Elizabeth Gaskell – novels for our time

Why does Elizabeth Gaskell take a back seat among nineteenth-century classic novelists? Is it because we think her too Victorian – over-doing sentiment, religion and morality?

 Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels vary considerably. You might try one, not care for it, and dismiss the rest. Or love one, and feel disappointed not to get more of the same.

Blame Cranford here. Elizabeth Gaskell is best known – and loved – for this altogether delightful account of small town life and the splendidly independent and inter-dependent women living almost entirely without the support and companionship of men. It’s a far cry from the uncompromising depiction of the harsh realities of Manchester’s workers and factory conditions in Mary Barton  and North and South. Eye-opening reading at the time, and Elizabeth Gaskell is a terrific story-teller. But nobody could call these two novels cosy reads, despite the satisfying romantic love stories woven into the plot.

Even less cosy is Sylvia’s Lovers, set in a coastal town during the Napoleonic wars and described by Elizabeth Gaskell as ‘the saddest story I ever wrote’. Not a good choice when you want a comfort read. You need to be in the mood for Thomas Hardy-style mischance and tragedy.

Elizabeth Gaskell was married to a Unitarian minister based in Manchester where conditions for the working classes at a time of rapid industrialisation were a squalid mix of poverty, disease, and early death. She was deeply concerned with how Christian belief translates into social action, working alongside her husband and for charitable causes to alleviate the misery she saw around her.  In Mary Barton, subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life, published in 1848, she was writing about what she witnessed first-hand: those who are ‘doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want’.

In North and South published in 1855 we are shown the violent clash between employers and employees. Elizabeth Gaskell doesn’t take sides. She tells the stories clearly and sympathetically of those individuals caught up in either side of the conflict. She was interested in the need to reconcile different interests and classes, and how society can work together for the good of all.

In these novels dealing with social problems and industrial relations, Elizabeth Gaskell knew what she was talking about. How Lord David Cecil in his Early Victorian Novelists published in 1934 can write that these subjects ‘… entailed an understanding of economics and history wholly outside the range of her Victorian intellect’ is a mystery. He has to be forgiven much, given his later championship of Barbara Pym, but it’s difficult not to feel indignant at his condescending description of Elizabeth Gaskell as a ‘mild feminine Victorian’ who ‘sees nothing but flowers in the garden.’

Religion in novels – as in life – isn’t plain sailing. Jane Austen, although a devout Christian, largely steers clear of the spiritual lives of her characters. It’s understood they are governed – or not governed – by Christian principles, but we are left to imagine them on their knees in prayer. In contrast, Elizabeth Gaskell is unashamedly explicit in how religion shapes their thinking and behaviour.

Characters talk about God and quote the Bible. In North and South Christian faith is what drives the courageous heroine Margaret Hale and comforts the dying mill worker Bessy Higgins. ‘Nay, Bessy – think!’ said Margaret. ‘God does not willingly afflict. Don’t dwell so much on the prophecies, but read the clearer parts of the Bible.’ ‘I dare say it would be wiser; but where would I hear such grand words of promise  – hear tell o’ anything so far different fro’ this dreary world, and this town above a’, as in Revelations? …It gives me more comfort than any other book i’ the Bible.’

Elizabeth Gaskell doesn’t go in for theological debate – we are never told the reasons for Mr Hale’s dissent in North and South – that isn’t what interested her. Instead she shows how disparate people can be brought together. Higgins looked at Margaret doubtfully. Her grave sweet eyes met his; there was no compulsion, only deep interest in them. He did not speak, but he kept his place. Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel knelt down together. It did them no harm.

Mary Bennet pronounces in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ‘that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin.’ Mary’s sister Lydia gets away with it, but for Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘fallen women’ it involves a life of atonement. It’s a subject which recurs in her work – Esther in Mary Barton, Ruth, and the short story Lizzie Leigh.

Elizabeth Gaskell was the hands-on, intelligent, and perceptive mother of four daughters. In Sylvia’s Lovers, Cousin Phillis, and Wives and Daughters she shows us how young girls are morally exposed, how vulnerable they are. Plus ça change.

Modern readers may well find the highly-charged emotional religion in Ruth, a story of the repentance and redemption of an orphan seduced and abandoned by an older man all too much. She’s the victim not only of a self-entitled rake but a nasty mix of hypocrisy and judgmental morality. It doesn’t sit well with our twenty-first century thinking. What has she got to atone for?

Contemporaries found Mrs Gaskell too much for different reasons: they were shocked at the bold way she wrote about illegitimacy and prostitution. She was ahead of her time in a careful, thought-out compassion – and unswerving in her wholesale condemnation of seducers like the self-entitled Henry Bellingham in Ruth through the voice of the Good Samaritan character Mr Benson. ‘Men may call such actions as yours youthful follies! There is another name for them with God.’

Religion isn’t always presented in what some may feel to be an over- melodramatic manner. In the novella Cousin Phillis, published in 1864, Mr Holman ends the day’s haymaking with a psalm. Elizabeth Gaskell gives us here perhaps the loveliest religious scene in all her work – a moving image of harmony between nature, work and God.

But for those who wish Jane Austen had written another book, Elizabeth Gaskell’s last and unfinished novel Wives and Daughters is the perfect choice. It’s written on a similarly small canvas: families living around the small country town of Hollingford, based like Cranford on the real life Knutsford, where Elizabeth Gaskell lived as a child.

In this novel Elizabeth Gaskell employs almost the same reticence on religion as Jane Austen. Christian values are mostly unspoken but no less present. Early in the novel, the teenaged heroine Molly struggles to overcome her resentment of the new stepmother when her father returns home from the deathbed of a patient. She is remembering what Roger Hamley advised her: to think of others.  ‘Papa, I will call her “mamma”! He took her hand, and grasped it tight; but for an instant or two he did not speak. Then he said, – ‘You won’t be sorry for it, Molly, when you come to lie as poor Craven Smith did tonight.’

Like most Victorians, Elizabeth Gaskell didn’t shy away from talking about death in the way we do today. The deaths in Wives and Daughters are affecting and unforgettable. But this is a novel which faultlessly and satisfyingly combines the the profound with the comic. Here is social-climbing Mrs Gibson, who’s always parading and misquoting her superficial reading, speculating about the advantages of the possible death of the heir to an estate: ‘I should think myself wanting in strength of mind if I could not look forward to the consequences of death. I really think we are commanded to do so somewhere in the Bible or the Prayerbook.’

The very last part of Wives and Daughters was never written – Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly in November 1865 – but we know what’s going to happen, and it’s the ending we long for.

Elizabeth Gaskell doesn’t necessarily give us the secure, happy endings of Jane Austen, the philosophical worldview of George Eliot, the wild passion of the Brontes. But she gives us something equally remarkable. Despite being written over 150 years ago, her novels speak strongly and clearly, and they say something important in the confusing fragmented world of today.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Writing Competitions to enter in September

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Thought for the day: you are NEVER going to thrill anybody with that novel unless you first put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, and either begin the book itself or exercise your writing muscles with a short story.

New Voices Competition for the first page of a novel plus a one-page synopsis by a new writer. Prize: mentoring package worth £750. Entry fee: £10. Closing date: 14 September. Details: http://www.adventuresinfiction.co.uk

Moth Nature Writing Prize for poetry, fiction or non-fiction exploring the writer’s relationship with the natural world. Prizes: 1,000 Euros and a week at the Moth Retreat. Entry fee: £15. Closing date: 15 September. Details: http://www.themothmagazine.com

The Manchester Prize for a portfolio of poetry (3-5, maximum 120 lines); short stories up to 2,500 words. Prizes: £10,000. Deadline 18 September. Details: http://www.2.mmu.ac.uk/writingcompetition/ (PLEASE NOTE THAT WHILE THESE DETAILS CAME FROM THE WRITING MAGAZINE COMPETITIONS GUIDE 2021, WE COULD NOT FIND CURRENT CONFIRMATION ON-LINE – SO PLEASE MAKE YOUR OWN CHECKS BEFORE ENTERING)

Val Wood Prize for short stories (up to 1,500 words) on the theme of ‘Now and Then’, featuring changes that have made the world a better place for individuals and communities. Prizes: £100, £50, 2 x £25, web publication. FREE ENTRY. Closing date 21 September. Details http://www.valeriewood.co.uk

Hammond House International Literary Prize for songwriting (lyrics and performed song), short stories (1,000-5,000 words), poems up to 40 lines and scripts, up to 10 pages for the theatre, radio or television, all on the theme of Stardust. Songwriting entry fee £10. Prize £100. Poetry entry fee £10, prizes £500, £50, £20, Short story entry fee £10. Prizes £1,000, £100, £50. Scriptwriting entry fee £10. Prize £250.

Mslexia Women’s Fiction Awards for Short Story, Flash Fiction, Novel, Monologue. Prizes: £10,000 prize pot. Novel winners and finalists go on to be published at the highest level. Winners and three finalists of both the Short Story and Flash Fiction categories will be published in Mslexia magazine. Novel entry is for unpublished novel by writer who has not previously published a novel. Entry fee: £12 for the Short Story, £6 for the Flash Fiction, £25 for the Novel. Closing date 20 September. Check full details: http://www.mslexia.co.uk

Ovacome Short Story Award, for stories up to 2,000 words on the theme ‘Connected’. Prizes: £500, £250, £50 Waterstones voucher. Entry fee: £5. Details: http://www.ovacome.org.uk

Galley Beggar Press Short Story Award for stories up to 6,000 words. Prizes: £2,00, £200 for shortlist. Entry fee: £10. Closing date: 30 September. Details: http://galleybeggar.co.uk

The Short Story Competition for stories between 1,000-5,000 words. Prizes: £500, £100. Entry fee: £8. Closing date: 30 September. Details: http://www.theshortstory.net

Crowvus Christmas Ghost Story for ‘spooky’ stories up to 4,000 words. Prizes: £100, £75, £50. Entry fee: £3, £5 for two. Closing date: 30 September. Details: http://www.crowvus.com/competition

Please, please double-check any entries before pressing that final button, just in case I’ve got something wrong or there have been last-minute changes to things like entry dates.

Postscript: winning a writing competition CAN get you published or be given an award and/or a cheque for your efforts. More than one member of ninevoices have succeeded in doing these things, so why not you?

Ninevoices Beta-reader, Skipper, insists that you have a go…

CECILY – by Annie Garthwaite

Did you spot the obvious typos in this? My apologies to Annie Garthwaite for getting her name wrong… Must have been the emotion of remembering her terrific story.

ninevoices

Before reading this book I was already aware that Cecily Neville – granddaughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, the mistress who subsequently became his wife – was feisty enough to face down her enemies at the gates of Ludlow Castle, with her small children at her side. But I knew little else, except that she was wife to Richard, Duke of York, and mother to three famous (or infamous) sons: Edward IV, George Duke of Clarence, and Richard III.

Annie Garthwaite’s stunning new historical novel,CECILY, admirably fills the gaps, providing a vividly female perspective on the Wars of the Roses and showing how a determined woman could operate in a man’s world. Medieval women, we learn from Annie, especially those of the aristocracy, could be responsible for huge households and vast estates – “enterprises similar in complexity and size to mid-sized FTSE companies”. As if that weren’t…

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CECILY – by Annie Garthwaite

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Before reading this book I was already aware that Cecily Neville – granddaughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, the mistress who subsequently became his wife – was feisty enough to face down her enemies at the gates of Ludlow Castle, with her small children at her side. But I knew little else, except that she was wife to Richard, Duke of York, and mother to three famous (or infamous) sons: Edward IV, George Duke of Clarence, and Richard III.

Annie Garthwaite’s stunning new historical novel, CECILY, admirably fills the gaps, providing a vividly female perspective on the Wars of the Roses and showing how a determined woman could operate in a man’s world. Medieval women, we learn from Annie, especially those of the aristocracy, could be responsible for huge households and vast estates – “enterprises similar in complexity and size to mid-sized FTSE companies”. As if that weren’t enough, at the same time as supporting their husband’s political career, they were expected to breed. Failure at which negated all else. Like some twenty-first century women, Annie Garthwaite argues, they “were expected to do it all”.

I devoured this book, influenced by the fact that I have been a ricardian in sympathy since reading Josephine Tey’s book The Daughter of Time in my teens. Not only do my bookshelves heave with tomes about the Plantaganets, but my current historical novel has an 18th century historian who tries (unsuccessfuly) to write about them.

Annie Garthwaite admits that the Wars of the Roses have also been a fixation of hers since being inspired by her secondary school history master. Her debut novel has been long in gestation, and shows it, causing Cecily Neville to leap from the page as a real woman: flawed yet ambitious. Duplicitous, yet vulnerable. Strong, yet capable of tenderness. If you care about the past and appreciate a brilliant eye for historical detail, this book will not disappoint. In fact, I am convinced that Annie Garthwaite is going to give Hilary Mantel a run for her money.

I think Annie herself deserves the last word:

“What can I say? I love 15th century history. No apologies, no excuses. The 100 Years War, the Wars of the Roses. All of that.

“It’s not that I’m a big fan of blood and battles. Personally I can do without that sort of thing. No – it’s the women who interest me. How they negotiated their way in the world. How they managed – some of them at least, probably more than you’d think – to wield power and influence at a time when men seemed to hold most of the cards. And how others, simply, did not.

“For me, the stand out character of the 15th century has always been Cecily Neville. She experienced power in both directions: wielding it and having it wielded against her. She survived eighty years of tumultuous history, mothered kings, created a dynasty and brought her family through civil war. She met victory and defeat in equal measure and, in face of all, lived on. Last women standing, you might say.”

  How my novel was published

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Ninevoices are delighted to welcome one of our periodic guest contributors, writing here about how she succeeded in having her debut novel published. The Governor’s Man is currently available on Amazon for a modest £6.67 for the paperback edition or £2.99 for the Kindle. As ever, Kindle Unlimited reads are free.

by Jacquie Rogers, author of The Governor’s Man.

Exactly a year ago to the day, I sat writing in my little garden cabin while a scant shower cooled the air outside. My journal records I wrote 1400 words that afternoon of what was then titled The Bronze Owl, getting my main characters moving along a trail of stolen silver to Cheddar (or Iscalis, as it was known in AD224). The world of my story, 3rd century rural Britain, was almost completely imaginary, as were virtually all of my characters. The only real thing was the shining hoard of denarii, beautifully curated and exhibited in the Museum of Somerset, which had started the story up in my mind some years earlier. Suddenly in February 2020, that story started stretching out wings I didn’t know it had.

I’d already been published as a short story writer, but aspiring to write a novel felt ridiculously over the top. Like a passenger in a glider suddenly deciding to fly to Mars. Hadn’t I read that the chances of getting a novel published were 1-2%? And those were the books that got finished and submitted. In an average year. What were the chances of getting a book researched, written, and accepted for publication, in a lockdown year when everyone and his/her dog was writing the Great Lockdown Novel?

About much reality in that ambition as there was in my imagined Roman world of AD 224.

On the plus side, as a clinically-vulnerable shielder I had precious little else to do. And I had a short story already written, screaming to be extended. Actually The Bath Curse was pleading to be turned from a YA 2200-word snapshot, into a full-blown crime novel. With two much older, world-weary adults — a military investigator and a British healer — replacing the original teenagers.  And a stroppy Londoner sidekick who insisted on muscling his way into the plot.  And then there was the antagonist. Take your pick from a lengthy line-up of ne’er-do-wells crawling out of the woodwork.

So okay — new form, new MCs, new villains, additional subplots. And a lot of unnatural deaths. Eight in total. Not including the major battle scene, which wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye last year. But with the aforementioned time on my hands, it was surprising how many words got written. By November the first full draft went off to beta readers, and simultaneously to my independent editor. One thing short-story publishing had taught me — yes, you always need an editor.Expensive, but vital.

Back came the MS, with a lot of re-writing to do. Fortunately my readers and my editor were largely in agreement. After several more drafts, I started sending my baby out into the world in February 2021, to publishers who were accepting direct submissions in the genre of historical mystery, and to agents who liked that genre too and were actively seeking new clients. No-one else, no matter how enticing they sounded. Waste of time, that, I already knew. Many, many hours spent painstakingly fulfilling the requirements of carefully-researched agents and publishers, thirty-something of them. Then I waited, while beginning the sequel to The Governor’s Man.

One agent like the MS, but was retiring the next day. Would I send it to his colleagues? Who never responded. Two other agents rejected, politely. Three publishers said it wasn’t their thing. Then a month of silence.

Then I remembered I had been given a name at an Arvon course. Endeavour Books, who specialised in historical and crime. My book was both. Jackpot! Only Endeavour Books no longer existed, it seemed. I returned to seeking more agents/publishers. Heart sinking a little, but buoyed by reading that the best way to sell books is to write them. I also began seriously researching self-publishing at this point.

Then I saw a tweet from Sharpe Books, saying they were open to submissions. Checked them out. Oh, here is Endeavour Books, resurrected! Still liking exactly my genre. And the publisher writes Roman adventure books himself. I sat up straight, gave the opening chapters and my synopsis a last polish, and pressed Send. Within 24 hours they wrote to ask for the full MS, to distribute to their reading panel. Within another two days I got the phone call I’d been dreaming about. Would I like a contract for three books?

Well, what would you say?

In a whirlwind came the contract, then editorial feedback — not much to change, but must lose 10k words. By Friday. It felt quite a draconian diet. The slimmed-down final went back, and I was published on 19 May, 2021. Paperback two weeks later.

And then my real full-time job began. No, not writing the second book of the trilogy. That’s still waiting. For three months I have been a full-time publicist. Emails to everyone I know (Do you still read books? Guess what? I have a book – would you like to read it?); guest blog posts; begging letters asking book bloggers to review; re-designed and renamed blogsite; even a change of book title, pen-name and email address; interview with BBC Radio Somerset; my own YouTube channel, and recording a road trip round the West Country to please readers begging to know more about Roman Britain. See, I didn’t make it all up — that lumpy field has a large villa under it; and over there is a redundant Roman mine. And that river has changed its course, used to have a Roman port, no you can’t see it now. It was more fun than it sounds.

And endless, eternal social media. I now tweet in my sleep, and my best friend after Instagram is Tweetdeck. Still, there’s the local village arts festival coming up. I’m the resident writer. I might buy a painting from a fellow stallholder, if I ever get any royalties.

You’re going to love it all.

To follow or contact Jacquie Rogers, go to https://linktr.ee/jacquierogers

Writing Competitions to Enter in August

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You may not be able to sit at the same bureau as Jane Austen – seen here at the Chawton Cottage – but don’t let that stop you entering one of the August competitions which are detailed below.

The Costa Short Story Award is for stories up to 4,000 words by writers resident in the United Kingdom or Ireland. Prizes are: £3,5000 £1,000, £500, with FREE entry. Closing date is 5pm on Monday 2nd August. Details: http://www.costabookawards.co

The Retreat West Novel Prize for unpublished novels. Prizes: Retreat West publishing contract and £500 advance. MS critique and editorial report. Entry fee: £15. Closing date 10 August. Details: http://www.retreatwest.co.uk

Earlyworks Press Flash Fiction, for flash fiction up to 100 words. Prizes: £100; cash and books. Entry fee: £5, £20 for up to 6. Deadline: 30 August. Details: http://www.earlyworkspress.co.uk

Aesthetica Creative Writing for short stories up to 2,000 w

ords, poetry up to 40 lines. Any theme, form or style. Prizes: £2,500 in each category, publication, books, plus editorial consultation for fiction winner and membership of The Poetry Society for the poetry winner. Entry fee: £12 poetry; £18 short fiction. Deadline 31 August. Details: http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/creative-writing-award

Cinnamon Pencil Monitoring Competition for 10 poems, 2 short stories or the first 10,000 words of a novel. Prizes: Cinnamon mentoring. Entry fee: £12. Closing date: 31 August. Details: http://www.cinnamonpress.com

Edinburgh International Flash Fiction Competition. Stories up to 250 words. Prizes: £1,000, £300, £150; £300 for a Scottish writer. Entry fee: £7. Closing date: 31 August. Details: http://www.storyawards.org

Exeter Flash Competition for fiction up to 750 words. Prizes: £200, £100, £50. Entry fee: £6. Closing date: 31 August. Details: http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk (Please double check as, although the flash fiction appears to have been cancelled, they are still asking for stories of “up to 750 words”, in addition to the Exeter Story Prize, detailed below)

Exeter Story Prize for short stories up to 5,000 words. Prizes: £500, £150, £100. Entry fee: £12. Closing date: 31 August. Details: http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk

Hysteria Writing Competition for short stories up to 600 words, poetry up to 12 lines, flash fiction of 100 words. Prizes: £25 in each category, publication. Entry fee: £1 per entry (That is NOT a typo). Details: http://www.indaph.me

NAWG Open Competitions. Poems up to 40 lines; stories 500-2,000 words. Prizes: £25o, £150, £50, publication. Entry fee: £5 each (£10 for three poems). Closing date: 31 August. Details: http://www.nawg.co.uk

Impress Prize for New Writers, for full-length debuts from unpublished fiction and non-fiction writers. Submit book proposal and sample chapter which totals no more than 6,000 words. Prizes: £500, publication by Impress Books. Entry fee: £25. Closing date: 31 August. Details: http://www.impress-books.co.uk

We live in changing times, so please take care to double-check all details before entering a competition, to avoid possible disappointment. Things can be changed or cancelled at short notice.

Good luck, and may the spirit of Miss Austen be with you…

Writing Competitions to Enter in July

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If you persevere with your writing, maybe one day you might feature in a book like this one – discovered in a local Hospice charity shop. To that end, here are a few of the competitions available during July.

Moths to a Flame Poetry Competition invites original unpublished poems of any length on the theme of moths and/or energy. Poems must be able to be read or performed for a maximum of two minutes. The winner will be decided at a Zoom poetry slam and will receive £250. Ten shortlisted poets will receive a Moth Kit, which is part of the Moths to a Flame project, plus three copies of the resulting published book. Entry is FREE. Each writer may submit one poem. Closing date 2 July. Details: http://www.mothstoaflame.art

The HG Wells Short Story Competition 2021 is open for short fiction on the theme of ‘Mask’. There are two entry categories. The Junior (writers 21 and under) has a £1,000 prize and the Senior (writers over 22) category has a £500 prize. Enter original unpublished fiction between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Winning and shortlisted entries will be published in an anthology. Entry in the Junior category is FREE. The Senior entry fee is £10, or £5 for writers with studen ID. Deadline 12 July. Details: https://hgwellscompetition.com/

The Novel London 2021 Literary Competition is an international contest that invites the first chapter and a synopsis. The entry must be part of a complete work of fiction, which may be unpublihsed, self-published or newly published. The winner will receive £500 plus six months of mentoring from Nadine Matheson. The second prize is £300 and an assessment of the first three chapters and synopsis. The third prize is £100 and two coaching sessions. Submit the opening chapter (up to 3,000 words), a short synopsis and a one-page biography. Entry fee: £11. Closing date 31 July. Details: http://www.novellondon.co.uk

The Highlands and Islands Short Story Competition is open for stories up to 2,000 words, and flash, maximum 500. Prizes in both categories are £200, £75 and £50, with the possibility of several Highly Commended places. The competition is open only to amateur writers, defined as not earning a living from writing or having been ‘professionally published in any major capacity’. “We actively like the odd and the strange”. Entry is £5, £12 for three, £18 for five. Deadline 31 July. Details: http://www.hissac.co.uk/CompetitionDetails

The Fiction Factory First Chapter Competition is inviting entries of a maximum of 5,000 words of the first chapter. If the chapter is longer, send it in full but clearly mark the 5,000 word point. As well as a first prize of £500, the winning entry will be read by Joanna Swainson of Hardman & Swainson Agency. All shortlisted entrants will receive a free appraisal. Entry fee: £18. Deadline 31 July. Details: https://fiction-factory.biz/

Finally, not a competition, but visual and literary journal Short Fiction has a submission window for writers for whom this would be their first published piece. Submit original, unpublished fiction between 500 and 5,000 words. Payment is 2p per word, with a minimum of £30 and a maximum of £100. Closing date: 31 July. Details: http://www.shortfictionjournal.co.uk/subs

As ever, let me remind you to double-check all details before entering. Good luck!

Writing Competitions to Enter in June

Dreaming…

Do you dream of having your novel in Waterstones’ window? Maybe if you enter and win a competition that dream could come true. It has been known to happen.

The annual Wells Festival of Literature Creative Writing Competition is inviting entries in four categories. Open Poetry: no more than 35 lines on any subject. Prizes: 1st £1,000, 2nd £500, 3rd £250. Entry fee: £6. Short story: 1,000 to 2,000 words. Prizes: 1st £750, 2nd £300, 3rd £200. Entry fee, £6. A Book for Children: Stories on any subject aimed at readers aged 7+. Send the first three chapters or first thirty pages, whichever is the shortest, plus a synopsis. Prizes: 1st £750, 2nd £300, 3rd £200. Entry fee: £6. Closing date: 30 June. Details: http://www.wellsfestivalofliterature.org.uk

The Moth Short Story Prize 2021 offers a first prize of 3,000 Euros for stories up to 5,000 words. The second placed writer wins a week-long writing retreat at Circle of Misse in France, including 250 Euros for travel expenses. The third-placed writer wins 1,000 Euros. Winning stories will be published in the autumn 2021 issue of The Moth magazine. Entry fee is 15 Euros per story. Closing date: 30 June. Details: http://www.themothmagazine.com

The Love Books Competition, run by Marlborough Litfest in association with Bath Spa University invites you to write why you love your favourite book, poem or play. Entries should be up to 750 words, or videos no longer than five minutes. Entries may be reviews, but do not need to be, as long as the writing shows why you love the book, poem, collection, play or graphic novel that you have chosen. There are three age categories: 13-16, 17-19, and 20+ In each category, the winner will get £300 and the runner-up £100. Entry is free, but there can be only one entry per person. Closing date: 30 June. Details: https://lovebookscompetition.org/

V S Pritchett Memorial Prize for Unpublished Short Stories between 2,000 to 4,000 words. Prizes: £1,000, publication. Entry fee: £5. Deadline: 30 June. Details http://www.rslit.org

Henshaw Short Story Competition for up to 2,000 words. Prizes: £200, £100, £50. Entry fee: £6. Deadline: 30 June. Details|: http://www.henshawpress.co.uk

British Czech & Slovak Association Prize for short stories and non-fiction, up to 2,000 words, exploring the links between Britain and the Czech/Slovak Republics. Optional theme for 2021 is “£Corona and its effects”. Prizes: £400, £150, publication in the British Czech and Slovak Review. FREE ENTRY. Deadline 30 June. Details: http://www.bcsa.co.uk

Not many competitions on offer this month, but please, as ever, check all details before entry. Things can change at short notice.

The Mask

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When I was little, watching The Lone Ranger, Champion the Wonder Horse, Wagon Train and the like, it was the convention that when a baddie pulled a kerchief over the lower half of his face he became unrecognisable.  Sheriffs, neighbours, even relatives would have no idea that it was he who was holding up the stagecoach or stealing the miners’ payroll or threatening the tellers in the bank.

Dutifully wearing my anti-covid mask I was therefore surprised on entering my local Waterstone’s the other day to be greeted with “Hello Mr Peacock”.

So either bookshop staff are unusually prescient, or the scriptwriters on those 1950s westerns were taking a short cut …

[Other bookshops are available.]

Grave’s End by William Shaw

When a corpse is found in the freezer of an unoccupied mansion, DS Alexandra Cupidi is handed a case made even colder by nobody seeming to know – or care – who the dead man is.

Her investigation is complicated by suggestions of a political cover-up linked to a greenfield site designated for a high-profile housing project, plus the discovery of a young boy’s skeleton dating from decades earlier. A find her instincts tell her is somehow linked.

Cupidi is also still coming to terms with being a parochial cop after an ill-advised liaison with a fellow officer in the Met resulted in her relocation to the flat-lands of her Kent.

The book deals intelligently with the conflicting interests of progress and traditional country values, while Shaw makes superb use of the landscape of Dungeness as a dramatic backdrop to murder, corruption and the struggling local wildlife.

To my surprise, I was totally hooked by the brief, inspired chapters by the old badger.

I will resist giving further spoilers about the plot, but must mention the author’s mastery of character, especially that between women: Cupidi’s difficult relationship with her spiky teenage daughter, Zoe; her distance from her own eccentric mother; her evolving partnership with young, man-magnet colleague, Jill Ferriter.

I was delighted to be introduced to this writer by a fellow member of ninevoices and to discover that this police procedural is one of a series featuring the complex but likeable Alexandra Cupidi. I have invested in another. But you should be warned that I am reading them out of order, and you may wish to begin at the beginning, with The Birdwatcher.

And don’t worry about that badger. He isn’t in the least twee and has important things to teach the reader.