What happened to Nottingham’s forgotten female authors?

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woman typing on old manual typewriter
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We’re all familiar with Byron, Sillitoe and DH Lawrence, and their association with the city of Nottingham. What’s less well known is that a host of top female authors hailed from the city too.

A new project, organised by Nottingham Writers Studio and called ‘Write Like a Girl’ is reviving the memory of these literary giantesses. It’s looking afresh at their writing and producing new material inspired by them.

The Creative Writing Group I run at the Maggie’s Nottingham Cancer Centre is among seven diverse groups across the city picked to take part in the project, led by award-winning author Helen Cross and funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Helen Cross

So over the next two months I’ll be following the project’s progress through this blog. I’ll also be posting the writing exercises that come out of it. At the end of the project there’ll be an anthology featuring some of our work.

At the group’s session on Friday, Helen took over as guest tutor, allowing me to sit back, rest my (healing) broken foot, and learn about my city’s forgotten female literary heritage.

First up was Helen Cresswell, (11 July 1934 – 26 September 2005), who wrote more than 100 children’s books. Among them were the popular Lizzie Dripping and Bagthorpe Saga stories, both made into TV series. I remember Lizzie Dripping on the TV in the ’70s.

Moondial by Helen Cresswell cover image

We read the first chapter of her 1987 novel Moondial, in which half-orphan Minty gets sent away by her grieving mother to stay with an elderly aunt in a big house in the country. Minty, who knows she is ‘a witch, or something very like it,’ is intrigued by her mother’s description of mysterious ‘happenings’ at the house. The chapter describes Minty’s journey to the place, and sets the scene for the supernatural action to come.

Writing exercise: the journey

We then used the passage as inspiration for a writing exercise, which went like this:

  • Think back to a trip you made as a child – it might be the first time you visited a place that later became important in your life.
  • Recall the emotions you felt as you made the journey. Were you apprehensive, excited, happy, sad, scared?
  • Focus on the senses – what could you see, hear, touch and smell along the way?
  • Describe the place you arrived at, again focusing on the sounds, smells etc and your feelings on arrival.
  • Write for 15 minutes about this journey.

Next time, we’ll be looking at some of the other Nottingham authors: novelist Dorothy Whipple, radical bookseller Susannah Wright – who spent time in Newgate Jail for selling banned literature, 19th century poet Mary Hewitt who wrote ‘The Spider and the Fly’, and contemporary performance poet Panya Banjoko.

If you’re a person affected by cancer and you like the sound of the ‘Write like a Girl’ project, come along to the next workshop at Maggie’s Nottingham, on Friday 22 February, 1.30 – 3.30 pm and find out more.

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