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What if? Writing an Alternative Life

In writing my fourth novel, Chrysalis, I wanted to use my fifty-years’ experience of Quakerism -- I became a member of the Religious Society of Friends at age sixteen -- to inform the narrative of a woman’s quest for spiritual and personal autonomy. I also wished to explore the question mused on at various times during my life: ‘What if I had married the ‘suitable’ Quaker boy and not the ‘rough diamond’ I have been married to for forty-eight years?’ Therefore, I created a novel that, while it includes aspects of my adolescence and young adulthood in England, plus observations on the migrant experience, is not a memoir.

Like my protagonist, Jane, I grew up in a small seaside town in southern England during the so-called ‘swinging sixties.’ My adolescent life revolved around family, school, work from age sixteen, two serious boyfriends (at different periods), the local youth club, the Quaker Meeting - not necessarily in that order.

Unlike Jane, I did not suffer from the paradox of a liberal yet restricted Quaker upbringing and yearn to choose my own destiny. At sixteen I was already a forthright Quaker woman with strong opinions on the issues of the day! I also married very young – nineteen – and emigrated to Australia at just twenty with my twenty-one-year old husband.

Liberating life choices for me, but despite emerging feminism, many young women of my ‘Baby Boomer’ generation were still limited in their choice of career and were encouraged to think of marriage and motherhood as the most important goals in life.

So, as a fiction writer, I embarked on an alternative life, becoming during my writing hours, the timorous girl who yearns for independence but is afraid to rock the boat, and towards the end of the novel, the newly-retired woman, who once more questions her life choices. Apart from telling Jane’s story, I wanted to use the medium of the novel to explore some of the ethical and moral issues that arose during the sixties e.g.

  • Nuclear power/nuclear weapons – I used personal experience as a clerical assistant at a nuclear power station (1966-7) when creating the character Pam Nelson.

  • Women’s Liberation – the feisty Quaker character Great-aunt Patience, aids Jane’s quest for independence.

  • Peace – focusing on demonstrations against the Vietnam War held in London, October 1968, I explored Jane’s reaction when violence erupts.

Creating the characters Tom and Peter, the other two sides of the ‘love triangle,’ enabled me to develop radically diverse personalities from different social backgrounds. My husband of forty-eight years, and my first love, may have been the nuclei from which these characters evolved, but I deliberately chose to create fictional backgrounds and lives for them. Tom Harrison, as a non-Quaker character, proved useful to depict an outsider’s reactions to the Quaker way of worship, conducting business and way of life, sometimes erroneously viewed by others as a collection of ‘don’ts’ – we don’t have clergy, sacraments, etc., don’t vote, don’t, in most cases, go to war, except as non-combatants. Focus on positives, I remind myself whenever I am asked about Quakerism. Peter Greenway, apart from a brief youthful escapade is sensible, studious, even staid, but I trust I have created a well-rounded character.

The experience of imagining an alternative life was fascinating and all-absorbing, but at the end of each writing session I felt perfectly content to return to my real life. However, I must confess that years ago, I regretted not listening to my parents’ advice regarding further education – it wasn’t easy entering university at age twenty-seven with a three-year-old son in tow!

The creation of fiction gives the writer immense freedom and this is what appeals to me as I endeavour to incorporate my concerns about peace and social justice into my novels. My first three novels, a trilogy of a future dystopian Australia, focused on climate change and the harsh treatment of refugees from drowned Pacific islands. Being able to share my writing with others is a privilege and I thank Morning Star Publishing for having faith in my story of a woman’s lifelong struggle for integrity that takes the reader into the world of the Religious Society of Friends, once considered a ‘radical’ and ‘dangerous’ Christian organisation.

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