“It’s the quiet ones you need to watch…”
When I wrote Little Gidding Girl, the world was a different place. We’d only just got broadband internet, and compared to dial-up (remember that and shudder) it was lightning fast. Each member of my family owned a mobile phone but smartphones were not yet on the market. We all had a computer but mine was deliberately not connected to the internet; if I wished to go online I had to wait till the computer in my husband’s study downstairs was free. Looking back, I can see how many hours I spend a day just noodling around online and not being productive at all. I wrote six novels like that, without being distracted by googling goats or otters or weird symptoms.
Another thing that has changed is the way that female main characters are portrayed. There’s been a significant rise in the feisty, fiery, sassy, outspoken and kick-ass heroine; they existed before, obviously, but it would seem that writing women has become a problematic matter if they are anything less than the template that various tropes and memes depict. Isobel from Away With The Fairies and Chloe from Square Peg both have qualities of that template; they’re women who are generally confident of who they are and of their own value. It’s the shaking of that confidence that provides some of the tension and the driving force behind their stories. Jenny from The Bet falls fairly and squarely into the strong woman camp but she is also venial and exploitative and selfish; she qualifies more as a villain than a heroine, but it’s not these qualities of self-belief and self confidence that make her so. Rather it’s her lack of ability to see others (especially the hero Antony Ashurst who definitely qualifies as a quiet one…) as people rather than things, that twists her into an outwardly attractive character whose heart is pretty nasty all round.
I wrote Little Gidding Girl immediately after all three books mentioned and Verity, the main character, could not be more different. She has little confidence and her self-esteem has all but vanished, but to my mind, she more than qualifies as strong. She endures without crumbling a variety of life situations her adult life brings to her: a dead-end job with a bullying boss, a set of parents who abrogate their responsibilities to run away from debt and failure, an unplanned pregnancy that scuppers her and her husband’s plans for joint careers in teaching, and the passing of a grandfather who was mentor and rock to her during a critical phase in her younger life. But though she does not crumble, she does not thrive either. She goes inward, thinking the things that Isobel or Chloe would have said, loudly and with utter confidence. Her rebellion towards her hectoring boss Juliet is silent and unspoken; her acquiescence to her old school friend Carla is only nominal and superficial.
Yet for all this passivity, she’s not actually passive at all. Under the surface, deep currents are stirring and rising, becoming steadily more inexorable as a better equilibrium is sought for her life. I can’t help thinking that many of us will find this both restful and exciting, because we’re constantly exhorted that if we don’t grasp our futures with both hands, nothing will ever come to us. It’s exhausting, that sort of philosophy, and it’s infiltrated everything in the years since I wrote the book. It’s the complete opposite of the idea that what is meant to happen will happen without us needing to lift a finger. I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle, but at the moment, the pendulum has swung so far in one direction that many of us feel worn out and defeated by the demands on our time, intelligence and interests. It’s no longer enough to simply enjoy a hobby like knitting, or jam making or even writing or painting; we are badgered to make it pay, make it into a business or high art. Sometimes I think this may be the dark root of why I have found writing so hard in recent years, this constant internal and external pressure to be the best, to sell the most, to be (I have begun to hate both word and concept) professional about it all.
It’s when the quiet ones rise up and stand firm that the world will quake, because in my estimation, there are more of the quiet ones than there are of the other sort. The quiet ones are the ones who conform to every request from employers who have leaped into the gap made by the Dunning-Kruger effect, until one day, enough is enough and they say NO, and walk away or resist. When the quiet ones find their voices, the mouse will roar and the lions will cower.