Josephine’s debut novel, Eye of a Rook, will be published by Fremantle Press in 2020. It loosely fits the literary historical fiction genre, in the mode of books like Possession, by A. S. Byatt. In writing the work, Josephine was mentored by respected local author Susan Midalia.
In Eye of a Rook, a Perth academic, Alice, looks back through the history of hysteria to make sense of her mystifying and very private pain; in 1860s England, Arthur watches his wife, Emily, struggle with the same condition. Marriage in each timeline is put to the test, and decisions are made that will determine the futures of all the characters. In a narrative that is as much about creativity and love as it is about pain, lives and decisions become fatefully interconnected, with hope hovering, like a black-winged rook.
Here is an extract from the historical timeline:
Emily makes herself seemly.
Arthur imagines it thus, siting in the adjoining room. But the particularities of her actions are obscure to him. Was his wife made to remove her crinoline for the examination? Her chemise? Was anyone there now to help her robe—to pull the laces of her stays tight, sculpting that biddable waist? He has not been privy to these intimate moments for some time, but still he remembers, and hopes.
Arthur pictures Emily. The milky skin where the sun has not touched; the smooth slope of her buttocks, which has been solely his province. He sees the grey-blue of her eyes. Strokes the side of her face, with its sprinkle of light freckles. Scoops up her hair, red-gold and silky in his hands.
He wishes he could be with her so she is not left undone, shamed by all she has endured.
Instead, here he is, listening to the surgeon scratching notes at his stately desk, trying to fool himself that he is in a drawing room—because, look at the ornaments cluttering the mantel; and there, the heavy sofas illuminated in the light sidling past velvet curtains. But the certificates above an elaborately carved cabinet remind him otherwise. Arthur peers through the hazy air. “President of the Medical Society of London 1865”, announces one. Another gilt-edged document proclaims an opening: “The London Surgical Home for the Reception of Gentlewomen and Females of Respectability suffering from Curable Surgical Diseases”. He can just make out the year: 1858. How many gentlewomen have been brought here in the intervening years? Have their husbands or their fathers sat in this same overstuffed chair? Were their thoughts as his: addled with concern and suspicion; terrified of consequences this man might not disclose? Though spare of figure, Mr Isaac Baker Brown has the look of a large horse harnessed to a plough. Is he as solid and unstoppable?
“Now, Mr Rochdale.” The surgeon leans back in his leather chair. “Before I give you my diagnosis, I require some facts from you about your wife. Is she restless—perhaps, excitable? Or is she of a melancholic disposition? Even … shall we say … withdrawn from you?”
What can he say, when the questions are so weighted with authority?
“She manifests these qualities in turn.” It seems disloyal to talk about Emily in this way to a stranger, but even as he speaks, Arthur feels the burden of his wife’s peculiar malady shifting. “Sometimes she has such nervous excitability she is unable to sleep and paces restlessly by day. But then she is prostrated by nervous exhaustion and weeps and sighs ceaselessly.”
The steel nib of Baker Brown’s pen scrapes at paper. Arthur imagines other instruments this hand must hold: a caustic compound, surgical scissors—
His mind shies away.
Josephine is currently working on a collection of personal essays under the mentorship of Heather Taylor-Johnson, as part of the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program, which is supported by Culture and the Arts (WA) through Fremantle Press. The essays draw on her award-winning PhD thesis, Vulvodynia and Autoethnography, in telling the story of her life with vulvodynia, charting the changing nature of her relationship with her body and chronic pain. It uses the disorder as a prism through which to explore norms and assumptions in society and medicine, drawing on models as diverse as feminism, trauma theory, historical hysteria, modern neurophysiology and Freudian psychoanalysis.
(The PhD thesis is commercial-in-confidence; the abstract is available to university students and academics through the Edith Cowan University library.)