Miranda Malins is a writer and historian specialising in the history of Oliver Cromwell, his family and the politics following the Civil Wars. Miranda also works as a commercial solicitor in the City (London) and began writing novels on maternity leave. In April, she had her second son in the same week her debut novel was released. The Puritan Princess published by Orion is available in hardback, e-book and audible.
Here, Miranda shares her experience of giving birth and publishing a book during this COVID-19 crisis.
My first thought about becoming an author and a new mother during lockdown is… Oh hang on; the baby’s crying, back in a mo.
Sorry, where was I? Oh yes.
2020 was supposed to be my year. After many years of hopeful toil, my first book was going to be published at the beginning of April and a longed for second baby would follow in June. As spring approached, I gathered my publicists’ posters and flyers, arranged the book launch and ordered my maternity party dress. I couldn’t wait.
But then, we all know what happened next. Life as we knew it shut down. Launch cancelled, publicity events pulled, bookshops shut. My publisher closed its office and furloughed staff. My editor escaped into lockdown with a suitcase of my books which she hand-posted to reviewers once a week when her local post office opened. When she couldn’t get them out, I sent my own copies in clumsily taped together recycled Boots delivery boxes. Nappies in, books out. My book launched falteringly into a void while I watched helplessly, trapped at home.
And then life dealt another blow: my baby was struggling and needed to come early, at 30 weeks. On 8 April, at the height of the pandemic and only six days after my book was released, with my first broadsheet review clutched in my hand I disappeared into a Covid-shaped maternity nightmare: tiny 2lb baby boy; six weeks in neonatal intensive care; ninety minutes maximum visiting by only one of my husband or me per day (hardly conducive to establishing breastfeeding); and all with no childcare or entertainment options for my three-year-old. With me unable to drive following a c-section, the logistics of even getting to the hospital each time reminded me of the old riddle of how you get a fox, a chicken and a sack of grain across a river.
While the world outside the hospital window resembled a disaster movie, in the quiet, womblike nursery ward, I sat each afternoon by the baby’s incubator holding his tiny hand and reading him inappropriately gory historical fiction. When my voice grew hoarse I would watch the benevolent bustle of the masked staff and wonder what it must be like for my baby being born into a world where he never saw anyone smile. The hours of my circumscribed visits sped by. The days before he could come home dragged.
Unsurprisingly, as a historian and novelist, this epoch-defining carnival of life and death made me think about the past. My new novel, The Puritan Princess, recreates Oliver Cromwell’s court of the 1650s through the eyes of his teenage daughter Frances, exploring the dramatic politics of Britain’s most experimental and overlooked era: passion, politics and puritans. For the Cromwells, birth, death and danger were everyday experiences, and so they feel more relatable now than ever. And yet they were extraordinary: a very close and ordinary family whose lives were transformed when they unexpectedly found themselves Britain’s new ruling dynasty.
I have thought a lot about transformation recently and about the many different versions of ourselves we inhabit every day. Already stretched thinly, during lockdown I splintered into even more people: the debut author nervously scanning the internet and newspapers for reviews; the new mother reading up on premature babies and endlessly expressing milk while I recovered from surgery; and the outwardly calm home-schooling mother reassuring her three-year-old that everything was the same even though nothing was. At times it was hard to know who I was.
Deep down, I was trying to be a mother and an author and yet I felt I was an imposter at each. I had just given birth but had no baby at home to show for it, just a breast-pump for company. And I had just released my book into the world, and yet with no live events, visits to bookshops, launch party or even other people to discuss it with, it was as if it hadn’t happened at all. I felt deflated and confused, hormones raging and thoughts flying: yo-yoing between elation and despair.
But now things are finally getting better. The baby is home and thriving (thank you NHS!), my older boy is back at his beloved nursery and I am writing again in the rare, snatched moments I have to myself. Slowly, as lockdown ends, we are emerging, blinking and disorientated into a new normal. Lockdown has been cruel: it warped my motherhood experience and I will never know what damage it has done to my fledgling writing career. But it has also brought clarity as seismic events often do. I know who I love and what I treasure. And I will be eternally grateful for the two beautiful creations it witnessed: my baby and my book.
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