Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Popish Midwife (why I wrote her story)

It's a very special day for me today. Today I reached a milestone. I finished first major edit of The Popish Midwife. I know I still have a long way to go, but I've come a long way too.

I don't know if I've ever said why I wrote this book, but it was important to me that her story was told, and that I wrote it. This is why.

Several years ago, I think, maybe back in May 2005, I went onto ebay for the first time. I bought a 9 person tent, and was so proud of myself! But then I realised that I could peruse my most favourite things in the whole world - antique books. I could rarely afford any I wanted, and those I could afford were books I really had no interest in. Then I discovered 'disbound' books, and started trying for those, thinking that, one day, I might buy a press and learn how to bind them (I even bought a couple of disbound books on the subject!).

One of the disbound books I bid for, and I really didn't expect to win, was the trial of Elizabeth Cellier for libel. It sounded interesting, and was 300 years old. To be honest, at that point, I simply wanted to hold a 300 year old trial transcript, but when I won it and read it (oh so carefully turning the pages, nervous of the responisbility of caring for such a piece of history, no matter its state - it had survived 300 years odd...what if I were to tear such irreplaceable piece of history? What if I were to spill something on it, or I didn't care for it well enough and it disintergrated?)

But, reading it, I immediately fell in love with the defendant! As a woman living in 1681, she should be nice, polite, keeping herself to herself and not speaking out of turn, yet she spoke up for herself (boldly and bawdily) at every opportunity (to the point of boxing herself into a corner during the trial!) and she twisted and turned in her testimony, yet professed to only speak the truth. She accused others of torture and of falsifying evidence. I fell in love with her outspoken courage, yet had to laugh when she coyly retracted it all and professed to be just a simple woman.

I copied the pages so I didn't have to handle them more than necessary, then put the trial 'transcript' away in a fire-proof box.

Years later, two years ago, in fact, a good friend of mine, James Essinger, asked me if I had anything other than the current book I was working on. At the time, I had a few half written books, but they were all of the same series.

I don't know why, but I decided to look up Elizabeth Cellier one day. She fascinated me. I didn't know if she was anyone or nobody. I didn't expect to find anything on her, but immediately found the copies of the original trial extract I already had. Then I found she played a well-known part in the infamous Popish Plot. Following that up, I found she was also known for writing 'books' (more like pamphlets), and that she herself had quite a reputation in her time. Furthermore, if that wasn't enough, I found, as well as her part in The Popish Plot, and as well as being studied for her writing, she also wrote a proposal to the king for the first Midwife college in England. Three particular spheres of historians studied her.

And the more I read about her, the more intrigued I was by her.

She has been betrayed as a busy body, and as having a minor part in history, but I beg to differ. She not only played an integral role in the reversal of the Catholics being blamed and convicted for the Popish Plot, but was also  welcomed into the royal court.

Most of all, I loved that regardless that men and women portrayed her as a liar or as a whore (to denigrate her) in court, she sill stood up for the rights of prisoners and petitioned the government to stop torture (a thing for which, at that time, she was vilified for, but later was discovered to have spoken the truth about) in prisons. She spoke out for what she believed in at the risk of her life.

If this woman was alive today, she would still be considered a remarkable woman, and would probably be making as many waves as she did then.

I had to tell her story. And now I've written it, I can't wait to share it with others so they can see what an amazing woman ahead of her time she was!