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An Unreasonable Woman
Ivy May Stuart


Ivy May Stuart
Ivy May Stuart was born in Cape Town but spent most of her school years in Natal where she attended a series of convent schools. Her favourite subjects at school were English and History and so, rather unsurprisingly, after a series of different careers, she eventually became a teacher of both subjects. She has always been a voracious reader and her first encounter with historical fiction, her favourite genre, came at boarding school when she would read Georgette Heyer novels under the blankets by torchlight. Retired from teaching, she now runs a guest house in Pretoria.


SA release: November 2014
320 pages
234 x 156mm
Publisher: LEDA Publishers

R195.00 + Delivery

ISBN: 978-1-928211-59-4


Mail & Guardian – Friday, 24 April 2015                Ivy May Stuart: ‘There is no single truth’


Ivy May Stuart answers our questions about her debut historical novel '? An Unreasonable Woman', which foregrounds the women’s rights movement.

Describe yourself in a sentence.

I am always ridiculously enthusiastic and idealistic, no matter what life throws at me.

What was the originating idea for the book?

I began it shortly after my mother passed away. She was the last of her generation and, when I look back now, I wonder if part of the motivation wasn’t the fact that our entire family history in this country disappeared with her. Originally, I began writing random observations in a notebook, hoping to create something meaningful for my daughter; then the writing took on a life of its own. I don’t remember exactly when my heroine, Judith Armstrong, appeared, but suddenly there she was: a forthright, rebellious young woman with a giant chip on her shoulder. The Ladies’ National Association to which she belongs in the novel was a Victorian women’s group which fought for the rights of prostitutes servicing the British Army between 1869 and 1886. They were the first protest group composed entirely of women and – despite some violence and heavy opposition – they managed to get the abusive Contagious Diseases Act repealed. Having created Judith, I wanted to see what would happen to her if she was taken from the rigidity of Victorian England and placed in a new world as my own grandmother had been. At the time the Anglo-Zulu war would have been on the go in Natal. To me this was a “happy” coincidence, as I had always been fascinated by the politics of that period and more particularly the Battle of Isandlwana.

Were the years you spent teaching significant?

As preparation for writing a historical novel (always my favorite genre) it didn’t hurt that I taught both English and history. At the time, my pupils were of school-leaving age and I was alerted to the absolute lack of interest in the women’s rights movement among young girls. A typical reaction when the topic is raised is a sort of mild embarrassment. Very few girls are aware of, or interested in, the long history of the women’s movement and just how difficult the struggle has been. It frightened me to think that our hard-won rights and freedoms could be eroded if women are not vigilant. From time to time we need to be reminded of just how tough life has been and can be for women.

Describe the process of writing the work. How long did it take?

I wrote for three years, at random times of the day or night. After the initial idea, I began to research to get a sense of time and place. Even then it still took a while for the novel to take shape in my head. The truth shifts and changes as you research. When I write I need to grasp on to and hold the different facets that I have glimpsed and beat them all into submission in my brain – every facet must interlock with and enrich the whole. Only then can I say that I have what I believe to be a final, truthful product.

Name some writers who have inspired you and tell us briefly why or how.

I love writers who allow me to see nature through the eyes of someone else. Here I am referring to authors like Sebastian Faulks and Barbara Kingsolver and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wordsworth. They share a sort of wonder at the universe that I often feel but find so hard to express. Then, too, I enjoy writers who can weave a clever plot like John le Carré. His Cold War thrillers are masterfully written. For characters that jump out of the page and inhabit your world, Jane Austen is an inspiration. I love her sly sense of humor and dedication to telling it like it is.

Do you write by hand, or use a typewriter or computer?

I sometimes take photographs as an aid to memory, but basically I have a notebook in which I jot down all sorts of observations, ideas and sometimes little sketches of things that are relevant to me. Otherwise, I view the advent of the computer as a minor miracle. I write and rewrite sentences and paragraphs, fiddling endlessly with structure and vocabulary, so writing by hand or typewriter would be out of the question for me.

What is the purpose of historical fiction?

They say that history is written by the victors but ultimately – just as there is no one single point of view in history – there is also no one single truth. For the people in the midst of making history, there is a strong temptation to shape their account to serve their needs. For that reason I believe that no interpretation of an important historical event or period should stand unchallenged. One purpose of historical fiction is to achieve balance, to give voice to the voiceless through an imaginary process of inhabiting a dissenting person of the period. And then, of course, historical fiction is the ultimate in escapist reading. You move out of the world that you inhabit into another place and time, leaving the modern world behind. It’s fun and educational at the same time. You learn about another reality; a less comfortable but perhaps richer world. If I am ever spirited out of this era into another by time machine, I am well-equipped to milk a cow, churn butter or even survive a Viking invasion.



From Victorian England to the battlefields of South Africa, this is the story of one woman’s search for freedom. In a time of rampant imperialism, feisty Judith Armstrong is determined to fight for the rights of impoverished women in a masculine world—that is until a demonstration deteriorates into a riot, bringing her into conflict with Ralph Gilchrist, a well-born officer in Her Majesty’s Dragoon Guards. Judith’s spirited approach to Women’s Rights and freedom inevitably clashes with Ralph’s decidedly conservative and typically Victorian views. Sparks fly, but despite their mutual attraction, scandal forces her to leave Britain for a mission station in the British colony of Natal.
Britain is struggling to maintain its empire in the face of the demands of a growing democracy at home and the rising powers of Germany, America and Russia abroad. These tensions are set to play out in southern Africa, where diamonds have been discovered and it has suddenly become that much more important to cement the Empire’s hold on the territory. In the fledgling colony of Natal, a power struggle between the British and the Zulu Kingdom grows, and it is here that Judith and Ralph are destined to meet again—but this time on the blood-soaked battlefields of Zululand at the fateful Battle of Isandlwana.

An Unreasonable Woman
Dimensions: 156 x 234 mm
320 pages
Price: R195.00
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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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