Truly. Madly. Historically.

Strong Dress. A Restraint Garment for Female Patients.

Strong Dress. A Restraint Garment for Female Patients.

Can I get away with another three word title? I was going to call this post ‘The Politics of Madness in Historical Fiction’ but thought that would lose me some followers on twitter! And the topic of this post isn’t exactly that – although it is the title of my extended critical study for year two of my MSt in Creative Writing course. In that essay, I will be testing my theory that, in most serious historical fiction, madness has a political function in dramatising the pathology of the age. But more of that later.

The topic of this post is my own possibly mad commitment not only to complete NaNoWriMo again this year but to do so by writing 50-60k words of the historical novel I am currently researching. If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, you can find out more here but essentially it is the attempt to write a complete novel draft in a month. The idea is to complete the whole trajectory of the novel even if it needs to be reworked and extended through subsequent drafts. Last year, I managed to compete a 60k draft of my psychological thriller ‘The Cruel Mother but this year feels like a much bigger mountain to climb.  There is a reason why I have chosen to set my novel about mental illness and political turbulence in the precarious pre-World War 1 years – the clue being in the topic of my critical essay project –  and so I need to take the research into the period seriously. However, the time demands of this are problematic, given the fact that my writing time is already under pressure from the extreme demands of my time-sensitive day job, and that once NaNoWriMo has started, there is no time to do anything but write write write!

My plan is to complete the first pass through my research in October so that I start the Big Write of November with the basic social, political and material ‘architecture’ of my world in place. I will then write flat out through NaNoWriMo, leaving gaps where further research is needed. I commit 7am to 7 pm to my job, but 5 am to 7 am is for writing and 7pm to 10 pm is for planning and researching (that’s the weekday routine for November!). Truly. Madly.

The new novel’s working title is Burntwood. I am not going to say too much about it yet but here is a snippet from the Preface:




Exhibition of Art-Works made by the Patients of Burntwood County Asylum Organised by Asylum Superintendant Charles Osgood, Esq.  

Item 33. A padded dress (used to protect and restrain). The garment is decorated with embroidery and appliqué.

Catalogue note: The base garment is typical of those issued to female patients. Its high neck, long sleeves and full skirt are designed to provide the wearer with some modesty and protection. It is made of a hard-wearing, padded cotton fabric to prevent the wearer from tearing it. The extended sleeves can be wrapped around the body and tied behind to stop the wearer from hurting themselves or others. This particular ‘strong dress’ belonged to Jane March,  a patient at Burntwood from 1899 to 1910.  She worked on the embroidery without any assistance, using threads pulled out of other garments and items of furnishing. Threads of five different colours are used on different parts of the garment.  On close inspection, the intricate patterns appear to be words sewn onto the fabric. These patterns continue from the outside to the inside of the garment, partially hidden from view by being worn next to the skin. They appear to tell a story but one that is impossible for the casual viewer to read.


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