30th July 2012 - Catherine Jones
Catherine Jones is the author of Wonder Girls, set in 1928, when sixteen-year-old Ida Gaze aims to be the first person to swim from Wales to England. The book was inspired by acts of female derring-do off the Welsh coast in the 1920s, when two young women swam the treacherous Bristol Channel and Amelia Earhart landed near the small harbour town of Burry Port.
A new expedition is currently underway, aiming to locate the remains of the American aviatrix's plane off a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. Here Catherine writes about how Earhart faced down the prejudices of her times to be come a role model for generations of women.
With her haughty cheekbones prominent in a fur-lined flying cap, Amelia Earhart represents a woman of another era, another country - not least in a 21st century Western celebrity zeitgeist frequently dictated by television talent shows. Often pictured alone with her plane, she captures - perhaps to the point of stereotype in our cynical times - the singular mood of female derring-do in the 1920s.
On June 17, 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic when she landed in Burry Port, a small town in west Wales, which now marks the achievement with a plaque near the town's East Dock.
It was grey and drizzly, when the plane taxied to a buoy for mooring. Perilously low on fuel and with no idea of their bearings, Earhart, her pilot and navigator, thought they were in Ireland.
Word quickly got round and two thousand onlookers waited to greet her as she climbed the harbour steps. Someone in the crowd, intent on a memento, deftly pulled the silk bandana from her head. That was the detail that did it for me, the idea that the inhabitant of a small Welsh town wanted more from the 'lady flier' from America.
Earhart is not a central character in Wonder Girls but her real-life arrival in Wales is the catalyst for the fictional Ida Gaze to attempt to swim the Bristol Channel.
As unfashionable as striving to succeed may seem in today's wilfully democratic society, I became fascinated with the real-life women who came to represent - not least thanks to a media as hungry for 'It Girls' then as it is today, and in many ways the spin surrounding Earhart was as slick as any current publicity machine - a breed of 'trail-blazing' women.
When asked by reporters if she ever thought of giving up the flight that first attracted international headlines, Earhart replied, "Never! I thought all this out in the first five minutes and I knew I wanted to go...because I love life and all it has to offer. I want every opportunity and adventure it can give, and I could never welch on one of them."'
Her coinage is bravery and breaking new ground, of living life and defying death; in today's age of Health and Safety stopping egg and spoon races at school sports day, it's not necessarily an easy leap into her world.
Back in 1928, it wasn't all ticker tape parades and meetings with heads of state for the new celebrity. Some commentators were quick to point out she was only a passenger in the plane and why all the fuss in their age of equality.
Not quite the ingénue presented in the media, Earhart proved a formidable role model, going on to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo, when Charles Lindbergh was the only other to do so. Recounting a praiseworthy article in the French press which compared her in radiant terms to Lindbergh, she said with a grin: 'All of it was too good to be true, and I knew there must be some catch to it. There was. The article ended with this query: "...but can she bake cakes?"
Polite but firm, Earhart's sound bites always hammered home the idea women were men's equal but she never called herself a feminist. "Sex", she once said, 'has been used too long as a subterfuge by the inefficient woman who likes to make herself and others believe that it is not her incapability but her womanhood which is holding her back...".
Kansas-born Amelia Mary Earhart went on to perform a number of 'firsts' in aviation, many of which were 'first woman' records. When her plane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, she was on the final leg of an attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world.
New details of her possible final days living as a castaway on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean have further enhanced her legacy as a courageous 'gal' of her times, though they have also brought home the dangerous undercurrent of such 'japes'.
Researchers are currently hunting for the wreckage of her plane on the island of Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati. Their discoveries to date give touching detail of how the 39-year-old may have spent her last days, as a castaway living off fish and rainwater caught in giant clamshells. Heroic to the end, it seems.
Five pieces of a pot were found which when pieced together were thought to resemble the 1930s' jars containing Dr C H Berry's Freckle Ointment. Apparently, Earhart always liked to get her powder on for the cameras when she came in to land. It seems her courage was matched by an awareness of appearances, and that at least should resonate today.
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In 1928, sixteen-year-old Ida Gaze aims to be the first person to swim from Wales to England. A witness to Earhart's arrival from across the Atlantic, Ida is spurred on to defy cynics who believe a girl will never succeed. Encouraged by her best friend, Freda Voyle, the two represent an emerging breed of young women intent on spreading their wings.
In the present-day, elderly Cecily Stirling strikes up a friendship with a much younger woman called Sarah, whose interest in an old photograph of a girl in a Wolsey bathing suit begins the unravelling of secrets kept by Cecily's late partner, Freda.
Wonder Girls is about determination in the face of doubt and explores the power of not conforming. Wendy Holden in the Daily Mail says: "An imaginative tour de force, moving and well-written and the characters are superb"; Catherine Taylor in the Guardian says: "Sparkling ... deceptively light ... Jones's warmth and deft characterisation shine out"
See the original Gaumont Graphic clip of Edith Parnell, the real-life 16-year-old schoolgirl who swam the Bristol Channel