Monday, November 7, 2022

Q&A with Penny Haw




Penny Haw is the author of the new novel The Invincible Miss Cust. It's based on the life of Aleen Cust (1868-1937), Britain's first female veterinary surgeon. Haw's other books include the novel The Wilderness Between Us. A longtime journalist and columnist, she lives near Cape Town, South Africa.


Q: How did you learn about Aleen Cust, and what inspired you to write a novel based on her life?


A: Encountering Aleen Cust was something like coming full circle for me. Having been raised on a farm, I’ve always known and loved animals. They bring me joy and companionship and I can’t imagine not having four-legged friends.


As a child, I fantasized about becoming a veterinary surgeon. I spent endless school holidays riding my horse and walking my dogs on the farm among the cattle. As I did, I’d tell myself fanciful stories—out loud, old-time radio play style stories (remember those?)—about the animals Penny the Vet would meet and treat and problems she’d solve for farmers and other animal lovers.


Instead, I became a journalist and, more recently an author. My love for animals, however, prevailed.


After my contemporary fiction, The Wilderness Between Us, was published in 2021, I thought about writing a book set in a veterinary practice with a strong, determined woman—probably a veterinarian—as the protagonist. Indeed, I was regressing to those daydreams of my youth. I began researching the idea. When, wondered, did women enter the veterinary profession?


That was when I came across Aleen Cust, who overcame a myriad of challenges during the late 1800s and early 1900s to become Britain and Ireland’s first female veterinary surgeon. The more I read about Aleen, the greater my fascination.


I was in awe of her courage and resolve to follow her dream to work with animals despite opposition from her family, a patriarchal society, sexist professional body, and the law. I was inspired by her determination and, the more I learned about her life, the more I wanted to tell her story.


It was as if I was back on the farm, imagining myself as a veterinary surgeon. I’d come full circle! This time though, I was telling Aleen’s story.


Q: How did you research her life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: The first thing I did was track down a copy of the biography, Aleen Cust Veterinary Surgeon, Britain’s First Woman Vet, which was written by a fellow woman veterinary surgeon, Connie M. Ford, and published in 1990. It’s not a lengthy biography but was very helpful, particularly in tracking of Aleen’s battle with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).


I also read as much as I could about Aleen’s guardian, Major Fitz Widdrington, and his family, who included Aleen’s best friend, Dorothy. Dorothy married Sir Edward Grey, who was Britain’s longest serving foreign secretary of the 20th century. There was plenty to read and research about the couple.


My research into veterinary history was greatly assisted by working with my friend, Richard Lyons, who is both Irish and a recently retired veterinary surgeon. This gave me access to information and expertise I would otherwise not have had. I relied on Richard’s knowledge to guide me on veterinary techniques and all things Irish.


There were several things that surprised me as I researched Aleen’s life. The bigotry she met was brutal and ceaseless. It’s hard to imagine anyone sustaining the energy and ambition to continue when faced with barriers at every turn—particularly when many of them come from your own family.


I was also surprised by fact that there was no evidence of Aleen becoming embittered by the obstacles she had to overcome. She was that set on realizing her dream and living the life she wanted, a life that gave her purpose. Her focus was extraordinary. 


Q: What did you see as the right balance between the historical and the fictional as you wrote the novel?


A: One of the joys of writing The Invincible Miss Cust was how little fictional intrigue Aleen’s life required in the writing of the book. Naturally, I created the conversations, thoughts, emotions, and some of the relationships, but the trajectory of her real life provided ample interest and excitement to make it an entertaining and moving story.


The real settings too—in Ireland, Britain, and Scotland—offered superb writing material. Honestly, it’s as if the book wrote itself.


For me, the fictional joy came from imagining Aleen’s emotions and I filled in the gaps between the facts as they are publicly known with speculative delight. My author’s note at the end of the book is, I believe, integral to the work. I explain there the little that is not fact. This is important to me because it shows how invincible Aleen Cust was, not only in historical fiction for, but in real life. What a woman she was!


Q: What made Aleen Cust “invincible,” and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: The team at Landmark Sourcebooks, led by my brilliant editor, Erin McClary, created a list of proposed titles and asked me to add any for consideration. We agreed on two contenders, including The Invincible Miss Cust, which were tested among readers. I was delighted by the eventual choice.


Aleen was invincible. She withstood being renounced by her family, harassed by male students at university and veterinary college, and scorned by the patriarchal professional body and many clients (until they got to know her), and the clergy.


Her intelligence, tenacity, sense of humor, warmth and resourcefulness made her invincible. She overcame everything that was thrown at her and, even when she was not allowed to write the professional exam that would certify her qualifications and allow her to practice legally, she found a way to work as a veterinary surgeon in Ireland.


During World War 1, Aleen was rejected by the army veterinary corps because she wasn’t accredited by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). That didn’t stop her from making her own way to the Western Front in France to work with the war horses.


The centenary of Aleen’s eventual certification by the RCVS—by then the association was legally bound to accept her by the passing of the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919—is celebrated in December this year. Indeed, Aleen Cust was nothing if not invincible.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next book is a further work of historical fiction with editor Erin McClary at Landmark Sourcebooks about another extraordinary woman who has largely gone unnoticed previously.


The Woman at the Wheel is about Bertha Benz. She was the wife of Carl Benz, the German engineer and inventor who is often proclaimed “the Father of the Automobile.” Bertha was Carl’s partner, not only in life, but also at work and The Woman at the Wheel looks at the remarkable role that she played in the success of their inventions and as an entrepreneur and businessperson.


Bertha’s story is very different from The Invincible Miss Cust in terms of setting, material, and story line but Aleen Cust and Bertha Benz shared several qualities. They were both smart, determined, and resourceful women, who triumphed at a time when most men did everything in their power to subvert females. I loved writing about both.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Although The Invincible Miss Cust is adult historical fiction, the book was recently selected by the Junior Library Guild (JLG) editors as ideal for grades 10 and upward. As you might know, the JLG is a book review and collection development service, which helps thousands of US school and public libraries acquire the best new children’s and young adult books. As such, it’s a great honor to be listed.


JLG editors described The Invincible Miss Cust as “an engaging tale of ambition, inspiration, and love, based on the true story of a woman ahead of her time, who defied the patriarchy, society, and her family’s wishes to pursue a career in a science-based field, paving the way for other women in veterinary science.”


The Invincible Miss Cust’s selection by JLG indicates that the story of Aleen’s fortitude and resourcefulness will be read by more and more young people, who will hopefully not only be entertained, but also as inspired by her resolve and focus as I am.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Penny Haw.

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