Title: Chasing the Light
Author: Jesse Blackadder
Publication date: 2013
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
The novel is a fictionalised account of the race for the first woman to land on Antarctica in the early 1930s. Ingrid (the wife of the shipping magnate leading the trip), Mathilde (a grieving widow coerced into the voyage by her parents-in-law) and Ingrid (an ambitious woman desperate to be the first to land) travel south from Norway, and discover not only new lands but also undeniable truths about themselves.
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What did I find out?
The first clue that the novel is based on real people and events comes in the prologue, when we are introduced to the character of Dr Marie Stopes. She does not play a major role in the book’s narrative, but her presence is felt throughout, as we are reminded that this was a time when women had even fewer freedoms than they do now; and at the heart of many of these restrictions was the issue of birth control.
Stopes is probably most well known these days for her book Married Love and the founding of birth control clinics, and it is this work that forms a backdrop to many of the themes dealt with throughout the novel: the ability to choose whether to have children, the different ways in which women can experience maternal feelings, the question of whether ‘soft’ emotions can successfully interact with business dealings.
However, I was unaware that, prior to her success in this field, Stopes had achieved recognition as a palaeobotanist, becoming the youngest Doctor of Science in the country and, later, the first female academic at the University of Manchester. The novel’s prologue sheds light on her transition from one career to the other by highlighting her failure to be accepted on to polar expeditions run by men; even the rocks she had requested be sent her from one expedition, for her research, were instead sent to a male academic.
It is not difficult to imagine how such disappointments might have led Stopes to devote her life to giving women choices and opportunities that were previously denied them.
What do I now see differently?
It’s particularly interesting to read this novel in the current climate, when (at the time of writing) the eruption of sex scandals in Hollywood and other industries is still causing waves. Although women have indeed gained many freedoms over the decades, the power of the patriarchy is still firmly entrenched, even if, as a society, we try to believe it is not.
Part of the problem is (on a individual level) physical strength, and part of it is (on a societal level) the dominance that comes with centuries-old systems and structures that are very hard to break. In the book, Lars, the shipping magnate, has Mathilde sedated and locked in her cabin against her will when, after she is provoked, she lashes out at Ingrid. There is no physical way for the women to respond to such demonstrations of male power. Lillemor has to resort to trickery and manipulation to bring about small disappointments for Lars: she can take the edge off his achievements, but she cannot fight him as an equal. The only way in which the women can exercise some power is by using their feminine charms: by withholding sex, or by dressing up in their finery to stand on deck and wave at competing explorers on passing ships. It is a paltry effort, and they are frustratedly aware of this.
Women and their concerns are at the heart of this novel, and although it is set firmly in its era, it is wearying to realise just how many of their issues are still with us today.
How will this inspire my writing?
Yet again I’ve been inspired to do something that I don’t stand a chance of completing any time soon – which, as you read on, you’ll realise is part of the point…
One of favourite authors, John Wyndham, is perhaps most well known for books such as The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids. However, a lesser known work, Trouble With Lichen, is no less deserving of attention. It is an incredibly feminist piece of writing: it tells the story of Diana, a biochemistry student, who discovers that a chemical extracted from a form of lichen can retard the ageing process. She decides to secretly administer this – via a high-end beauty salon – to women married to men in positions of power; the aim being that, when the discovery eventually comes to light, these women will use their influence to ensure that this new drug is dispersed equally and not reserved purely for the men in authority. Diana’s actions are driven by her awareness that, by the time women have raised children, a great part of their life has passed them by, and she wants to give them extra time to do something other than simply be wives and mothers.
This clearly relates closely to the issues dealt with in Chasing the Light; and – as someone who has only recently figured out what direction she wants her life to take (although in my case this is not due to child rearing but simply lack of awareness) – I can certainly get behind the idea of having more time in which to do everything I want to do. What I’d like, therefore, is to find a way of adapting this novel, maybe into a stage play, and bring the story up to date, to reflect on some of the issues that women – and society – face now.
It’s a huge challenge, but I’m committing to at least giving it a try. Time (oh, the irony) will tell whether I manage it.
A musical interlude
This isn’t about Antarctica, but it is about sailing away to undiscovered lands, and it has an ethereal vibe that speaks of the expectations, hopes and dreams that come with voyages to distant climes. The places referred to in the track are warmer and more solid than the polar south, but I can’t shake the feeling of being carried away on remote waves – and so it features as this week’s choice.