Woman, Then and Now
Nicola Matthews is the author of the historical fiction Kitty Canham. The real life of her protagonist, who lived in the same part of Essex 300 years earlier, inspired her to write.
There is a theme in Kitty’s life that echoes a theme that has run through my own life. A theme that is not so often written about, because it is not exciting or enlivening. It is the theme of inevitability. Kitty says that life, ‘is like an inevitable river flowing with or without her consent.’ For too many women in Kitty’s era, as in my own, fighting the flow of the current that was the inequality that women faced, proved too strong. We become worn by its pull and allowed ourselves to drift in its inevitable flow. Kitty often finds herself in such a place. She struggles to make her way amid the conventions that restrain her, but when she expresses her anger, it only seems to confirm her weakness as a woman. Kitty was born into a society where women were expected to present themselves well, in order to receive a good proposal for marriage. That was the sole purpose of so many women in Kitty’s time.
In the eighteenth century women could not inherit easily and were certainly not expected to enjoy the hard graft of a farming life, which Kitty relished. She finds herself in the happy position of becoming the inheritor of her father’s farm, until a boy appears, born to her father out of wedlock but now welcomed into the home by her mother. The boy dispossesses her.
I was born in the late 50’s. It was post war Britain when women’s brief foray into the world of work during the world wars, had come to an end. So many of my friend’s mothers spent their time keeping home for their working spouses. The atmosphere often seemed drab and devoid of conversation. Although my own upbringing was rather more bohemian, and certainly a lot of fun, a woman was still there for the gaze and service of their husband. My father was a well-known actor. My mother was the perfect hostess and a star in my father’s firmament. She fitted it well. I remember watching films in Home Economics, where we were told, by a smiling woman in a 50’s dress and pinny, how to keep house and cook! That was to be our lot, whether it fitted us well or not. Too many women were forced into positions to which they were wholly unsuited.
My character, Kitty, had no interest in presenting herself appropriately for a good marriage. But she too often finds herself caught in the current that was the society of the day. With few options and when all else is closed to her, she agrees to marry Alexander, a rector in the local parish. He is a good man, but still a man of his time, unable and unused to expressing himself to a woman. When she comes home from helping old Jacob with the lambing at the farm, dressed in breeches with blood on her hands, Alexander is angry. He tells her in no uncertain terms that she is an embarrassment and will have to change. Kitty bows to inevitability once more, though she finds her passionate and restless nature will not allow her to settle as she hoped. Eventually she finds a course of happiness, but one that comes at great cost both physically and emotionally. As we know, things have improved for women immeasurably since Kitty’s time. However, we are not there yet.
Thankfully, for my generation, the 60’s/70’s brought change. Though the male gaze had not changed. It was the era of the Carry On movies when a wolf whistle was seen as a compliment. Both my sisters were older than I and were actresses through the sixties. My sister Debbie, ten years my senior, became known as a ‘blond bombshell’ – an image which she was never fully able to break away from and which led her into difficulties as she grew older. Although I was younger than my sisters, the shadow of the expectations I grew up with, lived on in my own soul.
Kitty’s life story was very different to my own, and my struggles were far less keen, but in writing Kitty Canham I found myself expressing, through her, my own anger against the restraints that I felt in my younger years, restraints so often in my own mind, rather than in those around me. In giving Kitty a feisty nature, I found I was able to give expression to my anger, not for myself so much, but for those women, the world over, who’s fight for equality has barely begun.
Nicola Matthews is the author of Kitty Canham (Hall House Press, £8.99, eBook: £2.99), available now from Amazon: https://amzn.to/3lCKLxj
Nicola Matthews was inspired by the ragged North Essex coastline, where she lives with her husband, to write Kitty Canham’s story. She was an undiagnosed dyslexic until her mid-forties and has worked as a sculptor and in the theatre, writing and producing community productions. She is also the author of Anxt and Other Poems, a poetry anthology. It was the unexpected gift of lockdown that gave Nicola the time and inclination to finally write her debut novel, Kitty Canham. Find out more: www.nicolamwrites.com/novel