Interview with Author Karen Bowman
Karen Bowman is an author and a passionate researcher of history. She has written multiple articles, short stories and pieces for magazines. She has also written two books, ‘Essex Girls’ and ‘Essex Boys’ and herself is an adoptive Essex girl, moving there at the young age of ten. Her passion for her county is shown through her extensive research of both her books, detailing the lives of extraordinary men and women who in their own ways had an impact upon Essex.
After reading Karen’s book ‘Essex Girls’ I was greatly inspired by the strong, passionate and determined women that Karen wrote about, women that I most certainly count Karen amongst. It is my great pleasure to interview Karen, to talk about her book on Essex Girls and to talk about her plans for the future.
How did your book Essex Girls come about?
I suppose the most important reason, for me that led to Essex Girls was wanting, in a small way to ‘right’ a ‘wrong.’ The phrase Essex Girl has for some time now been a term of derision, denoting that women from the county were not very intelligent, uneducated and lacking in morals; to be frank a title that no woman living in the Southeast of England, wanted to own up to. In some cases women would say they were from nearby Kent rather than admit to being Essex born and bred. I found this totally unacceptable. At the same time I was writing historic articles for some magazines and kept getting side tracked by snippets of information I discovered while researching on the lot of women down the centuries and realised that there were some fantastic females connected with Essex who had overcome incredible odds just to be taken seriously or indeed to survive. It was not all doom and gloom as in one instance I was in a church taking pictures for an article and came across the description of a woman, who was deeply loved by her husband but had tragically died young. Reading further I discovered she was ‘a mother as wise as she was fruitful’ having provided her husband with eight daughters and two sons and was only thirty one when she died! The poor woman must have been exhausted. Evidence such as this made it possible to portray women and the beleaguered Essex Girl in particular in a different light. To show her as she always was and still is; a woman of resilience, courage, bravery and loyalty.
Which Essex Girl inspires you the most?
In truth it is hard to pick just one as they all have something to offer. I was inspired by Mary Boleyn for refusing to be crushed by her family’s insistence that she prostitute herself for their own ends; Henry’s eventual rejection of her; the loss of her children to her sister’s control and Anne’s continuing unkindness. Then there were the stories of the women who had children out of wedlock and had to bear incredible stigma plus suffer the indignity of humiliating punishment for their so called ‘crime’. Female transportees inspired me as they had to find the courage to build another life on the other side of the world and Anne carter who was made an example of and hanged simply for trying to feed her family. I suppose if it had to come down to one woman it would be Hannah Lake. I loved Hannah from the moment I first discovered her, the fact she left a quiet village and then became part of national even international events; the puritan migration to America, how she showed tremendous courage and fortitude in becoming a pioneer with her husband, gave her sons, grandsons and great grandsons to the founding of modern America and can count a former American president among her descendants.
Whose life would you like to find out more about and why?
If it was a woman from the book then it would have to be Hannah Lake as I am planning a novel about her. If anyone from History then I would say Mary Boleyn as she lived not far from me and I am fascinated to know how you can be part of world affairs one minutes and then lead a quiet life in the country, the next. I would love to know what she thought of the heartbreak and joys in her life.
What is your favourite period of history?
I’m afraid there are actually three; Tudor; the English Civil War and the Eighteenth century and I love them all for different reasons. The Tudor era I love because it was a breathing space, a period of comparative peace after the medieval wars of Lancaster and York. We know so much about the times through documentation that you can feel almost at home with the people who lived then. The English Civil War fascinates me as I find it hard to imagine how you can live with your neighbours when you are literally at war with them. It must have been such a strange time; Oliver Cromwell presiding over a dour and lacklustre England before Charles II restored the monarchy then there was the Great Plague followed by the Fire of London so brilliantly chronicled by Samuel Pepys. Lastly I love the 1700’s which was an age of discovery and optimism and possibly the first time we can recognise the ways of life we have today.
You talk a lot in your book Essex Girls about the life of women during the medieval period, who do you think made the greatest change for women and their rights?
Personally I think it was not so much ‘who’ but ‘what’ and the medieval woman was going to have to wait a long , long time until she felt truly empowered. For me one of the most important liberating measures for women was the change in matrimonial law. Until recently women had no power over their own bodies, children were a natural consequence and usually plentiful. With maternal ties being almost unbreakable imagine then, that throughout history even those children were not yours to keep should a marriage fail? What woman in a bid to change her circumstances would therefore do so knowing she would lose her last if only possessions, her children. You would fall at the first hurdle- namely the desire to change things in the first place. When a woman wed she became her husband’s property, any money she brought to the marriage reverted to him and the children she bore only belonged to her while she was at his side. As victims of our emotions women have had their hands tied for centuries that was until 1839 when the Infants and Custody Act allowed women to have custody of their children under the age of seven if divorced or separated but only if she had not been adulterous. It was a least a start. Things improved slowly over the next forty years with women in 1882 being able to keep all personal and real property that she had gotten before and during her marriage and finally a year later being allowed to be awarded custody of children up to the age of 16. This at last meant women were recognised in law and could make a free choice to better their situation.
How do you think women’s attitudes and beliefs have changed over the centuries?
I think the medieval woman, probably more so than a man was totally subjugated by the way religion overshadowed her life. The church was part of everyday life and a woman’s life in particular. There were only two real personas a woman could inhabit, at one end of the scale the Madonna while at the other end was the whore with not much leeway in between. Women were not understood especially by clerics who probably did not know one end of a woman from the other and so what they did not understand they demonised. In the face of such overwhelming odds I think women publically kept a low profile. With religion generally loosening its grip on the masses over the centuries and education improving, I think women began to aspire, perhaps privately but there must have been a thought that things will improve ‘if not for me then for my daughters.’ Emancipation is always a slow process with one generation building on the achievements and breakthroughs of the last. The last hundred years has brought about the most rapid changes for women at least in the western world with attitudes and beliefs that some could surmise would be unrecognisable to the medieval woman. I’m not so sure…
What do you think underpinned women’s determination and strength during times of repression during the medieval period?
Faith would have played a big part in many woman’s life with the belief that what they suffered in this life would be rewarded in the next. Yet I am sure people back then were fundamentally no different to people today and women believed in themselves just as we do now. Our technologies have changed over the centuries but I strongly believe that women then wanted what women today want. I’m sure they cried over the same things; laughed and loved in the same way; were jealous, felt angry and outrage at injustice. Thus I believe women recognised the limitations which surrounded them her and a wise woman would realise they were societies limitations not hers.
Do you think that women in today’s society have lost anything in their lives compared to their medieval sisters?
It is probably a controversial thing to say but in some ways I do believe they have. In the past motherhood was recognised as a woman’s reason detre which was in turn a blessing and a curse and a woman judged not for herself but how well she performed her role. But she did have time to indulge that role albeit to the detriment of self-development as it was unlikely that she or anyone else expected her to want more. Today women have earned freedom and choice and better education but that in itself invites greater expectations on women from society and of women upon themselves which in turn leads to pressure. Economic pressure looms large in households where a duel or single important income is necessary but there is also an underlying personal pressure for women to take advantage of the opportunities history has at last given them, but sometimes struggle to reconcile both motherhood and fulfilment which often women experience dissatisfaction. It would be wrong to go back to a time when a woman had to be satisfied with family life alone and was finished when her child bearing days were over. It is also wrong to allow women to feel they are no longer allowed to enjoy raising a family and that they should tick so many boxes at the same time. Time is something seem to have precious little of today.
What is next for Karen Bowman?
Next for me is the completion of my third book in time for my March deadline! It is a book about the social history of outrageous costume (working title Corsets & Codpieces) and has been a joy to research. I never realised how people got so up-in-arms about certain fashions! I have started researching a fourth non-fiction book and have dusted off a novel I wrote over ten years ago which shall need a re-write of the ending before I see if anyone is interested. Then of course it’s that book I want to write about Hannah Lake!
To learn more about Karen Bowman and the other books she has written please check out the following links: