipped many significant events, but I understand the constraints that drove her to this. She admits to taking liberties and that's fine, it's a big story. Personally I disagree with her view of Anna Anderson, but that's okay, we know a lot about the woman but not really anything certain about her interior life, considering she wove such a vast lie about herself. I really was inclined to love this book. However, so much is wrong with the characterisations that I felt compelled to respond.

I could tell you how she unfairly makes Kerensky into a cruel man. How she simplifies the guards, thus eradicating some very interesting dynamics from the story. And more. But in the interests of keeping this post relatively short, I'll focus only on Grand Duchess Maria Romanov.



Maria was the family sweetheart, a girl so good her father said he was "afraid of the wings growing." She was humble, kind, gentle-natured, and rather squelched beneath the forceful character of her younger sister Anastasia. As with all her family, she was highly religious, and although she had a teenaged girl's inclination to flirt innocently, ultimately hers was an impeccable character. Even the guards imprisoning the family liked her. When she was caught in an indelicate position with one of those guards who had smuggled in a cake on her birthday, it almost certainly involved no more than secret kissing, if even that.

Lawhorn however cheapens Maria's character, presenting her as vain (infact her family laughed at her for being "fat" and clumsy, so I doubt she had a lot of self-confidence, and besides, at the time of the story she was actually deathly ill with measles and pnuemonia, following which she had her hair shaved off, facts Lawhorn omitted), also that she was grumpy about having to do manual labour in the gardens when infact she loved it, that she was reluctant to accompany her parents on a dangerous journey although nothing could be further from the truth, and finally Lawhorn makes her far more libidinous than she ever would have been - or could have been, considering she was living in a small house jam-packed with people, including armed guards.

As one of the villains says to Maria, "Your honour is tarnished. You will forever be known as the Romanov who spread her legs for a common soldier." This is absolutely awful because hundreds of people will read this and, trusting the author's research, believe it. Lawhorn herself has tarnished Maria's honour.




Why is this important? It's only a novel, after all. And again I reiterate, Lawhorn has written it beautifully. I wish so much I could give her only praise. But to me the mischaracterisation is important because Maria does not deserve to be maligned. Infact, a miracle of healing has been ascribed to her - a fact I mention not due to any religiosity on my part, but only because such a miracle would be characteristic of her. It makes me deeply sad to think anyone will read Lawhorn's book and think she was less than she really was, especially after all she went through in her life and how she maintained her generosity and goodness to the very end, even in the face of hardship, terror, and cruelty.

But there's a deeper question here that I'm struggling with. Historic fiction must be hard to write. Weaving the truth in with narrative strength and clarity ... deciding what is most important ... making the characters speak effectively on the page ... forming educated guesses when there are gaps. I doubt I could do it well. But where should we draw the line between literary licence and slander? So many of the changes to Maria's character seemed purposeless other than to make her a foil for Anastasia. Lawhorn even changes how Maria died - giving her an instant death, when infact Maria suffered horribly, finally perishing long after the rest of her family. Why take even that from her?

I know I sound like a Romanov fangirl (a nicer word is scholar), but really, beyond my concern for Maria's reputation, I wonder as a writer and a reader where we draw the line. Is it fair to change the essential character of historic figures in order to serve an author's personal ideas about storytelling? What do you think? If you've made it to the end of this epic post, I'd love to hear your opinions on this question.




the colourisation in the second picture was done by klimbim. 
people almost always get her hair colour wrong; in real life it was honey brown
and yes this shows I know too much on the subject! 
in my defence (if scholarly interests need to be defended), 
I don't know as much as some people.