First published in Heart to Heart, the online magazine for Romance Writers New Zealand
Strength, particularly when related to the phrase ‘strong woman’, often comes with the ideals of toughness, firmness, a powerhouse who argues against the strictures of society with a solid backbone. In the cliché, a strong woman is someone terrifying, a termagant, or worse – a shrew.
But strength also comes in quieter ways. It is courage, durability, not just brawniness and force. It is the glue holding a family together, stability in tough circumstances, or simply a woman who makes the best of her situation.
My Oma in 1952
The three friends who form the basis of my Bluestocking series are loosely based around my great-grandmother, Josephine d’Ancona. Many would call her a strong woman – one of the first to graduate as a medical doctor in Holland, and they’d be right. It takes a determined strength to battle the system and enforce change. Her oldest daughter, my Oma, had the advantage of growing up with the example of her mother’s achievements. She also went on to higher education, gaining a qualification in social sciences, but history threw many difficulties at her. Born in 1912, my Oma grew up in Holland under the demands of World War One. She enjoyed the Long Weekend (between the wars) as a teenager with wealthy parents who were both doctors. They even had a motor vehicle. In 1939, my Oma was twenty-seven years old and being wooed by a handsome engineer. World War Two put paid to everything, and while we don’t know much about Oma’s life during the war, there are rumours that she joined the underground.
The only story we know with some level of certainty is that her and a friend stole a truck full of cabbages from the German Army one day. They came across a check point.
“Keep driving.” Oma commanded to her friend, or so the legend says. The cabbages were handed to people in hiding.
The engineer arrived back in Holland at the end of the war, having been an indented worker in a German work camp, and continued to woo Oma. She eventually said yes, and they had four children (including my father). In the period following the war, the Dutch government had an emigration scheme. Together with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, they offered citizens the chance to move away from Europe to start a new life. Opa picked a job he thought sounded interesting and declared that the whole family would be moving to New Zealand. Oma’s response, “I knew he’d do this when I said I’d marry him. English always was my worst language.”
Opa hopped on a boat to the other side of the world alone to start his job and get things organised for the family. Oma travelled with four kids under six years old from Amsterdam to England, then onto another boat for the six-week trip to New Zealand. She spent the trip surrounded by English women who ignored her because of her accented English, although when one of the kids got sick, she said, “I wish my father was here. He would know what to do.” Years later, she would roll her eyes and say, “suddenly they all wanted to know me.” Her father’s status transcended her foreignness in their eyes, and of course they erased her mother’s achievements.
They arrived in Wellington Harbour and took the long train ride to Hamilton. Opa had purchased a section of land just outside the township and they camped there until the kitset house he’d bought in Holland arrived on another boat. They lived without electricity for years, even after he’d put the house together. Two more kids were born in New Zealand, and the shift to New Zealand must have been a massive culture shock to Oma. The stark difference between life in wealthy Amsterdam and semi-rural New Zealand in the 1950s had to be impossibly hard.
Oma died when I was sixteen, and I still miss her every day.
The Heart of a Bluestocking
When an uncommon lawyer meets an unusual doctor, their story must be extraordinary…
September 1888: Dr Claire Carlingford owns the bluestocking label. Her tycoon father encouraged her to study, and with the support of her two best friends, she took it further than anyone could imagine, graduating as a doctor and running her own medical practice. But it’s not enough for her father. He wants her to take over the business, so he can retire. Then his sudden arrest throws the family into chaos and his business into peril.
Mr James Ravi Howick, second son of Lord Dalhinge, wants to use his position as a lawyer to improve conditions for his mother’s family in India. When an opportunity arises to work for Carlingford Enterprises, one of the richest companies in the world, Ravi leaps at the chance to open his own legal practise. But his employment becomes personal as he spends more time with Claire and she learns the secret that could destroy his family.
Both Ravi and Claire are used to being outsiders and alone. But as they work together to save their respective families from disaster, it becomes clear that these two misfits might just fit together perfectly.
The Bluestocking Series:
Three remarkable young women, Josephine, Marie and Claire, graduate from Amsterdam University’s Medical program in 1887. Read the first two in the series (all books work as stand alone stories).