Monday, October 15, 2012

Hilda VII: Miss Wilson

Well I have continued pounding on with my new WIP Hilda.

I’m now a few years ahead of where my posts have reached. Once again I have paused for some research. One of my characters is embroiled in the opening stages of WWI and I need to make sure I have some background details right.

If it was WWII I would probably already know most of the details as I have done so much research on that war for my other works.

The trick with the research is to have enough detail to weave into the narrative without it feeling placed for effect. Thank goodness for the internet, most of the detail I need at the moment is coming from that source. With my work set in WWII I got a lot of colour from talking to people from the generations in question. That is clearly no longer an option with the WWI generation.

For the writers among you, a question? How do you get the details right?

For the readers how important is it that the “history” is right?

Now, this is a longer extract than most, Hilda is coming to a milestone in her life

‘Good afternoon Miss Wilson.’ Said Maggie from the back of Bob.
‘Good afternoon Maggie, good afternoon Fred.’
Fred tipped his cap, ‘Afternoon Miss.’
Unusually, as they were packing up on this afternoon Miss Wilson had taken Hilda aside, ‘Don’t hurry away this afternoon Hilda. I wish to come with you, I need to talk to your mother.’
Hilda stood nervously outside the schoolyard while Miss Wilson put on her hat and locked the school door. What could it be? The only times Hilda knew of that a teacher spoke to a parent was when the child had committed some terrible sin.
Three quarters of the school year had flashed by and Miss Wilson had nothing but praise for Hilda’s work with the younger children. She had also gone on showing her more mathematics well beyond that she taught to the other girls. And she had gone on lending her books on all sorts of maths she had never dreamed existed, why just today she was taking home a book on geometry.
Hilda walked slower and slower as the went along the road toward Wharf Cottage feeling more and more miserable. She must have done something without realizing it, must have crossed some boundary, broken some rule, why else would Miss Wilson want to see her parents? Dolly and Wilf skipping along hand in hand left them in their wake.
‘What is wrong Hilda?’ Miss Wilson addressed her for the first time since they had left the school gate.
‘I’m sorry Miss Wilson, I don’t know what I’ve done.’
‘What you’ve…’, a perplexed look from Miss Wilson, ‘goodness me Hilda you’re not in trouble.’
She paused considering, ‘I hope I have good news. I haven’t wanted to share it with you so you aren’t disappointed if your parents don’t agree with my idea.’
Hilda almost breathed a sight of relief, but now the anticipation was nearly as bad as the anxiety.
‘Now tell me Hilda, I have always wondered, why is your house called “Wharf Cottage”? The river is not very nearby and we must be fifty miles from the sea.’
‘That’s easy Miss, around a hundred years ago there was a horse drawn tram that went past here. Our cottage was built as the wharf at the end of the tramway. Then when the railway came through it were turned into a cottage.’
‘I see, that makes sense.’ Then always the teacher, ‘It should be “it was converted into a cottage”.’
‘I’m sorry Miss Wilson,’ the misery of being rebuked, Hilda hated being wrong.

Elizabeth Attewell set down her cup, ‘Would you like more tea Miss Wilson?’
Miss Wilson cast her eyes around the room, ‘Please.’
Hilda took up the pot from its stand and reached across the walnut surface of the table to pour a steady stream of tea into the cup.
Setting down the pot she glanced around the room trying to see it with her teacher’s eyes. A good sized room, but full to bursting with fine furniture. Most of the work her father did on the estate was simpler country furniture for the people living on the estate. But as the master craftsman he was, he could turn out pieces “fit for a king” as he fondly said. It was with such pieces he filled his home, to the point that it was hard to navigate through many of the rooms of the cottage.
Dolly asked from the other side of the table, ‘Can I have some more please mum?’
Elizabeth looked at her younger daughter, ‘No child, run and play with Wilf.’
Dolly nodded and left the table, Hilda could tell she wanted to stay, wanted to find out what Miss Wilson had come for.
For that matter Hilda ached to know, why had she stuck to pleasantries like the weather? Mum wondered too, she was sure of it, wondered why she had been paid such an honor. Hilda’s Dad walked past the window, he’d come home a bit early. Hilda listened to the front door open and close. ‘Tell your dad we’ve company.’ Elizabeth said.
‘Yes Mum.’
Hilda left her chair and stepped into the hall, Charles was hanging his hat on the hook in the hall, ‘Dad, Miss Wilson’s here.’
‘Miss Wilson?’
‘Our teacher.’
He smoothed down his coat and stepped into the room. Hilda followed him in, ‘Miss Wilson,’ he smiled warmly, ‘what a pleasure to see you.’
The next minutes dragged for Hilda, but finally Miss Wilson set down her cup and began her business, ‘No doubt Mister and Mrs Attewell you wondered why I have called on you today.’
Charles smiled, ‘Well I guessed it might have something to do with one of the girls, you being their teacher and all.’
‘I…’ Miss Wilson paused her eyes meeting Hilda’s.
Charles interjected, ‘Hilda hasn’t been causing mischief has she?’
Miss Wilson smiled with relief, ‘No,quite the opposite in fact. But it is Hilda I have come to talk about.’
‘Yes?’ Her mother’s voice was not exactly icy, but neither was it inviting.
‘You might have realized Hilda has a gift when it comes to mathematics.’
‘She’s always been quick with numbers.’ Charles’ eyes where questioning, ‘What of it?’
Miss Wilson took her time, it was as if she was feeling her way down a path in the dark, ‘In everything you care to name Hilda is the quickest student I have ever had the pleasure to teach. It is in mathematics that she particularly shines though.’
‘You’ve been lending her books.’ Elizabeth’s voice was strained.
‘I have. At the beginning of the summer holiday I lent Hilda a book on algebra. I didn’t really expect her to finish it. But she did, and with no mistakes. It was if I opened a floodgate with that loan. Over the subsequent nine months Hilda has borrowed another book off me almost every week. At first they were my own books, but my paltry collection did not last Hilda long. I have been borrowing maths books from a professor whose acquaintance I have.’
Miss Wilson took a breath, eyes shining at Hilda she went on, ‘In short Hilda’s knowledge of mathematics has surpassed my own.’
Charles’ met his daughter’s eye, doubt on his face, before turning to Miss Wilson. ‘That is all very fine, but of what import is it?’
‘I have been talking to the head mistress of the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, the school I attended. Based on my word she has promised a full scholarship for Hilda.’
‘Cheltenham?’ exclaimed Elizabeth, ‘That must be thirty miles from here!’
Miss Wilson floundered, ‘I’m not sure.’ A breath, more confidant again, ‘It would be a full scholarship, board and uniforms included, and Hilda could come home for holidays.’
Hilda’s head spun, the idea of moving away from home, especially as far as Cheltenham was daunting. On the other hand the prospect of not going into service, of continuing to learn, continuing at school, what a magical prospect. ‘Mum, Dad, please can I?’
Such a mournful expression settled on her father’s face she did not know what to think, ‘But afterward? What would the girl do after another six years of school?’
‘Afterward?’ Miss Wilson was at a loss, ‘Why afterward she might go on to one of the ladies colleges at Oxford, at the worst she might teach.’
‘Oxford?’ Charles was scornful, ‘I knows for a fact that women are not allowed to matriculate at the universities, not allowed to take a degree.’
‘That is true, but they are allowed to attend lectures, tutorials and sit examinations. They have the qualification in all but name.’
Elizabeth interjected, ‘But of what use would it be to a working girl? A few years and she would just get married in any case. She would waste all that time and for what? In those six or eight years she might earn three or four hundred pounds and with full board save two hundred maybe three hundred pounds to contribute to her household when she marries.’
Miss Wilson, shifted, she seemed about to flee. Please, please, please thought Hilda, don’t give up. She caught her teacher’s eye, Miss Wilson, smiled at her before speaking again ‘Mister and Mrs Attewell, I know this has come out of nowhere. Don’t make a decision today, take your time, think about it. Things are just beginning to change for women and with her mind your Hilda can be at the forefront of those changes. Who knows you might have another Marie Curie here!’
Later, as Hilda and Dolly were drying and putting away the tea cups Elizabeth looked up from the table where she was cutting slices of bread for their supper and asked, ‘Who’s Marie Curie?’


Christine said...

Thanks for sharing Hilda. The passage feels authentic in its detail.

I enjoy research for writing but never know when to stop. I have a writing buddy who has almost completed her historical novel. She has undertaken extensive research, consulting primary sources, yet (in the passages I've seen) it never reads like a textbook. Her writing makes the sixteenth century come alive.

As a reader, I trust the writer to give me accuracy within the novel's period. I don't want to have reason to doubt.

Jai Joshi said...

Oh my goodness! My heart bleeds for Hilda. I really hope she gets to study.

Regarding research, I usually like to do a lot of background research on the general time period I'm working with to get a feel for it. Then I hunt down short specific details that help with authenticity and accuracy. It's not necessary to overload the reader but putting some details here and there can really colour a piece of writing just right.