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.

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