Category Archives: Women

Putting flesh on the bones

This story was on the news yesterday, timed for Halloween. Forensic artists have recreated the face of one victim of the Scottish witchhunt. Lilias died in 1704, possibly having committed suicide, after being interrogated and tortured for supposed witchcraft.

Lilias

There’s a scientific wow factor about the story, but I find it really chilling.

She’s just an old lady, somebody’s neighbour, granny. She looks like one of us. You wouldn’t look twice at her in the street. She doesn’t look like a ‘witch’, but more to the point she doesn’t look like someone from THE PAST. She just looks like one of us.

I guess that’s what as a writer I’m often trying to do. To take away the sense of the other, to reconnect with people who walked through this landscape at a different point in time.

To put flesh on bones.

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

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#100womenwiki : Christina Keith

 

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#100womenwiki is a 12 hour ‘edit-a-thon’ taking place today (8 December) with the aim of adding more women to wikipedia. At present only around 17% of notable profiles on wikipedia are of women, and  today is about  encouraging people across the globe to consider whether there are women who should be included and are currently missing. I read about the initiative on the BBC website  and decided to try submitting an article on Christina Keith, whose First World War memoir I edited and published as War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front. It was less complicated than I expected, and you can now read Christina’s wikipedia page here!

 

Reflections of Newcastle 1914-18

I was interested to come across the Reflections of Newcastle project, which seeks ‘to explore the intellectual, cultural and social life of Newcastle during the First World War, concentrating in and around the Lit & Phil.’ It has a lot of resonance with my researches into Christina Keith’s life immediately before she set off for France.

I visited the Lit & Phil building in Newcastle as part of my research for War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front. Christina’s first job was as Classics lecturer at Armstrong College, Newcastle, but as soon as she took up the post in 1914, war was declared. The College was requisitioned for use as a military hospital and the department decamped to the Lit & Phil building. Christina lived and worked in Newcastle all through the war years until 1918, when she set off for France to take part in the army’s education scheme under the direction of Sir Henry Hadow, who had been Principal of Armstrong College.

There’s more information about Reflections of Newcastle 1914-18 here.

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The entrance stairway of the Lit & Phil, Newcastle

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Sir Walter Scott and Christina Keith

1814 – 1914 – 2014. Another anniversary.

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When I started work on Christina’s wartime memoir, War Classics, I didn’t know that it would end up being published in 2014, amid all the tv programmes, books and events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. In some ways – as you’ll know if you’ve read the book – her story will be even more relevant in 2018, when the focus of commemorations should shift to the transition from war to peace. I love Christina’s own account of Dieppe on the day peace was declared – the music playing in the streets, the rowdy, joyful army huts, the hushed stillness of the cathedral, and finally her walk down by the shore, thinking of the naval base at home in Thurso.

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The shore at Dieppe

Recently, particularly here in Edinburgh, another anniversary has been marked, which also has relevance to Christina’s life and work. 2014 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley. Christina’s final book was her study of Walter Scott, The Author of Waverley, which she finished shortly before she died and which Barrogill saw through publication.

Author of Waverley

The Author of Waverley: a study in the personality of Sir Walter Scott, by Christina Keith

Walk through Edinburgh’s Waverley station today – apparently the only railway station in the world to be named after a novel – and you’ll see quotes by Scott on the walls, windows and floor. These are part of a wider Great Scott! Campaign, organised to mark both the publication of Waverley and 10 years of Edinburgh’s status as the world’s first Unesco City of Literature.

There are a lot of ‘world firsts’ here, because Waverley is often said to be the world’s first historical novel.  Here I should maybe confess that I haven’t actually read it. Oops. I’m doing a lot of Covenanter-related research for a new book, so have recently read Old Mortality, but I will make sure I read Waverley before the end of 2014.

This whole train of thought (no pun intended – I blame my brother-in-law) was sparked in my mind when I received an email from someone who has read War Classics, and as a result is interested in Christina’s other writing, and is now reading The Author of Waverley. I’m so pleased to think that publishing her memoir has led someone to discover Christina’s other work. And the fact that all this takes place in the 200th anniversary of the publication of Waverley just seems to be yet another of those perpetual coincidences which make exploring history such fun!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

War Classics review in The Hindu

There’s an interesting article in The Hindu today. It groups War Classics with several books which approach the First World War from a different angle.

Witness to the truth – The Hindu.

1914 by Jean Echenoz

World War I spawned literature of various hues. One hundred years later, we still grope for meanings and explanations. Here are a few books that give us some indication of the pointless nature of the Great War, told by individuals who either experienced it firsthand or wrote about it later.

War Classics: The Remarkable Memoir of Scottish Scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front by Flora Johnston talks about a woman from upper class Scottish society, a lecturer in Classics, who went to live and struggle with common soldiers as a teacher with the army’s education scheme in France. The memoirs tell of the role played by thousands of men and women behind the lines to support the war and opens up a whole new world that lay just a few miles from the front. Keith also travelled across the devastated war zones after the Armistice and spoke of “a dream world, where everything happened… on a background of infinite horror”. She met the soldiers who had survived, saw tanks, clothing and weaponry lying littered across the battlefields of Europe and the war graves consisting of rough wooden crosses stuck in yellow mud and water.

I don’t think Christina was setting out to portray the war as pointless, but I do think her descriptions of the devastation it caused have real power – in part because they are written from a different viewpoint to most other commentators. The article concludes, We need books like these to approach the truth.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.