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Book extract: Vulcana by Rebecca F. John

02 Jul 2023 7 minute read
Vulcana is published by Honno Welsh Women’s Press

We are pleased to publish an extract from the latest novel by Rebecca F. John. ‘Vulcana’ is based on the story of a real-life Victorian strongwoman, who left her home in Abergavenny to follow her dream in London.

Opening Act – Abergavenny, Wales, 1892


The rain is a scuttling creature – mood-eyed and glancing and out to do harm. From the scant shelter of a locked and darkened doorway, Kate Williams watches it cross at a quick diagonal under the street lamps, then hasten away down Tudor Street on the wind like a murmuration of silver starlings.

Where it gathers into puddles, their surfaces flecked and rippled by the insistent downpour, it soon spills over and escapes to the runnels to rush away. Even the rain does not wish to stay in Abergavenny.

Above Kate’s head, a stream of raindrops collects in the broken end of a drainpipe, and proceeds to drip, with percussive regularity, onto the dome of her cranium. She has come to know herself in these terms since meeting William.

Not scientifically, exactly, but … specifically. Intimately. Cranium – twenty-one inches. Neck – twelve inches and one eighth. Neck, flexed – fourteen inches. Her body means something now. She is learning what it might be capable of.

Across the street, the gymnasium hunches in the darkness. The windows, black, reflect only the movement of the storm. Kate knows that the door is bolted, and she resists the urge to run through the rain and put her hand to the stubborn catch of the handle and try to twist it free.

She does not want to know what it feels like – the fact that William has gone. William, Mabel, Seth, Anna. Gone, without her. She takes a deep, shuddering in-breath, then exhales through her nose and watches her fury rise into fog.

The air tastes of dampened woodsmoke, battered down from the chimney stacks by the weather to linger over the pavements. It is cigar-bitter. Choking. It tastes like home.


She tightens her arms around her waist – trim but sturdy at twenty-five inches – in a feeble effort to counter the cold. Her father will be sitting before the fire in their living room now, ankles crossed on the footstool, pipe clamped between his lips as he scribbles his next sermon down on the back of an old hymn sheet.

Her mother will be knitting without needing to count the stitches, and watching her husband as intently as he, in turn, squints over his penmanship.

She will be talking about some friend or other – Aneira will arrange the flowers, and Nerys will offer the tea – and her husband will be grunting in response. The Reverend’s wife’s voice is the soothing background noise to which he works, but does not listen.

Kate supposes neither one of them will miss her until morning. Neither would dare open their daughter’s closed bedroom door. They are far too frightened of the mysteries that thick wooden divide conceals.

This Kate – who, at sixteen, has hips and an ample bust and ideas – is not the rose-cheeked baby they had thought to bring into the world. This Kate, who wraps her slender hands around barbells more successfully than she ever has a fiddly needle and cotton… This Kate, who already men grin at and posture for… This Kate, who has felt her pulse quicken and the unexplored place between her legs throb at the sight of William Roberts straining under two-hundred-and-fifty cast iron pounds of bar and weights… This Kate is entirely unknown to Robert and Eleanor Williams.

And so, Kate reasons, she is at liberty to do exactly as she pleases, whatever Reverend Williams might have to say about appearing before the judgement seat of Christ.

If her parents have no knowledge of her, no understanding of her desires, no interest in her talents whatsoever, why should she stay here and disappear under their indifference? Particularly when they have Margaret and young Eleanor and little William – who are all far more obedient than she – to find pleasure in.


When Kate’s William – as she has secretly come to think of him – looks at her, she is brighter than she ever has been under God’s gaze. Through his eyes, she is a pearl, gleaming from the cupped bed of an oyster shell. And she cannot give that up.

It has not escaped her attention that his name is an inversion of her father’s: William Roberts; Robert Williams. Indeed, the fact has only served to persuade her that what she is doing is right. It is the exact opposite of everything she has in Abergavenny that she needs.

She cannot tolerate another morning of sitting to a tea-and-browned-bread breakfast around their long oak dining table and watching her mother, her brother, her sisters simpering over her father’s pronouncements.

She cannot bear to see him peacocking around before his congregation, as though he is treading the London boards rather than creaking over the rotting floor of a dank old church in the Welsh hills.

If Reverend Williams had wanted to be a star, she thinks, he should have gone out into the world and made it happen.

In less frustrated moments, Kate feels sorry for him. Her father is a great speaker. He might have made a name for himself somewhere, if only he’d been braver.

But tonight, Kate’s frustration is a live thing. She can feel it in her stomach – a coiled rope, braided from strands of hurt and desperation and ambition and lust, and cast into a wild sea to thrash and dance.

It is as though there is a rough-handed fisherman at one end and a writhing finned creature at the other, and she, the rope, is being pulled in both directions.

It is the creature that will win out, she knows, eager as it is to break free and go chasing after William without the first inkling of a plan. And in truth, she does not want to stop it. She only hopes to slow it long enough to make the proper arrangements.

Though she has never acted on any such impulse before – never felt it for anyone other – she is wise enough to recognise it for what it is.

Red heat

She wants William Roberts as much as she covets the life he leads with the troupe. She wants him to hold her too hard; she wants to learn how his lips taste; she wants to feel herself pinned under his muscled weight; she wants to bite into him until she draws blood and can swallow the pulsing red heat of him.

The remembered scent of his skin as he stood over her supporting the bar – cigarette smoke, iron, sweet talcum, sweat – is enough to thrust her into action, and, for want of anything better to do, she marches across the street and pounds a fist against the gymnasium door.

She needs the indulgence of exerting her force against something solid, and the satisfaction of hearing its empty thud. She needs William.

Held in her left hand is the travelling case she had packed in preparation. She’d been planning to leave with him for weeks. It was going to be a surprise. She has timed it badly.

She hammers the door until she is breathless with it, then she spins on her heels and strides away, a lone silhouette in the sleeping streets, her falling heels echoing off the mountains which sulk over the little town.

Kate Williams and William Roberts, she resolves, pushing her chin higher in defiance, though there is no one to see her, no one to counter her intentions. That’s how it will be. The two of them. She is going to convince that man to show her the world.

Vulcana by Rebecca F. John is published by Honno. It is available from all good bookshops.

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Philip Davies
Philip Davies
9 months ago

I recently saw an actual documentary account of this remarkable human being, fine person and lovely woman. Quite, quite stunning.

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