It’s my pleasure to have author and filmmaker Rachel Dax join me for the first in a series of guest posts by writers whose works amaze and delight me. My goal is to share their words and stories with all of you.
Rachel is the writer of the terrific novel After the Night and a just off the press trilogy The Legend of Pope Joan.
Without further ado:
THE WEAK & THE WICKED
Women and Gaol in 1950-60s Great Britain
by Rachel Dax
After the Night
I am often asked how I ended up setting my first novel After The Night in a women’s gaol in 1960. It’s such an unusual setting and such an unusual book that even I am sometimes surprised by how it came about. After The Night was inspired by watching the 1956 film Yield To The Night (released under the title Blonde Sinner in the US) based on the 1954 novel of the same name by author Joan Henry.
The very first time I saw this film I was probably twelve or thirteen years old and I remember, even then, it blew me away – its intense claustrophobic study of a woman coming to terms with her forthcoming execution was profoundly moving, startling, and thought-provoking at an age when opinions on moral issues were beginning to form. The second time I saw Yield to the Night, I was nearly seventeen and it had an even more profound effect on me, not just because I was older and able to access the essence on the film at a deeper level, but also because the extremely subtle lesbian undercurrent flowing beneath the narrative resonated with me deeply at a time when I was aware of being gay but had not yet come out. I thought about the film almost obsessively for weeks afterwards, researched it at the local library and kicked myself with regret that I did not record it. For years I kept an eye out to see if it was on UK TV but never spotted it, and every few months I’d check to see if it had been released on video yet, only to be told it had not. The film never left me and barely a day went past when I didn’t think of it and wish I could watch it again.
It wasn’t until 2003, when I was 31, that to my delight I finally got to see Yield to the Night for the third time. This time I made sure I videotaped it, knowing deep within me that it was vital that I did. I was so pleased and excited the the film had such a huge impact on me again so much later on, so many years after I had come out. Its unflinching portrayal of Mary Hilton, played by Diana Dors was captivating and I had not been mistaken about the lesbian undercurrent between Mary Hilton and Officer MacFarlane, played by Yvonne Mitchell.
I re-watched the film time and time again and then, a few days later, started writing the prologue to After the Night – picking up on MacFarlane’s feelings as she walked away from the prison knowing Mary was to be executed within a matter of hours. Then suddenly I found myself jumping ahead six years and writing about a new character, Leah Webster, joining the prison as a nurse and meeting Officer MacFarlane, who is still broken from Mary’s death – and the story continued to flow from there.
I finished the main draft of After the Night in the summer of 2004 only to find all the lesbian publishers in the UK were closing down and it sat on my hard drive until 2010 when Amazon launched Kindle Direct Publishing. I did not expect many people to buy this novel – I was just satisfied that my story was finally out in the world and available to my friends. Little did I know that it would be so well received within the world of lesbian fiction and become a well-loved novel in its own right.
The genesis of Joan Henry’s story Yield to the Night is an interesting one. Because the film version was released in 1956, people often think that it is a version of the ‘Ruth Ellis’ story – the last woman to be hanged in the UK, in 1955. However, this is not actually the case. Joan Henry wrote the novel version of Yield to the Night in 1953 and it was published in 1954. It pre-empted the whole Ellis affair and is totally different from the true life story of Ruth Ellis, who shot and killed her lover David Blakely.
In Yield to the Night, the Mary Hilton character kills her lover’s lover for driving him to suicide. She is not particularly likable in parts of the story but the film expertly shows her as a human being who, in spite her great flaws, deserves human compassion. The film version does resemble the Ellis case in its reference to the public campaign for her reprieve and its sympathies towards that view. It is very difficult to watch Yield to the Night and still believe the character should hang by the end.
Although my novel After the Night explores the aftermath in Officer MacFarlane’s life after Mary Hilton’s hanging, it was Joan Henry’s account of prison-life in Who Lie in Gaol that was actually more helpful for my research into prison conditions in that time. Joan Henry was an upper-class woman who landed in prison in 1951, having passed a forged cheque. On her release, she wrote about the harsh regime in British prisons in the form of a semi-autobiographical novel called Who Lie in Gaol (1952), which was later turned into the film The Weak & The Wicked (1953) starring Glynis Johns and Diana Dors.
Capital Punishment and the Purpose of Prison
The 1950s and 60s were a pivotal time in the approach to both prison and capital punishment within the UK. In the previous centuries execution by hanging had been commonplace and until the late 19th century, had been a public affair. Gradually in the early part of the 20th century, calls to limit the offences for which the death penalty applied and petitions for complete abolishment became more intense. By the 1950s, the general public mood in Britain swung towards abolition, and the specific crimes for which the death penalty could be given continued to be reduced. By 1965, no UK civilian could be sentenced to death except for the offences of treason or espionage.
The 1950s was also a time of debate about the purpose of prison. Joan Henry’s experiences portrayed in the novel Who Lie In Gaol and the film The Weak & The Wicked contrast the harsh regime in Holloway Women’s Prison in London where the emphasis was on punishment with the new Askham Grange, the experimental ‘Open Prison’ in Yorkshire that focused on rehabilitation.
In Holloway, women spent hours and hours locked up in their cell with almost no possessions other than a pot of face cream, a small tub of face powder and a hairbrush. Their uniforms were poorly fitting and had been worn by many before them. The only items of clothing they were allowed to keep from their life outside were their bra and suspender belt. The cells contained a chamber pot, a large jug of water and bowl, and a bucket for slops. The beds were old, hard and lumpy, the blankets rough and the temperature cold. In Holloway, women ate in their cells, the food was tasteless and the tea and cocoa foul.
The only time prisoners really had a chance to talk with one another was during the queue to empty their slop bucket or during their work time. The work was hard and basic with little regard for health and safety. Prisoners were given the task of sewing mailbags, scrubbing floors or working in the laundry and regularly sustained injuries due to the equipment they used.
The guards were generally heartless and cruel, treating the women as animals rather than human beings. The brutality of the regime caused many women to have what Joan Henry described as a ‘nerve storm’ – a kind of nervous breakdown where they would trash their cell and writhe and scream uncontrollably. They would be taken to a padded cell until they had ‘recovered’, but many, she tells us, did not. Henry’s account reveals the sadistic nature of the regime. “I witnessed one woman, goaded beyond endurance by a particularly sadistic officer, empty her slop-pail over her, before being dragged off, screaming and cursing at her tormentor, by six other screws for punishment.”
In the film The Weak & The Wicked, the harsh treatment of prisoners and the sheer horror of the regime in Holloway are glossed over in favour of a more lighthearted approach. The prison is not an attractive place, but the misery and agony have been omitted and the focus is on how hard the separation and/or loss of lovers and families is on individual prisoner’s lives. The film contains a series of flashback vignettes, some of which are even humourous. Whereas in Who Lie In Gaol Henry talks of women being left in their cells seriously ill and in agony, some even giving birth without any human help, in the film The Weak & The Wicked the pregnant woman is already in the hospital wing and given full medical treatment. It is only the stigma of the baby being born in prison that bothers the characters rather than the deleterious conditions themselves. Because Yield To The Night did not hide the sheer trauma of being in the death cell, it has stood the test of time as a film; by taking a less gritty approach to its subject matter The Weak & The Wicked has not.
Rehabilitation and Character Reform
However, both Who Lie In Gaol and The Weak & The Wicked argue in favour of the new idea of a prison regime based on the concepts of rehabilitation and character reform. The Open Prison where Jean Raymond is transferred to still involves hard work and discipline but there are chances to learn new skills and trades such as farming, cooking and dressmaking. Women are encouraged to grow as individuals so that they can embrace a more positive and productive life upon release and are gradually entrusted with more freedom and responsibility, including being allowed to go out for the day, so they can get used to being back in the ‘world outside’ before their final release.
In my novel After The Night I explore the issues of ‘punishment verses reform’ and the ‘Death Penalty’ alongside the romantic narrative. Officer Jean MacFarlane has been broken through warding over Mary Hilton in the death cell in 1954. Not only was the Death Sentence fundamentally against her own views but she had fallen in love with Mary Hilton whilst guarding her for six hours a day.
When I continue her story six years later in 1960, MacFarlane is now Chief Officer in Charge of Welfare. She is trying to use her position of authority to effect change in an institution where staff are harshly divided on the punishment versus rehabilitation debate. MacFarlane believes in treating each prisoner as a valuable individual and creating an environment that is supportive and nurturing, albeit firm. However Chief Officer Young, her main antagonist, believes in the punishment approach and as Chief Officer in charge of both Long Stay and Life Wings, she rules with a rod of iron, sending women to solitary confinement for the slightest offence. Chief Officer Young has a particular hatred of lesbian affection, which was forbidden in prison yet nonetheless was a common occurrence. Within After The Night, I explore the consequences of that hatred in great detail.
Joan Henry’s approach to the topic of homosexuality was, in my opinion, the most disjointed and contradictory aspect of her writing. Henry co-wrote the screenplay of Yield To The Night and was romantically involved with its director J. Lee Thompson who she went on to marry in 1958. She had a huge influence on the ‘feel’ of the film and although it is so subtle that only a person really sensitive to film and lesbian sexuality would spot it, the subtext of the narrative is that Mary Hilton and Officer MacFarlane are in love. In the novel version, which I read after I started writing After The Night, I was delighted to discover that Mary Hilton who narrates her story in the first person, clearly states that she is now in love with MacFarlane, and this love is treated sympathetically.
I was half way through writing After The Night, when I read Who Lie In Gaol in order to deepen my research. In this account, lesbianism was mentioned on several occasions but largely in negative terms as threatening and manipulative. I found this surprising given the author’s positive approach towards it between Mary Hilton and MacFarlane. Joan Henry later went on to write a theatre play called Look On Tempests that explored male homosexuality from the perspective of the mother and the wife of a man accused and arrested for crime of ‘Gross Indecency’ (homosexual acts which were against the law). I suspect that for Who Lie In Gaol, Henry was leaned on by the publisher to remove the positive aspects of lesbian relationships in prison and told to skew it towards the negative manifestations that she had witnessed. In the film version, The Weak & The Wicked (also directed by J. Lee Thompson), there is no reference, not even subtly, to lesbianism. Perhaps by the time Yield To The Night came out, Joan Henry, her publisher Gollanncz and ultimately the director J. Lee Thompson had all become braver in tackling female homosexuality in a more sympathetic manner.
In After The Night, the lesbian love story is sweepingly romantic and positive, but the consequences of being a lesbian in that period of time and particularly in that environment are explored in an unflinching manner. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, click on the link below to purchase it from Amazon.
Yield To The Night (1956) [Full Version on YouTube]
The Weak & The Wicked (1953) [Full Version on YouTube]
RACHEL DAX BIOGRAPHY
Rachel Dax is a UK Writer and Filmmaker.
She grew up in Birmingham and went on to study Philosophy & Theology at University of London. After several years teaching and gaining an MA in Philosophy and Religion, she then moved to Wales and pursued a career in Drama and did a BA in Theatre & Media and an MA in Filmmaking.
Rachel is the author of the novel After The Night – a sweeping lesbian love story set in a British prison in 1960, which examines homophobic prejudices and societal pressures alongside the romantic narrative.
Her trilogy The Legend Of Pope Joan is a fast-paced pansexual, gender-bending, theological extravaganza set in the 9th Century. Part 1. Frankia was released in January 2013 and Part 2. Athens in June 2013 and Part 3. Rome is due for release in December 2013.
Rachel Dax is also a filmmaker. She has written, produced, directed and edited several short films, which have had thousands of hits on the internet. She also has three feature film projects in development.
Film, theatre, literature, music, philosophy, religion and LGBTQ identities are her primary interests. If she is not making a film, directing a play or writing a novel, you will find Rachel lying on the sofa reading a great book or enjoying a good drama.
Some of her favourite books are The Remarkable Journey Of Miss Tranby Quirke by Elizabeth Ridley, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, The Well Of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, Carol by Patricia Highsmith, Tipping The Velvet and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller, Desert Of The Heart by Jane Rule, The Alchemist by Paul Coelho, Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder and Maurice by E M Forster.