Meeting Emma and Gillian

“Did GG’s stuff include a scrapbook?”

“There’s one of those late Victorian scrapbooks, with poems and pasted pictures. Is that what you mean?”

In my debut novel for Book View Café, The Wizardry of Jewish Women, a scrapbook appears.

A page with Emma’s own handwriting.

“This book is so gorgeous.” Belinda’s voice oozed sensual joy. “Great-Grandma wrote a lovely clear copperplate. I’m going to scan it and do a colour printout for you, I think. Oh! The first and last sections are all the same sort of stuff, but the middle sections are different. It’s a big book, brown and gold and black—”

Certain parts of this scrapbook were invented. The book itself and a number of the quotes from it really exist. The book sits on one of my cupboards and reminds me of its author, every day. I’ve not been able to find anything out about Emma Pallett except what she wrote herself, in the scrapbook. From the way she describes herself, I would love to have met her. My inner historian wants to analyse her, but the rest of me thinks she would have made a fine dining companion.

She wrote a note on the last pages of the book. Two pages, signed:

Emma Pallett Spinster
April 23rd
1884

Her note is not in prose. It is “the tale of a slighted maid/Left all alone on the shelf/No husband to scold or children to slap/And no-one to please but herself.”

Two pages of verse, four lines a stanza, sarcastic and let me translate some of her copperplate into webplate, so that you can meet her yourself:

“I’ve plenty of money and plenty of friends” she says, and lists her interests as “books, piano and singing.” She admits she likes infants “for when they cry/I can always get out of their way.” She talks about housework and ends on a very personal note.

“I am a slighted old maid I don’t wish to deny
Better that than a poor slighted wife
A maid slighted once may forget it again
When married she is slighted for life.”

Her tone made me ask myself, “What would it be like to have an ancestress that strong and that cynical?” I had to put that aspect of her into a story, and I had to use the scrapbook. The book has been almost ruined in places by a toddler with drawing implement and hands that tear. Not many places, but enough to show that younger generations didn’t appreciate Emma Pallett. I had to use that feeling in the book, too. Emma and the toddler don’t make an appearance, but they definitely influenced my novel.

My father bought the scrapbook as part of a box of miscellaneous volumes at an auction, about forty years ago. It was part of my life from the same year I won the battle to keep on studying English and History (the family wanted me to do maths and science) and reassured me when I did these subjects (with French) at university. Then I left home to do a PhD and only visited it from time to time. When my father died, the book went to my mother’s new house and every time I visited it (about twice a year, for I live hundreds of miles from my old home) reminded me of family continuity. I don’t know what Emma would have thought of this.

One day, many years on, I realised I needed the scrapbook for a novel. The next time I visited my mother, I photographed the whole thing and played with it every moment I could get. Science fiction convention during the day and scrapbook during the evening. I suspect I carried bad Victorian jokes onto my panels.

When I went back to Canberra, my mother found the book next to my bed. She took this as an indication that I genuinely liked it, and a couple of years later she gave it to me.

These days, the book is part of my teaching equipment. Most of my equipment is in an old hatbox and an old sewing machine box . The sewing machine box contains games from interesting places. Each month I’ll write about a different object: they’re all fascinating. My students would be very happy if I said “Does anyone want this old fragrance?” or “this posset cup?”

Open with care…

The scrapbook opened a character up to me and gave me The Wizardry of Jewish Women. I thought it would be appropriate if it served as your introduction to me and to open up my teaching material for your long-term enjoyment.

Another small introduction to me is my contribution to today’s THE LANGUAGE ATTIC.

I’m Australian. This means I should start with an Australian word. It’s perfectly common where I live, but not known nearly well enough by the rest of the world.

Meet the galah.

In the picture, you see a pretty bird. If someone calls someone else a ‘galah’ however, they’re referring to a sad lack of intelligence. “You’re a real galah,” with a certain amused tone of voice means “You’ve done something exceptionally stupid this time and I’m probably not going to stop laughing about it.”

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About Gillian Polack

Gillian Polack is a historian as well as a fiction writer, which means that history is likely to creep into her blogposts. She is also Australian, a foodie, and has a strong love of things ranging from chocolate to folk dance. All her jokes are good jokes, even the ones that aren’t funny at all.

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2 Responses to Meeting Emma and Gillian

  1. Emma came to life for me in your post. I think she had a lot in common with my Aunt Beck from Alabama. She became a nurse so she wouldn’t have to put up with any man as stupid as the gaggle brothers, half-brothers, and stepbrothers in her family. She was smarter than all of them put together. (she was). The family both loved and hated her.