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Young Walter Scott Prize: Raped artist's rage inspires Bishop's Stortford College student's prize-winning fiction

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A Bishop's Stortford College student has won a prestigious fiction writing competition.

Sixth-former Madeleine Friedlein was awarded the Young Walter Scott Prize in the 16-19 age category – despite being only 16 – for her story 'Slaying Holofernes', which was inspired by the National Gallery's exhibition of work by 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi.

The Baroque painter was raped and testified against her attacker. Many of her works feature women from myths, allegories and the Bible, depicting them both as victims and avengers.

Bishop's Stortford College, Maze Green Road – prize-winning writer Madeleine Friedlein. Picture: Vikki Lince
Bishop's Stortford College, Maze Green Road – prize-winning writer Madeleine Friedlein. Picture: Vikki Lince

Judges of the UK-wide historical writing prize said: " 'Slaying Holofernes' is a stirring and compassionate story from this young writer. Madeleine Friedlein expertly balances the external horror of Artemisia Gentileschi's torture against her inner fury and the iron will which will bring her attacker to justice. A striking and powerful story."

Madeleine, who is studying for A-levels in English literature, classic civilisation and religious studies, explained: "After watching Artemisia's virtual exhibition on BBC Four and learning of her assault and the trial that followed, I really wanted to fictionalise it and explore her character, recognising her story as one with precedence and one that a modern reader can perhaps relate to."

The title is taken from the student's favourite work of Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, completed following her rape by Agostino Tassi.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi (46689381)
Judith Slaying Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi (46689381)

"The rage she felt is evident in this painting, so I wanted to capture this in my fictionalised piece on her court case," said Madeleine.

"Artemisia was not the only woman to have been abused in such a way, nor will she be the last, and recent news supports this.

"Her perseverance and eventual success despite torture and injustice show a strength we can learn from."

Madeleine's win comes with a £500 travel grant. "I'd like to put my travel money towards a trip to Rome, where Artemisia was raised and learned her craft," she said. "I'd love to see some of her work in person and visit the Curia, where her successful trial against her assaulter took place."

Mum Annie writes historical fiction and is studying for a Masters in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, while dad Ashley is an entrepreneur currently running a digital messaging service. Little sister Romilly, also a College pupil, shares the family's creative bent with a talent for songwriting.

"My mum was the person who pointed me towards the virtual exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi on BBC Four – I owe so much to her and her constant encouragement," said Madeleine.

Her dad saved the day by posting her entry. "I didn't realise the stories were meant to be sent in hard copy to Scotland and I was one day from missing the deadline."

YWSP logo (46689425)
YWSP logo (46689425)

Fiction has been a lifelong love for Madeleine. She hopes to go to university to study English literature or creative writing, but the coronavirus pandemic has given her added opportunities to hone her skills.

"I've always wanted to be a published author and that remains the case. I'm also interested in being a literary agent," she said.

"I've been writing fiction since I was very young and have always found it to be the thing I enjoy most. Undoubtedly, lockdown gave me more time to write – I had an incredibly busy life beforehand as I was preparing for my GCSEs.

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, also known as Autoritratto in veste di Pittura or simply La Pittura, was painted by Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (46689383)
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, also known as Autoritratto in veste di Pittura or simply La Pittura, was painted by Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (46689383)

"Even though I found lockdown really challenging, rediscovering my love for fiction – both reading and writing – was an unexpected silver lining."

Madeleine has previously been short-listed for the Oxford University Christopher Tower poetry award, the Richard Jefferies Nature Writing Award and was one of four finalists for the Write the World Book review competition, writing about Jack Kerouac's On the Road. At 14, she won the Crowvus Ghost Story competition.

Most recently she has submitted an essay for the New College of the Humanities essay competition on the question "Is literature always a force for good?"

She said: "I examined the question through a feminist lens, looking at the early works of Wollstonecraft, Gilbert, Gubar and Woolf. I will hear about the short list in June, though I don't expect to place. I loved writing this essay and learned so much about the development of feminist thought in literature."

She also loves rewriting Greek myths and said: "Madeline Miller is a very talented writer. Her book Song of Achilles, about the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus, would have to be my personal favourite novel. It was incredibly moving and has been reread several times."

Other favourite authors include Booker Prize-shortlisted David Mitchell. "His Slade House is one of my favourite novellas. I just bought his new novel, Utopia Avenue, and am excited to read it – his world-building ability is incredible."

But she is not quite ready to write her own book. "I've attempted to start writing a novel several times, but either work gets in the way or I lose interest in the idea/plot.

"To be honest, I don't think I'm at the stage in my life where I would be able to produce a novel to the best of my ability, considering my A-levels.

"Short stories are far better suited to me and my patience levels. I've thought about writing something on the real-life relationship between the poet Dante and Beatrice, his muse.

"I've also thought about rewriting an extract from the Iliad from Hector's perspective or even something about Julius Caesar approaching his death on the Ides of March – there are so many things to explore!"

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