Why I write neo-Victorian Fiction

I’ve had a special and personal interest in Victorian Literature since I was about 12, when my teacher, Sister Catherine, used to read aloud to us, mostly Victorian novels, which I grew to love. She introduced me to the Victorians. I vividly remember listening to The Moonstone, David Copperfield, Little Women, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn. I can still hear her soft sibilant voice tell us all those wonderful stories, which made us laugh and cry. I wrote a post about Sister Catherine some time ago.

 

Moonstone

I write historical fiction because I love travelling in time and space. I’m not interested in purposefully (I’m afraid I can’t control my subconscious) writing about myself or my contemporaries, at the moment. I prefer to lose myself in other places and eras. I’m especially obsessed with Victorian times and writers, because they have become my beacon in the sea of words and ideas I need to express.

I am fascinated by novels such as Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Silas Marner, Persuasion, Tess of the d’Urbevilles, The Woman in White, etc. My inspiration and ideas come mainly from 19th and 20th century writers, especially the Victorians. The Eyre Hall Trilogy is a tribute to my Victorian ‘Masters’ who introduced me to the pleasure of reading and taught me the craft of writing. Many of these writers and their literary creations appear throughout my trilogy.

Jane Eyre

History is continuous, and understanding can only occur in retrospect. We need to stand back and expose the prejudice and injustices of the past in order to understand the present and move forward. This can only occur in retrospect. If you take a step back from a problem you have a better angle. You can now see the whole picture. It’s happened and it’s over. You can understand it better.

We congratulate ourselves because we have a fairer education system and more freedom of choice, gender equality, but I’m asking readers to walk in Victorian shoes, to understand our literary grandfathers and where we come from. How we fought to gain these social advances and why the struggle is ongoing.

All Hallows Museum

Which writers have influenced me?

My most important influence is Charlotte Bronte. Her literary creations, Jane Eyre, Edward Rochester, Richard Mason, and Bertha Mason have come to life once more, twenty-two years after Jane Eyre ended. I have also brought to life the original setting and recreated a new residence for the Rochester family, after Thornfield Hall was burnt down, Eyre Hall.

Charles Dickens appears as a character in my novel. I have read many of his novels, letters, and biographies, so I have enjoyed recreating his voice and opinions in Twelfth Night at Eyre Hall. Charles Dickens’ London is also present in my recreation, and I have used many old maps of London, pictures and photographs of the time, to inspire me and take me around the city.

dickens

Robert Browning also appears, after his wife Elizabeth Barret Browning died, as Mr. Greenwood, Adele’s suitor. I read Thomas de Quincy’s detailed account of his opium addiction in Confessions of an Opium Eater, in order to write about the use and effects of opium at the time.

Jenny Rosset is based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s long poem, Jenny, about a Victorian prostitute. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson is referred to. Michael Kirkpatrick is partly a combination of Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth and Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel Oak.

The characters in the Eyre Hall Trilogy read and discuss novels such as, Treasure Island, Persuasion, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Silas Marner, and Wuthering Heights, among others. They also read and quote poems by Christina Rossetti, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Anne Bronte, and Robert Browning.

Dorian Gray

In my final volume, Midsummer at Eyre Hall, makes special reference to Maria or the Wrongs of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft, Frankenstein by her daughter, Mary Shelley, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by R. L. Stevenson, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, among others.

What are my aims in writing neo-Victorian novels?

I had four objectives when I decided to write The Eyre Hall Trilogy:

Firstly, my aim was to expose Rochester as a tyrant and revindicate Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic, as his victim. I am sure that Jane Eyre would have become another victim, given a few years, which is what is disclosed in my novel.

Secondly, I wanted to make sure that amends would be made, so Bertha’s daughter (my creation) would be reinstated, and Jane would find happiness and lasting love, with another, worthier man (my creation).

Thirdly, I’ll admit I’m an irreverent, daring, and provocative writer, who looks to her favourite writers for inspiration. The Eyre Hall Trilogy is meant as a tribute to many Victorian (and some 20th century) authors, which I have already named.

Twelfth Night Billboard

Finally, I aim to write novels that will entertain readers and transport them to another time and place, to a pre-digital and pre-electronic age, where our great-great grandparents lived and loved, just as intensely as we do today, in spite of not having lightbulbs, cars, phones or tablets.

If my readers are encouraged to read or reread the classics, that would be an extra bonus!

I’ve written a previous article about writing prequels and sequels here: https://lucciagray.com/2014/11/08/sequels-prequels-reinterpretations-rewritings-and-writing-back/

How have I approached neo-Victorian fiction?

I’ve used the following literary strategies:

Intertextuality:  A literary device that creates an ‘interrelationship between texts’. I’ve included texts, plots, characters, from other novels in my novels.

My most important sources are the characters, plot and setting in the prequel Wide Sargasso Sea as well as Jane Eyre.

Metafiction: Literature talking about literature.

Charles Dickens discusses the process of writing with Jane, inviting the reader to think about literature and the process of literary creation. Jane also talks about the books she writes and her writing process.

Postcolonialism: Writing back to the ‘Empire’ and traditional Victorian writers.

I’ve done this by paying attention to the secondary or marginalized characters who would have been ignored at the time, such as the servants and the prostitute.

I’ve read between the lines of Charlotte Bronte’s unreliable narrator: a young, naïve woman who is in love, and looked below the surface for hidden meanings.

Feminism: Empower Jane to move on without/in spite of Mr. Rochester and I’ve made an attempt to reinstate Bertha Antoinette Mason.

Lucy writing

What’s my writing process like?

At this point, I ought to tell you that before I sit down and write, I have ‘seen’ the scene in my mind and heard the characters interacting. I usually jot down a few ideas and do lots of research which includes finding pictures and specific information, too.

The Eyre Hall trilogy is character driven. I plan a simple, loose plot outline, basically three parts and thirty chapters, and let the characters interact and move the plot forward. I need to know what my characters want, how they feel, what they’re wearing, looking at, thinking about, and doing, before I write. I learn more about them as I listen to them and watch them interact.

I’m overjoyed when readers recognize my sources, and I love it when they say they’re going to reread the original Victorian novels I mention, this isn’t my main aim. I’d like my readers to walk in Victorian shoes, to understand our literary grandfathers and grandmothers and where we come from.

My objective is to write novels that will entertain all types of readers and transport them to another time and place, where there were no light bulbs, phones, fridges, malls, emails, mobiles, planes, or cars; to the world where our great-great grandparents lived and loved just as intensely as we do today.

Are you interested in reading and reviewing my novels? I’d love to hear from you!

 

Madwoman in the Attic (Part II)

The madwoman in the attic has been reivindicated by both postcolonialists and feminists as a symbol of patriarchal oppression and social injustice. According to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her influential essay, Three women’s texts and a critique of imperialism, it is impossible to approach nineteenth-century British literature without bearing in mind that Imperialism, constituted “a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English.”

Spivak belongs to the so-called second-wave of feminist theoreticians writing mainly in the 1970s and 80s comprised by authors such as Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Kate Millet, whose Sexual Politics (1970) is the best known work of this period. Gilbert and Gubar’s work reviewed in my previous post was written within this time frame, as was Elaine Showalter’s influential and inspiring work on women novelists in A Literature of Their Own (1978), more recently revised in her article, Twenty Years on: “A Literature of Their Own” Revisited
Their views can be summarized in Barbara Johnson’s famous quote, “the question of gender is a question of language.” The feminist approach is based on the assumption that that gender difference is located in and transferred through language. And subsequently, the language used to transmit culture through literature, was high on their targets for criticism. However, Feminist Literary Criticism was soon to join forces with Postcolonial Criticism. Spivak was one of the first academics who related to the rise of feminisms among women of color in the area of Postcolonial Studies by examining the effects of political independence upon subaltern, or subproletarian women, in third world countries.

In the above mentioned article, Spivak has taken Charlotte Bronte´s novel and Jean Rhys’s 1960s ‘writing back’ or reinterpretation of the events prior to Jane Eyre’s appearance at Thornfield Hall, as her starting point for a literary reinterpretation of Patriarchy and Colonialism in their diverse representations of ‘the mad Creole’ (in Rochester’s words).

Firstly, I would like make it clear, as Spivak did herself, that this is in no way a criticism of the author, Charlotte Bronte, whose intentions we cannot fully gauge, but of the characters she recreated and we are free to reinterpret. In any case, it is my opinion, that Bronte was well aware of Rochester’s lack of character; after all she portrayed him in with all his faults. She was however subtle enough to show him through the ‘blind’ eyes of his beloved Jane Eyre, but that does not mean that her eyes are truthful. Jane is not a reliable narrator with respect to Rochester: she is a woman blindly in love. The reader, on the other hand need not be blindly in love with him, too. Although many have succumbed to his spell, Rochester is the real villain in Jane Eyre.

The figure of Bertha Mason is, according to Spivak, produced by the rise of imperialism. She is a white Jamaican Creole, who is portrayed both by Jane and Rochester (through Jane’s reinterpretation of Rochester’s words), on the frontier between the human and the animal. This is Jane’s famous description of her when she first saw her in her prison-attic at Thornfield Hall, after the interrupted wedding to Rochester:

“The maniac bellowed: she parted her shaggy locks from her visage, and gazed wildly at her visitors. I recognized well that purple face,—those bloated features.”

Rochester’s description of her is no less pejorative. He refers to her as: “The lunatic is both cunning and malignant;”, and “What a pigmy intellect she had, and what giant propensities!”, and “Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations? Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard!—”

Forty years after Jane Eyre was published, Jean Rhys, was born on the Caribbean Island of Dominica, where she read the novel as a child, she was moved by Bertha Mason: “I thought I’d try to write her a life.” Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1965, is Bertha’s life from her childhood to her death.

Spivak’s essay reminds us that in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Narcissus’ madness is disclosed when he recognizes his other as his self: “iste ego sum.” in WSS Bertha Antoinette sees her other self in the mirror: “I went into the hall again with the tall candle in my hand. It was then that I saw her — the ghost. The woman with streaming hair. She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her” (WSS, p. 154). The gilt frame encloses a mirror in whose reflection bertha sees her other self. But who is this other self? Is it Bertha or is it Jane Eyre? After this dream vision, Bertha finally understands her mission at Thornfield Hall: “now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do” (WSS, pp. 155-56), and she burns down the house and takes her life, ironically so that her other self (Jane Eyre) can become the heroine of Bronte’s novel and marry Mr. Rochester.

Bertha was originally created in Jane Eyre as a secondary, yet essential character within the novel. Any reinterpretation of this character must be based on surfacing the subtext of the original novel. That is, of unearthing the subtleties of her story. Bertha never speaks, she was metaphorically gagged, until Jean Rhys wrote her story and reminded us that everyone has the right to be heard albeit belatedly, in the 20th century, in spite of being denied a voice in the 19th century. Bertha cannot move or be seen, because she is literally confined in a windowless room. Unseen and Unheard. She is an invisible, voiceless, and imprisoned human being, and yet in spite of this Rochester has been hailed as the hero of the novel for over 160 years!

Well, it’s time to question Bertha’s madness and listen to what she had to say. It’s time to see her, hear her, and let her have a life! Jean Rhys started the ball rolling with her prequel WSS, and I’ve picked up the ball and kept it rolling with a sequel. My novel, All Hallows at Eyre Hall, (to be published very shortly on Amazon. There’s a preview on another page on this blog!), takes up the story twenty-three years after Bertha’s death. However, she is powerfully present throughout my novel, from page one. I have given Bertha a very strong voice. I’ve given her a daughter to speak up for her and claim her dues, and I’ve also reconciled her with Jane Eyre Rochester, who has grown up and out of love, so she can see Bertha as she really was, not as Rochester wanted her to be seen.