Alison Weir at Layer Marney

At this year’s Essex Book Festival, one of the events which caught my eye was Alison Weir, the noted historian, giving a talk on Katherine of Aragon at Layer Marney Tower near Tiptree. I was immediately drawn to this not only because I have a long-standing interest in the Tudors, but also because Layer Marney Tower is itself a beautiful Tudor building, where Elizabeth I was once a guest.

When the evening for the talk came, I was not disappointed. We arrived after darkness had fallen, and the setting was beautifully rural: when we got out of the car I could hear the bleating of sheep and see the pinpricks of stars through the naked tree branches. Then I almost fell into a cattle grid, which made me feel less favourably inclined towards the countryside.

Inside the venue there was a lively atmosphere; a buzzing bar was stocked with drinks and there was a table stacked with the author’s latest books. We made our way into a great hall with oak panelling, rich red curtains and a magnificent Tudor fireplace. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the place was almost full and I was forced to squeeze into a seat right at the back; I had no idea there were so many fellow history nerds willing to give up their Thursday nights for a talk like this!

The talk certainly deserved the high turnout: Alison Weir was an engaging and eloquent speaker. She spoke primarily about her latest book, ‘Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen’, the first in a series of six novels told from the perspectives of Henry VIII’s wives and based strongly on historical evidence. Weir explained the history and thought process behind the novel, occasionally interspersing this with dramatic readings. This was followed by questions, one of the most inventive being, ‘Where do you think Katherine’s favourite place to visit in England would have been?’ It was lovely to see how excited and interested everyone was by the book, and it was certainly a wonderful experience to learn about Tudor history in a room where Tudor people had once eaten, danced and laughed. As the floorboards creaked, I almost expected to see a lady in a long gown and hood appearing in the doorway.

If you ever get the chance to attend a talk by Alison Weir or fancy a trip to Layer Marney Tower, I would strongly recommend both!

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Why I disagree with ‘getting women into science’

‘Getting women into science’ is a phrase I have heard bandied about a lot lately, and it is really starting to irritate me. As an arts student, I find it patronising and degrading; the idea of nudging women away from the arts and towards the sciences is one that suggests that the choices we have made already are not good enough, that somehow if more STEM were thrust in our faces we would wake up and realise that we were being silly, that sciences are obviously the better subjects.

First of all I should say that I understand why the initiative is in place. It is true that there are disproportionate numbers of boys taking science subjects as opposed to girls, and that many of these girls may be put off by the gender imbalance if they choose to study science subjects beyond GCSE level. I completely support the idea that women should be able to study whatever they want without feeling threatened or intimidated.

The word ‘want’ is the operative word here, because in my personal experience, the idea of ‘getting women into science’ has gone so far that it has swung the other way and now girls are being pressured into studying subjects they don’t enjoy. Two of my close friends who had always shown a leaning towards the arts decided to take science and maths based subjects for A-level, only to struggle, lose all their enthusiasm for the topics and decide that they wanted to do an essay subject at university. Unfortunately, they are now not up to the same standard as their peers who have taken arts subjects all along. When I decided that I wanted to take four essay subjects for A-level (English, History, Latin and German), reactions were mixed, ranging from the mild ‘that’s a lot of writing’ to a slightly sneering comment by a friend’s father: ‘Aren’t you doing maths?’ My teachers also tried to steer me towards science subjects, with such pathetic remarks as, ‘It would be a shame if one day you decided to edit a science journal and your science wasn’t up to scratch,’ after I mentioned that I was vaguely interested in publishing. My reluctance to study science subjects was not due to lack of exposure, nor to a fear that I would be outnumbered by -gasp!- boys, but simply because I was naturally worse at them, I didn’t have the same level of interest, and I didn’t enjoy them as much.

To me, this all seems to come down to snobbery, to the societal notion that science is more useful than, or superior to, the arts. There is a massive difference in the number of men and women studying for degrees in English literature (27% to 73%) but when do we ever hear of schemes encouraging men into English? The statistics are the same even for French, a subject which few people would disagree is useful. Of course science is important – developments in engineering, medicine, physics and technology are all vital to our lives in the modern world. But we need a mixture. What does a doctor do after a long day at work? She watches her favourite programme on TV, or listens to some music, or reads a book. Science helps us to live, but arts give us a reason to be alive.

Yet sometimes even I catch myself poking fun at my choices and laughing at my own hypothetical unemployability. When the school offers another opportunity for women who want to ‘get into science’, I feel like I’m somehow betraying the sisterhood by choosing to stay in a traditionally female-dominated sphere.

Now I’ve decided this has to stop. One piece of advice I’ve heard from many ex-students across the years is simply to ‘do what you love’, and though I may be inexperienced, I agree with the principle. Whether your passion is theoretical physics or translating Tacitus’ annals, you, male or female, should be able to do what you want without being coerced into something which you don’t enjoy. And I hope that in this country we can reach a happy medium of encouragement for women who want to study science, and equal encouragement for those who do not.

Top 7: Poems from ‘The World’s Wife’

‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy is one of my favourite volumes of poetry. It invents the untold stories of the women behind the great men of history in an accessible way, while still having plenty of depth. If you’re interested, here are my recommendations:

  1. Little Red-Cap – Here Duffy recalls a past love affair, using the allegory of Little Red Riding Hood. There is some beautiful gothic imagery and several memorable lines, such as ‘allotments/kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men‘.
  2. Mrs Darwin – This poem somehow manages to be funny, clever and thought-provoking in just four lines.
  3. Pygmalion’s Bride – A witty take on the classic story of the sculptor who falls in love with his own masterpiece.
  4. Anne Hathaway – A romantic interpretation of what Shakespeare meant when he wrote in his will, ‘Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed…
  5. The Devil’s Wife – A disturbing but profound poem in five parts, based on the case of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
  6. Mrs Quasimodo – This longer poem is tragic but refreshing in that it deals with two ugly people falling in love, and I like the motif of the bells and their ‘murdered music.’
  7. Demeter – A touching and understated celebration of a mother’s love, and a fitting way to end the collection.