No bridles for a heretic; The Books Interview

Stevie Davies digs into the passions of the past, and comes up with fiction to treasure. Nicolette Jones meets her

Stevie Davies has written seven novels and 13 books of literary criticism and history. She has garnered high praise from such critics as John Carey, who described her latest study as "history at its most gripping and passionate", and Margaret Drabble, who admired its humanity, scholarliness and balance. She bears comparison with Simon Schama as a historian who marshalls facts into a pacy narrative and brings the past to vivid life. Reviewers of her novels have said she "writes like a dream". Yet her work is much less well known than it deserves to be.

"My guess is that many academic historians would turn their noses up at my work because I am so interested in stories," she says, putting her finger on what it is about her writing that makes it so engaging. "I think ordinary people are interested in stories, and should be. Stories are all we have to attest to who we are." She talks with a combination of passion and calm, ardent about her subject but level and precise in her expression, listening to questions with a still, blue gaze in a narrow, ageless, sympathetic face.

Her latest two books are interrelated. One is non-fiction, a history of the lives of dissenting women, Unbridled Spirits: women of the English Revolution, 1640-1660 (The Women's Press, pounds 8.99). The other is a novel, Impassioned Clay (The Women's Press, pounds 10), which is "deeply autobiographical" in that it came out of her research into the 17th century. "I was enchanted by that period, and its way of expressing itself, its spiritual quests, its zaniness. The brave, strange stories. I couldn't get out of it. I couldn't let go. What I did in the novel is study my problem in laying the ghosts, confining them to the past."

The heroine of Impassioned Clay, Olivia, is a historian whose curiosity is ignited by finding a skeleton in her garden. The skeleton wears a "brank", a bridle which enclosed the head in iron bands, and had a metal "tongue" for insertion into the mouth, with nine spikes at the end. Its historical use is recorded in Unbridled Spirits as a punishment for heretics and dissenters and "scolds".

It not only drew blood at the back of the tongue and the throat, but could break teeth and jaws. Olivia embarks on a quest to find out why her skeleton had to be silenced, which parallels Davies's own drive to hear voices that survived against the odds, in fragile broadsides that were expected to be ephemeral.

"Speaking to creative writing students recently, I told them about the brank, and the room went absolutely silent. There was a feeling of deep horror. One young woman said to me afterwards `I never realised that our history had been like that'. There's a forgetfulness in the corporate mind that doesn't know what our foremothers had to go through, how hard- achieved freedoms were, and how many people failed. One of the things that I wanted to get into the novel was the theme of women's failure - heroic failure - in groping for freedoms that society was not prepared under any circumstances to offer them."

These freedoms are, shockingly, ones we would now take for granted. The bridle, for instance, was applied for voicing opinions we would not now hesitate to utter, if in another kind of language. "We're all scolds now," Davies observes.

She makes it clear, however, that the women she records were not "early feminists", fighting for women's freedom as we understand it now. Their motives were apolitical and religious zeal of a kind particular to their age. And Davies is as fascinated by the men of the time as she is by the women: "For me the world of the past is its women and its men."

One of the voices of Impassioned Clay is that of a 17th-century minister who precipitates the punishment of the woman he secretly desires. He is an invention based on historical characters whose attitudes brought upon women sexually violent rituals of shaming, but Davies speaks of them warmly.

"The nearest real character to Lyngard that I came across was Thomas Edwards," she says. "He's so funny, bless him. You get very fond of these people for their very awfulness and their naivety. Thomas Edwards went around collecting heretics and wrote a big book, The Gangrena, to show the gangrenes in the revolutionary world. He has done us a favour against his will. You can't help but feel grateful. He kept for me the special quality of Katherine Chidley [one of the subjects of Unbridled Spirits]. I'd hate to live my life without knowing that Katherine Chidley was amok on the streets of Shrewsbury and then of London."

Olivia in Impassioned Clay is more than usually caught up in history because she finds it hard to make relationships with living people. As the novel progresses, she "grows up" into her own (lesbian) sexuality, and into an acceptance of other people as they are.

Davies says she does not have trouble making relationships, but she does understand Olivia's feeling of aloneness, partly because she was "a boarding- school survivor". She went to 12 schools, of which three were boarding schools, and two of these Forces schools (her father was a sergeant in the RAF) were particularly brutal. "In one, the punishment for talking after lights out was that girls had to crawl along the corridor for half an hour."

The one advantage of her diverse education, in England, Scotland and Germany, was that it gave her lots of settings for her novels. Her first, Boy Blue in 1987, was set in the Air Force and was "to do with the pain of women in wartime". Another, Arms and the Girl, also has a military setting, a camp in Scotland, and concerns child abuse.

"I think my earlier novels were much more painful than the later ones," she says. The darkest was Closing the Book, a study of bereavement, but it was followed immediately by Four Dreamers and Emily, the often hilarious story of four characters who bring their own illusions to an Emily Bronte conference. This was before Davies herself joined the Bronte Society.

Her own biography of Emily was subtitled "Heretic", an epithet she applies also to herself. "I am heretical about a lot of things. I don't think you should have only one field, or territory, for instance," she says, "Milton, or 17th-century knickerbockers or whatever. It doesn't allow you to be a common reader. I want to write criticism in a living way so that people outside the academy can enjoy it. I want to make poets visible to the common reader."

She shares something else with the heretics she writes about. "I'm a 17th- century Quaker without being able to believe in God," she half-jests. Olivia in the novel is brought up a Quaker, and many of the vociferous protestors of Unbridled Spirits were early Quakers, at a time when the movement had a very different character from the one it has now.

Then Quakers were enthusiastic: some of the protests involved running half-clad through the streets and smashing idols in the churches - a far cry from their current quietism. Davies was a Baptist convert in her teens but is now an unbeliever who admires Quakerism's social concern and "love that doesn't confine itself to doctrine". She is certainly more quietist than enthusiastic, though.

She lives, she admits, an austere life near Manchester, a vegetarian with no car (she cycles everywere) and her days pared down to essentials so that she can write. She gave up a teaching job at Manchester (and its income) after her first seven books of literary criticism were published, because she wanted also to write novels. She found that she couldn't do that, and teach and write about literature, and look after twins and another daughter as well.

"My job had been relatively prestigious. I had set a lot of store by it. What really hit me when I left to write full time was that I was nobody. I was a mother outside the school gates. I was not Dr Davies with the name on the door and all that went with it. It was a tremendous comedown. And also an opportunity to live in a much more solid way, basing your life on self-respect." Now she describes her days of writing as "a lovely way to live".

Much of the research for her novel was local, concerned with "what lay under her own feet". She manages to convey, both in her novel and her history, the way we might see places in four dimensions, through time as well as space, so that the streets we walk along are alive with history. She remarks that: "Commonly we are interested in the past as a kind of costume drama in which we put on the clothes in which we think they walked - in which the dead people's ghosts become a kind of ectoplasm we make into shapes that answer our own needs."

As a teenager, she once woke in the night with the awful thought that the bones of all the people who have ever lived are in the ground below us. Now she is someone we can trust to dress those bones in their own proper clothes, so that we can see them, not as we fancy them to be, but as they were.

Stevie Davies, a biography

Stevie Davies is the biographer of the poet Henry Vaughan and author of books on Renaissance feminism, Donne, Shakespeare, Milton in the English Revolution and Emily Bronte. She formerly taught at Manchester University is now an honorary Senior Research Fellow at Roehampton Institute in London and an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She has written seven novels, all published by The Women's Press: Boy Blue (1987), winner of the Fawcett Society Book Prize in 1989, Primavera (1990), Arms and the Girl (1992), Closing the Book (1994), which was on the longlist for the Booker Prize and the shortlist for the Fawcett Society Book Prize, Four Dreamers and Emily (1996), The Web of Belonging (1997) and The Impassioned Clay (1999). She lives near Manchester.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence