New Voices: Elizabeth Jane Corbett, Clarissa Harwood, Teresa Messineo and Tom Miller

Myfanwy Cook

The New Year has unveiled the writings of debut novelists Elizabeth Jane Corbett, Clarissa Harwood, Teresa Messineo and Tom Miller.

Teresa Messineo, author of The Fire By Night (William Morrow, 2017), explains that her hometown had the largest WWII encampment on the East Coast. “I grew up wandering through the bamboo of the Pacific, and the side-streets of Occupied France with blond-haired, blue-eyed German reenactors playing cards and laughing outside makeshift cafes.”

Given this experience, coupled with her “life-long love of medicine,” she says, “it’s easy to see how I was ultimately drawn to the medical tents at these events, where my seven years of research for The Fire By Night began. It was in these drab green tents, a red cross emblazoned on their tops, that I not only handled period medical equipment, but also met with and befriended WWII veterans—including frontline military nurses—who could give me invaluable insight into a world that is quickly disappearing. We lose 420 WWII veterans daily now, and that window is quickly closing.”

She discovered that “one female war hero—in her nineties and sharp as a tack—remembered everything as if it were yesterday, teaching me the ropes and answering all my questions. No, the x-ray machine would have been a little more to the right there, honey; yes, this is where we washed our hands; this is where they’d come out of surgery, you know, I guess I was crazy, just crazy and young and lucky, I mean, God, I never thought I’d die. Not once. I guess I was right. History came to life for me at these events. Sitting there in those field hospitals, it was easy to imagine I was Jo, I was Kay, that I was in love, that I was stuck in hell, that my world was ending. Writing down the stories of these women—incredibly brave women whose story has remained untold for too long—was a labor of love, and meeting the heroines themselves was an honor and a privilege.”

Messineo’s novel focuses on the sacrifices and battles for survival of her two main characters in two dramatically different war-torn settings: Jo McMahon, an Italian-Irish girl in France, and Kay, her best friend from nursing school days, who finds herself facing the horrors of life in a Japanese POW camp in Manila. When they war ends, these two women then face the hurdles posed by finding their place and peace in an irrevocably changed world.

Clarissa Harwood’s Impossible Saints (Pegasus, 2018) highlights different challenges than those that Messineo’s characters face. Impossible Saints, she writes, “was twenty years in the making, and it reflects my personal journey of reconciling my faith and my feminism as much as it reflects wider cultural concerns of the early 20th century. In 1907, the church was already feeling the pressure to prove its relevance in the modern world, and one of the threats to the old order was the New Woman, with her advanced views about equality and sexuality. My protagonists Paul and Lilia play out the clashes between these competing ideologies, but their passion for each other is as strong as their opposing ambitions, surprising them into examining their long-held beliefs.”

Harwood was a doctoral student and later an English professor specialising in 19th-century British literature, she says, “so texts from that period are always the inspiration for my writing and research. An early influence on Paul’s development as an Anglican priest was Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, with its delightful melodrama surrounding the lives and loves of cathedral clergy. I was also inspired by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who became a Jesuit priest, and Christina Rossetti, who volunteered at Highgate Penitentiary, one of the charities run by Anglican sisterhoods that were intended to reform ‘fallen’ women.

Although she knew that “Lilia would be an advocate of women’s rights,” she continues, “her evolution into a suffragette happened gradually (I was holding her back due to my reluctance to be dragged into the 20th century!). Eventually I realized that her ferocity and dedication made her a perfect candidate for the militant Women’s Social and Political Union founded in 1903, so I shifted what I’d planned as a late-Victorian setting into the first decade of the 20th century. First-person accounts of the suffragettes’ destruction of property, hunger strikes in prison, and the brutal force-feeding they endured, especially Emmeline Pankhurst’s My Own Story and Constance Lytton’s Prison and Prisoners, were especially influential in shaping Lilia’s experiences.”

When Tom Miller began working on The Philosopher’s Flight (Simon & Schuster, 2018), he intended “to tell a simple fantasy story of the sort I enjoyed reading. Gradually, however, the plot veered deeper and deeper into themes of gender roles and discrimination.”

While Miller was writing, he reveals, he “often reflected on a volunteer firefighter I met during my days as an EMT. He enjoyed offering lengthy, unsolicited opinions on many topics, including why his department, which was a hundred years old, had never had a woman firefighter. He wasn’t opposed to it, he explained, provided she could meet the same physical requirements as a man. He was pretty sure that no such woman existed, but if she did, he had no issue with her joining. Though, he reflected, there would be the problem of the lack of a women’s bathroom. And a place for her to sleep on overnight shifts, since men and women couldn’t possibly share the bunk room. And probably she would end up falling in love with one of the men, and that would eventually lead to bad decisions during an emergency.”

This struck Miller, he says, “as a conversation taking place in the wrong decade—it was 2007, not 1977. (In Madison, Wisconsin, where I live now, one fifth of the city firefighters are women.) But in the years since then, I’ve seen many similar objections raised over women in the military and even by a few older physicians, who remember fondly ‘the good old days’ when men were doctors, women were nurses, and everyone turned a blind eye to a little ‘harmless’ sexual harassment.”

The result was that “as I wrote my novel, having inverted the gender dynamic (the protagonist is a young man trying to break into a traditionally female field of magic called empirical philosophy), I put several of those same lines in the mouths of characters in the year 1917. I hope that an extra hundred years of distance will help readers think critically about how pragmatism and tradition can become excuses for reinforcing entrenched interests and outright institutional violence.”

Miller’s central character is eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes. Weekes seeks to join those who practice empirical philosophy, a magical “science” which allows the individuals who master it to heal injuries, harness the wind, and take flight—amongst other fantastical abilities. Weekes seeks to study this science, hone these talents, and become a flying medic with the US Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Service during the Great War. The problem: the ranks of empirical philosophers are made up almost entirely of women—Weekes is the wrong gender. Despite this, Weekes is undeterred. He manages to overcome both personal tragedy and a variety of obstacles in order to garner a scholarship to Radcliffe College. As the only male at this all-female institution, Weekes faces challenges from his intimidating female classmates as he attempts to master empirical philosophy.

At first glance the style, inspiration for, and setting of Miller’s novel would appear to have nothing in common with The Tides Between (Odyssey Books, 2017) by Elizabeth Jane Corbett, but what links them is the determination and desire to transform the impossible into the possible. Miller and Corbett’s novels also both contain fantasy elements, although Corbett explains that her inspiration was originally sparked as the result of a midlife crisis.

“I wrote a list of all I’d like to have achieved by that stage in my life. Writing a novel topped the list. Trouble is, I didn’t have any ideas. I’d been waiting for them to drop from the sky. But I love historical fiction, and immigration had been the defining event of my childhood. So, why not try to write an immigration saga set in early Melbourne?”

Corbett began by “reading a biography of Caroline Chisholm,” she says. “To my immense surprise, characters started forming in my mind. One of them, a young girl called Bridie, had lost her father in tragic circumstances. A creative young couple would help her reconcile her grief. On reading the Mabinogion and a host of other Welsh fairy tales, they became storytellers, with dark secrets. Bridie also faced conflict on a number of levels. On reaching the Bay of Biscay, I faced a decision. Did I pull back and try to write the saga I’d initially envisaged? Or follow the story where it was leading?

“I chose the latter, and ended up with an historical coming-of-age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth set entirely in the steerage compartment of an emigrant vessel. On the surface, The Tides Between is a simple coming-of-age story. But on another level, it tackles the issues of failed marriages, blended families, and mental health breakdowns. Running like a thread beneath these themes is the importance of age-old stories.”

Corbett, Harwood, Messineo, and Miller have all been able to take the reader on new adventures through their storytelling, and have uncovered new, previously hidden historical treasures for readers to enjoy.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Myfanwy loves reading and writing short stories and is a prize winning short story writer, Associate Fellow at two British Universities, researcher and workshop designer. Please do email (myfanwyc@btinternet.com) about any debut novels you would recommend.


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