Women’s History Month – guest post from Brenda Clough

Brenda sent me this early… and my life (as you might know) went awry. Some of the things she alerted us to in the post are about to happen, however, so I’ve added links. The first link you might want to check out is one to the writer herself! Also, to my favourite book by her: http://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/how-like-a-god/

I write novels. My current project: to create a powerful female protagonist, but to set the work in the 1860s. I shall fulfill a long-felt need, and write about Marian Halcombe, heroine of THE WOMAN IN WHITE. If you have read Wilkie Collins’s quintessential Victorian thriller you too probably wonder why there are no more stories about Marian. I got tired waiting for someone else to do it properly; if you want a job done right you do it yourself. And so I wrote A Most Dangerous Woman, due out in 2018.

And why does she have to be powerful? Well, putting aside how Collins himself wrote her, that’s where the reader comes in. Everyone who reads this book will be born in the 20th century, possibly the 21st as well. Do you want to read about a passive and ladylike Victorian woman who allows the men do to everything for her? No? Me neither. The first rule of the novelist is, write what you want to read! And I want to read about a powerful woman who is yet totally a creature of her historical era, and who works within the parameters of her culture.

To write a novel set in the past means putting on the mentality of that era, a fascinating challenge. It’s more than just ensuring that you don’t have Abraham Lincoln taking a selfie of himself outside Ford’s Theater. Because the characters have to think like Victorians, you have to think like one too. I have no patience with the sort of novel that seems to be about modern-day Americans only it’s set in Florence in 1490 and they wear houppelandes. It is unreasonable and totally anachronistic, for a woman born in Europe in 1826 to think a feminist. There was no such thing at that time; even Mary Wollstonecraft was but a proto-feminist. One must pursue accuracy, everywhere, like a pillar of flame by night and a pillar of smoke by day.

A purely perfect historical novel should be like stepping into a time machine – essentially stepping back into the past. But this purity of perfection is theoretical, as unachievable as the speed of light. You can never completely write that. Besides, I have to sell this thing. Characters and plot must appeal to persons who are alive today. This is the nub of the problem when a historical novel involves a powerful woman. That character must be fully historical, and yet have modern appeal. It’s like walking a tightrope.

My heroine cannot going to rebel against the strictures of her culture. To us the Victorian proprieties look as confining as whale-boned corsetry. But to Marian they are simply her environment – she is of her time. She can chafe under limitations that Victorian England placed upon women of her class and age, but she can’t overthrow them. She has to get around them in an appropriate way for the time period. And somehow her struggles have to attract the modern reader.

To ensure this, and also to make the novel more fun, the novelist has some good standard tools in her bag. I immediately began supplying the heroine with things that are allowable and historical, but that a 21st century reader would expect and enjoy. A husband, easy – that allows her to have sex in a period when all women were sorted into boxes as either virgins, mothers or whores. Modern novels mostly include sex; I haven’t tested this but my theory is that if you counted the incidents of nookie in any given romance novel you would find the number correlates to its copyright date. A gun – ladies in the 1860s could shoot, so why not Marian? Money, because adventure is so much easier and more colorful if you can afford the travel and the gear. Marian was an impoverished spinster in the Collins novel, but since I’m already supplying her with a hot-blooded husband there is no reason why he can’t be reasonably well-off. And there could be relatives, many boisterous relatives, because kindred can get into trouble and drag the plot and the heroine along.

A husband is especially convenient for social rebellion; a Victorian wife can blame him for everything and use him as an excuse for nearly anything she wants to do. He wants me to rescue him, so of course it is my wifely duty to do so! And I can’t stand characters that are unintelligent. Marian and her husband have to be self-aware; they know they are maintaining layers of masks that allow them a level of behavior that is not ordinarily accepted in their society. And once I began digging into the period I was thrilled to learn that this was by no means unknown historically. Author George Eliot (Marian Evans) had a number of poly friends, and worked an editor who kept wife and mistress in the same household — all kinds of sexual creativity, thinly veiled by concessions to propriety, elided by loyal biographers, and discreetly ignored by adoring fans. People are always people, throughout history, doing the same crazy or fantastic things – that’s the charm of historical fiction.

And plot? Well the story too must be perfectly in period. If for my readers I am sneaking in adumbrations of rebellion and feminism, I must be doubly accurate on the historical side. These modern baubles must be hung on a perfectly Victorian armature. So I have borrowed freely from the literature of the period: bigamy, unwed motherhood, murders accused and genuine, Balkan anarchists with bombs, journals improbably complete in detail left for others to devour.

And I’ve been enlisting historical characters for guest gigs. If my characters are living in London in the late 1860s they are going to meet and interact with at least some of the people who were there at that time. Charles Dickens is an easy one; the Inimitable is almost a fictional character in his own right. But people like Dr. Baker Brown, famous for prescribing clitoridectomy for every female ailment from headache to infertility. Or Isabella Robinson, the woman who wrote a lurid fantasy journal (unless it was fact!) about her torrid affair with her hydropathy doctor. There wasn’t room for all these people in the first novel, so there are sequels, again perfectly in period.

The novel is to come out from SerialBox in the grand Victorian manner, in nine parts each ending with a cliffhanger. Dickens and Trollope would be pleased, and I hope this is a book they would enjoy.

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