Are you a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists? This organisation, set up in 1894 by a man, J.S. Wood, the editor of The Gentlewoman, is still one of the best for a writer. For full membership you need to be a published writer, but there are various other categories so please do have a look at their site for details.
I joined in 1964 and although I wasn’t able to attend many meetings then (due to running a home and newsagents business), the society magazine kept me up to date on things happening in the writing world and I was of course able to enter the competitions. It was through entering a competition held at an Isle of Wight conference many years ago that The Straw Halter saw the light of day. I won the first chapter competition and that spurred me on to burn the midnight oil and write the rest of the book. I had it planned already but that win encouraged me to get on with it. It was published in hardback and this April it will be out in paperback. It is called The Straw Halter and is published by Williams and Whiting. Will be available on Amazon (paperback and kindle) can be ordered from any good bookshop, or from me (send me an email). To whet your appetite here is a short extract from page 1.
THE STRAW HALTER
Betsy Salden knew she was the most beautiful woman in the market. She knew also that a farmer looked for practical skills more than physical attributes in a wife, and in spite of her confident bearing, was worried.
She could cook, milk, churn butter and cream as well as any of those alongside her, who sagged, heads down, in a manner suggesting compliance and unquestioning obedience to their husband and master.
Yet she could see it in the men’s eyes as she boldly stared them out. They were impressed, but they never paused, never asked if she was of any use to a farmer, beyond satisfying his sexual needs, and he could do that outside of a wife. Those buying today wanted above all else a woman who would work, do her duty about raising a family and…
The man who stood in front of her now was powerful looking. He was almost ugly she decided. His eyes betrayed a slight hesitation. He stood looking for a few seconds and she lowered her own gaze.
She knew she was too arrogant. The husband who was selling her had repeatedly told her so.
‘I am the master. I give the orders. You obey.’
He wasn’t selling her because she was lazy, but because she had failed to give him the son he craved.
‘You’re barren,’ he taunted her, ‘a beautiful, barren bitch.’
The man moved on and asked a question of the girl standing next to her – a soft, blue eyed, rosy cheeked lass who looked much too young to become a wife, but had the rounded sturdiness that indicated she could work all the hours that were needed, and produce a line of sons to till the land and inherit the earth.
Betsy looked up and the thickset prospective buyer had gone; another was now gazing at her. He grinned, and she was sure he winked, then he too went further along the line.
Someday, said the voice inside her, the voice that always seemed to land her in trouble, someday this will be like a bad dream. Women will be men’s partners, they will share, they will not be sold like cattle in the market place and at the fairs. Betsy knew that most of the others with her there today accepted their fate, but she never had.
Given in marriage to George Hatton three years ago when she was fifteen she had rebelled from the start.
‘I’m not like the others, I’ve learnt things’, she told him. ‘I want to be a helpmate not a servant.’
George, startled, had replied, ‘You’ll be a good wife. You will work on the farm, in the kitchen, and you will bear my sons and daughters. If you do well there’ll be no complaints, you’re a comely looking lass and I’ll take pleasure in you.’
Now he was selling her, the ultimate humility in her eyes. Tears threatened and she blinked hard, gazing downwards as the others were, but for a different reason. She would not let them see her tears for they might attribute them wrongly. The first man was back, his square jawed chin giving him a fierce and determined look. Now he stepped closer and spoke to her.
‘What be your name then?’
His voice was out of keeping with his appearance. It wasn’t harsh, as his face was. His voice and his eyes, which were looking at her intently now, were almost gentle…
‘Betsy – sir.’
‘Can you milk and bake?’
‘And make butter and cheese?’
She nodded her head.
‘Answer in the proper manner.’
‘Yes.’ This time there was a long pause before she added very, very softly, ‘Sir.’
She saw the glimmer of a smile in his eyes and her interest was aroused. This man was different from most of them. He didn’t bawl her out because she wasn’t as servile as the rest. In fact he seemed amused.
Betsy felt her temper rising. She had no desire to amuse either. She stared him out and had the satisfaction of seeing him move on.
Ten minutes, ten humiliating minutes later, as other men gave her the eye, and made lewd suggestions, but didn’t buy, he was back. She had watched many lasses being led away, happy in the knowledge they would have a roof over their head and food in their belly for the next six months at least, and longer if they gave satisfaction in every direction. She knew she was being foolish with her stubborn daring. Why couldn’t she be as subservient as most of the girls here today? What was it that drove her to antagonise every man who looked?
She knew the answer of course, but seemed incapable of suppressing the angry pride inside herself. The pride that told her she was mans equal. He was speaking to her again and so engrossed was she in her own thoughts she hadn’t realised.
‘Pardon, sir?’ she said.
‘I asked if you were healthy?’
Her chin rose defiantly, dark blue eyes sparked with anger.
‘Of course. I would not stand here in the market if it were otherwise. I am not a cheat.’
She watched a dark shadow pass over his face, saw his knuckles showing strain in his clenched fists, and knew that once again her unruly tongue and quick temper had worked against her. Yet he did not move but continued to gaze at her, the expression on his thickset features unfathomable.
Reaching for her hands he inspected them thoroughly, and this time she did not obey her natural instinct to pull them away, but allowed them to be ruthlessly scrutinised. Abruptly he let them go. ‘I’ll take you,’ he said.
She felt a quick surge of jubilation. For he had said the words to her and not to the man who was selling her, and even now standing with the halter at the ready. Wasn’t this proof that you need not be totally without voice? While he conducted the business of buying her she lifted her head high and smiled broadly at everyone who looked, men, women and children alike.
Her happiness was short lived however, when he slipped the straw halter around her neck and prepared to lead her away…
That’s enough of that, except to say that it was a hugely interesting book to write as we follow Betsy’s life after that…